White Awake by Daniel Hill - A Must Read!

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I frequently encourage the white participants in my Reconciliation and Justice book groups to read more authors of color. I provide my students with recommendations ranging from Brenda Salter McNeil, to James Baldwin, bell hooks, Michael Harriot, and Michelle Alexander.

However, there are times I think the best person to reach people (especially white folks early in their journey to deeper understanding) is actually a white male—a white male who has grown up in privilege, made all the beginner mistakes when trying to be an ally, fallen down, gotten up, brushed himself off, and tried again.

That is where Daniel Hill comes in.

I recently was able to participate in a meeting with some of the leaders at my church and Daniel Hill. Daniel Hill is a pastor at River City Community Church, a multiethnic church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago. He is also an author. I was first directed to Daniel’s book, White Awake, by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, a reconciliation leader and church pastor here in Seattle. Here are some links to cut and paste to Daniel’s website and his book on Amazon. I’ll just say now that any white person in this country interested in working towards eradicating racism and building reconciliation should read White Awake.

https://pastordanielhill.com/

https://www.amazon.com/White-Awake-Honest-Look-Means/dp/0830843930

Amid so many gems, one of the most fundamental lessons of Daniel’s book has to be how he breaks down the two tracks we must use when discussing anti-racism and reconciliation work. These two tracks are interdependent and inseparable.

The first track is to consider Ethnicity and Diversity. Daniel, being a pastor, would be the first to call ethnicity, “God given and God created.” His point is that our different cultural backgrounds are valuable and worth acknowledging without self-consciousness. This is in direct response to people (often white) who are uncomfortable even talking about race. They will insist they are “colorblind,” which is of course a huge mistake. Striving to be “colorblind” only leads to the dead end of ignoring the undeniable fact that people of different ethnicities and skin colors experience the world in different ways. As a white male, when I see a police officer, I generally feel safe. But for my friends of color, they have a fundamentally different experience.

The second track is that of Race, Racism, and Discrimination. Daniel makes the critical and valuable point that THERE IS NOTHING REDEEMABLE ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF RACE. It is evil. I agree. Hear me (and us) out. Race, is a construct that is human-made, not only that, but it was created and propagated by European colonial powers as a justification for colonialization, slavery, exploitation, oppression, and genocide. This aligns with Brian Stevenson’s (author of Just Mercy) concept of the false Narrative of Racial Difference. This is the notion that points to ethnic differences, which are fine unto themselves, but then assigns different values to those ethnic differences. This is the essence of racism and I think Daniel is right to call it out as evil and unredeemable.

Daniel goes on to point out that to discuss just the first of these tracks without the second, is often what we get in the corporate sector when we attend mandatory gender, equity, and diversity trainings. Those can be useful, but without acknowledging the second track in these discussions, we’re not getting to the root of the problems that require us to have gender, equity, and diversity trainings in the first place.

As Daniel is a pastor, his core arguments against racism rest on scripture and tenets of faith. I know this might pose a challenge for those of us progressives who sometimes seek resources and justifications for anti-racism and equity work that are not associated with the faith community. This is understandable (which might be surprising to hear from a deacon). The church has so many times been on the wrong side of these discussions and so many people from marginalized communities have been church-hurt by bigoted religious folks, that association with the faith community can taint some equity and justice resources. It’s sad but true! See: Westboro Baptist Church (ugh gross, I don’t even like typing their name!). As a result, I know there are times equity leaders are required to step away from religious affiliations and references which can be divisive or triggering to some.

But Daniel’s work can be translated to the secular sphere seamlessly, as he does for his trainings and consultancies with government agencies. A middle way might be to borrow from the recovery community and 12 Step programs. As equity leaders and change agents we can recognize that racism, like addiction, is a social malaise and even a disease at the level of the individual. But these afflictions can be overcome through building community, honest self-examination, and spiritual (but not necessarily religious) growth.

So, my heart is full of thanks for Daniel Hill, an influential thinker/activist, a powerful speaker, and gifted writer. His book is a must read!

