“Color Coded” is excerpted from Of Color: Essays by Jaswinder Bolina, published by McSweeney’s Books and available June 30, 2020. Preorders are available through the McSweeney’s Store.
When the blond girl shouted, “Hey!” and ran over to stop my bicycle, a voltage of hope charged through my twelve-year-old body. No blond girl had ever stopped me in all the years I’d ridden down the lane between the park district playground and rows of suburban townhouses. No blond girl had ever stopped me anywhere. I thought she might want to know my name. Maybe we’d walk across the way to sit on the park swings. It was 1990. I’d never kissed a girl. This might be love. As I settled to a stop, she landed her hands on mine, squeezed, looked me straight in the face, and with grave seriousness asked, “Are you a Hindu or a Gandhi?”
Her mouth broke into a sneer before she released me and ran back to a gallery of cackling friends, their laughter chasing me down the lane past the cracked expanse of the tennis courts to the quiet of the comics shop a mile or so away. This wasn’t the worst thing anyone had ever said to me. By twelve, I’d taken plenty of slurs. But this encounter was a total non sequitur, both gratuitous and nonsensical. Gandhi is a name, not an epithet. My family isn’t Hindu; even if we were, I’m not sure how being described as such would be an insult.
To dismiss this episode as an artifact of adolescent daftness would be to ignore the sophistication in the blond girl’s behavior. She deduced my family’s national origin, elaborated upon her deduction by identifying that nation’s foremost religious majority, and further recognized one of its preeminent founding fathers—all from the sight of my face. Impressive for a kid who might otherwise be dismissed as ignorant. She wasn’t ignorant. She was making inferences, some of them quite clever. But she also deliberately ignored any complexity in me, any possibility that I might be someone other than I appeared to be. She took the upper hand by erasing any possibility of sophistication in her target. Ignorance can be forgiven. It was the willfulness of her act that made it deplorable.
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I didn’t set out that afternoon thinking how brown I was, how anyone might assault me with that fact. My encounter with the blond girl felt like getting horse-collared. The effect of this kind of diminishment is profound, the ensuing humiliation automatic. It isn’t rooted in shame. I don’t remember regretting myself or wanting to disavow my family and the genetics that made me. I liked who I was. But I felt futile, my embarrassment born of powerlessness. I spent days—years, even—thinking about what I should’ve said, with what ferocity of wit and logic I might have shut her down. But I didn’t shut anybody down. I ran.
I might have escaped her cruelty in the moment, but I internalized my shame over running for a long time after. I told myself I’d do better next time. Next time I’d flank and maneuver. But one next time, early on a college evening in 1997 while I was walking down South Michigan Avenue, a pair of red-faced, middle-aged white men in a Jeep Grand Cherokee slowed to ask if I was a camel fucker. The passenger lunged for my arm and I pulled it away, a frightened child again. Another next time, a few weeks after 9/11, a white guy stopped his pickup truck to block my path through an Ann Arbor crosswalk. He stared me down until I knew I was something other than an MFA student. I shaved my grunge-era-holdover beard the next morning. Another next time, a few years later, a white guy hollered “sand nigger” at me from a car passing so fast I didn’t have time to react. He gave not one shit for my doctorate, for my first book of poems or the next one. I took to wearing headphones everywhere I went. I avoided eye contact with anyone passing. I didn’t realize then, after these and so many other incidents I won’t bother to recount, how invisible I attempted to become.
Still, the TSA sees me. The neighborhood watch sees me. The police see me. Their way of seeing is deemed necessary, not racist but defensible per the procedural-sounding label racial profiling. They’re making inferences. Justifiable inferences, allegedly, but they don’t feel very different from the others I remember, each one founded on incorrect assumptions and active decisions to ignore certain particulars about my identity. Except now I’m no longer the butt of an adolescent joke. Now such inferences might mistake me for a threat, my selfhood erased by the semiautomatic suspicion that I am something other than an “ordinary” citizen. This kind of suspicion can get a body detained or arrested, can get a body killed. In this context, I feel obliged to demonstrate my normalcy, my loyalty—my docility, even—which is a strange reaction from a person on the receiving end of unprovoked aggressions. I become the victim apologetic.
