Dec 15 2017

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part II of III)

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part II of III)

Toward Some Solutions to the Political Problem of Writing about Race while Being Aware of One’s Own Race

Part II.

In Part I, I brought up the four questions of Al-farabi (872–950 AD) to ask for any political situation: What, How, What from, What for? Now it’s time to ask those questions with regard to a current political situation: writing about race while being aware of one’s race as told by four writers:

(1) What is Jess Row’s “What are White Writers For?” New Republic, September 30, 2016 about? This piece struck a nerve when I first read it, so I bookmarked it for the past year and returned to it this past week. Still, a little over a year later, I’m not sure what to think. Row is a novelist and essayist. The focus of his piece is fiction and the problem of white writers writing about race in fiction, not essays. He suggests a scenario where: “It would be easy for a white writer—say, a young white writer, in an MFA program, working on his or her first novel—to … feel caught in an imaginative bind” of being torn from writing about non-white characters in fiction and being accused of appropriation or writing about exclusively white characters and being accused of tribal fascism. “The subtext to these arguments,” writes Row, “is that white writers should just stop writing [fiction],” and he doesn’t believe that to be an adequate answer for a free society.

How so? Row discusses his own efforts at fiction and its various misreadings is conveyed in his observation that it is utter fiction for white writers to suggest white writers aren’t “allowed” to write about certain topics, when the publishing-media complex remains dominated by gatekeepers who identify primarily as white, and who identify that way by a large majority compared to any runners up. Tarantino may choose to use the n-word and Eminem may choose not to, but there are no white hands tied behind anyone’s back. They write what they please.

From what event did Row decide to write about writing about race? A non-Mexicana writer named Lionel Shriver wore a sombrero in Brisbane and caught flack for it. Another writer named Jonathan Franzen confessed in an interview that he didn’t put black characters in his fiction because he lacked substantial real life experience with people identified as black. This queued Row to write about race. What is Row writing about race for? He answers: “The real question in this debate couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for?” Row calls for writers (particularly white fiction writers) to write something politically relevant. To deny that one’s art is political is a distasteful display of privilege and ignorance. Art is part of the public sphere says Row, “part of one ongoing conversation.”[1] Some novelists, Row points out, write about the present and critique it in their fiction. Others are simply “chroniclers.” But both critique and chronicle are political acts, for to write is to act (scribere est agere) says Judge William Blackstone (1723–1780).[2] Or, in Alan Jacobs’ words, “It seems clear that to publish a book is to invite a response.” [3]

(2) What is Wesley Yang’s “Is It OK to be White?” in Tablet Magazine, November 27, 2017 about? Yang’s point is that these days rhetoric—that is, political writing, particularly about race––is about achieving reaction. Writers who write about race are generally no longer interested in clarity or understanding. Their writings are now about obliterating the ability to share ideas (and ontologies), because, in Yang’s words, such rhetoric “invites dissenters to overreact.” How so? Contemporary rhetoric aims for “confounding instead of confronting” one’s “enemies” via “a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.” From what did this discussion start? Some alt-right groups posed provocative flyers at “universities and high schools in the United States and Canada” that said, “It’s OK to be white.” What is Yang writing about race for? In his words: “Part of responding to the coalition of white resentment from which the posters emerged in ways that stanches rather than feeds its growth, then, means taking stock of the way our own thinking has been affected by polarizing memes.”

(3) What is Aaron Mak’s “The Price of College Admission for Asian Americans,” Slate, December 5, 2017 about? Mak’s focus is on Asian Americans who hide aspects of their “Asian-ness” from college admissions applications. How so? Applicants sometimes change their names, or list feats and talents not traditionally seen as stereotypically “Asian” (that is, East Asian). This is because “the American mainstream likes to assign minorities to a certain mold. There’s a systemic perception that we Asians are all alike, but what about, say, white applicants who play lacrosse? Are they all cookie-cutter too?” From what did this discussion start? The Justice Department has recently announced (in August) that it was investigating admissions policies that were discriminating against Asians, particularly at Harvard. What is Mak writing about race for? To render “the cooperation necessary between people of color to overcome systemic racism” without “contorting” one’s “identity.”

(4) What is Andy Ngo’s “When Racism is Disguised as Anti-Racism,” Quillette, December 5, 2017 about? Ngo attended an anti-racism event on a college campus: “Until that day,” Ngo writes, “I’d never seen people overtly dehumanized and treated as racialized objects—amplified through the use of words like ‘bodies’ to refer to people of color.” How so? “The lack of any ideological counterpoise has created a vacuum where ideas have no mechanism or incentive for moderation.” From what did this discussion start? A student at Texas State University in San Marcos recently published an op-ed calling for the genocide of white people. Ngo then felt the need to respond. What is Andy Ngo writing about race for? Ngo believes that such a vacuum needs to be eliminated, that ideological counterpoises should be cultivated to moderate contemporary rhetoric involving race.

So by answering Al-farabi’s questions—which meant I had to reread each article and carefully think it through––I now have a slightly clearer understanding of the political problem of writing about race while being aware of one’s own race. In Part III I will try to look toward some solutions to this problem.

NOTES

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[1] As Charles Taylor (1931–) explains:

This space is a public sphere in the sense I’m using it here. That a conclusion “counts as” public opinion reflects the fact that a public sphere can exist only if it is imagined as such. Unless all the dispersed discussions are seen by their participants as linked in one great exchange, there can be no sense of their upshot as public opinion. This doesn’t mean that imagination is all-powerful. There are objective conditions: internal, for instance, that the fragmentary local discussions interrefer [sic]; and external, that is, there must be printed materials, circulating from a plurality of independent sources, for there to be bases of what can be seen as a common discussion. Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) 85)

[2] Blackstone, Commentaries (IV, vi).

[3] Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011) 54.