Michelle Alexander, Author of The New Jim Crow, Columnist for New York Times, & SHERO for Our Times

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Shout out today to Michelle Alexander who will now be the only woman of color Op-Ed writer. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow is a MUST READ for anyone who cares about recognizing, fighting racism. . .or just anyone who cares about the mistreatment of our fellow human beings (that should include all of us).

Alexander brings formidable scholarship and excellent writing to point out how slavery has been perpetuated since the end of the American Civil War through convict leasing, voting disenfranchisement, lynchings, Jim Crow, and most recently through the mass incarceration of people of color. Below are links you can cut and paste to learn more about her and to buy her book—which you absolutely should do.

http://newjimcrow.com/about-the-author

https://www.amazon.com/New-Jim-Crow-Incarceration-Colorblindness/dp/1595586431

 In recognition of her work, I am including some striking statistics which alone should wake us up to the injustices taking place in the US under the guise of “The War on Drugs” and how the prison industrial complex and the emerging detention industrial complex benefit from it—the financial gains accruing to white own corporations and providing jobs in rural towns that are predominantly white.

It’s also worth pointing out how in black/urban communities the drug problem has been historically viewed as a “criminal” problem while in white/rural communities is has been mainly identified as a public health issue. To this point, I also want to recognize the recent work my own home city and county, the City of Seattle and King county for taking a more enlightened approach and viewing juvenile justice issues through a lens of public health, connecting at risk and incarcerated youth with mental health, recovery, and job training services. Well Done.

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/bold-step-king-county-to-look-at-youth-crime-as-public-health-risk/

This is not the case in most of the country. So here are the sad statistics—retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2015/05/28/113436/8-facts-you-should-know-about-the-criminal-justice-system-and-people-of-color/

  • People of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population, making up more than 60 percent of the people behind bars. Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the US population, they comprised 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015.
  • 1 in 3 black men will go to prison at some point during their lifetimes; 1 in 6 Latino males will have the same fate. Only 1 out 17 white males are expected to go to prison.
  • 1 in 111 white women, 1 in 18 black women, and 1 in 45 Latina women will go to prison at some point.
  • If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40 percent.
  • African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites and incarcerated at 5 times the rates of whites.
  • The so-called War on Drugs has disproportionately affected people of color. Despite using and selling drugs at rates similar to those of their white counterparts, African Americans and Latinos comprise 62 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses and 72 percent of those sentenced for federal drug trafficking offenses, which generally carry extreme mandatory minimum sentences.
  •  Voting restrictions on the formerly incarcerated have disenfranchised millions of voters, particularly African Americans. Today, approximately 5.9 million people are not able to vote due to felony convictions. While laws vary from state to state—with some allowing for restoration of voting rights—1 in 13 blacks nationwide are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one in five black adults are denied the right to vote.

 

 

Insert-Daily-Mundane-Activity-Here-White-People-of-Privilege-Utterly-Take-for-Granted. . .WHILE BLACK

During this week of the Fourth of July, when we celebrate “Freedom,” a recent glance at headlines reveals to me how lacking freedom is in this country if you are a person of color. File this under the tragic, reoccurring category of “[Insert-Daily-Mundane-Activity-Here-White-People-of-Privilege-Utterly-Take-for-Granted] While Black.” If you are not familiar with it already, this is an exercise wherein we add the tagline “while black” to simple activities white people rarely are harassed, attacked, or imprisoned for. But if you are black, it’s a completely different story.

It is worth noting that the president responded with a thinly veiled threat of violence to the Congresswoman Maxine Waters. I don't know what the legal repercussions are against making threats of violence against members of congress are and if they are as serious as making public threats of violence against POTUS. These days, it's anyone's guess. But I commend Congresswoman Waters for her courage.

