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Reading Race

The 2013 VIDA count of the representation of women authors in major literary publications came out recently. There were lots of stories about it, but the one that most caught my eye was from Aimee Phan. I saw it in Salon, but it originally appeared in Talking Writing. She was writing about how the VIDA count is not enough- we need something similar focused on race.

This quote in particular struck me:

“As a creative writing teacher at an arts college in San Francisco, one of my most challenging and rewarding classes is Asian American literature. My students of color often relish the readings, but some white students say they feel anxious about discussing unfamiliar cultures. They don’t know how to speak about the topics with any depth, they tell me, and are afraid of saying something politically incorrect.

In short, they’re scared to talk about race.”

I am white, and I can understand why the white students in Phan’s class are worried. I can still recall times when I made a misstep on race in class discussion, and I am coming up on my 20 year college reunion this year. Those moments stick with you, there is no doubt. Perhaps, though, that is a good thing, because it means you will not forget what they taught you. It is far better to be embarrassed in class than to never have your unrecognized biases and assumptions uncovered, and to go out into the work world and perpetuate them.

But what really struck me about that quote is the idea that this fear of engaging with race and racism is keeping white people from reading books by writers of color. What an incredible shame. The absolute best way to decrease your chances of saying something “wrong” about race is to learn about the experiences of people who do not look like you, and what better way to start than by reading what some of those people have taken the time and effort to write and publish?

If white editors and reviewers truly are avoiding books written by people of color because they are on some level afraid to engage with race, then they are doing us all a disservice: the writers, certainly, but also readers of all races. The editors and reviewers need to step up, do their homework, and start covering the full literary world. That is their job, and they need to start doing it.

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The most helpful experience I had in interpreting and analyzing race was to room with a black classmate in college. There is something about sustained interaction, even when we were cranky or stressed, that broke down barriers. Walking around with her to stores or around campus also gave me observe plenty of evidence that prejudice was pervasive at Berkeley.

I've heard it said that your vision of yourself is based on the faces that you see around you. I say the most inappropriately honest things about race around black people, before even thinking that I shouldn't say that for fear that it is overly familiar. Most people reflect that friendly candor right back.

FWIW, I'm an Asian woman married to a white guy. A level of comfort and tribal affiliation with many groups has served me well personally and professionally.

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