This isn’t fair, but it turns out the world isn’t as objective as all those college philosophy classes suggested. It values and devalues me, which alters the way I behave and in turn the way I see myself. This is how race comes to affect an entire ontology, how it becomes metaphysical. I possess a version of who I am that feels internally consistent and authentic, but that identity is rejected by others for little more than the bone structure of my face, for a trick of light refracting through the melanin in my epidermis. When you’re affected by this kind of prejudice, it isn’t the individual act that matters. It’s the lesson offered by all such acts taken together, by their sheer pervasiveness and the oppressive regularity with which they afflict people of color around you. You start out an American kid on your bicycle until someone hollers for you to go back to your country; until security follows you through the store, the airlines kick you off your flight, the politician vows to remove you from your home; until the patriot punches you in the face or the police strangle or shoot you.
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Firsthand experience of racism is the kind of thing a poet probably ought to write about. But the first time I wrote a poem about it, a white poet lamented that I was merely outing the obvious, only reiterating something he, I, and many readers of poetry already knew was wrong. As notable anti-Semite Ezra Pound declared long ago, the artist’s central task is to make it new. The white poet’s complaint was that, though my poem may have been well-written, even publishable, it hadn’t made racism new.
I don’t altogether disagree—I’ve taken Pound’s dictum to heart as much as any other poet—but we need to be clearer about exactly what new means, whether it refers to innovations of form, of content, or of both. What the white poet missed is that the observation of racial injustice is itself new, that it hasn’t existed in poetry for very long or been explored to anything approaching completion. For those unaffected by racism—or sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or so many other intolerances—maybe every account of victimization blends together. You might be sympathetic to the cause of racial parity, but your disconnection from the actual experience of racial disparity leads you to support the cause without being especially interested in specific accounts of it. You might feel that racism is racism, each particular part of the same continuous subject. You don’t need another poem describing how awful it is. You want something new.
This is how race and racism come to be seen as passé subjects for poetry, subjects that are already too familiar or too personal or somehow lesser than other, more universal ones. When this occurs—and it does, with surprising frequency—the argument is often based on the logic that most poems in our anthologies are devoid of racial or ethnic subject matter. It might posit that Keats’s odes aren’t especially interested in race, but rather in beauty and truth. That, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, J. Alfred Prufrock isn’t a vehicle for the aging T.S. Eliot to lament his diminished sex appeal but the rumination of a Modernist observer alienated by the urban wasteland and the urbane women drifting through it. These paragons of the poetic canon are laudable, the argument goes, not for their confessions of private experience but for their advancements of form. Their subject is the “human” condition, and their work is novel for the way it constructs and deconstructs that subject.
But if neither Keats nor Eliot nor Pound ever wrote from or about their experiences of racial identity, it is almost certainly because that identity was never noted or challenged by anyone around them. For this reason, though I find plenty of pleasure and insight in their poems, I can’t say they’re more objective or universal than a Langston Hughes meditation on a brass spittoon, or an Agha Shahid Ali ghazal remembering Kashmir, or a Natasha Trethewey recollection of her hair being painfully straightened with hot combs. Race doesn’t affect Keats’s ontology or Eliot’s or Pound’s, the metaphysic that underlies their artistry, the way it affects Hughes’s or Ali’s or Trethewey’s or mine or that of so many others. The white masters, masters though they may be, are oblivious to those experiences of bigotry and exclusion that are condemnably common for the rest of us. In this essential matter, those writers of the literary canon are utterly ignorant, and so their reports on the human condition are gapingly incomplete. And still there are critics who argue that lyricism is a finished thing, that a white account of the self is a sufficiently universal contemplation, that any emphasis on race will only diminish its universality.
This is where our confusion about Pound’s dictum has landed us. Make it new is predicated upon a version of literary history that sees poetry as a kind of progress: the Early Modern begets the Romantic begets the Modern begets the Postmodern. This view implies that poetry advances by making continuous improvements upon itself, which is as wrongheaded as understanding biological evolution as the improvement of a species toward a perfect endpoint. Worse, to commit to a normative and linear history of poetry allows for the dismissal of any writing that doesn’t continue, and thus implicitly endorse, that history. Any poem that isn’t new relative to long-held beliefs about the old—that certain canonical poems are universal in their perspectives, for instance, or that the confessional speaker is distinct from and lesser than the philosophical lyric speaker—is readily disregarded. The new remains under the jurisdiction of whoever controlled the old, and no minorities need apply.
