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White Writing

Dryfeld sported a camel hair coat, with lumps of the camel still attached, more padded horse-blanket than coat: it was stretched well beyond its limits in accommodating the dealer's rigid shoulders. His weight seemed all to have been compressed somewhere near the top of his spine, he had no neck. His skull was shaven, deathrow chic, and was so massive and burdened with unassimilated information that it tipped aggressively forward, almost onto his chest. He hunched his shoulders so that they could support the weight, striding at reckless speed, taken for a hunchback. The thick skin of his face stretched into a permanent frown.


Iain Sinclair, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings.


What race is Dryfeld?

It's not a trick question, there's no secret code, nothing to catch you at the last moment: Dryfeld is white. He is the half crazy book dealer from Sinclair's 1987 novel that mixed the White Chappell murders and Dryfeld's quest for a book in a dense mix of prose. I'm quite a fan of Sinclair's prose: I love the detail that he puts into it, the simple arrangement of his words, mapped out with what I would call a poet's sense of detail, but others might disagree. Still, I think that his description of Dryfeld is fantastic even if it does contain no mention of his skin colour. If Dryfeld were black, asian, indian, anything but white, it would be noted in that last line with a simple additional word.

The thick black skin of his face stretched into a permanent frown.


But Sinclair is a Western writer. We know that Dryfeld is white. White is the dominant racial colour. It's the normal. It doesn't have to be mentioned.

I'm not writing this post to hassle white Western World authors. I could have picked author's I liked less, could have listed those specifically related to speculative fiction--which is a very white world of imagination--and I could have directed you to Locus Online, where you could see the on the right hand side bar covers for Locus, which use facial shots of the authors they have interviewed, and you could take note of the very white presence there. Indeed, by mentioning the last, I want you to do the click and see it, but I'm not going to make a thing out of it. Yes, the authors are white, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be authors, that they should somehow step aside and allow other raced men and women to write simply to have a coloured presence. That's just stupid. There are plenty of good reasons why a lot of authors shouldn't be published and none of them have to do with their skin colour.

But maybe looking at the covers of Locus will set you down the path to noticing white colour. There's no judgment in that. I just want you to notice it. I just want you to think: being white isn't the normal.

I'm not innocent in this post. I'm not your Ghandi. In descriptions, I'm just as guilt of not writing that someone is white or caucasian. I've done it countless times. Occasionally, I still do it. There is a self confessional element when writing about whiteness and here is mine: I still have to remind myself that being white comes with a cultural weight. That there are people out there that when they turn on the television find a face staring back at them that isn't racially familiar. I forget this. There are days that go by when it doesn't occur to me. Since I've decided that I should list whiteness in my fiction, I've written stories where I haven't done it. It gets less and less, but it happens. My novel, Black Sheep, is an exploration of whiteness and globalism and racism and none of the characters in it are caucasian, and that thing took me three years to write, three years, but still, after that, I manage to forget.

There was a corridor and in a corridor stood a woman, A young woman, turned out in a pink suit, wearing pink high heels. The suit was coutured of a polished material, her face equally polished.


Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.


One of the things I ask myself, however, in fiction is, "Do people truly note race?"

I know a lot of Asian girls who read Harry Potter. If Potter descriptions lack references to race, do they then picture Harry in an Asian light? Did the readers who are non-white picture Dryfeld as a character in their respective race?

The reason this is a question is because, unlike visual representations of race, the mind's eye can and will cast a character differently to the real world, and that even relates to race. I remember when I first began reading translated novels of Japanese writers that I stopped at one stage and said, "None of these character are white." But for a while, that's how I had been picturing them. It was an unconscious thing. Innocent. Without thought. I even think it might have been with a Murakami novel, which would make sense, as he is often referencing Western icons such as the Beatles, though this in no way makes it excusable. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a book I quite like, btw, though it sadly has references to Duran Duran and the feel of bad eighties hair. It's so easy for me to picture bad eighties hair on a white person, but one must remember that bad eighties hair was a social problem for everyone in the eighties.