Speaking-as-Member-of-Congress while black: https://www.theroot.com/unbossed-and-unbowed-maxine-waters-tells-maga-harasser-1827268127

Walking-Down-the-Road while black: 21-year-old black woman called N*****, run over by truck and dragged by white man in Virginia. https://www.theroot.com/virginia-family-calls-for-hate-crime-investigation-afte-1826980108

Running-a-Business while black: https://www.theroot.com/black-owned-indiana-gaming-lounge-targeted-with-hate-no-1827258195

Going-to-School-and-even-being-valedictorian while Black: https://www.theroot.com/toronto-principal-transferred-after-being-accused-of-ra-1827258632

Owning-a-Car while black: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/police-attacked-me-for-stealing-a-car-it-was-my-own/2018/06/29/86829292-7658-11e8-b4b7-308400242c2e_story.html?utm_term=.1b07c474f3ad

Mowing-Lawns-as-a-Twelve-Year-Old while black: https://www.theroot.com/some-miserable-troll-called-the-cops-on-a-12-year-old-e-1827244768

Selling-Bottles-of-Water-as-an-eight-year-old while black: https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/letterstoeditor/article/Editorial-Permit-Patty-is-the-latest-in-an-13038622.php

Swimming-in-hotel-pool while black: https://www.rawstory.com/2018/06/watch-white-man-tells-black-family-shower-entering-hotel-pool-hell-drain-afterwards/

Using-AirBnB while black: https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/10/us/airbnb-black-rialto-california-trnd/index.html

Come on white people. Do better. Be better.

Selene San Felice: F*** your Prayers

I was truly heartened to see this statement from Sojourners Magazine circulating among my social media feeds this weekend and how frequently it is being endorsed and shared among people of faith and people who want to call out people of faith on their silence and/or complicity on some of the injustices being carried out in our country right now.

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https://sojo.net/media/reclaiming-jesus-time-crisis

I commend this statement. I agree with it. Silence is not spiritual. Silence equals consent in cases of injustice. As a writer, I recognize the importance of words, free speech, and speaking out. . .speaking TRUTH to power.

But I also see this statement as only a starting point. I'd urge churches to go further than mere words. I hope church leaders who have been on the “sidelines” up to this point are as haunted and challenged by the words of Selene San Felice, one of the survivors of the attack on journalists at the Capital Gazette this week. Ms. Felice said to Anderson Cooper on CNN: "Thanks for your prayers, but I couldn’t give a fuck about them if there’s nothing else.”

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https://splinternews.com/capital-gazette-reporter-on-thoughts-and-prayers-i-cou-1827225278

I guess we all will wait and see what sort of act of compassion, reform, and resistance "thoughts, prayers, and reclaiming words," transform into.

 

Immigrants' Creed - Counterpoint for "Christians" who want to lock people of color up in cages

Came across this from one of the pastors at my church. She thought it was another meaningful counterpoint for people who call themselves Christians who are clamoring for the US to lock immigrants and migrants seeking asylum up in cages. As with all my posts on spirituality and faith, take whatever works for you and feel free to leave the rest.

The Immigrants' Creed
by José Luis Casal  
 
I believe in Almighty God,
who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.


I believe in Jesus Christ,
a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home,
who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger,
and returning to his own country suffered the oppression
of the tyrant Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power,
who then was persecuted, beaten, and finally tortured,
accused and condemned to death unjustly.
But on the third day, this scorned Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a foreigner but to offer us citizenship in heaven.


I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.


I believe that the church is the secure home
for the foreigner and for all believers who constitute it,
who speak the same language and have the same purpose.


I believe that the communion of the saints begins
when we accept the diversity of the saints.


I believe in the forgiveness of sin, which makes us all equal,
and in reconciliation, which identifies us more
than does race, language, or nationality.


I believe that in the resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct
and all are alike at the same time.


Beyond this world, I believe in life eternal
in which no one will be an immigrant
but all will be citizens of God’s kingdom,
which will never end. Amen.

 

 

Casa Padre and the American History of Concentration Camps

It is important to examine a facility like Casa Padre in the context of the US history of creating prisons and internment camps for people of color. Whether it has been in the form of convict leasing, Native American reservations, camps for Japanese Americans during WWII, or the prison industrial complex today, this manifestation of migrant detention—of children and their families—is a reoccurring violation of human rights and dignity that sadly has consistently targeted people of color and reinforced white supremacy throughout US history. These most recent incidents of state sponsored human rights violations are shocking, tragic, and outrageous, but not new. It makes last week's visual alignment with the despotic leaders of North Korea that much more disturbing.

