Guest Blogger: Neesha Meminger

Today’s guest blogger is Neesha Meminger. She is the author of Shine, Coconut Moon (about which I’ve been hearing nothing but raves). She was born in India, raised in Canada, and now lives in New York City with her husband and two children. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a BA in Film & Media Arts. She has a fascination with the moon, stars, planets and, strangely, coconuts. She can be found online at her website as well as her blog.

From Margin to Center: Writing Characters of Color

This essay was originally meant to be a short comment in response to Justine’s post on why her protags aren’t white. In one of the comments, someone brought up the old argument: if white people can only write white characters, then should people of color only write characters of color? Here is my response . . .

It’s a question of power and privilege. Most white people grow up thinking they have free range in everything from the political to the personal. People of color in Europe, Australia, and North America (and women everywhere), do not grow up learning these things. We learn to BE colonized. We learn, through history lessons from our colonizer’s textbooks, that we are not the invadERS, we are the invadED.

People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.

Given this context, people of color writing *only* about people of color is an act of self-validation. It is an attempt at balancing something that is heavily skewed in one direction. (This reminds me a lot of the discussions and debates we used to have about why it is critical within a patriarchal/sexist context to have women-only spaces, and why in campuses all across the nation there are LGBTQ groups, etc.).

I create worlds in my books where people of color and women are at the center—not at the margins where we are habitually cast in the everyday world. This is a conscious decision. It is a political choice. Just as writing a book, film, or television series peopled ONLY with white folks is a political act, be it conscious or not.

On white authors writing characters of color: because the power imbalance leans so heavily to one side over the other, white authors absolutely must support the efforts of authors of color. White authors absolutely must people their stories with characters of color to reflect a reality they often have the privilege of ignoring, if they so choose.

I live in a fairly affluent part of New York City. We have a small apartment at the bottom of the neighborhood of course, but to the north of us are sprawling mansions with gorgeous, landscaped lawns and backyard pools. These mansions have their own security teams that patrol their streets to make sure no stranger ever gets lost and ends up roaming their quiet oasis. Down the hill from this neighborhood are the projects. It’s like two completely different nations living side by side. You’d be lucky to find a clump of trees huddled together in the projects—concrete as far as the eye can see. And the only nightly patrols are from the NYPD. Guess what the demographics of each of these neighborhoods is?

Gated communities, inner city projects, and massive wealth disparity allow white people the privilege of never having to come into any real contact with people of color and those nearer to the base of the socio-economic pyramid.

White folks, in general, need to turn *outward* and really see what’s outside of themselves and their immediate circles. And people of color must turn *inward*, to discover the true value within, then paint the world with it. 

This is how healing happens in any relationship where there is an abuse of power. Whether that relationship is parent-child, employer-employee, or whole groups, the resolution isn’t that both parties do exactly the same thing to make ammends. Both parties haven’t been giving the same thing and getting the same thing all along, so they have to get and give differently in order to mend.

This is why the whole idea of “if white people can only write white people, then PoC should only write PoC” simply does not hold water. It is DIFFERENT. It has been different all along. So the change—true, lasting change—has to be each party doing what THEY need to do to make that change happen for real. For the privileged, it means sharing privilege. For the non-privileged, it means valuing oneself enough to stand up, focus on their own self and say, “I am important. I deserve more. I will not put up with this any longer.”

Racism isn’t only an issue in “white” countries like those in Europe and North America—it is a global epidemic. And it is wiping out people of color in massive numbers. Women and children work in appalling conditions all over the globe, making clothes and playthings for wealthier Europeans and North Americans. Third world nations are on their knees in never-ending debt cycles to organizations run by a majority of European nations and the US. There is a widespread lack of clean water, adequate housing, access to hospitals and education everywhere outside of the US, Europe, North America, and Australia—though there is certainly some of that lacking within these areas, as well.

This, folks, is a HUGE power imbalance where those who are benefiting happen to be predominantly white, predominantly male, and almost always heterosexual.

So what do we do when there is such a tremendous power imbalance, and such a gross abuse/misuse of that power?

Well, let’s first look at it on a smaller, more personal scale. A child takes another child’s toy. What do you do? My guess is that you’d tell him to give the toy back. You’d tell him taking what’s not his is not okay and that he should apologize. If he wants to play with his friend, he has to share. And then you work on why sharing is far better than not if he wants friends, etc.

Okay, so now: what do you do if a child takes another child’s lunch and eats it? Not so easy. The child can’t give back what he took because it has been consumed.

This, in effect, is what racism does. The wealthiest of nations have taken resources from the (now) poorest of nations and consumed these resources. So how do we make it better?

Well, let’s go back to the children. Because, really, that’s where it all starts, isn’t it? I’m guessing that first, we’d likely have the child apologize for taking the other’s lunch. Next, we’d want to make sure the child who doesn’t have a lunch gets food. Third, we’d work with the child who took the food to find out why he’s taking the food and teach him to appreciate what he has and eat *his share*. Then, we’d work with the child whose food was taken to help him build up his sense of self-worth, learn to defend himself better, and ask for help if needed.

Different solutions for each party. The same is true in any situation where there is a power imbalance. In the case of domestic abuse, let’s say. If a woman is being beaten by her husband, you can’t simply tell her to hit him back or to walk away. There are deep issues at work and those need to be addressed. The abuser has a different path to recovery than the partner who is being abused. Different things to work on; different lessons to learn.

This also addresses (another of my pet peeves,) the “reverse” discrimination argument; an argument that doesn’t take into consideration the fact that oppression is about power imbalance—not just name-calling and hurt feelings.

In the case of a parent-child relationship, when a parent smacks a child with all his might, the effect is far different than when a child smacks a parent with all her might. The latter is not “reverse” abuse. The former results in lasting physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual scarring while the second leaves hardly an imprint. Why? Because there is a massive power imbalance on every level. The child is completely dependent on the parent for her very survival. And the parent is far stronger and bigger than she is.

In the context of racism, an insult—while it may sting for a moment—cannot leave lasting damage if there is no real power behind it. We do not have a mostly-black police force with mostly-black commissioners who are backed by a mostly-black team of judges and mostly-black politicians (please note that “mostly-black” could also be replaced here with “mostly-female” or “mostly-gay” and you’d get the same idea).

