If you want to change the system.

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I live in a filter bubble like everyone else, thanks to algorithms. But even beyond that — one of my oversights is that I tend to make assumptions.

I live rurally. Most days, I don’t even see a neighbour. I’m writing every day, trying to articulate visions of a half-formed fictional narrative. This is my work, and I love my life.

White privilege has made it possible for me to have this life. I don’t even have to think about that disturbing fact every single day, because I’m white.

My assumption: that white writers in our school are well aware of the concept of white fragility. We know that we have been brought up in a racist system, and acknowledge that we continue to live in a racist system.

But even if this is already in our consciousness, we must remind ourselves regularly about what it means to be white in a racist world. Otherwise it becomes invisible (to us), and perpetuates itself.

Introverted writers are the weird renegades who do well in isolation (given that they have enough money to keep the wolves away from the door). I strongly believe that our weirdness is our strength, and that we need to prioritize our imagination and writing time. Writing is deep work.

But if we want to use our imagination to change the system, a caveat:

Our writing can’t change the system if we retreat from the difficult truth of white privilege. We have to see it first — really see it — in order to dissolve it.

It feels good to say, “write the kind of culture you want to live!” — but if we don’t truly see the ugly truth of this system, and acknowledge the ways white writers benefit from white supremacy, we will never be able to write a story that will transform it.

In my early stories, I resisted writing conflict. I’d end all of them with some deep, super-subtle image that I felt said it all without having to actually say anything: a character mixing oil and vinegar, for instance, and pouring it over a salad. Oil and vinegar — oh, the tension!

The thing is, nothing happened in my stories. There was no change in the character’s consciousness or reality.

As I grew as a writer, I learned that in order for them to change, I had to push my characters through some kind of conflict, extreme discomfort, or series of unpassable obstacles.

Honestly, I still want to avoid this stage in every story I write. It always feels impossible and intolerable.

There is truth and wisdom in this awful feeling, and it is not to be skipped.

Transformation is available on the other side of that. Change — a new kind of reality — is the relief that comes from the suffering.

We need to learn how to tolerate the truth: we grew up to be racist. We all did. It’s embedded in our language, the books we read, the toys we played with, the spaces we learned in. I’m not saying that this was a conscious choice: I’m reminding us that racism is systemic.

Our efforts to make a positive change through story are well intentioned. I want to do that, too. I have more to do, and more hard conversations to have.

At our writing school, we know that the history of literature has inequality baked into it. We promise to keep examining our assumptions, to keep reminding ourselves to not look away, and to continue to empower our community of diverse writers to read and write new stories. Art is powerful: stories can heal us, and they can lead us.

We have updated the Story Intensive with new course materials that feature exciting writing by indigenous, black and brown authors. Updating the Story Course is our next priority.

I thought twice about continuing to promote the Story Intensive at this time — I want to leave room for the larger conversation that needs to happen right now. After much thought, I decided that the embodied writing, deep conversation and growth that happens in our Story Intensive classes are needed now more than ever. So you’ll be receiving emails from me about the Story Intensive over the next few weeks, and you can opt-out if they aren’t for you.


Here are a few places you can start to sit with the intolerable truth, which is a first necessary step to take before we can change anything.

If you are non-white and feel moved to recommend resources, please add your links to the comments.

1. Watch Tyrone Edwards explain, on CTV's The Social, why he's not going to mute himself anymore. Honest, raw, and powerfully vulnerable.

2. Read The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. It’s a YA novel: read it with your children. If you think the content is too violent for your child to face, consider that this may indicate precisely why you should read it with them.

3. Study with Patti Digh. She is offering this class on Whiteness and Social Justice this August, and I’m sorry I won’t be available to take it this year. If you can, please do. I took her Art of Hard Conversations class a couple of years ago, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

4. Listen to therapist Resmaa Menakem talk to Krista Tippett about how our bodies carry trauma for generations, and how we may begin to heal.


Photo credit (top): Mehdi Sepehri on Unsplash

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of these links, I may earn a commission. I only recommend books or products I trust.


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5 comments

Sarah Selecky

Thank you so much, Elle! I'm so glad you pointed this out. YES: "One way white people can fight racism is by reading stories that show people of color in their full humanity and encouraging publishers to promote that type of work." I'm looking forward to reading Lot, by Bryan Washington: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525533672 Thank you for introducing me to Shannon Sanders. I'll look for the One Story issue. She also has many stories available online, including this great one in Requited, called Bless Your Heart (the voice in this unrequited love story is so good): https://www.requitedjournal.com/issue-19/fiction/shannon-sanders#h.p_D8ub5uxbvKOw
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Julie Gabrielli

Thanks for this. And for the great list. I just registered for the August course w/ Patti Digh! I've been wanting to read "How to be antiracist" for a while now. I thought this video from Trevor Noah was good. Very thoughtful about what happens when the social contract is broken. https://youtu.be/v4amCfVbA_c
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks, Julie. Good, you'll get to work with Patti this August! I hope she offers that class again in the fall/winter. (I'm going to have to look for that video elsewhere (it's blocked in Canada) but I'm sure I can track it down.)
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Julie Gabrielli

Thank you for sharing your thoughts here, Elle. Here's to full humanity! Makes me think of the scenes in "Americanah" when Ifemelu is just living her life. I so appreciate the reading suggestions, too. Thank you.
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I hesitated to write this but I think it is an important add-on. I am a Black American woman and one of the ways I see racism consistently enacted in the writing/publishing community is by relegating writing by non-White authors to topics explicitly about racism or suffering. Often if a Latina writer has a fiction story published it has to be about illegal immigration. If a Black woman's novel is featured on a "must-read" list, the book has to be about slavery, racism, police brutality, etc. White authors can write about love, friendship, suburban mystery, etc. and have that work be treated as essential, but so often only suffering has currency for authors of color. The impact of such bias reaches far: most authors making a living from their stories write non-raced based stories. Even more importantly, when Black, Brown, and Indigenous people's lives are seen as less full than White people's lives, it becomes easier to press your knee down a little harder, shoot a little faster... One way white people can fight racism is by reading stories that show people of color in their full humanity and encouraging publishers to promote that type of work. Shannon Sander's "The Everest Society" is one such story. It is One Story Magazine's March 2020 issue. Consider checking it out. Bryan Washington's short story collection, Lot, is another great example. Gorgeous writing about full, real lives. Thank you for lending this space for people to talk, Sarah.
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