Racism in Writing

Jul 29, 2012 | Opinions

Okay guys, confession time: I’m a white woman.

I know, I know. Shocking, yeah? Not only am I a white woman, I’m also from a culture that is largely clueless when it comes to racism. Ireland is homogeneous to the point of insanity; all white, all Catholic, and generally of Irish descent going back several generations. A melting pot it ain’t.

Now, here’s the thing: even though I started from a point of knowing pretty much bugger all about race, I can still recognise that this book is at best hugely racist out of ignorance, and at worst hugely racist out of malice.

I do a lot of reading, as you may know. I spend time reading about the experiences of people of colour, because I can recognise that this is a gap in my knowledge. I can never fully understand it, but I will hopefully know enough to keep myself out of trouble and to be able to spot racism when I see it. So I get how labels are problematic; I get how blackface is shitty; I get how non-white beauty is marginalized and diminished. I know that, should I ever choose to write about these things, I must tread carefully and respectfully, in spite of all that I have learned.

This isn’t actually hard, believe it or not. If you’re going to write about racism, then you give your book to a bunch of people who experience it every day and ask for their opinion. Ask the right questions: does it work? What kind of message do you get from it? Are these different aspects being handled correctly? This is what I’m trying to say; does it make sense? Is any part of this problematic?

Knowing all this, I’m almost 100% sure that Victoria Foyt didn’t show her book to the right people, who’d call her on all the stuff in it that’s being pointed out now. I actually suspect she didn’t do any market research at all, seeing as that would be top of my damn list if I were writing a book that’s meant to be a statement on racism. That kind of research would tell you straight up that writing a book on racism where the main character is a whiny white girl who hates people of colour may be, y’know, a really, really bad idea.

I can’t de-construct why the book is racist in detail. That’s not my place to do, I guess. I can’t make that determination. I wouldn’t expect a man to know precisely how much period pains hurt, for example, and in what way – but I would expect him to know that they hurt a lot, because I, a woman who experiences these things, says so. Thus I can recognise this much: well-meaning or not, Victoria Foyt’s book is racist. I suspected as such when I saw it mentioned on Twitter, checked out her promotional site, and saw the use of blackface. Several people of colour have posted about it in more detail, with the judgement that it is excessively racist in many ways. Victoria Foyt herself insists that it isn’t meant to be racist, but, with all due respect, she’s a white woman with no experience of racism who grew up in a predominantly white and privileged environment. I’ve no reason to take her word for it, nor give her the benefit of the doubt, when the actual people who suffer from racism say differently.

Someone smarter than me once said that we have to write for the imperfect world we live in. In a perfect world, it’d be okay to write something like Revealing Eden, because everything would be considered equally. But we don’t, and it’s not. We live in a world where racism happens, and it’s still damaging the lives of millions of people. So we, the writers who tell the stories that shape the world, have an obligation. We have a duty to listen, and we have a duty to make it better if we can.

At the very least, we shouldn’t make it worse. And this book makes it worse.