I was just off visiting one of my favorite bloggers and her latest post got me thinking … and my thinking has got me all upset and bothered and pondering uncomfortable questions.
She wants to know, where are the kids’ books with non-white heroes? And she makes the point that, while there are books about black kids, in almost every case the fact that they’re black adds a whole chunk of extra Stuff to the story. Usually, it’s not just a story the way “James and the Giant Peach” is the story of a boy who has an adventure. The kid’s color almost always matters.
So my first thought, on reading this, was to wonder how much of the issue was inherent in the way these stories are written, and how much had to do with Stuff already floating around in the reader’s head. Could it be that when the main character is white, you don’t think about their whiteness because that’s the norm in Bookworld, so you simply identify with them, and focus on the action? Seems to me that might be part of what happens. Whether the reader was white or black (or whatever), the very fact that a hero or heroine was Not-White would make them unusual. You would notice. You would wonder whether there was another layer of meaning hidden in the Other-colored skin. You would be alert to cultural signals, speech patterns, other indicators of Not-Whiteness, and if the author got them wrong you wouldn’t like it.
This got me to wondering when it starts to matter. White kids obviously don’t notice the whiteness of characters. Do they notice not-whiteness? And what do black kids think when they read book after book about white kids? If nobody points it out, do they care that Snow White is an unusually attractive shade of pinkish beige, while they are not?
I find myself remembering an incident that shocked me when the Girl Child was at preschool. It was a Montessori preschool – in other words, featuring parents with liberal opinions about matters such as educational philosophy – in an upscale neighborhood (the Girl Child fit right in, but my battered little no-name-brand car looked pretty silly when I pulled up between the Mercs and Beemers to pick her up). Maybe 10% of the kids were black, and they all played together just fine. And then one day when I picked her up, the sweet man who tended the grounds waved goodbye to her, and she stuck her nose in the air and refused to wave back. Because he was black.
It was a long time ago and I have forgotten just how I reacted, but I remember feeling nauseated, wondering where in Hell she’d picked up that ugly piece of nasty. I remember saying, “But some of your friends are black!” and how she just rolled her eyes and told me that was “different”. They were kids. He was black. The end.
So much for the real world. What do kids see when they read story books? Could we make Jack the Giant Killer black, and not change the essence of the story? Would the result be a politically correct version of an old European fairy story? Or would it be blackface?
Anyway, this got me wondering whether I could write an ordinary adventure story or fantasy in which the hero or heroine is black, and get it right. Because a kid is just a kid, right? That’s what I want to believe … and yet … we are all so much a part of our families, our neighborhoods, our culture. From our earliest days we are immersed and soaked and pickled in the worldview, assumptions, expectations, fears, beliefs of our family and community. Even if we consciously reject everything we are taught, I don’t know that it’s possible to climb into an Other-colored skin and know how to wear it.
I lived for two years as a teacher in a poor rural South African community, where the only white people were my daughter, another woman who lived separately from us, and I. We were fully part of the community. We shared an outside toilet with our neighbors, ate the same sort of food as they did, went in and out of each other’s homes, prayed, argued, worried, grieved and celebrated together. I remain in contact with several of my former pupils. Their children call me Granny, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call on them if I needed help.
Yet I really don’t know that I could write a convincing story from inside the head of a black African kid. And I don’t understand this failure of imagination and empathy. Can I imagine being a desperately poor, or fabulously wealthy, or superpower-endowed white kid? You bet! Can I give that white kid black friends who are also fully-developed characters each with a unique voice? No problem – in fact that’s an integral part of the book I’m working on at present. Can I imagine being a black kid growing up in an ordinary black home with the spoken and unspoken everything that generations of racism means to my family, my future, who I am, how I think – can I get out of my white head and into theirs? I don’t know, but I suspect – I fear – that I could not. And I don’t know whether that is because I am lacking, or because it really isn’t possible.
And even if I did – if I were to try – what would readers think of my story? Would they assess it simply as a work of fiction – well written or not, believable or not, enjoyable or not? Or would I face the hostility due to an ignorant trespasser on sacred ground?
And, you know, thinking about all this just makes me so. Damn. Sad.
It shouldn’t matter.
It shouldn’t matter.
It shouldn’t matter.
But God help us, it does.
[UPDATE: I posted the link to this video of a white police officer sitting on a bikini-clad teenage girl to restrain her, while cursing and waving a gun at other teens. Apparently a party “got out of control” when a large group of black teens showed up in a predominantly white, upscale neighborhood. The video, taken by an observer, is out there somewhere but not where I could find it during a short search. I’m sure you get the idea, however … We’re talking about kids here, not hefty 18 and 19-year-olds, and a cop who thinks the best way to calm them down is to wave a gun. Not okay. I don’t care who did what, that’s simply poor policing.]
So now it’s your turn. What do you think? I really want to know.