As a writer of creative nonfiction, it’s imperative that I think about my own role in anything I write. Am I a participant or an observer? Or am I writing from the “hazy territory between insider and outsider perspectives,” as Gabe Montesanti describes in her essay “Inside, Outside, In Between” (Creative Nonfiction, issue 72).
This question is particularly pertinent at this moment in our collective history when everyone, it seems, has something to say regarding racism in our country. It’s heartening to see so many people across all walks of life wanting to learn more about our history, wanting to learn to do better, wanting to find the right words to say to those in denial so that their eyes will finally be opened as well.
But how one speaks or writes about racism must take into consideration one’s role in the issue. As a white person, I must be conscious of the fact that I am not a victim of this injustice, that I never have been and that I likely never will be. I must be careful that the empathy I feel for people of color does not persuade me to try and speak on their behalf, which only serves to disempower their own voices. There is plenty I can say to counter racism from the viewpoint of my role as a member of the dominant group in our society. I am an outsider in understanding how it feels to be disenfranchised because of the color of my skin, but I am an insider when it comes to understanding the racist attitudes, behavior, and policies of white people like me.
I once submitted for publication a nonfiction piece of mine about an event involving my adopted Korean American stepson, who was by that time deceased. I received a scathing response from the editor, a person of color, who called me out for appropriating my stepson’s experience. My intention in writing and submitting the piece was certainly not to do harm to anyone, least of all to another person of color. I believed my telling of this particular event would serve to highlight an injustice. Because the topic was so personal, the editor’s response hurt me deeply, and I stopped writing or submitting altogether for a while afterward. But over time, I recognized that the editor’s point was valid, even if its delivery was harsh. I as a domestically adopted white woman would never be able to accurately portray my stepson’s experience as someone adopted from Korea, even though we were both adoptees and even though I thought I understood some important aspects of how he felt about his life.
This kind of rejection is always difficult for a creative nonfiction writer to process, but it can also be a valuable learning opportunity. I had to put my own feelings and intentions aside to understand why what I wrote could be damaging to the very people I’d wanted to help. Now that I’m able to see my own error, I notice when similar errors are made by other writers who I know also have the best intentions.
So what can we do differently as white people writing about racism? First, I think we need to recognize that there are many people of color brilliantly writing on their own behalves. They don’t need us to speak for them, but we can certainly amplify their voices by sharing their work, buying and reading their books, boosting their books with reviews, and inviting them to submit or to participate in events while paying them what they’re worth.
And we can write from our perspective as unwilling participants in a racist society. Because that’s what we are, participants, though we may not have ever intended to be. We can examine how racism is embedded in most aspects of our lives—our neighborhoods, our schools, our jobs, etc. We can go deep into our own psyches to investigate the racist thought patterns we’ve unwittingly absorbed through indoctrination by our white communities. We can interrogate our defensive responses to being called out on our own words and actions. We can listen, and we can learn to do better.