“I HATE white people,” I recently complained to my therapist.
“You are half white,” she replied, smiling. “So do you hate yourself?”
As a biracial writer and assistant professor, I often struggle with how to write about race: my race, my parents’, their families’, and the race of my coworkers and students at school, where race is a paramount issue in education and parity. Sometimes I wonder if mentioning a person’s race is even important to the point I’m trying to make.
In 2022, I attended a breakout session about racial bias in language at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers (produced by Hippocampus Magazine). The presenters were Dr. Stacie Walton, a semi-retired medical doctor, and Dr. Linda Goodrich, a retired dance and ethnic studies professor. The two areas of medicine and academia are rife with racial assumptions in oppressive power structures, and unfortunately, biases in these areas can do real harm to people’s health and wealth if they are unchecked.
Dr. Goodrich opened with an anecdote about joining the faculty of Mills College (Oakland, CA) where all the other educators were introduced with their title, professor or doctor, and she was introduced as simply, “Linda.” Oh hell no, we all muttered in the room. Was it sexism? Racism? A combination of both? The same thing happened to me the first year I was hired full-time at my school. I was listed on a flier by my full name without Prof. but my (older, male) colleagues all carried their honorifics.
Language matters. As creative nonfiction writers, we can create conscious (explicit) or unconscious (implicit) bias in our essays. Bias has a simple definition: it’s a prejudgment based on experience. And for nonfiction writers whose focus is our lives and experiences, it often shows through our word choice and rhetorical framing. Although race and ethnicity can be a minefield to discuss, writers are the perfect professional group to take it on. After all, nuance and complexity are our bread and butter.
So let’s start with some concrete rules:
Rule #1: Use the correct terms.
The New York Times now recommends capitalizing Black as it represents a shared culture and people. African American is an important distinction, too, as millions of the global majority are of African descent but don’t originate from North America. If you are writing about a racial experience that is not your own, ask yourself why. Maybe you are not the person who needs to write this essay. Secondly, always ask your subjects the most respectful way to refer to them. This is a great rule not just for race and ethnicity, but this is also now societal and industry standard for pronouns and gender.
Asian American is largely a political term used to unite people of several ethnicities and nationalities in America. But this “big tent” approach can often do harm if there’s no individual distinction between East Asian and South/Southeast Asian. I use ‘Asian American’ generally and ‘Korean American’ specifically, and often identify other people I write about by their ethnicity.
Latino a/x/e is an ethnicity that can include multiple racial groups. Latinx is often used in media, but many people I’ve asked prefer Latina/o or their nationality.
First Nations refers to specific tribes in North America. Indigenous people lived everywhere before being displaced by colonization, resulting in several specific ways they refer to themselves in different places. Many people I’ve met prefer the term Indian, once considered disrespectful but since reappropriated. (This might be similar to the term hapa, a Hawaiian slur for “half” or mixed-race Asians, which I often used when I lived on the west coast where it’s popular enough to have spawned a book and many cheeky t-shirts. But here in New York City, one of my Hawaiian friends gently asked that I stop saying it because it carries real trauma for her.)
Don’t push your own language assumptions onto other people, especially in writing, where careful editing and word choice can show research and respect.
And consider this: if you are noting the race of nonwhite people, are you also noting every time a person is white? One of the more dangerous assumptions is that white is not a “race” or “culture.” The white race has its own very violent history and racial implications. When a writer notes, even “nicely,” that their “Asian neighbor” always helps them out, it creates an implicit othering if all the white people are not also labeled.
In much of mainstream culture, the assumption is often that white is normal or a given but that the race of ‘others’ needs to be noted. This is not necessarily something that often makes it into a final draft (thanks to editors and sensitivity readers), but I often saw it in writing workshops—even my own writing when I was in college. In creative nonfiction, it can feel important to write down every remarkable detail, often forgetting the bias it represents through language.
Whiteness is not a synonym for normalcy. In fact, while white culture is a huge part of American and European hegemony, Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that it is merely a belief system that people of several ethnicities ascribe or aspire to. “People who believe themselves to be white” is the phrase that he uses.
Language creates a baseline, an idea of what’s “normal” for ourselves and our readers. It can also reinforce the vicious othering that people of color endure every day.
Rule #2: Be open to criticism from people harmed by language.
Years ago, I remember a writer requesting that the word “crazy” be dropped from the literary lexicon, and other writers rising up against this request. The tone of the conversation veered toward How dare you police my language? But “crazy” is, in fact, a lazy word for writers to use, along with “stupid” and a litany of curse words that are shortcuts for implied meaning. For example, “I felt crazy,” is a general statement without adding real information, and it could alienate readers with disabilities or illnesses who have been bullied by that word. Of course, even with this knowledge, I reflexively use it often. It takes a lot of practice to course correct, even for writers.
