On Writing Race

A lot of us here when asked to talk about race are most comfortable, or least uncomfortable, talking about it in the language of scandal. It’s so satisfying, so clear, so easy. The wronged. The evildoers. The undeserving. The shady. The good intentions and the cynical manipulations. The righteous side talking, the head shaking. Scandal is such a helpful, such a relieving distraction. There are times when scandal feels like the sun that race revolves around.

—Claudia Rankine, introduction to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind


Last week, I had a chance to attend a craft talk and reading by our Visiting Writer, Claudia Rankine. During her visit, she talked about the importance of poets and writers creating writing that confronts the divisive topic of race in order to place race within the context of conversation, rather than reducing any writing which addresses race to mere “political writing,” as if all writing isn’t political in one way or another. In addition, she discussed how writers of color can use their work as a way to bring readers into an actual moment, so that an audience can feel their experiences, rather than imagining them; this gives writers of color agency within their work and control over their own narratives. Rankine also mentioned how these same narratives often go overlooked or become lost within a white supremacist worldview, as those who are living and experiencing microaggressions from the margins go on to feel invisible. These microaggressions are often brushed off or normalized, while minority narratives risk erasure and displacement. In turn, by writing about race, writers of color can create visibility for these absent narratives and fill the gaps in societal representations and understandings of race.

Claudia Rankine also suggested that both white writers and writers of color ask themselves what assumptions they have when they are writing about race, whether it be their own race or that of the Other. After Claudia Rankine’s visit, I found myself questioning my own place as a South Asian woman writing about my own cultural identity in an MFA program. Being a Bangladeshi-American woman and a first-generation immigrant, I often question whether an MFA program is a place that I have permission to occupy. Such spaces are claimed by white writers and poets whose skin color offers them a type of visible credential for legitimate written life experiences. But I often wonder if being a South Asian woman in a white-dominated field means that I have to uphold a certain standard of brown authenticity within my work, given that there aren’t many South Asian people that I know who choose to get an MFA. I wonder if that makes me a “bad South Asian” by not choosing a “real field” of model minority study, such as medicine or engineering, where we’re “supposed to” belong, according to racial stereotypes. I wonder what type of obligations this comes with as a writer: whether I can utilize Bangla within my work only if it is translated by the surrounding English text within a timely manner in a piece of poetry or prose, or if certain racial language isn’t acceptable, due to any offensive reactions it could attract from a white audience. Or the possible criticism from a South Asian audience, who may think I’m offering a white-washed narrative in place of the uncensored one, strained with the pain and anger attached to a brown body in the aftermath of post-9/11 America.

Citizen book cover

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” —Citizen

During her craft talk, Claudia Rankine also mentioned how no one in the audience brought up the word “white” when she asked us what came to mind when we thought of the word “race.” She said there’s this prevailing notion that white isn’t a race—instead, whiteness is seen as the norm, the universal, the ideal standard of life, the marketable image of beauty. Whiteness is the standard set for superiority, and it’s one that’s become ingrained in the minds of people of color, who have been conditioned to think that a lack of whiteness implies a deficit, a failure. It instills a sense of self-hate and cultural shame within us.

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has asked me, “What are you?”—as if any mention of the words “race” and “ethnicity” in their inquiry about my racially ambiguous identity was too unpalatable for the American tongue. It reminds me of middle school and high school, which were all within a few years of 9/11. I used to take pride in passing as a different ethnicity, one where people didn’t think I was the wrong kind of brown—the kind that got called a terrorist and a dot head and had their baggage inspected on routine at the airport. I was the whitewashed kind of brown that tried to be like the white kids, despite being hated by the white kids, who continually reminded me that I could not be one of them. Throughout the years, my white friends and peers have told me how I’m basically white anyway, how Indian and Bangladeshi are the same thing, how they want to hear me say my name “the real way.” It has been 14 years since 9/11, but I still ask myself from time to time whether being invisible is better and less painful than being the wrong kind of brown.

Near the end of her craft talk, Claudia Rankine mentioned that when writers and poets of color write about race, people often consider them to be coming from a place of anger; but it’s not necessarily anger—it’s profound loss. It’s profound sadness and disappointment, especially when microaggressions are committed by people we care about and respect. It’s how I and other writers of color feel when we write about race, in hopes that someone is listening.

