I apologize if this offends you.
But I’m sincerely struggling with the following question:
Is it racist to include an organized crime character in a book who is defined by ethnicity or nationality?
I don’t know. These are nutty times…
On one hand, we have Jeanine Cummins, an American-born, mostly Caucasian novelist, author of American Dirt, being lambasted for daring to speak sympathetically on behalf of Mexican immigrants.
On the other hand, an esteemed colleague tells me that it is offensive to refer to a character in my upcoming book as a “Jewish mobster.”
Identity is a prevalent theme in my novels. In The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman, the main character is disabled and stutters, therefore treated as if he were unintelligent (though he’s smarter than most). Early-1900s America experienced a gout of immigrants. It was a time of unparalleled racial and ethnic intolerance. Moojie believes that belonging to a family will define him. But European immigrants mistake his striking dark features—which resemble his extraterrestrial mother’s clan—for Native American. The misidentification is further amplified as they believe the enigmatic clan is comprised of native renegades who’ve come back from the dead to reclaim sacred lands. In subtext, it’s their own guilt from having persecuted, or having allowed native persecution, that haunts them.
In my upcoming book, Halfkin, I delve deeper into Moojie’s self-image, exploring his spiritual-coming-of-age, self-mastery, and healing. He’s healed himself by now, and in a sense has outgrown his adoptive family. And the more he identifies with them, the more miserable he is. When his hapless father and meddlesome aunt try to pressure him into marriage with the daughter of a local mobster, he breaks away to find his lost love.
The father of the girl, who I gave a fictitious name, was actually lifted out of historical records of a well-known mobster of Jewish ancestry, Monk Eastman. He was a larger-than-life guy, who was abandoned as a youngster and rose to be a famous crime boss who dominated New York’s underworld in the early 1900s. To avoid stereotyping, my version of this character is likable. He dresses like a dandy, dotes over his wife and daughter, loves pigeons, and prefers to ride a bike because he’s afraid to drive.
An esteemed colleague took exception to my calling him a “Jewish mobster,” calling it a racist.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t mobsters historically affiliate with ethnicity?
Is the concept of “politically correct” getting a bit uppity?
Is rationality being sacrificed to the gods of double standard?
In “real” life, it never occurs to me to profile others by ethnicity. Humans are not their skin color, religion, nation, or even their bodies. In my heart-of-hearts, I believe we are all of the same intrinsic “cloth” that has nothing to do with ethnicity, race, or culture. Everyone deserves respect.
So, how do I write about a criminal from a group with shared, historic affiliations with a clan, gang, or organization, without mentioning ethnicity? Is it racist to identify a character as a Russian, Romanian, Italian, Irish (Protestant or Catholic), Korean, Japanese, or Jewish mobster?
Was it racist of Martin Scorsese to tell a story like Gangs of New York, through the experiences of Irish Catholic and Protestant gangsters, or was it historically accurate? What about the portrayal of Italian mafia in Goodfellas?
Are writers expected to choose politically correct over historically accurate?
I’m may be walking a thin line here, but I don’t believe literature will be of service if it avoids ethnicity or history unless it is to portray characters through rose-colored glasses.