Monday, July 25, 2016

Writing Racism: Thoughts After Reading Sorcerer To the Crown by Zen Cho

It's funny how you don't realize you've been missing a thing until you actually GET it, you know?

Oftentimes, when I read books with PoC characters in a predominantly white society which have been written by white authors, I feel something is "off" about them, but can't always put it into words.  Even when at a surface level it seems okay, something is just missing that I know to be true in my experiences.

Recently I read Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown and realized what it was I keep missing. Microaggressions.

That's too simplistic an answer. Let's start from the beginning.

In my experience, there are levels of awareness to marginalized experience. Here, I'm talking about racism specifically. Level One is Racism Is Bad. No, scratch that. Level One is Racism Exists (sad that some people aren't even at this level).

Level Two: Racism is Bad
Level Three: Racism is Everywhere
Level Four: Racism is Integrated In Our Society
Level Five: Even Good People Can Be Racist
Level Six: We Need To Believe Actual Marginalized People
Level Seven: Microaggressions Exist
Level Eight: Non Marginalized People Need To Sit Down And Let Marginalized People Lead The Conversation
etc. Actually I'm getting a bit hazy on the ordering here but this will do.

Those of us who are lucky enough to experience racism firsthand whiz past this shit because our lives ARE the marginalized experience. Of course, that's not to say that if a marginalized person writes a book with racism that said book represents is THE ONE TRUE EXPERIENCE or anything.

What I tend to see in books written by non-marginalized people is between Level 2 to Level 4 awareness.

I see books include a character of color who is shown to face major aggressions--people outright claiming they're lesser or incapable, being called slurs, pointedly ignored, bullied, beaten up, etc. I see the main character--nearly always white--recognize their true humanity and indignantly can't understand why everyone else treats them different. They become friends and the main character learns about racism and is horrified. Maybe the main character shouts down a bully or rants about the unfairness of society.

Okay, fine--glad the book shows at least this amount of basic awareness. These kinds of racist acts are of course real, of course experienced by many of us, and of course affect the way we move through society. But these are very much performative, intentional racist acts. That's only one facet of racism. Having ONLY the intentional type of racism present--especially if only "bad guys" demonstrate it--is showing only a small part of our experiences. This is really the most basic form of racism. 

There's another--inherent, insidious, tightly bound even within the breasts of people who consider themselves aware. This is inherent bias, this is unconscious aversion, this is unintentional harm. Yes, even "good" people can be racist. Even your friend can harbor a subconscious belief that you are somehow lesser. Even your advocates can be disinclined to listen to you because their voice is echoed back to them in confirmation again and again and again while yours is small and alone.

Where's the plethora of tiny needles that prick daily from not just your enemies, but also your friends? These are microaggressions. In many ways they affect my life even more than those idiots who occasionally yell that I should go back where I came from. The friend who casually asks offensive questions and doesn't get why I'm withdrawn afterwards is not as easy to dismiss as the random dude shouting his head off on the sidewalk.

Books by non-marginalized authors rarely show that good people, people on YOUR side, can harbor racist thoughts and beliefs. If they do, they usually end up redeemed in some way by the end--they understand that black people are just as human as they are and POOF! Problem solved! Everyone's happy! Of course it doesn't work that way. There isn't an internal switch which you can just flip and suddenly be 100% aware.

I dislike when it feels that the author is just using the character of color as a vehicle to showcase how bad the Bad Guys are. These are the Bad Guys, Reader! Look, they're racist! How horrible!

Even worse, when a book uses the character of color as a vehicle to showcase the main character's Goodness. Look, Reader, even though the entire society she's grown up in says these people are bad, she doesn't believe a word of it! Look how nice she is to the character of color! How wonderful!

When universally the Good people show no racism and the Bad people show buckets of it, we have a problem, and that problem is that it's not very realistic. It doesn't ring true. Not all my friends "get" racism, and not all my (fortunately, rather few) enemies are horrific racists. If you haven't grown up with it, you're GOING to make mistakes. You're going to say hurtful things. Even if you're a Good Guy.

Zen Cho's novel has two main characters of color whose experiences ring beautifully true to my ear. Zacharias and Prunella don't just have overt, violent acts of racism to handle, but also insidious, harmful pricks from friends and enemies alike.