So when asked what I look for in a poem, my answer is this: I want to read poetry that speaks to me in its raw, emotional truth, rather than polite rhetoric. I want to read work that makes me feel, that digs its fingernails into the flesh. I want to read poetry that reveals what hasn’t been seen, but is clamoring for visibility.

Anuradha Bhowmik is a Bangladeshi-American poet and writer from South Jersey. She is the poetry editor for the minnesota review and a first-year MFA candidate in poetry. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015. Anuradha has been awarded a Grin City Collective Emerging Artist Residency, as well as scholarships to the New York State Summer Writers Institute and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in The Boiler, Origins, Pithead Chapel, Lunch Ticket, Star 82 Review, Lumen, Word Riot, and elsewhere.


46 thoughts on “On Writing Race

  1. Anuradha, you wrote a fine, clear statement of your taste: “I want to read poetry that speaks to me in its raw, emotional truth, rather than polite rhetoric. I want to read work that makes me feel, that digs its fingernails into the flesh. I want to read poetry that reveals what hasn’t been seen, but is clamoring for visibility.” If your taste as Poetry Editor dominates the selection of submitted poems to be published, as it probably should, I urge you to place that statement on the MR submit page (your successors would then write their own). Far too many journals, as you know from submitting your own work, cannot or will not state their tastes, usually saying blandly that they take the best poetry they are offered. You editors and we poets would save a lot of time if journals were up front about what they do not want. I know now that to maximize my chances of being published by MR, I should not send you nuanced cerebral sonnets, but instead to send you more emotionally charged free verse poems — please pardon my bad paraphrase of your preferences. And I am not suggesting that you are close-minded at all, I am writing only about maximizing the chances of your publishing a poem (We all deeply admire and re-read poems that are outside of our general taste in poetry). Unlike general readers, editors and writers probably should periodically undertake the very difficult task of articulating their taste, if only for themselves. I appreciate your doing that difficult task, arriving at specific conclusions, and sharing that with your readers.

  2. “-she discussed how writers of color can use their work as a way to bring readers into an actual moment, so that an audience can feel their experiences, rather than imagining them-”

    Absolutely brilliant. But so difficult a task, that responsibility to pull the reader in, surround and mire them in such a momemt, so as to conceive true empathy. I wish I could have experienced this talk – and I’m glad to have read your piece.

  3. Thank you for this great piece! As a white American who has been blessed by transcultural friendships, I am still learning about the extent of privileged afforded me by my color. I’m grateful for this honest telling of what it is like to be “the wrong kind of brown.” Thank you.
    The race conversation is so interesting because, though most people have definite ideas about the issues, no one seems willing to discuss them. Case in point: I ran a series on my blog called, “Race in America.” There were 6-8 posts as I recall. I got almost no engagement and hardly any hits on those pieces. We need to learn how to talk to each other if we’re going to move towards solutions. “On Writing Race” was an excellent step in that direction. Again, my thanks!

  4. I am white: I would never write about you. Nobody, can write about another person. Y0u may feel alone, now but you will have followers, who are afraid in the future.

  5. I really like this post . I’m actually taking a class about all of this and this post just gives me an overview of the whole thing . I’m definitely going to ask my professor to sow this in his class !

  6. Excellent dissection of the issues of race as it is presented to us in America. The writer is exacting. Rhetoric is too frequently loaded resulting in explosiveness and oftentimes deepening the racial divide (on issues of public opinion, if not also in practice and day-to-day affairs). We can change the outcomes of the conversation by simply modifying our language and being conscious of how readily we allow it to be impacted by our preconceptions.

  7. It’s precisely your eloquent yet raw honesty about navigating stereotypes, norms, and self/white/minority censorship that we white people need to hear in order to better recognize our own racial experience and privilege–and how these can blind us to yours. If there is a true scandal in the rhetoric of race, it’s the scandal of white ignorance and the silencing of complex identity. Thank you for sharing your experience. You should OWN that MFA program!

  8. Anuradha, a well written piece!

    I completely agree with what Claudia says. People subconsciously assume that White is the normal standard of what almost everyone should be.

    I cannot tell you how many times people have questioned me about my race or the language I speak (Bhojpuri and Urdu)

    But hey, at least my friends don’t judge me. If feels good to be trusted by a group of people who know you won’t hurt them.

