For Me, I Tackle the Tough Topic of Racism Through My Novels…But It’s Also the Hardest Topic for Me to Write About
In my novels, what is the hardest thing to write about? Racism. Nobody wants to read a story that has the word, racism, in the title. Recently, in the “Los Angeles Times,” there was an article in the Opinion Section with the title, “The untold story: How white folks own their racism.”
I suspect very few white folks bothered to read this story. … Black folks, maybe, because they know that the writer is one of their own, Erin Aubry Kaplan. But the last word of the article’s title is as far as most white folks got, I suspect.
“Racism—boring,” most white folks said out loud—I suspect—and looked for something else to read that would be more entertaining.
The point of Kaplan’s opinion piece—which is actually a review of the movie, “Green Book”—is that it is “magical realism” to portray a blatantly racist white man (Tony Lip) as going from viewing black people as “tainted and toxic” one day, to being completely open-minded, the next day. Doesn’t happen that way, according to Kaplan, if it happens at all. Most white Americans, she posits, will not admit to ever having been racist, and certainly will not admit to still having any lingering racism in their souls. Kaplan states it bluntly: “[A] great majority of white people were and may still be complicit in racism, especially those in the South.”
The writer grants that some white folks have evolved, but most are most likely merely “mid-journey.” That is, they may no longer be “bona fide racist,” but are perhaps on the way—on the long “incremental evolution” towards not being racist. Which is to say, most white folks are still racist, but they are slowly undergoing a gradual evolution—trying hard to change. Maybe they’ll get there, maybe they won’t.
As an old white Southerner, I find this hard to take—hard to read. Ordinarily, I probably would not have gone past the end of the first paragraph, where Kaplan calls the movie “a black-white buddy movie,” which is “embarrassingly retro,” and a story “told through the lens of the white character.”
My novels all necessarily involve racism as an underlying theme. They take place in Texas—which is part of the South—during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when white folks like me were being forced by the Civil Rights Movement to confront racism head-on, instead of pretending that segregation, discrimination and racial animus either did not exist, or were no big deal.
As for Kaplan’s point, I agree. I am a white Southerner who is still evolving. But as a long-time reader of Kaplan, I think she is talking about herself—about black folks—at the same time she is talking about us white folks. She is saying, I think, that she too has a long way to go to be able to see past her own black racism, which has come from 300 years of collective bad experiences in dealing with us white folks. She can’t yet see white folks like me as, first of all, human. She still sees my whiteness before she sees my humanity.
But that’s Kaplan and her writing. What about me and my writing? All of my characters, directly or indirectly, have to deal with racism. In Texas and the South, racism was—and still is—in the very air that white folks and black folks alike must breathe. And white folks in Texas have always included—and still do include—“Mexicans” and “Indians” in the same box as “Black Folks.”
In fact, anyone who is not “Aryan,” as Hitler put it, is in that same box, as far as white Southerners and Texans are concerned. I say “is,” because in my opinion, nothing has really changed. It’s changing, “evolving,” as Kaplan says. But evolution—whether Darwin’s biological evolution, or Kaplan’s social evolution—is a long, convoluted process.
We ain’t there yet!