There were sixteen in the class, all freshmen, twelve male. Of that twelve, eight – or half of the total – were white athletes, four of them football players. For brevity’s sake, and not without affection (they were good kids), I’m going to call them bros. The remaining males were either black or international students (from China and Georgia, respectively). The four females were also white.
In an ill-advised democratic gesture, I asked them, ahead of a small group activity, whether they would like to pick their partners. A preponderance said yes, and the four groups of four split along predictable lines. The football playing bros formed a group. The non-football bros formed a group. The four women formed a group. And the international and black students did not so much form a group as look at each other and shrug.
Singly, I can manage bros; en masse, I struggle. They are often, not always, possessed of a variety of privilege that has taught them, deliberately and inadvertently, that their voices matter. They believe their opinions have value even if they’re fatuous. Because they’re white men in training. Their behavior is not just representative of power. It is power.
My resistance to them is ironic in that, when I showed up for my own first year of college, others would have been justified in calling me a bro. I was cocky and sporty and insensitive. And now, here I am: in some ways, ugh, a grown-up bro. And I’m ashamed to consider that there have been times — this may even be one — in which I’ve spoken simply because I could. Worse yet, that my self-assertion may have silenced or marginalized other voices, as I saw happen with my students.
When I recounted the episode to colleagues and friends, and this was almost as shocking to me, nobody was surprised. This is just what people do, many said, but others felt, however diplomatically they put it, that I had failed my students. I should have stopped the class immediately, some said, pointed out how fucked up it was. Because in allowing the students to proceed — although everyone I spoke to was too kind to say this — I was enabling the very whiteness I was internally resisting.
* * *
In the months since, I’ve been thinking a lot about my whiteness, our whiteness, and the whiteness that doesn’t really have anything to do with me or you (my skin is tan — a little olive, I’ve been told) but is instead our inherited cultural conditioning. Whiteness is, in this way and others, more of a genre than anything else. It has its tropes and devices, its forms and conceits. Whiteness even has its canon (think: Abraham Lincoln, think: Neil Armstrong, think: Santa Claus). Like literary form, whiteness is an imaginary construct, or set of constructs, that we perform and embody. Much as, in my writing, I often bristle at the constraints of genre, I also find myself objecting to, and pushing against, the way whiteness delimits me, and those around me. But troubling literary genres is one thing. Troubling whiteness is another. A person is practically consigned to whiteness at birth: it becomes, like it or not, his métier.
Among the questions that have been nagging at me, I’ve been perhaps most concerned about the ways I may have been broish in my literary work. Since graduate school, I’ve been a fairly unsystematic reader, mostly choosing books according to whim rather than to any program. This go-where-the-road-leads-you attitude is part of what makes reading such a pleasure, but sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s actually a bad habit, like watching home renovation shows or drinking a second beer on a school night. Even though I believe in following my intellectual and aesthetic intuitions — even though my practice as a writer is premised upon them — I’m not sure I can entirely trust them. The casualness and flexibility of my reading are products of belonging to a rather exclusive club, after all — people who read and write and talk about books for a living — and the freedom to read what I want is less a metaphysical fact of my existence than it is a privilege, granted to me but not others. It may be high time, on that note, to consider what responsibilities this particular variety of privilege creates: what, if anything, are its ethical imperatives?
A couple of years ago, I started to log my reading. I may have suspected that I was reading irresponsibly, that I was reading whitely, but mostly I wanted to see what patterns would emerge. How many novels was I reading per year? How many collections of essays? Was I reading more men than women? And though I was undoubtedly reading more white writers than writers of color, how great was the disparity? More pressingly, unless my curiosity was to be merely idle, what kinds of conclusions could I draw from the numbers, and what paths forward might they suggest?
