For me, it’s like having a name. A name is a legal requirement, but how and what we’re named depends on so many things. Perhaps it’s influenced by our family or faith or community traditions, our ethnicity, our national heritage, our perception of class. It can reflect popular culture or current fashion. A couple of weeks ago, we were smiling at a storm called Doris because it’s an ‘old English lady’s name’. Like Hilda, Gladys and Mavis, it hails from a different generation. Names change – maybe through marriage, civil partnership, anglicising, pseudonyms and um… witness-protection schemes.
So if culture is ever-changing, how can it be appropriated?
Because, like a name, culture is about identity. It links us to others – we are part of something bigger. I grew up in 1970s Britain, surrounded by love, but still conscious of overt racism. I first visited Trinidad to meet my mum’s family when I was six. I remember my joy at being part of a culture, finally being told about history that I shared. I still have the Lord Kitchener calypso record my aunty bought me. I barely had a clue what he was singing about, but it was special. With my English accent and British ways, I didn’t fully belong in Trinidad – but this was the closest so far.
But not all cultures are equal. It’s hard to ignore history. European conquests, invasions and colonialism caused cultural devastation. Think North America, South America, Africa, the Caribbean, continents carved up and delivered to faraway European administrations. Cultures suppressed, challenged, beaten down, denounced as savage. In Trinidad, for instance, Spiritual Baptists, a faith shaped by enslaved Africans, were legally forbidden to practice their religion from 1917 to 1951. Yes, thirty-four years.
And that loss of identity has had wide-reaching repercussions. In 2017, we are in a world where skin-lightening products are widely available to reduce the signs of our connection to those cultures. In east Asia, glue, tape and cosmetic operations promise to ‘widen eyes’. Fair skin with European features is still promoted as the desirable ideal. Whiteness is still often the peak of the racial hierarchy and permeates global culture.
That’s one reason for unease about white writers arguing that they are ‘not allowed’ to write about non-European cultures.
A second thought. White writers have written black characters. Books in my childhood contained Little Black Sambo, golliwogs and Prince Bumpo in Doctor Doolittle, often with helpful illustrations. And as for popular culture - white guys in blackface was prime-time BBC viewing until I was eleven. Jim Davidson, a ‘comedian’ whose career was built on a hefty foundation of racist and sexist jokery, presented the family show, ‘The Generation Game’. Even classics had their moments. Del, in ‘Only Fools and Horses’, refers to the P*ki shop and makes jibes about the black character, Denzil. And don’t get me started on The Goodies’ parody of ‘Roots’.
Those are just two reasons why I wince when these discussions start. But… Then I meet wonderful writers like Tanya Landman, who get it so completely. Tanya writes characters from a place of empathy, sympathy and anger against injustice. And then there’s Ben Aaronovitch, a white male writer who makes me laugh out loud with his impressively accurate understanding of the complexities of black women’s hair care.
So, that’s it. This isn’t about white writers being censored. It’s about building trust and understanding, writing from knowledge and empathy and thinking – ‘I’m writing this because I get it.’ And, please, please, make me laugh.
The Lawrence Line is her blog about writing, selling writing and the family stories that inspire writing.
|The cover is by Michelle Rochford|