I’ve been thinking a lot about the identification of race in print, say in publications such as reviews as well as in the books themselves. Thoughtful posts and discussion about it (such as this one from my friend Roxanne Feldman, this Read Roger blog post, this from Kirkus editor Vicky Smith, and this episode of the Horn Book podcast with special guest Hannah Gómez) regarding how and when and if to identify race, not to mention the fraught possibility of misidentification, have certainly informed my thinking. So have conversations with friends, reviewers, readers, writers, editors, colleagues, and others concerned with this.
Say last summer when, excitedly telling a black friend about a new writing idea, I ended up showing her what little I’d written so far. (FYI She’s a close friend and, so far, the only one I’ve shown this to — I’m not comfortable by and large sharing work early on:) In the course of our discussion about various aspects of the project, I mentioned these conversations and how I’d been wondering if I should be explicit about the main character’s whiteness. Her response was that it was already evident to her due to a mention of the character’s cultural background. That is, she didn’t seem to think more was necessary. I’m not so sure. After all, would a different reader with a different background/race/ethnicity/culture/age have that response? She brings to her reading a certain idea of that cultural group, which someone else might not have. I’m a spare writer — I lean toward minimalism — preferring to leave lots of space for readers to fill in as they see fit. Yet in this case my lack of specificity feels a form of white privilege, an assumption regarding potential readers that I have had, previously an unconscious one.
I am far less unconscious now though, thanks to all the healthy discussion going on. For example, recently I read a forthcoming book and was impressed by how well the author tucked in race descriptions for various characters — until I came to one for which none was provided. The character’s name and attributes suggested a particular race and culture, but given that other characters did have race described, this stuck out for me in its absence. I wrote the publisher and would guess this will be rectified in the finished book, but it did make me notice that I have become a far more conscious reader as regards race description, trying to be aware of that problematic white privilege stance I have.
It comes up for me as a teacher too. In some cases I have students who appreciate my being explicit, but others who don’t want attention drawn to them. For instance, when teaching the Transatlantic Slave Trade this year my black students became much more active in conversation — it seemed they were indeed proud of what they knew of their history –terrible as it was — proud to be able to speak to it while others in the class listened. Yet, last year I had a different reaction from a sensitive child of Chinese descent who was distraught when first learning of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I feel I have to always walk a tight line, both wanting to honor my students, their background and heritage, yet also being respectful of their varying personalities.
This is an ongoing area of learning and growth for me.