That first year, 2014, I read 58 books: 28 of them by women, 27 by men, one by a writer of unclassifiable gender, one by an anonymous collective, and one volume edited by a man. I was glad to see gender playing out equably in my reading, no doubt in part because it contributed to my image of myself as an enlightened man — a male feminist even, oxymoronic (or just plain moronic) though that may be. Beyond whatever self-congratulation was involved, however, something else was at work. It could be a product of my education, and of the fact that the key teacher and mentor in my life was a woman, the poet Eleni Sikelianos, but more often than not I seek out writing by women (not “women’s writing”). Maybe I’m drawn to certain qualities of female intelligence and emotionality that come through in the work, maybe I’m somewhat repelled by their male counterparts, or maybe I just feel more at home (or equally at home) with women’s voices. Whatever femininity is in writing — and of course it’s not one thing — I like it, even prefer it, not because I’m fulfilling a quota but because these writers often speak to experience in ways I value.
On the other hand, I was ashamed that, at the end of 2014, only nine of the books I had read were written by people of color. Nor was my shame a matter, again, of having left a quota unfulfilled: I was ashamed by the unavoidable conclusion that if gender parity in my reading stemmed from valuing women’s voices, the lack of writers of color could only mean, conversely, that I didn’t fully value their voices, at least not in my reading. This, too, could be a product of my education and of the fact that, in 10 years of undergraduate and graduate education, not a single one of my professors was black. Not. A. Single. One. None of my primary or secondary teachers were, either. I don’t want to minimize the vital impact certain people of color had on my education (one Korean-American high school teacher and one Indian-American professor in particular), but, structurally speaking, I wasn’t taught to value people of color’s voices because the institutions themselves didn’t value them.
I resolved to do better. And partly toward that end, though also because I enjoyed the statistical process, I decided to log my reading for a second year, again proceeding — I had yet to learn my lesson — more or less unsystematically, following my interests where they led but also aware, in the background, of a gap I wanted to address.
I’m sorry to say that, at the end of 2015, I had done about the same. Awareness isn’t much of a program, if my experience is any indication. While I was happy to see that the proportion of books written by women increased this past year (36 of 63), the number of books written by people of color only increased by a sliver (13). That something like 80 percent of my reading was produced by white writers suggests that, as a genre, whiteness may extend to literature in at least one glaringly obvious way: Those who identify with whiteness seek its reflection in writing. That’s the naïve version, anyway, the one that puts the onus on the individual reader rather than on the systemic inequities of publishing and education, the larger frameworks designed to facilitate the dissemination, and foster the growth, of white writers. One might argue that whiteness does not extend to literature, but that the true genre of literature (at least in this country) is whiteness, that capital-L Literature is white. Or at least that’s what most of us have been conditioned, maybe taught, to believe.
* * *
Then again, in drawing these conclusions, I may be asking my counts to do more than they’re capable of, to stand in for or point to, as data, truths much larger than themselves. I’m reminded of a time, years ago now, when I was having a drink with a friend — we were maybe 27 — and he disclosed, apropos of a mutual acquaintance he’d been dating, what seemed to me an outlandish number of sexual partners. Although we’ve since drifted apart, I liked this friend well enough, thought of him as a generally good sort. But the acquisitive way he presented his number still bothers me. The tally could only account for so much, and in the abstract it mostly reflected my friend’s vanity: he flattered himself by fancying himself a player. What the number provided as gloss, it elided in grain. Who were these women, I wondered, what were their stories? What were my friend’s stories, for that matter, since the number couldn’t possibly address what he felt about his experiences in all of their particularity.
His is one kind of count, anyway, and its parameters are, I hope, quite different from the ones I’ve traced in my log. What I’ve had in mind is something more along the lines of the yearly VIDA counts, which track the relative gender parity on the pages of major publications like the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and others. The distressing numbers alone prove the counts are a necessary corrective to the pervasive, unexamined sexism that runs rampant through the culture, and from which agents and editors, boards and committees are hardly immune, if not willfully or unconsciously complicit. Just as importantly, though, the counts are a powerful prod for individual readers. They exhort publications to be answerable for their contents, and they urge us, by extension, to hold ourselves accountable for the choices we make, or don’t make, when reading. Much as they exhort publications to be answerable for their contents, they urge us to hold ourselves accountable for the choices we make, or don’t make, when reading.
