I remember when I first understood that “Negro” had gone the way of “colored.” In the late 60s, I walked home from school and explained this to my mother: “Don’t say that word, ‘Negro’. Say ‘black’,” and because we were that kind of family, Mom and I discussed respect for a long time. Years later the language changed again, and I screwed up my courage to ask one of my best friends if she preferred to be called “black” or “African American”? We discussed respect too. Even then, I understood that she was making a personal choice, not a definitive one.
My mother disliked the word “drapes.” So I called the fabric hanging across her windows “curtains.” It’s no skin off my nose.
When talking about ourselves, this is more critical. People have the right to label themselves, to choose their own identity. I am not a “broad” or a “chick” or a girl. I am not “65 years young” or a “young lady” or “as old as I feel.” I have lived sixty-five years, and I have been paying attention. Some language offends one person and is shrugged off by another, even when that other seems to share many similar qualities, even when the words themselves seem too similar to make any difference. I detest certain words used to demean or define me. Not everyone minds. I am also old, and I feel it would be silly to deny that. I didn’t like a doctor calling me “elderly” at 63, but “old” or “older” don’t bother me a whit. I was a young woman in the 70s, and I was white. I am a white woman.
I can claim a great grandmother Rosa who crossed the Mexican border to marry in Texas, and I suspect my great grandmother on the other side was unrelated to the six tall red-headed brothers in her family—she was under five feet, dark-skinned, and black-eyed—but it makes no difference what investigating my genes proves. It means nothing. I was raised white and that is who I am.
Writing workshops frequently get around to the question of who is entitled to tell what story. One short answer is “anything you want.” There are longer, tougher answers.
As a woman, can I speculate about my grandfather immigrating to this country over a hundred years ago? Am I allowed to write across boundaries of time and space, gender and race? A better answer would be that writers may tell any story they have the skill and courage to tell, but that is pretty shallow. The reality is different. We need to talk about what belongs on the page. We need to talk about tact but also truth.
Language draws us in, but it also drives us apart. We do not have equal access to words we are born with, choose, and claim through observation and suffering. I was given “white” by birth, and I did nothing to earn or to claim it. It is a word I cannot put aside. I am also the oldest living member of my family, and I have no word for that. I am retired, but not retiring. I am warned against quiet writing, but also shouted at for raising my voice.
In a bio prepared for a recent public reading, I called myself a “native Oregonian” because I was born, spent my early childhood, and have lived nearly all my life in Oregon. A concerned reader invited “the organizers to interrogate the use of ‘native’ in one of the bios provided, and reflect on how it may contribute to the ongoing erasure of Indigenous people that underlies mainstream US American society.” My Alaska Native friend and I interrogated that usage. It would be useful to have a broader discussion about language and the words I use and should use, and to consider who is in the best position to help me make those choices.
I can choose words for myself, and I must respect that right for others. How about “Oregon-born”?
Indian Country asked prominent people their preferences for self-identification, and they chose a variety of terms to self-identify: indigenous, Native, Indian, American Indian, original people, First American, Native American. First Nations is a term of preference in Canada, but all those interviewed were clear that their first preference is to be known by their tribes and their personal names. When in doubt, when it is necessary to know, ask people how they prefer to be identified.
Getting the words right is only the beginning of the challenges when discussing race in America. Science assures us that race and ethnicity are social constructions invented by a dominating whiteness. We are so closely related that if we were plants, we might merely be different colors of snapdragons. Pink flowers off this stem, yellow off another. Nevertheless, “race” is not going away because we recognize that it is a false division or even because it makes white people uncomfortable. Race is muddled up in our Constitution and laws. It shows up on identification records just as caste does in India. It does damage. America has an insidious history of racial injustice and systemic persecution. We need to talk about race, and perhaps more important we need to listen more carefully and report faithfully what we hear. We need to judge less and observe more.
Forget our past? When people are still reenacting the Civil War? When 23&Me is dragging up genetic structures and telling people they’ve been celebrating the wrong holidays? When Faulkner claimed: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s right here with us. Pretending it’s over denies the lingering impact of our personal, family, and communal histories.
Maybe what we can hope for is to overcome the past. We can talk about it. We can plan for a better future.
Guilt, embarrassment, and resentment cloud our talk. It might seem easier, safer even, not to refer to race at all. Some argue there are enough human struggles and conflicts without entering a potential mine field, and not all people of color welcome white authors telling stories based on guesswork rather than firsthand experience. White authors may respectfully shy from writing characters of color or about situations involving racial, ethnic, religious, and other differences. That creates another layer of fabrication, because an all-white fictional world defies reality, and impoverishes our writing.
We cannot write about ethnicity or race without risk of getting something wrong. This is a legitimate concern, but the same challenge exists when I write about my grandfather, dead these fifty years or about the experiences of my mother who is also not here to tel her own story. Pretending different realities do not exist is one way we hide our trespasses and become complicit in disrespect of others’ feelings and lives. When we limit our writing to “our own” we limit our story in a way that can be fatal to truth. Can we speak from personal preference and experience without demanding absolute authority? Can we tell our truth without infringing upon the truth of others? And can we enrich our stories by including other’s stories?
Would I prefer my story be told incorrectly or would I prefer it not told at all?
Am I only allowed two choices?
An Oregon author writing a novel that included tribal members went to a tribal member and asked for help in getting things right. Bette Lynch Husted found a third choice for All Coyote’s Children: Write as carefully as you can, do the research, and then ask for help.
The people I see every day are dark and pale, red-haired and dreadlocked; they visit relatives in China and Germany, Mexico and Florida; they are older and younger than I am; and some speak languages I do not know at all. When I describe the people in my life, I must include all their colors, because all colors are part of my reality. These people are my people. I want to know their stories. I want to share them.
Talking about race might lead to writing reasonably and accurately and to language that expresses those same values. I can listen to those who possess different identities and different lives. Writers, just like readers, want to know other stories alongside our own.
If we trust one another, if we approach with respect and genuine interest, then maybe, yes, maybe we can talk, even about race.
NOTE: An earlier version of this essay appeared in RAIN.