Dear (Male, White) Writer

Dear (Male, White) Writer,

 

I recently read your article in The Atlantic titled “Letter to a (Male, White) Writer,” which you felt necessary to pen after perusing Electric Literature’s advice column on White Privilege and Poetry. The column, written by, since you forgot to mention it in your piece, Elisa Gabbert, was a very candid and well thought out response to a difficult question posed by an anonymous writer: “How can I reconcile [writing what I know as a male, white writer and thus risk overshadowing other non-white/male writers] with [writing what I don’t know and thus colonizing/appropriating other narratives]?”

 

I’m writing this because you, a (Male, White) writer, seem to have taken it upon yourself to answer this question without having read or bothered to understand Gabbert’s response. You have quite literally colonized Gabbert’s piece, and turned it into an article on The Atlantic; a bad article, I might add, that ends with a somewhat incoherent tangent about anthropology and black rappers and an admission you don’t know diddly about poetry anyway (lol). You are such an evocative example of (Male, White) writer privilege that I at first hoped you were simply a poorly constructed parody. I mean, why else would a (Male, White) writer write an advice column on a question they weren’t even asked, in a journal where the question doesn’t even appear?

 

Alas, I’m afraid you’re not a parody.

 

~~~

 

Gabbert’s answers were (and I’m only quoting the highlights here, please go (re)read the column) to:

  1. Make sure, as a white male writer, your own perspective is not getting more exposure than it deserves – that you’re not taking up more than your fair share of space (speaking of—your Atlantic piece is 1,936 words; Gabbert’s Electric is 907!)
  2. Read more books by women, POC, and LGBTQ writers
  3. Don’t be a problem submitter (submit sloppily, over-submit, etc.; see point a)

 

Your answers, dear (Male, White) writer, were:

  1. “The self-flagellating writer is… a perversion of Privilege Theory… that at best helps others and at worst mires the writer in useless self-abnegation”
  2. It’s good to be sad about how people different than you have been historically oppressed
  3. But, seriously, if you’re terrible at writing, please stop
  4. Also, “every human has a unique perspective,” for serious
  5. White people have perspectives on identity, and they “will certainly use unique language to convey [their] perspective”
  6. Also, white men still have things to say about fatherhood that Asians might value
  7. “The project of inclusion should not require… [white men’s] self-immolation.”
  8. And just in case you were wondering, “many subjects are separable from both race and gender”
  9. [Something about David Foster Wallace]
  10. There is a magical “realm of written poetry by living authors” somewhere
  11. People don’t read much
  12. A white, male poet who writes what he knows won’t “deny voices whose stories are more urgent” because facts
  13. People don’t read poetry because Netflix has all 8 Harry Potter movies
  14. People with illiterate parents who went to bad schools in violent neighborhoods and work two minimum wage jobs and/or have been discriminated against probably don’t write anyway
  15. But look, “every racial group [faces] resource constraints, and some groups are indeed disadvantaged disproportionately”
  16. (60% into this column) “How best to remedy such ills is a contested question”
  17. “But I’d argue that there is a civic obligation to study the matter and to contribute to improvement in the way you think best.”
  18. If you get published in a lit mag you should go help out an open mic
  19. If you work in a lit mag seek out writers who “didn’t grow up among the elite” (I think you mean white people?)
  20. People who are discriminated against benefit more from people who help them than people who are sad
  21. White people may dominate the Norton Anthology of Poetry, but black people rap
  22. “Write as best you can with a conscience totally unburdened from guilt… you are not responsible for the status or behavior of dead people who shared your skin color or chromosomal makeup. Stop obsessing over your race and gender, be as good as you can to other humans, and if you believe verse has any value beyond employing poets, create the best poetry you can for as many people of every race and gender as want to read it.”

 

~~~

 

One of the things missing from your piece, dear (Male, White) writer, is the attacks Gabbert has received from writing her piece, and I would bet you haven’t thought much about it. (I mean, you can’t even bother to type her name, why would you think about her life?)

