Hi, blog. Long time, no see. Yes, I’ve been busy and crazy. That’s pretty much status normal.
For anyone who is local (Melbourne, Australia): on Thursday night at the Helen Garner Rotunda we will be launching Platform 16, our education-themed bumper edition of local Australian writing featuring community, emerging and established writers. (What’s Platform? Check out issue 15 here!) For no more than the cost of entry, you get to enjoy Helen Garner in conversation with the fabulous Bruno Lettieri, the best literary crowd in Melbourne and pick up a free copy of a magazine that features (in no particular order) the works of Sherryl Clark, Myron Lysenko, Raimond Gaita, John Marsden and Kristin Henry among many talented community, academic, established and emerging writers the world should know. (And a piece or two by yours truly.) The editorial team have worked long and hard on this project, and we’re very excited to celebrate its emergence into the world.
Interested? Download the flyer and drop Bruno Lettieri an email. I assure you, a great night will be had – it’s Rotunda’s big 60 and we mean to party!
I’ll be the person with the spiky hair in a very loud red shirt and a waistcoat floating somewhere around the front tables. Please come and say hi!
And that’s a promotional postcard I made featuring the amazing cover design from Karen Georgakis and Beata Cranswick of the VU Design Studio. I clog up your feed because I can.
Anyway. On to something else entirely.
I recently read a post that was, essentially, a majority person defending their approach to deconstructing an -ism in literature to a minority person who said (in my opinion, legitimately) they were uncomfortable with how the deconstruction was handled. The majority person essentially said that things need to be deconstructed and this is how people learn (this is something important she can do) so she’s doing the right thing … and she explained this in quite a long response.
This is all true.
It’s also a shining example of a majority person missing the nuance of what it means to deconstruct and, in essence, be an ally in the first place.
It seems to me if, as an ally, a person of the group expresses their discomfort with my approach, it’s my job to step back and listen to what they have to say. My job isn’t to defend my approach. They, after all, are the experts. How can I do a good job of being an ally – by discussing and deconstructing issues of representation, which is absolutely important – without listening to the people in question and admitting that I’m wrong? Who am I to tell them that my approach is the correct one?
Listening to someone – really listening – doesn’t mean talking or typing out a lengthy post in response/defense.
Listening does not mean debate.
I’ll give you a case study that makes most of us queer folk groan: Macklemore.
Yes, I have endured many conversations with well-meaning allies who tell me that I should love Macklemore for making queer rights accessible. Very few of them understand what it means to have someone appropriate my pain, voice and community to make it into art (financially successful, derivative art of questionable artistic merit that appropriates the cultural heritage of musicians of colour) when queer musicians struggle to be heard at all. It’s really hard to communicate this pain at having our story taken from us to people who think that as long as the story is heard, it doesn’t matter who tells it. No. There are amazing queer creatives who deserve the financial rewards for their work, creatives who go unheard and unrecognised: this is why it matters!
We need majorities to include us in the grand narratives of our day, but we don’t need majorities to appropriate our own culture and expression, to tell our stories for us – there’s a huge difference between inclusion and appropriation. This difference, I think, isn’t obvious to majority folk. I want majority folk to add queer, trans, non-binary and intersex characters to mainstream stories. I don’t want them to make those stories all about Being Non-Binary because I’m pretty sure they’ll fuck it up. I can count on one hand all the binary folk I know who understand what it is to be non-binary – how can they possibly get it right when ‘non-binary’ is such a broad and diverse collection of approaches to gender?
(Besides which, I’m a non-binary writer finishing the third draft of a novel about non-binary characters that’s a little about being non-binary … and a hundred other things. I don’t need someone binary to write this novel for me. I need binary folk to take me seriously as an artist and as a person, yes, but I don’t need binary folk to write my story and then receive applause for their ‘bravery’ at being different while I struggle to be noticed. Trust me, few people in this world are calling me brave for living as the person I am!)
