Category Archives: storytelling

Ask Racialicious: How to Read and Respond to Literature of Colour

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

The Racialicious inbox received a very honest email from a writer currently enrolled in a creative writing program, with reference to the book Ms Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.  Bynum waits until late in the book to reveal that Ms Hempel is a mixed race person of colour. This raised all sorts of queries for our questioner:

…when I write fiction, I write white characters.  When I read fiction I read them as white characters unless/until I am expressly told otherwise.  This feels like an ignorant move on my part but at the same time, I feel that that’s what I do because I am white, and that people of other ethnicities read fiction as their ethnicity (or perhaps not, since the field is dominated a lot by dead white guys, but that’s another issue), and they write characters as their ethnicity…

Which I suppose eventually comes to this question: am I to assume that a writer of color is writing stories about people of (their) color?  Am I to assume that the black woman in my class is always writing about black people?…[That] the gay writer is writing about the gay experience, or gay relationships? Was I supposed to assume that Shun-Lien Bynum was writing about an Asian character because her name is Asian?… (See how much of an ass I sound like right now?)This feels like a form of discrimination or stereotyping.  Why should I assume that just because a person is black that they’re going to write about black characters?  Do people of other races assume that white writers are always writing about white characters?  Or is that what we’re supposed to do, as writers and as readers?

I’m sure it’s obvious that I’ve been in a sort of bubble with this issue.  In my undergrad, there were only 2 nonwhite students in the creative writing classes I took, and in my MFA program there is only one.  It seems to be an issue that we skirt around in workshop, for fear of offending someone, perhaps…

This questioner had the fortune (or misfortune) of sending this to me: in case you didn’t already know, when I am not crusading on the internet, I too am a graduate student in a creative writing program.  Here are some amended excerpts from the earful and a half I sent back to our questioner:

As for your question: should we assume that all writers of colour are writing for themselves?

All writers have audiences that they are writing for, and it becomes evident who their audience is as soon as they get going. But because much of Great American Lit is written by white writers who are white-centric, much of Great American Lit is written for white folks. So the assumption grows that all audiences and all characters are white – sometimes readers are surprised when they realise all along they have been reading a nonwhite book.

I would say many white writers are not conscious that they are writing for a white audience, just as often in the media the word “everyone” or “regular American” or “the people” means (middle class, hetero, cisgendered, abled) white people. I have to disagree with your (qualified) assertion that generally readers will just assume that the character is of the same ethnicity as them. Rather, many readers of colour are hyperconscious of the fact that a Great Book is not addressed to them; for many of us* learning to appreciate literature requires an extra step that is not there for white readers: we have to learn how to find ourselves in work that may sometimes actively exclude us.
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Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam

by Latoya Peterson

Taqwacores

“In this so called war of civilizations, we are putting the middle finger in both directions. Fuck you and fuck you.”

“We’re not freaking street preachers and we’re not slam dancing for Allah.”

At this year’s South by Southwest, I only had time to catch two movies.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers that the two I chose were Taqwacore (the documentary) and The Taqwacores (the narrative film based on the novel by Michael Muhammad Knight).

The doc begins with a definition: “Taqwá is the Islamic concept of “God-consciousness” or higher consciousness.”

The “core” comes from from punk. Continue reading

Racism and “New Journalism”: The Politics of the Entryway

by Latoya Peterson

Reader Alicia brought to our attention the controversy brewing around a project called The Entryway.   At the LA Times Comment Blog, Gerrick D. Kennedy frames the debate through the lens of race, saying:

Can journalists only report about the issues of their own race?

That’s the question being debated about two white journalists who decided to embed themselves in a home in the MacArthur Park neighborhood with at least seven undocumented Mexicans to “learn Spanish so that we can better report our native city.” [...]

In their posts they muse extensively about the discomfort of two American girls, “maybe the whitest people we know,” they admit. One post mentions confronting an infestation of cockroaches, a police raid on suspected gang members one night that led to their walking out of the house with their hands up (the host family, out of fear of deportation, stayed inside) and of course the customs of the bathroom: Toilet paper goes into a trash can next to the toilet, as opposed to down the drain.

While they say the blog is a personal narrative and not journalism, the criticisms remain heavy.

However, Kennedy is asking the wrong question.  This isn’t about the race of the actual reporters in question (see my response to Jeff Jacoby’s misguided op-ed for a broader explanation) but rather the perpetuation of the racist, othering gaze in reporting, one that purports to be journalism, but instead reveals its own bias.  Luckily, friend of the blog Daniel Hernandez is on the case. Continue reading

Stories that Ally vs Stories that Appropriate: a Yardstick

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

How do you know when a story is allying, versus appropriating?

In other words, if someone of privilege writes a story about the political oppression of a group they do not belong to, what is the difference between:

a) a story that brings marginalised voices to a wider platform and advocates for their rights, versus
b) a story that simply appropriates a political conflict for a writer’s own end, taking advantage of the fact that communities who experience marginalisation are rarely ever allowed to speak for themselves?

Apart from the fact that a story that appropriates usually winds up grossly misrepresenting a marginalised group, this is my yardstick for telling friends from foes:  one of the central purposes of a story that acts as ally, is to use one’s own privilege to tell another’s story, in the hopes of ameliorating the others’ situation.  Meanwhile, a story that appropriates just wants to spin a good yarn, get some adulation, and uses another’s story in order to do so.  An ally story is giving, an appropriating story is taking.

Quit jabbering Thea, you may say.  It’s easy to tell the difference between stories that appropriate, and stories that ally! We don’t need a yardstick!

Not true.  At least within mainstream opinion, it is startling and depressing how many stories that appropriate get passed off as political progressive, as allies.  Like Not Without My Daughter.  Or the documentary Born into Brothels, which purported to tell the story of the children of sex workers in Calcutta, but really just seemed more interested in showcasing the magnanimity of the American photographer who worked with the children.* Or another documentary, Paris is Burning, about the black trans/gay vogueing community of New York City, which brought immense praise on the white outsider director, but painted the community as tragic and hopeless, while bringing little benefit to them.  I’m sure you can think of loads more films like this.

Including…(drumroll)…Avatar. Which I finally saw last week, in all its headsplitting 3D glory.  And it fulfilled all the negative press I had read over countless months, from anti-racist and anti-ableist camps among many others.  But seeing how my esteemed peers did a lot of the deconstructing work for me, I was left to ponder another question.  If Cameron is as leftist as claimed, why didn’t he tell the story of an actual conflict between big business (or colonialists) and an indigenous group? Why use blue allegory?

Hollywood films have a generally untapped power to sway how people think about political events.   Packaging a political story within the rhetoric of emotion (and also I guess, within face-blasting special effects) is often the best way to get people to swallow arguments they would otherwise reject.  Hence a movie that – at least at face value – is very anti-war, anti-military and anti-capitalist is demolishing box office records with hardly a peep from conservative viewers.

Can you imagine the impact that a movie like Avatar could have, if Cameron had used all the CGI to recreate (for example) any area of the Americas the way it looked before first contact with the Europeans, and instead told the real story of an indigenous group struggling to protect themselves from genocide?  Imagine the kind of support it could create for indigenous rights.

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