A Northwest Based Literary Journal

On Writing about Race in Fiction, by Miles White

“Race” is a euphemism Americans use to describe a very ugly aspect of the American character—we tend to not like each other because of differences in skin color. It’s more complex than that of course. We don’t like each other based on skin color, ethnicity, religion, political ideology, gender identification, geography, class privilege, educational background, social entitlements, sports team loyalty, and whether we prefer Pepsi or Coke or Windows over Mac. As most of these things go nobody gets killed, but when it comes to race in America people die. The Civil War. Southern lynching. The Tulsa riot of 1921. Little Big Horn. Wounded Knee. Birmingham. Selma. Mississippi. Memphis. Charleston.

The fact is there is nothing Americans need to discuss more urgently than racial relations, things like slavery, segregation, privilege, oppression, prejudice, bigotry, hate, and violence. And yet we mostly do not because it is extremely difficult to do and much easier to simply avoid. In American fiction in particular, the subject of race does not tend to come up often unless it is written by those who are already Othered. People of color are always talking and writing about race because they are the victims of it. One of the most inconvenient truths about race in America is that most white people don’t want to talk about it and few care to read about it. White writers have largely ignored racial themes with some exceptions—William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner are two extraordinary works that come to mind. Some reasons for this are that writers tend to write about what they know best, readers tend to like to read stories about people like themselves, and few whites want to be called out on questions of racial guilt and white privilege. How then do we approach race in fiction?

My approach to writing about race is my own, and it is simply this: my stories often contain racial themes and characters but when they do I rarely inform the reader of this in any overt way. Sometimes I do give clues in language, dialogue and social context, but I often engage in misdirection. I simply do not openly identify characters by race or ethnicity although racial diversity is clearly there in my stories. I don’t want to avoid race, but to allow readers to encounter racial themes in the context of story in a way that is not heavy handed. If a reader assumed that most of the characters in my stories are the same race as I am they would be wrong much of the time. In many of my stories it is not clear what race the characters are. They are from many different racial backgrounds. I leave some space open so that the racial background of a given character will in many cases be determined by the reader. Anybody reading my stories is free to fill in the racial blank for themselves because I try to deal with tropes of human experience rather than tropes of race which can alienate the reader. I invite the reader into the world of a story and allow them to bring their own cultural experiences and racial background.

Still, race matters in America and my stories are mostly about America, so sometimes race matters in a story, but sometimes it clearly does not. When racial themes appear I want the reader to be able to read them and understand why they matter to the story and let the story speak its own truth. I think that at its best literature should leave open a space that anyone can step into and see something of themselves, but that speaks to the humanity of us all. By rigidly marking off racial identities that kind of reading becomes more difficult, but by pretending that racial identities do not exist is to pretend we don’t live in a multicultural world where all peoples, regardless of race, have stories to tell and that can make the rest of us richer for having read them.

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