An Open Letter to White Allies in the Literary Community

Disclaimer One: The intended audience for this talk is mainly white writers, so I use the dreaded royal ‘We’. I understand none of the We in this room are a monolith, but pronouns save time—and time is short.

Disclaimer Two: While these remarks focus on race specifically, many of the same or similar points could be made about other marginalized identities.

Dear writers of the Caucasian persuasion,

I have to confess something: I am a racist. You probably are too.

This acknowledgment matters, but what matters more is what we do with it. What matters is that we get activated to rise and meet the challenges of this particular American moment, and that we see this moment as an opportunity to be better—perhaps even to be great—for despite what the politicians say, America has never been and is not now a “great” place for everyone.

I have internalized white supremacist narratives, as we all have—and here I do mean ‘we’ across racial lines. Systems and power structures favor me, whether in housing and employment; whether on the street, in department stores, restaurants, classrooms, hospitals, on airplanes and in taxis, in the criminal justice system, in professional and academic spaces, and finally, here, in this literary universe that not everyone can call home with the same certainty and safety. Here, we find ourselves standing at the precipice of something enormous—that is, our history, and just as malignant, ourselves. Our own performance of white supremacy is an abyss I hope we look hard and long into. What I want to suggest in this moment is that we increase our tolerance for discomfort, that we ditch the phony benevolence that Claudia Rankine described in her AWP ’16 keynote address. (Benevolence was her word, phony mine.) That we get over ourselves and out of the way enough to dig into the work of achieving real racial equity (equity, an emphasis I am borrowing from writer Jen Palmares Meadows who posited it as a better alternative to mere diversity).

Such work of inclusion might not seem like life and death here in this literary bubble, but out there in the world, people are dying—and the stories we tell in here become the stories that exist in the world. The power systems and structures and hierarchies that exist here in this purportedly-inclusive space of mostly good, “benevolent” liberals, conscious folks, and thinkers who know how to use words like “intersectional” are exactly the same systems and structures and hierarchies that exist in the world out there, the world where:

  • Voter disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts men of color;
  • Where housing and employment discrimination disproportionately impacts people of color, as well as those of other marginalized identities;
  • Where people of color make up about 30% of the population, yet 60% of those incarcerated;
  • Where black teens are (according to one report) 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts;
  • Where Renisha McBride knocked on a door for help after a car accident—and was promptly shot in the face by a white man who saw her—whether immediately or consciously or unconsciously—as a threat. His intent doesn’t matter, because his not meaning to, his remorse, and his apology do not make Renisha McBride less dead.
  • And a world where someone like me, a good, “benevolent” middle-class girl with high-class problems, can blunder colossally, yet still have a real second chance after alcoholism/ a drunk driving arrest/ a felony charge/ and two months in the Harris County Jail—while my bunkie, Yolanda, a black woman my age from Sunnyside in Houston, barely got a first chance.
  • Where someone like me had access and the financial wherewithal to hire good legal representation, and therefore, remained free on bond for one year and nine months—while Yolanda languished in the deplorable Harris County jail for 18 months awaiting trial on a trumped-up drug charge that was ultimately dismissed and on another charge called “criminal mischief,” which sounds suspiciously like a made up term for something/ anything to charge black people with.

While I was out on bond getting treatment for alcoholism, Yolanda remained in a jail so foul with corruption and violence and sexual assaults and disease and rats and roaches—that many of you would literally not believe it, a nightmarish, and yet commonplace, place that no one should have to endure and that seasoned inmates there refer to as the “slave ship.” You might not be able to hold the truth of this other America in your body, the America that you perhaps don’t know, because unlike our black and brown sisters, you don’t live in it and with it and of it every fucking day. And regardless of good intentions, our literary world is fundamentally the same as the space out there, where after a trial and only a misdemeanor conviction, and ‘no paper’ (probation or parole), and the resources to do so, I was able to live my second chance, to leave the state of Texas and to move on to Vermont, where I am now an adjunct professor and homeowner, and where I drive a fucking Volvo. While Yolanda revolves in and out of prison for an originally-nonsense charge because she can’t keep up with the onerous court conditions that make parole violations inevitable, I have retained—even expanded—my life of privilege and comfort.

