When is a writer a racist?

I sometimes get asked if I am a racist, by people taken aback at the vocabulary that Everyone Brave is Forgiven uses.

I think it’s a reasonable question to ask, and I will give a short and a long answer.

The short answer

Am I a racist? No, I am not a racist.

The long answer

There are two reasons why Everyone Brave is Forgiven uses racist vocabulary, and they are both straightforward. The first is the duty to historical accuracy. Having discovered in my research for Everyone Brave is Forgiven that white people in the 1930s and 1940s used words like “nigger” casually and with abandon, it would have been a racially loaded act on my part to exonerate them by whitewashing their words. Rather, I prefer to use the language of the period with precision, since that is the best way to understand the mind set of the time. The novel’s use of the word “nigger” is reportage, not racism.

The second reason for using historically accurate vocabulary flows from the fact that any historical novel is really a commentary on the time in which the writer is living. I don’t believe that racism crawled away and died sometime between the 1940s and the present day. Rather, I think it is still a deep and divisive evil that continues to harm individual lives and shape national politics. By being upfront about the ubiquity of racism, and not seeking to soften its language or its acts, I hope to show its historic weight and its continuing influence on the way we live now. I write about racism and xenophobia without pulling any punches, because I think we need to talk about it now, and with urgency.

Having explained the use of racial epithets in my novels, I hope I can now make some observations on the context in which my work is presented. Here also, I have two straightforward points to make. The first is that I acknowledge I am a white person, writing about race, and that some people think my identity disqualifies me from using certain vocabulary even in the frame of reportage. Others go further, denying that a person of one heritage has any right to narrate the experiences of those with another.

I have sympathy with this point of view, but I don’t share it and I don’t think it is healthy when followed to its logical conclusion, which is that each of us may only imagine things from our own point of view. I think that leads to self-convinced world views and a Balkanisation of the human experience. I think it leads to fanaticism.

By contrast, I think that the job of researching how others feel is a useful vocation. In trying to understand and narrate the lives of others, artists hope to bring about the small leaps of empathy that allow societies to bridge divides of heritage.

My second observation concerns the vocabulary and semiotics of people who really are racists. White supremacists these days are specifically trained not to use words like “nigger”, which would get their social media accounts shut down automatically. If I may I will give you an example from this morning. This is, I suppose, a vaguely intimidating tweet I received from a person who was taking exception to my support for refugees:

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The first thing I would call attention to is this person’s use of reversed triple parentheses around their presumptive pseudonym. This requires a little decoding: in response to an anti-Semitic browser plug-in that automatically placed triple brackets around typically Jewish names, some Jews and gentiles alike last month began voluntarily to place these “echoes” around their own names, to express solidarity with those targeted. By reversing these echoes, “don johnson” signals a polar opposition to Jews and to those who act in solidarity with Jewish people.

This person’s second signifier is their Twitter avatar, of which I can give you a close-up view:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 10.12.08

Again, this might require explanation for those not familiar with British political history. As a Conservative MP, Enoch Powell made a divisive speech in 1968 in which he warned, on the subject of black immigration, that he foresaw “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. To present Powell as a visionary in one’s Twitter avatar is to lionise a figure who is widely considered an apologist for racial hatred, and whose inheritors today find themselves emboldened.

Out of curiosity I looked down this person’s timeline, and found much in this vein:

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Again, this person is not using any racially loaded vocabulary that would automatically trigger blocking or police investigation – and yet the intent is clear. (In this case, the unambiguously racist contention that to be non-white is to be non-English.)

That racism is an endemic, root-and-branch evil is shown by the unbroken continuity of the xenophobes’ presentational methods, all the way through from this small time bigotry on Twitter to the populist campaigns that swing a whole nation’s vote. Here, for example, is UKIP’s recent EU referendum poster, using exactly the same technique – the message visually encoded, rather than made explicit in words:


The point I hope to illustrate is that today’s racists and xenophobes are to be recognised not by their public use of racially charged vocabulary as reportage in a curated historical context, but by their use in real time of a rich and shifting symbology that stays ahead of governments’ ability to legislate and service providers’ inclination to filter. In the exploration of society’s values a writer hopes to be a fixed point, while a racist makes themselves a moving target.

This shiftiness extends beyond presentation to the whole issue of truth. A racist seeks to continually revise and rebrand events, twisting words and facts to suit their monomaniacal world view. A writer, by contrast, seeks to present history with precision, both factual and linguistic, because they know it to be the foundation of the present.

I hope this has been a useful explanation and that there is now no confusion about what I stand for. If this piece has made my books sound very stern and serious, I hope they’re not. Rather, I hope that readers can enjoy the immersive experience of my work, including its laughter and emotion, secure in the knowledge that my novels are well researched, truthfully presented and relevant to the world we live in. I have never thought that reading ought to be a punishment, and I hope people will enjoy my books.



