DISCLAIMER: I apologize in advance if any part of this blog offends anyone. It is my examination of myself and what I would like to do with my poetry and the barriers I find in trying to do so.
I am white. I am Irish and English, and maybe some others, but I am so white I’m almost blue. My skin is translucent in places. My veins demonstrate themselves all along my arms as if I had been coloring on myself with markers in art class. I have more freckles than a poppy seed bagel. I joke that I don’t tan because I’m so white that I reflect light. I have a light New England accent, white privilege, and I am educated. And you know what? I probably am more conscious of it than you are.
I grew up on the outskirts of a ghetto. There were gangs in my city and my schools. A girl got slashed with a razor blade in the locker room during gym in middle school before school shootings were even a blip in the media’s consciousness. Sometimes, we couldn’t have our swimming lessons in the school pool during gym because the cockroaches were busy having theirs. I had dance classes when I was little, but learned how to really dance, as in the kind you do at school dances and clubs, from a Puerto Rican girl named Ivory. The lead in the western-themed school musical was African-American and so was her love interest. In college, I wrote the Black History Month program two years in a row, doing the research for pieces of drama, poetry, fiction, and music to include. I was the only (unofficial) white member of the Black Student Alliance. Just because I am white does not mean I consider myself far-removed from people of other races or cultures.
I want to be able to examine issues of race, multiculturalism, privilege, but I often feel that it’s off-limits for me to say how I feel about anything even remotely relating to it. I am not purporting myself to understand what it’s like always looking over your shoulder, hoping that your color doesn’t get you held up by the police or worse, praying that you can just be allowed to pray, feeling frustrated at having to explain to yet another person why their flippant comment was back-handedly/accidentally racist. I don’t have to do that because it doesn’t happen to me. When it happens around me, I will be the first to call people on it.
Lately, there has been a lot of discussion in the MFA vs. POC debate. To be honest, I’ve tried to follow it, but there are so many arguments flying around, that I have had to limit my exposure to it, lest I make a comment that isn’t as well-informed as I thought. Also, having come from creative programs that aren’t, shall we say, as diverse as I would love for them to be, I don’t feel I can speak to the experiences being debated. (David Mura, however, has some brilliant insights on his blog, here.) It has, however, made me think about what kind of writer/poet I want to be when it comes to discussing things I’m “not supposed to” talk about.
For instance, why is it okay for a man to write with a female protagonist, and vice versa? Because, if it’s done with authenticity—in the reader’s mind—it opens a door and the story becomes the focus. In fact, when a writer of one gender (yes, gender, not sex) can write in the voice of another gender well, they are often praised for it. I am not saying I want to specifically write from other voices, but I feel discouraged from even addressing those places because, especially if done wrong, I could be viewed as condescending, pandering, and even trying to cash in on something just because it’s trendy. I’ve come across work by writers “of color” (I despise that phrase, because it creates otherness, but for the purpose of my point, I need to use it here) that write from a racial perspective that is not their own, e.g. a Japanese American writer writing from a Chinese American perspective (yes, it counts, Japan and China are two separate countries, two separate cultures), an African American poet writing from white and various Asian American and Hispanic perspectives, etc. These have almost become par for the course, barely registered in the consciousness, as far as I’ve seen. I haven’t yet come across more than a blip here and there about outrage over a writer of color writing from the perspective of someone of another color. I don’t understand why I feel such apprehension upon broaching subjects/topics that I am have not personally experienced.
I want to be interested. I want to be conscious. I want to be able to address the things about society that I find to be problematic, especially when it comes to racial and sexual identity, but I often find that my inherent privilege acts as a barrier to my writing because I am defeated before I start. Is there a way I can write in someone else’s voice, or give someone a voice, without ever having their language? Can I be the courageous poet and say, “damn, all of you, I’m going to talk about it, anyway”? Why would that even make me courageous? Why wouldn’t that categorize me as creative? Why do I even feel the need to make a discussion out of it? Am I othering myself or others with this conversation? My only light in this tunnel of confusion is a quote from Major Jackson in a 2007 issue of American Poetry Review: “It seems incongruous, then, to have such a lack of poems written by white poets that address our cultural plurality, for the road to diversity has had an impact upon us all, whether we care to acknowledge it or not.”