So when round after round of bullets is pumped into unarmed civilians in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Chicago, Atlanta, or elsewhere, the result is a ripple of terror the likes of which most white people could never possibly relate to.

A racial slur flung from a white person to a person of color shames, humiliates, and inspires fear. It is designed to remind that person of color of all of the degradation s/he knows was inflicted upon people who looked like them throughout history at the hands of people who look just like the one who is insulting them now.

It is the equivalent of a parent yelling “I HATE YOU” to a child. Big difference in the impact that has over a child hurling the same statement at their parent.

Likewise, when people throw racial slurs like “Paki” toward South Asians, or derogatory terms toward women, or equally denigrating terms toward lesbians and gay men, anything these same groups hurl back cannot possibly have the same impact. It might hurt feelings, but that is NOT the same as the lasting shame, humiliation, and fear that hearing an insult from someone with power to follow it up with action, invokes.

As authors of literature for children and teens, these power imbalances are at the crux of what we explore. Some of the best books for children and teens that I’ve ever had the joy of reading were about feisty children questioning their world and challenging authority head on. The way we explore these issues as authors and resolve them in the worlds we create in our books is critical. And the ways we deal with the world around us—the context for our art—is just as critical.

The first step is understanding the complexity of the issues. Then, we move on to realizing that there isn’t ONE solution. We all have to do something, but it isn’t the same thing—this is NOT a level playing field. We must all work together to bring about a more equitable, just, and sane world for our children, and the children of others. But we must each recognize and own the privilege we have, and use that privilege to help us all move forward. It is a collaborative effort where we must each do our part, search deep within for answers, listen carefully to the quieter voices around us, raise the voices of the silenced, and remain stead fast in our commitment to the young people in our lives.

70 comments

  1. Little Willow on #

    Wow, Neesha.
    Keep raising your voices, everyone, and keep listening.

  2. tricia sullivan on #

    Neesha, thank you for an awesome post. This should be reprinted EVERYWHERE!

  3. susan on #

    “People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.”

    Every person of color knows this and every person of color who engaged in these recent discussions has been trying to get white readers to understand this.

    This is why I admire and support our writers. We need your voices. You tell our stories.

    Thank you.

  4. Penelope Lolohea on #

    THANK YOU Neesha, for putting this into words in such a strong, thought provoking, and truthful way. I especially love the analogy of the child who stole another child’s school lunch. Very smart.

    Fantastic reading!

  5. judy b. on #

    Thank you for this. I especially appreciate your clear, compelling explanation of the fallacy of reverse discrimination.

  6. Lisa Kenney on #

    This is one of the best essays on this topic I’ve read and your metaphors are very helpful. I make a pretty significant effort to read books, articles and blog posts about race in order to better understand the issues and despite that, I have made my missteps over the years. I have no doubt that I’ve unintentionally said and done things that were insensitive or hurtful.

    Now, with race at the forefront of so much discussion, it’s clear to me that conflict and anxiety are running high. When Eric Holder made what turned into such a controversial comment when he took over as Attorney General, I was disappointed that more conversation was not generated because he was absolutely right. We have always been cowardly when it comes to dealing with race. It is difficult to discuss and most people socialize very closely to what they know, although I have seen incredible change for the better in my lifetime.

    I could say that when I hear a white person with a different background from mine say something from left field that just because I’m white and they are white doesn’t mean that we have anything in common beyond that and that would be mostly true. But it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I have no idea where they’re coming from. Having been in the military for many years, I lived and worked around people of all races, religious beliefs and political persuasions from all parts of the country. Like it or not, I’ve heard things said that people will only say when among their own race.

    What I hear on television and read on blogs from white people who come off as racist (and many of them no doubt are) makes me believe that many of these people probably aren’t necessarily bad people, they’re just ignorant and they don’t realize that they are. There are so many people in this country who come from largely white communities and the history and the issues you’ve described so eloquently in your post illustrate points of view and simple facts that they have never had taught or explained to them.

    It’s complicated and it takes time and it takes effort to try to understand it. I don’t know how this kind of dialog can be furthered, but every time someone writes a piece like this it helps. I’d love to see more pieces like this in the op-ed sections of newspapers and in magazines.

  7. Jacqui on #

    Terrific post. Really gets to the crux of the problem. I really liked your analogies of the stolen lunch and of, as an above poster said, the fallacy of reverse discrimination. Thank you for writing this.

  8. Doret on #

    Thoughtful, Beautiful and Powerful. Thank you

  9. Karen on #

    wow Thank you so much!!!

  10. Keli on #

    I’m sure I’ll get tons of comments blasting me for saying this but thats a bit offensive.
    I’m white and I definitly don’t live in the rich part of town. I don’t have private security protecting me. I am not racist and neither are my friends. I know that there is racism but reading that I felt a bit attacked for simply being white, which isn’t that what racism is? Being attacked for being a different skin color?
    White heterosexual males may dominate the business world and politically but that is no reason to assume they are all bad, and by reading this that is what it comes off as.
    I agree with the messege of standing up for yourself and helping others out that are being held back because of race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc but come on. There is no reason to call a whole demographic bad.
    My dad is a white heterosexual male and he’s worked his but off for what he has. The same with my grandpa who was a bricklayer, and his grampa who trained horses for the army. My boyfriend hasn’t had anything handed to him, nor has his dad who worked at a furniture company, delivering the furniture, then a newspaper company, later as an airplane machanic before being laid off and now works on the railroad and on oil pumps.

    So yes, I am offended that just because I am white I fit into the demographic you were complaining about. And just because my dad and my grandpa are white heterosexual males they fit into the demographic you were saying is so bad. I also know a wealthy white heterosexual male. He isn’t all that bad either.

  11. Rhonda Stapleton on #

    WOW. Neesha, this post is thought-provoking and very well written. I love your take on the situation–thank you so much for sharing it with us!