I took the long way around with this object lesson, but I reiterate, the world in here looks and acts just like the one out there. In here, whites are overrepresented on panels and mastheads and in departments and journals and fellowships and prizes, and MFA programs don’t teach and reflect the plurality of narratives that actually exist in both the literary world and the actual world. And even though probably no one is going to get shot in broad daylight on the steps of the Los Angeles Convention Center during this AWP conference, let’s not kid ourselves that the world of American letters is for everyone a place of safety, justice, and equity. But isn’t this what we want—what we all want? We want inclusion, right?

We say we do, but as the brilliant and fabulous poet and activist Amanda Johnston posted on social media recently, “PSA: Listen closely to people’s actions.” So while I have done a lot of homework in changing my framework for thinking about race and my own privilege, and while I write and teach to these principles, I have not always acted upon them perfectly. I want you to listen closely to these actions, my actions:

  • I have not always sacrificed my privilege at work, in literary spaces, in my MFA, and in publishing in order to center the wellbeing of writers of color.
  • I have centered myself and my white feelings in conversations where people of color had to do both their own and my heavy lifting. I have added to their labor.
  • I have not always given up my seat at the table.
  • I take breaks—days and weeks off—from engaging race (as if an entity that lives outside of me)—whether on social media, in the classroom, or on the page. And I do this because engaging is hard, but more so because as a white writer/editor/ teacher, I can. I have the ability and privilege to disengage.
  • I have also failed to share or cede both space and power in literary spaces.

Let me give you a concrete example:

Last year, I was involved in a project that ended up being (see, I say “ended up,” as if it were passive, as if choices weren’t made) a collection of mostly white voices. An implosion among contributors occurred after someone pointed this out, and a somewhat predictable, ugly conversation ensued. Some asked whether it was enough to solicit writers of color and to publish calls in national venues (which was done—and with good intention and sincere effort—by the editor of the project). If such efforts fail, does further editorial responsibility still exist to actively and decisively include non-white writers in meaningful proportions? My answer was and is yes. Part of what made the implosion sticky was that friendships were involved, and feelings were hurt, as I and others tried to engage in an honest discussion of intersectionality and inclusions. (Social-justice-warrior points for me! Where’s my cookie?) However, what I did not do was withdraw my piece from the collection. After all, it was an excellent project in all other respects, and I wanted to be in it—to stack up my publication credits—I wanted that more than I wanted to insist on the inclusion of non-normative voices. So I vowed to do better…next time. Next time, I would join only projects and publications that were specifically committed to meaningful inclusion of writers of color no matter what.

But guess what? I did do it again. I have joined another project whose racial composition is shaping up to be mostly white. Of course, I have good reasons for my involvement, but are they the right reasons?

I don’t relish being a slow learner on this front, nor that, once again, I am promising to do better next time. Therefore, I want to make my vow public here, and I want to entreat other white writers to do the same. So what does doing better look like? What might I do next time? What can we white writers do to sincerely foster inclusion and better support writers of color?

We can:

  • Refuse solicitations to projects that lack meaningful inclusions, and we can (and should) tell the editors and publishers why;
  • We can demand fair and meaningful representation of writers of color as a condition of participation;
  • We can call out, ask for, and demand accountability of publishing statistics by race (e.g., the VIDA count on gender, which I realize is beginning to include race and other metrics);
  • We can resist and reject essentialist white narratives in our own writing and in our roles as editors of various publications;
  • We can give up our seats at certain tables, or create additional seats for POC;
  • We can work to make sure mastheads are not all or mostly white or inclusive merely in a tokenizing way;
  • We can share and yield opportunities to speak, to publish, to perform, to panel, to get paid, etc., to writers of color;
  • We can, as the novelist, poet, memoirist, and activist Alexs Pate has said, cross the street to come to the aid of people of color who are under attack;
  • We can take on the back-breaking labor (which people of color now do) of educating other whites to become more conscious, sensitive, and inclusive;
  • And finally, we can help to reframe narratives in our writing, teaching, editing, and publishing, so as to improve the narratives here and in other spaces.

We can do better. We must.

These remarks were originally shared by Alexis Paige in the AWP ’16 panel, “Calling White Allies: What White Writers Can Do to Foster Inclusion and Support Writers of Color,” with Katie Bickham, Alexs Pate, and Tim Seibles.

Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Creative Nonfiction, 14 Hills, and Brevity, where she is an assistant editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received two recent Pushcart Prize nominations, a nomination for the Sundress Best of the Net anthology, and features on Freshly Pressed and Longform. Twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not A Place On Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published in December. She lives in Vermont with her husband and two dogs.