I’m talking about myself, here.
Last week I wrote about cultural appropriation. Badly. I called the piece “Cultural Misappropriation” because I thought there was a difference. I thought I was being clever, and I thought I had enough information to write intelligently.
I was wrong on all three counts.
I’ve had several conversations and read a number of essays, and while I by no means can speak with authority, I think I can speak without embarrassing myself again. It is entirely possible I am wrong about that, so I welcome your comments, positive or negative.
Let me state right up front that I was writing (had been writing for some time) from a place of resentment. It would appear that this is common among white people (coupled with ignorance, often willful, as in my case), and I understand how that is frustrating to people of color and other marginalized people who have a much more clear understanding of white privilege than I did. I read a very informative post by Lori Lakin Hutcherson about that, and along with some patient and sage advice from Tessa Gratton (@tessagratton) a switch flipped somewhere in the depths of my lizard brain and I got a glimpse of clarity.
Here’s what I now believe: White privilege is not a form of blame, any more than you can blame someone for being young or tall. I think the blame, if any, comes from a white person failing to understand that they are in a position of privilege and as a result of that failure harming a person who does not enjoy that privilege.
Before that switch flipped I resented being called out for writing what I wanted, not having taken the time to understand that what I had written was insensitive, belittling, and putting myself above my critics. I read comments along the lines of: white people who complain about being told they can’t write what they want just hate being told “no.” That they resent it due to white privilege. And when I read that I didn’t understand it, because I felt like I was being accused of having white privilege. But I believe now that isn’t really what’s happening.
I think it goes something like this: White people who complain about being told they can’t write what they want fail to recognize their own place of privilege. In this case it’s the privilege of living a life without being constantly questioned because of the color of our skin. So when a white person is called out on their writing by a person of color, I think it can be perceived as a new experience – being questioned by someone different than ourselves. Some people respond to this by making an effort to understand what they did wrong and making an adjustment. Others – myself among them – deny our own ignorance and make things worse by continuing to speak without taking the time to understand. I’m hoping to switch groups.
I got a lot of feedback on my post about cultural appropriation, last week. The feedback from people of color was swift and sharp and to the point. They were direct, spoke with absolute conviction, and within a few hours had moved on. I was just another white person who didn’t get it, in a long line. And that’s fine, because it’s nobody’s responsibility to educate others about this.
But the feedback I got on my post from white people went on and on for days and was mostly less helpful, because virtually all of it came from a position of privilege. It was actually quite illuminating if for no other reason than it gave me the chance try out the nascent understanding I was coming to grips with. Where people of color had pointed out I was whining about criticism and conflating it with censorship (I was), white people mostly wanted to reinforce their right to write whatever they wanted and felt any criticism was unjustified. I attempted to clarify my poorly-made point from my new perspective, and was met with anger. Who was I to tell an “artist” their work should be anything other than “pure?” My response: But if it is about marginalized people and also wrong and hurtful, those people have the right to point that out. Oh, yeah? Shouldn’t I be offended then when Hispanics speak English poorly? Isn’t that them appropriating my culture? And are you saying I’m not allowed to complain about Liberals? Me: So this is what people of color have to deal with every day. My white privilege became pretty obvious. I still have a lot of learning – and unlearning – to do, but I think I can see it, now.
Look, nobody is telling anybody not to write whatever you want or about whomever you want – it’s just being perceived by people in privilege that this is what they are being told. All anyone asks is that you do it well. And be prepared to receive criticism from the people you write about if you get it wrong. Because nobody is above criticism. You’re a writer; do your research. Tessa Gratton said it best during one of our conversations:
All marginalized people ask is that people with privilege do no harm, and do everything in our power not to erase their experiences.
Cultural appropriation really is a thing. But there’s nothing wrong with creating art from or with cultures outside your own, as long as doing so does no harm – does not insult, degrade, stereotype, or nullify the living people from that culture. Ignorance is not an excuse, nor is a desire to remain “pure.” What does that even mean? I think you mean “raw” and that’s not a recipe for good writing. If you have questions, seek out a sensitivity reader. And above all, be open to feedback. You’re a writer, nobody should have to tell you that.