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.

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4 thoughts on “On the question of speaking up

  1. Nice piece (though your first link didn’t work, for me). I think that in many ways, an expectation of mindfulness is the goal, rather than perfection by any individual’s standard. As you said, no one can speak for an entire culture or race, and by that same token, some work will be seen as more flawed by some, less flawed by others, and so forth.

    “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.”

    This is how I feel about a lot of things. It would be different, for example, if there were no voices of a given culture out there to speak up, but when there are, I believe my role is to search them out, listen thoughtfully, and if I agree, share, as opposed to, well, risking appropriating someone else’s issue. I know this stuff is complicated, so someone else’s mileage may vary.

  2. Thanks for reading, Steven. I appreciate how thoughtfully you’ve been responding to these posts. I’ve corrected the first link so it should work now. As you said, it’s a complicated issue and not one that’s easily resolved and we can only hope for more mindfulness in the work. I hope that all is going well with your own writing.

  3. It is certainly a complex issue. As a Caucasian woman from a first world country, racism isn’t something I am commonly a target of. However, people find all kinds of ways to categorise each other. Sex, race, physical ability, mental capacity, income, age, etc. The ways we divide ourselves is ridiculous.
    I don’t believe that anyone can give a true account of another person’s experience. However, if we are to understand each other, and challenge these divisions, then attempts have to be made. We have to try to detach from ourselves and speak or at least see for other people. This isn’t to say I don’t agree with you in part. If there’s something that you want to say, no one is more qualified to say it than you yourself. If someone wants to speak for a cause that really has nothing to do with them, then true, maybe they lack a grasp on the situation and cannot represent it adequately.
    Sometimes we just want to have an opinion without getting political. Sometimes we don’t want to have much of an opinion at all. But that’s okay. It doesn’t mean we’re not listening.

    • Not sure I fully get what you’re saying here. I do agree with challenging divisions, but I also find myself wondering if the onus of speaking should always be put on the shoulders of people of color. I think that if a person feels sufficiently moved then they should speak.

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