I'm not Japanese, so I have no cultural experience of what I'll say next, but it feels like a solid assumption. But while I sit here and tell you how whiteness isn't mentioned in Western fiction, in Japan, being Asian is treated likewise. It's the normal. It's not mentioned. It's invisible. Flip on the TV and rows of faces appear and when you're white, you'll not find them familiar. The dominant race changes and the position of power changes from culture to culture. The question of whiteness is specific to Western culture but much of the theory behind it can be applied to dominant racial images in different countries.

Troop 909 was doomed from the first day of camp; they were white girls, their complexions a blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla.


Z.Z. Packer, 'Brownies' from the collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.


While there is no immediate mention of the black girl's colour in Packer's story, I've chosen to quote it because there are two references, in the title (brownies) and in the title of the collection (coffee) that make you intensely aware of the fact that you are reading a story where the main characters are black, a collection where the main narrators will probably be black, all of which are written by a black author.

And I love that description of white skin.

Packer, however, raises an interesting question. In American culture, where black men and women have fought so much to be recognised as human beings (and therein raises an interesting question, because of course they are humans, but they fought for the equality that white humans enjoyed) there is sense that white people can make no demands on them, and what I'm going to type next is not done without a sense of being out of place. I feel white as I write it. But, if I am to suggest that authors and audience note whiteness when it is on the page, then I will also suggest that that same be done for blackness and asianness (the colour here is a racist term so I won't use it, though it does also point out how awkward we are as a culture with race related terms) and that no character ought to be simply assumed to belong to any race no matter the author.

That, of course, raises problems. It's easy for me as a white male to say, "Hey, whiteness, pay attention to it," but difficult for me to same the same about other races. It can be seen as being racist, sure, but mostly it can be seen as taking away, in the case of black men and women, their hard worn social fight for equality. By saying that black should be noted, I could be accused of trying to deny equality, when, in fact, my reason for noting it is in fact equality. Note whiteness, yes, but note every other race as well and, in theory, none will occupy that space of being the normal in any part of the Western World. This is not, after all, an issue that is contained with white people. It's just that in the West, being white is the dominant image, and white people have not had to deal with their racial weight for so long that the starting point is not with other races. In the Western World, anyone who is not white is aware of their race.

Are you?

Comments

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jack_ryder
Aug. 5th, 2005 02:23 am (UTC)
I became incredibly aware of how white I was during my month in a Fijian village. And for some time after.

What I've been trying consciously to do (and it saddens me that it's a conscious action) is to try and determination variation in features of those outside my colour. It's easy to do with those of your own colouring, difficult to do with those of a different colouration.
benpeek
Aug. 5th, 2005 03:09 am (UTC)
when you say determine features, do you mean, like, in people?
jack_ryder
Aug. 5th, 2005 03:25 am (UTC)
I should have said "Facial features".
bodhichitta0
Aug. 5th, 2005 01:31 pm (UTC)
Did you grow up predominately among white people? I have this problem too and I honestly think it's because I didn't see an Asian or an African American in real life until I was about eight or nine--when I went to Tiger's Stadium for the first time to a baseball game. My village was white, our county was white. There weren't even any Jewish people. We were the ones in the minority because we were Catholics.

Now I do much better but my first year at college, I would catch a glimpse of an African American girl and think "Oh, that's K from my dorm." And it wasn't. Then once you get to know the person, better their face is imprinted of course.

These aren't fun things to admit to, at all.
jack_ryder
Aug. 7th, 2005 10:11 pm (UTC)
Did you grow up predominately among white people?

Canberra is one of the whitest cities on the face of the planet, I would imagine.

My mother tells me I used to have an Aboriginal friend when I was about 4 or 5 (I dimly remember this) and due to my father's job training librarians we became good friends with a Japanese family (which probably started my interest in Japanese culture.) Due to his contacts my family now has strong connections in Fiji, and my mother has a lot of experience with Aboriginal communities. It was some time ago that I realised that we are trained to see race first (bearing in mind that anglo-saxons are invisible to other anglos as a "race") and the individual next, and that compensating by concentrating on the individuation of facial features helps to mitigate that unconscious discrimination.

In Australia there's a lot of talk about "Asians" as if they're a homogenous group. To me that makes as much sense as calling all whites "Europeans", it fails to take into account any cultural or national differences.
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