by Linda Rodriguez
(This post first ran on my blog, http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com, a number of years ago, but recent events in this country left me feeling it was particularly important and relevant to post again.)
The other day I had a conversation with someone. This conversation still bothers me. Probably because it’s a discussion whose main points I’ve had to deal with many times before with other people. This particular person was a very privileged white man who has an excellent record of trying to value and implement diversity. Let me state that up front. This guy is not some ignorant, insensitive racist. He’s a guy who has the wherewithal to live a happy life of privilege without ever having to concern himself with poor people or people of color. Yet he truly tries to understand when he wouldn’t have to and when it’s made his own life more difficult. I can appreciate that.
Still, he doesn’t understand because ultimately he is not yet able to stand outside his privilege of white skin, male gender, and inherited wealth. I say, “not yet,” because I refuse to give up hope for him and others I’ve encountered like him, who have genuinely good intentions but can’t get past the blinders of privilege. Earlier conversations with such people have focused around the difficult lives of women living in poverty, the automatic racism encountered over and over by people of color that can leave them justifiably hypersensitive, and similar topics. This conversation centered on books.
This person condemned a wide variety of fiction and poetry by writers of color, in particular Latinas and Latinos, as “just political.” Good writing, according to him, is not “political posturing.” I looked at the list of books we were discussing, which ranged from Rudolfo Anaya and Manuel Muñoz to Luis Alberto Urrea and Helena Maria Viramontes, and tried to explain that most of these writers weren’t trying to write political novels or poetry as much as they were simply trying to be true to the lived experience of their lives and the lives of their families and ancestors. He didn’t buy it.
You see, in his experience, everyone is deferential and respectful to him (as he is routinely respectful to everyone he meets, no matter their socioeconomic status). He has no experience of being deliberately humiliated or seeing his parents deliberately humiliated because of the color of their skin, their accent, their Hispanic last names, and/or their poverty. He has no experience of deliberate, offhanded cruelty directed at him or his family or neighbors for no reason other than because the inflictor can get away with it. He has no experience with living in grinding poverty, seeing his parents (and possibly himself) forced into dangerous, unsafe, and unfair working conditions for the tiniest possible wages.
In his world, such things are unreal. Therefore, they must be made up or vastly exaggerated for political purposes. To him, therefore, any writer who simply writes of her childhood misery working in the fields as a migrant laborer as Helena Maria Viramontes does or of the poverty and casual, racist cruelty encountered as the child of an immigrant as Luis J. Rodriguez does must be dishonestly fabricating in order to inflame the reader’s emotions for political purposes. Writers speak the truth about their lives and the lives of many in their communities, and because the reality they describe is so unacceptable, they must be making it all up for radical political purposes.
I know, unfortunately, that this is a common stance, even among some well-meaning people. I live east of Troost in Kansas City, Missouri, which is automatically considered the bad part of town because it is still populated by poor to working-class people of color, mostly African American. Once when talking with a woman from the suburbs who had done great work on diversity in Kansas City, she mentioned that people in the suburbs were tired of paying for the city to send out plumbers to fix the plumbing of people in my neighborhood for free. Stunned, I told her that never happened, that people where I live have to pay for plumbers, just as suburban residents do. Equally shocked, she asked, “But what do they do if they can’t afford a plumber?” “Like anyone else, they shut off the water to that sink or toilet or whatever until they can afford one,” I replied.
Through the years, I’ve come to realize that many well-to-do white people, even well-educated ones, believe myths like this about poor people, especially poor people of color. The Black unmarried welfare-queen myth—when statistics have shown for many years that the vast majority of women on welfare are white and married with white husbands who’ve deserted their families. The myth of the wealthy, lazy Indian, who lives in squalor because he likes it—when Indians living on the reservations tend to fall further below the poverty level than any other group in America and have less access to jobs, education, health care, even electricity and running water than any other group in America at the same time we’ve learned through the American courts that the BIA has “lost” (read: defrauded the tribes) of multiple billions of dollars that were rightfully theirs.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the person whose conversation with me began this post believes that poor people of color writing about their lives and history must be inventing out of whole cloth for inflammatory political purposes. I’m not angry with him. I’m sad for him—and others like him. The only way to get past the blinders of privilege is to take a journey way out of their comfort zones, to walk into the world of the disenfranchised (of whom they are afraid). Or they could read the works of the many gifted Latina/o writers, African American writers, Indigenous writers, Asian American writers, and poor white writers and discover the world they and their people live in deep underneath that bright surface of the world of American privilege.
