It is almost impossible to avoid writing work that can be read as racist. If you’re writing about people, you’re writing about identity, and a huge part of identity is race.
We are all seen through the lens of race. We all see through the lens of race.1 Whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you’re a writer you really need to be conscious of it. Because if you don’t think you are writing about race, you can wind up writing things visible to your readers that are not visible to you.
Often that is a not good thing.
When our work is accused of racism we writers tend to curl up into foetal position and get defensive: I AM NOT RACIST. I AM A GOOD PERSON. HOW CAN THEY SAY THAT?
First of all—no matter what the actual wording—it’s our work that’s being called racist, not us. The reviewer does not know us—only what we have written.
Secondly, we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero. No matter how good our intentions. Besides intentions don’t count for much. If it’s not there on the page how is any reader supposed to guess what was in your head? On the other hand, there is no way you can completely bulletproof your work against criticism. Nor should you want to. Criticism will make you a better writer.
Thirdly, it’s not about us. It’s about the reader/reviewer’s life and experiences, about what they bring to the text in order to make meaning. This is how we all read and this is why we all have such different views of the same texts. It’s why I think Moby Dick is the worst, most boring piece of crap I’ve ever endured and why many people, even some whose views I respect,2 think it is a work of genius.
We writers have to accept that despite due diligence, despite how careful we are, readers’ responses to our work are exactly that: their responses. They will not always read our carefully crafted, thoughtful words the way we want them to. Sometimes they will find meanings in our work we did not intend them to find.
What follows is a discussion of how I have dealt with having my last solo novel, Liar, criticised for racism and transphobia. If you have not read Liar there are spoilers, though I have kept them to a minimum. But here’s a cut anyway:
Racism and Liar
It meant a lot to me because throughout my career, in every novel, every story, I have consciously written about identity and race. I spend a lot of time reading and thinking and listening and writing and talking about race and racism.4 Those conversations, that reading, shaped Liar. Here was an award from a wonderful organisation recognising my hard work. And bonus: it was named for a novel by one of my favourite writers, Octavia Butler: Kindred.5
However, even if you are consciously writing about racism, in order to show how bad and wrong it is, your work can be read in ways you did not intend. This is especially likely if you are unfamiliar with the history of the people you are writing about, or the history of representation of that people.
Take a look at the outcry around Victoria Foyt’s Saving the Pearls. From reading the first chapter and looking at the promotional video I feel fairly confident in saying the author knows little about the history of blackface, or racial role reversal stories, or, indeed, of writing about race, racism and identity. Her intentions may well be good but she managed to step into every conceivable offensive stereotype. If you are unfamiliar with those stereotypes deploying them is almost inevitable.
Then again you can be familiar with those histories and debates and still stuff things up.
I was fairly certain when I wrote Liar that I had not stuffed things up. The book was vetted by many smart, knowledgeable writers, black and white, who I trusted to point out said stuff ups. For instance, we had long discussions about whether Micah would use the word “nappy” to describe her hair and if it was okay for me as a white writer to deploy the word. We agreed it was absolutely the word Micah would use.
It’s a word that many black people have come to embrace, which is why there are salons like Oh My Nappy Hair. However, just as many hate the word. It has a long history of being used as a negative, derogatory descriptor of black hair. Just think of what Don Imus said. It is particularly problematic when used by a white person.6 So while Micah is black, I’m not. I kept taking the word out and putting it back in right up to publication.
I’m proud of what I achieved and Liar is a book that has been important to many people. More than any of my other books people—of colour and white—have written to thank me for writing it, thanked me for representing them in ways they had never been represented before. Being thanked like that is extraordinarily heartening. It makes me feel like what I do is worthwhile.
But Liar also hurt people. If I take credit for the people for whom it worked then I also have to take blame for the people it harmed.
They, mostly, do not write to tell me so. I know about it because I have found, or others have pointed me to, blog posts about my book, which talk about Liar‘s racism. These are reviewers who know nothing about me or my politics, who have not read my blog where they would find that I write often about racism, that I think about it. They’ve picked up my book randomly with no context for me—other than my author photo—or the kind of books I write, and found it racist.
But, you know what, that’s how most people read books. Hell, that’s how I read books too. I rarely have any idea about the politics or ethics of the author. Not unless I’ve met them or have been reading them for years and read their blog, essays, interviews. But a brand new book I picked up? Not so much.
Books have to be able to stand on their own. I am a white woman who wrote a book about a black teenage girl who is a liar. There are a whole set of obvious assumptions about the book that stem from that fact. Assumptions that I was conscious of while writing the book and that I worked hard to counteract.
But for some readers I failed.
As we predicted my use of the word “nappy” was criticised. But not nearly as often as I thought it would be. Even so when I see people saying that the word hurt them I wish I hadn’t used it. Even though I still believe that it is absolutely the word that Micah would use.