The mentor Sir Stephan is an advocate for Zacharias his whole life, despite the difficulty of convincing a very white, powerful group that a black man is equally--even MORE--competent than they. Yet he is not perfect. He sees magical potential in the boy Zacharias and buys him from a slave ship--but doesn't buy his parents, on the same slave ship. Imagine growing up under the tutelage of such a mentor, the conflicting feelings you would have for him. Cho explicitly shows this with the quote:

It had been impossible to ask these questions of Sir Stephen or Lady Wythe, whose affection could not be doubted. That Zacharias's own love for them was leavened with anger was best left unsaid; he tried not to know it himself.

For despite his many good qualities, it doesn't appear the mentor really ever thinks deeply about his early action during his life.

Similarily, Prunella's guardian and boss seems to appreciate her, but is quick to demote her upon the unfounded complaint of a wealthy, white woman. In her mind, Prunella deserves the servant's quarters--after all, she's not really English.

Other examples in the book abound, such as Lady Wythe's indignation at any overt slight paid to Zacharias, while he himself merely continues on with the weary knowledge that such a slight was not the first, will not be the last, and the pricks of a thousand more left unsaid are his burden to carry.

The ease with which the other magicians accept a violent, horrific plot to remove Zacharias from his position of power is bourne from their internal belief that he is somehow lesser, undeserving.

The silent endurance Zacharias exhibits towards barbs both overt and sly, the way Prunella bites her tongue against unsaid words despite internal feelings of betrayal in order to mitigate harm done to her undeservedly--in such ways Zen Cho speaks to a more complete picture of navigating a racist society as a PoC.

The sense I get from books by many non-marginalized authors who try to tackle racism is that, in their world, racism is bad and a lot of people are racists and THOSE people are bad. The sense I get from Cho's novel is that racism is pervasive. (And bad, of course. That goes without saying here).

People can be on your side in one way, and not in another. Friends may not understand. Advocates can do and say things that are hurtful and problematic. And always, the greatest burden is on YOU, the person of color, the person who gets to deal with this shit whether people believe you or not. But it doesn't mean you don't get to have a life, find love, achieve positions of power, and even have fun and joy and whimsical escapades just like everyone else.

I really appreciate Zen Cho for explicitly making this subject a part of her novel and her character's struggles in a book that is very much a lighthearted, whimsical story. It adds an important layer of depth and truth to the story. To not include racism both explicit and implicit would have been to ignore a key facet to the characters' experiences in the world.

If you don't experience racism firsthand, it's a long journey to understand how deep the insinuating tentacles of racism are in our society, and how they color our experiences in ways that are hard to even put into words.

That's not to say "don't try." Please, try! I'm a proponent of the view that writing (and reading!) diverse perspectives of people different from you encourage empathy within yourself, if you try hard and do research and listen.

The key word here being LISTEN. Try to level up, okay?


  1. This is really great. It really nails the things I'm struggling with right now, trying to add more diversity to my story casts and pretty sure I'm not getting it right. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for the kind response! I'm glad it is proving useful.

  2. Finally get around to actually commenting, but I absolutely love your post! It's so rare to find an article that I respond to intellectually and emotionally and hats off, you've done both! Your level system is so on point, and especially when I think of how many people dismiss microaggressions or even think they are on the lower level. But no, like you said this is what white people usually don't get. I have a good friend who did ethnic studies and all but of course it's one thing to live in Germany and study the racism happening to people in the US but not getting how that relates to actual woc friends :( For example she once told me I looked particularly ethnic in a photo! Besides everything else wrong with that, she obviously hadn't really understood that everyone is ethnic despite that being a huge theoretical concept she worked with a lot. So, yes understanding microaggressions! Definitely something that made Sorcerer even more amazing. I read less and less books that are not ownvoices, but a few I've found quite good so far, though I never know if I just try to ignore stuff, to protect myself...have you read the Rivers of London series?

    1. Thank you so much! What you're saying really means a lot to me. I wish people could just GET IT, you know? Unfortunately it's not that easy, which is why I appreciate books like Sorcerer to the Crown so much more. It's wonderful when you see your own experiences accurately reflected in lit, even if they're not happy.

      I haven't read the Rivers of London series but I'll be looking it up!