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Should anyone be allowed to write from the perspective of a different race?

Olivia Daly

In 2020, Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt underwent significant backlash after appearing on Oprah’s book club. Fellow authors and critics deemed the novel ‘harmful’ and ‘inaccurate’. Cummins's status as a white author who wrote the novel about a Mexican bookseller escaping to America led to these criticisms. This is one example which links back to the question:

Should certain racial groups be able to write characters and stories about different races?

Some argue that particular racial groups should not write from the perspective of other races as they have little true understanding of their culture. Whilst others highlight that it is essential to represent a variety of racial groups within the mainstream media, and that any representation is positive. Are accuracy, cultural or racial authenticity of the author more important than having any inclusion at all? Can certain racial groups capture a correct understanding of a different culture, despite not experiencing it themselves?

In an interview with journalist Charlie Gibson, Oprah Winfrey claims American Dirt enlightened her on the immigration process; “it helped me to see immigrants and the whole migration process differently than I had before”. According to Cummins, American Dirt’s purpose was to humanise Mexican migrants. Oprah shares similar views and further goes on to justify the whole ordeal by claiming the “story was well told”. The Help is another example of a case which faced controversy after reaching the bestseller list. Kathryn Stockett, the author who writes of the relationship between two black maids and white women in Mississippi in the 1960s, received criticism due to her racial background as a Caucasian. When interviewed, Stockett admitted her possible lack of cultural knowledge but ultimately claimed the novel’s purpose was “important for people to explore what it must feel like to be in someone else's shoes.”

Similarly, Cummins took the same perspective on American Dirt by stating, “I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” As authors, both Cummins and Stockett agree that portraying characters which are not frequently represented in the mainstream media and telling their stories is vital; allowing readers to explore different cultures outside of their own. A speech by Lionel Shriver of the New York Times declares, “If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, but only memoir.” Shriver further defends authors who are accused of cultural appropriation, stating that the whole point of an author’s job is to “step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”

Whilst some critics agree that exploring different racial groups if you are of another racial group can be done, they argue that certain authors stereotype and appropriate these characters, damaging the portrayal of their experiences. Criticisms of American Dirt revolve around this idea. Latinx Author Julissa Arce Raya stated, “As a Mexican immigrant, who was undocumented, I can say with authority that this book is a harmful, stereotypical, damaging representation of our experiences”. Moreover, critic Myriam Gurba believes Cummins has almost a ‘white saviour complex’ who ‘repackages’ stories concerning Mexican immigration “for mass racially colour-blind consumption”.

Similar criticisms were directed at Stockett’s The Help, after its movie adaptation which gained the book more traction within the mainstream media. Cydney Henderson who writes for USA Today stated that The Help falls under the “trope where white characters come to the rescue of minorities in a feel-good tale that dilutes people of colour in their own stories by minimising and simplifying racial issues.” Other critics go on to say, “the book was published with an overwhelming amount of sayings about African Americans that had no place in the book.” These criticisms play into the narrative that authors of certain racial groups tend to stereotype and unnecessarily use certain language that might not be appropriate for the setting.

The author of the Your Tita Kate blog adds to this opinion through an article which follows the discourse on whether certain racial groups should be able to write other races' perspectives. Kate agrees with this narrative put forth by critics of American Dirt and The Help when she states that, “a white author will never be able to wholly and meaningfully portray the experiences of a main or POV character of colour the way an author of colour can. White authors tend to look at the lack of racial diversity in publishing and decide that it is their personal mission to fix it by writing POC representation”. Authors may write these stories as a form of allyship with the races or ethnic groups they are representing, but in Kate’s view they do it in a way that may be seen as ‘problematic’ and ‘damaging’.

This leads us back to the question; Should people of a certain racial group stay away from writing stories about those who are of different backgrounds? Or should they write about someone who is not of their own race to bring ‘more representation’ to the mainstream media, at the risk of possibly appropriating or stereotyping their culture? These questions are not easy to answer, but the problems inherent in these representations need to be seriously considered when creating all texts, as outlined by the critics above, to ensure representations are authentic and culturally appropriate.

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