Discussion of race in literature has come up a lot in the past couple of weeks on the For the Most Part Smugly Ironic and Flatly Affected Indie Literature News Show called HTML Giant. This statement was made by a certain somebody I feel slightly embarrased about even mentioning because maybe I should just call my blog All My Thoughts Lately Are Formed As a Result of Something Roxane Gay Said. Like this:
"If you write about people of color, some editors want you to write about people of color in very specific and stereotypical ways because they’re simply not interested in those stories that diverge from the cultural narratives most publishers are comfortable with."
This made me think of a story about my friend Chuck. My friend Chuck Walker is a painter. Chuck's white but his "godson" (who has lived with him since he's been three and is now a senior in high school) is black. Chuck told me he had an art dealer who constantly harassed him, "What's with all the black people? What am I supposed to do with these paintings?"
Needless to say, he is not repped by this guy anymore. Last year Chuck had a 30-year retrospective at the Chicago's Hyde Park Art Center--so clearly SOMEBODY knew what to do with the paintings, even though some of the paintings had pesky black people in them.
It is sad and it is crossgenre, this assumption that people (of all races) will only be interested in white subjects doing white things. Or, if there are black subjects, they better well be smoking crack or killing somebody--don't come to me with your little paintings of black kids sleeping or dancing or doing homework for god's sake.
Publishers and reps: We thank you for doing us the favor of proactively weeding out all the stuff you know we "won't like" so we never have to read or see it.
In addition to being sad, it's insulting because it takes choice away--which means that the majority of people never realize that there IS choice. Most people just assume that there aren't many minority artists and writers or if there are, most of them aren't any good because a) nobody knows about them or b) because they all seem to be making/writing the same thing.
I know, I know, we only look at quality---and quality looks like white people. That's the breaks. Try harder.
On a related note, I showed my friend Jim Henry's picture of a very toothy guy to my daughter Zara and this conversation came about
Z: "Ewww. Look at him."
Z: "Well I bet you wouldn't want to marry him, would you?"
L: "Probably not. I'm obsessed with healthy teeth, so I don't think so. How about you? Would you want to marry him?"
Z: "No way."
L: "Really? [smiling] Why not?"
Z: Because he's black. AND I DON'T LIKE BLACK PEOPLE."
I thought she was going to say:
a. because he is missing a great number of teeth OR
b. because he's too old OR
c. because he doesn't have a shirt on.
Because he's BLACK? If it wasn't so horrifying, I would have laughed outloud.
L: "ZARA!? Why would you say that?"
Z: "All people are born but all people don't like each other."
L: "What's that supposed to mean?"
Then she just shrugged and said quietly, "I just don't like black people."
I shook my head. I figured I'd talk to her more about it later. If I push stuff with her, she locks down and then there is no talking to her.
But that's the second time she's said something like that. For instance, we had this conversation a couple of months ago:
L: "Look at that girl [on tv]! Isn't she so cute?"
L: "Why would you say that?"
Z: "Because her skin is black and disgusting."
OMG. It's horrible to hear. I couldn't even think of how to respond at first.
Finally, I said, "Well what if she said that you weren't cute because your skin is white and disgusting?" And my daughter looked all baffled and said, "But white skin *isn't* disgusting."
My friend Lisa was interviewing nannies and after one of the interview candidates left, she asked her boys (who are Latino) "Well, what did you think of her?" and they were like, "We didn't really like her."
Lisa asked, "Really, why's that?" and basically, after some prodding, it came down to, We'd like somebody who has skin a little more like yours and hair a little more like yours too.
It's innate. Our brains are programmed not to like things that are not like us because those things seem unsafe. Like being afraid of tigers. And because we are programmed this way, we have to work all our lives to deprogram ourselves.
It's not just some people's brains. It's EVERYBODY. I bet black kids prefer black faces too if they have black parents and they spent the majority of their time (while their brain was forming critical pathways) staring up into two black faces.
Anyway, later that day I tried to talk to my daughter more about this and she got really uncomfortable. Here's how it went:
Z: "Well, right now, I'm trying to make a sculpture, and so i'd really like to stop talking about this!"
L: "Well, we'll only talk for a minute. I just want to know, did someone tell you they didn't like black people? Are you hearing this stuff and repeating it?"
