Zetta Elliott just had a guest post up on Justine Larbalestier's blog about race and book reviews. One line, in particular, stood out for me: "Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone."
Elliott was referring specifically to writing for children, but it's a sentiment that I think is applicable across the board. I'm sure that in 1492, folks in the Americas were thinking something along those lines. I'm also pretty sure that in 1757, when the British invaded India, most Indians were like, "Wow, it would've been awesome if all these white people had just left us alone." Probably in Australia in 1788 folks were thinking similar thoughts, too. Just a hunch.
When reading up on India's history for my work-in-progress, I stumbled upon a site that had this:
"Consider the fact that Indian written history stretches back almost 4,000 years, to the civilization centers of the Indus Valley Culture at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. In addition, by 1850 A.D., India had a population of some 200 million or more.See, to me it all comes down to real estate and entitlement. It's about barging into someone else's home and claiming it as yours. And then responding in dismay, shock, and outrage when you're asked to leave. THAT is entitlement. Back that entitlement up with power (whether it's military might, or systemic and institutionalized power that was gained through military might), and you have a potent mix where PoC, women, the working class--or whomever is having their community/culture/home invaded--lack the power or voice to fend off the onslaught. Now add to all this, a cultivated ignorance among the powerful that they deserve all the offerings of the home they've barged into. And that in barging into this home, they are serving the best interests of those being invaded. Well...you can see how that really doesn't leave us much room for honest communication. Not without a whole lot of HARD work and painful self-reflection, that's for sure.
Britain, on the other hand, had no indigenous written language until the 9th century A.D. (almost 3,000 years after India). Its population was about 16.6 million in 1850.
How, then, did Britain manage to control India from 1757 to 1947?
The keys seem to have been superior weaponry, a strong profit motive and Eurocentric confidence." [Emphasis mine]
So back to the hood pass. John Mayer is a white male creating music that "resembles" a certain musical tradition which can trace its roots back to, primarily, black people. He got a "pass" because his interest in something that is uniquely theirs was appreciated, it was familiar...it was an echo of something recognized. However, beyond a profit motive, he has displayed absolutely ZERO interest in that community. Far from it, clearly, since he has issued racial slurs and hurled denigrating, dehumanizing insults at members of the very community that has supported him. Clearly, he has no awareness whatsoever, of one of the reasons he may have managed to reach the heights he has. Upon whose backs his luxuries have been acquired.
When we apply this to literature, we are talking about white authors who write stories of PoC--while PoC are not being published with their OWN stories. Again, there is a vast history behind this. On this site is another interesting fact: "Besides losing hundreds of thousands of lives, the Aborigines also lost much of their culture. They could no longer tell their stories and traditions, and in some cases, there was no one to hear them. History was lost."
This quote is specific to the Aborigines of Australia, but can be applied to most PoC all over the world. Wherever colonization has taken place*, along with it has come a steady and consistent loss of history and story told from our perspective. We, as people of colour have been robbed, often through violent and brutal means, of the right to tell our own stories. We have had to stand aside for centuries while our streets have been renamed, our histories distorted, and our own stories delivered to us through European (or Euro-centric) eyes. We have been taught ABOUT ourselves from people who do not share our history. We have been taught in schools through white-authored textbooks to see the world, its peoples, and its history through a white conqueror's perspective.
No one can stop anyone from writing what they want. But what we can request is that the writing which represents us be done with respect, with humility, and with a complete awareness of one's privilege. Do your research--not just of the people you're writing about, but of what it means for you, as someone who has more privilege, to tell their story. And always, always, be mindful of the fact that there is an entire history behind white folks telling the stories of people of colour.
And if you ARE given a "hood pass", imagine that you have been invited into someone's home and welcomed. You are standing on their sacred ground. What will you do with that honour?
I'll close with a few quotes that I stumbled across this week:
"If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive."—Audre Lorde
"Our stories are our identities."
-- Reggie McKnight from EIGHTH GRADE SUPERZERO, by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
"We carve out boundaries in real time."
-- Kesime Bernard (from above post by Adam Mansbach)
*For the purposes of this essay I am focusing on PoC and European colonizers. I am quite aware that there are parts of Europe which were under Ottoman rule for hundreds of years, that some European nations invaded other European nations, and that many nations/peoples were conquered by those who looked just like them. Those of you with white skin who have been affected by these invasions must understand clearly what I am referring to when I write of the erasure and re-writing of history, and the need for those on the receiving end of said invasions to tell their own stories. No need to clarify. I am referring here, to a particular pattern of colonization and imperialism that affected peoples of colour, in alarming numbers, across the globe--specifically, the indiginous populations of the Americas, Africa, South Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. And I am placing this within the context of US publishing--which is a product of the unique racial history of the United States.