On the Blindness of Privilege and Writing the Other

At Chasing Ray, Colleen has a fascinating post (and subsequent discussion in the comments) about writing diversity. She invited a number of YA/children’s authors of varying cultural groups to share their views on writing the Other. Should it be done? Under what circumstances? It’s a long but worthwhile read for the diverse stances and insights—diverse enough that I will not attempt to summarize them here. Check it out for yourself.

This particular comment from Doret of The Happy Nappy Bookseller particularly grabbed me:

It’s not enough for an author to put African American or Black in front of the characters name. I need more. And I am sorry I can’t tell you what it is, because there is no write by numbers create a Black characters guide because we are not all the same. But still I expect a White writers to make me believe in the Black characters they’ve created. If I don’t I consider those characters Barbie Black. Under all the color of Black Barbie, she still has the facial characteristics of White Barbie.

It’s an interesting and fuzzy question, this issue of getting the Other “right.” In our society, we are so very fond of boxes in which to put people. On some dimensions, I’m in the privileged box (Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage), in others the oppressed (female, queer). As a WASP reader, I readily admit that I don’t know when authors (of whatever ethnic group) get a non-WASP experience “wrong.” As a WASP writer, how could I expect not to get it “wrong” myself?

Because I know what Doret means. As a female reader, I have read books by men with female protagonists that just don’t feel “right.” Sometimes I can articulate the reasons, sometimes I can’t. For example, I recently read Magic and Misery, by Peter Mareno, whose narrator is a teen girl. She quickly enters into a sexual relationship with her boyfriend, but there’s virtually no discussion of emotional impact. It’s just something she does. How can she not be thinking about this? I kept asking myself—really asking, How could any girl not be thinking about this? Meanwhile, I never could articulate what felt “wrong” about the female protagonist of Edward Bloor’s Taken, except that she struck me as sounding too much like the male protagonists of Tangerine and London Calling.

Likewise, as a queer reader, I’ve read queer teen fiction by apparently straight authors that doesn’t feel “right.” There’s one book in particular whose reliance on stereotypes, even jokingly, made me cringe upon reading it: The Bermudez Triangle, by Maureen Johnson. I hesitate to mention it because it was written by a bestselling author, and I think that kind of exposure is so important in normalizing queerness for teen readers. And it wasn’t a bad book; it just struck me as inauthentic. It left me wondering, Why are we getting this when we could have more books by authors who have actually lived a queer experience?

(I would like to throw in here that Ellen Wittlinger is one apparently straight author who, for my money, consistently gets it “right.” I don’t know how she does it, but she’s proof that it can be done!)

This is where it gets dicey, however. Unlike ethnicity or cultural heritage, ability differences, or even biological sex (intersex, genderqueer, and transgender persons being potential exceptions), sexual orientation is fluid and frequently invisible. That’s why I used the word “apparently” above. I know Maureen Johnson isn’t Chinese-American. I know she’s not deaf. I’m pretty sure she’s not Muslim. But how am I to know that she isn’t actually bisexual? Maybe, because she’s apparently straight, I’m wrongly projecting my assumption of Otherness onto The Bermudez Triangle and, as a result, sensing inauthenticity.

How do you define authenticity, anyway? It’s as nebulous as Doret says in the same comment: “I can’t explain was right is, like the always popluar adult industry, I just know it when I see it.” Yet we agree that there’s no one “white experience” or “black experience” or “female experience.” I know darn well my experiences as a queer woman aren’t universal, so is it possible that a story and characters I find inauthentic would ring perfectly true to another queer woman? Honestly, I do think it’s possible. I am, at the very least, willing to entertain the idea that it is possible.

I have far too many thoughts and questions about this stuff to squash into one humble blog post, but I’d like to conclude with this: both readers and writers need to understand that “writing the Other” is not a balanced, two-way street. We are all immersed in the dominant culture(s) of our time and place. In America right now, that means European-American, Christian, male, straight, able-bodied, affluent… It’s far easier for a member of an oppressed group to write a story of privileged characters than vice versa. It’s easier for women to write authentic boy characters than men to write authentic girl characters, for non-whites to write white characters than vice versa, for queer authors to write straight characters, and so on, and so forth.

Does that mean I don’t think privileged (in whatever way) authors should “write the Other”? No. But I do think that we need to recognize that privilege blinds us. You can’t know what you don’t know. I believe it’s essential that books be vetted by individuals of the oppressed group represented—preferably multiple individuals, whose diverse experiences can help authors identify inauthenticity and stereotyping that privileged readers would not recognize.

ETA, 7/15/09:
On Facebook, someone commented on this post, “I wish you would rethink your use of the ‘The Other’ to describe people who are not of the dominant culture.” Just in case there’s any further confusion, I’ll clarify: in this post, I’m not using “Other” to describe people of the nondominant culture; I’m using it to describe any Other — anyone who is of a group one does not belong to. As I try to explain at the end of my post, it’s easier to write the Other when the Other *is* the dominant culture, because we’re all immersed in it, whereas it’s more difficult to write the Other when the Other is an oppressed group whose challenges we have not experienced. But while I’m focusing on the latter (because that’s when authors are more likely to get things “wrong”), I’m not saying some people are Other and some aren’t. We’re all Other to each other on many dimensions.

4 thoughts on “On the Blindness of Privilege and Writing the Other

  1. Lisa, thanks for understanding what I was saying and explaining it so well. I hope authors will keep creating characters outside of themselves. It would be awful if writers were limited to writing characters who looked like them. I love the feeling of reading a White or male author, who creates a three dimesional Black or female character I can believe in.

  2. the only really other with whom one has a love-hate relationship all one’s life is the mother. blacks, wasps, queers and yobs all are pigeonholed entities that may overlap in a hundred million ways. and role conflict is the result. yes, it tears you down but also builds you up.

    as far as authenticity is concerned even such a sacrosanct phenom like originality is rigged. t.s.eliot said that “bad poets boorrow. good poets always steal”. but mind you…that stealing has to be very very subtle.

  3. Hi, Lisa–I came over here after reading your comment on Lee Wind’s blog. I agree with many of your points, but something I find very interesting–I thought The Bermudez Triangle came across VERY authentic and real, while when I read Ellen Wittlinger’s books, I generally have a sense that she doesn’t really “get” it. I hesitate to say this without knowing too much about the backgrounds of either writer (or you), but I have wondered if there’s a generational effect. A friend who teaches middle and high school kids also felt Love and Lies didn’t seem quite tapped in to what kids are doing right now.

    • That’s interesting, Wendy. I think our different reactions could be based on any number of things — different personal experiences (related to generation or not), our taste in writing, etc. For example, I’m more drawn stylistically to Ellen’s writing than to Maureen’s, so maybe I’m apt to read less critically. Or maybe it’s that, personality-wise, I’m much more like the character of Marisol than the character of Mel, so I was more likely to nod and say, “Yes, that’s IT.” These are possibilities I’m willing to entertain!

      I do remember feeling bothered by at least one joke in The Bermudez Triangle, about the Indigo Girls. It irritated me that a (presumably) straight author was making what I feel to be a lesbian in-joke, even in a queer context. Perhaps that’s unfair of me, to bring the author’s background into it, or perhaps I shouldn’t feel proprietary about “all lesbians like Indigo Girls” jokes. But it also felt stale and generationally off (like, 10 years past prime) to me. That said, I think a lot of readers would get a chuckle out of it. And there are a great many other things to recommend that book, regardless!

      Thanks for commenting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s