 

On Twitter and in the Electric article comments, people, many of them (Male, White) writers, have gone after her simply for telling someone (WHO ASKED) to just be aware of their privilege and to diversify their reading. In particular, her idea to be more considerate when submitting to journals and other pubs was met with overwhelming, frothy rage on Twitter—the kind of bizarre how dare you tell me to submit less psychobabble that, like your article, misses the point entirely. Funny how, when one mentions the ways in which those with privilege wield it, they always find themselves the target of said privilege.

 

It is privilege that spurred you to write this bloated, ambling column. It is privilege that lead you to hijack a question from another journal and to answer it in your own safe, defined space. It is privilege that lets you justify saturating this piece with turgid pomp and platitudes—to mansplain away the world of poetry while admitting you don’t know shit about the world of poetry. It is privilege that lets you believe holding up POC who rap as an example that there is representation in the writing world. It is privilege that in your response to a question about privilege you never use the word once, just in your intro and your “privilege theory” conceit. And it is privilege that you feel fine being contrarian while not having to worry about a violent social media response—that you think you can start a debate about it while being uniquely and topically uninformed.

 

I am a (Male, White) writer, and have found the best way to negotiate the world of unequal opportunity is to do what has been asked of me: to listen, to ask if I don’t understand, to be fine if that question goes unanswered, and then to go back to listening. I do believe writers should write—if the thrust of their need to write remains an imperative. And I believe that writers should write about whatever the hell they want to write. But writers must be able to evaluate their own writing, to see whether or not if it is good, or bad, or why, and I remain doubtful of writers who cannot think critically about their privilege—if they cannot see themselves and how they interact with the world, how then, can they see the flaws and strengths of their work?

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5 Comments

  • Todd,

    You write, near the end of this jeremiad, “I am a (Male, White) writer, and have found the best way to negotiate the world of unequal opportunity is to do what has been asked of me: to listen, to ask if I don’t understand, to be fine if that question goes unanswered, and then to go back to listening.” I have no objection to listening, to asking questions if I don’t understand something, or to “being fine,” whatever that means, if questions are unanswered, but I don’t really understand the conceit that it is best to do what has “been asked” of you. Asked *by whom*? In my experience, people with less privilege than I have, whether black or Hispanic or Asian or white or otherwise, are unique individuals with hugely diverse notions of how public discourse should operate; it would be impossible to do *what they ask of me* and the standard makes no sense because whereas you seem to treat “them” as if you’ve accessed “their” collective preference, doing so actually strips individuality from lots of humans by lumping them into a group fabricated to make it seem as if they agree with you.

    Here is something else I don’t understand: your piece seems to use the word “privilege” in so many different ways that I cannot imagine how you define it. “Unearned advantage” is the shorthand that I use. In any case, when you say that “it is privilege that spurred you to write this bloated, ambling column,” you are wrong. What spurred me to write the column was my belief that a lot of erroneous assumptions were implicit in the advice-seeker’s article, and that those assumptions are undermining the important work of remedying inequities and unfairnesses.

    You write, “It is privilege that in your response to a question about privilege you never use the word once.” Actually, that I used privilege only once is explained by the fact that, while I agree with many insights expressed in Peggy McIntosh’s seminal essay on the subject, I find that the way that the word is used online now to be vague, ever-changing in its meaning, and more often an encumbrance to understanding than a term that facilitates it. You might consider easing up on the word yourself and using others to make the same points. I bet you’d discover that some of your uses are papering over holes in your thinking.

    Also, a quick word on Elisa Gabbert, who answered the advice seeker at Electric Typewriter. I found her answer thoughtful, agreed with parts, and disagreed with others. I did not engage her because my opinion of her advice was irrelevant to my response to the advice seeker, and I could not have done her arguments justice in an aside. That would be a different piece, and one I don’t intend to write because I don’t think I have any insights that justify an article on the subject. You write, “You have quite literally colonized Gabbert’s piece.” I am sure you aren’t using “literally” correctly here, and I’m struggling to imagine what definition of “colonized” you’ve adopted. I suspect that you’re using loaded but inapt words like that to lend your criticism heft that its content wouldn’t otherwise have. But we can agree that many comments Ms. Gabbert got are disgusting.

