This past week in my Gay and Lesbian Literature class, we read the short but enthralling novel “Giovanni’s Room” by African American author James Baldwin. The protagonist of the book is a blond-haired caucasian gay man. During our in-class dialogue, a question was posed:
Can a person of one race successfully write a novel in which the main character is of another race?
The debate became a bit heated. Most of my peers seemed as though they felt like it is not their job to limit what another writer can and cannot write about. But the question seemed to cause a sense of disquiet among the students.
As a class, we more or less overall agreed that Baldwin was effective at writing as a white character. Personally, I don’t think I would have known the book was penned by an African American if there hadn’t been a picture of Baldwin on the cover and if we hadn’t further discussed it in class. But is it different when a member of an oppressed group (in the case of “Giovanni’s Room”, an African American) taking on the perspective of the oppressing group more acceptable?
Should people of color be allowed to write as whites, but not the other way around?
This question itself, of course, is fundamentally racist (yes, caucasian is a race, even if we don’t treat it like one). But it’s still a valid concern — media portrayal of people of color is traditionally not that great. It’s simply too easy in media to revert to stereotypes instead of actually working to accurately represent the struggles and triumphs of another individual.
Those who argue that we cannot and should not write about what we don’t know have some good reasons to think this. A member of the oppressing group will never fully understand the struggles of the oppressed.
But I say that all people not only should be allowed to write from the perspective of another race, but it should be encouraged to write from that standpoint.
In fact, I don’t think this question should be strictly limited to race. It should be inclusive of gender and sexual identity, religion, socioeconomic status and any number of identifiers that shapes and define who we may be as individuals within a culture.
We cannot grow as individuals if we do not strive to be empathetic of people who are different than us.
Art should be about expression, but it should also be reflective of the human condition. Not all humans are alike. If we write in a world where every character is just like us, we are lying about reality and we will never cultivate an understanding of others.
Limiting ourselves to enjoying characters that are just like us robs us of personal growth. Limiting the growth of an individual limits the growth of the society that person is contributing to. By not working to truly understand the struggles of another, we are doing ourselves a disservice as both a single person and as a society as a whole.
I’m hardly a creative writer. But it would be a good thing if I — as a white Christian middle class American woman — set out to write a novel from the perspective of a rich Pakistani Muslim man. Could I be successful at truly understanding this character? Probably not. Few authors could do this successfully, simply because it’s very difficult to write about things you don’t have experience in.
But so long as the author truly put forth effort to write in a way that is not merely representative of stereotypes but instead truly determined to understand the perspective of someone else, I support this practice.
It’s an exercise in imagining people complexly.
Understanding someone different than you is the first step towards tolerance of that person. Tolerance is the first step towards total acceptance, and with acceptance compassion can follow. If we don’t work to be empathetic of one another, we will never truly get along.
Anna Mitchell is a junior liberal arts major. Her columns appear Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to email@example.com.