Writing and Reading Race
JONATHAN FRANZEN, JHUMPA LAHIRI, AND SHAWN WONG
I. Louis C.K., Thandeka, and the Question of Whiteness
In one of his routines, amid his usual kvetching, Louis C.K. stops and apologizes for being such a bummer. Admitting he’s a “lucky guy,” he explains:
I’m healthy, I’m relatively young. I’m white.
I mean thank god for that shit, boy.
That’s a huge leg up. Are you kidding me?
O my god, I love being white, I really do.
Seriously, if you’re not white, you’re missing out.
Because this shit is thoroughly good.
Let me be clear, by the way:
I’m not saying that white people are better.
I’m saying that being white is better.
Who can even argue?
For those who find this routine funny, the humor, as with most humor, arises from stating a truth that many people—in this case, white people—would rather not say out loud.
But even aside from whatever benefits they accrue from their whiteness, most white people would prefer not to refer to themselves as white. The reasons for this preference are multiple and often in part unconscious. Many whites consciously believe that any reference to race is itself racist, so the practice of avoiding identifying themselves or others as white is supposedly race neutral.
But the deeper reason that whites avoid racial identification involves the point of Louis C.K.’s routine: whites enjoy certain privileges for being white. To identify themselves as white hauls up the question of such privileges, and that is something most whites would rather avoid.
In Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America, theologian and college professor Thandeka starts by giving accounts by white people of key moments in their childhood or youth when they learned they were “white” and what being white meant. A white man speaks of telling a black student that the student is being expelled from his fraternity in a clear move of racial exclusion, a move the white man disapproved of but still went along with. A white woman describes a childhood experience when she invited a black friend to her birthday party and was then chastised by her mother for doing so. Most of these accounts cover similar incidents; none of them are particularly unusual.
Indeed, though the white persons telling these stories to Thandeka were sometimes surprised by the import or pain of such a moment, I myself have heard similar accounts. They mirror those of the white students in my “Writing on Race” workshop in the Stonecoast MFA program, when I ask them to write about when they first discovered their racial identity. In almost all their tellings, there is surprise—“oh, I am white”—accompanied by pain and/or feelings of shame; often something they’ve repressed surfaces as they do the exercise. When my students of color do this exercise, they are generally less surprised by what they write about. They’ve lived their lives knowing consciously that they have a racial identity, and they know that identity affects the ways they interact with the world and how they are perceived.
In Learning to Be White, what did surprise me is the reaction of whites to an experiment Thandeka devised called the Race Game. The game originated from Thandeka’s experience at a college where she was teaching. A white staff member asked Thandeka what it was like to be black and work at their institution. Thandeka replied that if her luncheon partner played the Race Game for one week, Thandeka would then answer the colleague’s question. The game consisted of one rule: For one week the woman was to “use the ascriptive term white” whenever she mentioned “the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, ‘my white husband, Phil,’ or ‘my white friend Julie,’ or ‘my lovely white child Jackie.’”
The white woman never had lunch with Thandeka again. Over and over, when Thandeka presented the idea of the Race Game, white colleagues refused to engage in it. One colleague wrote her that in the future she hoped to have the courage to do so. In her gloss on these refusals, Thandeka writes: “African Americans have learned to use a racial language to describe themselves and others. Euro-Americans also have learned a pervasive racial language. But in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.”
Whether liberal or conservative, many whites believe the way to achieve racial harmony is simply to never speak about or call attention to race. This ostensible silence is practiced in regard to people of color, but it is even more strictly enforced when whites refer to themselves. Basically, the ideology can be summed up as follows: Don’t speak about race, and race will not exist. Moreover, talk about race inevitably leads to conflict or is evidence of racism. Therefore, the solution is not to talk about race. If we don’t talk about race, then racism must not exist.
This prescriptive silence is often echoed in creative writing workshops. Recently, a writer of color informed me that a white poet had said to her in class, “To tell you the truth I’m just not interested in poems about identity. Isn’t the goal to be beyond race?”
For most people of color, this solution—just don’t talk about race—simply doesn’t work; it would render us incapable of accessing and describing both our experiences and our identity. We know racism exists as the practice of individuals and in the social systems in our society. We know we cannot fully describe the experiences of our lives without reference to race, without employing the lens of race.
This same divide also occurs in the world of literature. Most white writers can observe the rules of silence on racial discourse and still tell their stories as they understand them. In doing so, they think and write about their experiences with a set of lenses, a set of tools and categories of thought, that are very different from those employed by writers of color. And yet like most whites in this country, they do not think about how and why they think about race in the ways that they do. Their epistemology of race is not a subject many of them consider.
