Change Your Answer #3: The Time I Wrote A Racist Story

Graphic outline of computer screen. Text reads The time I wrote a racist story...
Illustration by Wendell Barton. See more of his work at DesignbyDel

This is embarrassing. Just putting that out there from the get go. I think we usually try to be the hero of our own memories, to distill our personal canon to the stories that place us in the best light. But no matter how hard we try, the other stories – the dark canon – inevitably bubble up, usually at about 3AM. Like a tragic and kind of boring streaming service, we binge watch the times we acted badly, or were willfully ignorant, or casually hateful. So…this is one of those.

I was in college, taking a creative writing course. I’d just returned from a semester abroad in Prague and decided to write a story based on my experience. Except in the story, rather than sitting around overheated pivovars and dorm rooms getting drunk with other American college students and missing her boyfriend, the heroine gets sucked into a criminal underworld involving the Russian mafia or something. It wasn’t very good. But that’s not the embarrassing part.

To understand the embarrassing part, you have to know about Judith (not her real name). Judith was a very good writer, and she was obviously used to being acknowledged as The Best in classes like this. I’m not especially competitive, but, cards on the table, I was also used to wearing the invisible Best Writer crown. And, in this class, I was handed that crown before we even started. I registered late, and on the first day asked the professor if there was room for me. He said I need to submit a writing sample. I handed him a journal that had just published one of my stories. In fact, had awarded me a $500.00 first prize for that story. He didn’t even read it, just looked at the journal and said, “you’re in.” And like that, I was queen of the class. Judith – at least it seemed to me – didn’t like this and did her best to tear apart anything I brought in. In turn, I treated both her comments and her fiction with bored dismissal, trying my best to convey that her amatuer scribblings weren’t even worth the effort.

A few weeks into the class, we’re critiquing my story. My meandering, imperfect, naive little story, that must have had some good parts too, and Judith notices one kind of tossed off passage. The heroine goes to a dorm party thrown by group of male students from an unspecified Middle Eastern country. In the scene, Heroine describes a smokey, cologne drenched room, electronic music blaring, and being leered at while a young man shouts that she must dance. There was probably a simile about feeling like a meat-based appetizer.

“This part sounds kind of racist.” Judith said.

But Judith was not to be trusted. Judith had already shown that she was jealous of any attention I got. Plus, I was obviously not racist. Race was something I cared a lot about! Kind of. I mean, it was the 90s in Portland, Oregon, and I was just barely in my 20s, so my experience was limited, but in theory….Whatever. The point here was: “It’s based on something that actually happened,” I said. “I’m just describing my experience.”

That night, I quietly cut the scene out, still adamant that it was just a description of a thing that happened. Judith had other comments too, but that one really bugged me. And when her story came up for critique, I critiqued the hell out of it.

Ok, that’s it.

If I could pull Young Sara aside and give her a do-over, here is what I would say:

First: Yes, you had that experience. The smoke, the music, the shouted imperative to dance – all that happened. But the meaning we give to experiences is shaped by discourse. Hollywood and media and literary stereotypes shaped my understanding of what it means to be Middle Eastern, and I used those stories to essentialize. In other words, I read all of these young men’s actions through a single aspect of their identity, one that I’d been taught was foreign and mysterious and potentially dangerous. It wasn’t my fault that I was raised with those stereotypes, they are pervasive in American culture. It is however, my responsibility to interrogate them and make every effort to not reproduce them. Goodwill alone isn’t enough to undo racism. It takes work and if we’re used to being shielded by certain forms of privilege, that work will be uncomfortable.

I would also point out that Judith didn’t say I was racist, she said the passage was racist.

And here is what I would tell Young Sara to say: “Thanks, Judith. You’re a very good writer and there aren’t enough women writers with blunt voices like yours. The class might have silently decided that there could only be one Best Writer, but I reject that. There is room for both of us. For all of us. So let’s build each other up and hold each other accountable. Oh, and Judith, you’re right. That passage was totally racist.”

Change Your Answer features short reflections imagining how we could rewrite small but critical moments in our lives now that our perspective has shifted. For more about Change Your Answer, see the first essay in the series. We want to know what answers would you change! Check out our contributor guidelines and send us your Change Your Answer submission! Submissions should be no more than 1000 words and pasted into the body of the form.

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.