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On being a POHC writer

I’ve been thinking about race recently, and how I fit in to it. Which is a somewhat of an odd concept, one might say, how one fits into race: because to most people, it ought to be obvious. Visual. Sometimes auditory, due to the inflections, timbre, phraseology, and dialect of one’s voice. Either way, out in the open. Immediate.

It’s not for me. I’m half-white, half-black. But, as is described in Alex Haley’s Queen, I can “pass”; it’s what I would have done had I been born in an earlier age when my existence would have been, technically, illegal, because the unions required to bring it about would have been illegal.

I essentially look like a white person who tans easily and has curly hair.

Growing up, my race wasn’t really an issue. Kids played at my house and I played at theirs, and even if people couldn’t tell my ethnicity by looking at me, they could tell when they saw my parents while dropping kids off for birthday parties or sleepovers at my house, or at Parent-Teacher night, or, you know, when we were out in public.  The only instance I can recall when a matter of race did come up was in sixth grade or so, when a new girl asked me, rather earnestly, if I was mixed. Most of the time, it was a nonissue.

And it clearly still is a “nonissue”: A few weeks ago, I overheard my local boss, who is white, talking on the phone to an out-of-state boss, who is black. (And okay, I’m somewhat of a MXIE/IM stalker. Oh look who’s on the phone now!) I don’t know how my bosses got on the subject of race (though I suspect it might have been due to a discussion over the inclusion of a Hurricane Katrina piece in our most recent curriculum) and local boss said something to the effect of, “I don’t really know any black people around here.”

It took me somewhat aback, because, hello, person of half-color sitting in the next office over. But it didn’t (still doesn’t) seem appropriate to shout, “Hey, you’re wrong on that, because I’m half-black. Surprise!” (And yes, my ethnicity is recorded on my paperwork with HR. But current boss wasn’t the one to hire me, and it’s been about six years now since current boss joined the organization.)

Which got me to thinking, I’m not entirely sure how to categorize myself. One of my pet peeves is online surveys and whatnot that ask for race and have no option to indicate that I’m half-white, half-black. I don’t feel right picking “white.” I don’t feel right picking “black.” If I can’t select both, or if the survey in question has no option for “multiracial” or “multiethnic,” I always wind up choosing “other.”

Yes, that does bring up immediate connotations of the “other” as a sociological concept, which is more than its own blog post, so I won’t go into that here.

Granted, there are also the people who seem to not be able to categorize me, even when told. I’ve tried the online dating thing off and on, and there is at least one site that allowed me to select both ethnicities. Huzzah! I can more accurately present who I am! Screw you, “other”!

So I begin emailing back and forth with one guy, and eventually it progresses to phone calls, and at one point, the guy says, “I’m not sure how to say this without it sounding awkward,* but I have a question about something you put on your profile.”

I made the appropriate “Go on” noises, perhaps wondering if he wanted details about my baking prowess.

“I saw that you checked both white and black for race. What does that mean?”

Awkward pause on my part as I wondered why I needed to explain this. “It means that my dad is black and my mom is white, so I’m half-white, half-black. “

Guy with whom it did not work out: “Oh, ha ha! That explains it!”

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I subconsciously added this to a list of some other Things That Make Us Incompatible and the “relationship” fizzled out after the first face-to-face meeting.

Perhaps my ethnicity would have been clear if I could have used this for my profile pic.

Perhaps my ethnicity would have been clear if I could have used this for my profile pic.

So I exist in this place where I’d prefer my race not matter. And it shouldn’t. People shouldn’t care how much melanin I have or that my curly hair doesn’t come from a bottle or curling iron. However, the overheard conversation involving my bosses got me to thinking that for me, “it doesn’t matter” for a couple of reasons.

  • My locale, where people don’t care as much as those in the southern states might, or South Africa as it continues to heal (I think?) from apartheid, or other places where race relations continue to be tense.
  • Because I look white.

My experiences are not the experiences of others. Simply because I haven’t had many issues does not mean others don’t either. There is a huge difference between it “not mattering” because people assume I’m white as opposed to it not mattering because people truly don’t care. As a society, I don’t think we’ve yet reached that latter state.

Which brings me around to writing. (Well, not really, but let’s pretend this is a graceful segue. It’ll make me feel better.)  I’ve long been of the camp that one shouldn’t describe one’s characters in great detail, because readers come up with their own pictures anyway, and it can be jarring when they picture ABC while the writer goes on about XYZ. (I say this as a reader, where I start out picturing certain characters or brunette with brown eyes only to find out they’re redheads with blue eyes fifty pages later. My brain does not want to switch.)

However. I’m guilty of most often picturing characters as white. As a person of half-color myself, I should know better. As a person living in 2013, I should know better.

I could blame conditioning, that when you stick a bunch of WASPy illos on cover after cover, it filters into your subconscious, and that’s what your brain regurgitates. There’s some truth to that, I suppose. But conditioning should not be an excuse, again, because I’m a POHC myself.

I need to do better. And I am attempting to, with my WIP. I’m making a conscious effort to have a not-all-white cast of characters. But as yet, it still largely does adhere to “minimal description” mode, and I’ve also used the rather ungainly cheat of using names to indicate ethnicity. I do picture my characters as ethnic, but I think maybe I should put in the description. I think maybe my readers should get jarred by reading XYZ character descriptions when they’ve been picturing ABC.

Because then maybe, just maybe, people won’t think it weird when I check two different boxes for my ethnicity. More importantly, maybe they truly won’t care what I check.

 

*Honestly, he may have said offensive but the conversation is nearly two years old at this point, and my perceptions could be coloring (ha ha) my memory.

 ETA:  I schedule this post in advance and so didn’t take note that it’d post the same day as the 50th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” But the timing is apropos, if I say so myself.

Additional Reading

These are some posts I read that I’m sure filtered into my perceptions. All are thought-provoking and worth a gander.

Nicole Cottrell, “Why I Don’t Like to Talk About the Fact That I’m Black

N.K. Jemisin, “Continuum GoH Speech

Ellen Oh, “Why Being a POC Author Sucks Sometimes

John Scalzi, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is

 

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