Saturday, September 15, 2012

Of Books, Politics, and Privilege

The other day I had a conversation with someone. This conversation still bothers me. Probably because it’s a discussion whose main points I’ve had to deal with many times before with other people. This particular person was a very privileged white man who has an excellent record of trying to value and implement diversity. Let me state that up front. This guy is not some ignorant, insensitive racist. He’s a guy who has the wherewithal to live a happy life of privilege without ever having to concern himself with poor people or people of color. Yet he truly tries to understand when he wouldn’t have to and when it’s made his own life more difficult. I can appreciate that.

Still, he doesn’t understand because ultimately he is not yet able to stand outside his privilege of white skin, male gender, and inherited wealth. I say, “not yet,” because I refuse to give up hope for him and others I’ve encountered like him, who have genuinely good intentions but can’t get past the blinders of privilege. Earlier conversations with such people have focused around the difficult lives of women living in poverty, the automatic racism encountered over and over by people of color that can leave them justifiably hypersensitive, and similar topics. This conversation centered on books.

This person condemned a wide variety of fiction and poetry by writers of color, in particular Latinas and Latinos, as “just political.” Good writing, according to him, is not “political posturing.” I looked at the list of books we were discussing, which ranged from Rudolfo Anaya and Manuel Muñoz to Luis Alberto Urrea and Helena Maria Viramontes, and tried to explain that most of these writers weren’t trying to write political novels or poetry as much as they were simply trying to be true to the lived experience of their lives and the lives of their families and ancestors. He didn’t buy it.

You see, in his experience, everyone is deferential and respectful to him (as he is routinely respectful to everyone he meets, no matter their socioeconomic status). He has no experience of being deliberately humiliated or seeing his parents deliberately humiliated because of the color of their skin, their accent, their Hispanic last names, and/or their poverty. He has no experience of deliberate, offhanded cruelty directed at him or his family or neighbors for no reason other than because the inflictor can get away with it. He has no experience with living in grinding poverty, seeing his parents (and possibly himself) forced into dangerous, unsafe, and unfair working conditions for the tiniest possible wages.

In his world, such things are unreal. Therefore, they must be made up or vastly exaggerated for political purposes. To him, therefore, any writer who simply writes of her childhood misery working in the fields as a migrant laborer as Helena Maria Viramontes does or of the poverty and casual, racist cruelty encountered as the child of an immigrant as Luis J. Rodriguez does must be dishonestly fabricating in order to inflame the reader’s emotions for political purposes. Writers speak the truth about their lives and the lives of many in their communities, and because the reality they describe is so unacceptable, they must be making it all up for radical political purposes.

I know, unfortunately, that this is a common stance, even among some well-meaning people. I live east of Troost in Kansas City, Missouri, which is automatically considered the bad part of town because it is still populated by poor to working-class people of color, mostly African American. Once when talking with a woman from the suburbs who had done great work on diversity in Kansas City, she mentioned that people in the suburbs were tired of paying for the city to send out plumbers to fix the plumbing of people in my neighborhood for free. Stunned, I told her that never happened, that people where I live have to pay for plumbers, just as suburban residents do. Equally shocked, she asked, “But what do they do if they can’t afford a plumber?” “Like anyone else, they shut off the water to that sink or toilet or whatever until they can afford one,” I replied.

Through the years, I’ve come to realize that many well-to-do white people, even well-educated ones, believe myths like this about poor people, especially poor people of color. The Black unmarried welfare-queen myth—when statistics have shown for many years that the vast majority of women on welfare are white and married with white husbands who’ve deserted their families. The myth of the wealthy, lazy Indian, who lives in squalor because he likes it—when Indians living on the reservations tend to fall further below the poverty level than any other group in America and have less access to jobs, education, health care, even electricity and running water than any other group in America at the same time we’ve learned through the American courts that the BIA has “lost” (read: defrauded the tribes) of multiple billions of dollars that were rightfully theirs.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the person whose conversation with me began this post believes that poor people of color writing about their lives and history must be inventing out of whole cloth for inflammatory political purposes. I’m not angry with him. I’m sad for him—and others like him. The only way to get past the blinders of privilege is to take a journey way out of their comfort zones, to walk into the world of the disenfranchised (of whom they are afraid). Or they could read the works of the many gifted Latina/o writers, African American writers, Indigenous writers, Asian American writers, and poor white writers and discover the world they and their people live in deep underneath that bright surface of the world of American privilege.


  1. It takes an effort for a relatively affluent white man (like me) to live and work in settings where he is a minority. I have but I had to seek out the opportunities. It is an eye-opening experience to stand out from the crowd because of white skin and to be selected for harassment and threatened because of my skin color. I cannot claim to know what it is like to live as a minority but I do recommend for people who live and work as part of the majority to take chances and get at least a taste of what life is like for minorities.

  2. Warren, you are exactly right. And I have many friends like you who will/have take(n) those chances and step(ped) out of their comfort zones to move past those blinders. Kudos to all of you!

  3. Thank you for this post, Linda. Stay tuned as Letras Latinas Blog is preparing an interesting interview with a college professor who ventured outside her comfort zone to teach a class in Latino literature at a small college in the midwest, and the enriching journey it's been for her and her mostly nonlatino/a students......

  4. Francisco, thanks for stopping by. The upcoming Letras Latinas interview sounds fascinating. I'll certainly look forward to it.

  5. Thank you for this post. It was so articulate and reasonable. We all need to walk in someone else's shoes for a while to develop true tolerance.

  6. L.J., thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. I know it is difficult for some people raised in a different world to understand others' experiences. You are so right about how to develop true tolerance. Thanks.