Dec 15 2017

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

porticos in Bologna, Italia

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

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

Part III.

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? And in Part II, I applied those questions to four recent articles discussing and/or involving the problem of writing about race. If Al-farabi’s fourth question, What for?, were properly applied, it would seek to find the end and final purpose for why each writer wrote what they did. “The real question in this debate,” answers Jess Row, “couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for?” Row insists that writers (particularly white fiction writers) write in ways and on topics that are politically relevant, because the denial that one’s art is politically relevant exposes the ignorance of the artist’s privileged place in culture, an ignorance that further represses others from partaking in that privilege.

Wesley Yang says the reason for writing about race is because: “Part of responding to the coalition of white resentment from which the [alt-right] 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.”

Aaron Mak wrote about race because he wants to solidify “the cooperation necessary between people of color to overcome systemic racism” without “contorting” one’s “identity” to new bureaucratic systems that establish new categories of racism. For as the Freedom Rider founder James Farmer (1920–1999) once pointed out, racism is inevitably bureaucratic. [1]

Andy Ngo wrote about race because “The lack of any ideological counterpoise has created a vacuum where ideas have no mechanism or incentive for moderation.” For Ngo, such a vacuum needs to be (ideally) eliminated, but at the very least, penetrated by asking hard questions (such as asking When is racism disguised as antiracism?). These hard questions penetrate because they modulate the discussion rather than amplify its intensity.

I have no original ideas to add to their proposed solutions. I can only thumb through my notes, find some seemingly relevant quotations—some sidelights that might shine toward some solutions to the political problem of writing about race and being aware of one’s own race while writing:

For Susan Sontag (1933–2004), translation helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

Literary translation, I think, is preeminently an ethical task, and one that mirrors and duplicates the role of literature itself, which is to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us, really do exist. [2]

For Wendell Berry (1934–), imagination helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

By imagination I do not mean the ability to make things up or to make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of an enemy—and therein, I believe, is implied, imagination in the highest sense.[3]

For Harry Crews (1935–2012), creativity (artifice) helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

The only way to deal with the real world was [and is] to challenge it with one of your own making.[4]



[1] In Farmer’s words:

Curiously, by a quirk of New York state laws, my first daughter’s birth certificate lists her as a Negro and the same one is classified as white. When Tami was born, a child of mixed marriage was Negro, and when Abbey was born, a child took its race from the mother. (Lay Bare the Heart: an Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement, (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1985) 214)

[2] Sontag, At the Same Time, edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump. (New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007) “The Word of India” 177. Yet, as Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) once observed:

Proverbially, a writer loses his/her book at the moment that it is published and enters the public sphere. But to feel the full melancholy force of the adage, there is nothing like facing a translation of a book into a language the author does not understand. (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso, 1983), (Revised edition 2006) 228)

[3] Berry, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” The Sewanee Review, 115 (Fall 2007): 587–602 at 596–97.

[4] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1978) 126.