  12. Zetta Elliott on #

    Go, Neesha! And thanks to Justine for opening up this space for honest dialogue and debate. I really hope folks read all the way to the end, and understand the difference between personal acts of racism/resistance, and institutional forms of racism/reform. So many people truly believed that electing an African American president would transform the country…they can’t see how the election–while historic–didn’t actually TRANSFORM any institution, and those institutions (the courts, schools, military, banks, etc) have in their foundations the deeply embedded values and biases of the dominant group. If you want a primer on white privilege, do check out Peggy McIntosh’s article; she begins with her frustration as a white feminist dealing with white men who won’t acknowledge their unfair advantage. But then she shifts to whites as a group, and the many “unearned assets” they’re given simply for being white. You can find it here:

    http://academic.udayton.edu/williamrichards/Ethics%20essays/McIntosh,%20White%20Privilege.htm

    Tim Wise’s website (http://www.timwise.org/) is also a great place to find other resources on white privilege. People of color had to work amongst themselves to decolonize their minds; whites, I think, need to do the same…

  13. Shveta on #

    Beautifully put as always, Neesha.

  14. Ted Lemon on #

    It’s a bit frustrating to read this article, because while much of what you said is indisputably true, as a white male, I find myself lumped in with a class of people with whom I have nothing in common other than my sex and the color of my skin: privileged white males.

    Bear with me for a minute here. I know that my situation is vastly different than yours. I can “pass” as a privileged white male simply by speaking a certain way and wearing certain clothes. A person of color cannot. When I appear before a white judge, or the equivalent, they will have a sympathy for me because of our similarity in appearance that they will not have for a person of color.

    So I do not deny that I am better off, in that sense, for the color of my skin. But I do not possess the privilege that you speak of. I do not get special tax breaks, or special law enforcement. I do not live in a mansion in a community with a private police force. Nor would I want to – I live in Tucson at the moment, in a “bad neighborhood,” and I frequently feel impoverished by the lack of diversity there.

    So when you speak of what each person must do to correct the situation, and you leave people like me out of the equation, I think you are creating a hopeless situation. Because people like me, while we do not share all your troubles, are nevertheless capable of being very sympathetic to your situation. But when we are called the enemy, it’s that much harder for us to act on that sympathy.

    If we are strongly principled, we will ignore the epithet and work on what needs to be done. But frankly, most of us are not. So while we have a great deal in common, to the extent that you deliberately exclude us, that is the extent to which we will fail to find common cause together.

    I don’t mean to say that any of this is your fault. Most people, regardless of the color of their skin, tend not to be very introspective about this. We have a natural tendency to cluster with people we feel are like us, and treat those we feel are not like us as, if not enemies, at least not friends.

    But it’s this tendency that those of us who, regardless of the color of our skin, are not privileged white males, need to overcome if we are ever to stop being the colonized.

  15. Carleen on #

    I’m grateful Doret sent me the link to this. Well said.

  16. Karen Strong on #

    Neesha: Thanks for so eloquently stating the issues that people of color face. Great essay.

  17. Paula Chase on #

    *applauds* Well-stated!

  18. Lisa Amowitz on #

    Powerful stuff, Neesha. And of course, I know of where you speak and have often mused and written about the strange boundary-land in which we live.

  19. Aj on #

    I disagree with a few things in this essay, very much disagree. But there are also feeling that are in my heart that are very much spoken out. I’m quite interested in if you have anything more to say and will definitely be checking out your blog. :)

  20. Delux on #

    Excellent post.

  21. Savannah J. Frierson on #

    All of this is so very accurate and thank you very much for saying so. One of the things I keep in mind as an author of color, especially one who primarily writes about black women in contemporary Southern United States, that balance of what we see all around us and having the guts to draw from inward experiences and putting it out there to see. Making the invisible visible. I appreciate this blog very much.

  22. unusualmusic on #

    cosign to everything. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  23. MissAttitude on #

    This post was excellent! Thank you Neesha for writing this. It’s so true. I loved your book :)

  24. glass_icarus on #

    Thanks for this post.

  25. Chris on #

    Neesha: This is a great article. If you’re interested in spreading the message elsewhere, I would be happy to reprint this (or something like it) at M-BRANE SF. We are putting together a “shared world” project with an alternate history premise that will, by definition, mean that writers (regardless of ethnicity) will need to write non-white characters. Also we are soon putting out a LGBTQ anthology, so there is general interest among my readers in the subject matter of this post. I enjoyed reading it.

  26. olugbemisola on #

    Thank you, Neesha. I don’t need to add anything else!

  27. Edi on #

    Working for children is important, but giving voice to those who are disenfranchised continues to be a necessity. It makes me sad to think of the children who need these stories that may never read them and I don’t just mean children of color. ALL children need to read books that expand their experience of the world around them, and that give them hope.

  28. susan on #

    Keli and Ted,

    Please explain where Neesha says all white people are evil or bad? It’s amazing that there is always at least one white person to argue that when we are discussing racism we’re attacking all white people. And we’re certainly not picking on Keli and Ted. I know all black people aren’t criminals. I would assume you know all white people aren’t racists. And we, people of color, don’t think all white people are racists either. This is the problem of reducing issues of race to simplistic arguments of us vs. them.

    And Ted, honestly just because you as an individual may not have experienced white privilege does negate the reality of white privilege. Think of it a little like being the black guy who’s eventually going to get pulled over just because he is black.

    We’re discussing cultural/societal issues here, not attacking individuals. At some point Keli and Ted, we need individuals like you to stop assuming that the discourse is an attacked aimed at you. Everything doesn’t revolve around you. We’re talking norms, collective and historical behaviors and policies. We’re not talking about Keli doesn’t like black people.

  29. Zetta Elliott on #

    To those who feel slighted or unfairly “lumped in” with other whites, don’t blame Neesha—blame white supremacy, an ideology that has basically sold white Americans a bill of goods. Yes, there are differences amongst whites: class, gender, sexual orientation, age, region, ethnicity, etc. But white supremacy insists upon solidarity based on race—an “us against them” kind of mentality, which many whites have bought into. Throughout history, whites in this country have had opportunities to differentiate themselves by *rejecting* that way of thinking and standing *with* those whose values they truly share. The abolition of slavery wouldn’t have happened without the involvement of white people, nor the civil rights movement, nor the election of President Obama. But individual acts of resistance by whites—”I don’t stand with the rich, white, heterosexual oppressors”—doesn’t mean *institutional racism* has vanished, and it doesn’t mean that those institutions don’t continue to create inequity for people of color AND to serve you in perhaps invisible ways. Do read that McIntosh essay b/c she admits at the end that all whites don’t experience privilege in the same way. But ultimately, if you feel oppressed by the system as it stands, do something to CHANGE IT. We will ALL benefit from that.

