Monday, March 19, 2012

Writing While Marginalized - Pt. 6

How do other folks who are members of historically marginalized groups, and who write about race and gender and sexuality, wrestle with writing for mainstream spaces? 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. Today, Andrea Plaid and more from Christopher MacDonald Dennis and Sparky.

ANDREA PLAID (Racialicious)

Working at Racialicious, Latoya has already said a lot of what I think about the topic, especially since I’m earning my writing chops at the blog. However, I also tend to tackle a stickier subject: sex. Not so much gender and sexual identity--though I’ve done my share of such posts--but the practices and acts. I’ve seen those posts explode in some rather ugly ways in the comments sections because the topic is such a Mobius strip of intimacy, desire, and belonging yet is a space where some people feel the need to preen their self-righteousness that I’ve had to walk away from the thread in disgust. So, yes, even though the R is that space where we walk that line of in-house conversations and public discourse, when it comes to sex (no pun intended), it’s still a subaltern discussion. However, we still try to have them, as frustrating as they can be.

Moving my writing outside of the R, I tend to get a bit nervous about writing some topics because I do wonder if, by getting published in a less PoC-centered space, if I’m being set-up as the “tour guide” for the souls of PoCs, especially Black women or, more insidiously, if I’m being presented--okay, co-opted--as the “PoC friend” who agrees with some of the white progressive ideas, like my writing at AlterNet that I initially thought SlutWalk was a great idea when a lot of Black women and other women of color bloggers were vehemently against the event. At the same time, I do think we need to have our opinions in various spaces--both spaces that center marginalized identities and the mainstream media--because it shows that there is a difference of opinions that we do hold.

But those are opinions, usually backed with experiential/numerical/scientific facts. When it comes to “news stories” about us and by us...I agree with almost everyone on the thread: it makes me antsy when that news story comes off as cultural tourism which, in a society that doesn’t value marginalized people’s humanities, makes us feel like we’re on display like the Hottentot Venus. Some of it is where the story is placed, true. Then some of it is simply how the story is constructed--it’s the difference between Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry talking about Black women and citizenship at a college lecture captured in a YouTube clip and Soledad O’Brien’s Black/Latino In America series. Dr. Harris-Perry’s presentation reminds me of the Toni Morrison quote where she says she goes on the fictive journey and assumes that the audience is smart enough to follow. O’Brien is 101ing the hell of “The Black Experience” and “The Latino Experience” because she’s assuming her audience--namely white CNN viewers--knows nothing about Black and Brown folks...and she’s doing this to the consternation of the folks she’s trying to cover because she simplifying our complexities almost to the point of reinforcing old stereotypes, if not creating new stereotypes.

Another sticky subject is “writing truth to power” about problems within our communities which may seem like we’re “airing dirty laundry.” I remember an interesting comment to my post on intraracial rape on Tumblr--a Black woman said, “The reality is that many black feminists would refrain from denouncing black male privilege or even side with the black misogynists in the name of racial unity...” I know I felt that fear when I wrote the post because I waited for “you hate the brothas!” pushback. But, intraracial rape is a reality, and I believe we need to have convos about it as a part of a greater push to help eradicate it. (Going back to Latoya’s point of an personal ethos about what to write, where and why.) However, it’s rare to see that discussion in Black media, which is viewed to be a relative “safe space” to hash all of that out. The reason? Not just racial unity, but--wait for it--”white people are watching.”

Another post that has that tension is D.N. Lee’s piece on how Black media ran with a “science-based” story that really wasn’t because the media folks conflated the findings and misrepresented them. Lee’s point is that Black media needs to do better with science journalism. Lee’s tone wasn’t vicious or condescending or cultural “touristy”--she simply spoke a truth backed with simple research and facts. This post is at Scientific American’s blog--and I’ve yet to hear if the media outlets she cites responded to her critique. Beyond the fact of whether or not she “should” have done it it at SA is the question of if she approached these outlets about the post first and they refused it--that happens, too. Or are some pitches assumed to be preemptively squashed because of the topic matter, so the writer finds other outlets that do accept the writing....

Christopher MacDonald Dennis

Andrea, you make an important point about the fact that our media, though considered the place to have difficult conversations, is often the place that refuses to discuss internal community issues.  I am thinking of the Jewish media (no, not the Protocols of the Elders of Zion type, the media representing the Jewish community) and any critique of Israel. While there is now some place for dissenting views on Israel, the Jewish communal media was the last place you would see a criticism of Israel.  Often, Jews would have to go elsewhere to write truth to power.  Then, of course, they would be accused of “airing dirty laundry.”  I have seen a similar dynamic in gay media: the conversations that must be had are the ones that seldom happen in that space.  I wonder if it is due to the ways that editors see “representing the community”.  They interpret that as only writing about things that will not make “us” look bad.  Of course this protects/enables parts of our community while victimizes other sections.


Expanding a little on the limitations of media in analyzing community issues and linking to my point on the intent of the person asking us to contribute (and can you tell how deeply cynical I am about this?) there’s not just the element of anthropological exploration that is so "othering" that we see, but also efforts to either demonize us or to allow self-proclaimed allies to affirm how wonderful they are. I think we also have to ask what topics are we asked to speak on and consider a particular outlet/zine/blog/channel’s record on marginalized discussion. In particular, there are two habits I’ve seen that concern me

  1. Using a marginalized face to say something unpleasant about that marginalized  (i.e. every single marginalized person who has ever appeared on Fox News ever) group. That way they get to avoid being called bigoted. OK, Fox News is an extreme example, but in even less slanted arenas we have sites where we’re only invited in order to air our dirty laundry, as it were. We’re only called upon when it’s time to call out/criticize/attack people within our own community - and sometimes said calling out/criticism/attack is justified. But if that’s all the media wants us to do then I call shenanigans. If a place’s GBLT inclusion is simply a long list of pieces telling GBLT people how wrong we are, then that shows an agenda even when those individual pieces are not, in and of themselves, wrong or inaccurate. Which is also a problem, as Chris has said, with discussing any fraught issues in mixed company. 
  2. Using marginalized people to write ally-affirming fluff. I’ve had people ask me to write pieces on anti-gay violence and slurs. And I’ve kind of shrugged and asked “Well, why do you need me to write this?” Violence bad. Slurs bad. People who do either are nasty bigots. There’s not much more to say here. I’d much rather write a piece on how constant heterosexism in language, media, etc. is destructive to us. Or, a piece on fetishisation, GBFs and GBLT servants and how it dehumanizes us. Or a piece on the problems of so many straight people just accepting homophobia from mainstream religion/politics, etc.
But the violence/slurs piece? They can point to that, pat themselves on the back and say “Look, I don’t do that! YAY COOKIES FOR ME!”  The other pieces? Why THEY could be the bad guys! They may actually have to *gasp* do some privilege analysis! If I write a piece about GBLT issues for another space, especially one I don’t know well, I want to write something that may teach/raise awareness/stop various micro (and macro) aggressions, not write a piece so that straight people can gather together, wittering about how truly AWFUL, AWFUL it is and taking to their fainting couches about how terrible anti-gay violence is and what good straight people they are to think so.

This series ends tomorrow with a post by Nadra Kareem Nittle.

Pt. 1  Latoya Peterson of Racialicious

Pt. 2 Sparky of Spark in Darkness

Pt. 3  New Black Woman

Pt. 4  Prof. Christopher MacDonald Dennis 

Pt. 5 Jennifer or Mixed Race America


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