Guest Author: Ryland Swain
In a workshop during a MFA residency at WV Wesleyan, a strong and brilliant woman of color challenged me with “your protagonist is skating on her white privilege.” Indeed, I am white and had presented a draft of a story set in Georgia, the place of my birth and upbringing, a story involving a black woman house cleaner who was accused of stealing money. The white (privileged) daughter worked to clear the woman’s name.
The challenge I received in the workshop affected me deeply, at first in a painful way. How could this be? I was a social worker, a progressive, and had all (supposedly) the right beliefs about race in America. I decided to do intensive reading on racism and the Africanist presence in literature. I gained, and am still working on, a new level of consideration and understanding of racism and my own unacknowledged white privilege.
Toni Morrison brought a totally new world of understanding to me in her seminal book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison points out there is an abiding, but largely unrecognized, Africanist presence in American literature.
Morrison lays down these propositions: “In the beginning, meaning was assigned to the color of skin,” and “…a black population (was) forced to serve as freedom’s polar opposite….” She illustrates these propositions with Mark’s Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl. I had always wondered why, at the end of the story, Twain had to leave Jim enslaved instead of setting him free. Morrison explains, in line with her thesis, that neither Twain nor any of his characters could imagine freedom for Jim because it would destroy the white people’s freedom. “The ways in which artists—and the society that bred them—transferred internal conflicts to a “blank darkness,” to conveniently bound and violently silenced black bodies, is a major theme in American literature.” Morrison contends that Sapphira, the slave owner, “…can and does, remain outside the normal requirements of adult womanhood because of the infantilized Africanist population at her disposal.”
Morrison wants “…a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters.” Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism offers the type of analysis Morrison called for. The original moral equation at the time of the founding of America was an ideal of equality, but a side bar of inequality to justify slavery. White people think racism makes them bad, so they deny it. However, white privilege is a reality for those with white skin, however unconscious that might be. I have more freedoms because of my white skin, I have a greater presumption of innocence until proven guilty, a greater sense of “belonging.” Whites have more power and control in society. It’s shocking to contemplate what has been wrought in our world and our culture because of this mistake, this corrosive travesty of thought.
In Between the World and Me, a memoir of his dealings with racial issues, Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks of “people who believe they are white.” Such are we who have founded our identity on the color of our skin. Knowledge that “whiteness” is a belief system with far-reaching and destructive consequences can empower the on-going struggle for equality and justice.
Needless to say, this is hard for “people who believe they are white” to do as long as the shadow of violence is projected onto people with darker skin. It remains of great interest that as the number of white male “shooters” increases, terror is claimed to be the work of brown people and people of non-Christian religions while there is silence on the white violence.
Angela Pelster Wiebe wrote, “I’ve learned that to feel the emotions of defensiveness rise up within me is to wake to the violence of my absorbed white supremacy…white artists often fail at this work because they haven’t centered themselves within the violence of their own whiteness.”
To struggle with my white privilege offers a path to wholeness by incorporating the “shadow,” a term used by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist. Jung had a deep interest in the shadow—its form and content—and in the process of assimilating “the thing a person has no wish to be.” Becoming familiar with the shadow is an essential part of a therapeutic relationship, of individuation, and of becoming more rounded, more whole and more colorful (yes, colorful.)
My novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Nothing Ever Happens Here, has white characters and people of color in modern-day Atlanta struggling over efforts to suppress the black vote. I hope to portray these folks as real and present with no invisibility for either in both heroic aspects and warts. Each iteration of this narrative reflects my own personal attitude adjustments and advances in understanding. Will it be perfect? Will I avoid criticism for my portrayals? I don’t think so, but I am unrelenting in listening to critiques and furthering my understandings of this profound and complex issue in our culture.