In this essay, I want to examine how race is built into the very structures through which white writers and writers of color tell their stories and describe the realities of their characters. I begin with a literary rule that white writers seldom consciously consider: if the character is white, the race of that character does not need to be mentioned or indicated in any direct way.
The absence of a racial marker means that the character is by default white. The exception to the rule is always the character of color. In considering this convention, what many often overlook is that whiteness here is instituted not only as the norm; its very existence must also be kept invisible, unremarked upon. In other words, this literary practice presupposes that white characters need not be identified racially. Race for them is not a significant part of their identity or social reality. Nor is it an important consideration in who they are and what they have experienced in life.
But what if we step back from this practice and see it not as natural or instinctive—that is, as it is practiced by most white writers? What if we regard this practice as socially constructed, that is, as part of the racial construction of whiteness? For this practice certainly embodies and reflects a central way that whiteness has been defined—or rather not defined—by our society.
At the same time, the practice also presupposes that characters of color must be identified racially, that race is a crucial part of their identity or social reality. This is the way race is defined for people of color.
Two different practices based on racial identity: separate and unequal.
This difference is related, of course, to Toni Morrison’s declaration in Playing in the Dark that up until recently, white writers did not even consider the possibility of a reader of color. The absence of a consideration of such a reader was simply an unconscious assumption.
However, if one consciously considers these practices, certain questions arise: Who benefits from these different practices in regard to naming the race of a person or character? What is missing from the white definition of race that is included in the definition of race for people of color?
Does the contradiction between these two definitions of racial identity—white and people of color—make sense? That is, do whites lack a racial identity while only people of color possess one? Obviously, this notion is absurd. Is it people of color who gave themselves their racial identity? No, historically white people have done this. Is the identity and experience of people of color based solely on the practices of people of color? Again, the answer is no.
Examining the fallacies invoked here leads to several revealing questions concerning race and literature. The first is, If the very way white writers introduce their characters and the very way writers of color introduce their characters are racialized, how is it that any piece of American fiction, whether written by a white person or a person of color, escapes being racialized?
What would our literature look like if this rule were not the norm? How difficult is it for whites to identify themselves as white? And what exactly is the cause of this difficulty? When writers of color acknowledge their racial reality, what does this allow them to accomplish in their writing? Does the fact that most white writers don’t do so indicate that these writers are simplifying or leaving out parts of their reality? How are these two different literary practices related to what we deem craft and artistic excellence?
All these are questions few white writers even acknowledge, much less attempt to wrestle with.
II. Jonathan Franzen and Freedom
I’ll start then with a basic premise: It’s instructive to explore the difference between the ways a white writer introduces a white character and the ways writers of color introduce their characters of color. Such an examination reveals far more about the relationship between literature and race than many realize.
As an example of white literary practice, here is the opening of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom:
The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.
Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill—the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. Early on, some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in sweatclothes and said, “Hey, you guys, you know what?” Patty frightened nobody, but she’d been a standout athlete in high school and college and possessed a jock sort of fearlessness. From her very first day in the neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a smaller stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands, ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.
Walter and Patty aren’t specifically designated as white, but, in absence of any markers indicating otherwise, that is the reader’s assumption, and Franzen knows this. (Their last name, Berglund, reads as European American, but I know Korean adoptees with Germanic and Scandinavian last names.)
In his social portrait of the Berglunds, Franzen’s task seems to be to differentiate the Berglunds from the other whites—also never racially designated—in their St. Paul neighborhood and to indicate the Berglunds’ socioeconomic class. The Berglunds are not like the “urban gentry of Ramsey Hill,” who read the New York Times, nor are they like the sunburned bikers across the alley. The Berglunds are “greener than Greenpeace,” listeners of public radio, users of The Silver Palate Cookbook, and new yuppie parents; in terms of St. Paul’s geography, they are the first college grads who have moved into their neighborhood, the first pioneers in a gentrification process. Franzen’s portrait carries a good dose of social satire, which continues into the third paragraph:
In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be?
These questions continue for several more sentences. Part of Franzen’s skill in listing such questions is to pin down with great accuracy a specific urban social class: white yuppie gentrifiers. At the same time, his version of realism also marks a limit: race is mentioned but only in passing, and of course, it is the person of color—who must be designated as such—who brings this intrusion. Thus there’s one question about the effect of gentrification on the blacks who have lived in the neighborhood previously. The issues raised in this confrontation occupy the same importance in the Berglunds’ consciousness as “What about those cloth diapers?” and “Was bulgur really necessary?” This implied equivalence in part satirizes the Berglunds. But at the same time, it marks a limit to how far the issues of race and whiteness will intrude on Franzen’s portrait of their world—that is, race will be absent here. The Berglunds are more concerned about other matters, and Franzen, one could argue, is simply reflecting their vision of the world.
