Monday, March 12, 2012
Writing while marginalized - Pt. 1
It was the latest article in The Washington Post’s series on black women that got me thinking. Lonnae O’Neal Parker is a good writer. Her effort was measured and thoughtful. She is a black female writer in a space where the voices of black women are not the majority. The Washington Post has accompanied its coverage with online discussions and the actual voices of black women--something that doesn't often happen. Now, I complain all the time about the absence of black women in mainstream media. I hate that they so often ignore us. But here The Washington Post is paying attention to black women and I find I'd rather they didn't. Because despite all the panels and surveys and a black woman writer and the presence of black female voices, it still reads as exotification and demonization because of the context and because of who is observing the conversation.
I recall feeling the same way last year, when I took part in a CNN online article about the phenomenon of black women with natural hair enduring unwanted touching. Several black women honestly shared our lived experiences with a black writer, who had navigated similar waters. But a brief web article cannot hold the nuance and history related to African American hair and beauty standards and power dynamics. And, based on the nasty attacks several of us endured as a result of the article, in the end, it served more to inflame than educate. (More here.)
Last week I found myself working on an article about an element of black culture for a mainstream feminist publication. My criticism of the Post series and the aftermath of the CNN article began haunting me. Because here I was explaining a black issue for consumption by a mostly non-black audience and perhaps opening the door to the same “othering” that I hate.
So, I wondered: How do other folks who are members of historically marginalized groups, and who write about race and gender and sexuality, wrestle with this? Do they? Should we? Are there topics writers will not or should not discuss outside of a "safe space"? Are there story ideas writers reserve for "of color" or GLBT spaces?
I asked some smart, writerly, social justice-minded folks to weigh in. And I'll be sharing their thinking all this week. First up, Latoya Peterson of Racialicious.
LATOYA PETERSON (Racialicious)
Well, yes. We are not at a point in society where everything can be discussed in public - our histories are too different, and people are trying to enter the conversation at too many different places. The power dynamic also looms large as well. Racialicious is strange - we have both “in-house” and public conversations, often at the same time. Since our main audience is non-white, we can discuss a lot of issues in a much more frank manner than a mainstream site can - however, just because we are all minorities, it doesn't mean we understand each other. It’s an interesting tightrope to balance.
Your note about context is interesting, and it’s something I’ve had to revise over the years. Doing this kind of work, it’s easy to throw side eye at things other people do, but then do similar things and act like you are the only person with the god-given right to comment on this issue, because only you have the one true answer and only you can treat the subject in the right way. (In some ways, that’s just run of the mill writer’s hubris - if you didn’t think there was something special about your take, why write the piece in the first place?) But the critical lens is something we are reluctant to apply to ourselves. Should Parker have passed on writing the piece? Is it better to have no content around black issues than to have ones that exist in an imperfect environment? If that type of criticism is applied to your own work, could someone level the same charges at you? The considerations are endless, but there aren’t really any right answers. I think a lot of it comes down to internal philosophy. Some people believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, that more information is better than less, that issues of context will eventually shift with enough pressure, and that if we continue to write to ourselves, we will never create change. Others believe that this system of media and mass communication is inherently flawed and broken, that the only hope is to create alternate structures, and that people working with these kind of spaces will have to fail because that is how the system is arranged. So the answer, as much as there can be one, depends on your internal sense on how the world works.
Tomorrow in Part 2 of "Writing while Marginalized," Sparky of Spark in Darkness.