Sometimes Stories Aren't Yours - Writing Oppressed Classes

| Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Today's Tune: How Will I Know

This is a difficult topic to write about, since I typically try to avoid telling people what they should and shouldn't write. There are a lot of extenuating circumstances involved here, and almost anything can be done by anyone so long as it's done well. But of course, that's the caveat -- it must be done well. And "done well" is one of those nebulous terms that not everyone is going to agree on. Where one person may think something was handled beautifully, another will find a dozen issues with it. Granted, it's different if a white lady writes a book about racial oppression and other white ladies say YAY while many people of color go WTF. When you incorporate the fact that some people are just plain ol' blind to certain points of view, intentionally or not, it can get pretty messy.

Before I continue rambling and you stop reading because you don't know WTF I'm talking about, I'll clarify. This is going to be a post about how you don't get to have every story. As in, there will be some stories out there that you may not have the skill, knowledge, or insight to appropriately tackle. At least, not yet. Perhaps not ever. And I can already picture people getting all blustery about this, but just hear me out. This is not about you not being a good enough writer to write good stories or anything like that. It's mostly about believing we can tell a story about a character whose experience we don't properly understand or empathize with.

So: this is not me saying that you can't tell the story in your heart about a girl who falls in love with a spider-person and has adventures. This is me saying that if that girl is a gay person of color and you are not, you may be doing things you didn't intend to do out of ignorance or misunderstanding. And ignorance and misunderstandings are not protection from valid criticism.

If you're reading this, I assume you're familiar with the Internet, which means you probably heard about the Save The Pearls debacle. If not, here is a rundown and here is the post I made on Tumblr in response to it. In that post, I touched on some points I'll be reiterating here. Here is another very interesting book you should read (at least the first few points), particularly if you're white. I'm singling out whiteness in particular because, well, YA is overwhelmingly white and this is not a secret.

Okay, so, everyone has already raked Save The Pearls over the coals multiple times (fairly, in my opinion), so I'll spare you criticism of the work. I will, however, use it as a discussion jumping point. The reasons people took issue with the book/series/concept are myriad, but what it fundamentally comes down to is this: someone attempted to write a story that they didn't have the right skill level and/or viewpoint for, and because of that, they made a whole hell of a lot of offensive mistakes. And no, it was most likely not intentional, but even having good intentions doesn't mean that something is free of troubling themes or problematic language. Even if it wasn't her intent to hurt people or perpetuate stereotypes, it still happened.

A while ago, I wrote a post on different spheres of existence, which is still something I think about. Now, I'd add even more to that kernel of thought, like the concept of kyriarchy (the idea that oppression is not linear, but multi-layered, and that even oppressed classes can have privilege over other oppressed classes). Using my examples, it's the idea that although my hypothetical friend Donnie is a man, I still maintain privilege over him because I am white and he is not. His maleness does not give him privilege over my whiteness.

I used those spheres to show how although we might never be able to truly understand what it's like to live as someone from another "sphere of existence," we can still find a common thread of experience. I've since come to understand more fully that that's still a really simplified view of things. It's really not about trying to say, "I'm just like you! I understand!", which is reductive and untrue. It's about empathy. It's about having other people in your life and actually listening to what they have to say about their experience. It's about having empathy for their point of view and what they go through. It's about always learning to be better, to find for ourselves all the things we weren't taught. It's about not exoticizing or romanticizing another experience, especially an oppressed experience. And it's about doing that without the persistent need to have OUR voice heard and OUR opinion validated.

Because that's the thing: there are some stories we can't tell. Writing a reverse discrimination story as a member the privileged class is one of those stories. Stories in which the lives of an oppressed class are heavily romanticized and not properly represented is another. For example: writing a story set in China where all the women are delicate, identical geisha-like figures wearing kimono and everyone's a ninja. No. Very obvious culture mix-ups combined with inappropriate representation. And yet you'd be amazed how many people make these sorts of painfully obvious goofs that could have been avoided with a tiny bit of research.


This is the way a lot of privileged classes view writing oppressed classes -- as long as they write "nice" characters who are good people, then they're doing a good thing and a few fudged facts or lack of research won't matter. They don't need to do research because they think they already know how to represent a group of people because... well, they just KNOW. And as long as they make the oppressed group pretty or powerful, it's fine.

Nope. Not how it works. This attitude is the sort of thing that portrays all African people as impoverished and all Asian women as demure flowers and all GLBT folks as flamboyant or promiscuous. This attitude makes minorities into figurines to be manipulated, not well-developed individual characters. The missing voice is the voice of the represented people themselves. If we want to know what living as a minority is really like, we need to listen to THEIR point of view. Not their supposed point of view filtered through the majority.

