When Sean Frederick Forbes and I announced the open call submission for our forthcoming anthology, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE WHITE IN AMERICA, we didn’t know what to expect. We certainly expected some hate mail (very few and of little consequence, thank goodness), and some criticism, but what we didn’t expect was that white people would have such a hard time answering the question: “What does it mean to be white in America”?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, it has always been easy for people of color to tackle this question, for example, “What does it mean to be Black in America? Or Native American? Or Asian? Or Latino?” because we deal with this question from the moment we are born, because we are made to feel different every day. In some way, shape or form, people of color deal with institutionalized racism in almost every aspect of their lives. For that reason we’ve had to learn at an early age about race, and develop an understanding about whiteness as part of our everyday survival skills. On the other hand, since white people are the majority ruling class in American society that’s seen as the norm, they’ve never really had to address this question. I think it is safe to say that most white people never experienced that clear moment during their childhood when they realized they were white, and what it meant in a negative or disparaging way. Surprisingly, even among the most liberal and progressive white people, there seems to be an internalized reticence to engage in conversations about race and racism. It’s not that people don’t talk about race, they do, but it’s usually among their own racial group with an openness and honesty that is rarely discussed publicly. Why is that? It’s not like we don’t talk a lot about race in this country, we do; we just don’t talk to each other about it. It’s those type of conversations we seek for inclusion in this book.
So here is where we’re at with the submissions: Most of the stories we’ve received are interesting, but many of them dance around the question. Some authors respond with a vague, third-person story that represents an observation about “whiteness” rather than writing in the first person (about themselves), and how they feel. Some spend more time offering politically correct anecdotes to prove to the reader that they are not racist, rather than answer the question. Others have provided fictionalized stories where they can control the narrative and outcome. Some of these stories are in fact very interesting and well-written, but since they’re not personal narrative-based, they are unsuitable for this anthology. Then there are narratives that are almost there, but not quite, because the author is holding back, trying very hard to be “politically correct.” And of course, some people have sneaked in a poem or two because they feel their poetry answers the question, even though we’ve made it clear we’re not publishing poetry in this book.
The question itself opens a window to explore other race-related questions, such as: How do white people feel about their own race? When you see people of color, do you see the difference, and if so, why? Have you ever been surprised by your own unwanted racist thoughts? What were those thoughts? What was the context? Where do you think you learned them? How did it feel to glimpse that part of yourself? Have you ever been in a situation where someone tell a racist joke or story and you’ve not been able to speak up? Describe the experience. How did you feel? What kind of thoughts prevented you from interrupting the moment? How did you feel afterwards? How do you feel about it now? If you could redo the moment, how would you navigate it differently? What problems do you have with race in American society today and if so, how does it affect you, personally? We’re not looking for people to politically or socially validate that racism exists, rather, we’re looking for self-reflection, not a theoretical treatise. To share truths about race and racism. To talk about the benefits and/or the drawbacks of being white, and why. To talk about how race affects one in their everyday lives, if at all, and how?
While we will not publish stories that are demeaning and racist in nature, we’re not searching for “politically correct” stories either. And by the very nature of our question, we’re not looking to pass judgment by determining whether or not a person is racist or not. The purpose of WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE WHITE IN AMERICA is to invite white people to engage in honest conversations about race and racism in America, not publicly shame them and make them feel guilty about being white. We realize that the book title’s question, “What does it mean to be white in America”? is not easy to answer, but the submissions that will grab our attention are the ones that manage to do just that. It means that in order to truly answer the question, authors should consider digging deep by embarking on a journey of self-exploration and reflection so that he or she can write something that is meaningful and insightful. The bottom line is that WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE WHITE IN AMERICA has the potential of becoming a groundbreaking anthology, and we are seeking submissions that can meet the challenge.