Telegraph Avenue Read Along: What do I know about being white?

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Welcome back to the penultimate post of the read-along of Michael Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, sponsored by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads!) and Harper Collins.  You can check out the very insightful comments of many other outstanding bloggers by visiting Emily’s blog, here.

Here’s what I’m going to talk about today in lieu of a more detailed re-cap of what happened in these two sections of the book, which I’m rather too lazy to do and other folks will do much better than I.  What does it mean to write a novel about race in America?  And what does it mean to write a novel about race in America as a white person (or in Chabon’s case, a Jewish white person)?

Now here’s what I believe.  Every novel ever written by an American is, in fact, a novel about race.  Or perhaps it’d be better to say, every American novel is steeped in race in one way or another.  Of course Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn, but also The Great Gatsby and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  What do Hemingway and Fitzgerald have to do with race?  Well, they are white people.  They are writing about what it means to be white, or what it means to be a certain kind of white in the United States.  Their version of whiteness is very different from the whiteness that Flannery O’Connor is writing about, and more different still from the whiteness Dorothy Allison deals in, and a whole other animal from, say, John Steinbeck’s whiteness.  And so on.

The advantage if you are a white person writing about other white people is that no one reduces your novel to being “racial” in any way, shape or form.  If you are a white person, and especially if you are a white man, you are writing about universal experiences.  If you are not white, many people will assume that you are just writing about what it means to not be white.

A good friend of mine and a writer once told me that if you wanted to write, you should probably figure out your own shit first.  If you want to write about race, you should probably unpack your own racial history.  If I were to sit down, as a white person, and try to write my racial history (something I have attempted before), it would be very hard not to focus on people who are not white.  But if you asked, say, a Latina woman to sit down and write her racial history, would she feel the need to talk about people who aren’t Latina?

One of the privileges that comes with being white in the United States is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about it.  Or perhaps it’d be better to say that you don’t have to spend as much time thinking about your race as most people who are not white do.  As someone whose job involves thinking, reading and teaching about race, I could probably write that history of my whiteness now better than I could have when I was younger and had spent less time thinking about what it means to be white.  But it would still be an excavation, unpacking all the layers of privilege I had as a child and a teenager.  It would be hard.  It would be work.  And maybe it wouldn’t be very interesting to read….I don’t know.

But if I were to write a novel about race in the United States, I would feel compelled to write it from the perspective of a white person, and anything else would just seem, to me, false.  Writing is about imagination, and we would like to believe that our imaginations can surely cross racial barriers.  Surely we can imagine what it is like to be someone from a different racial background well enough to write from their perspective and have it still ring true?

In Telegraph Avenue, Aviva Roth-Jaffe’s policy about “those kind of situations,” as in situations when a person of color plays what my students would call “the race card,” is summed up with the question, “What do I know about being black?”  I have to say here that I’m really not sure how I feel about this whole incident in the book where Gwen seems to be using her race to get out of a situation.  Is that what we’re supposed to believe?  Maybe in Oakland, California Gwen’s mild accusation of racism has that kind of power, but let me tell you that it would not in many other parts of this country.

“What do I know about being black?”  What an interesting question.  Aviva’s answer is, “Not enough to pass judgement on Gwen.”  “What do I know about being [fill in the blank]?”  I think we should all try to know as much as possible, to learn in ways that expand our experiences to include knowledge of those who are not like us.  This is part of what’s so wonderful about reading and fiction–it gives you the opportunity to see the world from others’ perspectives.   But I don’t know if I know enough to write convincingly from inside that perspective.  I think that Chabon actually does okay with Archy and Gwen as characters in Telegraph Avenue.  They certainly don’t strike me as false in the way many of the black characters in a novel like The Help did.

The question this novel raises for me is the same one raised by The Help.  The question is not necessarily can we create convincing characters who are outside our own racial background.  But why choose to try to jump into the hearts and minds of black people rather than trying to dig down deep into the psyche of white folks?  Because the scary thing is that for a lot of white people in the United States, the answer to the question “What do I know about being white?” seems harder to the answer than the question “What do I know about being black?”  Or Latino.  Or Asian.  Or Arab-American.  Our culture tries to tell us a lot about what it means to be something other than white, and a lot of what it tells us is neither particularly good or true.  Our culture does very little in the way of helping us to figure out it means to be white.  Why do you think that is?

In the end, we’re not getting anywhere in terms of becoming the country we aspire to be until all of us can answer that question:  “What do I know about being….?”

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