The moment I realised I was just another white writer perpetuating the race problem.
By Kel Butler
I have always considered myself a fairly socially progressive, equal minded individual, sensitive to minority issues across the many spectrums. I know that I am a cavernous pit of ignorance BUT I always held myself with a quiet self satisfied confidence that I was on the right side when it came to representing, respecting and supporting minorities (and their voices) in the right way.
Recently those arrogant beliefs where shattered within me by a mirror reflecting a blindingly disappointing picture…and I am ashamed. I really am because the lessons that mirror held in the form of Winnie Dunn, I should’ve already known and were I truly looking to represent minority voices and diverse stories in the right way, I would’ve seen. But it wasn’t until I interviewed Winnie, Manager of Sweatshop, for the Writes4Women podcast, that I learnt the truth. What I had done, what I had written in my first book, was a part of the overarching problem of race in literature. I was just like every other white writer out there using someone else’s cultural story to their own end.
You see in my first book one of my 2 key characters is meant to be Nepalese living in Australia, having escaped a sex trafficking ring disguised and functioning as a cult, many years before. This idea sprung up from a lot of the reading and research that came from my support of Room to Read. My book is about female empowerment and I wanted to show different forms of patriarchal cages that these women had to break free from. One box involved religion and sexual imprisonment and the other involved domestic and sexual violence.
In doing so I chose to draw from the research and reading I had done instead of my everyday life, to create a character steeped in a religion and culture I know little about. I now understand that I have no real right to do this. Not if I want to be true to my mission of promoting, amplifying and uplifting minority voices in a world overflowing in white, anglo perspective.
In the interview I did with Winnie about the work she, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Sweatshop founder) and the team are doing, I asked Winnie how she felt I should approach this character in my book. The storyline hadn’t sat right with me for months but I thought the solution was more research, that I didn’t know enough, hadn’t gone deep enough to connect with my subject. But I couldn’t be further from the issue.
The problem, the glaring problem (that I couldn’t see) was that I was writing this story and this perspective at all. When I asked Winnie what she thought she turned the question back on me, asking me to deconstruct why I was using that particular vessel to tell the story, a vessel and story other than my own and did I really need to? Was I not just perpetuating the problem of taking up the space, that a voice from that culture and background, with that story, should be filling? Was it essential to the message to tell the story in that way?
The answers to these questions were simple and quick. Yes, I was perpetuating the problem, no it wasn’t essential. And yes I was worried about being just another white voice representing white voices in a sea of white but now I realise it is ok to be a white voice. It is the colour of the sea we need to change not the colour of the voices.
I can’t change the colour of the sea of literature by writing the experiences of minorities and cultures I am not a part of. I CAN change it by uplifting and supporting and broadcasting from the highest mountains, the authors who are. Thanks to Winnie Dunn I’m starting to really understand that now. My role isn’t to change my whiteness, that’s just like a man trying to pretend he understands a woman’s view of the world, my role is to use the access my white privilege gives me to create a larger, more equal space for the minority writers who are already telling their own stories.
So I am going to rewrite my book and my character and I am happy to do it because now I can write knowing that the path I am following, I have a right to tread. It has liberated my storyline and character into a familiar space that I can write confidently, from my experience of the world and I don’t risk getting it horribly wrong, like so many others have. It has also made me question other storylines and characters in my book and I am going to get some advice on them now, rather than risk making the same mistakes.
In short it has made me ask “why,” to so many of the choices I have made in this first book and I will be asking ‘why” a lot more, in everything I do and write from now on. The biggest lesson this revelation has taught me is not to underestimate my own ignorance and to listen when people who know more than you, tell you that you’ve got it wrong.
You can hear all of this unfold in its entirety on the What’s Cool With Women (WCWW) Minisode with Winnie Dunn released on the Writes4Women podcast this week. Check it out at www.writes4women.com or subscribe in iTunes.
Please check out all of the incredible projects Sweatshop are doing, including the Diverse Women Writer’s Collective, at their website www.sweatshop.ws They will launched their book “Return of the Big Black Thing” at the Sydney Writer’s Festival on the 5th May and can be downloaded via the website along with the first part “The Big Black Thing” Follow Sweatshop on Facebook and Twitter @sweatshopws.
Finally, I must say a huge thank you to Winnie Dunn for her forthright honesty and respectful patience in our conversation. Her openness in bashing this out allowed me to see myself and humble myself without fear of ridicule or rejection and for that I am as grateful as the lessons themselves. This is how the world should work.
Listen to the next Writing episode of the Writes4Women podcast to hear Pam and Kel unpack this issue further and go deeper on the complexities within.