If I were to say that the Berglunds and their creator share a “white” vision of the world, what does that mean? And what does that have to say about the set of assumptions concerning race that undergird the “realist” aesthetic of Franzen’s novel?
For one thing, the depicted reality of the Berglunds and thus the realism of Franzen depend in part on circumscribing and silencing the presence of race in the lives of the Berglunds. Franzen is giving us his version of reality; that is his right. But that doesn’t mean I as a reader must be unconscious of what his version of reality leaves out. As David Palumbo Lieu has argued, the concept and practice of realism rely both on agreements and challenges and are far more open to the latter than many realize.* Often white writers—especially if they do not consider readers of color—assume that there is no disagreement about the nature of social reality. Most writers of color assume that there is disagreement, and race is an essential battleground within this disagreement. Unlike Morrison’s traditional white author who did not envision a reader of color, writers of color are also aware their work will be interpreted and evaluated by white readers as well as readers of color.
From this opening, Franzen’s Freedom moves on to focus on an adulterous triangle and an affair between Patty Berglund and her husband Walter’s best friend, Richard, a rock-and-roll musician. Later in the novel, Walter becomes involved in ecological issues that engender clashes with the Berglunds’ son Joey. The social portrait that begins the novel and the shifting economics of the Berglunds’ neighborhood are never really revisited in any detail nor are the changing demographics of that area of the city, which has included the influx of Southeast Asian immigrants as well as white gentrifiers into a historically black neighborhood.
Rather than focusing on the neighborhood, Franzen’s novel is more about the breakdown of one family, and this is a perfectly fine subject for a novel. I merely want to point out that in this novel, Franzen eschews the lens of race to examine the lives of the Berglunds. They’re middle-class white people. Why should race matter to them at all?
In an interview for Slate, Isaac Chotiner asked Franzen, “Have you ever considered writing a book about race?” Here’s his answer:
I have thought about it, but—this is an embarrassing confession—I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare. . . . Didn’t marry into a black family. I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.
To his credit, Franzen speaks more candidly than many white writers might. Reading Franzen’s remarks, I recall Major Jackson’s article several years ago in the American Poetry Review, where Jackson asked why white poets didn’t write more about race. One reason Jackson listed was that most white poets don’t have many black friends.
Later in the interview, talking about his novel Purity, Franzen observed that having lived in Germany for two and a half years and knowing the literature was not enough to be able to write about German people. It was the fact that he started making German friends that established an entry: “The portal to being able to write about it was suddenly having these friends I really loved. And then I wasn’t the hostile outsider; I was the loving insider.”
To me, a logical question is why doesn’t Franzen have “many black friends”? Why is it more possible for him to have several friends he loves who are German but few who are black Americans? After all, Franzen is an American and not a German. Are the barriers of race greater for him than those of culture and nationality? Franzen doesn’t ask or reveal if he has unconsciously or consciously decided not to seek out friendships with black Americans. Nor does he wonder if his lack of friendships with black Americans has something to do with the way he approaches both his own identity and theirs; this reflection would involve asking whether black Americans who meet Franzen feel that he is a white man with whom they could have an authentic relationship, one where they as black Americans could feel they could be themselves and trust the other person to accept and value who they are.
Tellingly, in the interview, Franzen doesn’t seem to realize that he actually has written about race. In Freedom, Walter Berglund, the white husband, eventually has an interracial affair with a twenty-five-year-old Indian American, Lalitha.
Does this relationship and character break or not break the personal rule Franzen seems to set up in the interview? I may be wrong, but I seriously doubt that he has a trove of South Asian friends. He may have had a love affair with an Indian American woman, though based on the evidence of this novel, I doubt it.
Whatever Franzen’s personal relations, his portrait of this affair between an older white male and a younger Asian American female is problematic at best and certainly bears more scrutiny than most critics have given it. The Indian American woman, Lalitha, is portrayed as adoring Walter. She praises his “vision” for a problematic project that purports to be environmentally minded but is devised in partnership with a coal company; she tells Walter that he’s clearly superior to his college friend, a famous rock-and-roll musician who is Walter’s rival and who has slept with Walter’s wife. After an encounter with his rival, Richard, Lalitha tells Water, “All I could see when we were talking was how much he admires you.”
As a reader familiar with Edward Said’s Orientalism and other postcolonial critical works, I can’t help but be troubled by the ways such a relationship echoes various Orientalist tropes, tropes Franzen doesn’t seem wary of or even aware of—the powerful, superior, and masculine West and the less powerful, inferior, feminine East. Instead, the novel takes this adoration and this affair on face value, or rather, in the way the older white male, Walter, regards it.