    Lastly, there is nothing wrong in embracing your identity and truly loving your heritage.

    Best Wishes!

  9. White people don’t think of themselves or act or talk as if their person, their total identity is condensed down to their race. I understand being a minority in a majority white country makes one feel that there’s always a dark cloud judging them and any transgressions against him is racially motivated. It’s an easy way to justify and come to peace with the possibility that maybe I wasn’t good enough or maybe the other person was just more qualified.

    As long as a person walks with the chip on his shoulder he’s going to perceive everything in terms of race. It’s a self-inflicted excuse to fail from the start.

    There’s nothing wrong with having an identity and celebrating it. But race doesn’t have to be the thing that makes you, you.When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re a race before person, everything looks like racism.

  10. This is so important. I can totally feel and understand your struggle between pursuing some arbitrary standard of authenticity as a brown girl and also seeking a certain level of invisibility for safety. I hope to read books from you soon! best of luck

  11. Hi,
    Your post was very well written. I was a sociology major. Racism is a societal evil. I teach history, so that it does not repeat itself. We discuss the evils of racism.
    Nice to meet you Janice

  12. I’m mixed race, so this really speaks to me. I’m too brown to be white and too white to be black. Thanks for this piece.

    But what is MFA?

  13. “In hopes that someone is listening” is exactly what I wish when I write about race. My hope is to live in a world where the colour of your skin does not define one as a person; does not determine one’s class or status. And, does not define who or what you are. Thanks for the post.

  14. Pingback: On Writing Race | Paulette's Perspective

  15. Interesting read. If I had to play back a very important part of the article it would be this
    “still ask myself from time to time whether being invisible is better and less painful than being the wrong kind of brown.”
    I can only imagine what that can do to a person’s ability to live a life that’s full of joy… True joy is never invisible.

  16. What a wonderful post! Good luck to you on your writing. This is precisely what we need, a greater representation of all the races in writing, in government, and in all fields where they have been shut out or grossly under-represented. We cannot understand each other if we don’t know each other. We cannot know each other unless we listen. And we cannot listen unless all voices are given the opportunity to speak. There’s too much hatred and violence in the world. Use your voices, in the end that’s all we have. And what a difference a voice makes!

  17. With your permission I’d love to reblog this on THE MIX wordpress blog in December. [www.mixemag.wordpress.com] – it’s a profound piece of writing. I am one of the editors and we discuss topics of mixed ancestry.

  18. We know from science, that about 60 000 years ago, a small group of people left Africa and the men and women of this small group are the ancestors of all men, lilving nowadays.

    60 000 years are only 2000 generations. There is a small genetic difference: the group, which left Africa, had sexual intercourse with the Neaanderthal people, which had left Africa already 300 000 years ago. But the difference in DNA is only 0,12%.

    Therefore there does not really exist any significant difference between men living today.
    And the term “race” is wrong. There don’t exist human races.

    In Wikipededia we can find “There is a wide consensus that the racial categories that are common in everyday usage are socially constructed, and that racial groups cannot be biologically defined”

    In history of mankind, we always can find a group of people, who consider themselves to be superior to other groups and who believe, that they have a right, to suppress the other group. Almost 1000 years, the majority of people in Europe were kept like slaves by the upperclass people.

    Therefore this arrogant behaviour has nothing to do with the colour of the skin. Many of the upperclass people were just brutal criminals, who were protected, because they were members of the upper class.

    This behaviour has its roots already in the evolution of men. Men are mammals and mammals follow, whom they consider to be the strongest. And they are so stronlgy emotionally involved in the belief, that the strongest is also the best, that they switch off their rational thinking.

    We always experience this behaviour, when severe problems in societies occur. Populists preach simple solutions and always find a minority, which they can blame for all problems.

    If their followers would think only one minute themselves about it, then they would find out, that the few people of a minority cannot have caused the problems, but that they are caused by the majority.

    The only remedy against it is, to develop a strong self confidence. Be proud, what you are and show it.

