The wrongs of white default

In the mid ‘80s, when I was in law school, I participated in a seminar about how American law has treated African-American women over history. One lively discussion that stuck with me concerned whether a white person could ever fully understand, let alone properly describe, the life of a black woman. A classmate, an African-American woman, categorically stated that it couldn’t be done. Sullenly, I maintained that it should be possible.

This conversation came back to me, years later, when I wrote No Castles Here. About half the important characters are African-American. The primary setting is the inner-city in an imaginary neighborhood of Camden, NJ, a city where the majority of residents are African-American. Could I, as a white person write about the African-American experience?

Many, like my colleague back in the 1980s, strongly believe it wasn’t possible for me to do it — as illustrated in this blog discussion about the blurb for the book. But that wasn’t what I had set out to do.

I wanted to portray a poor bullied loser who encounters a bit of magic in his life. Because the references were easier for me, I made him white. I based his character, his family’s character, the neighbors, and the neighborhood on the hundreds of people I met and on the neighborhoods I wandered over the years, in the New Haven area, Brooklyn, and during my short time in Camden and Philadelphia.

Whether I was successful in what I set out to do, others will have to decide. But regardless of the success, the effort taught me humility. It made me realize how much I didn’t know. Before spending time with my characters, I was often guilty of white default, which is choosing the color of my character’s skin the same way I might chose his or her eye color, and not paying attention to the details of the person’s life. Being faithful to those details required a lot of effort, and made me far more sensitive to how they can be gotten wrong. I wrote about this recently in an essay published in Anna Tambour’s wonderful website: It’s not like choosing the color of her hair. It’s a very personal essay, but it helped work out for me the wrongs of white default.

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