To be fair, the novel remains outside the subjectivity of the young Indian American woman. Part of this stems from the fact that it is narrated from the viewpoint of Walter and his family and not from Lalitha’s. Still, within a limited omniscient narrative, the novelist can make clear the limitations or blind spots of the protagonist’s consciousness. But I cannot find any signals or hints that any racial reading or critique is at play in the novel.
Now it is true that Asian Americans in general, and Indian Americans in particular, are positioned differently racially than black Americans. These differences are myriad and far too complex to go into in this essay. But on a larger level, I would maintain that a young Indian American who enters a relationship with an older white American male must, at some level, consciously or unconsciously, process their racial differences in experience and identity. Moreover, these differences are at play whether or not the young Indian American woman is aware of how they have affected and shaped her sexual desires. This would seem especially true given that Lalitha gets involved with Walter right after ending her relationship with an Indian American, Jairam, who, according to Walter, “was thick-bodied and somewhat ugly but arrogant and driven, a heart surgeon in training.” Note that “ugly” here is Walter’s assessment, and yet the question of racialized standards of appearance never arises.
Clearly, in her idolization of Walter, Lalitha sees him as a figure of power, and this power cannot be separated from his position as a white male or in terms of how she views both Indian American men and other men of color. One would reasonably suspect that this affair may stem in part from her relationship with her family, but the issue of how her family views Jairam or Walter never comes up in the novel. As I’ve said, nothing in this novel critiques her relationship with Walter and its absence of racial investigation; there is no one else in Walter’s world who might bring an alternative racial reading to this relationship, much less anyone who would question here the tropes of Orientalism—adoring younger Asian female, powerful older white male.
But even beyond the problematic relationship, Franzen’s portrait of Lalitha lacks a specificity that can only be constructed with a lens that takes into account ethnicity and race. For instance, Lalitha apparently speaks with a “lilt” of an accent, but we are never told at exactly what age she came to America. That fact would indicate something of how she might process her identity and would affect also her knowledge and relationship to American society and culture. To arrive as an immigrant at seven or twelve or sixteen are entirely different experiences, but my suspicion is that Franzen hasn’t considered such differences.
After Walter throws his wife, Patty, out of the house, almost immediately he and Lalitha make love for the first time. The description does nothing to dispel suspicions that the Orientalism here is not only Walter’s but also the author’s:
He needed the quick fix simply in order to keep functioning—to not get leveled by hatred and self-pity—and, in one way, the fix was very sweet indeed, because Lalitha really was crazy for him, almost literally dripping with desire, certainly strongly seeping with it. She stared into his eyes with love and joy, she pronounced beautifully and perfect and wonderful the manhood that Patty in her document had libeled and spat upon. What wasn’t to like? He was a man in his prime, she was adorable, and young and insatiable; and this, in fact, was what wasn’t to like.
Note here how, in Walter’s mind, the differences between him and Lalitha are their positions in power—she is his assistant—and age. Race is not worth remarking on. But then this follows:
His emotions couldn’t keep up with the vigor and urgency of their animal attraction, the interminability of their coupling. She needed to ride him, she needed to be crushed underneath him, she needed to have her legs on his shoulders, she needed to do the Downward Dog and be whammed from behind, she needed bending over the bed, she needed her face pressed against the wall, she needed her legs wrapped around him and her head thrown back and her very round breasts flying every which way. It all seemed intensely meaningful to her, she was a bottomless well of anguished noise, and he was up for all of it. In good cardiovascular shape, thrilled by her extravagance, attuned to her wishes, and extremely fond of her. And yet it wasn’t quite personal, and he couldn’t find his way to orgasm. And this was very odd, an entirely new and unanticipated problem, due in part, perhaps, to his unfamiliarity with condoms, and to how unbelievably wet she was.
As Toni Morrison demonstrates in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the unconscious racial assumptions of white authors can reveal themselves in myriad ways. One is terrible prose. The prose is so bad here—“almost literally dripping with desire,” “bottomless well of anguished noise,” “In good cardiovascular shape”—I at first wondered if the passage were simply satirizing Walter, but Franzen’s brand of satire is not Tom Wolfe’s. Beyond the poor prose, there is an undergirding to this passage that’s clearly racialized. If this were a student of mine, and not one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation, I couldn’t imagine getting through a workshop without flagging this passage (though I can imagine that in certain white instructors’ workshops, a student of color who flagged this passage would be called out for “political correctness”).
