How Can Writers Confront Privilege? Read (and Write and Teach) About It

May 6, 2019 § 20 Comments

By LaRue CookLaRueCook_ATL2018_089cropped

I’m a cisgender, heterosexual white man who was raised in the South, a tick below middle class and near the second notch of the Bible Belt. Don’t worry. There is no but. I just think more people like me ought to own their privilege up front, outright. That’s kinda what my debut collection of essays is about: owning up to privilege as opposed to ignoring it or—worse still—apologizing.

Man in the (Rearview) Mirror is about leaving my job as a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine in Connecticut and moving back to my native Tennessee to become a full-time driver for Uber. All of this began in January of 2016, when I was thirty and had no idea that Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States. So, yeah, it’s about that, too—how my silence and ignorance borne out of privilege renders me as culpable as anybody for this current American predicament, to put it lightly.

Three book readings in, and I’ve introduced myself this same way—more or less—to an audience of mostly white people, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Portland, Oregon, the latter at an off-site event during my first-ever AWP conference. The following day I spent an hour signing books at my press’s booth as part of AWP’s humbling-ly massive book fair. To help funnel potential buyers to the table, my editor greeted people with a short pitch. (He’s a naturalized citizen from Trinidad, for the record.) Meanwhile, I was busy with my own PR song-and-dance when I overheard him say, “No, that’s the author. Wouldn’t you love to meet him?” I turned to see a young woman of color, whose seeming interest quickly drained from her face, upon seeing me. She said, “I’m sorry. I don’t buy books by white men.” Then she smiled and continued down the aisle. Nothing malicious. Very polite, in fact.

For the rest of my stint in Portland and since returning to Atlanta, where I’m a PhD student at Georgia State University, I’ve recounted that anecdote to fellow writers—of all identities. Some have scoffed, even rolled their eyes at the reductive logic. Most of the eye-rollers, admittedly, have been men. As for me, I’m not offended, didn’t even roll my eyes. Hell, first thing I thought: Now that’s an essay! Besides, I knew about this trend in theory, just had yet to experience it in practice. Which is why I’d like to consider seriously the implications of what that young woman said.

This is a blog called Brevity, so I hope you’ll excuse my lack of an exhaustive history on gender and racial inequality in literature, other than to cite a stat by essayist Sonya Huber, who is also the director of Fairfield University’s low-res MFA, of which I am an alum. Since 2000, only two of The Best American Essays have featured more women than men: 2011 and 2017. In ’07, ’08, ’10, and ’12, less than thirty percent of the writers were women. However, those numbers don’t take into account race or ethnicity, or how each individual woman identifies their gender. But I’m not certain those numbers alone can truly contextualize the lack of institutional inclusion in our industry: That series is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is run by a guy named John “Jack” Lynch, a man who looks an awful lot like me. Same as Brian Murray (HarperCollins) and Markus Dohle (Penguin Random House) and John Sargent (Macmillan) and Michael Pietsch (Hachette). My point isn’t lost on you, I’m sure. Just as I’m sure you understand that it’s damn near impossible–if you’d like to sell even a couple hundred books as an indie author—to outrun the shadows of Jeff Bezos and Leonard Riggio. I can’t help but wonder if those men would consider their positions products of privilege, or of bootstraps being pulled up.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak to that young woman, to ask her if she only buys books published by Simon & Schuster, which is headed by Carolyn Reidy (a white woman, for the record). I would’ve liked to know that young woman’s thoughts on how we reconcile these white men and me, a person who simply enjoys telling stories, as I’m sure she probably does too. I imagine the ultimate question is: Should I be writing at all, or just reading and listening? How do white people write about privilege if their very words hold that privilege?

These questions loom large and are virtually unanswerable, but to censor them from being asked in these forums by the people who hold the power is to risk confining them to eye rolls or to echo chambers, where we can “unfriend” or “unfollow” those who might challenge us. And, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, once we’ve done that, then, as writers, we’re finished, we’ve lost. Because we actually believe we’ve figured out the world.

So, later that day in Portland, after that young woman had said what she said, I visited the famous Powell’s Books. I bought a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I’m ashamed to say, at thirty-four years old, I have not yet read. But I will this summer, as well as C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. And I’d say if there is anything remotely resembling an answer to the question of how I confront my white male privilege, then it is that, to personally seek out the experiences that are not mine and to bring them into the classroom.

LaRue Cook is the author of the essay collection Man in the (Rearview) Mirror and a PhD student in creative writing at Georgia State University, where he teaches composition and intro to fiction. His nonfiction has appeared in such publications as ESPN The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and The Bitter Southerner, while his fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review and Barely South Review, among other places. Find him at or on Twitter at @larue_cook or on Instagram at @cook.larue.

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§ 20 Responses to How Can Writers Confront Privilege? Read (and Write and Teach) About It

  • I’m a cisgender, heterosexual white woman, born in Oregon, past 65, public-school educated, and lower middle class. And there is a but for me: but both my parents attended college. My mother never graduated, but my father had a masters degree, was raised Christian Science, and believed women can think.

    By the time I graduated from high school, no teacher had assigned a novel or short story written by a woman (no, not even Mockingbird). This held true in college. I read all sorts, but I made a special effort to read a broader range of voices than were assigned to me because I can think. (Did you know that Tennessee was a hotbed of radicalism in the early 1900s?)