  30. Rachel on #

    “People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other”
    This definitely would apply to minority religions!

    Thanks so much for this essay. I loved the metaphor of the parent-child relationship, it made things really clear.

    I want to say that these past blogs on race have really made me think about myself as a white person. I pride myself on not being prejudiced, but in fact there’s a difference between not shouting racial slurs and not being prejudiced. I certainly realize that racism is wrong, and I don’t think I’ve ever done anything overtly racist, but I do tend to assume that a white female is more likely to be “like me” then someone else, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Realizing I do this is a bit of a surprise, but I guess the best way to not think like that is to realize that I am doing it.

    Thank you for making me think!

  31. Allison on #

    Just want to point out something here… Just because A majority of the ‘priveledged’ population is white doesn’t mean there aren’t Black priveledged people. I mean come on our president at the moment is African American, that right there says something. My father is a black doctor and my mother is a white teacher. We are privledged because my father gets paid very well. Not my mother, the white person in our family. The reason a majority of our privledged class is white is mostly and probably because a majority of our country is white. Now yeah there are many racist white people out there that need to cut their s*** and quit fighting the Civil War, which ended over a hundred years ago. But isn’t it unfair that we, as African Americans can mark that ‘what ethnicity are you’ box and be looked at as different and special just because of that? If we were talking about fairness here that box wouldn’t be on college applications, tax forms, doctors bills, etc. If I didn’t have my heritage I wouldn’t have financial aid to help get to college.

    Just remember there’s always two sides to the argument. Some people use being black to their advantage in a way white people cannot. I support many things in your post, I do, and I support your goal, but both sides need to be presented in your biased essay.

  32. susan on #

    Allison, when the advantage of being black outweighs being white, let me know.

    I think the Gates incident proves that regardless of privilege black is always black.

    And I’m still waiting for someone to explain what in Neesha’s essays says she thinks all white people are evil or racists? ((sigh))

  33. Janni on #

    I didn’t think anyone was being dubbed good or bad for being white … but I did think some valid points were being made about how the roles of whites and of people of color have to play in fixing the problems that exist — in undoing the bad things that have been done on account of race — are different, because we’re coming at this from different places and different experiences. And that makes a lot of sense to me.

  34. susan on #

    Let ask it another way, when we discuss race, are people of color required to preface their comments with “I have white friends. I do not hate all white people. I am discussing the issue of racism and not labeling all white people racists”?

    Bigotry, prejudice and intolerance isn’t limited to any group. By definition, racism is the idea of racial superiority AND the power to act on that belief.

    Black folks can hate or think poorly of whites. But as GROUP we do not have the power to say for example, lynch you and get away with it. We talking about an inequity of power here.

    This discussion has never been about beating up on white folks.

  35. susan on #

    Thank you, Janni.

  36. Julie Polk on #

    For Ted, who said: “When I appear before a white judge, or the equivalent, they will have a sympathy for me because of our similarity in appearance that they will not have for a person of color.

    So I do not deny that I am better off, in that sense, for the color of my skin. But I do not possess the privilege that you speak of. I do not get special tax breaks, or special law enforcement.”

    Ted (and Keli too) your lack of privilege is exactly the point. Sticking with the example of law enforcement, since you brought it up, here are a few links with incarceration stats of whites vs. blacks and latinos, which I picked up in about 15 minutes worth of Googling–I’m sure you could find many, many more:

    http://www.diversityinc.com/public/3148.cfm
    http://www.urbanhabitat.org/node/2808
    http://www.prisonsucks.com/

    In 2006, black males in the US were incarcerated at a rate of 4,789 per 100,000. In South Africa in 1993 — that is, South Africa UNDER APARTHEID — black males were incarcerated at a rate of 851 per 100,000.

    The numbers sway a bit from year to year, but even when they do so appreciably (the recent meth craze hit white people a lot harder than people of color, for instance), there’s still a disproportionate number of non-whites in prison. Filter for men between the ages of 24 – 29 and it’s just stark.

    Neesha discusses privilege in terms of literal wealth, but she also discusses the power imbalance between a parent and child, the effects of racial slurs, the effects of a generally monolithic justice system in this (and other) countries. The point is exactly NOT that you are specially privileged because you are white. The point is that because you are white, the playing field you on which you stand is far more likely to be level than if you were not. The shame of racism is that it turns something as fundamental as a level playing field into something that could be mistaken for a privilege instead of a right.

  37. Isabela on #

    First off, Neesha, thank you for writing this essay. Wow. I feel inspired. Everyone needs to read this.

    “People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.”

    As a young adult of mixed race growing up in the environment I live in, I have always thought of the “norm” as white. Subconsciously, this is what I learned. In the predominantly white area I live in, I don’t even think of think of myself as different… that is, until some ignorant person ignores me, insults me, or treats me differently – either good or bad – based solely on the way I look. I act how I act because that’s who I am. Who I am is not dependent solely on my skin color or my background or my gender.

    I’ve been asked before why I don’t act “black” or “latina” or “Brazilian” – whatever that’s supposed to mean. That’s the kind of ignorance some people are capable of. I’m not being racist, but I have to admit, I’ve never gotten that question from a person of color. NEVER. There are white people who aren’t racist, but that doesn’t mean they understand what it is to be a minority, however much they sympathize with them.

    I don’t see the bias some people are saying exists in Neesha’s essay. I really don’t. White heterosexual males may not all be part of the problem, but what I think part of the point was that they are the ones that are least to be discrimanated against based on their race, sexual orientation, or gender because, historically, they’re the ones who’ve held all the power over other people.

