ETHICS: Must I “own” the culture I write about? (King’s X, RaceFail)

I sort of know I’m dipping my head into the lava pit with this, but I need to hear some opinions.

I’m doing story exchange critiques with a couple of people right now. I sent a story to one of the group who said she was pretty open to anything. Her story was about space travel, and I gave her a fairly good and positive critique. She came back to me with a few questions and raised some interesting issues (not about the style or word choices, but about the subject matter).

You see . . . this short story is one that I am working on for the Zoetrope story contest. I’m tired of the same old themes and tropes that I always write about, so I thought up something completely foreign and new that still is very revealing about my feelings of being a fake or being secretly hiding something and not really belonging and all that rot. Here’s a sort of summary.


I’ll summarize the story with a few quote-pulls. If it totally offends you, click away. That’s what I’m trying to find out with this.

A teen girl is taking care of children and her mama in cramped quarters and relative squalor when the phone rings.

“Get that, LaKeisha.”
“OK, Mama.”

She always grabs the phone when she can, for fear it’s someone who knows her only as Keely, not as LaKeisha. Explanations might be awkward.

The call is from one of her school friends and she panics, taking the cordless phone into another room.

She has just started the fall semester as a scholarship student at a magnet school, a science/arts magnet in a most affluent area, and she is African American passing for white. She is one of the “genetic sports” who is light-skinned, straight-haired, and looks more Irish than African American. The family doesn’t betray her when she pulls it off on the street, even though they roll their eyes, but they would freak at the idea of her “passing” at school. She has had a really good first two weeks and is already cast in a play. Several of the drama students she has befriended are from wealthy backgrounds.

Her schoolmate Trudy says, “Hey, listen, Keely, [she goes by Keely there] I thought you might be busy already tonight [Saturday night], but we’re one girl short for this crazy dance at the club, and I thought, why don’t you come along?”

She doesn’t know what club Trudy means. She herself does not have a car and takes the bus everywhere. She suspects the bus does not run to this club–probably a dance club that rejects people at the door.

“My car’s in the shop,” she lies.

“That’s OK–I can run by and pick you up–I’m picking up Cyndee. So, see you at six-thirty!”

Her address was in the school directory. Lucky thing that they live in a pretty nice apartment in downtown Plano where it’s very trendy to live nowadays. No need for anyone to know that they were subsidized by a section eight government subsidy or that they were on food stamps and lived on her mama’s disability check and a child support check that her sister got from her baby daddy. She generally did a lot of the work of taking care of her disabled mother and of her younger sister who already had two children to support alone. [This could happen to any race of people, but it seemed racist to my crit partner for the character to have such a living situation.] Why not take one evening for herself?

What can she wear? She scares up something cool out of her closet. She shops at vintage shops and Goodwill just like the poor little rich girls, all of whom think she is just so fashion forward for doing so. She gets the night off from family duty by promising her sister she’ll babysit another night. She waits standing out on the staircase and runs down when the red convertible pulls in, top down.

Her heart takes a long pause when they drive into an actual country club . . . she’s never been anywhere like this. This is scary.

There are no African American girls or women inside who are not on the serving/waitstaff (cringe), but there are two good-looking African American men wandering around who are obviously members of the club.

She gets flirted with by the guy that Trudy is interested in, which she can tell because Trudy kicks her under the table a few times, so even though she feels a lot of chemistry she backs off and gives a thousandwatt smile to the guy seated on the other side of her,
a nice enough man who looks bemused that she is talking to him at all.
Then comes a tap on her shoulder. She turns and it’s the finger of a tall, hot Obama clone.

He walks her out to the dance floor and chuckles. After a bit of small talk he says, “I got you made, girl.”

Her heart pounds. “What?”

“I know what you are.”

Her heart like to pounds out of her chest [this is a Texanism], but what he says is, “You are a scholarship student, but you are passing pretty good.”

The mention of the word “passing” makes her ears echo for a moment, thinking he knows her secret, but then she realizes he means “passing” as a rich girl or middle-class when she is just above poverty level. Can he tell by her smell, as one boy had nastily told her one day, “that cheap soap you use from the dollar store”?