Sapphires, Jezebels and the Tragic Mulatto
Some people were enraged by the cover image with the word LIAR emblazoned across a black woman. That’s one of the many reasons I did not want a representational cover for the book. In fact, that was the main criticism the book faced. Liar has an unreliable, lying, sexually active, possible-murderer protagonist who is a black woman. Here we go again. Why is it always black women who are liars? Who are violent, angry, and highly sexualised? Why are they always Jezebels or Sapphires?
Those are question I thought about a lot while writing the book. That’s one of the reasons all the main teenage characters are of colour. The murdered boy, Zach, is Hispanic. His best friend, Tayshawn, is African-American. So is Zach’s girlfriend, Sarah.
I also made sure Micah, Liar‘s protagonist, was not highly sexualised. When the book starts she’s (maybe) had sex with one person: Zach. Sex is important to the story, but I was very careful to make Micah no more sexualised than most teenage girls. She thinks about sex. She’s attracted to some people. She’s also way less sexually active than the two main male characters, Zach and Tayshawn. If anyone is slutty in my book it’s Zach, not Micah.7
I ran into the problem that the bar for being considered sexualised is way lower for a woman than for a man. And even lower for a black woman.
There is also the running metaphor about Micah and her family being an animal/beast. Again this has a long horrible history in depictions of black men and women. Which is why I made it something that comes from the white members of Micah’s family and why I made her mixed race. The other members of her family who identify with animals are her white grandparents and cousins and uncles and aunts. Not her black father. There is in particular one white character, not a relative, who also identifies with animals in the same way that Micah does. I wanted to be very clear that this animality is not because Micah is black.
I also wanted to make it clear that part of her understanding of her sexual drive comes from her identification with those animals and how she imagines their sex drive to be. Again it’s not because she’s black.
But despite the fact that I did what I could to address those criticisms there were still those who read Micah as a racist caricature in a direct line of descent from the Jezebels and Sapphires.
There have also been a few readers who were struck by Sarah, the official girlfriend, being lighter-skinned than Micah the unofficial girlfriend. Except Sarah isn’t lighter-skinned than Micah. I worked hard to make it clear that Sarah is darker skinned than Micah for precisely the reasons those readers outline. I absolutely was not going to feed into the noxious notion that the darker your skin the more animal you are; the lighter your skin the more virtuous you are.
But they did not read the book that way despite my efforts.
When I first saw that criticism I was inclined to roll my eyes and complain about their crap reading skills. But is it their fault?
In Liar I was writing against centuries of racist misrepresentations of sexually-active, strong black women. We’ve been taught to read those women as having darker skin than the good girls. To value them less than the light-skinned girls.
To turn that on its head I had to be very, very careful and very, very clear. I went far enough for some readers but not for all. I’m the one who needs to do better. When you’re working on toxic ground created by centuries of racism you have to be very, very careful.
I believe it’s incredibly important to write against these stereotypes. If we give in and make sure that all black women characters are asexual, gentle, and kind we wind up with another set of stereotypes. Plus why can’t women of colour have as wide a range of representations as white men? No one looks at a book about a white man who’s an habitual liar and assumes that it’s a comment on all white men. I’ve never heard anyone complain that, say, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley is an indictment of all white men and clearly means they’re all psychopathic liars.8 White men never have to stand for their entire community.9
Then there’s the myth of the tragic mulatto, the mixed race woman who can pass as white, who is torn between two worlds, who is constantly victimised and has almost no agency, and always dies at the end of the story. She has to give up her black family and identify solely as white, though because she is not white, she can never truly succeed: and that is her tragedy.
This myth is entirely the creation of white writers. We white writers have been unhealthily obsessed with the tragedy of passing for centuries.
Any white person writing a character who passes white, really needs to think long and hard. They need to know everything they can about the myth of the tragic mulatto. They need to immerse themselves in black writing about identity. Funnily enough in novels by black writers where passing is part of the narrative the character who passes does not always have to give up all connections to black communities and family and they don’t always have a tragic end.10 For a fabulous YA example read Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl where the woman passing does so, not because she really wishes she was white, but for practical reasons: she wants to fly. Passing is the only way she can. She does not leave her family behind. Seriously, read Flygirl, it’s wonderful.
I was very determined that Micah not line up with the tragic mulatto. Micah’s father has a black father and a white mother, but he identifies as black largely out of a desire to have as little to do with his crazy white family as possible. Micah’s mother identifies as white though there are hints that she may not be entirely. She is estranged from her family.11
Micah is relatively light-skinned, but unlike the tragic mulatto she cannot and would not pass as white. She identifies as black, not mixed race, or biracial. (This identification, like her father’s, is partly fuelled by her rejection of her extended white family’s illness and animal identification.) She is not torn between the world of whiteness and the world of blackness. She does not long to be white. She is not a passive victim. Spoiler: She does not die at the end of the book.
