Whites Only?

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Announcing HYBRID AMBASSADORS: a blog-ring project of Dialogue2010 You met our multinational cultural innovators this spring in a roundtable discussion of hybrid life at expat+HAREM. Now in these interconnected blog posts some of them share reactions to a recent polarizing book promotion at the writing network SheWrites. Join the discussion on Twitter using #HybridAmbassadors or #Dialogue2010.

'Nuff said.

Driving through ghost towns in South Dakota were the remnants of “No Indians Allowed” signs displayed larger than the names of the taverns themselves. Photographs I’ve seen of “Whites Only” or “Colored Toilets This Way” invoke disgust, shame, horror, and rage. The Civil Rights Movement paved the way for new paradigms of seeing beyond the racial divides that upheld the USAs racist and genocidal past. Or did it?

A recent post on She Writes by an African-American woman calling for “White Ambassadors To Help Me Cross Over” shocked and troubled me on so many levels. During my participation in the forum I found myself alternating between a 1950s time warp where the world is seen in black and white, and a 1980s politically correct experiment gone horribly wrong. White supporters came out of the woodwork, promising to buy the author’s book and vowing to spread the word to their white friends. The only white woman to mention how inappropriately the discussion had been framed from a cultural standpoint was called “uncivil” (translation: “racist”). The few women of color who challenged the author’s assumptions and methods, myself included, were met with high levels of anger and quiet shows of support.

I’ve experienced my fair share of discrimination in my life, and multiple levels of it seeing that I am a product of a biracial union. Never once in all my years as a woman of color has it ever occurred to me that I would need “white ambassadors” for my work.

The truth is, I don’t. You don’t. Nobody does.

The only ambassadors we need for our work are those who believe in us, those who know we have an important story to tell, people who are truly interested in what is under our tale’s surface. People, plain and simple.

Call me naive, if you want. I know I am not. I am a realist.

Any intelligent consumer of books looks past the superficial details of the author and goes straight to the story. If the story doesn’t interest a reader then how will targeting racial groups be of any benefit? Any online social networker knows that you cannot expect people to spread the word about your work without excerpts, without engaging in a blog, without dialogue.

The more I reflect on the discussion at She Writes the more I am convinced that the blog post was conceived in an effort to poke at white American guilt. Reading through the comments I see how insidiously and effectively the post has bullied a great number of white women to agreeably engage so as not to be seen as racist.

The organisation of She Writes itself is even promoting the book since this discussion took place, and let me add that to date there is not a single excerpt of the book available.

If organisations of women writers, an already marginalised group, are reproducing these racist publishing house stereotypes in promoting books based on the race of the author and not the merit of the story, then I fear the worst for all of us with stories to tell.

During the 2008 elections in the USA the polling companies predicted that Obama would win by a huge landslide. He won, yes, but not by the landslide everyone had thought. Why? Because in the wake of America’s fears of being seen as politically correct, nobody wanted to admit they weren’t voting for the black man. Behind those voting curtains, away from prying eyes and the risk of judgment, those people placed their vote elsewhere. The fear of being perceived as a racist, especially in so-called liberal communities, is a great one and clearly She Writes has also fallen prey to this phenomenon.

I wonder how many of the women in that She Writes forum will *actually* buy and read the book that was so heavy-handedly pushed onto whites only.

As for me, I don’t buy, read, or promote books by people who not only alienate me based on the color of my skin, but who also lump the huge diversity of society into constricted boxes.

In this day and age there is no place in this world for whites only.

©2010 Sezin Koehler

More thoughts on this subject from fellow HYBRID AMBASSADORS:
Rose Deniz’s Voice Lessons from a Hybrid Ambassador
Anastasia Ashman’s Great White People Book Club
Catherine Yiğit’s Special-ism
Tara Lutman Agacayak’s Circles
Catherine Bayar’s Thicker Skin
Judith van Praag’s We Write History Today
Elmira Bayrasli’s The Color of Writing
Jocelyn Eikenburg’s
The Problem with “Chinese Food”

11 Responses to Whites Only?

  1. Sezin, you are tapping into exactly what it means to do what you love. It is a virtue I’ve been chasing for years now – how to do it not for the money, when it feels like I really need the money. How to do it for its own sake and trust the ability to support myself will follow. But you put it much more eloquently.

