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Nº 65 Black Face, White Voice
bibliomaniac
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It’s Black History Month in the United States and consequently time for the annual ruckus about relevance, racism, and multiculturalism. These are all matters worthy of debate, but I wonder what people think about another, relatively minor but potentially controversial issue: white folks pretending they are black folks.

 This is commonplace in popular culture, from dreadlocked Europeans putting on the Rastafarian to rap artists like Eminem doing what whites have been doing for the best part of a century, nicking black music and tidying it up so that it doesn’t scare the horses. Such cultural appropriation can be good and bad, fostering a sense of community between people of widely differing backgrounds, but at the cost of reducing something distinctive and occasionally sacred to a fashion accessory, yet another homogenized item to be consumed or rejected according to taste.

But what about when the reverse happens?

I’m not talking about the loopier incidences of cultural imperialism that took place in colonial times, but something potentially more insidious. What would you say, for instance, to a middle-class white guy –actually, this middle-class white guy if I’m going to be honest about it– writing about a black African orphan cobbling together an education by reading European and American novels?

One pretext for this, apart from having a story to tell, would be giving a voice to the voiceless, speaking up for those people who are too poor, or too distant, or too alien to be heard amid the general clamor of our more parochial concerns.

But if you’re just slapping an African face onto a privileged European education, surely you are being quite as patronizing as a proselytizing missionary who pats the little dark people on the head and says they are ‘just like children’?

Well, perhaps not quite as patronizing as that, but you get my drift.

No matter how genetically ludicrous racial distinctions are, no matter how far we have come in eradicating the deranged fantasies of racial supremacists, no matter how global the global village becomes, there remains a perception of difference between peoples that demands a certain scrutiny of cultural borrowing and cultural lending.

What started me thinking about this was something entirely tangential, a report on the radio that orphanages in Britain are filling up with babies with dark skins, while would-be adoptive parents with pale skins are being turned away as ‘culturally inappropriate’. I was incandescent at what seemed like a craven acceptance of racism. Sure there will be problems, feelings of alienation, estrangement, but I’ve been dealing with problems of alienation and estrangement all my life. I didn’t need different colored parents to do that. I didn’t even need to be poor and marginalized. I did it all on my own.

And I suspect that, in the end, this is the most potent argument for somebody like me writing about a character with whom I superficially have little in common. Moods, humors, emotions, many ways of seeing and interpreting what is around us, and most of life’s fundamental experiences are universal. We dress them in different clothes according to the company we keep, apprehend them with different degrees of intensity according to circumstances and temperament, but what we are and the things that define us as people are much the same the world over.

That’s good. I feel better for that.

It’s not so much white writing black as bloke writing bloke.

Most gratifying. I’m good, me.

I might not have done much for Black History Month, but I’ve done my bit toward advancing vanity and massaging the collective ego.

Didn’t you know?

It’s also International Boost Self-Esteem Month.

Comments
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How about privilege?

An interesting internal dialogue. I am wondering where you would place the concept of privilege in all of this? I don't entirely agree with the notion that 'all of life's experiences are universal'. What we are and the things that define us have much to do with power and privilege, and the systemic structures and discriminatory attitudes that perpetuate disadvantage. I think it is essentially problematic for someone occupying a position of privilege to be the voice of someone who does not hold such position in society. That being said, fiction is filled with examples of writers appropriating and (re) constructing the experience of characters whose lives they do not really know, and the narrative often reflects more about the writer than the character. Cheers Cindy

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100% agreement with that

100% agreement with that last statement, not the salutation, but the stuff about narrative revealing more about the writer than the character. It’s one of the themes of my book. The question of universality is a bit dodgy, but I meant it in very broad terms, perhaps so broad as to be meaningless. As for your point about privilege, I’d like to agree with that because it reflects certain of my prejudices, but in all honesty, is it fair to say someone cannot speak on a given subject just because they are rich and successful (I’m neither, by the way, but still privileged)? Or am I responding to a very reasonable point with an unreasonable reductio ad absurdum? Thanks for your response, anyway.

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Culturally Inappropriate

Charles,

Very interesting, multi-faceted conversation.

Cultures don't have to be divided like cultivars of fruit in the produce aisle. Fictionalizing a person or emanating the music and art of another culture isn't the same as pretending to be black when you're white or vice versa.

An Asian or Black writer can pen a non-patronizing story about a poor white girl, without experiencing the life of a poor, white girl. The story may not be as convincing as one written by a poor white girl but it might also become a Pulitzer Prize winner. Knowledge and imagination must not be limited by our skin color and life experience.

My twin brother and sister are Vietnamese. They were adopted when they were four months old and I was thirteen. In a perfect world, they'd be living with their Vietnamese mother and GI father. (Right.)

The stance inadvertently taken by the administration of the orphanages in Britain suggests I wasn't the optimum sibling for my adopted brother and sister because I'm white. My siblings would have died in Saigon. We are a close loving family that doesn't look alike.

It's detrimental to the well-being of the children in Britain for qualifying parents who can provide a loving home to be turned away. Statistics show there are more white couples approved for adoption. I'm not applauding it, it's just the way it is. And single parent adoptions aren't common unless you're rich or a Hollywood star. The important thing is to give the children a safe, permanent home. The longer they're in an orphanage, the more damage done to their psyche.

As a child advocate, I see parents of many colors and cultures who are horrible parents, which is the reason these children are in the orphanages in Britain in the first place. It's a disgrace these children are waiting for the "right" color parent.

Jules

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That is a very nice story

That is a very nice story and another one that gratifies my own prejudices. This is a lot better than the abuse I elicit when I do an op-ed for AOL. With the adoption issue, I feel bound to question my own opinions because I'm fairly sure the people making what I deem 'racist' decisions are well-meaning, engaged, intelligent people who have thought about this a lot more than I have. Anyway, it's 11.30 at night here, so time for bed with the comforting thought of "We are a close loving family that doesn't look alike". That is my sort of world. Thanks. 

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Black and white

Ch

Most appreciated the initial text by Charles Davis and the comments from Cindy and Jules.
The mere fact of trying to write from inside another's mind helps us as readers to think, question and, dare I still use the word,
be more "aware" - justification enough for me.

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That's my sister. She liked

That's my sister. She liked it so much, she had to say so three times!