In Walter’s mind, Lalitha “needed to be crushed underneath him.” Now this might be contextualized simply as a patriarchal attitude, but then what does one do with the awful “Downward Dog” reference? On one level, Walter is aware that Lalitha is of a different race and culture; indeed, a drunk white man in a restaurant has previously made crude racist remarks about the pair, using the N-word. But any deep contemplation of race never really enters Walter’s consciousness. And yet what would the reader think if Lalitha were black and Walter believed she “needed to be crushed underneath him”? Racial alarm bells would go off everywhere. One surmises that Franzen hasn’t imagined an Asian American reader or even simply a reader of postcolonial studies for whom Freedom’s interracial relationship would set off similar alarms.
Perhaps in part because Lalitha is an Indian American, Franzen can enter this territory without getting flagged—flagged for his lack of knowledge of the psychology, culture, and history of Indian Americans; flagged for his one-dimensional characterization of Lalitha and her desire; flagged for never questioning the racist assumptions that underlie the Orientalism not just in this passage but in the whole relationship and in Walter’s own perceptions of Lalitha. In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison faults Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl for absenting race from an examination of Cather’s white female protagonist’s struggle with power and sexuality. Similarly, the buried and unexplored aspect of Walter’s identity here involves his being not just a middle-class, middle-aged man but a middle-class, middle-aged white man.
I focus on Franzen’s weaknesses here and his blinders about race not because they are particularly egregious but because they are, I would assert, representative and common. Now I can understand a young white fiction writer thinking, “Well, if one of the most celebrated white novelists of his generation can’t enter this territory without floundering, why would I choose to enter here?” Indeed, I’ve had young white writers express to me similar doubts.
Let me make clear that, contrary to what Lionel Shriver might maintain, I am not saying authors can’t cross racial boundaries and write about characters not of their own race. But one can do this in a way that falsifies, simplifies, and fails to portray the complexities of a character of another race—or one can do this in a way that does justice to the reality of that character, that acknowledges the character’s complexity and the full nature of his or her reality and experience. But to do so requires a greater range of racial experience and a greater knowledge of the literature, culture, and history of the racial other than most white writers possess (as Franzen himself implicitly acknowledges in his Slate interview).
Moreover, I maintain that as long as white writers unconsciously assume whiteness and the whiteness of their characters as the universal default, both as a literary technique and as an approach to the world, they will almost always fail when they attempt to portray people of color, whether in fiction or in nonfiction. Such a foundation to the racial thinking of white writers can render them incapable of understanding the reality of people of another race. In the rest of this essay and the following essay, I will discuss why I make this assertion.
For now, if you are a white writer writing about a character of color, here is one consideration: Do you have friends or colleagues of that race who would openly and freely tell you if you are failing in that task and how and why, and would you be willing to seriously consider their critiques? If not, then perhaps you should not go there. But if you’ve actually done the necessary work—both personally in your life and on a literary and intellectual level—and you are willing to keep going even if you fail in your first attempts, then, yes, go there, go there knowing that this is a worthwhile struggle.
III. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Only Goodness” and Shawn Wong’s American Knees
To understand the deficiencies in Franzen’s perspective on Walter and Lalitha’s relationship, I want to examine two Asian American writers.
For some writers of color, their character’s ethnic identity, rather than her or his racial identity, takes precedence. An example can be found in the opening of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “Only Goodness” (from her book of short stories Unaccustomed Earth):
It was Sudha who’d introduced Rahul to alcohol, one weekend he came to visit her at Penn—to his first drink from a keg and then, the next morning in the dining hall, his first cup of coffee. He’d pronounced both beverages revolting, preferring Schnapps to the beer and emptying a dozen packets of sugar in his coffee cup. That had been his junior year of high school. When she was home the following summer he asked her to buy him some six packs, planning to have a party one weekend when their parents were going to be in Connecticut overnight. He’d shot up to six feet, braces off his teeth, whiskers sprouting around his mouth, dark pimples occasionally studding his cheekbones, her little brother in name only. She went to a local liquor store, helping Rahul divvy up the cans between his room and hers so that their parents wouldn’t discover them.
After her parents were asleep she brought some cans into Rahul’s room. He snuck downstairs, bringing back a cup of ice cubes to chill down the warm Budweiser. They shared one cupful, then another, listening to the Stones and the Doors on Rahul’s record player, smoking cigarettes next to the open window and exhaling through the screen. It was as if Sudha were in high school again, doing things she once hadn’t had the wits or guts for. She felt a new bond with her brother, a sense, after years of regarding him as just a kid, that they were finally friends.
Sudha had waited until college to disobey her parents. . . . They were prudish about alcohol to the point of seeming Puritanical, frowning upon the members of their Bengali circle—the men, that was to say—who liked to sip whiskey at gatherings.