Linda Rodriguez's Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, are her newest books. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, will appear January 17, 2018. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.
Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com
It is very hard sometimes to fully understand what others' face. But that's no excuse for not trying to understand. It reminds me of the old saying about not being able to understand someone until you've walked a mile in his moccasins.
It is difficult to imagine something you have never experienced except third hand. However, it is possible to at least talk with people who have first hand experience.
Grace, yes, that's a common saying--that I think is more honored in the breach than the observance.
Warren, you're right. It requires the ability to understand that something may be missing from your particular experience and the wiilingness to reach out for further information.
I've shared this on my FB wall, as today's food for thought. I know there is much I don't know, and many times I don't even try to share what I have learned, and still I've heard "That can't be true" so often when I have tried. I see some hope with our young people, and from the efforts of SPLC and others to bring together groups that don't always mix. The annual project of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival to have ten school groups share the performance of the year's play was a heartening cooperative effort. We need more like that. Hugs and love to ALL. <3
Mary, thank you for sharing. Efforts like those by St. Louis Shakespeare Festival always help somewhat, and it's very often an arts organization or people in the arts behind such efforts.
After nursing my daughter through four knee surgeries and learning, with her, how to navigate life on crutches, I have a new appreciation for handicapped individuals.
My daughter is doing very well.
I read a lot about how we live in "bubbles" with people like ourselves. I think readers are less likely to stay in their bubbles because books give us a way to learn about lives very different from our own. That said, the man you wrote about's dismissal of those novels as "political posturing" instead of true-to-life stories - whoa. That is the most narcissistic, ridiculous take ever. It's nice that you haven't given up on him Linda, but I wonder what would get through to a person like that.
Shari, it caught me totally by surprise because he'd always taken a good stance on diversity and working toward making his organization inclusive. I now wonder, though, if those stances weren't taken rather coldly to better his reputation rather than from any genuine understanding or desire. I'm beginning to think this is so, because I wrote this post originally four years ago, and he hasn't progressed a bit.
Margaret, hands-on experience like that will usually do it. The trick is for us to be able to make that empathic leap, even if our daughter hasn't been raped or our son hasn't been racially profiled or our sister bankrupted by cancer or our niece's husband deported. And I know you already had empathy for people with disabilities--wasn't trying to imply that you hadn't. It's just that I've seen so many cases where people (like right-wing politicians) only have concern for the pain and damage the mad ox inflicts when it gores one of their own.
Even though I've never had to worry about where my next meal will come from, I'm far from well off by any means. I've always felt empathy for those who have financial or other problems. Recently I read somewhere that people who read books are more empathetic. Maybe I'm that way because all my life I've been a reader of books, the newspaper and some magazines.
Or it could be because even before racism became an issue that was talked about, my parents were always against it even though we lived in a rural very white area. I'm always upset when I hear people making derogatory comments about people on welfare or being black, Hispanic or anything else and like you mentioned, they have never experienced anything like that, but I still don't think that should excuse them. When I was teaching and even more so when I was subbing in poorer schools, my heart went out to those children who were living in poverty.
Gloria, you're right. New brain research does show that reading novels creates a greater capacity for empathy because the brain treats the fictive experience as if it were real. To me, that's why the questions of diversity, representation, and appropriation are so important in publishing. Poorly researched, lazily written novels full of destructive tropes and worn-out stereotypes can do real damage when those novels are the readers only significant encounter with that population of people.
We all see the world through a prism of our own experience and understanding. We can try, though, to be open to the experiences and understanding of others, and realistic fiction is a good way to work on that.
When I talk with my younger siblings, I'm sometimes amazed at how differently we perceive our childhoods to have been. If that can happen in the a loving environment with people living in the same household, how different the world must seem to people in diverse and sometimes hateful situations.
You're right, KM. I think everyone's had that experience with dissonant memories among siblings. It's a good example.
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