Some white writers seem to think that the only way to write an anti-racist work is to write a racial happy place. I’m not sure it’s even a viable way, because I’ve never seen it done well. The white main character doesn’t see race, or loves their non-white best friend/sweetheart/guardian/neighbour, with several references to how totally not racist the main character is because they love diversity and other cultures and fascinating physical features. And it’s pretty much inevitably a white main character. How else would the white audience be expected to relate – and how else could the white author be sure that they were doing it right – and how else could the non-white audience be sufficiently grateful to the white author?
This is not a racial happy place. It might be a place of relief for white readers and writers, in which they can align themselves with the “good” white protagonist and never have to think that hard about it. There is a real pleasure in imagining environments in which racism is not a thing, but I can’t trust that a white author isn’t imagining one simply in order to avoid guilt and the hard parts of writing race.
You fight racism by acknowledging it.
Two books that do this well with white leads, and in very different ways, are The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley and Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. In Sweetness, our youthful period heroine, Flavia, unthinkingly buys in to a lot of racist ideas, and is totally accepting when her loving father does the same, even when it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable. It’s treading a fine line, and one that often ends with me grinding my teeth when I talk about the line with many white people. ‘Well,’ some will say, ‘at least we aren’t racist like that today!’ At least you can see you’re not racist in many obvious ways, so you are supposedly absolved, even though you are tied up with racism in many ways, and even though lots of people still are that blatantly racist! But I think this is a line Bradley treads well. It’s effective for some readers, I guess: because standards of racism have shifted, Flavia’s old fashioned racism is meant to strike at odds with someone who’s meant to be a quite likeable character. Hopefully, in turn, it will make white readers wonder about whether similar incongruities are going along unnoticed in their own lives.
In Guardian – well, there’s a whole lot packed in there on race. The passage particularly sticking in my mind just at present lies near to the beginning of the novel, when the white main character, Ellie, is thinking enviously of how beautiful a secondary character, an Asian woman called Iris, is. Ellie’s narration starts with ‘I knew that “China doll” was racist, even just in my head, but I couldn’t help thinking it.’ Now, that’s how it’s done. There’s a white protagonist acknowledging that they’re having a racist thought, and knowing that it’s wrong. How rare is that, in and of itself, in fiction? Moreover, Ellie keeps it to herself, so we get this moment of acknowledgment without any hurt to Iris. Not to mention that Healey positions a non-white woman as the most beautiful one about, rather than the white girl with the blonde hair.
Anti-racist work needs to be work that makes people reflect on racism. Not being outright racist is not enough: racial happy places are no happy places when they primarily function to reassure white people. White writers need to be a big part of writing these stories, with white and non-white protagonists and narrators both. They’ve got the industry support, the audiences, and a duty. Writing race well means writing about racism.
Previously: Writing Race.