From this passage, the reader intuits that Sudha and her brother are first-generation, middle-class Indian Americans; ethnically they are Bengali, and their parents observe either religious—Bengalis are more likely to be Muslim—or cultural strictures against alcohol. Lahiri seemingly cannot presume that without any ethnic markers, the reader will know that her characters are Bengali Americans from an immigrant family. She must “tell” this rather than “show,” although she skillfully hides this “tell” by slipping it in when focusing on the issue of the use of alcohol, which is the anchoring theme of the story.
At the same time, Lahiri must create a portrait of these siblings and their family using various indicators, some that might be used by any American author and some particular to her specific ethnic American characters. The family’s middle-class status is indicated by Rahul’s braces and his going to Penn. The siblings were either born in America or came to America at a young enough age to have grown up with American drinking habits and musical tastes.
While ethnicity is present from the story’s start through the names of the characters, race is not a major focus in this passage or in the story as a whole. Instead the story focuses on the sister’s contribution to Rahul’s eventual drinking problems, which take place within a middle-class Indian/Bengali immigrant family. The questions explored involve the family’s dynamics and the way the two siblings react to their upbringing and their parents’ Bengali American–centered social life.
Eventually Rahul leaves the middle-class, college-educated track his parents have laid out for him. He ends up marrying a white working-class woman and living in her town. Tellingly, his experiences with this woman and the white working-class world are beyond the parameters of the story, which is told from his sister Sudha’s viewpoint. Sudha moves to London and marries a white British art magazine editor, and the story’s ending centers on a visit from Rahul when his drinking issues reappear.
Lahiri does a superb job of depicting Sudha’s guilt over helping to start Rahul’s drinking and her reluctant realization concerning how far Rahul’s alcoholism has progressed. On the surface, the story seems less about the cultural displacements of immigrant life or the tensions between the Indian parents and their American-born children than about the complicated relationship between the two siblings and how far Rahul has strayed from his parents and his sister. Though she marries a white Brit, by obtaining her degree and getting a professional job, Sudha has seemingly fulfilled her pact with her parents. If she hasn’t remained within their Bengali social circle, she’s observed their general economic and educational dictates. The outlier, the one who has left the family orbit, is Rahul, and this is because of his drinking problems, his lack of a middle-class job, and his marriage to a working-class white woman.
What the reader may not see, though, is that the story itself (and Lahiri’s general aesthetic practices), as it is constructed, cannot contain what happens to Rahul once he has left the orbit of the family, once he has left the middle-class milieu that the family and Sudha live and work within—that is, once he enters white working-class America. For there, in his entry into the white working-class world of his wife, Rahul has surely encountered and experienced not just how he is viewed culturally by white America but also how he is viewed racially, which brings up a whole different set of realities and lenses.
Let me be clear here: Lahiri is absolutely free to present whatever part of the reality of her characters that she chooses. If she chooses not to follow Rahul out into America, it might partly be because the story is told from the sister’s point of view. But it is permissible I think to note the parameters of the story, the ways it designates what elements of the siblings’ world will be included and what will not. In terms of ethnicity and culture, the siblings’ experience as immigrant children, as children of Bengali parents, is included. The siblings’ experience of being racially categorized in America—or in England—is not.
For a more racial reading of the Asian American experience, let’s look at the opening of Shawn Wong’s novel American Knees:
Being the only two Asians at a party, they tried to avoid each other but failed. They touched accidentally several times. They watched each other furtively from across the room.
Aurora Crane had arrived first. They were her friends, her office mates, and it was their party. Raymond Ding was only a guest of her boss, who was the host of the office party. A visitor from out of town invited at the last minute. A friend of a friend in the city for only three days to do some business. When he arrived at the front door, she knew before he did that they were the only two Asians at a party. With dread she knew her boss would make a special point of introducing him to her and that one by one her friends, the loyal, would betray her and pair her with him. They would probably be introduced several times during the evening. It made sense to them. There was no real covert activity, no setup, no surprise blind date, no surprise dinner companion seated not so coincidentally next to her. She was not at home with mother meeting not so coincidentally her mother’s idea of a “nice Japanese boy.” She had a boyfriend (unfortunately in another city and not Asian and a lover none of the loyal had met and to add to the further misfortune, some knew she had moved away from him to define a future without him making it very complex in her mind, but simple in the minds of the now distrustfully loyal).
Prior to the impending introductions, she wondered when they would make eye contact, when he would realize they were the only two Asians at the party. She hoped to God he wasn’t an insecure Asian male who would only talk to her. She hoped to God he wouldn’t see her as every Asian boy’s answer to the perfect woman—half-white, half Asian, just enough to bring home to Mother while maintaining the white girl fantasy. This gets somewhat complex, certainly more complex than Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. Aurora Crane is a Eurasian Jennifer Jones. Is the Asian boy William Holden? He’d like to think so.
