If you are a writer, a reader, a poet, a book lover and you are on Twitter, the chances are you will have caught a row about an author called out for racist writing and the many people (of whiteness and establishment) who have stepped in to decry the accusation. People of colour have, with weary familiarity, been let down as their concerns were once again dismissed, and once again the terribleness of the accusation of racism has trumped the terribleness of racism itself. It is the same appalling dynamic that protects a young man from a ruined reputation for the crime of sexual assault at the expense of the woman he assaulted. As a society, we are showing who we choose to protect.
Philip Pullman, no less, (an author who I’d hoped to admire) stepped in to defend the author, telling people they were ‘reading it wrong’. That is quite extraordinary.
It is all pretty horrible. I didn’t want it to happen because I admired the way this woman has in the past amplified and championed young diverse voices and that made me happy. But I read the quotes and they really do not sit right.
So, it did happen. This does happen. I am a Chelsea fan. John Terry was my hero. I had a football shirt with his name on the back. When he let his racist comments slip, I so wanted to find a way to explain it. I had invested so much in my admiration that I could not easily let go of it. I was tempted to resist or reinterpret, so as not to betray my investment. But not to accept that racism would be a bigger betrayal, of something much more important than my investment. And in the end of course, it doesn’t hurt that much, letting go of a bit of abstract, distant hero worship.
Racism, on the other hand, does hurt. It literally damages people; all of us, I believe, but mainly of course, those heavy with the burden of resisting and reacting and protecting themselves and their loved ones from the impact of it.
I do understand, in some ways, why the authors and defenders in question might feel tender about this accusation. I understand because my book Salt Lick in some part (though by no means exclusively) deals with the racism of society. I have thought anxiously many times about how I should do this, and still am not sure I have got it right. But I did lots of thinking, I did some research and I tried my best.
The main focus, what I was principally interested in was racism from the point of view of white people*; the frailty of those that hate another for their difference, our solipsistic ability to slide out from under the reality of it, our sense of embarrassed culpability. Because racism is a problem for white people in the same way that violence against women is a problem for men. Those on the receiving end should not be made solely responsible for the resolution of a problem caused by others. I have long understood that in relationship to misogyny and sexism, but it has taken longer to see in relationship to racism – that’s how it works, we see what affects us first.
We have to accept that our society is racist. There is a pay gap to prove it – such a simple illustration should need no other proof (though sadly there are proofs in abundance.) And if you don’t accept that as proof, presumably you believe in some kind of inherent difference, some kind of white superiority to explain it, in which case you have the nastier task of learning to accept your own racism. It’s one or the other.
Once we accept that, we have to also accept that white people are, up to now, not expert at challenging it. After all, well meaning progressives such as myself have thus far done a pretty poor job of eradicating racism in our society. It’s almost as though our effort, our care, our KNOWLEDGE is not enough … No, of course it is not. Because being for most of our lives unaware of the impacts, we don’t inherently know, yet, how it works, and we certainly don’t know how to resolve it. So we should be able to listen, without challenging people to read a situation differently, without feeling hurt because we are GOOD.
I won’t deny it, if someone challenges the way I have written Salt Lick and calls it out for being insensitive, or god forbid, against any of my intentions, as racist, I am going to die a little inside. It will be painful, it will be a humiliation. But I will do my best, once again, to listen and to correct where possible, any hurt caused. Because how the hell could I know all about it? And why the hell would I not be satisfied with the patient explanation of what I have got wrong from people who, unfortunately for them, do know all about it?
Writers, think of it this way. Recently, I was horrified to learn the top ten cliche book openings, according to experienced agents. I thought it was kind of unfair, because, when you don’t read dozens of submissions a day, how do you know if you’ve fallen into a cliche? Well, you don’t. And being white, not subject to the relentless, common-place manifestations of racism (whatever other experiences of prejudice we may have faced, and there are usually some) how can we possibly find ourselves expert on how it works, the endless grind of it, how it expresses itself in the world? How can we possibly know more than our commrades of colour who have a life’s worth of experience? So, yes, if my book gets called out, however painful for me, it will be because I have made a mistake. It will be a mistake made in good faith but still it will be a mistake I will regret. So I will listen to those who tell me about it. Meanwhile, I hope people will find my book, set in an England further down the wrong path, thought provoking, and in the end, if we can listen, maybe even hopeful.
*There will be some who trot out the line about there being racism all over the world. That may be true, but we are here now, we are in a particular dynamic and so it was the racism of white people that interested me for a book set in England.