It’s been a sad and scary week, studded with ugly racism, peaceful protest, some of it hijacked by violent people. Cities are locking down and social media is overrun with angry posts and comments.
The truth is racism is a horrifyingly real issue still, yet strides are being made. What used to be a (forgive me) black and white topic is now a complex topic with many subtleties and nuance. And you’ll find that social media does not put up with subtleties and nuance, because too many people aren’t listening.
Hence the power of the writer and the ability to fully explore subtleties and nuance in novels and non-fiction. To Kill a Mockingbird was for many white writers of a certain age our first powerful awareness of racism and did more for white-locked regions than even well-done protests. I’m from Seattle, a nearly all-white community and racism wasn’t a big concern because, well, there was no one to be racist against (and the few minorities we knew were friends, and it’s funny how once you see someone as a person first, the skin color doesn’t matter). Years later Snow Falling on Cedars was a similar eye-opening book, this time about white-Asian racism, which for our area was more meaningful since a large Japanese community was close to ours.
Here’s a story of nuance that I fell into as a 3rd-grader. Sammy was a classmate who got into fights every day. I never saw why the fights started, just that he was always in the middle of it. Sammy was Japanese, but to me he was just Sammy. I hadn’t learned racism and never dreamed the fights were about racism. In the cloakroom as we waited for recess, I asked Sammy if he was going to get in a fight again. He said nothing, walked up the line and whispered to the teacher. When everyone else was released to recess, I was held back and lectured on racism by our teacher who was supremely disappointed in me. She thought I knew better.
Well, clearly I didn’t know better. It hadn’t occurred to me why he was fighting (I was on crutches and watched the playground from the sidelines. I could see a lot but hear very little), just that he was fighting. My question was not racist, I just wanted to know if he was going to fight today. I was so confused because I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. At first I thought maybe she thought I was going to fight him, but I couldn’t walk so fighting wasn’t possible. For a couple years I was an imperfect observer while kids played, much like Scout, who was too young to understand the larger issues facing grownups.
Story is powerful and the issues are plentiful, not limited to racism. In a book we can see all sides of injustice. Through fiction you can tell your story and give we readers a deep insight. That is needed more today than ever before.
Not every book has to be focused on a social issue, but social issues exist and your characters may deal with them as a texture of the period.
Make America Understand!