So, on the heels of the discussion regarding cultural appropriation, I want to dive into tricky waters again. Not to offer any answers, but to raise questions and expose some dangers, hopefully with the result of provoking some talk and maybe hearing ideas and directions from others. This time around, I aim to explore the issues that face a “white” writer (like me) potentially writing non-white characters. For the sake of argument and discourse, I’ll focus on the possibility of constructing a character of Australian aboriginal background.
First thing, though, I’d like to look at this idea of “white”. That’s a pretty interesting concept in itself, don’t you think? I can accept it — barely — as a race marker in the physiological sense, but it’s frequently used as a cultural marker, which is just plain wrong. Unless, of course, you accept that the cultural identity of a white-skinned Finn of Sami background is the same as a white-skinned Spanish-speaking Argentine. (And if you can comfortably say yeah, they’re both just white don’t bother with the rest of this post. You won’t get anything out of it.)
The term ‘race’, taken as a word from the dictionary, has meanings which relate to physical characteristics of different groups of people. Yet it gets applied (like ‘white’, or ‘black’) in ways which invoke cultural identity. Here in Tasmania, there are quite a number of people who appear physically indistinguishable from the white/Euro majority, yet who are avowedly and determinedly of Tasmanian aboriginal race; acknowledged as such by the government, among others. For these people (and others) physical characteristics do not define cultural identity, and must not be allowed to do so. For them, the term ‘aboriginal’ is all but completely divided from the idea of ‘black’ — whereas some of the mainland aborigines have just about the darkest skins of any human on the planet. This is not to say that mainland aborigines necessarily identify as ‘black’ either, but the idea certainly factors into the discourse to a far greater degree than it does down here in Tasmania.
Clearly, even approaching these ideas is a tangled, complicated matter. So what does it mean to write an Australian aboriginal character into your book or story if you’re ‘white’?
Well, the first question raised would be: why? Is it necessary? Do white writers recreating Australia in fiction really need to construct aboriginal characters?
The short answer is yes. Australia’s a diverse country. A short story without an aboriginal character is quite understandable, because the Australian aborigines make up quite a small percentage of the population; but in a novel — particularly a novel set in certain parts of Australia — completely leaving out aboriginal characters is kind of strange. It’s a failure of art.
The longer answer is also ‘yes’. There is an acknowledged need for greater representation of different racial, cultural, and ethnic groups in our popular fiction. This need has been expressed by many Aborigines in a range of forums across the media, and it is recognised that a lack of representation and depiction of non-mainstream peoples in the media serves to further disempower and marginalise these people. Put it plainly: as a white kid, I had plenty of characters to pretend-play with my friends when we were recreating Star Trek adventures from the TV… but there weren’t exactly a lot of roles for the dark-skinned kids, were there?
With these arguments, I believe I’ve effectively disposed of the option of simply ignoring Australian Aborigines in fiction that depicts Australia. That being the case, what are the possibilities which remain for the ‘white’ writer? If depicting aboriginal characters is desirable, how should it be done?
Effectively there are two approaches. One can either stay on the “outside” when writing Aborigines — depicting them as nearly as possible as they are seen and perceived through the ‘white’ eye — or one can attempt to enter their point of view, to construct characters with agency, depth and complexity. This, however, clearly requires a depiction not just of the character but of the motivations and the decision-making of that character, which necessarily demands some depiction (however small) of the state of aboriginality in Australia. The decision to deliver aboriginal characters with the same degree of depth and dimensionality as ‘white’ characters cannot be taken without making a clear choice to delineate elements of what it means — in the writer’s opinion and experience — to be an Aborigine in Australia.
Keep that in mind, please. This post is getting out of hand for length, so I’ll end it here for now. Next time I take up this thread, I’ll be talking about those last two options: writing Australian aborigines from an external ‘white-viewed’ process, or writing them from an ‘inhabited’ process. Both choices are difficult, and fraught.
The last thing I want to leave you with is an anecdote from years ago, when I was in regular contact with a particular African-American man, a racial activist of some standing and respect. He was a thoughtful, intelligent individual with whom I had some extremely interesting discussions, and at one point he asked me to convey his greetings, solidarity and support to his “black brothers and sisters” in Australia.
I never told him about the Tasmanian aborigines. I never even tried to explain that the situation of the Australian aborigines is much more closely related to the situation of the Native Americans than it is to that of African-Americans. There was no way for me to close the cultural gap without offending him, because for him, being ‘black’ was what counted.
It would have been racist as all hell if it came from a ‘white’ person…