The Challenges of Writing for White People
As a Columnist, Leonard Pitts Jr. Has Had a Lot of Practice
When I was a child, I thought there were no white people in Los Angeles.
There’s a story I sometimes tell to demonstrate how thoroughly my perspective was distorted by de facto segregation. It’s from a day when I was not yet ten years old and a big yellow bus delivered me and a bunch of my classmates to the zoo on a field trip. We pulled into a lot jammed with other big yellow buses and I stepped down into a world I had never dreamed existed.
There were little white kids everywhere.
In memory, they are all blond, though, of course, that’s highly unlikely. Wandering through the zoo, I remember being more fascinated by this odd species of human than by any of the apes, giraffes and elephants I had come to see. Having grown up in a Los Angeles where, outside of police officers and teachers, the only white people you ever saw lived in Mayberry or on the Ponderosa, I literally could not imagine where these children had come from. They were running eagerly all over the place and I remember being worried that when the day was over, their teachers would have trouble sorting and gathering the right kids for delivery to the right parents.
You see, they all looked alike to me.
One other thing I remember is that we were given box lunches of cold fried chicken and I didn’t eat. Mind you, I loved fried chicken, but I had some vague sense that it was a food for which Negroes—we were still “Negroes” then—were reputed to have an unnatural lust. And I would give no one—no one white, at any rate—the satisfaction of seeing me tear hungrily into a drumstick. All around me, kids black and white were doing just that, but I made an excuse and left my lunch untouched.
Over 50 years later, I find it amazing—and a little sad—that I had such things in my head at that tender age. I have no idea where it came from. This was L.A., after all; I had never seen a Whites Only sign, had no idea who Martin Luther King was. But somehow, I knew the thing about fried chicken and people like me.
That day, for the first time, I became conscious of myself in a different way. That is to say, I began to realize that I was not just me, a spindly-legged little boy in glasses whose idea of entertainment was digging up ant nests in the backyard. No, I was a small piece of something called “Negro” and it, in turn, was a piece of a larger something called America and the two were ever at odds, bonded on the one side by an abiding hostility and on the other by a simmering resentment.I joke sometimes that every white person who reads me thinks they’re the only white person who reads me.
I was already thinking of myself as a writer then, most of my stories centering on the adventures of a spindly-legged little boy in glasses who was secretly a superhero. But though I couldn’t know it and wouldn’t know it for decades, I had found my muse that day, found the subject that would perplex and fascinate me all my writing life. Meaning the challenge of explaining to those with no frame of reference what it means—how it feels—to be a piece of a piece.
From the vantage point of over half a century later, it occurs to me that I’ve spent most of my writing life writing for white people about race.
Well, let me tweak that observation a bit. As a matter of intention, I almost never write “for” any group more specific than people who read. If you’re a reader, reasonably versed in the English language, then you are my target audience.
But if that’s the ideal, the practical reality is that, yes, I write for white people.
It makes sense, if you think about it. I’ve been a columnist for The Miami Herald since 1991, with national syndication since 1997. The demographics of the newspaper industry being what they are—which is to say, dominated by white Baby Boomers—my readership could hardly be expected to be other than what it is. Still, when I go out to do a speaking engagement or a signing for one of my novels, it is often the case that white people are taken aback to find themselves in an audience full of white people. Many have said as much outright
I joke sometimes that every white person who reads me thinks they’re the only white person who reads me. Occasionally, I’ll receive an email from one of them that says something like, “I’m pretty sure I’m not your average fan…”
Oh, I say, but you are.
I cannot imagine that I am an easy read for them. Race is not an easy subject and on it, I am not an easy writer.
The cliché, one I have indulged as much as anyone, goes that America needs to have “a conversation about race.” But as President Obama noted in eulogizing the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed along with eight other members of his Charleston church when a white supremacist invaded their prayer meeting, “Every time something like this happens somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race.”
He’s right. It’s not that we don’t talk. It’s that we talk superficially. We talk around. We talk without knowledge—indeed, sometimes denying knowledge—of the history that makes talking necessary. We talk in ways designed to protect our fortresses of identity and to spare us from excavating those places where guilt and hurt, bitterness and anger, lie not at all deeply buried.