Its terrifying to reflect ten percent of children in US juvenile detention facilities report sexual assault while incarcerated.[1] And also that the US ran Abu Ghraib prison less than 4 months before abuse and torture of inmates began.[2] Not surprising we are already seeing reports of abuse at detention facilities for immigrant youths and children in the us.[3]

 

[1] https://www.alternet.org/education/why-are-rates-sexual-abuse-juvenile-detention-facilities-rise

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib_torture_and_prisoner_abuse

[3] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/immigrant-children-allege-abuse-at-virginia-detention-center https://www.thenation.com/article/just-hateful-abuse-immigrants-face-detention-centers/ https://theintercept.com/2018/06/26/immigration-detention-center-abuse-ice/

 

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Sorry "Christians," the Bible DOES say to Break the G**D**** Law

For those of you who know me, you might know I’m a deacon at my church in Seattle. It’s a non-denominational Christian church and my role is really to minister to the material, social-emotional, and practical matters of church members who might be in a season of need. I don’t preach or teach. I basically run errands and coordinate volunteers so that the pastors can do that. 

I as raised in the Catholic Church and while I appreciate their teachings on social justice, I couldn’t remain a practicing member considering their handling of the child sexual abuse scandals, their positions on homosexuality, female ordination, conception, and abortion. 

Anyone who has read my memoir, Two Years of Wonder, will also know I attend multiple meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous each week. I attend AA as a “friend of AA,” someone who has never struggled with addiction, but practices the 12 Steps as a spiritual practice. I find the tenants of AA have helped me profoundly with my depression and anxiety. I also have found a deep connection with the recovery community. It’s in the rooms of AA with recovering addicts, drunks, sex workers, that I have met some of the “best” Christians in my life—although I know they would eschew any such label themselves, since so many folks I meet in the recovery community are also “church hurt” and are understandably skeptical of institutional religion (something I took on in my first novel City on a Hill as well as my short story collection Bunny Man’s Bridge).

So my approach to religion is more informed by AA’s approach to spirituality than anything else. In that I mainly, “take what works, and leave the rest.” This would earn me the label “Cafeteria Catholic,” back in Catholic circles. If I were still Catholic, I might care.

That said, it’s been saddening, yet not shocking, in recent weeks to hear so many folks who call themselves Christians using justification from the Bible to rip migrant children, seeking asylum, away from their parents to be placed in modern day concentration camps. Now, you can consider me a post-modernist skeptic of the Bible. I look on it as a historical document, written by MEN with all the biases and cultural blind spots that come with that. Although I recognize there are some profoundly progressive notions in the Bible on a number of issues, including gender, these have historically been glossed over by scholarly analyses, until recently done by men (that is the subject for another blog post).

But for those who still refer to the Bible as their go to, citing it, erroneously, as stating that we have a moral obligation to follow laws (as some politicians have recently, cherry picking a line from Romans 12) I decided to include the following counterpoints—from the Bible—highlighted recently by Pastor Tara Beth Leach. I think its also interesting to point out that the author of Romans, Paul, wrote many of his most famous epistles from jail, as he was constantly, willingly, purposefully, breaking the law—and was ultimately executed for it. Strange that this is the writer conservative Christians turn to in order to justify their own legalistic position to throw people of color in jail.

 

·      In Exodus we see the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, deliberately refused to enforce the law of the land. Pharaoh had explicitly commanded them to kill all male Hebrews. Recognizing this command as outrageously morally perverse, they courageously refused to do it (Exodus 1:15-17). 

·      Moses’s mother, Jochabed, illegally hid her son for three months instead of drowning him in the Nile as Pharaoh had ordered (Exodus 1:22-2:2). 

·      The wise men disobeyed Herod’s order to tell him where Jesus was; they broke the law and returned to their own country (Matthew 2:7-12). 

