By Camillo Licata
The other night, I had the privilege of being present for a fairly interesting conversation. I was playing games with two of my friends, who we’ll call B and R, and we were in a skype call. The subject of police officers came up, I don’t remember specifically how. I feel like it’s worth noting that B is a white male, and R is a black male. Both of these fine fellows live in the city, albeit different parts. R started telling the story of one of his interactions with the police. I went silent.
“This one time I had to deal with the police when I was in high school. It was Martin Luther King Day, and that’s important, because even though it was a weekday, we had off, so Truancy couldn’t say nothin’” R says
“Truancy? What’s that?” B asks.
“It’s like, when the cops bust you for being out of school. They detain you and let the school know you’re out and about” R answers
“I mean, I know what it means, but does that s*** actually happen? I’ve never heard of that happening”
“Yeah” R replies simply, “It does. But anyways, me and my friends, M, and K, are coming back from Game Stop, and it’s our day off, so this is totally normal. And K makes eye contact with an officer across the street. I look at him and I ask ‘K man, why are you lookin’ at him?’ to which K replies ‘I dunno man, he looked at me, so I looked at him and now I can’t look away, because I look suspicious as hell.’ And I don’t appreciate that making eye contact with a cop makes us three suspect, but it does, so now I’m mad at K. Sure enough, the officer he made eye contact with, who is clearly in charge of the two guys he’s with, beckons his buddies across the street”
“No f****n way” B interjects. R continues without missing a beat.
“The cops get up to us and all polite ask ‘Hey boys, what are you doing out here today?’ I’m standing in the middle, so that somehow makes me in charge, so I tell him ‘we’re heading home, we just went to Game Stop,’ and M had the Game Stop bag in his pocket with the receipt to prove it. He asks us where we live, how we’re getting there, what bus we’re taking, and I tell him. Then he lays it on us, that APPARENTLY someone has been robbed, by three guys who HAPPEN to match our specific description. ‘You boys wouldn’t mind if we did a quick search would you?’ Like, Really now? And of course I can’t say that this guy’s clearly profiling us, and making up an incident just to frisk us, maybe hoping we turn him down, so we’re suspicious and he can take us in”
“Man, if I was in your situation, I wouldn’t take none of that” B says. “I’d just’ve told them, you don’t have any idea that we could’ve done anything, I’m not letting you search s***,” B says.
“But I can’t do that! I don’t know that there’s not a string of purse snatching by guys who match our description, and I can’t know that unless I’m glued to the news every night, which no high schooler is.” R tells him.
“But you KNOW he’s making it up!” B objects, “it’s your right to just not consent to the search”
“But I can’t prove anything, and so I’m suspicious, and I could li-ter-al-ly die” R says, placing emphasis on each syllable of ‘literally.’
Now this whole exchange is remarkable to me, because, like I said, B and R both live in the city, in different parts of the city, but the still relatively near by. You would think they’d have had similar experiences, but no. Not only had B never heard of someone getting detained for truancy, he could not believe the story of being frisked, with ‘making eye contact’ being the only apparent reason. Meanwhile R went on to describe just that experience in depth
Another interesting point is that B told R and me, repeatedly, that he “wouldn’t have had any of it.” It’s interesting because he’s right. That difference in situation, in experience and the resulting difference in perspective, and understanding is too huge. All because one of them is black, and the other is not.
Of course this data is anecdotal, so we shouldn’t trust it offhand. However, this article from “The Journal of Criminal Justice” does provide empirical data that supports that racial profiling is happening. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047235202001952. If you read the results section of the paper you will see that traffic stops are more frequent in areas that have a high crime rate, stops more frequently result in a search if the person stopped is black, and stops resulting in a summons or an arrest are least frequent if the person is black. When put together this means that, as near as I can tell, if you live in a low income neighborhood, you are more likely to be searched wrongfully after being stopped if you’re black. Which is completely in line with the anecdote.
But police and profiling is probably a story that most of us have heard before, isn’t it? Sad, but not new. So what does this have to do with anything Literary?
Well, it makes me think of Daniel Jose Older’s “Diversity is not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”. He is a person of color, with an editor who is not a person of color, and he relates an experience that he’s seen, which the editor silences with “doesn’t happen in this day and age.” This is of course cause for outrage. Because Older wouldn’t have written it if he didn’t have good basis for the situation, but because the editor had never seen it, they think it must not happen. It’s not out of any malice that this line, this experience, was crossed out of Older’s work, just ignorance.
I am a writer. I am a white, non-binary, asexual writer, but that’s not what people see when they look at me. They see a white, male, heterosexual writer. Statistically, the writing of the writer that they see, is among the most likely to get published, according to demographics. I have power. Power in the literary community.
I would like to use my power for good, and by that I mean, I would very much like to write interesting complex characters of color, female characters, gay characters, characters that are representative of the way the world actually is, not the way that the majority and the (perhaps unintentionally!) biased publishing companies want to filter it.
The problem is that I am more like B than R. I am not a person of color. I’ve never had any, not one, experience with a police officer. I’d never heard of someone actually being detained for truancy either. I just happen to believe it a little better than I think B did.
But because I have never had these experiences, I’m worried that my writing will come off the way that Older’s editor’s comment did: Ignorant. I don’t think that the responsibility of making all people equal in the literary world should fall to marginalized groups alone, I think we with privilege should assist them.
With these concerns in mind, I read “White Authors, Fill Your Stories With People Of Color, But Don’t Make Them Your Protagonists” by Nazahet Hernandez. This Author pretty well articulates responses to most of my questions, and the answers are admittedly, about what I expected. The link to the article is here: http://readdiversebooks.com/white-authors-fill-your-stories-with-people-of-color-but-dont-make-them-your-protagonists
Especially after reading the above post, I do think that, to answer the question that is the title of this post, I should include diversity in my writing. However, I need to do my research and make sure I know what I’m talking about, and I need to be sure that I’m not just including diversity for diversity’s sake. It needs to be done, in my opinion, because that’s the way the story needs to evolve, and/or because that’s the way it makes sense.
Plain and simple, my point is that if we are trying to write a character that comes from a background that is unlike what we experienced, (for example, if I was trying to write from R’s perspective,) we can never, EVER, say “that doesn’t happen in this day and age” because we need to remember that we don’t know that, we only know that we’ve never seen it. The point is, you need to do your research, keep an open mind, and don’t fall back on your assumptions, because those are a reflection of your experience, which is no longer something you’re writing from.
Petrocelli, Matthew and Alex R Piquero and Michael R Smith. “Conflict Theory and Racial Profiling: An Empirical Analysis of Police Traffic Stop Data.” Journal of Criminal Justice. Vol 6. no 2. 2003. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047235202001952. Accessed 24 April 2017
Hernandez, Nazahet. “ White Authors, Fill Your Stories With People Of Color, But Don’t Make Them Your Protagonists.” Read Diverse Books. http://readdiversebooks.com/white-authors-fill-your-stories-with-people-of-color-but-dont-make-them-your-protagonists. Accessed 25 April 2017.