The hardest part for me, as a minority, is not that the allies in my life don’t understand. It’s that any time I express how much Macklemore does the queer artists of the world a grave disservice, it turns into a debate where they point out why they think they’re correct (and they have many valid-to-them reasons, all of which I’ve heard many times: cishets aren’t that original). Hooray, I get to debate my right to existence and critique the portrayal of that existence … again!
(I’d rather be called slurs than to be approached by a colleague and have them want to debate queer rights with me. At least when people call me slurs, the reasonable people in my life have my back. When people want to debate, nobody but me sees anything wrong with it; nobody sees my discomfort and pain.)
Good allies, the ally I try to be, are quiet when someone expresses doubt, concern or discomfort with our approach. We go away and think about what we’re doing. We might not agree. I’m not saying we need to agree with absolutely everything a minority says. (Chances are, though, that I’m being an ignorant white racist, and I’ve got to work through that. Better I do it in my own head – not so I look like less of an arsehole, mind, but so I cause the speaker as minimum discomfort as possible. The last thing they need is to endure my racism.) We do owe them, however, the need to consider the words they say, and part of that consideration means not starting a debate where they needs must either defend what they said or endure in silence the ally’s defense of their approach.
Minorities have to defend what they think and feel almost every time they express them to an ally (real allies are few and far between), and I think one of the best things we can do, as allies, is to listen silently and respectfully when they speak. They are speaking from a position of lived experience; they are far more educated in the issue than I will ever be. Speaking as a white person, it’s not as though I’m not listened to every other time I speak because of my whiteness! I can make white people shut up when I talk about racism, while they talk over or ignore a person of colour, and if that’s not an example of privilege at its finest, I don’t know what is. My job, therefore, is to try and use this privilege where and when I can to help, but it doesn’t ever involve pretending that I know anything worth saying about racism that a person of colour can’t say (and say better). My job is to include people of colour in my narratives, not tell their stories. My job is to think and question and challenge racism in the world around me, but it’s always got to be with the understanding that I’m only an ally at best, that being an ally isn’t anything special, that I’m fairly ignorant of the day-to-day reality of being a person of colour, and as a white person I’ve bucketloads of truly awful privilege (and I need to admit and acknowledge these things).
I learnt this in therapy: when one is invested in debating their approach or viewpoint, especially when the debate shores up one’s own self worth (I am not a horrible racist like those other white people; I deconstruct racism in literature and that is a good thing) one isn’t open to learning.
When one isn’t open to listening, to admitting fault, to learning, one isn’t a good ally.
Debate isn’t supportive.
(Also: explaining just how one isn’t an awful racist white person or an awful homophobic straightie isn’t supportive. That’s … well, my kindest word is ‘egocentric’.)
Unfortunately, by asking people to not debate these issues with me, I have had many straight people accuse me of silencing them. How dare I tell them to be quiet? How dare I deny them the right to speak?
If one queer/trans/POC/PWD person telling a straight/cis/white/able-bodied person to not debate the issues they cannot understand on a fundamental, lived-experience level is silencing, all it does is show how little they know of what it means to be silenced and how used they are to having their thoughts supported, validated and prioritised by society. Would that I lived in their world!
Debate, in fact, is an act of silencing. It is a flood of words designed to either bring me around to the speaker’s point of view or make me shut up through disinterest, exhaustion or inability to convince. It is a salvo in a war I can’t win. These debates are often articulate, analytical, academic and abstract, and as an anxiety-ridden queer with a very personal stake in the matter of sex and gender, I can’t talk in ways that appeal to the majority speaker. Hell, some days I can barely say three words that make any kind of sense at all.
A majority person who offers up debate isn’t denying me the right to speak. They’re denying me the respect of listening to what I have to say, which is just as bad: what good is speaking if I’m speaking to a brick wall?
Yes. Yes, I am silencing you, my allies. I am silencing you because you already silenced me, because we live in a world that silences me every single day, because in many issues (not all by any means, but many) I am rendered voiceless and silent by a society that refuses to acknowledge that I exist.
If you want to be a good ally, a real ally, the kind of ally that makes a difference in my life?
The most heroic thing you can do is to be silent and listen.