The Greatest Story Ever Sold

Actually, you can’t always open a mind by opening a book…


Four years ago, during the final days of Obama’s presidency, I wrote a heartfelt piece on his literacy promotion, and included this paragraph on how reading fostered empathy:

“According to studies, reading literary fiction increases empathy. This is not a surprise to those of us who are devoted to the form. While history books can give you the facts (inasmuch as any history can be factually true), and biographies may be able to delve a little more deeply into the psychology of a subject, it is through art that the full implications of the eternal enigma of the human condition can be explored to its farthest, darkest recesses.”

I truly believed it, just like I truly believed that, despite Trump’s election, racial progress in America was being made, long-stifled voices were being heard and celebrated, and a far-from-perfect country was inching toward racial equality.

Even though I was raised white, I didn’t quite understand how fiercely white people would cling to their privilege. I saw the backlash against America’s first Black president and the rise of the Tea Party and their intimations of violent white rebellion, but I also knew that our rapidly changing demographics were moving America ineluctably away from white dominance.

Throughout my life, I have amply experienced anti-Asian racism, but it generally seemed to come from strangers or casual acquaintances. After Trump won the White House, I realized that racism, like that phone call of urban legend, was coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE. People close to me who I thought respected my humanity revealed their complete indifference to it.

The Women’s March, with its sheer volume of people, energy, and camaraderie, gave me some much-needed comfort. But I also remember a group of Black girls, perhaps from Capitol Hill or another of the rapidly gentrifying close-by neighborhoods, watching the protesters and laughing. They weren’t laughing with the protesters; they were laughing at them.

I think about those girls a lot these days. They weren’t fooled.

I found it painful but easy to separate myself from those who refused to address the racist implications of their political stances. After a lifetime of not calling out racist comments and attitudes for fear of upsetting my white ecology, I finally understood that my silence was complicity in white supremacy.

But as the white-grievance culture wars widened, the cracks in my relationships spread to surprising places. The specters of cancel culture and cultural appropriation struck a tender nerve in many of my acquaintances, and their preoccupation with the subjects and almost pathological refusal to be assuaged of their fears left me exhausted and saddened.

Like a game of whack-a-mole, as soon as I had finished one draining conversation with someone, another person would pop up and demand I explain the same thing all over again. Not infrequently, a mole that had already been whacked popped up again and again, crying, But the Harper’s letter! But Kazuo Ishiguro’s statement! But Dr. Seuss!

For most of my life, I have been subservient to my white community, observing the world through a white lens, centering white narratives, putting the feelings of my white cohorts over my own. That internalized racism begins at a very early age, learned, say, from a Dr. Seuss book that shows a man with dashes for eyes, wearing a funny hat and a long cue, skin shaded the same yellow color as the brass instruments in the illustration, running down the street in strange shoes, carrying chopsticks.

I didn’t want to be like that funny creature; I wanted to be like the people with eyeballs and lovely white skin.

After Dr. Seuss’ heirs announced their decision to remove six books from print due to insensitive content, there was an outbreak of poems that cried cancel culture. One of them was blasted out by an acquaintance to their “newsletter” mailing list. I was disappointed in the person, especially as they were the parent of a transracial adoptee.

I was also astonished that they had the temerity to send their endorsement of white supremacy in children’s literature to me and presumably other people of color who had the misfortune to be on the mailing list. But it’s typical of the thoughtlessness and carelessness with which many white people broadcast their ingrained prejudices, as if it were just a part of normal discourse.

There is, however, precious little normal discourse when the white person is on the defensive. I’m still trying to figure out how conversations about American Dirt ended with the white woman crying.

Working for a bookstore, I saw up close the limits of book-learned empathy. All of my colleagues are fanatical readers, but their reading choices seem to be largely dictated by the endorsements of white gatekeepers. I was mistaken for the only other non-white team member — shorter, curvier, and much more attractive than I — more times than I care to remember. When I called out a white supervisor on her refusal to see me, she did the usual white-person shuffle of deflect, deny, and never, ever acknowledge fault.

Over and over, white people want me to allay their fears of having something taken away from their experience. Over and over, I am asked by smart people with access to copious resources to explain the systemic racism that is right there for all to see. It’s an effective strategy to exhaust the critic into silence.

Another tactic of exhaustion is the demand that the person who speaks out against injustice come up with a resolution, tasking the marginalized to come up with solutions to end their own marginalization, which should be the work of those in well-compensated positions of power who uphold the current inequitable system.

A lot of times, it’s just a matter of common sense. Amidst the epidemic of violent attacks on Asians, the Washington Post saw fit to print Michael Dirda’s dismissive review of a new translation of the Chinese classic Journey to the West that could at best be called tone deaf and at worst racist. Dirda’s review is pretty much the definition of cancel culture. (And the Post is really good at it — the vast majority of their cultural critics are white. But Carlos Lozada!)

As a transracial adoptee, I know what it’s like to have my culture canceled. I grew up white, but when white people made it clear I didn’t belong in their club, I had to construct my own cultural identity. In the face of the recent wave of anti-Asian violence, I have no community to turn to for unconditional sanctuary.

Even though I was fortunate enough to be adopted into a loving and supportive family, I don’t have a relative who knows to hug me tightly just because I came in safely through the door, or an auntie to remind me to be on alert out in public, or a best friend from Korean Saturday school to cry with. There is no one who doesn’t have to ask how I am doing because they know how I’m doing because it’s how they’re doing as well: they’re disgusted, scared, angry, and so, so tired.

In the wake of rising incidences of hate crimes against Asians came the predictable reading lists for eye-opening books on the Asian American experience. (You won’t find my novel on any of them. Even though it examines how a Korean adoptee struggles to construct her own identity, the book has not been widely recognized or embraced by the Asian American community.)

Four years ago, I might have published my own list of books for this column. But I know now that the mere act of reading fiction is not enough. Confronting white privilege and implicit bias is much more than opening a novel; it is the hard work of opening a mind.  

Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People.

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