As first posted on feministbookclub.com
To write is an expression of freedom. When you write, especially when you write fiction, you can do anything and be anyone. But, I have a question: Should writers only write about their own direct experiences?
Retelling your culture back to you
Lately, I have been grappling with my feelings around white authors writing about and from the perspective of people of color. It all started when I discovered that the author (a white man) of Memoirs of a Geisha exploited the story of his Japanese subject, Mineko Iwasaki, and fabricated parts to play up the sexualization of a cultural icon. What is new and exotic to us in America is just a bad retelling of their culture back to the Japanese people.
Authors assume the voices of people who identify differently from them all the time. I see this a lot when writers tell the story of a person of a different gender (there is just something about a woman writing male characters in romance novels that makes me like them just a little bit better than in real life). Fiction writers, especially in good fiction, are able to assume the identities and voices of others to make the story feel real.
Assimilation vs. Appropriation
It is one thing as an author from a marginalized group to write about the dominant perspective. Works from authors of color are critiqued from the white gaze and experience (e.g. something isn’t as relatable or universal if it is written from the perspective of a person of color, but white experiences are always seen as universal and central). For some authors of color, they may soften their message in order to be more “palatable” for white audiences and to “cross over” to the mainstream. It is a survival tactic, much like assimilation.
However, when a white author writes a story solely from the perspective of people of color, it feels a bit icky. When a white author assumes the voice of a person of color in order to tell a story (especially to make money selling books), this feels like appropriation, even when the purpose of the story is to highlight injustice.
What if the white author is a cultural expert?
If a person has done years and years of extensive research and has some sort of degree in cultural studies, does that give then give that white person the authority to write that story? In an effort to avoid saying the wrong thing, they often water down the authenticity, while still relying on and promoting stereotypes. We saw this recently with Jennifer M. Buck’s Bad and Boujee, which was pulled from shelves days after publication. Buck, a theology professor, was accused of cultural and racial appropriation.
On the flip side, how can a white author ethically profit off the story of a culture they don’t identify with? I don’t have the answer to this question, but my guess based on my experience is that it might not be possible. We especially see this in the nonfiction realm. We saw how the American Dirt debacle played out. And Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility) continues to be a source of contention in the anti-racism world.
I am continuously disappointed when I come to the realization that a story about people of color was written by a white author. This has happened more often than I would like. I am really lazy when I pick a book to read. I don’t like reading reviews or researching the author’s background ahead of time.
This post is not about heavily researching an author before you read to make sure you cancel them before you give their work a chance. This is also not to say that white authors are not talented or too uneducated to adequately research a culture.
I am simply asking readers to think about who is taking up space and being promoted in the telling of these stories.
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4 thoughts on “Can a White Author Tell My Story?”
I remember when readers complained that white people telling their own stories weren’t being inclusive enough.
Correct! However, the publishing industry has predominately centered white authors as successful authors without adequately giving chances to authors of color to tell their own stories, so it is unfair that these authors can profit from assuming the voices and experiences of People of Color when there is not equity and inclusivity in publishing. Moreover, despite research or being close to someone of the culture of the story they are trying to tell, it might come across as relying on or perpetuating stereotypes that continue to harm those communities.
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I like a good yarn. I don’t care who wrote it. I won’t be coaxed to be inclusive if it’s badly written, doesn’t entertain or inform. That goes for white or black authors.
You may not be aware but publishers hire sensitivity readers. Have been doing it for years.
A sensitivity reader works alongside the publishing house staffer who acquired the right the book. This individual conducts a very specific read of the manuscript and offer notes on characters from marginalised groups or characters which may cause offence.
Yes, I am very aware of sensitivity readers! In my research, however, it is up to individual authors to seek sensitivity readers, and most publishers don’t require them. So unless an author wants to take that extra step for care and intentionality, they’re probably not going to see it as necessary.
I also agree that I don’t like reading books if I can’t connect to them. I stopped reading books by white authors because I felt like they were not conveying a “universal” experience, but I also can’t connect to many “urban fiction” books. What we like is driven by our implicit biases, as well as what the media tells us which books are worth our time because they are popular. Additionally, any book told by a perspective not often shared in the mainstream is inherently informative 😌
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