  38. Aj on #

    Julie Polk,

    ” In 2006, black males in the US were incarcerated at a rate of 4,789 per 100,000. In South Africa in 1993 — that is, South Africa UNDER APARTHEID — black males were incarcerated at a rate of 851 per 100,000. ”

    Percentage of Black Americans: 13.4%
    Percentage of Black South Africans: 79%

    Percentage of White Americans: 74%
    Percentage of White South Africans: 11%

    Your ‘research’ is poorly founded. Of course there will be less Black South African people arrested in South Africa, because in South Africa white people would be the minority. South Africa is predominately black, which is a piece of information I picked up in about 15 minutes of googling.

    I get your point, understand and agree to an extenet but your research is, in my opinion, invalid.

  39. John Scalzi on #

    Aj: “Your ‘research’ is poorly founded.”

    Alternately, your understanding of statistics and how to use them is poorly founded. Your “of course” statement here shows that you don’t appear to grasp how the stats quoted correct for the disparity in racial demographics in each country. Also, it’s “fewer,” not “less.”

    While the irony of criticizing someone for poor research via a poor grasp of statistics is pronounced, it does little to actually advance the conversation here.

  40. theprisonerswife on #

    Great essay. I’m glad that these sorts of conversations are finally being had in the open. I agree with much that has been said. For those that felt this essay blamed whites, it doesn’t, it just talks about the advantages of white privilege, which effects us all–both black & white.

    I’m glad these conversations are continuing. If this Gates controversy & the Birthers have taught us nothing else, it’s confirmed that we’re not beyond race.

    (and Susan, I see you serving it up girl!)

  41. scott on #

    John, I fear that AJ’s confusion is far greater than you think. He isn’t making a statistical argument at all. Note this sentence:

    Of course there will be less Black South African people arrested in South Africa, because in South Africa white people would be the minority.

    You see? He thinks that fewer blacks were arrested in S Africa under apartheid because white people were “the minority.” In other words, he seems to think that, as a majority, blacks could not be oppressed under apartheid and thus would not be arrested in high percentages. See what fifteen minutes of “research” can teach you?

    PS, AJ, don’t capitalize “Black” if you’re not going to capitalize “white.” I leave the reasons why as an exercise for the reader.

  42. Lisa Kenney on #

    I hope this discussion continues and I want to address the comments from Keli and Ted because I think they reflect the way a lot of people feel and I am really glad they were both honest. I do not come from a financially privileged background by any means and so I think one of the hardest things to grasp about the concept of white privilege is that it isn’t about money and most of the time, we’re not even aware that we have it.

    Keli, your example of your hardworking father and grandfather is a good one. I am sure they did work very hard and you should be proud of their accomplishments. But if your father had been another race, I wonder if he would have been able to follow the same path in the same place at the same job. I’m pretty willing to bet that if your grandfather had been another race, there is a pretty good chance he could not have.

    For people younger than a certain age, opportunities have opened up so much that it’s difficult for anyone under 30 to understand what the issue is or that there still even is an issue. For those of us who are older and who witnessed a completely different culture, (which in my case includes race riots during the supreme court mandated busing in the early 70′s) it’s different. What you have to remember is that people in their 40′s and older and their parents and grandparents lived in a much different world and experienced race in a completely different way.

    Even if you take encounters with law enforcement and the court systems completely out of the equation, there are situations that occur all day every day where white privilege comes into play and nobody involved even realizes it. You have to really start paying attention to see it. Hang around a store return counter or a customer service area or a busy emergency room — you get the idea — and pay close attention to how people are treated and see if you notice any differences related to ethnicity. Hopefully, you don’t, but I’m guessing that sooner or later you will notice things. Think about everyone you’ve ever known and think about how many times you’ve been aware of the racism of other people, or maybe even your friends or people in your own family.

    I’ve been given a chance and have been hired for jobs that I wasn’t necessarily ideal for and I am grateful to have been given the chances I have, but I am also sure that in some of those cases, I wouldn’t have been given the benefit of the doubt if my skin had been a different color.

    I think an important step we all need to take is to simply run through the mental exercise of asking ourselves if there are things in our lives that might have turned out differently if we’d been another race.

    I don’t think this post was intended as an accusation toward white people in general at all, but I can understand white defensiveness. When I step out of my experiences and read it from the writer’s point of view, I’m pretty sure I kind of get it.

    Nowhere in this post or comments do I see this, but of course there are people of color who are much more aggressive and angry about the unfair balance of power and to them, I’d just hope they would do the same and not react to me as if I’m part of the problem, but give me that benefit of the doubt one more time. I’d hope that perhaps people of color will reach for a little more patience and recognize that there are still a lot of people who are feeling defensive because they don’t understand.

    It’s still going to be a while, but we’ll get there.

  43. softestbullet on #

    This is an amazing post. Thank you.

  44. Ted Lemon on #

    It’s a bit frustrating to read the reactions to what I said, because it really underscores the difficulty of even having conversations about race. I do not feel that what Ms. Meminger said was wrong, and I don’t feel wrongly accused. I think that the situation Ms. Meminger describes is real, and serious.

    What I disagree on is what to do about it. I don’t even disagree with what Ms. Meminger says to do about it on an emotional level. But what she’s proposing fails to address the underlying problem.

    The underlying problem is that there are people in the world who have power, and they tend to be selfish. Sometimes in huge ways, sometimes in small ways, but the bottom line is that because power is so tightly concentrated, and because the people who hold it are not altruistic (any more than those of us who do not hold power are altruistic), things tend to go poorly for those who do not have power.

    The ways in which they go poorly differ. For me, things are pretty comfortable. For a lot of people of color, things are also pretty comfortable. But for a lot of white men and women, and for a lot of men and women of color, things are anywhere from not very good to genuinely bad, or at least sporadically bad (e.g. an African-American man who is fairly successful, but still gets pulled over and harassed from time to time for driving while black).

    So the point is that while there are things that are different for “white” people who do not possess power than for people of color who do not possess power, our situations are more similar than they are different.

    But it is very convenient for people with power that we who do not have power consider ourselves to be separate groups. Even though we sometimes cooperate, because we feel our separateness so strongly, it is easy to pit us against each other, and we are remarkably ineffective at making the world a better place.

  45. Keli on #

    Lisa,

    Thanks for understanding.