·      Mary, mother of Jesus, and Joseph, did not give their child up to Herod but fled as refugees to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).

 

Let’s face it. Very righteous people in the Bible broke the law, often in order to protect children and families. Think on that.

 

 

Writing Characters of Color when you are a Cis-Gender, White, Heterosexual Male

With the release of my latest young adult novel, Jamhuri, Njambi, & Fighting Zombies (the second novel I've written from the point of view of protagonists of color) I wanted to share here the Author's Note I've opened JN&FZ with which I wrote as an attempt to enter into dialogue with some of these challenging and complex issues. I definitely would never suggest I have all the answers on this, but I think the best we can do is to keep a dialogue going on it. Scroll down past the cover for the full essay.

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A Note on Cultural (Mis)appropriation

            I have not stayed in my lane, and my sense of social justice—not to mention my friends who identify as people of color—have called me out for it. Rightly so.

            At first glance, most readers might not see the trouble with a cisgender, heterosexual, white writer using imagery from African culture in a work of fiction. It’s a “celebration of African traditions ignored by sci-fi and fantasy writers for far too long,” or it’s “an overdue acknowledgement of rich African contributions to art and literature.” Maybe it’s even “a healthy, contemporary reaction to the overemphasis of white characters in sci-fi and fantasy.”

            It is, I hope, but it’s other things too—things that must be viewed in the context of colonialism and the social, political, economic, and military oppression of people of color.

First of all, I’m no trailblazer. Other writers, such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin, have been producing works that fuse sci-fi and fantasy with African themes for some time. Before them, Octavia Butler was doing the same. Acknowledging, celebrating, and profiting from a white male’s derivations from the art and images of people of color over those artists of color who have a more personal, historical claim is nothing new. It’s a long tradition, characterizing the careers of artists as diverse as Al Jolson, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and so many others.[1]

            So, depending on the interpretation, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is a celebration, an acknowledgement, or it’s just another form of exploitation and cultural (mis)appropriation.

            Truth is, it’s all these things.

            To simply see this work as a welcome and timely celebration, a “generous inclusion,” would be to patronize these traditions and ignore great artists of color. It also ignores the historical power imbalances that have benefited Western, white writers over communities of color, whether in Africa or in its diaspora, for hundreds of years. This has been due to quirks of geography, disease, and more insidious institutions and practices such as colonialism, white supremacy, and slavery (to name just a few). Blood, treasure, images, and ideas have been extracted from these communities for centuries, the benefits accruing to whites and the cost borne by people of color. It is a repeating pattern, called out with smoldering eloquence by Jesse Williams in his acceptance speech for the 2016 Black Entertainment Television Humanitarian Award:

 

This invention called whiteness uses and abuses us . . . extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold—ghettoizing and demeaning our creations and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.

 

            There is nothing to add to Mr. William’s words. They are complete, powerful, and persuasive on their own.

There is a counter argument. It goes something like this: that the cross-fertilization of cultures has always taken place and led to benefits in a variety of disciplines. The very characters these words are written with are “Roman,” influenced by Greek and Phoenician alphabets; the numbers in this text are “Arabic,” although really first codified by a Persian scholar (Muhammad al-Khwarizmi) who modeled them after a number system used by Hindu mathematicians.

Cross-fertilization indeed.

            The precedents for cultural exchange in fantasy literature are many fold. Take J.R.R. Tolkien, who borrowed heavily from Norse, Finnish, Germanic, as well as his own Anglo-Saxon traditions. Such fusions can create works of profound beauty and stand testament to the value of cultural diffusion. And it is often artists who are pioneers in reaching across cultural and social barriers, drawn by the universal experience of art and the appreciation of beauty. In the process we may blend influences, foster collaboration, and forge lifelong friendships despite ethnic, racial, or other social barriers. Sometimes amazing art is produced too.

But it is equally important to point out that Tolkien’s ancestors did not systematically oppress these other groups. Furthermore, Tolkien, in his own time, did not benefit disproportionately from historic or current oppression of Scandinavians or Germanic people in a way that denied these groups equal opportunity to flourish. The exchange of trade, ideas, and even violence among these peoples took place (more or less) among groups with equivalent levels of power—on an even playing field, if you will. The costs and benefits were equally shared.