I'm most certainly not saying that men, white people, or other privileged classes should never attempt to write minority characters. I think it's incredibly important to diversify our storyworlds and stop representing places like NYC and London and San Francisco and THE FUTURE as being 90% white. But I am saying that sometimes a story is just not ours to write. And that bothers people, especially members of privileged classes, because privileged people are frankly not used to being told that they can't or shouldn't do something. It's the same reason people fight tooth and nail for the "right" to use pejorative slurs with impunity. How DARE you tell me that I shouldn't use a certain word!!! The fact that I'm hurting someone doesn't bother me as much as the fact that you're calling me out for using a slur! Guys. See this post about how words are NOT just words; they're ideas.

The fact is, this stuff is embarrassing and unsettling, which is why people don't like to hear it. It's not fun to hear that maybe the fact that you're white or male or Christian or straight means that you've been blind to things you do that have been perpetuating systemic harm on other people. You didn't mean to! You're a good person! You're just trying to appreciate other people by writing about them! Well. I know this kind of sucks, but just because you try to be a good person doesn't mean you don't occasionally screw up without meaning to.

So what is there to do? How can we make sure we're being flawlessly perfect in our representations of other people?

1.) We can't. Not 100%, anyway. You can only do the best you can. And I do mean the BEST you can. If someone calls you out, listen before defending.

2.) Don't believe that trying to do something well is the same as doing it well. I'm not talking quality here, I'm talking knowledge and research. Do not half-ass your representations of oppressed classes. Don't assume you know how to represent them because "we're all human" (reductive much?) and "color/sex/religion/etc. doesn't matter" (yes it does). Do not get all your research from Wikipedia and third-party discussions. Read what the people themselves have to say. Listen to their words.

3.) Understand that there are some stories you can't tell.
You have to know that no matter what, there are some stories and some characters you just can't do proper justice. You might think you adore Japanese culture something fierce, but that doesn't mean you can accurately portray it without dipping into the Stereotype Bin. You don't get to tell every story, guys. Sometimes a story belongs to someone else.

4.) Just THINK.
Listen. Research. Don't focus on all the superficial, cute, romanticized elements of something. Understand the history of what you're tackling, and for the love of everything good, teach yourself why it's problematic to make your male Asian character a desexualized nerd or refer to your world's lesbians as Carpet Bags. Basically, don't be a doofus. And have other people read your stuff. People who will take you to the mat if you do something questionable.

None of this is intended to make anyone feel crappy because of who they are (unless you're a crappy person, in which case, FEEL CRAPPY). However, it's important to understand why you can't just write a story about a culture you don't know much about besides what you've seen on TV or heard from friends. Ultimately, you're the one who has to decide if you can tell a story well. And even then, you must be prepared for some blowback, and accept the lumps if they're earned.



{ Paul Anthony Shortt } at: September 26, 2012 at 8:29 AM said...

Wow. This is a hugely important topic to me. Ireland is still predominantly white, straight and Catholic(ish). Within living memory, we just didn't have other cultures and religions here, to say nothing of how prejudice and even laws against anything other than heteronormative behaviour kept many people hiding their preferences for so long.

This means that the majority of my knowledge of other cultures has to come from research, rather than first-hand experience. Now, I love research, and I believe in making certain I have accurate portrayals in my work, but I know that there will always be some things I just won't be able to authentically portray. I feel saddened by this. Ashamed, even. There are stories I simply don't feel are my place to tell because I won't do them justice.

So I keep to the cultures I know, based on meetings with various people in Ireland and on my travels to Italy, France, England, Scotland, Canada and New York. I limit myself where I must, and focus on portraying charcters and stories that can have broad appeal and universal truths.

I think what you say about unintended misunderstandings is vitally important. This goes for all authors, and all story elements. Regardless of whether or not a writer means to cause offence, they absolutely must be aware of any potential misinterpretations of their work. They don't necessarily have to change what they write, but they must be aware if they're venturing into an area that could be misconstrued. Saying "I didn't mean any offence" doesn't make it okay to have all your female characters be subservient to men, or all your gay characters be camp stereotypes.

{ Phire } at: September 26, 2012 at 8:35 AM said...

I don't know if you've heard about it, but there's another one of these "what if oppressed classes were actually the OPPRESSORS I bet they'd be just as bad as us" self publishing gems about the LGBTQ world. Self published, because traditional publishing "doesn't dare let this story be told" or some such nonsense.

Apart from all my social justice feels about things like this (ALL THE FEELS), it also just seems like really lazy writing. "What if up were down, but everything somehow magically stayed the same? Aren't I so deep?" There's always so little thought given to the social evolutions that would need to take place for the oppressed-turned-oppressor dynamic to come about. When I'm bored, I try to imagine what gender-based discrimination in a matriarchal society would be like, and it certainly isn't as straight forward as "boys have to sit at home and be protected".

