Why Race Still Matters in Fiction (Reprint)

This blog entry is a reprint from 2009.  Somehow, it still feels incredibly relevant culturally to where we are right now in publishing:

Now I have nothing but love for The Missouri Review + I both respect + appreciate that the editors have the decency to write personal responses on their rejection letters when they like a story. That's nothing if not classy + amazing, especially for such a top-notch (if not impenetrable) literary journal. I don't even have beef with the editor that was kind enough to write me a personal response. I wholeheartedly appreciate both the gesture + her point of view. But I do have an issue with her analysis. Here's a copy of the rejection:
If you can't make out the editor's note, it says:

Hello, Your story was interesting, but I felt like you focused too much on G. being white--she's awful, certainly, but I don't see why race matters there. That being said-I loved the focus on words, and how you ended it. Please try us again soon with another piece.

Here's the deal:

While I totally appreciate the feedback + the honesty, the reality is that:

1. This short story is about the intersectionality of race, class + love in Southern California. It even says so in my cover letter

2. The protagonist, E., a smart Chicana girl who doesn't fit in the white or the Hispanic clique, is trying to survive at a high school where rich white girls pretty much dominate. In the end, she falls in love with an exchange student from [], which drives G. (the rich, white girl) insane

3. There's only one line where the narrator overtly mentions race, when she talks about how some rich white girls (especially in HS) hurt people because they can (a statement I still defend, with exceptions). And if race does matter in this story, I think it matters more in the way that being Latina in SoCal can be a huge obstacle to personal advancement. Sure, sure, any self-applied Latino can succeed, but he or she has to work so much harder for it than many white students from wealthy families who don't need to work half as hard. Latinos, remember, are the highest employed minority in the US. But when your parents don't speak English, or they don't speak it well, or they're working 60 hours a week, or when no one in your family has gone to college, that student has enormous obstacles to getting to college + acquiring cultural capital. That's just a reality, not even a complaint really

4. Anyone who's spent time in SoCal--especially in high school--sees the blatant socio-economic rift between Latino + white Americans. It's slowly changing, but the rich/poor gap is still a reality. My story doesn't blame white people because they're white, it shows how malicious an antagonist can be when she has money, influence + power (which, based on this country's history, is more often a white person but doesn't necessarily have to be)

5. Instead of shying away from things that make us uncomfortable (e.g. race, class, racism, gossip, jealousy) my story pretty much goes for it + tries to talk about big subjects. I'm sick of stories of paralysis, sick of stories that don't deal with the big issues, that are basically apolitical, antipolemical, self-centered little works of art that have no relationship with the greater world

6. Even if my story really did focus on race as much as the editorial assistant seemed to imply, which I think would have been totally fine, this story is above all else, a love story between a Chicana girl and an exchange student from [ ], both of whom, use words to not only express their love for each other, but also to empower themselves in a country where English is a sacred rite of passage. Beyond that, this is a revenge story, where the less-than-perfect, precocious Latina takes her revenge on the thin, rich, white, school bully who hates the fact that all of her money + power can't buy the protagonist's boyfriend. The protagonist's revenge--love it or hate it--is the way she stops feeling like a victim

7. At the end of the day, Cornell West is right: race matters.  At least to people that aren't white. Race matters less to white people because they're the majority race (percentage-wise), so when they talk about how we should just focus on merit, talent, skill, intelligence, voice, stuff like that, that's spoken hegemonically: the luxury to focus on our qualities becomes a way of differentiating us when we are racially + culturally the same. But since different people from non-hegemonic races are not only treated differently by white people, but actually perceive reality differently because of this, you can see how complicated all this gets. When a white person says to his black friend: you're so cool dude, I don't even think of you as black. This is a compliment coming from a white person because he's basically saying I see the universal in you, I relate with you, I connect with you + I don't feel like race is getting in the way. But for many people of color, this is racial erasure. It's like someone taking away a unique set of experiences that have shaped you, experiences fundamentally different than those of your white friend, experiences that are often painful, contrary to those of your friends + sometimes distressing too, but experiences that your friend didn't have, experiences that affect you a great deal, even when you're over them.

So, I apologize for this spiel, but I bring this up for one basic reason: when the good-intentioned editor says "I don't see why race matters in this story," the problem is that for many white readers, race has never had to matter, either in life or in a story--but this is white privilege, the privilege of being allowed to ignore your own race, something most people of color I know never get to do.  When you're white + you drive a BMW, you don't get pulled over unless you're speeding.  When you're black + you drive a BMW, you get pulled over just for being black + having a nice car (happens all the time, by the way).  Suddenly, you become very aware of your race.  Same shit walking through a gated community when you're the "wrong" color.  Or when you try to become a member of your local country club.  Or when you're wearing a hoodie in Samford, Florida.

And for me (a hapa who looks white + is treated white/latino all the time), race matters a great deal, not just the part you see (or the part you think you see), but also the part you don't see (ironically, the part that has shaped me the most, the Japanese side, the blue mosaic me). Race has a huge effect on how I see the world + how the world sees me. So, when conservatives argue that cops aren't racist, they're not completely lying from their point of view. They don't see racism because they're white, wealthy + connected, + cops don't harass them, so you can see why they actually believe what they say (of course, some don't want to see it either because that would be a personal indictment of their simplistic cosmology). Ditto with fiction. When minority writers or writers from minority cultures discuss so-called minority issues in their stories that are remotely racial, social or political, white readers + editors want to know why does it have to be about race, gender, orientation, politics? Why can't it just be about people? My answer: it is about people, but people that aren't always white (or straight or male or politically neutral or paralyzed or frivolously dramatic) who are never able to forget who they are, whether they want to or not. Race (like other minority cultural identities) is an everyday reality, not some thematic obsession. This is something that's hard for white readers--even the best of them--to grasp sometimes because they've been brainwashed with the mantra that only talent + artistic merit should be important. But racial erasure can be just as bad as racialization, especially when you tell a writer of color that nothing they've gone through is important.  And yet, stories come from somewhere + that somewhere tends to come out in their stories.