    Susan,

    I believe I said “I know that there is racism but reading that I felt a bit attacked for simply being white”,

    “So yes, I am offended that just because I am white I fit into the demographic you were complaining about.”*

    I never said Neesha called every white person evil. I said she is talking about a demographic. A demographic that has privilidge. I fit into this demographic by my skin color, only by the color of my skin so I feel a bit offended. I may be looked at differently because I am white so I may be given the benifit of the doubt by some people. I do know people that would never give a black person the benifit of the doubt and I think that is horrible. I am in no way denying that black people have had a hard past or that there are still people that would like to make thier lives hard.

    Segregation wasn’t ended until 1964 (in America) so it makes sense to me that black people wouldn’t be the majority or have a 1:1 ratio in business or politically, it takes time for people to change and accept something they thought was wrong for many many years. I’m not saying its right but I am saying it takes time. People that are 40 and above remember a different culture but eventually, with time, only people that grew up in a culture of acceptance will be around and will know acceptance as normal and hopefully there won’t be one demographic in charge.

    For example, in one lifetime a person could have seen the civil rights act of 1964 end segregation and see a black man become president. In a few more generations hopefully acceptance is the norm.
    There will always be people that don’t like other people for a logical reason, thats too bad, its their loss and hopefully no one suffers because of them.

    *I hope no one took complaining to mean whining.

  46. Keli on #

    *no logical reason, typo sorry

  47. Shveta on #

    Keli,

    The thing is, they’re discussing white in the sense of an ideology. I understand feeling attacked, but I promise that isn’t the intention here.

    The way our society is structured, for better or worse, we hold “white” as the universal experience. “White” in quotation marks, because again, I’m talking about an unconscious ideology, not any person in particular. Look around you, and you’ll see white people looking back–on TV, in magazines, on book covers (as we just went through with Liar), as there is an unconscious idea that white is normal, and everything else is Other. Alien, strange, weird, unknowable. And we’re having this discussion to try to bring that to light, so people recognize and work against it.

    I don’t think you’re racist. I think we all have internalized racist ideas, which the structure of our society reinforces. That’s something different, and once we become conscious of those ideas, we can do something about them.

  48. angharad on #

    Justine,

    Thanks for making this a conversation possible. Especially for making it possible in a YA safe space.

  49. susan on #

    Keli,

    I never misunderstood you though I may have not been as articulate as others like Shveta. And at 44, I have heard whites respond like you so much that hearing it again is frustrating and makes a lot of people like me scratch my head and wonder if we’re getting anywhere in this dialogue about race.

    As a black person, I learned a long time ago not to get angry or offended simply because someone mentions race. Maude, if I did, I’d be that ‘angry black woman’ and life is too short. That kind of offense doesn’t serve me or you.

    You acknowledge the dilemma we face as people of color but in the same breath you are defensive. Just once I’d like to participate in this kind of discussion and not have to reassure you, that you the individual are not under attack. (But, my friend, Lisa, reminds me to be patient)

    Let us focus on what others have made clear. We’re talking ideology, mindset, institution.

    And may I point out an illustration of how white is seen as the norm and everything else is Other: Book blogs. How many blogs except the POC blogs prominently feature people of color? I have met people of color who don’t read poc writers. Some will say its because of the genre they read. I have seen people of color bloggers who do not promote books featuring people of color. I have never met a white reader who avoids white writers. And whenever I ask readers who do not read poc books regardless of race, would they read poc writers, the common responses are, “I like x genre. When I can find time, I’ll look for poc writers, as if poc writers don’t write x genre or “I don’t want to offend others so I don’t feature poc books on my site,” this one stings. But I’m going to leave that alone for now and lastly, “I don’t know any poc writers.” This one brings to mind Baldwin’s quote: I’ve been here 350 years and you still don’t know me.” Why am I invisible to you?

    Keli, I’m not interested in blasting you. I want to engage you. I want you to be one less offended white person. I want inclusion not alienation.

  50. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    It is the equivalent of a parent yelling “I HATE YOU” to a child. Big difference in the impact that has over a child hurling the same statement at their parent.

    That is one of the BEST analogies I have heard yet in the differing effects slurs make, spoken from different lips. Thanks for the whole post, and I may steal your analogy in the future!

  51. susan on #

    “So the point is that while there are things that are different for “white” people who do not possess power than for people of color who do not possess power, our situations are more similar than they are different.”

    Ted, your point is not lost on me nor on many participants in the discussion. *But* are you hearing us, do you believe us (all of us) when we say we do not look at you the individual and resent you?

    Maybe, I was a bit snarky earlier suggesting the qualifier, but I resent having to qualify that I have white friends or racially mixed family or my lover is a different race or say I’m a black Quaker who attends Meeting with a majority white congregation.

    Can we agree that we are not attacking the individual?

  52. Kirsten on #

    Julie Polk writes about the relative incarceration rate of blacks vs. whites in the U.S. Unfortunately, for easy theories about the institutional racism of the U.S. justice system, and U.S. police officers in particular; those numbers are a function of black crime rates: 52% of the murder arrests; 39% of all violent crime arrests. (Bureau of Justice Stats; 2006; I am rounding down.) As it turns out these arrest rates track to the race of the assailants victims identify as their attackers.
    As it turns out, the crime rates track, not race, but family stability and acceptance of so-called “white” values: delayed gratification, delayed child-birth, commitment to education. In that vein, I cannot recommend strongly enough Mr. Dalrymple’s essays from his time as a prison doctor Life at the Bottom, if only because the pathologies that he describes are eerily similar to the woes of the entrenched inner-city poor here in the U.S. But in England, in the prisons where he served, those living la vida loca “at the bottom” are majority white.
    I mention this because Ms. Polk is unwittingly passing on a pernicious urban legend. The number of young black men we lose every year to incarceration is a crying shame. To identify a false cause, however righteous it might make you feel, is to lock another generation (or more!) into that same hell.
    I remain eternally grateful that I never had to lock my feelings, choices, or values into little boxes called “German” or “French,”” Polish,” “Slav,”” Irish,” “Italian,” or what-have-you. Thanks to the successful part of the American experiment, I’m just a generic “white person,” free to be whoever I want. I am so sorry that so many of my fellow Americans got locked out. It’s so wrong and unfair! So, although I support your ends: an equitable, kind, and free society for all our citizens, I remain unconvinced tribalism will take us there. All history seems to point to an unhappier, if not downright bloody end for all those who take it. At the very least it seems to be just another box to lock people into.