10 thoughts on “When is a writer a racist?”

  1. It’s now after midnight here, and I just finished reading EVERYONE BRAVE is FORGIVEN, non-stop, this weekend, which I posted on earlier, on the wrong reply section though (your tour schedule). This book has changed the DNA of my writing, and as a person. I too, am ‘white’ (though part Caribbean on my dad’s bastard maternal side) but am incredibly sickened in the gut by xenophobia, racism, and cruelty of any kind. I just found out this week that chickens in factories can be starved for up to two weeks to make them molt and lay eggs faster; can’t even handle that with chickens. I broke out crying several times in your book, and it was those moments of love coming together to combat insane cruelty; Duggan and Alistair, so glad he got out of that truck, Zachary, omg! and the unfortunate German pilot being beaten to death. I am a mom of four and two stepkids, and a summa cum laude graduate and onto grad school in history, and a ton of literature to boot—including lots of postcolonial literature, such as my favorites, The Kingdom of this World; (Alejo Carpentier) and No Telephone to Heaven (Michelle Cliff) among others; that both deal with traditional systemic racism. I am deeply sickened by Brexit—I was in London doing research for my historial thriller novel in progress (Blood, Smoke & Mirrours) in 2013 and 2014 (stayed with two Italians and a woman from Hungary) and I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THE INCREDIBLE cultural diversity of language and subcultures in London! as you describe briefly in Little Bee where she doesn’t feel so alone. I am ashamed to be a U.S. citizen right now (I protested the war), and I see the insanely racist ideas of our political campaign as the real terror. I have fought for human rights and housing for illegal immigrants (I won’t call them aliens, that so bothers me!) and have lived on two Indian nations, the Souix and Hopi (my kids experienced reverse racism as the only white kids in Hopi grade schools). I also love your books for many other reasons, including the exquisite language, and changing lives. I agree that the idea of each race only writing about, speaking for itself, trying to understand itself creates even more fracturing and Us vs. Them; it’s about Connections, empathy—what I have always LOVED about real literature, such as the little girl in the Zimbabwean novel Nervous Conditions; who raises corn to be able to go to school, and can only do so when her brother dies. You mentioned ‘running on fumes’ I hope you are inspired to keep writing! keep caring, and keep being a parent! My oldest son died of an accidental heroin overdose leaving two young and beautiful granddaughters. He was amazing. Most people don’t understand addiction, it is one of the world’s true monsters; and I felt you did a goot job with morphine addiction and Mary in Forgiven as well. I absolutely love London, while I was there they had a Writers in Translation Night at the British Library which I attended, with five writers (2014) which was incredible. I bought two of the books. I hope to return to London someday, when I hopefully get my book out there, and meet you at a book signing and get my books signed. I first discovered you because I was checking out agents, (For my daughter’s memoir) and stumbled on Jennifer Joel. If you read this, thanks for your time, most sincerely, Gazelle Stasney. mom of six, who gave up our Prius to bike and sit home with a budget as skinny as a bikini strap to write my book. thanks.

  2. Chris,
    I am currently listening to Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Your usage of language is sublime! I love it. Simply put, you write the best sentences and I plan to purchase the book just so I can read them over and over. As a person of African descent, let me say each time I heard the word “nigger” I cringed and something inside felt sickened.
    The flippancy of the speakers was hard to take but that is as it should be, isn’t it? It is to be open to hearing the ugliness of racism and to be moved to emotion and action when witnessing the belief in others but especially in ourselves that there are us and them and those who are not us are less than us.
    Thank you and keep it up.

    1. Dear Margaret – thank you for reading the book. I’m enormously grateful for your kind words and your thoughtfulness in posting this. Thank you, and all good wishes – Chris

  3. Hi Chris,

    You had me at Incendiary. I just finished Everyone Brave is Forgiven and I want to say thank you, I loved it, and that your prose always takes my breath away – often! You are a master with words.

    Now I’ve discovered your thoughtful, insightful blog too, so I’ll stay tuned for more.


    1. Thank you, Stephanie – I’m grateful to you for reading the books, and delighted that you enjoyed them.

  4. I haven’t read anything by you yet. And yet ALL of your books are on my TBR list. After reading this blog post I can’t wait to dive into one of your books. I love how your brain works. This blog post is beyond wonderful. I kept nodding. Thank you for defining what racism looks like in today’s day and age. This was the perfect post on it. I’m running out tonight to buy Everyone Brave is Forgiven!!! Thank you!!!

  5. Minor detail to further decode that Twitter avatar: the image onto which Powell is superimposed looks like the iconic image of a shop fire that was widely used to illustrate the 2011 riots in Tottenham, London: a reaction to a police shooting of a black man.

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