On race and writers’ conferences

Recently, I attended a journalism conference during which I learned, among other things, that writers, despite all our bragging about being keen observers and dependable recorders of fact, are on the whole, no more enlightened when it comes to making observations about race–or if you want to avoid generalizing, I suppose, no better at talking to me about mine.

As one of only a handful of writers of color in attendance, I was engaged by attendees and professors alike who seemed eager to bring up this fact. I was surprised it came up at all at a conference on craft, so I can’t help but think this was because some of these writers, some apparently just back from reporting in Ferguson, thought they could connect with me by demonstrating they were hip to my differentness.

One conversation opener, prompted solely by my nametag, entailed a professor asking when I came to the United States. I explained I was born and raised in Ohio, but my parents wanted to give their children names that had profound meaning to them, and the professor nodded knowingly: “I have Asian students in my class with American names like Christine and David,” she said. “But it annoys me so much. I just want to say, ‘Come on! I know that isn’t your real name.’” In a workshop, my writing was compared to that of a journalist whose only relevance to my piece or to my existence is the fact that she is Chinese-American and happens to write about food. And so on.

More like this happened, but I don’t think describing the many ways people made mistaken assumptions about my identity or my motivations as a writer are so worth delving into, because for everyone whom this happens to, things unfold differently, and our common reflex is then to weigh whose situation was worse, which perpetrator demonstrated more intent, who deserves to be forgiven more. Of course, none of that really matters.

What matters is the fact that these comments were floated into the universe and hit people along the way. When it comes to assumptions based on race, whatever the intent and the circumstances, the effect is cumulative on the witnesses. I tend to think focusing on one particular experience with racism is like talking about climate change and assigning responsibility based on national boundaries. I usually think, what does focusing on one nation’s factories matter when the problem is in our atmosphere?

I often fall into that trap of rationalizing away my own experience with injustice, however large or small you might characterize the incident. Diminishing those feelings just makes it easier to move on. I learned to do this calculation early on in my career after a former boss, a very well-known reporter, hurled racist epithets at me when a reel of audio disappeared. “I thought you people were supposed to be smart,” she screamed. I was outraged then, though I said nothing. I am only dismayed about what happened this weekend, and yet I am saying something, so I suppose this is another way I’ve grown.

This is what I want to say: As writers, we all write what we know. Perhaps I know a lot about being the child of arrivals from another country, having a name only half the world can readily pronounce, or being expected to define myself out loud unless I’m willing to go by what people assume. I know who I am. Perhaps it is you who still ought to know more.

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