That similar counts have not yet been developed for writers of color is shameful. The writer Roxane Gay compiled one back in 2012, and her numbers were disturbing enough that I would have thought someone (anyone?) would have taken up the gauntlet. (VIDA inaugurated a Women of Color count in 2014, but the organization admits that the dataset was too incomplete to produce a “statistically sound study.”) In short, Gay found that nearly ninety percent of books reviewed by The New York Times Book Review in 2011 had been written by white authors. This is only one year in the life of one publication, of course, so it’s not a baseline, but the question remains as to what degree it represents the whole. The two-year log of my reading, while marginally more equable than the Book Review, would seem to corroborate Gay’s grim findings.
While the critic and proponent of “distant reading” (essentially, quantitative analysis of literature) Franco Moretti would encourage us to focus solely on the numbers — perhaps only then might we assess and address the state of racial justice in literature — Gay would probably say that, even when it comes to writing produced by underrepresented groups, counting can’t be our only metric. As she writes in 2014’s “Bad Feminist,” “when we spend more time talking about publishing than we talk about books themselves, we’re forgetting what matters most,” which is not, she says, “the bitter realities of how our reading material finds its way into the world” but “the joy of reading.” While the data illuminates and alarms, when it comes to building “better, broader readers,” it can only be so effective. (For that, you need to read broadly and closely.) But this inefficacy is in fact a key point, because counting offers something close reading cannot. Much as the numbers obviate the joys and the sorrows of our reading, the discoveries and the alienations, the very act of identifying with a character or losing yourself in a story can obviate the ways, at least in aggregate, your reading, and my reading, is racist. I would never advocate ditching the books, as Moretti provocatively suggests, but as a supplementary practice counting — and, more importantly, reckoning — may offer readers, especially white readers, a measure of justice we desperately need.
The deeper, underlying problem here is that even if I’m ready and willing to accept (cf. James Baldwin, Eula Biss, Ta-Nehisi Coates) that my whiteness is a damnable lie, the lie is still real, even if it’s not true. Thus my students divided neatly according to the categories in which they had, misleadingly, been taught to place themselves and others. Thus I can congratulate myself on my moral outrage while nonetheless remaining insulated from its source.
Put another way, the problem is — as my friend Peter, a scholar of Early American literature, points out — that lots of people have been talking about whiteness in literature for a long time, and though my questions about the shape of literary whiteness, the ways whiteness gets performed in literature, both by myself and by others, may do me some credit, they are marks – in this essay even – of the same kind of carelessness that I’m critiquing. Just because I haven’t had occasion to think about these things doesn’t make them new, nor does my hand-wringing give me any right to comment on a conversation that spans centuries. But, like a good bro, I have been possessed of the delusion that my voice matters, that my opinions have value even if they’re fatuous. I’ve spoken simply because I could. Because I’m a white man. And because my behavior is not just representative of power. It is power.
I know I cannot fully disavow that power, my whiteness, however much I may want to, as I will forever be legible as white to those in whiteness’s thrall. That said, I can interrogate and trouble the ways whiteness has been projected onto me, how these projections have enabled and empowered but also hindered me, and how, more damningly, I have internalized the mask of whiteness in my literary work. I can join that ongoing conversation, which means more, Peter would no doubt tell me, than reading the contemporary commentators. I can do all this, moreover, not in the acquisitive fashion of a boy scout working toward his diversity merit badge, one step among many on the well-meaning road toward white enlightenment. I can read more broadly out of the realization that my casualness and comfort, the serendipity and unconsciousness with which I’ve moved through my literary life, are not actually ends in themselves, and indeed may not even be worthwhile. I can work harder, in part through my reading, at valuing the lives and voices of people of color. I can track and confront those places where my whiteness (and yours) rears its head, where it silences and marginalizes others.
And I can listen. And I can reckon. And, yes, I can count.