Writers Confronting Privilege: Another Examination

June 10, 2019 § 2 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.

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