Yet some have read her that way despite all those lengths I went to in order to prevent that reading. Clearly, I need to go further and write clearer and better.12
It’s Much Harder for Black Writers
I’d like to point out that my black writer friends cop way more criticism for all of this than I do.13 They are constantly being asked why their books can’t be more uplifting. Why do they have to depict the negative aspects of black life? Why can’t the girls they write about be good girls? And the boys dutiful, law-abiding, and church going? Why do these black writers hate their race?
No one has ever asked me why I’ve written white characters who are not perfect: who lie and steal and murder. I’ve never once been asked why I hate my race.
No one reads Moby Dick and wonders why all white men are obsessed with killing whales.14
This is why it’s such a huge problem that there are a million more books about white people than about black and brown people published in the USA and Australia.15 It means every single character of colour bears the weight of representing their entire race. If there were more representations, more variety in those representations, and if there were way more books by people of colour, it would be way less of a big deal.16 This also applies to movies and television and pretty much all art, ever.
If we lived in that world Micah would not be read as standing for all black girl teens. She’d just be Micah.
One set of criticism of Liar that I did not anticipate and therefore did nothing to address was that Liar depicts a trans character who is a liar, mentally unstable, and identifies with animals and that therefore Liar is transphobic. There is a long history of trans characters being depicted as psycho killers. A famous example is Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge.
This reading concludes that Micah is a trans character because early on in the book she pretends to be a boy. She does this because she is mistaken for a boy and thinks why not go with it?17 Within two days she’s found out and she only lasts that long because she stays out of most people’s way. After she’s found to be a girl—again because she’s not good at passing—she claims to be an hermaphrodite.
I intended both lies to be opportunist, plucked-from-the-air lies. As is her next lie that her father is an arms dealer. Micah gets more pleasure from people believing fantastical lies than from relatively easy lies.
She also makes this claim very early on in the novel:
I’m undecided, stuck somewhere in between, same way I am with everything: half black half white; half girl half boy; coasting on half a scholarship.
I’m half of everything.
This is the main passage that gets quoted by people who read Micah as trans.
Here’s what I intended with that passage: I meant it to be read as Micah being self-aggrandising and overly dramatic. Very much part of the m.o. of an habitual liar.
She start with the claim of being “half black half white” then moves to “half girl half boy.” Those are large claims in terms of identity: our race and our gender are two of the fundamentals. But where does she go next? To class? Ethnicity? Sexuality? Religion?
No, to the fact that she doesn’t have a full scholarship. Which is not only not the same kind of claim. It undoes the drama of the previous claims. It’s as if she were to say, “I’m strong! I’m smart! I collect tiny tea cups with lizards painted on them!” One of these is not like the others. It was meant to be wryly funny. I am aware that very few people got that joke. I failed.
A friend, who was a scholarship kid, read Micah’s claim as being very matter of fact. As shorthand for saying she was halfway between the rich kids and the poor kids. Which is a very big claim about identity, specifically about class.
I’m embarrassed I didn’t see either of those alternative readings.
I did not intend to write Micah as someone who feels like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Micah strongly identifies as a girl, just one who is not especially good at fitting the various stereotypes of femininity. And, yes, that is something I took from my own life. When I was a teenager I felt the same way.18 I was also once mistaken for a boy. Micah, like I was, is amused that anyone would think she was a boy. She thinks it’s fun to run with it to see how long she can get away with the trick. She gets away with it longer than I did. I was busted as soon as I said something.
Notice, of course, that I’m talking about what I intended. Readers are not privy to my intentions. They’re not mindreaders. They’re coming to my work with their own life experiences.
As someone who is not trans, and has known very few trans people in my life, and none of them particularly well, it did not cross my mind that anyone would read Micah as trans. My cisgendered privilege made me completely unable to see that reading of my novel until it was pointed out. I could see only what I intended.
Were I to write Liar now I would write that part of it differently. Not because I want to lock in one true reading of the book—that’s not possible or desirable—but because clarity is always worth striving for.
A singular reading is not desirable because art exists only in the interaction between the text—whether that text is a poem, a book, a graphic novel, a song, a sculpture, a painting, a movie, or whatever—and the reader. If everyone responded to our work in exactly the same way we would be living in a blasted cultural hellscape of total boredom.
Those readings of Liar and the anger and hurt expressed has made me find out more about trans politics.
I was familiar with some of the absurd arguments around whether transwomen can be part of feminism or not given that some feminists argued they were not “real” women and thus could not understand patriarchal oppression because once they were patriarchal oppressors. Pro tip: any argument that employs the word “real” to qualify identity is always going to be a rubbish argument, whether they’re trying to define who’s a real woman/man/black/white/Star Trek fan/gamer or whatever. But I knew little beyond that.