No such moral or ethical neutrality can be ascribed to the exploitation of people of color by Europeans or their white descendants. White privilege is real. It has benefited me and still benefits me as a white man, a white writer, in the United States.

            There is no getting around this. But just because something looks like an unethical pattern in the past, does not mean it is the exact same thing today. In my heart of hearts, I would hope that Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is not exploitive. But intentions do not exculpate the artist. The art and work will stand for themselves and will rise or fall on the interpretation, opinions, the praise or condemnation, of others. I expect both and I have no answer other than my work.

            So why write Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies? Can we escape these patterns of oppression, exploitation, and historical amnesia?

I hope so.

            Those who are not seized by the urge to create, to channel some idea from the world of the imagined to the real, might not understand the fierce insistence of an idea, a plot, or characters and their stories knocking around in an author’s head. Like the Greek muses, these imagined personalities and events seem to exist outside us, using the artist as a mere channel. Michelangelo described it best when he said the figures he sculpted had always already existed, trapped inside their blocks of marble. It was simply his role to chip away the excess to reveal them.

It is the same with the characters and stories that reside in a writer’s head. They feel, to us, as if they already do and have always existed—a bit like a law in physics, a pattern in number theory, or an undiscovered prime. We as artists reveal; we create, because we can’t not. These characters, Jamhuri, Njambi, Latia, Anastasia, Esmeralda, and their stories, although not completely aligned with my own background, wanted to be out in the world. They wouldn’t leave me alone until they were.

            The second reason was a personal promise. These stories were conceived in the early 2000s when I was living and working at an orphanage for HIV+ children in Nairobi, Kenya. At the time our resources for books were limited. Although we benefited from donations, the books I read to the kids had few characters that looked like them. As much as they enjoyed Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants (which did include a main character of color), they clamored for more characters that looked like them, characters from backgrounds and contexts they could relate to. As children who had been abandoned, abused, stigmatized, and generally not “seen” as individuals outside of their HIV status, this broke my heart.

At the time, writers such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin were not on my own radar. So I set out to write a few stories of my own.

As a result, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is laden with that personal history and meaning for me. If these stories never find an audience beyond the children I wrote them for, then I am at peace with that. The audience and stories deserve at least that much, if nothing else.

            But this all begs the question of whether a privileged, white, male writer can or even should write from the point of view of characters of color. The answer leads me to my third and final reason for writing and publishing these stories.

            “Can a privileged, white, male writer write from the point of view of characters of color?” I will leave that for the readers to determine. I’d like to think these characters are authentic and well developed, but sales, comment sections, and reviews will bear that out as true or not.

            The question of should I have even tried to write in the point of view of these characters also looms large for me. I, for one, believe that art can transcend race (in some ways). As mentioned above, the common ground, the shared experience of being an artist, has united people from various backgrounds for the entire story of humankind. Moving from literature to music, I landed on the career and life of Benny Goodman as an example. Contemporary critics may be split over the legacy of figures such as Goodman, whose classical background and European ancestry “legitimized” jazz for white listeners, making jazz “safe” to bring into venues such as Carnegie Hall. His integration and promotion of this African American art form in his own performances undeniably contributed to his own stardom and the success of his career at a time when black musicians couldn’t drink from the same water fountains, much less perform in the same concert halls as he. So in that sense, perhaps Goodman’s choices were exploitive. But Goodman also launched the careers of many African American jazz artists and, during a time of racial segregation, defiantly toured the US in an integrated jazz band.

            So, as they say on Facebook, the relationship status here is “complicated.”

And that still does not answer the question of whether a white person can even write believable black characters?

