One doesn’t have to look far to find evidence that racism is alive and well in the U.S., where schools and the population in general are becoming increasingly diverse. Equally apparent is that some folks just aren’t having it. When, recently, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and members of the Ku Klux Klan took to the streets of Charlottesville with their message, “white lives matter,” I have to say I was shocked but not surprised. I felt a visceral sense of shock and disgust at the news photo of torch-carrying whites, gathered en masse, shouting their message of exclusion. But I was not surprised at the message itself, because while the current political climate may have emboldened these individuals, their argument is nothing new. I’ve heard the reverse-racism discourse, the argument that whites are the new victims of racism and somehow need protection, many times from white friends, family, and students – people who would never take up a torch and march in defense of their perceived white supremacy. In fact, when I bring up the topic of racism in my classes I’m more surprised if students (usually white but not always) don’t launch into the reverse-racism discourse in the form of anti-affirmative action arguments than if they do. Most of these students have heard these arguments all their lives and have come to internalize the idea that if a person of color (excluding Asians – there’s a whole separate discourse for that) has advanced to an important or prominent position, he or she probably got there at the expense of a white person who worked harder and was more qualified.
In my ethnography of high school students called Race Among Friends, I found that the reverse-racism discourse was prominent during class discussions of multicultural literature. Even among students who were deeply invested in their cross-racial friendships at this small, racially diverse school, the idea that racism is over and that African Americans use the “race card” to gain unfair advantage persisted. When I started to think more deeply about the fiction these students had read in previous grades, the “classics” of the multicultural literature “canon,” it wasn’t hard to see, at least partly, why these attitudes endure. Many students are still reading the texts on race that you and I read when we were in school: The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, and To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Both of these works still form the foundation of the multicultural canon in many school districts. Both were written by whites, and both depict the internalized racist attitudes that I (as a writer and as a person) and many whites struggle to recognize and overcome.
Much has been written about the racial language and images of Huck and Mockingbird, and I won’t take the time for an in depth analysis here, other than to say that both represent a complicated mix of brilliantly written narrative and hidden racialized meanings played out by the stories’ characters. For example, while some teachers and school districts still struggle over Twain’s use of racial epithets, Jane Smiley and Toni Morrison point out that it was Twain’s depiction of Jim, the full-grown African American slave companion of Tom and Huck, as a child-like pawn in the hands of two white adolescents, with no voice and no say in his own future, that is truly problematic. Likewise, in the case of the much loved novel (and movie) To Kill a Mockingbird, the very title suggests an unexamined racism far more subtle than whether or not the characters use “the N word” (as my students say) in the story. The title comes from Atticus’ admonition to his son, “Shoot all the bluejays you want…but remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (Lee 90). Miss Maudie, a neighbor, clarifies: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (90). So, who are the mockingbirds in the story? Lee creates a cast of “respectable Negros” who, like the proverbial mockingbird, know their place and don’t bother anyone. I had to smile a little last year at the distress of some readers over the depiction of Atticus in the Mockingbird sequel, Go Set a Watchman. How could this book depict the beloved Atticus, pillar of racial justice, as racist? Unfortunately, Atticus’ passively racist proclivities were always there; perhaps we weren’t looking carefully enough to spot them. While it's true that he did his best to defend Tom Robinson in court (putting himself and his children at risk), Atticus never completely disassociated himself from the racism of his time. He told his daughter that racists "are still our friends" (76) and are "entitled to full respect for their opinions" (105). He made light of the role of the Ku Klux Klan (147) and excused the head of a would-be lynch mob as "a good man" who "just has his blind spots along with the rest of us" (157).
My point is that even when white fiction writers are attempting to be anti-racist, it can be difficult for us to fully understand how deep and hidden our attitudes about race are, and we may inadvertently perpetuate racial stereotypes through our work. Lately I’ve been reading a young adult fantasy novel. I’m about 100 pages in, and so far there is one dark skinned character, a man, in the story. He’s described as dark, muscular, and altogether gorgeous; his sensual masculinity jumps off the page and, of course, the white female protagonist is immediately attracted to him. Okay, I know there needs to be some kind of romantic attraction to satisfy readers, but the way this character fulfils the trope of the powerful black male who protects and dominates the white woman is so obvious that it’s startling. Am I saying the author is racist? No more than I am, because I’m guilty, too. A few years ago I published a young adult novel that explores the awakening of a white teen who comes to understand racism as she forms new relationships with teens of color. I tried my best to vary my characters in appearance and personality and to make them rich and complex. At the beginning of the story, Rachel, my protagonist, meets a group of five students from other school districts who will become her close friends. As I was writing, I decided that I had too many characters to suit my purposes, so I had to make one go away. Guess who left the group? The one Asian-American character in the story. Without realizing it I fulfilled the stereotype of the silent Asian, the “model minority,” who fades quietly into the background. How frustrating that even when I was trying to explore and expose racism, my own internalized dispositions about race popped out and got the best of me.
I don’t think that white people should stop including characters of color in their works, nor should we stop exploring racism in our writing. On the contrary, now, more than ever, whites need to name and expose racism in all its forms. We are at a wretched, horrifying place in our country where racist views are being accepted and promulgated by mainstream authority. But, as I concluded in Race Among Friends, we whites must think, write, and perhaps most importantly, teach with deeper introspection, examining our own hidden attitudes about race first, lest we perpetuate the very attitudes we seek to expose.
1. Modica, Marianne. Race Among Friends. Rutgers University Press, 2015.
2. Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Brandywine Studio Press, 2008.
3. Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books, 1960.
4. Jane Smiley, "Say It Ain't So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain's 'Masterpiece'" Harper's Magazine 292.1748 (Jan. 1996): 61-67.
5. Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1993.
6. Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2016.
7. Modica, Marianne. The R Word. Endless Press, 2015.