Writing Racist Characters

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the covers of White Fragility and Playing in the Dark

I believe it’s time that white authors, and I include myself among them, tell the stories of our racism. Increasingly, we have written and dialogued about embedded racism and multicultural dynamics in our fiction. We often serve on panels about the tricky nature of writing from perspectives beyond our own, or featuring tips on cultural sensitivity and expansiveness in our storytelling, and while I appreciate what these conversations have brought about, there are uniquely white stories that all of us know intimately, and that we aren’t telling: stories of white people perpetrating racism.

Sociologist Robin DiAngelo writes in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism that “white people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions.” Additionally, she writes, because white people maintain dominance in our society—operating, for example, all major branches of government and major corporations—we are the only ones who can execute our specific breed of racism. Therefore, the stories of people casually and brutally enacting racism are ours to be familiar with.

Our sensitivity to being called racist or associated with racism is likely what chills any storytelling about it. But Toni Morrison long argued for the importance of this sort of storytelling. In her 1992 book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, she suggests that authors and literary critics consider “the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it.” The narratives of racism’s victims, including slaves, have proved invaluable, “but equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters.”

Her call is a daring one, even twenty-seven years later, because telling stories in which a protagonist’s racism is the central tension requires, first, that the white author acknowledge and explore their familiarity with racism. The author is responsible for understanding their character’s motivations and worldview, and if the writer can understand this point-of-view, she can’t declare unfamiliarity with it.

A few writers have already begun to tell these stories, not all of them white. “Where Is the Voice Coming from?” by Eudora Welty and “Boys Go to Jupiter” by Danielle Evans are successful in conveying engaging narratives that reveal the protagonist’s racism while neither damning nor apologizing for it. Welty and Evans give the reader fresh eyes with which to see America’s racism and pique an uncomfortable curiosity about its machinations. This speaks to the deeper purpose of literature and to the motivations of these stories: to reflect facets of our world and thus challenge the reader’s assumptions and prejudices. This is work that more of us should be doing.

“Where Is the Voice Coming From?” is a first-person recounting of the narrator’s assassination of a civil rights leader. Welty wrote the story in the hours after learning of Medgar Evers’ death; he is renamed Roland Summers in the story, and is the narrator’s victim. By employing the first-person perspective, Welty places the reader directly across from his killer with the first sentences. “I says to my wife, ‘You can reach and turn it off. You don’t have to set and look at a black nigger face no longer than you want to, or listen to what you don’t want to hear. It’s still a free country.’ I reckon that’s how I give myself the idea.” The story begins as though the reader is already in conversation with the speaker and no introduction is needed; importantly, Welty’s approach denies the reader any claim of ignorance about the speaker’s racism. Similarly, the speaker’s voice is distinct and familiar to the reader, giving us a sense of character without burdening the narrative with his particular history—we’re not following a story about Brian De La Beckwith, Evers’ actual assassin; we’re following the story of someone who has absorbed all of our society’s racist messaging and reached its obvious conclusion.

When the story opens, Welty’s protagonist is at home watching television, on which a national movement is being broadcast. He then drives his brother-in-law’s truck to Roland Summers’ home, letting us know he is driving on a highway named after confederate general Nathan B. Forrest. Thus Welty has established a microcosm of our racist society as a backdrop for an individual’s words and deeds, each feeding off of each other until the inevitable sum: the assassination of a civil rights leader. We wouldn’t normally connect the dots between someone refusing to watch black people on TV and someone assassinating a civil rights leader. But, as Welty shows us, the path is not that long, or even that complicated. This challenges us to reconsider who is a racist, what racism is “harmless,” and how we, the single reader of this story, are contributing to racist actions with our silence, or our othering.

