One will often hear that white people prefer to hear fellow white people talk about race because it’s less confrontational for them. On the other side, there will be regular dousing of non-white views with critiques that substantially subsist of racial stereotypes: too angry, unintelligent. In the Western literary world, it’s white perspectives on race we get to hear most often*, largely because white names are the ones more likely to be published, because that’s what publishing companies think the public (read: the white public) will buy. Well, okay. I’d like to shift the focus off white anxiety about race and white readers’ presumed racism for a minute, because this doesn’t just affect white people.
I read a lot of white writers, between the systemic racism of the publishing industry and living where I do. And I love reading about race when it’s done well, from white writers and non-white writers both. But I have a very different response to, say, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness and Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn. They’re both very powerful narratives about race and racism, with a particular focus on black experiences, that respond to a US racial history and context. When I read Le Guin – when I read white writers – on race, I’m comforted, because here is a white person saying, yes, I recognise you, I affirm your humanity, I get it. When I read Octavia Butler – when I read non-white writers/writers of colour on race – my nerves are on edge, and I’m drained even as I’m fed, because this is personal and recognition and pain and a life in a way it could never be for a white writer. I can handle Butler in small doses because she hits too close to the bone, even as I think she’s possibly the best writer I’ve encountered. Le Guin I lap up. It’s partly that I can’t always deal with that kind of pain, it’s partly that internalised racism means I seek out the affirmations of white people, it’s partly because I want to believe that privileged groups can do better – it all adds up to something distressing.
So while I keep flipping through Justine Larbalestier’s and Karen Healey’s books and marvelling, I think I need to look at why I’ve picked up precisely one thing each Alice Sola Kim and Junot Díaz have written. Maybe it’s because reading non-white writers talking about non-white perspectives is getting smacked in the face with something I experience every minute of the day, and I’m reading to escape the everyday. Healey, Larbalestier, and Le Guin work really hard to represent characters of colour and anti-racist narratives; ultimately these are imaginary products rather than a manifestation of something they have to contend with in the ways Kim, Díaz, and I do. The kinds of recognition we can have with each other are different. It’s not about whose writing is better, or who is the most anti-racist, or who has the most non-white characters. It’s about trying to breathe with everything crashing over one, and working at one step removed.
So I’ll often go for the white writers, sad to say, if they do it well. It’s not just comforting for white people. Now that I’ve finally articulated this to myself, I’m going to look at changing it. If I can find some way of working it so that I read a higher proportion of non-white writers on race, without being in a regular state of emotional battering, it’s well worth doing. Our stories and writers need the support – and that skill and pain are well worth the recognition.
* Of course, there is the creepy tradition of having an Asian country of the year: ooh, let’s publish lots of books about China this year, because that’s hot right now, India was last year. White perspectives go into shaping which books from authors of which heritage get to be exotic and not threatening this season, too.