But there isn’t progress in poetry. There’s only an art form adapting to the manifold pressures culture and moment exert upon each of us as poets. Better, then, to accept the evolutionary model of natural selection and understand that when context changes, our writing responds. Sometimes formerly dominant perspectives are selected out. Sometimes vestigial styles are selected back in. Complaining doesn’t help, no matter how knowledgeably the complainants ground themselves in a history of the art. Doing so is like asking a parrot to turn itself into a dinosaur, or claiming that returning to the geopolitics of the 1950s will make America great again. The tectonics shifted. The asteroid struck. That America is over.
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And now, as a literature of color, of gender, and of sexuality begins to assert itself at long last, there are those who argue that the fact of such variables gives minority writers a new and undue competitive advantage; that writers who discuss race in their work are beneficiaries of tokenism, itself a consequence of the political correctness and affirmative actions that undermine meritocracy in publishing and leave white writers dispossessed; that a history of racism has given way to a new era of “reverse racism.” This critique came to the fore in 2015 when, admitting he had been duped by Michael Derrick Hudson’s publication of a poem under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou, Sherman Alexie—who had included the poem in that year’s edition of Best American Poetry—copped to what he called “racial nepotism.” His admiration for the piece, he explained, was in part based on the idea that it concerned subject matter he hadn’t expected someone named Yi-Fen Chou to write about. That is, Alexie meant to reward a Chinese writer for avoiding anything discernibly Chinese in her writing, as if the avoidance were an accomplishment worth celebrating.
I believe fully that writers of color should address whatever subjects enthrall us, and that there is much to treasure and learn about race even when it isn’t an explicit subject in our art. But Alexie’s reasoning not only undermines the possibility that nonwhite concerns can be Western, much less universal; it also places an outsized burden on writers of color by holding a higher esteem for those who don’t write their own experience, for poetry that remains silent on race or ethnicity. In selecting the poem for the reasons he did, Alexie didn’t commit racism against whiteness so much as engage in the same preference for conventional, deracialized, Eurocentric subject matter that white people have long favored—which is to say he committed good old-fashioned regular racism.
For his part, Hudson’s use of a Chinese woman’s name had nothing to do with the experience of any actual Yi-Fen Chou. He merely took a poem he had written and attributed it to someone else. In this, he wasn’t guilty of cultural appropriation but guilty of something far more perverse: wearing someone else’s skin for his own gratification, for the hope of cadging some modestly increased notoriety. A white man using a fabricated racial identity where he believes it offers an advantage isn’t dispossession. It’s a choice. It’s an engagement with race that is entirely elective. This is what gets elided by those who cite so-called reverse racism for their failure to land this job or win that award: they can choose to ignore race when they succeed, and choose to blame it when they fail. The real, living woman whose identity, subjectivity, and autonomy Hudson thieved in service of his self-interests could never be granted the same liberty—not in a country where so many would-be standard-bearers are eager to dismiss her every achievement as a product of affirmative action and celebrate any failing as evidence of her inferiority.
Losing out where your forebears always won doesn’t mean you’re a victim. It means, again, that the context has changed. Other people get a shot now too. And yet the laments only seem to be growing louder on talk radio, on Fox News, at political rallies, even in the generally polite and progressive company of poets. Shifting demographics are cited as evidence of the continued diminishment of white thriving. The arrival of minorities where they haven’t been permitted or expected before—in the White House, on television, in literary journals, at book award ceremonies—are framed as coming at the expense of white achievement. But the losses of one white person, or even of several white people, don’t represent the losses of all white people. To see evidence of a systemic conspiracy in a person of color’s ascension to any position once held exclusively by white people, exclusively for white people, is to mistake the outlier for the system. Rather than acknowledging my experiences of racist abuse or anyone else’s, rather than confronting the real threats people of color in this country face daily, the claim to reverse racism creates a false equivalency between subjugation and inconvenience.
But none of that lousy accounting can take my memory of the blond girl away from me. No politics of paranoia can eclipse my actual anxiety walking down the street, my actual unease in the airport, my actual fear driving through entire regions of this country. No empty gesture at inclusion can allay the fears so many people of color have of the police, of the criminal justice system, of their fellow citizens openly, proudly seeking to make America what it once was. Those fears are founded on experience, not inference. Those experiences are as real as our national legacies of slavery and segregation, of ghettoization and internment and deportation. Of murder. No demagogue can erase these. No tokenism can correct them. No pundit and no poet should minimize or dismiss them. No white gripe can conceal the fact that that pain, that violence, and that shame are also America.