I feel for Rachel Dolezal. I really do. When the strange saga broke and blanketed the news I couldn’t help but identify with her a little. It’s the story of a woman who craves acceptance from a community she doesn’t belong to, goes to extremes to find it, and inevitably goes too far. It’s a plot we’ve all read before. Rachel Dolezal lied, of course, and alienated the same culture she hoped to become a part of. But the need that first put her on that path, I feel it too.
When I met the man I would eventually marry, a beautiful man from India, life became complicated. There are the vast cultural differences between me and my husband’s parents and extended family. There are verbal and non-verbal barriers that we chip away at, but will never fully destroy.
Half of my husband’s extended family will never accept that he married a white, American woman. And I believe, despite myself, that his parents swallowed the same seed of distrust and disappointment that has hardened somewhere deep in the pit of their being. If I could pull a Rachel Dolezal, change my hair and dye my skin, and feel that brush of acceptance, you bet your ass I would.
My romance opened me up to a new world of beauty and challenges, and those cross-cultural experiences renovated my artistic muse. My world is full of color, so why shouldn’t my writing be?
As writers we are told to unlock our creative spirits, to throw off long-held societal notions and to investigate the crevices of human experience. Race in America is one of those hot topics begging for exposition and yet stories about race are rarely featured in literary journals. Why are these stories not being told? Or are they not being listened to?
Are writers of color the only ones allowed to write characters of color? Do they risk being labeled as “race writers” (as if some type of sub-genera of mainstream literary fiction)? Has racism in the news tarnished an audience’s ability to enjoy a piece of fiction that explores race?
I have been told by many white writers that portraying characters in a race other than my own is risky and can often be offensive. One white professor (because all my MFA professors were white) said it was the literary equivalent of black face. I don’t completely disagree with that. However, I have grown tired of how race is portrayed by many white writers — where characters are either victims of racism or irreproachable pillars of their community. I’ve never been particularly interested in victims or heroes and I would argue that the best writing portrays characters, or the self, somewhere between those two extremes.
But are white writers allowed to write complex characters of color? Or will we become the literary equivalent of Rachel Dolezal if we do?
I would hope that as a community of writers and artists we would all agree that a diverse face matters less than a diverse voice. That there should be a separation between art and artist, that the merits of a piece of work should not be influenced by the color of the creator’s skin, but should be based on the quality of his or her mind and experience.
Since giving birth to a perfect daughter, half-white, half-Indian, my life has grown sweeter and more complex. We now speak three languages at home and my husband and I must negotiate the varied expectations from ourselves and our parents for how our daughter will be raised. The ways in which I think about race and my community — both as an artist and a parent — have been simultaneously expanded and compounded. It has made me weary of how we discuss race, but also bold to continue to write struggling, beautiful characters of color.
You may believe I’m wrong for doing so. My hope is that the racial barriers we experience on the news and in our lives do no extend to our fantasies. That spreading the complexities of race and culture apart is worthy of good writing and better reading. But given the sensitivities we have around race in America, maybe it’s not enough to simply have something to say. For my sake, at least, I hope that’s not true.
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