This is true of us all but it is especially true, in my long experience, of white people—a term, by the way, that one of my white readers once chided me for using. “Divisive,” she called it. She was not the first or the only “white” person to say that. The very fact that she finds that term problematic says a lot about why this subject is so often so difficult for people like her.
Race, as scientists on the Human Genome Project determined conclusively in 2000, is an idea with no scientific basis fact. It is entirely a social, cultural and political construct. Indeed, as Nell Irvin Painter explains in her book, The History of White People, our modern conception of race, i.e., the idea that you can judge a person’s worth by judging her melanin content and hair texture, has existed only for the last few centuries. Prior to that, it was common (and just as scientifically coherent) to judge that person by geography or climate.
“Black” and “white”—the concept and machinery of race—became convenient tools as the competition to exploit the riches of the so-called “New World” heated up. “White” conferred a superior form of humanity. “Black” denied any humanity at all. Taken together, they justified a system of kidnap, purchase, exploitation and extermination, allowed good Christians from Europe to engage in acts of barbarous sadism without troubling conscience.
In other words, black and white were useful lies. The truth, however, was that the Europeans who raided the coast of West Africa for human chattel thought of themselves not as “white” men united in some vast common undertaking, but as Dutch men, French men, English men and Portuguese men in competition for the riches of the North American continent. Similarly, the human beings they stole did not think of themselves as “black,” but rather, as Taureg, Mandinkan, Mende and Songhay, thrust together in the reeking hold of those European ships.
But if “white” and “black” are equally false, “black” quickly came to take on the markings of a real and common culture by simple dint of the fact that, their varied tribal identities notwithstanding, the people to whom that word was applied were all forced to share the same oppression and denigration, the same rapes and child-stealing, the same unheated hovels and meager plates, the same torchlight violence. These things brought them together and held them together—and hold them together still.
“White,” on the other hand, has been held together only by the single condition of being not black. It has had little existence apart from that.
A simple thought experiment illustrates the point. If asked to define black literature, you would likely—and promptly—invoke Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison or some other dark-skinned giant of the written word. But what if you were asked to define “white” literature? The mind quails and resists, does it not?
Note that, if asked about English literature, you might mention Shakespeare or Dickens. French literature? Hugo or Flaubert. American literature? Twain or Melville.
But “white” literature? To whom would you be comfortable ascribing that categorization? What author would be comfortable accepting it? Would Stephen King agree to it? Would William Faulkner or Robert Frost? Would Jodi Picoult or F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Unlikely. They would realize, if only subliminally that the word carries accusations. And those accusations are no less potent for being unspoken.
That’s one of the things—one of the many things—that makes writing about race so difficult to do. The very language of it conspires to defeat you.
And mind you, that’s before you ever get down into the marrow of the thing, before, for example, you write word one about systems of oppression, what the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva famously dubbed Racism Without Racists. It is before you talk about the phenomenon of mass incarceration that Michelle Alexander explores in her book, The New Jim Crow. It is before you talk about housing and job discrimination, unequal access to health care, the educational achievement gap, barbecuing while black, affirmative action or reparations. It is before you invoke the name of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile or Tamir Rice, diving into the hot and sticky emotion of unarmed black boys and men killed because of what some white person mistaken, irrationally, believed.
If the mere word “white” makes some people recoil, imagine the response you court when you cut down into that marrow. People will call names they would be embarrassed to let their children hear them speak. They will, putting it mildly, say things that do not reflect their best selves.
Or, as my assistant once wrote to me at the end of a long day of sifting through my emails: “I don’t know why you don’t hate white people.”
I reminded her, as gently as I could, that she herself is white. And that hating people because of their paint job is the reason we are in this mess to begin with.
Besides, for all the rancor that boils out of some white people, other white people keep showing up for my lectures. They keep reading my columns and my novels. They keep listening to stories that are difficult to hear. They keep engaging.
I choose to believe that in the telling and the listening, they and I express an abiding belief that black and white—and all the other colors of the racial rainbow—can ultimately find their own humanity reflected in one another if they can only muster the courage to look for it, to see what is already there.
My four novels could not be more different from one another in settings and themes—from a love story unfolding in the aftermath of slavery to a political thriller set on the day of Barack Obama’s election. But each has at least one moment that speaks to that hope, one moment where characters from different so-called races find themselves brought face to face with their own common humanity. It’s not something I ever set out to do, not something I was even aware I was doing, but that moment recurs in every book.
