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These complaints are two halves of the same thought, both stemming from the conviction that taking unearned liberties in dealing with other communities causes harm, even exacerbating the issues in need of redress. There is no question that this is a real threat or that such injuries have recurred throughout history, persisting even now.
But is the solution to this predicament, as more and more are suggesting, to forbid people from examining communities to which they don’t belong? To pursue this route would be to play what I am calling “body politics,” the idea that the body that you inhabit determines what you should and shouldn’t say.
I am convinced that playing body politics is deeply wrongheaded — a simplistic, dangerous expedient for a complex problem. To be clear, I’m not offering yet another tired defense of free speech or more centrist handwringing over “cancel culture.” My concern is that blanket edicts about who can and should say what may pose a greater hazard than the ills that they were designed to fix.
In a recent controversy, the theology professor Jennifer M. Buck found her book, Bad and Boujee: Toward a Trap Feminist Theology, removed from distribution “after,” as the Los Angeles Times reports, “critics raised concerns about the white author’s qualifications to write on the book’s stated topics of the ‘Black experience, hip-hop music, ethics, and feminism.’” About the only thing that this explanation makes clear is that it remains unclear why, exactly, Buck’s book got pulled. Was Buck’s expertise the problem, or was it her identity? The apology issued by the publisher, Wipf and Stock, suggests that it was at least partly the latter: “We should have seen numerous red flags, including but not limited to the inappropriateness of a White theologian writing about the experience of Black women.”
The ascendancy of body politics has never before now been the goal of marginalized activists and scholars. Far from it. In literary studies, for example, female academics and academics of color felt alienated by the omission of people of their demographics from curricula and scholarship. They sought recognition — to be “seen,” as it were — and, given their small numbers within the academy, knew that that would be difficult if their concerns remained important to them alone. A famous example from second-wave feminism illustrates this point vividly. Seeking to justify the fact that her book on “women’s” literature excluded nonwhite women, Patricia Meyer Spacks, an eminent white Victorianist, argued that she could write only within her ambit of experience. In response to this specious defense — one rooted in body politics — Alice Walker gamely taunted, “Spacks never lived in 19th-century Yorkshire, so why theorize about the Brontës?”
Schutz professed to have proceeded with good intentions. She imagined herself to be contributing to the larger effort to bring attention to the suffering of black people. “This is about a young boy, and it happened,” Schutz told The New Yorker. “It’s evidence of something that really happened. I wasn’t alive then, and it wasn’t taught in our history classes.”
But many construed Schutz’s intended contribution to the black community as an affront to it. And her detractors were angry. The artist Hannah Black, for example, went so far as to demand that the museum not only remove but destroy the painting. The arguments against the work were various, but most concluded that Schutz never should have attempted this piece, or that she could not possibly, by virtue of her being a white woman, do the tragedy justice.
It’s not my aim to assess the merits of Schutz’s artwork or those of other artists embroiled in similar controversies. I’m interested in the question of whether it’s possible and ethical to represent or speak about communities of which we are not a part.
Since the most vitriolic debates around this problem have concerned art, it may be helpful to look to art for solutions. Henry James — a male author to whom we owe two of 19th-century literature’s most memorable female characters, Olive Chancellor of The Bostonians and Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady — provided indispensable guidance for fiction writers seeking to range beyond their social vantages. In The Art of Fiction, James’s famous treatise on the craft, he makes the case that anybody can write well about anything, so long as that person possesses technical mastery and enough experience about their subject to understand it thoroughly.
To leave the matter there, obviously, would more or less foreclose the possibility of artists writing successfully about people and events outside their immediate purviews. But, as always with James, it’s more complicated. The amount of experience writers require varies according to the strength of their sensibilities.
By way of illustration, James offers an anecdote about a gifted Englishwoman who excelled in her depiction of a French Protestant youth: “She had got her direct impression, and she turned out her type. She knew what youth was, and what Protestantism; she also had the advantage of having seen what it was to be French, so that she converted these ideas into a concrete image and produced a reality.” In drawing her fictional French Protestant, this provincial Englishwoman did not need as much experience of the subject as a real-life French Protestant would have had the advantage of having. Her strong sensibility enabled her to do more with less, for “she was blessed with the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell.”
The capacity to represent a subject, James intimates, has nothing to do with the body that an artist inhabits; what matters is the experience the artist has and the artist’s faculties for digesting that experience. When, in a 1998 interview, Charlie Rose, like so many others at the time, importuned Toni Morrison about body politics, she responded in terms similar to James’s, if with more asperity. Asked for the umpteenth time whether she could or would write about white people, Morrison quipped, “It’s not a literary question. It has nothing to do with the literary imagination. It’s a sociological question that should not be put to me.” Earlier in the interview, she apprised Rose, “Anything can happen in art.”
If — as James, Morrison, and many others have maintained — anything can happen in art, it seems foolish to suggest that people’s bodies determine the limits of their imaginations, and imposing such limits would have a chilling effect on art. From this dictum, it follows that works of art should not be judged by some a priori standard deriving from the accident of the author’s birth. If an artwork is counted a failure, it should be counted so on the grounds that the artist failed to translate accurate impressions into resonant forms. Failure, then, becomes a problem either of sensibility or of execution.
Since Uncle Tom’s Cabin can’t quite settle this ethical dilemma, let’s consider another classic American novel engaged in cross-cultural representation. In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, we have a novel written by a Stanford-educated novelist from an affluent family, about far less-educated farm people forced from their homes into exploitive ranch work. In order to represent his subjects faithfully, as the Steinbeck scholar Robert Demott documents, the novelist conducted extensive research. Not only did he pore over reports from the Farm Security Administration; he also toured the lodging sites established for the migrant workers and interviewed many of the displaced families. By most critical assessments — my own included — Steinbeck portrays this community with dignity and respect. Perhaps most importantly, the novel brought national attention to the exploitation of migrant workers in California and was cited as an influence by several political figures instrumental in ameliorating working and living conditions at corporate ranches.
The Grapes of Wrath sold dazzlingly — nearly a million copies within the first two years of publication — and scored Steinbeck a lucrative film deal. It won the Pulitzer and was crucial to Steinbeck’s winning the Nobel in 1962. Did Steinbeck’s successes harm the migrant families about whom he wrote? I would say “yes” if his work had been privileged above works of comparable quality produced by people of that community, as Robin DiAngelo’s has been. But, to our knowledge, none of the migrant workers had written a publishable novel on the subject, much less a great one. And both American society and culture seem better for Steinbeck’s having written his book.
Contrary to the argument of many champions of body politics, confining scholars to specialties mirroring their identities risks thwarting, instead of advancing, our attempts at diversity and inclusion. As I have shown elsewhere, failing to encourage minority students to specialize in areas that do not reflect their identity will limit the positions in higher education for which they are qualified and will therefore maintain a structural impediment to diversifying college and university faculties. Widening the pipeline means widening the pool of applicants from underrepresented groups able to fill all positions — not just, say, positions in African American or Latinx literature but in medieval and Victorian literature as well.
Beyond these practical considerations, Alice Walker’s rejoinder helps to expose body politics for the losing game that it is. It blocks the bridges of empathy we so desperately need. The problems we face compel us to turn not away from but toward one another — with interest, care, and respect. As black epidemiologist Nina Harawa suggests, there is more at risk than simply hurt feelings. Condemning body politics in her own field, she issues this admonition to her white colleagues: “If you are not willing to take this risk, you are not allies. You are not serving the communities you study. ... Well-intentioned or not, you are complicit.”