Many years ago, my father said that by the time I have children, they’ll be white kids dipped in chocolate. Meaning: They’ll be so assimilated into the dominant culture that the only difference between them and white children will be skin color.
I thought that was nonsense, but then I went to VONA and found out maybe it had happened a generation early.
I see the VONA experience as positive overall, I’m thankful for the experience (see—gratitude still at work) and I would do it again, but some moments were unpleasant, hurtful and/or puzzling. One of those moments: the day my writing sample was workshopped. My classmates wrote and spoke questions and comments like, “What’s up with the disdain for all things ghetto?” “You need to examine your own preferences for the dominant culture,” “Where did this perception of black boys come from?” and “The narrator is mean, snobby and very judgmental, and I don’t like her.” One person thoughtfully marked every place in the text she thought the writer and narrator’s voice was “Better Than You.”
This was painful because they reacted this way to a text I had re-worked repeatedly to make it not sound snobby and judgmental. (Some context for you: The work covered a period of my life from around age 13 to 17, and I was mean then, but I haven’t met very many teenage girls who are nice.) I was trying to combine narrative with analysis, and to explore writing in two voices/perspectives: the teen in the moment and the adult who has learned about the social inequalities that influenced what was happening to the teen.
I would say my attempt failed, but the commentary wasn’t unanimous. I had shown similar versions of the same work sample to two other audiences in the past year: a literary agent and a local writing group. In both cases, the readers were white. They laughed where I meant to be funny or sarcastic. They didn’t question my perceptions, pick up on my “disdain,” or find me judgmental. They said I was a good writer and wanted to read more.
And the one person in the VONA workshop who took the sample for the experimental essay it was, saw that my self-judgment was severe, thought I wrote with “a great sense of humor” and who “breezed through the story, feeling for this narrator at every turn” (emphasis hers)? She’s biracial and was raised by the white parent.
This hasn’t caused an existential crisis, but it does disturb me because 1) I love my people, I have no desire to be white, and while I defend the right of black people to call out the foolishness that drags down our communities, I would never want to be grouped with the Don Lemons or Bill Cosbys of Black America who preach the politics of respectability without the context of history and of social inequality; and 2) it made me feel like VONA didn’t “work” on me, like once again, I hadn’t passed the “black enough” test.
See, VONA alumni implored me to apply to a writing workshop for writers of color because my classmates would “get it.” As one previous participant put it:
“Connecting with writers who share similar experiences allows for better creativity, in so much as you get to the heart of your work faster, with more clarity because you share a common language. You don’t have to spend prerequisite hours building a new language in order to begin a dialogue, which happens in most workshops writers of color find themselves. I was no longer the only one in the classroom/workshop. I wasn’t forced to measure my self-worth, or exert energy proving that I deserved a seat at the table and that my voice was just as valuable and important.”
VONA left me feeling like I haven’t been marginalized enough to really “get it,” to be at that table and communicate in a common language. I was still othered and was othering, and when it comes to identity politics, I’m a black, heterosexual, Christian born and raised and living in the religious U.S. South. I’ve never been raped, assaulted or abused, and my parents are awesome. Those facts mean I hold some advantageous majorities.* And working in social justice research with feminist coworkers shields me from a lot. Injustice still pisses me off, but I can’t write certain levels of marginalization into my experience.
The workshop also made me about 2% more sympathetic to white people who want to understand but still think people of color are “so sensitive.” We all filter everything through lenses of privilege and marginalization. (Recognizing your privilege is a form of privilege—the result of formal college education, access to lots of scholarly reading, or interaction in that rare environment that really is diverse.) And sometimes no matter how hard you try, others will read your words and hear the condemnation that came down on them from someone else, even when you’re not trying to do that, even when you were also judging yourself.
I’m not saying everyone was wrong about my work except women raised by white parents. There’s much I need to change about the work sample if it’s going to be part of a larger book, and everyone’s critique is helping with that process. I’m saying we won’t all “get” each other, and I’ve decided not to attempt a balancing act between the truth of my experience and care not to offend in my writing. I can write a more sympathetic narrator, but it’s a memoir, folks. I have to tell the truth.
*Note: I hadn’t fully flushed out that “othered/othering” thought until I heard Center for Women & Families CEO Marta Miranda speak at the Daughters of Greatness breakfast at the AliCenter on Aug. 2. She opened with giving credit to the ancestors, scholars and activists who taught us to be activists, so she deserves credit here.