That’s white supremacy for you. Ravage a people and then make money and get kudos for attempting to fix It. Like giving aid to the poor Africans who live in the richest land on Earth already. – Someone Who Saw An Ad for My Book The Slaves Have Names on Facebook
If I was to say that this comment didn’t bother me, I’d be telling a pretty substantial lie. And if I said this was the first time someone critiqued my book as being appropriation or theft or an use of my privilege for my own gain, I’d be lying again. I get this critique fairly often.
And that’s okay. As hard as these comments are to take because I know my INTENTION is good, I have come to appreciate them because they remind me that I write about hard things, that I take a risk when I write about slavery as a white woman, and that I need to keep my privilege in check as I write.
But they don’t stop me from writing about slavery. Instead, these comments push me to be truthful and honest about WHY I do this work. . .
Writing about what academics call “the other” is always hard, and it should be. To take on the experience of someone whose life is fundamentally different than yours – be it through gender, culture, race, nationality, or age – is challenging at best, and historically, people in power have taken that role on over and over again for their own gain. Assuming the identity or presuming to tell the story of people whose experiences you do not share is not something to be taken on haphazardly or because we feel like it or because we want to “help.”
Instead, writing outside of our experiences needs to be an act of radical humility, wherein we approach “others” as our teachers, knowing that as writers we learn best when we assume of posture of questioning and investigation. We have to enter into such storytelling with our bodies and hearts bowed low, our minds open – no agenda, no self-service involved. Then, and only then, can we begin to see truly.
Likewise, we have to begin such work with a full awareness of ourselves, our own limitations as individuals and creatives, and our own prejudices, biases, and presumptions. We must begin by knowing that our experience in the world has shaped – in every way – the way we perceive that world in general and the way we perceive that “other” in specific. If we cannot acknowledge that our own privileges and experiences have sculpted our perspective, then we have no business writing about anyone beyond our own experiential framework.
That said, a writer’s job is to imagine, to research, to explore, to come to understand and then to translate that understanding into language and story. We do well as writers to begin that exploration with ourselves, and if we are responsible and honest, aware of our own blinders and prejudices, we can write about anyone and anything we wish.
Here’s what it takes to write about “others” responsibly, particularly when patterns of historical oppression are in play (and when are they not?). As writers we must:
- Understand the historical experience of the people about whom we are writing. So if a man wants to write about women or as a woman, then he must explore the historical nature of sexism and the ongoing battles women face with that struggle today.
- Understand our own positions of privilege and power in relationship to the individuals or groups about which we are writing. Thus, if I want to write about slavery in the United States, I must understand my own privilege as a white woman and the myriad ways I have benefited and continue to benefit from the history and legacy of enslavement.
- Acknowledge our own limitations ON THE PAGE. None of us are going to be able to step entirely beyond our own experiences – that’s not humanly possible. But we can acknowledge that we are unable to do so. We can speak from a place of radical humility and say, “I don’t know what it is to be Maori or a poor, single mother.” We can make clear that language cannot do everything. We can acknowledge that we are limited in our capacity as people and be vulnerable about what have not been able to do in our work.
- Involve ourselves in the day-to-day work of equality. If a white male wants to write about the experiences of Native Americans, then it is his responsibility to also become involved with bringing justice to those communities. As writers, we hope to profit – literally – from our work, so if we are not then willing to use our gain – not just financially but also in terms of our privilege, power, and influence – to bring benefit to the communities about which we write, then we are using those communities selfishly, and that’s not acceptable.
Do I think that a writer needs to give all she makes from her book about homelessness to the poor? No – we all have bills to pay, and as writers, we make our living with our words. But do I think that writer should get involved with organizations that seek to end homelessness or support people who are homeless and maybe even give them some money and time? Yep, absolutely. Without question.
As creatives, we have the world available to us – that is our gift and our burden – and we carry that weighty honor with a responsibility to do our best, both for the writing AND for the people about whom we write.
I write about slavery because it is THE CENTRAL story of American life. It is the foundation for our wealth as a nation, and it is one of the most lingering sources of oppression in our country. I write about it because we need to understand it – I NEED to understand it – so we can heal and bring equality.
I read books on slavery, and I talk with people – and try to listen far more than I talk – who live in the shadow of this institution, African Americans who still suffer from the systems that made slavery and Jim Crow possible, systems that still operate today. I do my research.
And I know – and state as clearly and as often as I can – that I have so much more to learn. So much more of my own racism to uncover. So much more to let sink into the fiber of who I am so that I can understand – in the way that my white skin will allow – what it was like to be enslaved and what it is like to be black in America.
I am SO FAR from good at this. I have so far to go. And yet, I will not step out of this work because I will not exercise my privilege to walk away and act as if racism and the legacy of slavery are not my problem.
So these critiques like the one above, they clip close to my heart, as they should. Because when I took on this work, I took on the legacy of it. . . that’s both an honor and a burden I carry carefully, and I do my best to carry it with humility, knowing I have far much more to learn than I have to give.
Have you thought of writing from or about experiences not your own? What concerns you in that work? What draws you to it?