August 26, 2009

Should whites write people of color?

A posting reprinted on Racialicious discusses the issue of writing characters of color. Here are some key points from the original posting by Neesha Meminger. She's the author of Shine, Coconut Moon and a Canadian of Asian Indian extraction.This essay was originally meant to be a short comment in response to Justine’s post on why her protags aren’t white. In one of the comments, someone brought up the old argument: if white people can only write white characters, then should people of color only write characters of color? Here is my response . . .

It’s a question of power and privilege. Most white people grow up thinking they have free range in everything from the political to the personal. People of color in Europe, Australia, and North America (and women everywhere), do not grow up learning these things. We learn to BE colonized. We learn, through history lessons from our colonizer’s textbooks, that we are not the invadERS, we are the invadED.

 People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.
So far, I think Meminger's posting has a lot of validity. But I'm not sure her key point follows:White folks, in general, need to turn *outward* and really see what’s outside of themselves and their immediate circles. And people of color must turn *inward*, to discover the true value within, then paint the world with it. 

This is how healing happens in any relationship where there is an abuse of power. Whether that relationship is parent-child, employer-employee, or whole groups, the resolution isn’t that both parties do exactly the same thing to make amends. Both parties haven’t been giving the same thing and getting the same thing all along, so they have to get and give differently in order to mend.

 This is why the whole idea of “if white people can only write white people, then PoC should only write PoC” simply does not hold water. It is DIFFERENT. It has been different all along. So the change—true, lasting change—has to be each party doing what THEY need to do to make that change happen for real. For the privileged, it means sharing privilege. For the non-privileged, it means valuing oneself enough to stand up, focus on their own self and say, “I am important. I deserve more. I will not put up with this any longer.”Comment:  A few responses to the claims in this essay:People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people.The logical consequence of this is that everyone should write about white people no one should write about minorities. If both whites and minorities know whites better than minorities, where's the evidence that only minorities can know minorities? Because it doesn't follow from this argument.White folks, in general, need to turn *outward* and really see what’s outside of themselves and their immediate circles.That's what white people like me are doing by writing and blogging about people of color. We're learning about other people and sharing our knowledge with everyone.

I don't see how Meminger's conclusion follows from the statement above. White people need to turn outward...so they should continue writing only about the subjects they're familiar with and nothing else. Huh?

Making a political choiceI create worlds in my books where people of color and women are at the center—not at the margins where we are habitually cast in the everyday world. This is a conscious decision. It is a political choice.Oddly, that's what I was thinking when I, as a WASP, wrote a comic book starring two Native American heroes. So far no one has accused me of imposing a white-centric worldview on my Native characters.So the change—true, lasting change—has to be each party doing what THEY need to do to make that change happen for real. For the privileged, it means sharing privilege.I can agree with this. When I published my Native-themed comic books, I wasn't thinking, "Buy my comics instead of real Native comics." I was thinking, "A good Native-themed comic will open people's eyes. If done right, it'll increase the market for other Native-themed comics.

"In fact, if my comic is successful, I can hire Native writers and artists to produce more of my comics. Or help them produce and publish their comics."

I'm sure someone could dispute my counterargument...but Meminger hasn't done it. Her presumption is that white authors who write about people of color are co-opting minority authors. That may be true in some cases, but it isn't in others.

For more on the subject, see Rob the Presumptuous White Man?

Below:  White- and Native-made comics about Natives.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rob has a good point. Sometimes if whites were to write about "PoC". Its not always accurate, often times distorted, biased and written in half-truths. Thus, I agree on the aspect that minorities do, indeed know a great deal about white people than they do--vice versa.

GENO--

Delux said...

That's what white people like me are doing by writing and blogging about people of color. We're learning about other people and sharing our knowledge with everyone.

There's a big difference between white people learning about 'other people', from undergoing the process of deliberate decolonization and learning about oneself as a person of color.

Steve Julian said...

Many main stream popular writers are writing about elements outside of themselves. James Patterson for instance with his Alex Cross novels (White Author Black character). Barry Eisler with his John Rain series (White Author Japanese Character). Robert Parker with his Sunny Randal series (male author woman character). I am not sure if the characters backgrounds or voices are true to the race/gender. I do think that people who write, research their subjects. It may not make it right or true, but at least it is a start.
Funny I read fiction but make a point of not reading woman authors. I feel that they may not know the male subject as well as a male would. :-0

dmarks said...

There's some racism skirting around the corners of this issue: the idea that skin color determines writing ability.

Stephen said...

