On Culture and Diversity

I have been thinking a lot lately about our conversation on what we have permission to write/writing in another’s perspective. I’ve really enjoyed hearing what everyone had to say and have a few ideas of my own to add.

On writing diversity in:

There seems to me to be big problems with the idea that a majority culture/gender/race etc… can ‘write’ in underrepresented people. People of minorities are not accessories that can be inserted into a piece of writing or artwork in order to expand or contract its level of diversity, and more importantly when we add characters who’s experiences we can’t relate to for the purpose of ‘adding diversity’ we can easily misunderstand or misrepresent them and, as Megan said in class, risk outweighing or even silencing their actual voices with ours, which inherently have greater access to a platform. What’s more important, as a majority culture, than sprinkling our writing with minority characters or cultural taglines, is to make sure we are actively listening to, maximizing, and providing safe forum for the actual voices of minorities.

It is important to keep in mind that the oftentimes uncomfortable and difficult scrutiny of motives, consequences, and unfairness is a direct result of the inequities that exist in society.

On the blurring of cultural lines:

I’m sure that you have all heard about the ‘yellowface’ scandal that rocked the literary community recently. In short, a white male author used a female, Chinese pseudonym when submitting a poem for publication, for the explicit purpose of benefiting from the position of a marginalized Asian woman. In a way that is very similar to cultural appropriation, this author (his actual name being Michael Derrick Hudson) benefitted from hitching himself onto an underrepresented gender and culture (to which he does not belong or suffer any of the other consequences of belonging to) that would, in the life of the person who actually belonged to that culture, be used to hinder them. Hudson claimed an identity that was not his, identity being inseparable from personal experience and culture and voice, all things that contribute to our poetry and other’s readings of it.

Hudson’s actions are ultimately unacceptable in my opinion, and lead me to think of how easy it can be to simply use or hitch on to a culture for the weight or associations or trappings that come with it. There have been arguments made for Hudson’s case, referencing a long tradition of doing the same thing but in reverse (i.e. women taking on a male pseudonym), however in trying (unsuccessfully) to compare these two situations, these arguments completely undermine the inequity and unfairness that has led to this entire conversation.

Lastly I would like to emphasize the importance of accepting that different people have different experiences, especially from within minorities as I feel individuals belonging to a minority often get lumped together into a single experience or worldview where as the majority (thought of as the ‘norm’) has the luxury of being a society composed of individuals with unique opinions and experiences. As an example, let’s say that an American author just watched Slumdog Millionire, became super inspired, and decided to write a poem from the perspective of an Indian character. To be safe, the writer shows this poem to her Indian friend who says that she approves of and loves the poem. This does not mean that every other individual who identifies with the Indian culture and race is going to like this poem, and that is okay, as long as the writer respects the validity of other’s differing experiences, feelings, and opinions.

I had a some degree of a difficult time articulating all of this, so please let me know what your thoughts are, places where you agree or disagree, and so forth.

-Christy L. Agrawal

3 Replies to “On Culture and Diversity”

  1. Christy, I completely agree with you. I think you worded this well, and my own thoughts on this topic are hard to put into words. I think part of the challenge is the addition of cultural traits of minorities. While I am not devaluing the importance of including minorities in literature, I find it distinctly offensive that a writer would include minorities simply for “adding diversity” as you wrote.

    I see no problem in setting a poem from the perspective of someone belonging to a minority, as seen in the Fishouse poem “Corpus” by Leslie McGrath. However, assuming a new identity entirely with a pen name is a different matter. Hudson was misrepresenting the Chinese community, and as a Chinese person, I resent that his work would have potentially “replaced” Chinese voices had he not been discovered. This scandal is proof that the only way to illuminate and dissolve the ignorance that comes with racism is to continue representing and supporting the voices of minorities.

  2. Christy,
    I agree with you on all of these commentaries. I don’t think that anyone should be reaping the benefits of an underrepresented culture if they are not from that culture. Taking a name which is representative of said culture is wrong, but what’s worse, in my opinion is taking that name and using it in your own self-interest. There are exceptions, maybe.

    If the work of the person who adopts said name is bringing certain issues to light which are relevant to movements today, and which maybe supports these movements, then I think I’d be less offended, though it wouldn’t make it right.
    Why not call yourself the name you were given at birth and take under your wing someone who can speak with certainty about things that they are familiar with (that you wish to be familiar with if you are the author who wishes to explore this culture). Which is something similar to what you were suggesting when you said you’d be okay with someone exploring different perspectives.

    I don’t know how okay I am with the exploration of these perspectives through assumption rather than through experience.

    1. Great discussion, you three! I like very much this distinction between assumption and experience; it occurs to me that assumption carries a really huge claim, since the word is so associated (in Christian terms) with the Virgin Mary entering heaven; etymologically, it can mean taking OR receiving, but if you’re claiming to receive something that big, you’re making a really daring claim.

      But I still think we can soften the binary: is there room for an imaginative or empathetic experience, one which makes clear limitations (I have not experienced this, but am trying to get as close as I am) rather than one that pretends to experience while having just assumed it. I’m thinking, for instance, of Joan Kane’s Hyperboreal , a book of poems about her ancestral Native home on King Island: Kane hadn’t at the time visited there, but it’s part of her ancestry, and so she’s in a strange relationship to experience: no-one could claim she’s assuming, but she’s also not writing without recourse to imagination…

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