She tried to dodge around it, pretending she didn't mean what she said earlier.
Z: "The man in the picture isn't even black, he's brown, and I said 'I don't like black people,' and there ARE no black people. At least I have never seen one, have you?"
L: "It makes me really uncomfortable you saying you don't like somebody because of the color of their skin. Wouldn't you be sad if someone said, I don't like her because of her skin? Because what could you do about it? Nothing. You can't change that."
Z: "People can't change their ways either."
L: "No, people CAN change their ways and they can change their ideas, too."
Z: "Also their hair color. For example, I saw green hair on TV once and it was terrible, but I saw pink hair and it was wonderful.
L: True. People can change their hair.
Z: Okay, I'm doing my sculpture now so we should stop talking."
I just looked for research, because I know I had read something like this before, about race preference. Here's a really interesting study.
To summarize, this study has provided the first direct evidence in support of an ethnically unspecified face processing system at birth, which can become tuned to certain facial dimensions that specify race within the first 3 months of life. We believe that preference for own-race faces observed in 3-month-olds represents the perceptual beginnings of categorization based on ethnic differences and may provide a basis for the ‘other-race effect’.
In other words, at 0 months your brain has no racial preferences. But by the time you're three months old, you prefer own-race faces. The "other-race effect" is thinking that everybody of one race looks like everybody else of that race.
I have other-race effect. I feel racist because of it but I do.
Hee Soon, my Korean roommate in grad school, would show me pictures of her friends and family and this is how our interaction would go:
L: "Aww! Is that you?"
HS: Yeah, that's my brother.
L: Oh. [awkward pause] You guys look alike.
L: Aw, cute. Is that you?
HS: No, that's my dad.
L: Oh. Does everybody say you look just like him?
Speaking of, I have a story about thinking everybody looks like everybody and possibly being racist.
One time I was driving to work for the night shift when I worked at The News-Dispatch in Michigan City, Indiana, and I was driving through this really bad neighborhood and because I have no regard for safety, I didn't have my car doors locked.
Anyway, when I was at a stopsign, the passenger door just opened up and all of a sudden, this guy was sitting in my car in the passenger seat.
I was all sputtering, like, "What the hell are you doing?" and he was all slurry like, "Mufflff, ruffl, bffll, rffl. Kyle's Liquor Store!"
And I was, like, "No! Get out."
And he just kept sitting there, and then he repeated, "Mufflff, ruffl, bffll. Kyle's Liquor Store!"
I was thinking, no way am I taking you, who just carjacked me, to Kyle's Liquor Store. It is not happening, dude. And also I was really annoyed because I had to go to work and I was gonna be late, so I said, "Forget it, you can have my stupid car. Goodbye."
And I left the keys in the car with it running and got out and started walking down the street to work, and then I looked back and he got out of the passenger side, all stumbly, "Mufflff, ruffl, bffll." And then staggered away.
When he was gone, I walked back and got into my car and instead of driving to work, I drove to the police station. This is how that went. P is for Police Officers.
P1: Yeah, what can we do for you?
L: Yeah. Okay, well, this guy just jumped in my car when I was stopped at a stop sign. On 11th and Wabash."
P2: Oh. Did he take it? Did he take your car?
L: No. He just sat in the seat next to me and then I got out and told him he could just have my car, I was leaving, but I don't think he wanted my car.
P1: What'd he want?"
L: Pretty sure he wanted me to take him to Kyle's Liquor Store."
P2: Did you?
L: I'm sorry.
P2: Did you take him to Kyle's?
L: No. Why would I take him to Kyle's?
P1: Probably good you didn't.
L: [pause] Yeah . . .
P1: Well, what'd he look like?
L: Look like?
P1: Yeah, what'd he look like?
At this point I'm thinking, no way am I going to say what I should say, which is: an exact description of what the carjacker looks like. They will think I'm so racist, like the only way I can describe a black guy is to compare him to somebody famous. But then I was like, well, what the hell, they're cops, I'm sure they're not so judgmental of racists so I said.
L: He looked just like James Brown. That's what he looked like. Exactly.
And they were like,
P1: Oh, yeah, that's Willie.
P2: Yeah, that's Willie. He does that to everybody.
P1: Yeah, he's harmless.
P2: Okay, have a good night.
L: Um. Alright. Bye.