Katharina With our Critical Whiteness and Cultural Studies background, and our experiences and reflections during our anti-racist performance work in 2012, Carolin and I are curious to continue the talk on „Writing the Other & Authenticity“, held by Ronald and Nora on 8th January.
To give you just a few impressions of our performance Black/white. Strangely mine/ The Other Self, we posted some of the photos and a short explanation below. For our two-months group process from which we developed the performance, one idea was most central: Each one starts from and speaks only for his or her own experiences of being Black, white, „normal“, different, male, female, German, European, African etc. Our first condition was not to speak for or even define the Other, because we found that the Other is a product of our own relationships to the outer world, and it is always tied to our own identities.
To open this discussion, we would like to point out some aspects of Nora’s and Ronald’s talk. But before – to stay with our opinion that speaking for and about ourselves comes first – we want to make our own reflections on and experience of our whiteness visible. I should rather say, my and Carolin’s whitenesses, as they are not identical, although we grew up in the same white dominated German society.
Caro, how did you discover your whiteness and how did it change during the years?
Carolin Even though there were Black people in my closer and wider social circles ever since I went to school and even though I did notice the difference of our skin, I did not notice the difference of our every-day-life experiences and therefore did not pay attention to my own „colour“. Only when I found myself in an all-Black context for the first time did I realize that I was white. Yet the process of recognising the different implications of being white among Black and being Black among white started a little later. What about you, Kikki?
Katharina As I grew up in a quite white rural area, I started to notice my white position in the German hyper-diverse and migrant’s society by entering urban spaces. When I was 16, I read „Germany Black / white“ by Noah Sow, who criticises the subtle racism and white dominance in Germany. This book shook my naive imaginations of Africa, Blackness and the ignorance of being white myself. The open-minded flair in my family did not save me from internalizing everyday’s racism, or at least „color“-lines and stereotypes.
By getting to know my whiteness and its social power during the last ten years, I found out that there is nothing fix what could be called a skincolour. But there is definitely a set of social contracts and power relations which produce a white population. As I am socially marked as white I am belonging to that privileged group in Germany that is seen as normal, as part of the majority, undivided, and fully able to speak and judge. Once, being white meant that I did not even notice it, because the privileges my whiteness implied (they still do) were undoubted and invisible.
Carolin Also I can remember my reading Noah Sow´s „Germany Black/white“, though a little later during my second year in university and how it impressed me. I recall going from sympathy to insecurity to frustration, because Black was making me feel ashamed of myself and my whiteness. It was probably then, that I started to understand, that „we are all the saaaaame“ and „´colour´ is not importaaaant“ doesn´t work really, since, as white people we can not just close our eyes, spin around three times and pretend history never happened, starting on a blank page. I needed to understand where my privileges came from. From there I could stop trying to fit myself into some imagined „good white/bad white“-paradigm. Instead I started to try and build a relationship to my whiteness that feels natural.
Katharina Nora mentions the difference between writing ABOUT others and speaking FOR them, she says: „I wrote about Burundi and its civil war, about Chinese factory-workers. I am not speaking FOR them, but nevertheless, who am I that I think I could talk about their lives?“
Having postcolonial studies and the mechanisms of constructing „the Other“ in mind, I argue, that the line that divides writing about and speaking for someone is often not only fine but dangerously disappearing. I am not voting for new taboos in writing, but for asking oneself, how the description of a Chinese worker is tied to one’s own perspective and affections.
So how does Nora answer her own question: „Who am I that I think I could talk about their lives?“
Carolin Salman Rushdie asks himself the same question. His „answer is very simple. Literature is self-validating. That is to say, a book is not justified by its authors worthiness to write it, but by the quality of what has been written. There are terrible books that arise directly out of experience, and extraordinary imaginative feats dealing with themes which the author has been obliged to approach from the outside. Literature is not in the business of copyrighting certain themes for certain groups.“ (Imaginative homelands, p. 14)
I sympathize with Rushdie´s radical opinion, but from my white, German, cultural studies background I have certain ressentiments against the idea of an author writing as/about an Other, that has no chance participating in the discourse, hence not being able to diversify the picture that is being drawn. Therefore, I see an essential need to at least make the author´s reflection on writing about the Other just as available to the audience as the text itself, in order to prevent building upon existing sterotypes or power-biases.
Katharina I think so, too. It would be nothing but fair and respectful to provide transparency towards the reader and those Others the writer wrote about. In academic papers a passage of self-reflection on the own position can fit in more easily, for example while explaining your research methods. For novels and short stories, authors would have to face the task to develop literary and creative ways to make these reflections fit to their text. Alternatively, they could add it in the afterword, along with the very common grateful listings of contributors and family members.
Nevertheless „the Other“ seems to be a challenge for an author to write. Will I achieve to represent, to draw a certain other in an authentic way? What was @ssekandi-ronald-ssegujja interest to write the short story he mentions which is told from a white lady’s view? What attracted, challenged, inspired him, and what did it mean to him to imagine a „white“ perspective?
Up to now, the communication and the exchange on this blog appears amazingly equal, almost „colour“-blind to us. Social and cultural differences are rarely mentioned, neither are „Africa/Europe“ or „We/You“ categories, nor privileges of being white, nor racist stereotypes, nor discussions on historically grown hierachies and the colonial backgrounds part of the discussion.
If these categories are not that central to all of the six participating authors, we do not want to push you to deal with them, although we are curious to listen to your individual reflections on these topics.