Aurora Crane and Raymond Ding are middle class—they meet at an office party —Asian Americans. Their being racially categorized as Asians is there from the start. As an Asian American, Aurora is aware of the ways her white coworkers will react to discovering that she and Raymond are the only two Asians at the party: her coworkers will try to pair up the two Asians. Clearly Aurora bridles at the assumption and impertinence of this “like with like” pairing. Why would her white coworkers assume that she and the Asian male at the party would have anything in common other than their race? At the same time, for Aurora, such a potential coaxing is not nearly as irritating as her mother’s efforts to pair her with “a nice Japanese boy.”
Even as Aurora balks at the racial expectations of her white coworkers, she has her own expectations and even stereotypes concerning Raymond. Raymond might be one of those “insecure” Asian males; he might have a thing for Eurasians. With the latter delineation of racial desire, Wong must have Aurora explain what causes this desire, how it is rooted in both family concerns and the racial hierarchy of desire—“the white girl fantasy.” (This explanation is for the reader who is not Asian American.)
An instability is present here that is not found in Lahiri’s story. There the demarcation between the cultural assumptions of both Sudha and her family and those of the rest of American society is quite clear and at least for Sudha, though not perhaps for Rudha, firm. But for the two main characters in Wong’s novel, the lines between their ethnic and racial identity, on the one hand, and the mainstream white society around them, on the other, are neither firmly nor clearly etched. Aurora’s mother may be Japanese (and probably not Japanese American), but Aurora’s father is white. Thus she is racially and ethnically mixed. Moreover, it’s clear that she sees herself less bound by her Japanese mother’s expectations and thus by Japanese cultural expectations (though she may be reacting against those expectations as a form of rebellion or declaration of her own independence). Her consciousness and her sense of identity are not placed at a far remove from her white coworkers; she is, supposedly, an American just like them. But then Raymond shows up, his presence highlighting her difference, marking her identity as an Asian American. This is not quite the same position as when one feels oneself inalterably Othered, either ethnically or racially (as say a Somali or black American might experience).
As the novel progresses, it turns out that Raymond is not an insecure Asian male, nor does he look at Aurora as the Eurasian sexual ideal. His consciousness of himself as an Asian American actually resembles hers—both inside the white world and not quite part of it—and this is one of the reasons that the two end up together; it is also one of the reasons that their relationship is fraught with complications. Both their own individual sense of identity and their position within mainstream white society are never quite stable, never quite distinctly defined in their own minds or in the eyes of those around them.
On a broader level, it’s clear that Wong’s vision of his characters involves not just their ethnicity—that is, the bicultural nature of Asian American identity—but also their racial category and how the characters themselves and those around them process that racial identity. For Aurora, the gaze of whiteness plays a significant role, both in terms of how whites see her—external—and how their gaze affects the way she sees herself and other Asians—internal. At the same time, what is going on in her consciousness concerning her racial identity is something that is not transparent or even evident to her white coworkers.
To a great extent, Wong must assume the same lack of knowledge in his white readers. His task is to negotiate meaning through the Asian American consciousness of Aurora and still make her consciousness clear and available to the white reader. Unlike Franzen, he writes with an awareness of his racial Other not just in terms of his characters but also in terms of the racial Other as a reader.
IV. White Characters and Characters of Color
In this essay, I’ve tried to provide readings of three texts through the lenses of ethnicity and race. I hope that they will enable the reader to better acknowledge the complexity of the ways writers of color use the lenses of race and ethnicity in their fiction. Indeed, in writing this essay, I myself have been surprised at the intricacies and layers of racial readings involved in just the opening of these two works by writers of color (and in the two works discussed in the following essay).
From these readings, several generalizations or conclusions can be made here. As exhibited in their use of the literary convention that allows them to not identify their white characters racially, most white writers work from certain basic assumptions about race and literature:
The default identity of a character—that is, the identity unless otherwise indicated—is white.
White authors thus do not have to label their white characters by race.
In following this convention, white writers generally assent to the assumption that race is not a significant lens through which to view their characters.
The text need not acknowledge how people of color might view the white characters or how a reader of color might view the white characters.
Thus the gaze and judgment of the racial other will not be present or accounted for in the text.
Overall, then, the literary judgment of a work by a white writer does not need to take into account the lens of race.
What is missing from the text because the lens of race is not employed can have no effect on our literary evaluation of that text.
For writers of color, a different set of assumptions are at work:
The writer of color must identify her characters in terms of ethnicity and/or race if the characters are not white.
In exploring the character’s ethnicity or race, the writer of color must make a decision concerning the ways a white reader, a reader of the writer’s own group, and other readers of color will read the text.
This decision involves an aesthetic question that most white writers do not ask themselves.