(Though, to be fair, MOST writing crimes can be remedied with the "don't be lazy" aphorism.)

Finally: I always feel like there's something really ominous about the fact that it seems to be mostly the privileged class writing these sorts of "up is down" stories (based on my sample size of 2). It's almost like it's a post-hoc justification for the discrimination that currently exists in the world: "If they had the chance, they'd be assholes to us, too!" Where's the story of a majority-POC/majority-LGBTQ world in which the POC are awesome and tolerant and forgiving?

{ Becky Mahoney } at: September 26, 2012 at 9:09 AM said...

Love this post. And I totally agree with you, Phire. When a person of privilege writes those role-reversal stories, it always seems to be from a position of self-comfort - "I don't have to feel bad about racism/homophobia/etc anymore because X!" I'd love to see the kind of story you proposed, though.

{ Mrs. Silverstein } at: September 26, 2012 at 9:10 AM said...

I don't have much to add because this is so well said. But THANK YOU for this post (and for the link to UPROOTING RACISM--I started reading it and it's really interesting and super readable. I'm debating whether I want to pick it up for Kindle or in hard copy but I really want to read more. As an educator, I've also found Lisa Delpit's writing to be really accessible and helpful in showing me ways of understanding my students of color that I might not have considered.)

{ Kristan Hoffman } at: September 26, 2012 at 10:50 AM said...

"I am saying that sometimes a story is just not ours to write. And that bothers people, especially members of privileged classes, because privileged people are frankly not used to being told that they can't or shouldn't do something."


{ Matthew MacNish } at: September 26, 2012 at 11:44 AM said...

This is a bit of a conundrum for me. On the one hand, I still have not read The Help. I'll admit a big part of the reason is that I do not believe a white author could ever claim to truly understand what it was like to be a black person in almost any period in history. We can imagine, sure, but we cannot fully understand.

That being said, I write characters of color in my own stories all the time. I do it because I know people of color, and I base characters on people I have known. I have awesome characters of color, I have evil characters of color, and I have attractive characters of color. Characters are just people, after all.

But I do worry. I worry that I could offend someone. And I worry that even if I never intended to, it's likely that eventually someone, somewhere will be offended. But I don't think that justifies writing only characters who are like me. I think that perpetuates the problem.

{ linda } at: September 26, 2012 at 8:20 PM said...

Awesome post, thanks so much for writing it. I'm glad people rightfully called out Save the Pearls, but I don't think most people are very good at identifying and criticizing problematic elements in fiction. I'm still learning to be more aware myself, but I'm saddened that responses such as "calm down, it's just fiction" or "that's just your subjective opinion and you have bad taste" are still popular when a book is criticized for racism/sexism/cultural appropriation/etc.

{ Shallee } at: September 27, 2012 at 8:36 AM said...

I've thought about this before. I've had story ideas, but known that I just didn't have the right perspective to write them. And that's okay. Someone out there who does have that perspective can write those with more authenticity than me!

{ MaryAnn Pope } at: October 3, 2012 at 11:12 AM said...

I just can't get past pearls and coals. How can anyone think that is okay? How can the term pearls be considered a racial slur in any way, and why would the ruling class refer to themselves in a demeaning way? That alone speaks volumes about the story and the lack of thought that went into it.

As for this post, just awesome. A must read for all writers. Thanks for sharing.

{ Penny Shapiro } at: April 2, 2016 at 11:35 PM said...

I agree that an author should be careful not to stereotype, or be racist/sexist/homophobic or anything else when writing stories containing a main character that is not their race/sex/sexual orientation. Besides being offensive, that's just lazy writing. But I guess I just see it as more important to get underprivileged groups represented in mainstream literature. I mean, the fact is that 70% of America is white. 89% of America is hetereosexual. If the only people who are "allowed" to write about non-white, non-straight people are those who are non-white or non-straight themselves, then we will have predominantly white, straight literature, which is what we have right now (although it's getting better with time and I think it will continue to get better).
That being said, people should write what they know to an extent. For instance, I know about being bisexual, I know about being Jewish, and I know about being female. Those are all characteristics that are very important to my life, and I include them in a lot of what I write. But I've also written novels entirely from a male perspective. From a straight perspective. From a Christian perspective. And it's challenged me as a writer, to make what I'm creating authentic, instead of a compilation of preconceived notions.
What you really should be saying is that people should be more careful with their writing. Do their research. Get it edited. Have it read by someone from the minority group they're speaking about. Then have it read again, because one person from a minority group cannot speak for the whole minority group.
The most important thing, to me, is that stories are being told, even the cliche ones. Because people need to feel represented.

{ Unknown } at: September 4, 2016 at 2:01 PM said...

Shit im a crappy person.. believe it or not :v

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