The truth is that although I love what I have been reading this year, there are times I feel uncomfortable and defensive with what is being said, or the way things are said, and that is OK with me. In general the emotions that come up when we feel threatened are hard to deal with, but I’ve started to notice when I react this way and remind myself that the important thing to do is to listen, and to consider what is being said.
Too often, we hold people of color, women and people from different faiths to an unrealistically high standard of expression. If someone tries to go against what we consider to be the cultural norm, they are expected to do it perfectly. If they are “too” rude, make grammatical errors, don’t back up what they say with published numerical evidence, or anything else we don’t like, we are all too happy to discount everything they say.
Also, I have noticed that if we hear two opinions from people of one community, we tend to either dismiss them both and go back to what WE think, or choose the one we like better and disregard the other. Not everyone who looks the same is going to think the same and yet their individual experiences are still valid, and way more valid than whatever we assume as an outsider. We can assume that everyone speaks for all people who share their racial, religious or gender identities. It is important to hear all of these voices as legitimate perspectives, and to recognize the authority they have to speak to their own experience.
Overall, people writing about minority or discriminatory experiences face an uphill battle. No one should be expected to state something perfectly, and for authors, poor writing or research is a reason I see people use as an excuse to dismiss writers they are uncomfortable with all too often. Neither should anyone be expected to be the voice of an entire community.
I have a lot of examples of this, but the one I want to use is Roxanne Gay’s book, Bad Feminist. Roxanne Gay is a large, African-American woman who is also a professor, which makes her the token black person and the token female in many of her work places. Bad Feminist is a book of essays she wrote where she looked at her life as a feminist, and explored the way that women who identify as feminists face impossible standards.
This book contains valuable and relevant cultural criticism. It also made me highly uncomfortable. It was the first time I has read something where I liked a premise but hated how it made me feel, and I found myself wanting to argue back and say things like “but it’s not that simple” or “that may be true for MOST white women, but not for me”. Now the writing in this book is lackluster at times, and I have found a lot of people who probably felt as uncomfortable as I did lean on this as an excuse for not liking the book. The thing is, the writing in many of the books I DO love is lackluster, and furthermore, Roxanne Gay is a hell of a lot smarter than I am, so while I agree that the writing isn’t fabulous, I also recognize that this is not why I struggled with this book.
I struggled with this book because it threatened my identity. I struggled with this book because I could not always identify with the experiences Gay was describing. And yet, this book had valuable and important things in it that I needed to hear, whether or not I wanted to.
I have reached the point now where I like feeling uncomfortable. It reminds me that I am hearing something important, and it reminds me that I need to stay open to what is being said. I may not agree at first, but often whatever the subject is, it is out of my realm of experience, and I just don’t have the right to agree or disagree. So I take whatever it is in, remind myself that this is one person’s valid experience of the world, and I know that it is neither a universal truth, or something I can ignore. It is simply one person’s perspective and by listening to it and considering it, I am giving them the respect they deserve as a writer.