Welty wasn’t interested in “othering” Evers’ killer; in fact, she wrote this story out of familiarity: she had lived in Mississippi her entire life. “That particular element of evil was running all through the South at that time,” she told interviewer Tom Royals in 1978. “And I feel that anybody who read [“Where Is the Voice Coming From?”] would recognize the things they had seen or heard or might even have said, in some version, or imagined or feared in themselves.” It was out of a sense of outrage and culpability that she told this story, aiming for recognition between the reader and the speaker. In her essay, “Must the Novelist Crusade?” she writes that “people are not Right and Wrong, Good and Bad, Black and White personified… If human beings are to be comprehended as real, then they have to be treated as real.” To be “real” is to be alive, and that is what Welty worked to create on the page. She brought the reader face-to-face with the inner-workings of an extremely racist mind. This is the task of literature: to hold a mirror to all aspects of life, prompting us to confront what is both joyful and repugnant about humanity. This is only possible, however, if the situation and the characters are fully realized—which is to say, fully real.

One technique Welty uses to bring the speaker to life is direct address, which helps the reader understand what assumptions the speaker feels safe in making. Consider his explanation of why he knew how to get to Roland Summers house: “And I ain’t saying it might not be because that’s pretty close to where I live. The other hand, there could be reasons you might have yourself for knowing how to get there in the dark… Ain’t that right?” By using direct address, Welty creates a push-pull effect on the reader: the speaker pushes the boundary between his experience and the reader’s, asking for mutual recognition, but the reader recoils from the implication, which is that the reader, too, has abused black people in their homes, and done so casually, understandably. This increases our sense of his reality, his realness.

Cogently, the speaker’s question, “ain’t that right?” is also an attempt to engender white solidarity. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo defines “white solidarity” as an instance in which one white person re-establishes supremacy with a racist statement that another white person either tacitly or vocally endorses. While most readers aren’t likely to acknowledge complicity with the speaker, they’re also not likely to publicly disagree. In creating this dynamic, Welty has lured the reader into feeling, perhaps, smug—the reader feels a sense of superiority to the speaker in not participating in any such activities in black neighborhoods. It’s only in reaching the story’s end that we see our passive observation is actually complicity; it’s the blind eye turned by every other white character in this story, the unconcerned certainty of the peanut vendor who says, “‘They’ll never find him.’”

Complicity contributes to the perpetuation of racism. The speaker’s violence can only take place in an environment that sanctions it, and Welty gives the reader plenty of indications it does, as noted above. When, in our American reality, we ask aloud how another human being could kill a black man because, for instance, he has a hoodie on, a story like Welty’s points to the emblems and overt messages of racism that surround the action. The macro- and micro-context of that violence are laid before the reader. Her very title prompts us to ask, to be open to consideration of the question, where is the voice coming from? Is it coming from within? Is it omnipresent? How long have we been ignoring it?

In Welty’s era, her speaker’s open embrace of racism would have been acceptable, especially in the South. It was the visceral, broadcast horrors of the Civil Rights Movement that changed that, but it didn’t eliminate racism. Just as racism got savvier, so, too, does our storytelling about it. Danielle Evans’s story, “Boys Go to Jupiter” is an impeccable example of that storytelling. First published in The Sewanee Review in 2017, “Boys Go to Jupiter” is the story of a white woman who participates in two subtly racist acts and escapes all consequences because of her whiteness.

Claire is a college student who lets her Christmas fling post a photo of her in a Confederate flag bikini. A black hallmate in her dorm sees this post and re-shares it, mildly expressing her displeasure. Claire refuses to apologize for the image and claims victimhood. While Evans is interested in the way Claire’s commonplace insult ricochets, her story explores the reader’s evolving relationship with the protagonist, as well as how she, and thus we, arrived at this place. In a 2018 interview with LUMINA Journal’s blog, Evans explained that she wanted to implicate white, college-aged readers without being cruel. “I knew that [the story’s] balancing act was to evoke a real empathy for Claire and also to make that impulse toward empathy feel problematic, without making either of those things feel like a trick.” In other words, she aimed to use literature to reflect an uncomfortable truth in our society.

