How Will I KnowToday's Tune:
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
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
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.
WE HAVE THE INTERNET NOW GUYS. NO EXCUSES.
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
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
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
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.
So. Yeah. THESE ARE MY MANY THOUGHTS ON THIS SUBJECT. What are yours?