Ringo is squalling over the PA system: “I don’t ask for much, I only want trust, and you know it don’t come easy.”

She manages to cope with the conversation, and he appears convinced that she’s actually not poor at all by the end of the dance.

When he drops her back off at the table, the three other girls and four guys make a big deal about why he picked her out, and the teasing turns into “good-natured” but heavily subtexted stuff. Cloaked racial slurs. “Of course you couldn’t turn HIM down,” they say jokingly, but with a barb attached. They all act like, well, SOME girls go out with those guys but it can’t be serious because they just have a different culture and they would end up treating you bad, just like those celebrities who break up with African American sports players and entertainers after getting beaten up or abandoned.

Keely is enraged and for a moment feels like standing up and making some kind of scene. “Do you know that you are talking to a black woman? And insulting my late daddy who was a soldier in Afghanistan? Not to mention everyone else in my family? And every God-fearing African American man I know? From now on, call me LaKeisha!” But she doesn’t.

It’s going to be a long cold winter semester and this is her “in,” her entree to the cool girls and the beautiful girls clique. She does not know how she is going to manage it, keeping them from ever knowing, having this secret that might blow her out of the water. Sure, they all would act politically correct and they would pretend to not be shocked if she told them, but they WOULD be, and something essential would change about her easy acceptedness. They might chide her for “lying” and “pretending,” and that would be a disaster. But even if they said they “understood why,” things would change. Either they’d subtly exclude her and hold her at a distance, or, worse, they would make her into Token, the character in the “South Park” cartonn who is only there because it is cool to have the token.

No . . . none of this was acceptable to have happen. How important was it if she went along with their nastiness to this one man who is someone she’ll never probably see again? She had to forget all those “principles” and go with reality. At least for as long as she could get away with it. She wanted a bigger taste of this world, and this was the way to get it.

She smiles. “Yeah, I mean, he was nice enough, but like I would never go out with one of *them*.”

[The point being that she makes a choice that readers know will come back to bite her. Readers are supposed to feel sorry for or even hate the character because of her “weakness” and susceptibility to wanting to fit in and reject her true situation and so forth, or even groan at the irony because she is being tempted and taking hold of the temptation–which can lead to a downfall. Because it is a “literary” story, it ends here.]

So what the critique partner said was . . . “You do not own this culture, and thus you do not have the right to write this story. Do one about being rejected because you’re white, fat, longhaired, rich, or whatever it is that you have to hide. But don’t try to gack another culture. I feel it is unethical.”

Okay. I took a deeeeep breath because I hadn’t thought about the issue much at all. With an appellation like “Shalanna,” I have often been assumed to be African American, and have been offered various opportunities meant for minority women that I have had to turn down tactfully because it would not have been fair for me to pretend (and I wouldn’t have wanted to, anyway.) I had never really thought about what “stealing the culture” might mean, even though I followed the RaceFail threads and have been on the poc community to try to understand their feelings about those of us who write (as best we know how) about characters of different genders, races, nationalities, and so forth.

I wonder. Would it be wrong for me to continue polishing this one up? Do I need to be of a culture in order to write about it? If I am an actress, is it unethical of me to roleplay a Japanese woman or man (for example) on the stage? I don’t want to do anything that would upset or irritate people. Even if it means dropping this particular angle on the story and changing to something else.

I don’t know what I would change her secret to, but this one is pretty powerful, even in today’s multicultural culture. That’s why I chose it: I felt that the literary crowd might go for something that was a bit outrageous and offensive. They never like my usual stories about some nebbish who does a good deed that backfires on her, and so forth. I need something that will leap out at them and make them say, “Hey, this one is not the usual thing we see. But it could be in the New Yorker.” I need it to really stand out in order to have any chance.

Well, anyway. Should I jettison this and do seventy “Shouldn’t-a-dunnits” as penance? Maybe that’s the thing to do. Or perhaps I can substitute a different “secret.” Being poor is not by itself enough, I don’t think. I don’t own being Jewish, Polish, whatever, so substituting those cultures wouldn’t be any different. It’s a dilemma.

This may be a dilemma I just need to back slowly away from. At least I come away with a heightened awareness for my own capability for unthinking RaceFail.

(Which in itself is kind of scary.)

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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