Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cultural Sensitivity: A Humbling Experience

What with Sonia Sotomayor’s recent grilling by certain senators about her “wise Latina” statements and INK’s Ask the Author question about writing outside your culture (see June 29 post,) I’ve been reminded of a wonderful workshop I attended with Ellen Levine during a Vermont College residency some years back. Since it was a while ago, I can only report my memory of it and I’m sorry, Ellen, if I leave something out or don’t get it all right.

In my response to Ask the Author, I said that I thought authors could write about anything if they got it right: facts accurate, writing skillful, and sensitivity proper to subject matter and readers. Ellen’s workshop showed me just how difficult and subtle achieving this sensitivity can be. None of us are racist or sexist or homophobic, but sensitivity goes far beyond non-hostility toward a particular group.

Ellen began by asking us each to list all the groups we were part of. I scribbled down about a dozen: white, woman, mother, writer, and a few more. Then we went around the room and read our lists. As others read, I realize what I had left out. I didn’t put “straight” on the list. But the lesbians certainly listed “gay.” I didn’t put “sighted” on the list, though a blind participant would certainly have listed that. An immigrant would have included that group, but I didn’t think to add “native-born citizen” as one of mine.

As we went around the table, I realized that to be in the “dominant” group – and here I’m defining dominant in terms of numbers and power – means that the minority/subordinate groups are often invisible, or not considered – unless they take to the streets, or you’ve got one for a friend or neighbor or work colleague. I realized that I’ve got all sorts of blind spots I didn’t know I had.

Some groups today face discrimination from institutions and individuals. With gays and lesbians it may be as blatant as marriage and job benefits for partners. Or it may be as subtle as that expressed by a friend of mine. He said that no matter how long he lives with his partner, people don’t view them as a family and their families don’t see the partner as a relative. This sort of sensitivity is hard to perceive from outside a group.

Back to the workshop. After the participants had named their “groups,” we talked about children’s books that deal with minority cultures. We talked about a picture book in which an immigrant girl named Maria is called Mary at school. (Sorry, here is where memory fails me. I can’t remember the title or author, or if the teacher or the girl makes the choice to change her name.) Two Hispanic participants took opposing views on this story. One was deeply offended – seeing it as the dominant culture erasing the girl’s subordinate culture. Another loved it – seeing it as a realistic and positive way for the girl to begin to interact with her new culture.

An author outside the culture writing about the process of assimilation had better learn many, many facets of the process – from social to linguistic to generational and more. And even then there are no guarantees you won’t alienate some readers.

One of my colleagues spent a lot of time researching Native American history and folktales from her region. In the end she decided not to pursue publication. Instead she returned to her own culture – Irish American – which she knew from birth.
Others, including Ellen Levine, have chosen to write about worlds outside their own, and children’s literature is the richer for it. As I cautiously enter the field of African American history, I’m grateful for Ellen’s workshop that showed me that it takes more than passion and goodwill toward the subject matter for an author to get it right.

This is a huge subject and I’d love to hear others’ experiences/mistakes/successes.


Sarah Campbell said...

I think your points are well taken. I wanted to share a story. My sister, Emilye Crosby, is a PhD historian. Her area of interest is African American history. Her first book, A Little Taste of Freedom, chronicles the civil rights struggle in Claiborne County, Miss. She is white. What no one would know from just looking at her is that she arrived in Claiborne County as a third grader in 1972. For 10 years (until graduating high school), she attended 99 percent black public schools, was taught by men and women who were on the front lines of the CC civil rights movement, and grew up on the campus of an historically black college. Because of her history in the community she was able to interview many, many people with firsthand memories.
Each of us has a particular set of experiences and circumstances. Sometimes this places us squarely in an understood, acknowledged group. Sometimes, it sets us apart. Examining what makes us fit (or not) and whether we have a privileged position (or not) is an important exercise -- especially if we hope to tell a true story.

Mark Herr said...

Look at how many male writes are told they "can't write women" or praised when they somehow manage to pull it off. The same can be said for every "group". Like Sarah's comment above, a lot of it depends on what you have been exposed to. It's just another example of writing not being as easy as a lot of people seem to think it is.

Sue Macy said...
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Sue Macy said...

Gretchen, that workshop sounds fascinating. Even though we write non-fiction, our perspective and point of view definitely influence what we write. Had I not been frustrated by the lack of opportunities for young female athletes when I was growing up, I probably wouldn't be writing about women's sports history today. And when I read a book, I want to know why the author chose to write it, especially if it's about a cultural experience that isn't his or her own. One of our fellow bloggers, who isn't gay, recently wrote a history of the gay civil rights movement. For me, part of "reading" that book is figuring out why she felt passionate enough about the topic to write it in the first place.

Vicki Cobb said...

Many years ago I wrote a book about the Special Olympics called "Brave in the Attempt." I was in a communal ski house at the time and was discussing the book with the others when one woman got very angry at me. It seems that she had had a son, with a severe disability who died in his early twenties. What right did I have to tell her story? I told her that my job was to be a storyteller and I didn't have a exclusive lock on the story. Other people who could tell the story had a perfect right to do so. I sent her a book. We never spoke about it again, but her attitude changed and we lived together in that ski house happily ever after.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Thank you for your comments. This is a story with many points of view. As historians, novelists, filmmakers, children's writers, etc. look beyond the dominant culture for good stories, we are bound to encounter gnarly issues along the way.

Ink said...
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