    In my MFA program, not a single craft talk discussed Toni Morrison, but I have read all her work except Jazz, which threatens to take over my life each time I try.

    I hope you will find Beloved astounding.

    (I wish we could sit down for a long talk someplace. You were in Portland and we might have passed by one another.)

  • 1WriteWay says:

    I wish you could have talked with that young woman. I love that the first thing you thought was “Here’s an essay!” I almost laughed out loud at that. My first thought at reading her statement “I don’t buy books from white men,” was, well, not too long ago and very likely still today there are people who will not buy anything from a black person. It’s not like two “wrongs” make a right but she’s exerting a kind of freedom (choosing what she will read and what she won’t) as well as giving you (i.e., all white people) a taste of being judged by the color of your skin which she very likely experiences every second of every day. She might have the same fatigue as I had growing up, desperate for books written by women, finding them scarce relative to the number of books written by men. I can imagine that she probably has a leaning tower of books to be read already and not reading books by white men is one way to manage that tower. I don’t mean to trivialize. I’m actually reacting more to the eye-rolls. Would there be eye-rolls if a male reader said he didn’t buy books written by women?

    This also is the tension I feel within myself as a cisgender, heterosexual white woman living in the South (albeit not my place of origin): “my silence and ignorance borne out of privilege renders me as culpable as anybody for this current American predicament.” I haven’t been particularly silent but I feel ignorant for thinking “it would never happen here.”

  • equipsblog says:

    Being an aging woman (white in this case) tends to make one invisible in today’s society. When speeding a bit on the highway, it’s a good feeling that the cops will probably not pull you over. When trying to say something, even when answering somebody’s question and no one even acknowledges that you are speaking, is very demoralizing.

  • Allison K Williams says:

    Thank you – this is really thought provoking and hopeful.

  • petespringerauthor says:

    I acknowledge my privilege of growing up in a middle-class white family with many advantages. At the same time, I don’t think this should be held against one. Since I haven’t lived the young woman’s life, it is hard to know how I would have responded if I were in her situation. I would think that a simple “No, thank you,” would have sufficed.

    • And yet her comment gave rise to this essay and these comments, which is way more thought-provoking and challenging than “no, thanks,” which makes me think it’s a better response.

      • petespringerauthor says:

        I agree that the author’s essay is thought-provoking, but I don’t know why being polite should be considered a lesser response. I can imagine the outrage if I said to a woman, “I’m sorry, as a man I don’t buy books written by women.” My point is that a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation should not matter. Either a piece of writing is good, or it is not, regardless of the labels attached to the author.

      • Such an interesting discussion! I know authors who never cross boundaries of gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation because they are afford they will “get it wrong.” That is a genuine pity. The world is broad and fascinating in diversity.

        I think “independent clause” suggests the response was “better” than one without explanation because it triggered a response, it stimulated a productive response. And men do often say “I’m sorry, as a man I don’t buy books written by women.” (Except, of course, they do not apologize for their preferences.)

        Sadly, the assumption is that men cannot identify with a leading female character, that a white man cannot write about a poc or a woman convincingly and that a woman or poc cannot find meaning in books about entitled straight white men. Obviously, this is untrue—we read to find understanding of others’ lives as well as our own. However, as a poc once explained to me: “I get tired sometimes of reading books in which I do not exist.”

      • In a world where all things (and people) are equal, it is totally unfair to read books by one subset of people rather than another. I agree a person’s race, etc., shouldn’t matter. But unfortunately it does. The publishing world for a number of conscious and unconscious reasons publish more white men than other populations. Our current society is one where white men are privileged over other people whether they wish to be or not. So a person in a place of institutional power (that is, whom the institutions privilege) refusing to read books by a person with less power and privilege is very different than a person with less power refusing to read books by people with more power and privilege.

  • Kim Hinson says:

    LaRue, this is a really interesting and sensitive piece…thanks for thinking all this through and sharing :-).

  • You’ve drank the purple koolaid folks

    • Shiela Hanlon says:

      I agree… they’ve drunk the purple koolaid… when you elevate race and gender to first-principle status you’re off in the weeds.

      • I had to go look up “first-principle status” because it’s not a term I have used. Humanity comes first, of course, but all the diversity of humanity is important and for far too long western literature, the literature we were given to read and have been taught in school, has focused on a narrow definition of what it means to be human.

        Perhaps that does not seem important when we do not want to see the world but only our own narrow slice of it? Or perhaps I want more because I am old and have seen that there is so much more to find?

        As writers we write what we know, what we imagine, what we see and what might be. It is not a limitation or a fantasy to look beyond ourselves and to seek the other, but a desire to find the greater truth of our existence.

      • Amen sister! So glad to find another voice of reason in this current fog of lunacy. Lol 😊💕

  • Great day,

    This is extremely interesting. I share that question.
    I allude to it in my blog here….

    I share the thoughts of our minority kids needing to read more diverse literature and many cannot understand.
    Kudos to this piece!

  • […] Brevity’s Blog published “How Can Writers Confront Privilege? Read (and Write and Teach) About It” by LaRue Cook. In this article, Cook decided to tackle a question many white writers struggle […]

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