When I was in college, I wrote a two-page short story about racism for a class. It described a casual encounter between a very young black child and a white child, who began to play together naturally. Until, that is, the white mother saw what was happening and removed her white child with an epithet, leaving a bruise on her child’s arm. The epithet was the “n-word.”
With this history, I was interested in a poll offered on Twitter to people of color only about whether white people could use this word in a book. I did not answer the poll, being white, but I did wade into the conversation because I was genuinely interested and had some blood in the game, you could say. How else, I asked, does one put dialogue in the mouth of a racist? I referred to To Kill a Mockingbird. “Different era,” they said. “Doesn’t apply.” But, I pressed, how do you tell the truth about this thing called racism and never have your character say it? “There are a thousand and one ways,” they said, but no real examples.
A black man took me to task and said that if I used the word, I wasn’t writing for black people. There’s truth in that. I always write for myself, first, but my perspective is white, and when I write about racism, I generally do so with white people in mind — ’cause we’re the problem and all that. Then a white woman took me to task and said that use of the word and “klan-like” people were caricatures. Interestingly, when I read my short story in class all those years ago, a white boy complained that he found the white woman to be a caricature, too. The lone black woman in class responded, “I don’t!” And I have to say, I don’t, either, because I grew up surrounded by such people. When the black man on the thread said that racists don’t really use that word anymore, I realized that I had probably heard “that word” more often than he had — because white people say all kinds of shit to other white people.
The white woman of Twitter who was alternately understanding and taking me to task said, when she discovered I wasn’t currently planning a novel on racism, then why are you on this thread with your white privilege? Which gave me whiplash. But okay, there’s that. I did stick my white nose in where it wasn’t wanted. And I felt a surge of sadness. Given my upbringing (narcissistic and borderline parents), it took me a while to unpack those feelings and understand them.
Like most writers, I write from my own experience. It’s the experience of a privileged white, lesbian woman. And I realized that the reason I stuck my nose in was because of my own pain. The pain of not being allowed to invite my best friend in third grade to my house (she was black). The pain of having a crush on a boy who’s father was black, only to have my father yell, “I ain’t having no black babies!” The pain of having to decline a date with a beautiful man because it meant I would have to lie about it to go out with him.
White pain lies just inches away from black pain, like rails on a railroad track, running alongside one another to infinity without ever meeting. In between is a gray area where healing could occur. But I do not know how to go into that space without feeling like an oppressor. I do not know how black people go into that space without feeling oppressed. I do not know how to express the pain of racism without putting extra weight on the white side of the scales. I do not know how to have a dialogue about this gray area at all.
I have always said that racism hurts white people, too. This does not negate the suffering of people of color. One pain is not more or less than another. It just is. White people need to listen. But we also need to speak to our pain — our real pain, not the “I’m not racist” deflections. If I hadn’t waded into that conversation where I was not wanted, I would never have opened that well of grief. I would never have understood that I was really talking about my own pain. And I would be the poorer for it.