The Racial Rubber Stamp

by R.F. Kuang

I’ve attended two of the better known SFF writing workshops now. Each time I’ve been one of three students of color (at most). This leads to a set of very curious experiences. Being a POC amidst a group of white writers, many of whom started their careers in the wonderful era of Alleged Racial Wokeness, means that I suddenly take on a set of roles that I did not ask for.

It means that I become the go-to consultant for that one student who has decided to play Racial Roulette with each one of her minor characters so that she can tick off her marginalized identity checkboxes.

“I’ve decided to make the hacker Japanese,” she declares.

“Okay.”

“Actually, no. Chinese! Should he be Chinese or Japanese?”

“Is the hacker your only Chinese character?”

“Yes.”

“And why must he be Asian?”

“Well, I didn’t want to make him Russian.”

It means that everything I say in workshop gets interpreted through a lens of racial criticism, even though–get this–not everything I say is about race.

“I like that this sorcerer burns someone up,” I say in a critique. “That’s sexy.”

The instructor perks up. “Yes, as RK pointed out, this sorcerer has magical privilege!”

It means that, for some reason, I am often looked to as the authority on stories about African-American experiences, South Asian experiences, Southeast Asian experiences, and Native American experiences.

“How do you feel about this Hawaiian priestess?”

“Do you think I’ve exoticized this geisha too much? I just wanted to tell her side of the story.”

“Can you help me subvert this Indian doctor stereotype?”

“You’re Chinese. Can I ask you about how to write this Korean mother?”

Being the lone POC also means always being the party pooper. It means being considered a weird combination of the Racial Authority Department and the POC who ruins the fun for everyone. Which is a fascinating contradiction–because it means many white writers don’t take objections seriously unless they are convenient to them.

Because being the lone POC also means that keeping silent when everyone in the room wants to watch Big Trouble in Little China, because it’s “soooo funny!” and “clearly a parody” and “you’re not upset about this, right?” (which we can translate as “please don’t be upset about this, it’ll ruin our fun, why can’t you just sit in the corner and be a Good Friendly POC?)

It means that when a racist old white guest lecturer says my story title sounds like the name of a “laundry company” (think about that for a second) and calls me a “just the cutest little Chinese firecracker,” the only support I’ll get from my peers are nervous chuckles and slow head shakes. The instructor won’t intervene.

It means that the white guy with the MFA gets to write about a Chinese woman who, after being sexually abused by her white “master,” commits suicide by drowning herself. The rest of the class admires his artistry. And I am called out for overreacting if I get visibly upset and tell him he has no business telling a story that doesn’t have to be told yet again.

What I’ve seen is that the lone POCs in largely white writing groups often become tokenized faux authorities. We’re consulted just enough to give other work a stamp of diversity approval, but brutally marginalized when their opinions become inconvenient.

I imagine this isn’t just an issue with workshops. I imagine these dynamics could easily extend to conventions, lectures, and MFA programs. But workshops are the place where many fledgling writers break out their careers, write the first draft of short stories that will make them published, make crucial connections, and get introduced to the SFF community. And workshops are where POC writers learn their place.

At some point, the fatigue becomes overwhelming. It’s not fun to be ostracized because you made a white student feel insecure about their work. It’s not fun to be the sole spokesperson for your race, much less the spokesperson for other races that you shouldn’t be representing. That burden is exhausting and unfair. We weren’t hired to teach you.

So, my dear white allies, let me make it a little easier for you.

First, more than anything else, please be willing to do your own homework. If you want to know about the Asian-American experience, read Lisa Lowe, Sucheng Chan, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Then come talk to me. Prove that you care about my history, and that you genuinely seek to be a better ally. Otherwise, using your POC classmates as an educational tool is deeply disrespectful and often hurtful.

Second, don’t roll your eyes every time POC students speak because “it’s just another race thing.” Don’t say that “race really isn’t the focus of my story,” because you either actively challenge existing hierarchies or you tacitly accept them. Don’t mutter that I am just the “social justice warrior” with the agenda. Don’t accuse me of going on a spiel about racism because I don’t know how to critique a work otherwise. Don’t reprimand me when I get angrily critical of your work. Kalli Hollway warns against this kind of tone policing: “the implication here is that issues around racism should only be recognized when presented in a way that neither upsets nor offends your white audience.” Trust me. None of us want to be the campus PC police sent to shut down your party of blissful ignorance.

Third, recognize that we can’t speak for other POCs. I, for instance, can’t answer your questions about the black experience because I am not black. I can’t answer your questions about Gal Gadot and whether Ashkenazi Jews are or aren’t White. I am not Jewish. I am not black, I am not South Asian, and I am not Polynesian. I don’t know. I can read about those issues and try to educate myself, but I cannot speak about them with authority.

Fourth, recognize that you don’t get to offload the burden of calling out racism to me. Don’t look uncomfortably in my direction when someone has said something cringe-worthy. Don’t make me the scapegoat. Say something. Yes, you’ll feel awkward. Yes, it might make you unpopular. But you can fly under the radar, or you can be a good ally. Up to you.

