Having a social conscience is tricky business. Not only are there things to be for and things to be against, there are also degrees for which you must be for or against them lest one be declared insufficiently pure. The methods must measure up, as well.
One may now be part of the problem of discrimination and/or subjugation by writing empathetically of a different gender/race/religious group. “A cis white Christian-baptized man can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be a woman/African-American/gay/trans/Muslim and how dare he write as one” is a not uncommon comment, though I have amalgamated it somewhat for the sake of argument. (“Comment” is also way too tame a word for the reaction.)
To which I say, “Let’s all take a deep breath and look at the context of each individual case.”
First off, anyone who thinks I’m about to defend racist, homophobic, religious zealotry might as well stop reading now. Those of you who know me know that’s not where I’m going and those of you who don’t know me well enough to know better can kiss my ass. Racist, homophobic, etc. screeds aren’t cultural appropriation; they’re racism. Or homophobia. Or et cetera. Those who write such material can all fall dead in the middle of whatever they’re doing at 3:00 PM EDT tomorrow afternoon and my response will be along the lines of, “That’s nice. What time is hockey?” My position is that a little distance can come in handy when seeking to provoke empathetic thoughts in people not inclined to have them, or who just haven’t thought about the subject much because it didn’t affect them directly.
Danny Gardner wrote a strong and thought-provoking piece for Do Some Damage a while back that touched on how easy it is to claim deeper knowledge of a problem than one has because one claims the appropriate cultural touchstones:
Deep familiarity of black Americans at large, acquired through binge-watching five seasons of a television show about people from Baltimore. If they stayed with David Simon for HBO's Treme, they're a scholar. If they can go all the way back to Homicide: Life on the Street, whooo lawdy, you have a hell of a cocktail party debate on your hands. Multiple-degreed historians and anthropologists struggle with getting our shared existence in this country right, but you know what's up because you had an HBO subscription and plenty of time one weekend. I listen to NPR in the car, right up until I hear mention of "The Wire," which is just about weekly, and always in relation to someone's professed understanding of black Americans. It's what we do with new insights. We peddle them everywhere and lend them to everyone we can get to listen. It's just human.
Danny’s primary point is well taken. Watching The Wire however many times—I’m up to at least five now—does not give me an understanding of what it’s like to grow up and live black in Baltimore. What it has done is make me curious. Hell, much of what The Wire got me to thinking about are things I hadn’t been aware of at all, semi-rural white boy that I am. What The Wire did for me was get me to wondering, and David Simon has a knack for getting to things I hadn’t thought of in ways that didn’t turn me off, so I read The Corner.
It’s not uncommon online for people, especially writers, to talk about “books that changed my life.” It’s the plural use of “book” that disturbs me. Anyone who has a long list of books (movies, TV shows) that “changed” their life doesn’t have much of an internal rudder. Having said that, The Corner changed my life. Not that I now suddenly understood what it is to be black in Baltimore, but I now have a better picture of the depths of my ignorance, and a realization that this ignorance can never fully be overcome. The best I can do is to imagine myself in the place of someone whose position I can’t fully internalize and wonder how I’d feel. It also taught me to look for historical perspective. Baltimore’s tragedy isn’t that so many kids grow up to be drug dealers, it’s that so many of them want to grow up to be drug dealers because they don’t see any better options.
Middle-class white America was shocked—shocked!—at the brutality of black gangs and the advent of drive-by shootings in the 80s like white gangs hadn’t done the same things as far back as the 20s. What do black drug gangs and Italian/Jewish/Irish bootleggers have in common, other than violent criminal enterprises? They grew up in areas where they were discriminated against and their options severely limited, and not by their own actions. It’s not predestination; not everyone from those neighborhoods grew up to be criminals. Not all middle-class suburban kids grow up to be gainfully employed taxpayers, either. What’s their excuse?
What David Simon brought to both The Wire and The Corner was empathy, a desire to be fair and get as much right as he could, and, maybe just as important, a little distance. He grew up in suburban Silver Spring MD and went to the University of Maryland in College Park, not Baltimore. Working for the Baltimore Sun taught him to recognize what he didn’t know and what he might be able to do about it. While he understood he couldn’t get the truly black perspective, his greatest gift—in addition to being a master storyteller—was to know how to tell the story so people who also didn’t get it might at least wonder about it.
The genius of The Wire and The Corner isn’t that they tell you what to think, it’s that they give you new things to think about. Simon had enough cultural and emotional distance that he could tell the stories in a documentary style and still evoke strong emotions in people whose personal experience was such these stories could be set in Thailand for all the more the audience’s lives intersected with the characters. That distance kept him from having too much invested in the telling, or hammering too vigorously on the point he wanted to make. You picked up on it or you didn’t.
Doubt me? Season Five of The Wire, while still better than damn near everything else on television, is universally regarded as the weakest. What’s wrong with it? The newspaper industry is something Simon loves and still cares deeply about. Many of the strengths of seasons 1 – 4 are lost as Simon hammers home his thoughts on the decline of the industry. Newspaper employees explain things to each other they all obviously already know so the audience will know, too. The upper echelons of the fictional Sun’s staff are two-dimensional, if that. Simon now was too close himself, and the product suffered because of it.
This isn’t to say white men can write whatever the hell they want and get defensive when criticized. Don’t claim knowledge and understanding you don’t have. David Simon had a unique set of experience, background, and talent that allowed him to pull this off, not to mention having paid his dues. Tread lightly and be careful to think of how you’d feel if someone presuming to understand you got things fundamentally wrong, even if no malice was intended.
This is also not to be interpreted as saying we don’t need more black/gay/trans/Muslim/etc. writers to lend their voices, nor that publishers don’t need to do a better job of seeking out those best suited to tell the stories people other than their traditional audiences want to hear. (See “No, We Haven’t Reached All Readers” about halfway down the page at Toe Six Press’s current issue.) That’s a whole nuther discussion.