Writers Confronting Privilege: Another Examination

June 10, 2019 § 3 Comments

Anita GillBy Anita Gill

Recently 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 with in this current literary landscape: “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?”

I admire Cook’s honesty in positing that question; however, as I read the article, I grew concerned. There was some stylistic rhetoric I noticed in his article that—left unchecked—can prove problematic for the ongoing conversation about diversity in literature.

Cook tells the story of a recent book signing where his editor encouraged a young woman of color to his table, but she refused, stating that she doesn’t “buy books by white men.”

Cook relays this book signing incident to other writers, and mentions how some roll their eyes and scoff. Cook adds that he doesn’t have the same reaction. Perhaps Cook wishes to show that he welcomes spaces of criticism. But I worry that the moment comes off as the writer showing he lacks the internal racial bias others have. It runs the risk of setting up a hierarchy where one person is better for having less biased tendencies than others.

It was Cook’s editor that had initiated a conversation with the young woman of color. Even after a few readings, I struggled to understand why Cook found it necessary to include that his editor is from Trinidad. Did he mention this detail to set up why the young woman considered approaching the table? Did she mistakenly assume the editor was the author? There is another possible interpretation: By providing the editor’s nationality, it exonerates the writer from having racial blind spots. Since Cook’s intention is not substantially clear here, I believe this section could have used more revision.

While Cook does point out the majority of gatekeepers for literature are by and large white men, he wonders if the young woman who snubbed him only bought books published by Simon & Schuster, a publishing house run by a woman. Cook also mentions that the publisher is a white woman. Indeed, Cook makes a valid observation about the racial homogeneity in the publishing world, but the writing here hints at dismantling the young woman’s personal decision to not buy books by white men. Since this article is more about how that moment impacted Cook, commenting on the possibly flawed logic of the woman’s reading habits feels beyond the point.

In that vein, I believe the title is misleading. I wonder if it would have been better to title this something about the moment a white writer learned to check his privilege. The current title made me assume I would read more of a “how to” on using one’s privilege in a positive manner. Since I went in with this assumption, I felt dissatisfied that the article ended with simply buying two books written by writers of color.

Brevity’s Blog has continually been a source of insightful articles about writing and being literary citizens in the world. Writing about race, especially when coming from a place of privilege, is hard to do. I applaud Cook for crafting an article on this topic. Nonetheless I would be remiss if I didn’t point out how the structural perspectives can reinforce the racial divide. My hope in writing this article is to help readers and writers think deeply about the ideologies in place in their logic, especially when writing about the privilege stemming from one’s race.

Anita Gill is a teacher and a writer based in Los Angeles. Her essay, “Hair,” was the winner of the 2018 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, selected by Kiese Laymon. Gill’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She will be a Fulbright Fellow to Spain for 2019-2020.


§ 3 Responses to Writers Confronting Privilege: Another Examination

  • KTatum says:

    Seems like these kinds of speeches only privilege the privileged. Until we get rid of this implicit guilt in white people speaking about privilege, which only minimizes everybody else and fails to achieve anything but real equality, we need to just stop talking and mindfully listen, really try to learn, walk in the various shoes of our fellow citizens to see if we’re using the right words in the right context to the right audiences in the right regions of the country at the right times in real, effectively liberating ways so my history isn’t erased anymore than any others’. Until we can say American and not have to hyphen or qualify, then maybe America will finally really be equal; but as long as certain groups are prohibited, denied a voice in the polylogue, we have no business talking until we become fully knowledgeable of the impact of our speech. Wipe away the implicit bias, confess away all of the guilt associated with all this talk of privilege–who in America honestly is today? do a word association exercise with words like “privilege” to see all the consequences of using them as we do–once so enlightened, then maybe we can have an adult conversation about achieving real equality in this country. I remain doubtful, though; until we can hear a white frat boy talk about being discriminated against with the same self-righteous pitiful position with which white people throw this “privileged” word around we’re only further minoritizing the presumed minority who isn’t really anymore.

  • Sue says:

    If the outcome of tackling diversity is for a group of people to question if they should be writing at all, then that is not a progressive approach to diversity but a boringly censorious, regressive one.

    It becomes then an argument that ends up endorsing, not changing, the status quo. That some people are more privileged than others is undeniable but the focus should not be on silencing and punishing those who possess the most privilege but to be ensuring greater diversity. The aim is for everyone to have more privilege, not for censorship. One is a forward-facing focus; the other is a boringly neoliberal scrabbling to redistribute some scraps under the table rather than broadening the amount of food available.

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