Technique is crucial to achieving the balance Evans strives for. She is methodical in parceling out Claire’s history while maintaining a close third-person point-of-view. Such tightly deployed craft is evident from her first sentences: “The bikini isn’t even Claire’s thing. Before this winter, if you had said Confederate flag, Claire would have thought of high-school beach trips: rows and rows of tacky souvenir shops along the Ocean City Boardwalk, her best friend Angela muttering they know they lost, right?… The flag stuff is Jackson’s, and she’s mostly seeing Jackson to piss off Puppy.” From these few sentences, we know Claire is young, grew up in the greater-Washington, DC area, has a best friend named Angela, and is feeling defensive about a bikini her boyfriend gave her that, if we read closely, features the Confederate flag. We don’t know that Angela is black or why our attention is drawn to the flag bikini, but we do know it is controversial and central: Evans has placed it as the first words of the story. Moving so quickly away to Claire’s superficial preoccupations keeps the reader uncomprehending of the situation’s weight and maintains our sense of her as a sympathetic character, relatably immature, naïve, and seemingly harmless.

With this pivot, the reader will later realize that Claire hasn’t considered the implications of the photo and is uncomfortable with the topic. But because Evans leads the reader gently and incrementally, they see the situation as Claire understands it. Evans is not “tricking” her reader into following a racist character. She is honestly portraying an oblivious young woman to whom the experiences of others, in particular black people, are irrelevant. Had Evans started the story on a more direct track, or written a more self-aware character, the white reader might have disengaged. Most of us are ashamed of our racism and the ways in which we benefit from it; this shame and guilt prevents our empathy.

So Evans takes the reader the long way around, waiting until the third page to slowly detail the bikini incident. Between its initial mention and Evans’ elaboration on the story of the photo, she draws a character with regular-sized problems: a long layover, an unwelcome stepmother, and a meaningless fling with a guy who thinks she’d look “so hot” in the bikini. Evans’ circuitous path leads back to the moment of tension while fleshing out Claire’s unironic ignorance: “She does look pretty hot: like someone she is not, what with the stars and bars marking her tits and crotch, but a hot someone she is not.” Jackson later takes and posts the photo of her in the bikini, and when she sees the post, she “doesn’t have the heart to object.”

To some readers, Claire’s actions may seem inoffensive but tasteless. To tease out the offense, however, Evans shows us Claire getting defensive about her hallmate’s irritation. The disparity between the photo’s assumed unimportance and Claire’s heated defense of it—“She wasn’t wearing the bikini to bother black people”—reveals to the reader that something larger and more significant is at play. Evans’ narrative has placed us in the protagonist’s shoes, asking us to consider how we would feel in that moment.

Because the narrator is almost invisible in the story, there’s no phrase or word that suggests how the reader should feel. We can agree with Claire, or see Claire as clueless, but we ultimately come to understand why she believes she is innocent of racism by virtue of intention. While that’s not true, so many of us have held that belief that its appearance creates a connection between the reader and Claire. Evans wants that. Evans wants to reveal a truth about our behavior. She wants the reader to wrestle with the relevance of intention and the averageness of this girl whose behavior is a product of racism.

Soon after, we learn that as a kid, Claire was extremely close with a black family in her neighborhood, the Halls. “In Mrs. Hall’s mouth, Claire’s name is a tunnel from which a person can emerge on the other side. Claire is fascinated by their accents, and, yes, by the dark tint of their skin, but mostly she is anxious to be seen.” By placing this revelation after the first chapter of the bikini story, the reader begins to revise their understanding of Claire’s behavior. After all, we might say, she has black friends; probably she’s clueless, not racist. But Evans’ story, like life, is not so simple. The few mentions of racial dynamics in their shared childhoods are problematic, but Claire doesn’t remark on them, which is in great contrast to the many opinions she holds on less substantive topics. That makes Claire’s next actions in the bikini plotline stunning. Claire prints a photo of the Confederate flag and leaves it under the hallmate’s door with the message, “Welcome back! I hope you had a great vacation.” What does the reader think of Claire’s intentions now? Evans is ratcheting up the thematic and narrative tension with each turn of events in both storylines.