It is not as straight forward as I once thought. For instance, my friends—writers of color in literature, television, and film—have had to write white characters throughout the course of their careers. It’s the reality of whiteness being associated with the mainstream, with “normality.” This is a consequence of our ridiculous default culture of white-centeredness and the unfortunate reality of the marketplace. The question of whether or not my friends of color “can” write white characters rarely comes up for them. After all, as people of color in the United States, they are bombarded with images of whiteness. They are forced (sadly) to move in a sea of pallor that is, arbitrarily, considered “the norm.” As people of color in a predominantly white society, they have to understand white culture—even better than we might understand ourselves (as James Baldwin once pointed out).

            Whites do not have the same need. As Jesse Williams reminds us, white society might extract black culture, treating it as a costume to put on, or a thing to demean, to make the “other.” But we have the choice. If we whites wanted, we could likely pass the day without encountering a person of color IRL (in real life). With effort, (and sometimes without) we can whitewash our social experiences and our media consumption, eliminating diverse images and voices and validating only our own. Living a life in an echo chamber like this, as so many white Americans do, eliminates the need to appreciate the perspective or point of view of someone different. It is a great loss, but it happens. I know this from teaching classes on race and reconciliation to white participants. One woman in her fifties in one of my classes recently had the epiphany that, “I worked as a trauma nurse in for thirty-two years and it’s dawning on me that I never worked with a black nurse. It didn’t even occur to me that that was even remarkable until 2017.”

            Baldwin has written that people of color are forced to “get” us whites, to understand us. Sometimes reading white people, living in a state of double consciousness (knowing yourself but also imagining how others misperceive your identity), is a matter of life or death. The tragic deaths of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles, and the murder of so many other black citizens by police can attest to this.

But to say that whites cannot do the same, that a white writer cannot and should not write from the point of view of black characters (as I have been told) is a conclusion I am unwilling to accept. Such a conclusion is flawed; it posits that we whites can never understand, much less endorse, the perspective of anyone but ourselves, even with effort, intentionality, and exposure. If this were true, it leaves me without hope. If understanding could only go in one direction: people of color learning to interpret and live with white people who are unable to do the same, progress would be impossible.

I don’t want to live in that world.

            It may take intentionality and no small amount of effort, humility, and discomfort, but I want—I need—to believe that members of a group of people who have been oppressors and a (rapidly diminishing) majority can come to understand and endorse, to love and accept the perspective of an oppressed minority. Perhaps it is the part of writers and artists, who try to see out of the eyes of others, to play a constructive role here. Again, to say otherwise—that artists, or even people in general, cannot do so—would be to suggest that people of color alone have this ability and whites do not. This seems like an overgeneralization, a dangerous assumption—in short, pure fallacy.

So yes, I believe that a white, privileged writer can and even should try to write from the perspective of others—with care, humility, and historical sensitivity. Must we be aware of harmful cultural legacies? Absolutely. We should also take care to consider whether or not our voices are taking up space that could be granted to writers of color who have not had the same opportunities to speak or to publish. The realities of the marketplace and the attention span of the modern human dictate that this is a genuine possibility. But to stop short of trying because of these risks handicaps us all.

The default flow of information, attention, experiences, and imagery might be in the direction of white people like myself—we the loud, obnoxious, blundering, self-absorbed, self-centered sibling of the US family, we who have historically been the referent. Thanks to demographics, this will not always be the case. But in the meantime, with intentionality, I believe this myopic vision amongst wypipo can be remedied. It takes exposure, dialogue, travel, reading, watching, and most of all, shutting up and listening.

            In that spirit, I think that is enough from me. People who look like me have had the spotlight on them and the microphone clutched in their hands a long time. Acknowledging that requires me to step aside, to let the characters take the stage—in this case Jamhuri, Latia, Njambi, Anastasia, and Esmeralda, who all have their own real-life counterparts—so they might tell their stories. I’ll be off to the side, sitting down and shutting up.

            Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy. If you don’t, well, I’ll try to do better next time.

 

—Ted Neill, Seattle, 2018

 

[1] This even happens in social activism. One need look no further than the initial confusion about the origin of the “MeToo” campaign. Many Twitter followers attributed it to Alyssa Milano, when it was actually a campaign started in 2007 by Tarana Burke, a Harlem activist, as a way to support women and girls and women of color who had been victims of sexual abuse.