  19. Pingback: In Response To, “On Writing Race” | Stealing Quiet Time In Noisy Disorder

  20. I also believe that our society breeds racism. Look me up if mixed race matters and I will explain. I know that if we want to put an end to racial divide and some tensions we need to end the way we use race in our census and the rest of society. Are there any other ways Hospitals and clinics can get federal funding? If economics are key then why not base the census on income, education, and employment? Now a days gender shouldn’t even matter.
    Employers want to seem like they are EOE, but the way the race questions are on their applications differ from one degree to the next. The Census made some stupid useless changes to appease mixed race persons, however it doesn’t stop them or employers from changing which boxes those of us in the one or more, other boxes choose. Truly speaking from experience; in a medical facility, one day I actually read through my information about me page instead of brushing/rushing through it due to physical discomfort or impatience with my wait time, Someone had marked a box I know I would not have checked. The boxes I would have checked would be relating to issues for those of us who are mixed race and the fact that I am sure that if they are trying to figure out what’s ailing you, etc., then they need to know “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.
    Gall-lee Gee – if I did not experience racism, bias, and stereotype for being mixed race all of my life, then why in this world would some one have decided to take a guess or gander about my race and checked a box I would never have and will never check?
    On another note:
    Stereotyping hurts. Stereotyping and biases can kill just as much as guns can. When are we all going to stop pretending that we have or do not fall prey to bias and stereotypes? Could this issue be based on lack of cultural awareness and education? Could some of this issue arise from past negative experience and fear? Could the breakdown in religious respect here in America have deteriorated so much that we allow immigrants to arrive here and tell us that we must hide and be ashamed of our religious and holiday traditions? Are we trying too hard to ease adaptation? Would we be able to go to their or some other country and tell them that we do not like their traditions-they are offensive to us? Would we be able to make them stop or change them? – NO! All I can see at this stage in my life is that America needs to stop worrying about being beautiful and stand up for what thousands+ of military soldiers have risked, altered, or given their lives for so America can be America; not some well wishing, cry me a river about what you think of Americans soft spot. Our military did not do what they did for people who do not agree with our races, lifestyles, religions, flags, and holidays to be able to come here and tell us to stop it because they don’t agree with or want to see our traditions that for centuries never offended anyone. Our soldiers did not stand up and fight for this country so that their elders could be told to stop their traditions, get permission to wave our flag, By no means is this a stand on immigration. This is a stand from a new American, unrecognized, disrespected race that easily sees what America’s doing wrong when it comes to immigration and race in the USA. In Short, Our service men and women did not fight for and defend us so that we would have to bow down and drop our traditions-religious or otherwise. They did not fight so that we could receive complaints about flying our American flag in a funeral or major event. They did not lose their lives, alter their lives so that others could immigrate here out of our kindness only to try and tell us what they do not like about our traditions and that they must be stopped.
    I love you all. However, being mixed race that matters and is proud, I could go on and on and on… Anyone want to discuss racial relations with me-an un-recognized, mixed race poet? Is there anyone here in the United Stated that wants to address that it is wrong to use any Native American Indian/Indian replica or mascot for your teams when none of you or your ancestors respected Native Americans/ NATIVES TO THESE LANDS? Did you not go from calling Native American Indians Savages whom you tried to strip of their traditions, religions and ways to thinking its cool to make fake dream catchers and team logos/mascots?! “c’mon, what would all of you think if they made a High school, College, or National Football-or other game team out of symbols/drawings of their traditions/ Sacred traditions/lives? Lives lost to hatred, misunderstanding, and genocide by gun or disease, and territorial thievery? I Imagine you would feel close to or even more sorrow if they came to you and told you to drop your native language/religion, drop your beliefs and traditions so you could be made in the invading “race’s” image instead? Hmmmm?
    Wait, make treaties you call decent and shove them off to the edges and corners of this great land whilst you and your children still call them savages and make mockery of everything about them. Stop— Go get and stop Hitler! He was horrid and wrong but you only called it genocide when he did what he did to the Jewish. Jewish! whom have been persecuted since we started finding scraps, remnants, and pages of the so-called original Bible. I Know Jesus left a trail with writings by whom he chose but there were others he chose or helped. You know America, the ones you typically choose to ignore and leave suffering poor. Even if circumstances were not caused by the persons involved poor…
    Anyway… still want to talk about race or race relations with a mixed race me?
    Peace and Blessings to you,
    i-freebird Sher PS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s