Many characters of color are aware of how whites view them and not just how people of the characters’ own race view them.
Thus the character of color is aware of the gaze and judgment of the racial/white Other and the racial hierarchy that structures the society to the benefit of that racial/white Other.
For many writers of color, the lens of race is essential to understanding their characters as well as the way the writer views her characters and the larger society.
The difference in these assumptions then inevitably comes into play when a writer of color enters a writing class or an MFA program where the majority of professors and students are white—which is to say, just about any writing program in the country:
In writing programs where the professor is a white writer, he will generally be unaware of or not discuss the techniques through which a writer of color indicates and explores ethnicity or race.
This neglect is partly because the aesthetics of most white writing view such indications as unnecessary, inessential, or exceptions to the norm.
If a writer of color specifically employs the lens of race, doing so places that writer at odds with the assumptions of white writers who believe the lens of race is inessential or unimportant.
Employing the lens of race also puts the writer of color in conflict with those who argue that American society is postracial or, at the very least, that race is not a significant factor in American life.
Inevitably the clash between the writer of color and the white professor and students also affects how the writer of color’s work is judged:
The writer’s ability to read her characters and the society through the lens of race and her ability to convey the complexities of that reading constitute significant criteria through which readers of color evaluate writers of color.
For the white readers to make such an evaluation, they must be aware of the ways people of color use the lens of race to understand themselves, their communities, and the society in which they live.
Most white readers do not possess this knowledge. It goes against the aesthetic—and political—assumption that race is not a significant and necessary lens through which to understand characters, whether they are white or people of color.
Such differences occur because most white readers do not assume that race is a necessary lens to view their own lives. They do not often think or want to be conscious of their own racial identity (which naming white characters as white would force them to do).
To maintain this view, white writers and readers must deem the lens of race unnecessary to an essential understanding of the society they live in or to its literature.
It is therefore impossible to argue that race is not a factor in the aesthetic judgment of works by either white writers or writers of color.
As I’ve implied, the difference in aesthetics I’ve been exploring possesses a political dimension. That white writers don’t identify their white characters racially or view race as significant to their white characters’ experience stems from a specific definition of whiteness: Except in instances of obvious racial discord or crisis, race is not a central question white people need to confront. Moreover, race is always a less significant problem or factor than people of color maintain. To put it another way, when white people interact without people of color present, race is not a question. The question of race supposedly only resides in interactions with or between people of color.
Given this understanding, the dominant white culture’s view is that only the writer of color’s exploration of racial identity and experience is political. Thus writers of color in white-dominated workshops are sometimes told, “I like it better when you don’t write about race” or “Why does everything have to be about race?” Or, a bit less baldly, “You”—the writer of color—“write politically while we”—the white writers in the workshop—“write aesthetically and not politically.” This is a mindless critique, almost laughable if not for the damage it does to beginning writers of color. For white writers’ avoidance of race is decidedly political.* This avoidance does have a political effect: It serves to bolster and camouflage rather than challenge the racial inequities and biases in contemporary society; it implicitly contradicts the assertion that race affects the interactions of everyone in this society; it embodies and upholds society’s reigning racial ideology. White writers who do address race in their work very quickly discover the purpose of the taboo for doing so.
We are approaching a point when whites will no longer be the majority racial group in the United States; indeed, 2012 was the first year in which more babies of color were born in America than white babies. Is it difficult to believe that with such demographic changes, at some point the default race of an unidentified character will no longer be white? If that changes, will white writers finally be forced to grapple with the realities that most writers of color have grappled with all along? I do believe certain white writers will begin to understand that a deeper investigation into and redefining of white identity will lead to new creative energies and a wider and more complex depiction of both white individuals and the society they live in.
Finally, when will writers of color begin to be read with an understanding of the complexity and literary merit that their works deserve?
* Liu explains in The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press): “Analysis of literary realism allows us to diagnose the reputed commonality of behavior, how different people might act in concert with others, but also, this literature, as literature, contains a critical, self-reflective element. If literature has been charged with delivering the lives of others to us for our enrichment and betterment, how, if at all, does this new otherness change our assumptions about what is realistic, about what is common to all human beings in their behaviors, choices, actions, judgments?”
* I wrote this essay well before Donald Trump was elected president. But Trump’s election makes the points I’m making here both more obvious and more complicated. As Nell Irvin Painter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others have pointed out, Trump campaigned and was elected as a white president for white America; this marks a shift from a submerged or hidden white identity to a self-proclaimed white identity. The research of social psychologists indicates that the more whites are aware of America’s shifting racial demographics, the more they embrace whiteness as a conscious identity and the more conservative they become in their thinking, even with nonracial issues. What this means for progressive white artists is a question still to be answered by white artists themselves.