Three years ago, when Liar was published, I was unfamiliar with the term “cisgender.” When I was at university the term used was “gender normative” and, from what I can tell, it did not have the range or nuance of “cisgender.” I still feel awkward using it because it’s still a new term for me.
I have been reading and talking about feminist and sexual and racial politics for decades now. I feel confident about writing across that terrain though I am, of course, still stuffing up, still learning. I do not have anywhere near that level of knowledge or comprehension when it comes to trans politics.
I will be reading and listening for a long time to come.
For those of you have not thought much about any of these questions, I hope laying out these examples, showing you my thinking in writing them, and the critiques that have been made, give you a sense of what is at stake and why it matters. Why you should be thinking and reading about identity and politics.
No matter how thoughtful you are about race, gender, sexuality, class etc. etc. there will always be readers who will read your work in exactly the ways you were working hard to avoid. If you write racist characters their actions and words will be read by some as proof of you-the-writer’s racism.
But that’s good. It keeps us writers awake to just how hard our job is, just how much work has to be done to change the world we live in to make those readings impossible.
We cannot use “it’s too hard”, “I’ll be criticised” as an excuse not to write ambitious books, not to write thoughtfully about thorny issues of identity. Doing so is our job. Yes, even when writing comedy. Yes, even when writing a book with only white people in it. White is a race. White has a history. So does white supremacy. There is, in fact, a whole field of study: “whiteness studies” that you should have a look at. Toni Morrison’s collection of essays, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a great place to start.
Please people, I am begging you, stop mentioning that damn essay [Peggy McIntosh’s "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege"]: deferring to white people’s expertise when talking about racism is itself an act of white privilege and white supremacy. Start with Du Bois, and other people of color before you become giddy with the “discovery” of white privilege. Black and brown folks were doing it better, first, and many years before the Invisible Knapsack of Privilege first circulated on these Internets.
On the other hand, it’s also good to know our limits. I will not be writing a trans character any time soon because I simply do not know enough. As I said I’m very early in the research phase and I’d love to get more recommendations for good books by trans people.
None of this is easy. We all get it wrong. I hope my examination of Liar above shows you just how hard it is. But I hope, too, you can see how worthwhile it is. And how getting defensive and putting your head in the sand helps no one least of all the writer that you aspire to become.
For me that is the joy of what I do: striving always to be a better writer.19
TL;DR: When writing about identity you will stuff up about race/gender/class/sexuality/etc etc. Do not let that stop you doing due diligence. Write the best you can, as thoughtfully and well-researched as you can. Be ambitious. Learn from your mistakes. Listen to criticism. Keep writing.
- Yes, even if you think you don’t see a person’s race. [↩]
- Hello, Megan! [↩]
- Which is not to say I wasn’t proud of the other awards. I was and am! [↩]
- I touch on why I have so doggedly wrestled with issues around race and racism in these posts. [↩]
- If you haven’t read Kindred or any other books by Butler, DO SO. Genius. [↩]
- Though it is by no mean only white people who get called out for using the word. Look at the controversy over Carolivia Herron’s book, Nappy Hair. [↩]
- I kind of wanted to hug the readers who commented on that. [↩]
- Co-incidentally—or not, really—Highsmith was a big influence on Liar. [↩]
- Yes, there are many more than one white community. But, guess what? There are loads of different black communities too. [↩]
- In Nella Larsen’s Passing for instance the character passing has a double who does not pass, which cuts across the grain of the familiar white version of the story. [↩]
- Putting it like that I suddenly realise that perhaps Micah’s mother qualifies as a tragic mulatto. Crap. [↩]
- That sentence DOES NOT break grammar rules. And even if it does I did it ON PURPOSE. #stupidpedants [↩]
- And to make it doubly unfair, white writers like me also tend to get more praise for writing black characters than they do. [↩]
- Or with writing overly long really boring books about men who are obsessed with whales. With white whales no less. [↩]
- The two countries I know the most about. [↩]
- Notice the “of” there in “it would be way less of a big deal”? That’s a USian extraneous “of” what we Australians don’t use. See? I am a USian-Australian! Bilingual, me. [↩]
- It was also a sly reference to Scott’s Leviathan books, which he was writing at the same, where Derryn is passing as a boy in order to serve in the armed forces. Having grown up on books like Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders, I have always wanted to write the classic girl-pretending-to-be-a-boy-in-order-to-do-something-cool novel. So far Liar‘s as close as I’ve gotten. [↩]
- Sometimes I still feel that way. [↩]
- Thank you, Doselle Young, for your notes on this post and for the conversation over the years that led to it. You are the best. [↩]