If’ you’ve read any of my earlier posts you’ll know that I was brought up between the U.S and India. Although I’ve been back in India for the last eight years, I am very much a third culture kid. The amount of cultural perspective I’ve negotiated in my lifetime could go on for pages. Today, I want to talk about a particular learning that has informed the way I express myself as a writer.
The internet has been potently responsible for millions of people having a better understanding of their world. It’s also a space where many of us have unlearned a lot of the notions we had about issues like oppression, war, sexuality, and gender.
Cultural appropriation and social privilege have brought up many hot debates in the world of writers. As they should. After all, writing is more than storytelling, it is a political act. It doesn’t matter if we’re writing fantasy fiction or chronicling the injustices of war. Our stories, our ability to write them and gain diverse sets of readers reveal a lot. If we look closely at any piece of writing, we can see the writer in other forms: Narratives of our social locations, our biases, our curiosities about the world, and our histories all make an appearance.
How much responsibility and awareness of our social locations do we account for when we write? Shouldn’t we feel free to create and imagine whatever we’d like?
Here are three learnings and thoughts I’d like to share with you.
Accepting Our Privileges
Some social privileges are so inherent to our everyday that we don’t even see them as privileges. Take for example that we’re all on the internet now reading and engaging in the English language, a language which has the most power in global currency. Much of the world doesn’t have access to education and fewer still have access and comfort in accessing the world in English. By that fact alone, when we write, we are writing to a collection of people who interact with this basic social location. Of course, when we add race, class, sexuality, and gender, we complicate it even more. When we live with the comfort of a world that accepts and reinforces our worldview, we can’t really see how experiences for different groups of people are far more difficult because they haven’t been integrated into mainstream norms.
As writers, it’s in our best interest to deconstruct the feeling of being ‘attacked’ when confronted with our privileges. We’ll be far more imaginative and meaningful in our writing if we can be aware of them.
Checking Your Privilege Doesn’t Mean Restraining Your imagination
I’ve heard a lot of people express worry and even frustration when they discuss social privilege. They wonder if they are ‘allowed’ to write about other things, places and people that are different from them. My opinion is that you can write about anything you want, but if you do that without employing the right lens you are very quickly going to write something that is either problematic/offensive to others or you are going to take up the space of writers who are marginalized and don’t get the same platform to write about their own histories/identities. When I say that we have to use the right lens I mean we have to be acutely aware of why we are writing something and how our social location can bias, appropriate, or create tokenism in our narratives.
A safe rule to integrate is making sure your story comes from an authentic view point of your social location, meaning, your writing reflects the fact that you may be wrong about some of the people you are talking about, that you might not know enough but this is how you or your character sees it. Once you start talking for/from the exact point of view of a marginalized group of people you will almost surely get into grey areas. In the end, there are no real rules. As long as you are honest about what you are trying to do and have engaged with your own self-awareness as relates to the world around you, you should feel confident to write what you want.
Social Privilege is not Monolithic
Humans don’t fit into binaries as much as we like to believe. Each of us is a unique individual first. After that there are layers of social context: race, class, money, education, access, health, power, culture, and family. Depending on our life experiences, our own privileges can weaken or strengthen at different times. Our vulnerabilities can negate certain perceived privileges at times, and at other times, our very existence can still threaten the rights of others.
As a U.S-born Indian writer, I am perceived as a marginalized POC writer in the U.S. As a brown woman, my voice in the U.S is not seen as important or as accessible as a white woman’s. My culture, identity, and experiences do not always integrate with mainstream America seamlessly and they are often exoticized. However, I am acutely aware of my social location as an Indian in India: I am definitely an urban privileged woman by class and caste. Even though my caste privileges are pretty much invisible to me, I have started to see how epic the privilege is. I write and transact mostly in English giving me a power currency in India where only 15% of the country transacts with it (though, that’s a huge number given the population of India). This means that my perspective and worldview of India is based on living a fairly comfortable life in urban India. My notions of extreme poverty, physical labor, romance, pleasure, and spending habits are not in alignment with what much of this country experiences. So when I tell you a story about India, it is one very small perspective of it. Depending on the context of what my writing is read with, I can be pushing forth new notions of India, subverting its ‘exotic’ stereotype, or I could simply be telling you a boring privileged- elite view point. It’s up to you to see what matters and to extract something from it that furthers your own worldview.
In the end, writing with empathy and awareness can bring people together, and we can expand our collective imaginations and deconstruct binaries. Writers have the ability to bring the world closer, and we should accept this privilege with much grace.
How do you feel about social privilege? Has your journey exploring social location been meaningful to you? Do you agree that all writing is political?
About Rheea Mukherjee
Rheea Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth, (February 2019/ Unnamed Press). Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in several publications including Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Out of Print, QLRS, and Anti Serious among others.
She is the co-founder of Write Leela Write, a design and content laboratory in Bangalore, India.
She spends most of her spare time eating and making vegan hipster things.
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Author: Rheea Mukherjee