Writing while white: Embracing diversity or appropriating culture?

By Sandra Hutchison

In interesting timing for me, the white author Lionel Shriver just caused an uproar at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival for rebuking the liberal left for sometimes condemning the “cultural appropriation” of other ethnic groups in fiction. As she puts it:

In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

She mentions, for example, criticism of Chris Cleave for writing from the point of view of young Nigerian immigrant girl in LITTLE BEE (which I loved). The full text of her speech is available at that link above and it’s well worth reading.

497finalbaskervilleversionMy ears pricked up because my next novel, BARDWELL’S FOLLY, gets into that discussion. It obviously commits the offense in question, too, since it includes African American characters. Protagonist Dori’s white father wrote a bestselling novel about slavery years ago, but Dori and a black character, Maya, travel into his past and uncover something unexpected about what inspired him.

It really angers Maya, and I think her frustration is entirely reasonable. As she puts it:

Maybe I’d like to see some other beautiful books about the human condition get a little more air. Some that aren’t written by white people. Some that might actually be about an authentic black experience.

On the other hand, as Shriver points out, if condemnation of cultural appropriation is taken to its extreme, no one could ever write a character of another race, another gender, another economic class, another location, another era. Basically, all we’d be left with is memoir. Careful, inoffensive memoir.

Which would mean we never got HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,  THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, THE INVENTION OF WINGS. Most of Faulkner, racially problematic as it may be. Lots of novels, poof. Gone.

Do we really want to go there?

Aren’t white people who’ve read those books more likely to pick up AMERICANAH, or THE COLOR PURPLE, or THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, or THE INVISIBLE MAN, or BELOVED, and so many others? Aren’t they more likely to consider issues of fairness and justice and the history behind today’s debates? (Which, frankly, is alarmingly reminiscent of the George Wallace era I grew up in.)

Also, why should it be politically incorrect for me to wrestle in good faith with something that’s been a significant part of my existence on this planet, just because I’m the wrong color?

I was born in Florida in 1960. I remember watching the Rev. Martin Luther King’s funeral on TV. I remember my white parents expressing regret that they hadn’t thought twice about segregation before the Civil Rights movement. I remember the arguments in our neighborhood about desegregation in Hillsborough County, and the first day of school in August of 1971 when some angry whites threw rocks at our court-ordered bus as it made its way from the white suburbs to a black neighborhood in Tampa. I remember my best friend suddenly disappearing into private school. I remember having a nervous stomach-ache every morning before leaving for the bus stop.

I also remember that year as a great blessing. That’s also how I remember every year after that when I was privileged to attend integrated schools or live in integrated areas or attend integrated churches or teach in integrated classrooms. (It didn’t always happen. I’ve also lived in some very white places. And I won’t claim that marrying a white Puerto Rican counts as integration, either.)

The thing is, it’s much harder to hate or fear or hold idiotic beliefs about a whole group once you know enough individuals in it as friends and neighbors and students and colleagues and fellow parishioners and perhaps even members of your family.

A lot of Americans never really have that opportunity. They may actively avoid it, out of fear, or they don’t seek it out because they don’t know how illuminating it can be. Or they live in a very white area. And even in people of good will, that lack of personal knowledge creates enormous potential for racist stereotypes to take root.

Surely the empathy that arises from reading good fiction with diverse characters can help avoid that? No matter what color the author may be?

In BARDWELL’S FOLLY, Dori has grown up largely cut off from the diversity of the larger world. She’s not intentionally racist. Her Southern-born parents weren’t intentionally racist. Her father wrote that Pulitzer-Prize-winning book about slavery – not that she’s impressed. She’s burdened with her own resentments, and she also suffers from youth and ignorance. As the daughter of a famous author, she also has just enough name recognition to get herself in trouble for it.

This is a novel about family secrets and lies, about public shaming, about cultural appropriation and authenticity, and about the ties that bind us or break us apart. Ultimately, I hope, it’s about the redemption that can come when we seek out the truth about each other, even if we can never really know all of it.

Without any African-American characters, this novel couldn’t exist. I suppose it could have been slimmed down to basic small town women’s fiction. I’ve always written in that category. But I’ve always wanted more chew on than just a bunch of relationships. I’m thinking about faith and gay rights in THE AWFUL MESS. I’m thinking about sexual politics and how we treat rape victims in THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE. And I’m thinking about cultural appropriation and race and poverty in BARDWELL’S FOLLY.