  53. susan on #

    Kirsten,

    Am I hearing you correctly: if we were generic we’d be just fine? Are you arguing that to embrace and celebrate cultural/ethnic differences is the problem and not racism?

    If you are, I strongly disagree. I am not emotionally, psychologically or intellectually limited by my race, culture or gender. I am enriched by all the these facets.

    We do not have to be same to respect and embrace one another, we must stop using difference as an excuse to reject one another.

  54. Amber on #

    “We do not have to be same to respect and embrace one another, we must stop using difference as an excuse to reject one another.”

    Susan, mind if I borrow this quote in the future? It’s one of the best ones I’ve heard in a long, long time.

  55. Tracie on #

    Susan,

    My sister, AJ had some very hostile reactions to your comments…(She’s quite the hothead, I apologize.) Or now that I look at it some others comments but I want you opinion, and like I say later on, In no way do I mean this in any way hateful, rude or hostile. I’m just looking for genuine opinion.

    It’s not that us white peopel feel you’re attacking us personally, it’s that we feel your list of qalitites are much too broad. ‘White heterosexual male’ sums up to a LOT of people. Some of which are bad and others are not. Each one though will have their own story, excuse or whatever you want to call it to actthe way they do. I don;t know if I’m explaining that right or not.

    On another note, what we all want is to be able to overlook color correct? Or Sexuality, or Religion, etc. If we’re doing that then we need to think of people not as Blcak or White. The reason most of the U.S. is predominately male, predominately white, and predominately heterosexual, is because the demographics of the U.S. make it that way.

    I’m not sure if this’ll make sense, (I’m horrid with words) but for things to be considered fair in terms of population and what not than about fifteen percent of the leading businessmen or women should be black. About seventy percent would be white, (haven’t checked the actual percentages btw) I figure about five or ten percent would be hispanic and then that five percent for the random other ethnicities.

    Does that make sense? I’m trying to make it make sense… in my mind it does… I’m not sure how about on paper… tell me if I need to try to rephrase something…

    but together that would make up the hundred percent ‘melting pot’ that is America. Now at times there might be more than seventy percent whites in control and at times there might be more than fifteen percent black. But it makes sense that way, at least in a world thats fair.

    To me, and (I’m *really* not using a rude tone here, I’m sixteen and trying to understand) correct me if I’m wrong, it seems that the black people want to have an equal number of members in stuff and business men, same as the whites, Cut it fifty fifty. But then the hispanic people would feel inferior, the native american people would feel inferior and so on for each ethnicity. But Fifty fifty can’t be split by all the countries right? Fifty fifty is only split by two. No when the percentage of Black Americans and Whtie Americans evens out then yeah I agree, there’s something fishy about a predominately white board of colleagues.

    And yes I’ll admit it’s sad that parties of people the same color will band together and, because they have the advantage of percentage, say majority rules. That does suck, a lot.

    But would it not be the same if, (bear with me here like I said dunno if I can explaint this right) Fifty percent of the fifteen percent of black people have control? Then because you guys are a much smaller group, that has such a strong influence be a bit unfair? I know it sounds ridiculous but its got a bit of truth to it doesnt it?

    Something like… welll…t he only anaolgy I can think of is like something out of the movie It’s A Bug’s Life. (Kid’s movie… google it) But basically the grasshopers are ganging up on the ants in this tree right? And the ants finally realize, hey we outnumber these guys lets unseat them. Something like that would happen eventually. Right?

    I like this essay, though I disagree with a couple of paragraphs. It’s really good writing.

    Isn’t want we want though, to live in a world where color is completely overlooked? Where it wouldn’t matter if the roomful of congress was mostly black people, or mostly white people?

    Please help me to get whats going on in your minds. Are we thinking the same things or completely different things. Yeah I know the world ain’t fair and thats one very important variable to add in the equation.
    But I genuinely want to understand this without trading hateful words as others have.

    - Tracie

  56. Karrin on #

    This post is amazing. Thank you so much for writing it.

  57. Scott on #

    Tracie said: “Correct me if I’m wrong, it seems that the black people want to have an equal number of members in stuff and business men, same as the whites, Cut it fifty fifty.”

    I think this is where you’re confused. “Equal representation” means equal in proportion to population. Take the US Senate, which has 100 members. So in a fair world, wouldn’t there be 15 black senators? But at the moment, there’s only ONE black senator, and there has never been more than two in my lifetime.

    Not that anyone’s saying we should pass a law that there HAS to be 15 black senators, only that the extreme difference between 15% and 1% representation has causes and effects that can and should be addressed. Those are the causes and effects we’re talking about here.

    By the way, the US is not “majority male,” it’s majority female. And how many female senators are there? Seventeen out of a hundred instead of fifty. Don’t you wonder if this has effects on our laws concerning health care, child care, and violent crime?

    But it’s interesting that you think that our country is majority male. Maybe you got that idea from the way that movies, the news etc. represents our culture.

  58. susan on #

    Hi Tracie,

    Thanks for writing. I know the frustration of getting the words to match what you think and feel. I also think I hear what you’re saying. Let me clarify a couple of things:

    No, I do not want numbers/percentages per se. The issue is more complicated than a math formula. What I want is opportunity and access. I want race/gender/sexual orientation *not* used as a barrier.

    When I meet someone like you, I see a young white teenage girl. I don’t assign judgment to who you are but I do see all of who you are and who you are is fine with me. I don’t draw any conclusions about someone until we’ve actually had an interaction. Does that make sense?

    When you meet me, I want you to a see a short, black woman with locs and glasses and old enough to be your mother. I’m really okay with being short, black, wearing locs and glasses and being old. :-)

  59. susan on #

    Tracie,

    Back to the representation thing. I believe we need as many different people in places of power and influences because we bring different perspective to the discussion and therefore the outcomes.

    Difference allows for more ideas and more ideas leads to more options and solutions.