In Freeman, it’s as grandly dramatic as a love scene between a former slave and a white abolitionist, both shattered by the aftermath of civil war.
In my latest, The Last Thing You Surrender, it’s as simple as a white man and a black woman sharing a segregated park bench at the end of World War Two.
Call it an act of faith. And yes, I am painfully aware of how often faith goes unrewarded in this life, how often we live down to the meanest and most wretched version of ourselves. But faith yet endures. Which is, I suppose, the thing that makes it faith.
More to the point, story telling is how we explain ourselves to ourselves—and how we explain ourselves to one another. We sift and curate the disparate fragments of our experiences, the flotsam of our lives, the things we have seen and know—and hope. We hammer it together on a scaffolding of narrative and we present it to somebody else as way saying, This is how I see the world. This is what I believe.
If you say that to people who come from the same place you do and have seen and felt the same things, you give them validation, let them know they are not alone, give voice to things they may not be equipped to express. And that matters; that is important.
But if you say it to people who don’t know those things, whose passages have never intersected yours—if, in other words, you turn from the choir at your back and start preaching to the congregation in front of you—you challenge them, you upend their understanding of the world, you push them to see things they perhaps never thought to see before. You shatter paradigms.
It can be a tricky thing to do. I remember once, after a school shooting in a white San Diego suburb—one of a series of similar such shootings around the country—I wrote a column noting that in talking about these tragedies, we were missing the elephant in the room. Namely, that virtually all them involved white kids shooting other white kids in white rural or suburban areas. If a similar wave of violence broke out among black kids in the inner city, I argued, we would be sifting through the pathologies and challenges of their lives to determine what was going on. We would ask, What’s wrong with black kids?
But it would never occur to white people to wonder—not even after the shootings in Littleton, Colorado in San Diego, in Eugene, Oregon, in West Paducah, Kentucky and on and on and on—what’s wrong with white kids. Acutely conscious of who I was writing for, I made that observation as delicately as I could, even stopping at one point to say explicitly what should have been obvious: that I wasn’t suggesting we ought not be concerned because the victims and perpetrators were white.
It felt silly having to say such an obvious thing. So I laughed out loud when I read an essay a writer named Tim Wise who made the same argument I’d made but, being white, felt no need to be delicate. “An awful lot of white folks need to pull our heads out of our collective ass,” he said.
There is, needless to say, a certain freedom that comes in writing for white people about race and being white yourself.
Doing so while being black, on the other hand, is a constant negotiation between the need to tell the truth, to make it as plain as words allow—and the knowledge that too much truth might be toxic, that too much truth, from you especially, runs the risk of turning people away because it challenges too sharply what two celebrated African-American authors, James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, have described as the fiction of white racial “innocence.”
As Coates notes in his book, Between The World and Me, written as open letter to his son, “there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had that luxury.”
Later, speculating about the possibility of his own death at the hands of police officers who would then be exonerated and returned to work, he writes that his demise would be framed not as “the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of ‘race,’ imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment.”
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin offered an indictment that was, if anything, more pointed and less forgiving:
And this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
And if these are, indeed, painful truths, well, what other choice do you have as a black writer? You have the same choice Coates and Baldwin had, which is to say none. So you tell those truths. You try—or at least, I try—to do it in such a way that the people hearing you have room to consider themselves a potential part of the solution instead of an immutable and irredeemable part of the problem. But still, you must tell those truths fearlessly, forthrightly and clearly, because they demand no less.
You tell them and if you are lucky, people—“white” people—will keep trying to understand that which the whole weight of American mythmaking conspires to keep them from understanding. If you are lucky, they listen, maybe receptively, maybe with wariness, but they listen. If you are lucky, every once in a long while, one of them will sidle up to you, having read the column or the novels or having heard the speech and say something like, “I never thought about it that way” or, “You really changed my thinking.” These things happen if you’re lucky.
And I’ve been lucky.
Indeed, if telling and hearing stories about race constitute acts of faith, then moments like that constitute faith’s redemption. They validate my stubborn and abiding conviction that if I can ever just explain the thing clearly enough, somebody who didn’t live it will nevertheless get it. My humanity will touch theirs. And that will mean something, move something, make something different somehow.
That is, yes, what a writer always hopes.
But it’s what a black writer writing about race for white people desperately needs to believe.