I knew I was living a little dangerously. I sure as hell sought the feedback of African-American friends in the hope of avoiding any terrible missteps.

hot-new-release-in-african-american-literature-2And yes, I know there’s an element of irony here: White author publishes novel in which white appropriation of a black experience is one of the themes, tags it “African American,” and the pre-order promptly shows up in the “Hot and Trending New Releases” list of African-American literature, quite possibly bumping an African-American author off the list.

I know. I get it. Sorry.

Not completely sorry, though, because I’d still really like you to read my book.

5 thoughts on “Writing while white: Embracing diversity or appropriating culture?

  1. I’m afraid you’ve over-simplified the issue. To illustrate, let me make an analogy to another real world issue that just came to my attention:

    Here in this video you will see J. K. Rowling making an appeal to young people in first world countries to do a GREAT deal of work and homework before going overseas to volunteer in foreign orphanages. She says, volunteer in your own community first, make sure you know exactly what you’re doing and why, and *then* look to only well-researched, reputable overseas volunteer opportunities. She says these young people are, despite the best of intentions, feeding a horribly exploitative and criminal industry in many third world countries – which compete to attract first world $$s by setting up “fake” orphanages, i.e. these first world youngsters are unwittingly tearing third world children from loving families.

    Would it be fair to take this argument and say that J. K. Rowling is taking a stand against all cross-border volunteerism? Is she saying we aren’t allowed to help someone if we are separated by a border?

    Should we argue against her by saying, “without foreign helpers we would have no Mother Teresa in Calcutta, no Gandhi in South Africa?” Should we ask, “why should it be politically incorrect for me to cross borders in good faith to help people who have been a significant part of my existence on this planet, just because I’m the wrong nationality?”

    So with this in mind, I hope you can understand when I say: there are nuances here in this issue you are missing.

    But first to clear up a misrepresentation: it is never automatically politically incorrect for you to write your stories, and that includes your stories of various peoples and cultures and races that you have lived among in your life. I don’t think there is any racially conscious activist who has claimed otherwise. To say so is as unfair as to say that J. K. Rowling wants to stop all cross-border volunteerism.

    Now to the nuances you are missing: in our world there is a tradition of western writers, especially white, especially male, perpetrating atrocious acts of cultural plunder and indeed cultural assassination by writing about various other cultures and groups of people. Like what everyone from Kipling to Lapierre did to India, like what Gone With the Wind did to black people, like that movie we saw…. like when Eliza Bennet points out to Mr. Darcy that men who write books about women certainly don’t write us true-to-life.

    There’s people who reach into other cultures and genders and countries for the sake of color and spice, as a form of tourism. THAT is appropriation.

    There’s people who reach into other cultures and genders and countries to write about their own lives and to tell their own stories. That is always okay. (IMO yours is such a book.)

    There are often books that fall somewhere inbetween in the grey areas – like Eat, Pray, Love for example. There’s debate about that.

    The question is far from settled, and we are all trying to discover what’s oppressive and what’s not. The only thing I can say for dead certain is that neither the answers nor the questions are quite as simple as what’s in this essay.

    • Of course it’s far more complex than I covered in this single blog post. And yes, anyone who does this lays themselves open to criticism about getting it wrong. (I’ve heard that Rowling herself has come in for some criticism for getting the United States wrong in one of hers, recently.) But I think it’s very dangerous to insist that we all stay safely inside our own silos.
      As annoyingly sexist and arrogantly British as “South from Granada” was, I’d still rather that someone could try to make a film like that than that they couldn’t. Let it fail on its own merits, not because of censorship. I understand that I say that from a position of privilege. IF those were the ONLY films being made, that would be appalling. (No doubt some reasonable voices out there are screaming BUT THOSE *ARE* THE ONLY FILMS GETTING MADE.)
      Still: To restrict writers to their own personal experience is far too limiting. Have you read LITTLE BEE? I’m curious what you think about it. I would despair of living in a world where that book couldn’t be written or published or read. I also don’t know what the heck is so awful about EAT PRAY LOVE. It’s a memoir, for God’s sake. Maybe she’s full of crap about the places she went, maybe it’s betraying the blindness of privilege to anyone who knows better, but she’s writing a memoir about how she experienced those places. She can’t even do that? (And — frankly — how much of the real issue is that she made a lot of money doing it?)

  2. This is a fascinating issue I hadn’t thought much about until I began a series that encompasses a very wide range of people of diverse cultures. I intend to honor their heritage, without sterotypifying them. I want to learn more of them, myself, and use what I learn to inform their individual lives.

    I’d be honored to reblog this, if you’d allow it.

    • Sure, that would be fine. As the reaction Lionel Shriver and to this post shows, though, this can be somewhat fraught … an area in which white authors are well-advised to get plenty of honest feedback from readers of color before publishing.

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