On the question of speaking up

So, I have been told that my silence on a work that borrows another culture means that I am complicit in racism and transphobia.

I am writing today about a thing that I have wrestled with for days. Do I speak? How do I speak? Who do I speak for?

The more I thought about it, the more indecisive I became.

The truth is,  I can only ever speak for myself. No one person can speak for an entire culture or an entire race. (Also, if I have not read the finished work, how can I possibly criticque it?)

This is how I believe speaking out about appropriation works. It is not for me, the outsider to speak. My role is to listen and to support the voices of those raised in dissent. I can question it, that’s true, but I can only offer criticism from an outsider’s point of view.

The thing is,  if you believe that appropriation drowns out the voices of those from a particular culture, my speaking out rage when I am an outsider would drown out those voices that would speak from that culture. It is not on me to dictate how people in another culture should feel about a work that is written or set in their country, it is for those who read to form their own opinion of the work and speak out about it.

I wrote this in a letter. I said: “I may never be comfortable with appropriations by white writers, but I acknowledge how it is something some readers will be thankful for and which some readers will be angry about.”

If the writer has made a professional choice to publish, then I feel that the writer should also be professional enough to accept all criticism directed at the work.

It’s not that I don’t care about appropriation, but as a brown woman from a third world country, I know how it feels when outsiders speak out on my behalf. I may say, oh that’s good of you, but who are you to speak for me?

This is a thing white allies need to understand, you are still speaking from a position of privilege. For a white person dissent and rebuke and calling out holds lesser consequences than it does for a person of color. If you don’t think that’s true, then perhaps you don’t know how racism truly works. Experience has taught me that brown bodies are almost always expendable and the loss of the voices of people of color is not experienced as loss by the white majority.

I also want to remind white writers that no matter how mindfully they approach a work, when the work takes from others it is bound to be flawed.

I understand how we are angry about things like these, how we want to rage and make appropriative work disappear, but as a woman of color who has been working and looking at the field, I also know that it takes time before that happens. I can only hope for an increasing mindfulness in the way writers approach the work. (Plus controversy tends to increase sales of material we are making controversy about.)

Racism and sexism are structural problems and as long as the structure persists, we can keep calling out people. It is the structure that needs to change.

**It’s not because I don’t care to engage the work, but I am not in perfect health at the moment and I have to choose how to expend my energy.

**If people choose to speak up, then I will listen. This is how it works.

Some relevant links: 

When Defending your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself by Matthew Salesses ( in particular The Burden of Speaking Up)

10  Quotes that Perfectly Explain Racism to People who Claim to be Colorblind 

Jim Hines has collated links to excellent posts about Diversity, Appropriation and Writing the Other read those links. If you’ve read them before, read them again.

My White Friend by Leny M. Strobel

My White Friend
(excerpt from A Book of Her Own, Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan by Leny M. Strobel)

He is often concerned that my work is too racialized; that it can’t help but dissolve into dualistic antagonisms — the very antagonisms I seek to transform. But why, I ask him, is it so difficult for him to listen to my story? What does it ask of him that he refuses to hear it? At some level we already agree on our vision of justice and peace, vision of spiritual awakening, vision of ecological justice. We already agree that there is racism still. Or that it is only now that white folks are beginning to acknowledge white privilege. . .  so why does he always resist this? 

(also posted at http://rcloenen-ruiz.livejournal.com)