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Personal Essay: I want to see white people get angry and take action against racism, too, writes Vivek Shraya


(photo: Alejandro Santiago)

I can’t recall the exact incident. Perhaps it was the announcement of another all-white panel, literary event, or award shortlist in my social media feed. I do recall feeling frustrated and defeated – the same emotions I feel every time I witness the prevalence of whiteness – and pacing around my apartment while texting friends about it. I recall cheekily closing one text with, “I am going to name my next book even this page is white.” Although this was half meant to be a joke, it stayed with me and eventually found its way into a poem, “white dreams.”

Despite my lack of formal training in songwriting, filmmaking, and novel-writing, I have always found the challenge of exploring a new medium invigorating. But the realm of poetry felt unknowable and entry impermissible. I felt as though I needed to tread cautiously, reverently, hands clasped, for fear of offending not only past and current poets, but Poetry itself. When I sent early drafts of the manuscript to poet friends for feedback, I often sheepishly asked, “Does this read as amateur?” I even managed to forget my own history of writing poetry in grade school, that my exploration of poetry came before I became a songwriter, and that I had even had poems published in a religious magazine in India in my teens.

It was only when I began reading works by poets of colour that this anxiety began to lift. I realized that poetry itself wasn’t the barrier, but rather the whiteness of it: most of the poetry I had been exposed to was by white authors. This realization was solidified when I noticed mine was often the only brown body in the room at poetry readings I attended. The phrase even this page is white now had more depth and resonance.

Of course, this argument can be made of any art medium (and industry). Navigating poetry’s white guard felt particularly difficult while writing a book of poetry that delves into racism; above agonizing over what makes a poem “good” –  or, rather, who decides what makes a poem “good” – I felt the added pressure of how to write a “good” or “effective” poem about racism.

My title phrase was a useful guiding principle while I was writing, especially regarding systemic racism, which is so often invisible. I also relied heavily on feedback from friends and peers, as I always do. But with this project, it was sometimes hard to separate the feedback from the race of the reader. I often wondered if the imagery-based poems were more popular with some white readers because they were less direct, and therefore easier to digest. When some white readers suggested certain passages “could be more poetic,” was this because the writing was weak or because they were feeling confronted by the content? Did this mean the poem was actually effective? I am not criticizing any reader or their reaction, but rather describing the complexity of receiving feedback on writing about racism.

I was also concerned about readers of colour. If I considered white readers and their potential reactions, was I prioritizing whiteness? Is there a way to write about oppression by white people and white systems without centering whiteness? I am constantly talking about racism with my friends of colour, but often it feels like these conversations – this rage – circulate solely among us. We provide necessary comfort to each other, but I want to see white people get angry and take action against racism, too. I wanted to write poetry that would provoke this. As a non-black person of colour, I also wanted to highlight the specificity of anti-black racism as a way to speak to my own complicity. Can I write a poem that does this without appropriating or being offensive? As a settler in Canada, I had to consider what it means to be given a platform – in this case a book – to discuss racism, while indigenous people continue to face not just racial violence, but also the dismissal of this violence. No poem I write feels adequate in acknowledging this.

I know it is banal for artists to remark that their most recent project was their most arduous, but given these many considerations, this is definitely true with respect to writing even this page is white. The project of writing about racism, let alone writing about racism within a white-dominated genre, enmeshed within a white-dominated industry, often felt futile. And yet, where I ended up was acknowledging that, like confronting racism, perhaps the best approach is to deploy a league of approaches – stark, direct, allegorical, repetitive, conversational – with the hope that at least one of these, in black ink, will reach a reader, and render the page a little less white.

Vivek Shraya is the author of God Loves Hair, She of the Mountains, and What I LOVE about being QUEER. Her debut poetry collection is published by Arsenal Pulp Press.