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Workshop Lessons: Privilege and Perspective in Radical Writing

By Imagining America | September 11, 2016

headshot_diana_arterianBy Diana Arterian, a Doctoral student in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and a 2016–2017 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of intersectionality and public scholarship, important topics of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 6-8, 2016, in Milwaukee, WI.

“It never occurs to [people] that they live on the cumulative hurt of others. They want to start the clock of social justice only when they arrived. But one is born into history, one isn’t born into a void.” — Dionne Brand

Years ago I enrolled in a workshop with one of the most premiere poets and thinkers in the country. I submitted a piece for critique I felt the poet would admire for what I thought was its directness in addressing racial difference—a topic which her work circles, too. She is a person whose writing and activism I respect deeply. I very much wanted to foster a connection.

Not long into the critique she dubbed the piece racist. None of my peers said otherwise. The workshop spun into a living nightmare. She tore it apart. I left the class reeling, confused, deeply disturbed. Several writer-friends (whites and people of color) had read the work and given me positive responses. I didn’t understand what had happened, or why—but I wanted to know.

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Public engagement and scholarship requires leaning deeply into what makes one uncomfortable, and to do this with serious political intention. This objective is a continual experiment. It doesn’t always go so well. Racial difference, one example among many realities of systematic oppression that define our society, is a tangled topic. It becomes more knotted when addressing injustice from a place of greater privilege than those whose oppression you are witnessing—what you are trying to draw attention to, what you are trying to fight.

As painful as that workshop experience was, I ultimately recognized what was at the heart of it. My piece had been vague, with a speaker describing racist events without opinion. This poet of color didn’t know me, but she could read me for what I am—a white, middle-class, educated, physically abled, heterosexual, cis-gender woman. She had no reason to trust me or consider me an ally. I was a stranger, and appeared to be a stranger to racial difference, too. In conjunction with my identity, my writing invited a myriad of readings—and the poet gave me one. She generously offered to talk on the phone later about the critique and my response, and this helped me understand some. The real understanding came once I revisited the text with her reading in mind. While the piece wasn’t racist, per se, it had the potential to be read that way. I needed (and need) to be anti-racist in bold, clear strokes. People who carry my level of privilege often aren’t. That is my lineage—that is what must I confront, habitually.

My hope is that through my poetry, scholarship, pedagogy, editorial work, curation, and any other venues I find myself, I will use my privilege as a vector to focus attention on those less privileged than myself—even if the best form of aid is to shut up and listen, and to compel others to do the same. Especially then.