    Let’s talk books again.This is going to be overly simplistic so bear with me. Imagine a group of editors discussing what to publish next. Everyone in the room is female, white, mid 20-30s. They’re all educated. They’re all readers. All of them have only read other educated, white, female writers. Collectively they’re favorite genres are chick lit and books published in the last 20 years.

    They get in a stack of manuscripts. Books by men, books by people of color, themes include sci-fi, horror and true crime.

    The editors look at the works. They agree the writing is competent, but none of the editors have a real point of reference to compare the works. These aren’t anything they read, these are books they normally don’t check out in the bookstore. They don’t have any marketing numbers to suggest how well these books would sell.

    And whether one says it or not, somebody is thinking, “Where’s the chick lit?”

    Now imagine if the group of editors had males, people of color, readers who read sci-fi, horror and true crime. That person can share a different perspective.

    We’re not going to debate if that editor could influence the group but being there and saying something brings something that wasn’t there before- a different experience.

    Difference matters.

    Want a literary example of the danger of sameness? Read The Giver by Lois Lowry.

  60. Joe on #

    NM – great post, and you have some great ways of simplifying some tough issues without over-simplifying them more than is necessary. Nice to see a dialogue like this happening between so many people, and so kudos to you for setting the tone so well.

    For transparency sake, straight white male writing here.

    i just wanted to throw my 2 cents in, mostly in response to the other white folks responding here. i hear and understand everything you seem to be feeling and sharing, and appreciate you being honest about it. i am responding mostly because i have felt and still struggle with a lot of the issues being shared.

    i understand feeling attacked and defensive as a white person around this issue, it is how we are taught to feel about it regardless of what is actually being said about race. as white people, we tend (not all white people, but most of us) to think of ‘racism’ only as individual acts on an individual level. this allows us to continue (as a group/whole) to ignore the systemic white privilege/oppression that still so clearly exists and that as white people we still have a stake and play a part in, whether we do it knowingly or not. (yes things have changed. but we cannot continue to deny there are still serious racial disparities which exist everywhere-housing, employment, education, criminal justice and police brutality, health care, the military, violence etc on a domestic level, and as neesha so skillfully pointed out, on a global level as well)

    i challenge the white folks on this posting to try and take a quick look at what is being shared about race here (and elsewhere) not as something about us white individuals, but in regards to us as white people as a whole. our very whiteness is very often made to be invisible, as then the idea and reality of white privilege can be. Makes it all the easier. you can examples of that posted here as well.

    By talking about white people as a whole or group, i’m not ignoring the diversity of experiences and privileges within white society, but asking us to look at what it really means to be white – the good, bad, and the ugly. whether we asked for it or not. then once acknowledged, to do something about it! plus, if you i as a white person truly feel i am getting NO benefits what-so-ever from white privilege and racism, all the more reason to spaek out against it!!

    i feel like im hijacking a brilliant post by a friend of color and making it all about whiteness, which is part of the whole problem to begin with, sorry! just wanted to throw in on a great discussion.

    so to my fellow white folks here, there are some great resources from both people of color and other white folks to help navigate some of these discussions. Tim wise is a great place to start. he has posts on everything from reverse racism to what obama as president means and perhaps doesnt mean. tim speaks his heart pretty openly and strongly, so get ready for some more defensiveness, but muscle through it. there are plenty of others as well besides tim wise. i am happy to share them if anyone is interested.

    i do work around gender based violence, and while of course racism and sexism are different issues (which always overlap), i talk with guys about how it is not enough to be the ‘good guy’ – ie “i would never hit or rape a women, so men’s violence against women isnt my issue, it has nothing to do with me’. but that is exactly the thinking that keeps sexism, racism, homophobia etc and the violence based on those issues alive and well. because while it might be a minority of men (or white people) that are INTENTIONALLY acting in racist/sexist/violent ways, it is those of us ‘good/not racist’ white folks who dont speak out against it or the benefits we all to some extent receive from it that keep the system thriving and hurting so many people.

    if we see our white brothers and sisters, if we see white society acting in racist ways, it is our responsibility to challenge it if for no other reason then we are benefiting from that oppression whether we want to or not, and a great many people are continuing to suffer from it! we have the ability and responsibility to speak up and speak out.

    so keep struggling, and keep listening (another thing white people usually arent taught to do well or often enough – i know i dont!!) we like to talk more – just look at the length of my post!

    thanks again neesh and sorry so long!

  61. Neesha Meminger on #

    Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to comment. Rather than take up more space on my gracious host’s blog, I have put up a rather lengthy post of some of my thoughts on my own blog (which is linked to my name above) after reading through some of your responses.

    But, here, I will bring the focus back to my original post and say this:

    As artists and creators (I am including the creativity of teachers, librarians, bloggers, and others who make daily decisions that help to create environments), we have the ability to shape people’s imaginations. Regardless of the genre we write, we are creating worlds for our readers, our listeners, our audience—worlds that function on accepted norms, sanctioned behaviours, and values that are upheld through the systems of those worlds.

    It is within our power to use this ability to create environments that not only more accurately reflect the world our readers live in, but to offer new visions. To create and imagine new possibilities. If young (as well as not-so-young) people are shown a new way of being and a new way of seeing, they will rise to meet it. I am a firm believer in the idea of “if you can see it, you can be it.”

    The hardest part is working against conditioning; unlearning everything we’ve been taught to believe is true. If we begin by first reshaping and re-configuring our creative worlds (i.e. worlds that we create), our physical world is sure to follow.

    I hope that everyone keeps this discussion alive in other areas of their lives, even after leaving Justine’s blog. And I hope you keep checking back as I have no doubt she’s planning more posts along these lines.

  62. susan on #

    For anyone who is interested, the Color Me Brown Challenge has 35 links! Find your next read here. All genres.

  63. Justine on #

    This morning I have had to delete a large number of racist comments from trolls. If you come here looking to stir up hate I will delete you.

  64. Cat Moleski on #

    Thanks, Justine and Neesha for a wonderful blog. Justine, I so admire the way you run your blog. Thank you for creating and maintaining a safe space for people to talk about difficult subjects.

  65. Steph on #

    I loved Shine, Coconut Moon and I thoroughly enjoyed this thought-provoking guest post. I’m linking to this at my blog. Thank you. :-)

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