The largest minority group in this country is Americans with disabilities. Writing about disability represents a huge blind spot of bias for many creative nonfiction writers. In fact, at HippoCamp, I heard speaker after speaker invoke the name Vivian Gornick [in the context of her often-cited writing resource The Situation and The Story]. I’ve only read one of her memoirs, The Odd Woman and the City (2015), and it was so full of biased language that I never read anything else by her. I was shocked when I read this passage (p. 73) detailing a subway ride the author took, and the emotional epiphany she had after seeing a disabled child:
The boy is about seven or eight, and he is the most grotesquely deformed child I have ever seen. He has the face of a gargoyle—mouth twisted to the side, one eye higher than the other—inside a huge, misshapen head that reminds me of the Elephant Man. Bound around the child’s neck is a narrow piece of white cloth, in the center of which sits a short, fat tube that seems to be inserted into his throat. In another instant I realize that he is also deaf. This last because the man immediately begins signing […] And then something remarkable happens: the man’s face is suffused with such delight and affection as the boy’s responses grow ever more animated—the twisted little mouth grinning, the unaligned eyes brightening – that the child himself begins to look transformed […] These two are humanizing each other at a very high level. By the time we get to Fifty-Ninth Street, the boy looks beautiful to me, and the man beatific.
This is a textbook example of, in fact, dehumanization, and inspiration exploitation, which comes in many flavors (thinspo, toxic positivity, etc). And this is by a nearly canonical CNF writer (let’s not get into the politics of canon, also oppressively biased). Now many of you might be rushing to defend the book’s structure and repeated use of subway vignettes, or even of Gornick herself. But rather than rush to defend, I would ask you to be open to the idea that all writers—white, as well as nonwhite—carry biases.
In fact, as Dr. Walton said in her panel, bias is a necessary function of human survival, akin to psychological closure. The challenge we face is to use craft to weed out biased language from our writing when it can and does do real harm. One of the many examples of harmful biased language in Dr. Walton’s presentation was the use of the word “looting” to describe the actions of a Black person after Hurricane Katrina, and the use of the word “finding” to describe the same actions of white people in the same disaster. Looting food versus finding food?
Similarly, publications and writers create bias when their default descriptions of other cultures include words like “exotic” “dark” “savage” “submissive” “aggressive” or “in/authentic,” as if mainstream publications are the arbiter of authenticity. Biased language does real harm when writers and editors don’t criticize and analyze their choices.
Rule #3: Don’t avoid the hard story.
At this point, some of you may be nodding along with me. Some of you might be feeling a guilty hotness creeping up your chest. Some of you might feel like abandoning the rest of this essay. Let me implore you: don’t fight the hard story. Much of the conversation in creative nonfiction (and fiction, too) is whether writers need to “stay in our lane,” or whether we are allowed to write about other ethnicities and races that are not our own. Of course, we can still tell the stories that need to be told, no matter our race, gender identity, age, religion, or physicality. This is the beauty of writing. But be prepared with a critical and honest eye (and maybe a paid sensitivity reader or two).
Everyone agrees that publishing has a whiteness problem. Many writers and editors try to address this elephant in the room, and it’s important to have this conversation. At HippoCamp 2022, a panel of white editors moderated by Athena Dixon (a Black writer), addressed this very topic of racial equity in publishing. During the conversation, the topic of magazines producing “special issues” (i.e. race, identity) came up, and I thought to myself, “But they’re all issues on race…” If you are an editor and publish a whole issue by white writers, or if you have to make concerted efforts to include writers of color to “balance out” the diversity of your issue, then, well, no matter the stated theme, your publication is a comment on race.
Earlier in this essay, I invoked Dr. Goodrich’s experience of being introduced by her first name at work, then mentioned the same thing happened to me. But what I didn’t include was that while a white man did that to her, a Black woman did that to me. When I asked her to correct it, she refused.
I opened this essay with a conversation between myself and my therapist, who is Black. We sometimes struggle to discuss race in context. On my recent vacation, I felt physically challenged while climbing a mountain. I asked my therapist if she’d ever climbed significant elevation and she laughed. “That’s white people shit,” she said. How to unpack that? First, erasing my Asianness. Second, reinforcing a harmful stereotype that Black people don’t love and deserve nature. Third, the genuine laugh we shared when she said it— it was funny, and I never told her it bothered me. I felt complicit, and I was in therapy to talk about my feelings!
Complexity is unavoidable, even with our best intentions. During her keynote address at HippoCamp 2022, writer/memoirist Carmen Maria Machado relayed an anecdote about her father being discriminated against by white neighbors. His reaction was to double down on his ethnicity, sitting outside shirtless, being even more visible to the objecting neighbors. The audience laughed, clapped, enjoyed this small victory by association, and then Machado told us that the white neighbors were a gay couple who also faced significant discrimination. She was making the point that the stories we tell are rarely simple.
But honestly, who wants to read simple stories anyway?