But the story of her childhood is not meant to justify or equate Claire’s racist behavior in college, and Evans makes that clear by telling both stories in present tense. We see Claire’s actions in switchback time as though all are happening at once, and that is analogous to Claire’s vision of the world. In the first sentences of the story, which is set in college, she calls Angela Hall her best friend, though the two stopped speaking to one another years ago. She is holding disparate realities and claiming all of them true. It’s true that she still sees Angela as her best friend, and it is also true that Claire abandoned the Halls after her mother died of cancer and theirs survived.

She abandons them cruelly and remorselessly but expects that they will be waiting for her return, which we understand by the public disdain she shows Aaron, Angela’s brother. After he arrives to pick  her up from a party, she drunkenly screams at him and then runs away. He follows, then heaves her into his passenger seat where she comfortably passes out as he drives her home. His generosity exceeds hers, and perhaps that would be unfair but inconsequential if race did not exist in this world and that of the story. But it does. A group of white college students are convinced that Aaron is kidnapping Claire. They pursue him until Aaron is run off the road. Claire survives but Aaron doesn’t.

We learn about the aftermath through summarized media reports and interview comments, which frame the events in the eyes of the public. Neither Claire nor the other driver face consequences for Aaron’s death. Each are written about with warmth while Aaron’s actions are questioned. Evans’ use of the media to explore the white solidarity and injustice of the situation gets at a truth that self-absorbed Claire cannot. This larger context reminds the reader of other stories of white indifference, including Welty’s. At the same time, Claire’s rage over her mother’s death and her self-absorption are specific and realized as hers. They may remind the reader of a pattern, but they may not be part of it. This helps Evans maintain an indeterminate narrative—that is, a narrative that isn’t directing the reader to feel a certain way, but seeks to reflect our realities.

The flag bikini and Aaron’s death intersect when, we later learn, the college’s newspaper digs up a story about Aaron’s death, again making a connection between the two that Claire wouldn’t. In response, the campus’s libertarian club president, Robert, rallies to Claire’s defense. She takes his advice and practices his talking points, while claiming distaste for him. “She sees herself as Robert sees her, a problem to be solved. He is logic; she is x… Claire is not even sure she likes Robert, let alone trusts him, but she tells him everything.” Why does she choose to do this? It’s as obscure to her as it is to us, likely because those motives are unexamined. This makes the story’s conclusion stunning in its effectiveness.

We find Claire at a campus town hall where her presence on campus is being debated. Claire comes armored with misleading facts and a wardrobe to match. She practices the language she’ll employ to smother the offense and draw attention to her own suffering while other white students apologize to the black students for Claire’s racism, or argue on Claire’s behalf. The expectation is that the white students will be followed by the black students, who will counterargue, and who will then be followed by Claire. She never gets the chance. The school’s black students choose not to speak. They hand blank notecards to the organizing faculty and silently file out of the auditorium. “Claire has come prepared for an argument. She does not know how to resist this enveloping silence. It is strategic. It hums in her head.”

When we engage in debate, we strengthen the other party’s point-of-view by acknowledging it as worthy of argument. Instead, Evans has left her protagonist with the very things we’ve been hearing all along: her own words. The silence conveys how tired Claire’s racist tropes are while also saving wasted breath: Was anyone going to listen, if they hadn’t already?

Both “Boys Go to Jupiter” and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” reveal the psychology of a racist mind. Using first-person perspective in the latter and close third-person in the former, the reader experiences the flawed logic, unfounded anger, and privilege of the actor. Then, with the aid of everyman characters and mass media that reflect larger social norms, we encounter the societal complicity that encourages and condones their actions. As a result of these stories, we have caught a snatch of “what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters,” as Toni Morrison wrote. In drawing characters with these flaws, we can wrestle with our own racist histories and patterns. We can use the distance of characters to empathize with what we would normally be unable or reluctant to see. Like love, war, and death, our racism comes in many millions of forms and must be wrestled with for many disparate audiences. We should start telling more of its stories, now.