And finally, for the love of God, please don’t make me a racial rubber stamp. Writing about race is complex. It takes time, research, and hard work. If you aren’t willing to put that in, then please don’t ask POC to vet you along on your merry way. Stop asking my permission to take the easy way out. You don’t have it.

•••

Rebecca F Kuang studies modern Chinese history at Georgetown University, and will be pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in 2017. She spends a lot of time thinking about whether dead historical figures would have made good boyfriends. Her debut novel The Poppy War is a fantasy epic about empire, drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century. It will be published by Harper Voyager in May 2018. She tweets at @kuangrf and blogs at www.rfkuang.com.

11 Responses

  1. Susan Forest

    Thanks for this. Writing involves race (unless we want a white-0nly fictional future), and there are land mines everywhere. Half the problem is that they are invisible until you step on one–your article helps to make them more visible.

  2. Kate Estabrooks

    No argument that writers who attempt to write about ethnic backgrounds and cultural experiences other than their own, without proper research, risk a story that falls flat at best and misrepresents and offends at worst. Having your “Asian” friend or colleague read your manuscript about the young couple from Shachengzhen immigrating to the United States, or the inner life of a Geisha, will not cut it. It’s a shame there are writers who think it will.

    That said, I don’t expect a rundown on the Mayflower just because I’m reading about Constance Gilmore from Connecticut. I don’t care that Liam O’Malley’s family escaped the Great Famine of the 1840s, unless that somehow ties into the plot. Similarly, the appearance of the name Chan or Wong might require the writer to have in-depth knowledge of Chinese history and culture. Or, it might not.

    All characters, regardless of ethnicity, should be developed and given backgrounds to the extent it serves the story. No more, no less, and with as much historical and cultural accuracy as needed/possible.

    I caution against breaking writers (or anyone) into “white and “non-white”. Just as the statement: “You’re Chinese. Can I ask you about how to write this Korean mother?” betrays the speaker’s ignorance, so does lumping “white” into a historically and culturally homogeneous group.

    The implication is the “white person” has lived a more privileged life than the “non-white” person. I concede this true more often than not. However, it could be that Liam’s family really did narrowly escape the potato famine only to earn him a childhood in a city where Catholics and Protestants walked on opposite sides of the street, or else suffered daily bloody noses and black eyes on the way to school. There were nine kids in the family, but the house only had enough hot water to fill the bathtub twice a day. And Liam was the first in his family to graduate high school. In which case he may, rightfully, beg to differ when confronted by an African-American who also happens to be the daughter of a dentist.

    That fair-haired, blue-eyed character in the book, or writer in the room, could easily be from New Zealand, Australia, Canada or Denmark. He/She could be English, Irish, French, Swedish, Dutch, etc. Is the French guy from France, Quebec, Belgium, or non of the above? Can you tell from his accent?

    Regardless, “white” will automatically be assumed to mean upper middle-class American 99.9 percent of the time, until it’s expressly stated otherwise. Sometimes that’s no big deal. But sometimes it is.

    1. Jess

      Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down, there, because you’re taking a hard left into “But What About the Irish?!” territory, and that’s derailing the conversation. The prejudice you’re discussing (against the Irish, Poles, Jews, Russians, Italians, and so on) is not the same as systematic institutionalized racism against Black and brown bodies in America. The author of this article is not suggesting that you treat POC characters more reverently than white characters, or that you overload your readers with excess information (but ask yourself if you only consider this excess information because it isn’t information that reflects your lived experience. Ask yourself if you’ve centered your lived experience to the point that deviations from that template seem like tangents). They are telling you to do as much research and empathizing with your POC cast as you do your white cast. You stated that white people are not culturally or historically homogeneous. That’s true! Why? Because whiteness is a social construct. This article (below) includes a transcript from a video that discusses this topic. It’s a good primer.

      https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/01/but-what-about-irish-slaves/

    2. Willow

      Hi Kate, I think you may be misunderstanding what white privilege is. It doesn’t mean that every white person is wealthier or has had a better life than every POC. It means that white people don’t have to deal with the same level of crap as a POC in a similar situation. So an upper middle class black person still has to deal with being disproportionately stopped by police, and their white neighbors don’t. Having money makes one’s life easier, but doesn’t eliminate racism. Or there could be a white person who is poor, but they’re still four times more likely to be called for an interview than someone with the same qualifications who has a black sounding name. It’s possible to be disadvantaged in some ways (class, gender, national origin, abledness, etc) and still benefit from white privilege.

      1. Kate Estabrooks

        I fully acknowledge the effect of privilege on individual experiences. Race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, etc all influence how we experience the world. I’m concerned that the dichotomy of white vs POC as portrayed in this article is a generalization that is more harmful than helpful in fostering mutual kindness and respect.

        1. Eric

          It is precisely this kind of exposure makes fair minded people, white or POC alike, become aware the racial dimension of the issue. As a result, the discomfort results in mutual sensitivity and respect.

          1. Maria

            Hmm. I think we can say the same about every minority not just race. As a Central-European I had similar experiences in international workshops and courses. There were not many people from the former communist countries so people just made the assumption that we were all the same and probably spoke Russian.

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