The term 'people of color' sounds about as condescending and pompous as it gets. I can just hear some lefty windbag saying, "I don't have black characters I use Persons of Color as characters." Also I like George Pelecanos' thoughts on writing about non-whites:

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2009/06/01/wire-veteran-finds-his-way-home/

dmarks said...

Stephen: It's really "colored people", which is itself a clunky term. "People of color" is just a clumsy re-wording of it.

Delux said...

"People of color" is used very specifically as an umbrella term for people who are not white. It's been in use since the 1970s-- lots of people have just been unaware of it.

dmarks said...

It is just a rewording of "colored people", and it is grammatically clumsy.

It is like deciding to say "people of Indonesia" instead of "Indonesian people", as if the difference were some sort of big deal.

Delux said...

Its not just a 'rewording' of 'colored people', but I'm guessing the reasoning behind that means little to some people.

Same with Meminger's points about decolonization and writing, since no one seems to be actually discussing it?...

Stephen said...

Her post is a collection of racist nonsense filled with moronic
generalizations such as:

"Most white people grow up thinking they have free range in everything
from the political to the personal."

Apparently she's telepathic. ;)

She's a-okay with anti-White racism and claim that anti-White slurs
are no big deal:

"A racial slur flung from a white person to a person of color shames,
humiliates, and inspires fear. It is designed to remind that person of
color of all of the degradation s/he knows was inflicted upon people
who looked like them throughout history at the hands of people who
look just like the one who is insulting them now."

Hear that Jewish people? Get used to being called k*kes because
according to her it's not a big deal! Apparently the hypocrisy of
whining about racism and then justifying it is lost on her. She also claims that American police are just one big all white death squad, ignoring just how many cities have a majority of minority officers.

www.hispanictips.com/2008/02/20/latino-officers-lapds-majority

But wait it gets better! She posted an extremely weak reply on her blog:

http://neeshameminger.blogspot.
com/2009/08/response-to-comme
nts-on-justines-blog.html

Yup she pulled the ol' "I have (name of race or ethnicity goes here) friends so I can't possibly be bigoted against them!" Seriously is there anyone with a functioning brain cell who believes that absurd
excuse? If Neesha really does have White pals she certainly doesn't
have any respect for them, otherwise she wouldn't be writing nonsense
like this:

"White folks, in general, need to turn *outward* and really see what’s outside of themselves and their immediate circles."

dmarks said...

Delux: It is nothing more at all than a clumsy rewording of "colored people".

Stephen: Good point in bringing up the ""A racial slur flung from a white person to a person of color shames" when it is actually true that any racial slur from anyone to anyone. No matter what color the victim or perprator is.

Racism is a "two-way street", and whites can just as easily be victimised by it as the author's "colored people". Even though, generally, the non-whites have gotten the short end of the stick a lot more.

Neesha says: "White folks, in general, need to turn *outward* and really see what’s outside of themselves and their immediate circles.", when in fact this is true for everyone, not just whites.

Delux said...

Well I'll leave this discussion here to these insightful, well informed (?) cultural critics and go to where people of color and white allies are actually having substantive discussion on these topics.

Stephen said...

"Well I'll leave this discussion here to these insightful, well informed (?) cultural critics and go to where people of color and white allies are actually having substantive discussion on these topics."

First off 'people of color' is a clumsy and condescending word that few people actually use. And what do you mean by 'white allies' you mean the people posting in that thread saying 'hey I'm white and take my word for it, anti-white racism is a-okay'? There's lots of places on the net where you can find good discussions, but racialicious ain't one of them.

Stephen said...

Oh yeah that reminds me there was a great "Bloom County" strip about the exasperating ways political correctness was changing language. I can't find the strip online, but here is the dialogue, between the character Steve Dallas and his parents:

Mom: That's the most adorable little colored girl playing outside.

Steve: "Colored"? You're saying "colored people" in 1988? You know better, Ma.

Mom: Then why the "National Association for Colored People? I don't think Negroes mind at all.

Steve: Don't say "Negroes," Ma! You can't say "Negroes"!

Mom: Can I say "United Negro College Fund"?

Steve: You are baiting me, Ma!

Dad: That's it. We're leaving.

Mom: Stay put, Reginald. "Mister Socially Sensitive" isn't finished shaming his parents into enlightenment.

Steve: Everybody just calm down. Let's agree to use the the New-Age term "People of Color."

Mom: People of Color.

Steve: People of Color.

Mom: Colored people.

Steve: NO!!

Dad: We're leaving.