White Girl, Black City

My current WIP is set in Detroit. It’s a murder mystery but it’s also a fish-out-of-water story about a white girl who lands in a black city. I write from the pov of the white girl, and as a white writer who found herself in a black environment when I attended a small private college in Detroit in the 80s, I have direct experience with that fish-out-of-water theme.

I’ve written successfully about being white in a black city before. At school, I won a fiction competition for “Cherry Vanilla” a short story I wrote about a white college girl who dates a black college boy, and the repercussions it has on her family–and his.  I didn’t want to ignore the race issue, but I didn’t want to “write about race” either. So I just focused on what I knew about–being a fish-out-of-water. I didn’t insert racism as a theme, I just showed the way people in my  real world behaved.

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The judges for the competition were our professors. The cash prize was a fat check and other accolades (publication in the college’s literary journal, a personal meeting with the famous author on campus that semester, special guest status at the banquet in her honor) came with the prize. There were four judges: two white women, a white man, and a black woman. The majority of the prof/judges were white, which was a problem even then for a lot of people at the college, particularly the black profs. It wasn’t right, they said, to have a majority of black students and so few black educators.

After the story was published, some of my African-American classmates said I should not have won the competition. They liked the second place story better, also published in the college journal, and written by a black woman. I’d only won top prize because I was white, they said, even though the stories were all submitted anonymously. At the time, I put the black students’ rancor down to sour grapes.

But what if it wasn’t that simple? But what if my three white professors related more to my character because, like her, they were also white in a predominantly black milieu?  What if the lone black professor/judge felt a subtle pressure to agree with her white colleagues? Or what if she dissented, even then? I never considered these things at the time, but the truth is I need to consider these kinds of questions now.

And not about the past, which is gone, but about my current work-in-progress and its particular need to look past easy answers and stereotypes, both white and black.

 

 

8 Comments on “White Girl, Black City

  1. Here’s the thing – I love your consciousness of it all, the world around us, its tenor, the implications. In my humble opinion: Anything judged will be influenced by perspective, by life experience. Especially writing. What moves us in writing? Many times, its empathy or association with a character, usually the antagonist.

    Who knows how the judges connected with your character, but they did. Or perhaps it was description, flow, storyline. That the pieces were entered anonymously also was a way to foster equality, which is a subjective term for another comment!

    I wish that your work hadn’t been criticized because of the color of your skin. To me, this is concerning too. My oldest daughter will begin college this fall. I know by experience that the years to come will expose her to diversity that she’s never seen. Some will feel comfortable, others won’t. It’s all part of her development.

    And even if your work had been criticized wrongly, the experience, for you, the panel, the second-place writer – remains longer-lasting in impact that, I imagine, even a robust check. It’s the same way our experiences influence not only our lives, but how we write and what we write about.

    It’s all kind of led you to this post, and led me to it. Cosmic, isn’t it? Write on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Coach, Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m sure your daughter will be fine in college. For me, I was okay, I was a “non-traditional” student, already married with children. I was 31. I could handle the critique–well, I handled it best I could at the time. I really needed the validation as a writer then; I was so hungry for it. It was kind of a way to protect that, brushing aside the criticism, whether that criticism was fair or not, something I’ll never know. And no longer judge quite so harshly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve learned that stereotypes are a touchy subject. In this PC: EC world we live in everyone is so sensitive and easily offended.Yet, the word stereotypes exists for a reason. We hide from our reality and sweep the truth under the rug as if our ignoring it makes it non-existent. My first book was set in the 1950s-60s in the Deep South. It was clear what the reality was for the people that lived it. My current wip is a contemporary and I’ve had to be extremely careful not to offend while trying to use some of the stereotype images in comic relief. If the white P.I. makes a racial joke…the biracial sidekick has to get angry about it and call him out. Kinda sad…but that’s the reality.

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    • Sue, you are so right it’s a touchy subject, more today than it was in the 1980s. I’m also interested in looking at my own use of stereotypes. I’ve caught myself a few times using worn-out cliches that just don’t work for me anymore. I do have characters who use racial slurs (no jokes yet) and I am confronting them. But mostly I’m still on the “not writing about race” page–although you have to at least bring it up if you’re writing about Detroit or the deep South. I started this book as a homage to Elmore Leonard who wrote about Detroit in a way that didn’t scream “racial tension” but just noted matter-of-factly that it was a reality by putting it in a scene. That’s show-not-tell, right? Which goes to your point about the racial joke. You not only have to show but also tell with something like that. I’d rather have the character take an action, like the bi-racial sidekick could do something hurtful to the person telling the racist joke. Good luck with your WIP!

      Liked by 1 person

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