    I have other disagreements with your piece but this has gone on long enough for a Web comment. I’d happily engage further, especially if you drop the obfuscating jargon.

    • Hi Conor Friedersdorf! There’s a lot to unpack in your reply, so let’s get started!

      1. I believe the bottom line for many underrepresented folk is a simple request that, prior to engaging in discourse about privilege, those with privilege should be considerate and listen to the discourse first. I suppose you could say this is an assumption and that not every underrepresented person within the discourse–every asterisk whom asterisk–has actually asked those (like me) with privilege to listen, but what an uninteresting thing to say!
      2. I usually define “being fine” as “not having an objection to” or “lookin’ good.”
      3. I think we’re going to need to revoke your implied abuse of bunny ears young sir, but what a doozy! I am so audacious when I say I think we should listen to underprivileged people! I had no idea.
      4. Jeremiad, lol.
      5. I’m afraid asking a white male to define white privilege strikes me as a terrible idea. I will take a moment to point out the article was Elisa Gabbert’s, and not the advice-seeker’s. But I’m curious to know what erroneous assumptions you wanted to address? I think I missed those in your piece. They seem to possess a lot of agency if they’re undermining the important work of remedying inequities and unfairness.
      6. I will say, flippancy aside, I don’t believe white privilege to be one thing. I believe it to be many things. It occurs in many ways, and it refuses to be confined to a convenient definition. The inadequacy of language does nothing to diminish something centuries in the making. My litany is explicitly uninterested in a singular “THIS IS PRIVILEGE,” because privilege can never just be one thing. Maybe that strikes you as vague, but it’s as vague as truth, or love, or some other shit that defines meaning but you still know what the hell people are talking about when they talk about it.
      7. But I will say, maybe if you listened more, whether online or in seminal essays or whatever, your definition of privilege would have more dimensions than “unearned advantage”.
      8. I don’t think you engaged with Gabbert because you didn’t literally want to. *shrug*
      9. I find it interesting that you would like to address the assumptions of a white writer asking about white privilege that are undermining the important work of remedying inequities and unfairnesses by penning a 2k article… but you don’t have much to say about angry white dudes besides the stuff they say is disgusting. asterisk womp asterisk
      10. I’m quite attached to my obfuscating jargon, tbh.

      Thanks again for commenting!

  • Todd,

    I didn't take issue with the notion that "we should listen to underprivileged people." I very much agree with that, and have spent more hours than I can count interviewing underpriviledged people at length about their experiences and world views. What I objected to was the implication that underpriviledged people are of one mind about how public discourse ought to operate. In your reply to my comment, you say you only meant that "the bottom line for many underrepresented folk is a simple request that, prior to engaging in discourse about privilege, those with privilege should be considerate and listen to the discourse first." But it seems to me that your article goes much farther. In any case, nothing about what I've written fails to meet the latest threshold that you've articulated. I've spent more hours than you know listening and asking questions. You assume the contrary without evidence.

    You go on to say, "I find it interesting that you would like to address the assumptions of a white writer asking about white privilege that are undermining the important work of remedying inequities and unfairnesses by penning a 2k article… but you don’t have much to say about angry white dudes besides the stuff they say is disgusting."

    I'm not sure why you want to turn what could be a good conversation into an opportunity to take thinly veiled shots at my motives. Since you've done so, you might consider that ignoring the awful trolls that inhabit web comments, rather than focusing unrelated debates on their behavior, is often the best way to proceed. That isn't to say such commenters should be ignored. And I suspect that I've published more words about them than you. For starters: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/when-misogynist-trolls-make-journalism-miserable-for-women/282862/

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