Privilege and literature: three myths created by misdiagnosing a lack of Indigenous voices (and other diverse voices) as a ‘diversity problem’.
There is increasing attention being paid in Australia to the lack of diversity in children’s literature, sparked in part by the We Need Diverse Books movement and the current wide-ranging discussions around diversity in the US. The exclusion of Indigenous and other diverse voices is sometimes misdiagnosed as a ‘diversity problem’. But the origin of a body of literature that fails to reflect the actual make-up of the planet is not to be found within marginalised peoples. The fundamental disconnection between the world of literature and the real world springs from, and is maintained by, a set of structures and attitudes that consistently privilege one set of voices over another. In short, a lack of diversity is not a ‘diversity problem’. It is a privilege problem. In relation to Indigenous writers and writers of colour, it is a white privilege problem – although it is also worth noting that all non-Indigenous peoples who live on Indigenous lands are to some degree privileged in relation to Indigenous peoples, because everyone who came to Australia post-colonisation has gained in some way from the dispossession of those who were here before.
Myth #1: A lack of representation of Indigenous and other marginalised peoples can be solved by writers from outside those groups writing to diverse identities and experiences
Korean American author Ellen Oh (one of the founders of the We Need Diverse Books movement) recently said in an open letter to white writers: “Yes We Need Diverse Books. But that doesn’t always mean that we want YOU to write them. No, it means we want you to support them. We want you to read them. We want you to promote them, talk about them, buy them, love them. We want you to recognize that these stories told by authors in their own voices has as much importance as all the white ones that are published year after year.”
When a lack of representation of Indigenous peoples and people of colour in kid’s lit is misunderstood as a diversity issue, the focus tends to be solely on accuracy of representation (and it is of vital importance that marginalised peoples are accurately portrayed). But in order to begin to address the cause of the lack of diversity (privilege), the question writers need to ask themselves is not simply whether they can accurately portray someone else’s experience, but whether they should be telling the story at all. I’ve previously written that I don’t believe non-Indigenous writers should be writing Indigenous characters from first person or deep third. I’ve also said that I think the worst advice I’ve ever heard about characterisation is that anyone can write to any experience because ‘we are all human’. Indigenous peoples and other marginalised peoples have long had our humanity denied, and that denial continues to be the basis of discrimination against us. To suggest that writers have a right to put themselves in our place is often not to respect our humanity but to further deny it – especially when this is done by those who have inherited the benefits of our marginalisation. Ultimately, I believe that respecting the humanity of others means being willing to engage in a dialogue about the boundaries respect requires, not only as to what and how something can be said, but as to who can say it.
Myth #2: good intentions excuse poor outcomes
Privilege in literature is a systemic issue, and systemic discrimination of any kind can only ever be judged by outcomes, not intentions. An actual individual intent to discriminate is not necessary; discrimination will occur regardless unless the structures that cause it are named, challenged, and dismantled. A defence to poor representation framed in terms of someone’s good intentions can also carry an unspoken assumption that a desire to ‘help’ the marginalised is an act of charity or kindness for which marginalised peoples should be grateful. But I do not believe that I – or anyone else – should ever be grateful for having my dignity respected equally with that of other human beings. First, because equality is a right, and second, because it is a universal good. Genuine support for the struggles of others can only ever flow from a recognition that the denial of anyone’s rights – and the diminishment of anyone’s humanity – denies everyone’s rights, and diminishes everyone’s humanity. This makes a lack of diversity everybody’s loss, and the inclusion of diverse voices everybody’s gain.
Myth #3: all that is needed to solve the ‘diversity problem’ is to ‘raise up’ the marginalised
Diversity conversations sometimes proceed from a deficient analysis whereby the dialogue becomes about the disadvantaged position of the marginalised without acknowledging the cause of that disadvantage (so that, for example, it is Indigenous peoples whose position of ‘deficient’ must be fixed). This is not to say that urgent action should not be undertaken to ameliorate the extreme disadvantage experienced by Indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups. But there will be no real outcomes with changing the structures and attitudes that cause and promulgate the exclusion in the first place.
I know I’m not the only Indigenous writer or writer of colour in Australia to have been told by people within the literary industry that addressing a lack of diversity is ‘too hard’ or that it is ‘not their problem’. But insofar as it is the privileged who sustain, reinforce, and benefit from the structures that are causing the lack of diversity, I think it is their problem. It is also within their power to fix, and not only because they are the ones who create/sustain/benefit from it. But because the level of anyone’s individual power (and therefore anyone’s individual responsibility) can only ever be meaningfully judged by measuring it against those who have less choices than they do, not against those who have more. And judged by that measure, the vast majority of people who work within literature have the power to transform the world.
I’d like to see them try.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She works at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and is the author of a number of picture books as well as the YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe.