Who Gets to Represent the Other?; On Race and Difference
This is a question that I have gotten asked a million times in the two decades that I have been teaching. I have heard this question from teachers, students, and folks in the games community/industry. And it’s a question that folks have struggled with for a long time before i came around and answers may vary based on who you ask.
I get livid when a teacher/student/researcher comes to me and says “I wanted to study/teacher/write about race, feminism, queer studies, but Jane Doe who is of that race, sex, or sexual orientation told me that I have no right to because I’m not like them.” What? Really? Does that mean that Jane Dow can ONLY write about being those things? If only African American folks can teach African American literature does that also mean that they can only teach African American literature? Does there race both give them the right to talk about “their experience” and preclude them from talking about anything else? And then doesn’t that also mean that they have to talk about that subject as they have lived it (consider class, sexual orientation, geographical locale, etc.)? Because what gets left out of this discussion is the fact that there is no monolithic X experience. There is no one way to be Black, Queer, female, male, or White and so it is impossible for anyone to be able to talk about something just because they are that thing. We still have to do the work. Admittedly some of the worst students that I have had in African American literature or studies classes have been African American students who took it because they thought that it would be an easy A. The assumption that they must inherently “know” something because they are of that thing has led to more than a few tears in my office hours. And the proclamation that someone else in the class did not because they were not has led to even more.
My favorite response to someone who thinks that their assertions that “Jack Sprat should not be writing about Black, Queer, or Feminist theory because he is White, Straight, or Male!” will find a warm reception with me is “Then why the hell don’t you get PhD in that area and do the work so that there are more Blacks, Queer Folks, or Women doing it?”. What it all boils down to is that we have all got to do the research in order to represent anyone well. Ourselves or the Other. And that is why we need folks like Tof Ecklund and Rhiannon and Reyes (contributors to the The Unconventional Dwarf) who were on our show this week and the awesome article by Daniel José Older over at Buzzfeed who wrote 12 Fundamentals Of Writing “The Other” (And The Self). Older’s piece not only includes some beautiful art work by Julie Dillon, but some solid advice that includes things like “don’t be an asshole”, do your research, consider your audience, and avoid the trope of the “Magic Negro”.
So the next time that I run into a game dev who opens my conference Q&A with a question like, “But stereotypes are based in fact, right?” I’ll have a much more tactful way of saying “don’t be an asshole”…or maybe not.