  2. Sezin, for me, this is the most powerful statement you make: “The only ambassadors we need for our work are those who believe in us, those who know we have an important story to tell, people who are truly interested in what is under our tale’s surface. People, plain and simple.”

    I hope that people in the various communities I belong to support me because of my capabilities, not what I look like or who I know. I would be dejected otherwise.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Catherine and Tara.

      A case in point of how the only ambassadors we need are those who believe in us: My horror novel, American Monsters, is being actively promoted by many people who don’t even read horror novels. That blows my mind! It also reminds me that I did the right thing in self publishing the novel. I can focus on writing the sequel without worrying about which bookshelf my novel will end up in and having to play some outmoded Race Game in order to attract more readers. I would love more readers, of course, but I didn’t publish this novel to become famous or sell a million copies. I published it because I *had* to, because I am more complete for having done it. That is all.

      The actor Stephen Tobolowsky recently gave a lecture at a theatre school and to start he asked all the actors which of them wanted to make a million dollars and be famous. Everyone raised their hands. He then asked who would be willing to stay with acting even if they worked their whole life, made very little money and never got famous. Only two people raised their hands. Mr Tobolowski said to them that they would be the most likely to actually make a living from the craft, because their intentions are of love and passion, not these superficial desires for fame and fortune. The publishing industry and authors by extension could take a very important lesson from that story.

  3. Sezin, I love the strength of this direct post, and long for those who prompted it to step up and take responsibility for what seems to me was either an outdated joke gone badly wrong, or a deliberate attempt to provoke guilt. And why, in this day and age, when by the entire concept of “race”, we really mean cultural differences, since we are all human beings under those varying shade of skin.

    I understand your “fight or flight” tug of war, but please keep your words coming – they are greatly needed by us all.

  4. Well said Sezin. There’s really nothing to add to your argument but that I agree and that It’s a sad, sad situation when differences aren’t embraced but denied in a mistaken attempt of supposed civility. I’m thankful for having people such as you and the other hybridAmbassadors to continue Dialogue2010 and to reach beyond stereotypical assumptions.

    • Thank you, Jocelyn, Rose, Catherine, Anastasia and Judith. The universe is reminding me repeatedly of how not-far we have come as a society. Some days that feeling makes me want to write pieces like this, and other days I want to follow in Chris McCandless’ footsteps to disappear into the wild. It’s a hard balance to mediate, but must be done.

  5. Thanks for this, Sezin!

    Race is a such a brittle subject with trigger points frozen in time and place. Makes it hard to talk about it in a fluid manner with groups of unknown people. Who knows what their cracking point is?

    It seems that’s both the reason for the original post’s awkwardness (whether coached, or otherwise guided by SheWrites’ own agenda to find ways to “keep talking” about race even though earlier events about black writing were not well attended by white writers), and the disconnects in the comments afterward.

    An image keeps coming back to me from the movie SWINGERS (apologies if not exact, Googling “swingers + fluffy bunny” did not deliver exactly what I was after): the cool dude gives pickup advice to his less-cool less-confident friend “Just imagine the woman as a fluffy bunny sitting there on a bar stool, waiting for you.” Not scary at all!

    All to say, I wish we weren’t quite so scared of each other based on the vast differences between us we may perceive (and be totally wrong about!).

    You’re right Sezin, we need ambassadors who actually believe in us. That will take getting to know us, without fear. And for us, we need to let people know who we are, too. What makes us tick. What we believe in. Posts like this.

  6. Sezin, you are so terrific at pushing boundaries. I admire your courage. You say it straight, don’t back down and never let go of your self-belief. It’s what I aspire to…

  7. Sezin, I admire that you speak your truth, that you don’t hold back, and that you hold up for us a vision of what could be instead of what is accepted. I’m honored to be your #hybridambassador sister!

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