Only got ten minutes to save the world...

Between the new baby and the Ph.D., this grad student only has ten minutes a day to philosophize culture. Bear with me as I tell you how to think...

all within a ten-minute writing limit.



The Reluctant Orientalist

I'm "white." So if you're "black," can I write about you?

Ever read Memoirs of a Geisha? It's a novel, not really a memoir, written by a middle-aged white American man, through the persona of an elderly Japanese woman. I'm not a postcolonialist by trade, but my dear friend is, so while reading the novel in preparation for my final Ph.D. comp exam, I sent her a note asking, "Is  Memoirs of a Geisha Orientalist?"

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term (and I imagine most anyone outside of my grad student crew must be unfamiliar with this term): Orientalism, in it's original meaning as formulated by Edward Said, refers to the Western representation of Eastern cultures and lives through an inherently prejudiced and eternally Western-paradigm-locked lens. Like I said, however, I'm no postcolonialist (rough definition: someone who often studies this Orientalism stuff), so I bend the term a little. When I wonder, "Is this text Orientalist?," what I'm basically wondering is: does the author of this text offer up a "foreign" culture--"foreign" in terms of race, class, gender; not merely geography--for the edification and/or entertainment of the author's own cultural compatriots, all without having any real understanding or appreciation of the "foreign" culture he or she presents? This lack of true cultural understanding, of course, results in a bent representation of the "foreigner" in ways that are invariably caricaturing and demeaning.  

Full disclosure: I'm a middle-class American woman of some vague European ancestry. So can I write about African American women, or is that gazing? 

If I write about African American women, how can I do so with a depth of understanding and respect of that culture necessary for responsible representation?

No, no, wait--isn't it perhaps Orientalist to gloss "African American women" into a singular culture? I mean, come on, Lil' Kim and Toni Morrison don't have a whole lot in common. At least they probably don't read the same books.

And if they don't read the same books, then is that detail enough to make them culturally separate?

That is to ask: Can Toni Morrison write about Lil' Kim, or is that gazing?

To put it simply: Where do we draw the lines of cultural demarcation? Forget the question about whether its okay to theoretically deconstruct other cultures that are not our own. First of all, we've got to determine where to define our own culture, and this is where the confusion sets in.

I do not want to enact intellectual colonialism. Fair enough. I do not want to deconstruct and offer up for your edification my astute analysis of someone else's world, a world I can never know.
Let's play it safe.

Let's say I only write about my own world. Let's say, then, I only write about "white" middle-class women living in the United States. I'm I better just write about married "white" middle-class women living in the United States. I'm also an atheist. So I better just write about atheistic married "white" middle-class women living in the United States. Holy crap, where does this end?

If I refuse to write about Black women because I'm not Black, I'm also making a dangerous assumption: that all Black women share something in common. Doesn't that glossing of individuals into one common life based on complexion and genitalia enact some other equally sinister racism and sexism?
As much as I love to write about myself, I don't think I'm going to sell many academic publications centered solely on the exploits of Lindsay B.

Unless, of course, you're buying.

<minute ten.>


Christine Swint said...

I think writers will always use their imaginations. So I agree, we won't limit our writing (or reading) to what we perceive ourselves to be from the outside. That would mean I, as a middle-class, married, white woman who is now of a certain age, wouldn't be able to appreciate the poetry of Terrance Hayes, an urban, African American, male.

I feel kind of dumb, 'cause I read Memoir of a Geisha, and I thought it was a memoir... :-P

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