Superstar fiction writer Jodi Picoult was in Brisbane recently, giving a talk at Brisbane’s City Hall about her latest novel, Small Great Things, cultural appropriation, and the art of creating compelling stories.
Because this was such a massive conversation, I’m breaking this into two parts. This first one focuses more on the idea of cultural appropriation. The second part will be more writing focused.
I have written so many times as people I’ve never been. But race and racism is hard to talk about without offending someone. So we don’t talk about it. At all.
There’s often a fear about telling stories that encompass cultures and identities not our own, and yet, whitewashing stories to make white characters the only characters readily available is just as problematic. It’s an incredibly fraught issue, and it’s one that doesn’t always get a lot of attention because it’s so uncomfortable for people to try and navigate through without causing harm or offense. But even though it’s hard and awkward work, it’s incredibly important, too. Awkwardness doesn’t, and shouldn’t, trump the need to deal with the ingrained and systematic racism of the world around us. Writers explore ideas. Even the hard ones.
Telling people of colour how hard their life is isn’t my story to tell and never will be. Cultural appropriation is a real issue. Imagine how frustrating it would be to never be able to tell your story, but to see white people getting to.
Originally, Small Great Things was inspired by the shooting death of a black undercover police officer in America. He was shot in the back by white cops. The idea of the white voice on trial was always going to be a part of the story, but Picoult quickly realised that the most honest way she could approach the story was from a white point of view. To her mind, people of colour already know what it’s like to be discriminated against, and put on trial because of someone’s unfair idea of who and what they are. But it’s also not her place to speak the truths for groups she’s not a part of. There’s so many amazing authors of colour doing staggering work around these issues. Picoult is quick to point out that hers shouldn’t be the voice being praised for ‘starting the conversation’- the conversation has been happening for a very long time, led by equally talented voices who haven’t been given the same attention.
One of the biggest calls of the night was for readers to broaden their gaze, and look for authors outside their cultural spheres of influence. If you’re white, cis, straight, and Christian, try reading beyond those barriers. That’s how we learn different perspectives. Not by guessing randomly what other people think, but by listening to their stories.
[Random aside, because that’s how I roll: this isn’t just an American issue. Though Picoult is getting praised for her efforts in promoting this conversation, we’ve got freakin’ phenomenal talents here discussing culture, identity, and racism. Off the top of my head, if you haven’t read Ellen Van Neerven‘s Comfort Food, Anita Heiss‘s Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, Am I Black Enough For You, or The Intervention Anthology, or Samuel Wagan Watson’s Monster’s Ink (and probably a heap more- I’m still slowly building my collection of his work) you need to look into them. I’m not even scratching the surface of the list of Australian talent who don’t fit the typical white author mould, and these authors don’t get anywhere near the love they deserve. Go read them. Like, now. This’ll still be here later.]
Cultural appropriation is about the voiceless.
Everyone has a voice. But some voices get a lot more attention and respect than others. That’s why Picoult is so quick to stomp the idea that she’s starting conversations- white people are just respecting the conversation more now there’s a white face attached to it. Which really isn’t fair.
Juno Diaz talks about the making of cultural monsters, saying that the easiest way to make people feel like monsters is to deny them a reflection within the cultural landscape. By promoting a certain kind of voice, we’re (even without realising it) dismissing everyone else’s. And when we’re stamping our own ideas onto someone else’s experience, we’re making it easier to believe the worst about people who haven’t done anything wrong.
It’s a balancing act, because you don’t want to create worlds where the only people are white. But you really don’t want someone to read your work and feel like you’ve stolen their story, and their voice, to make a profit. Often, it’s about respect: respecting the story, researching respectfully, and reading authors who are already talking about these issues from a place of greater experience.
People aren’t born racist. It’s a process; a targeted approach to turning people into white supremacists.
Radicalisation is a similar process, no matter which side of the problem you’re on. You find yourself someone who feels like they’re never going to belong in the mainstream society, who feels victimised by the way things are. You give them a sense of belonging, a cause to support (because we all want to be the hero, and saving the world from an evil is pretty damned heroic). You give them an enemy, and a target for their frustrations. And slowly, you normalise ideas that once would have probably (hopefully) caused concern.
In America, is incredibly easy to buy really racist crap. You can buy shooting targets with the faces of Obama, or MLK. You can buy pinatas of hanging victims. You can buy pin the star on the Jew. And over time, that shit normalises racism. How do you teach children empathy for others while they’re shooting the images of actual people? How do you discuss the horror of genocide while mocking it?
There’s a line between laughing with, and laughing at, in the same way there’s a line between solidarity and saviour complexes.
There are things I can do with my privilege. I can use that power for good. How? Easy:
Always centre the impacted- it’s not about you.
It’s easy to focus on how we’re impacted by things, and forget that we’re a teensy speck on the fringes of an issue. Look at #blacklivesmatter vs #alllivesmatter. BLM argues that there’s a social and political skew against black people in America that is actively getting people killed. Their focus is lowering the staggeringly high number of police shootings targeting black people in America. They’re not arguing that black lives are more important than any others, they’re arguing that they’re just as important. Meanwhile, ALM argues that it’s unfair to focus on only black lives when other people have issues, too. Which, if you squint, it’s an idea with merit. But if all lives do matter, shouldn’t we be jumping in and calling out the fact that the justice system in the US is biased against them to the point black people are more likely to be killed by police for ridiculous reasons (black kid killed for playing with toy gun, man shot in the back for allegedly stealing cigarettes…), and more likely to be severely punished while white people committing the same crimes in the same places get lenient sentences, or let off because they ‘made a mistake’?
Leverage your privilege- call people out.
If you hear a racist (sexist, homophobic…) joke, call it out. We’re told to just laugh it off or stay quiet, but instead, speak up. Stop letting minority groups be the punchlines and the punching bags. When you sit silently, you’re making a choice in support of what you’re hearing.
Calling people out can be scary, and can get you in the firing line, it’s true. But it’s as simple as offering the seat beside you to the woman being verbally abused on the bus or train, even if you’re not quite game to tell someone to stfu. It’s taking a photo of the drunk guy harassing the young mother, and passing it on to the police, or wandering off to hit the emergency call button on the train, even if you sneak into another car to do it. It’s seeing a man following a woman, or photographing her, and going up and letting her know. Bullies thrive when the crowd watching does nothing.
We all have different experiences, and the quickest way to understand how other people think, live, or behave is to let them tell your their stories. And to listen, without interrupting or judging or defending. Talking about misogyny isn’t saying that all men are scary, but that there’s enough scariness to be a very real problem. Talking about racism isn’t saying every white person is violently, disgustingly racist- it’s saying that there’s enough overt and subtle racism to be a problem.
White people expect to be heard. Amplify other voices. Question why we’re not hearing about heroic people of colour.
Patrick Stewart works to support women escaping domestic violence, because his mother was abused by his father. His argument is that people listen to rich white guys, so he’ll use that status in support of those who don’t have it. Not to be a saviour, but because he’s been given power, and he feels obligated to use it for something of worth.
If you’ve got power, use it.