He feels paralyzed. “I want to listen but I also want to write—yet at times these impulses feel at odds with one another,” he declared. “How can I reconcile the two?”
The anonymous poet is not alone.
The self-flagellating white person is increasingly seen on college campuses and social media: a perversion of Privilege Theory causes these young, educated progressives believe that conspicuous introspection and self-sacrifice are optimal catalysts for an equitable society. At best, these scrupulous people eventually find their way to actually helping others.
At worst, they remain mired in useless self-abnegation.
So I’d like to answer the poet’s letter (which Elisa Gabbert, Electric Literature’s advice-columnist, answered already*), in the hope that it will help him, people like him, and the people he wants to help. At the very least, I hope that my advice prompts a debate that fleshes out the contested thinking embraced by some adherents of privilege theory, clarifies the unstated assumptions that they are making, and either changes their perspectives or mine.
* * *
You’re right to lament the generations in which minority groups and women were denied equal opportunities to publish poetry in the long history of the Anglosphere. It is dismaying to ponder how many undiscovered talents we’ll never read. I agree that listening to the perspectives of others is imperative, especially for artists. And I share your desire to bring an end to racial and gender inequities that persist today. In fact, I think that all individuals should participate in that project, and that lack of diversity in a field often hints at fixable failures by its members.
But I wonder at some assumptions that you seem to make; I question the degree to which you elevate your race and gender as if they are the most salient features of your artistic identity; and I do not see any reason to think that your poems will cause anyone to pay less attention to verse written by poets with different racial or gender identities.
If you’re a terrible poet, Anonymous, then by all means stop writing for publication. But if you have any talent with language, then your poems are almost certainly not so like poems by those who share your race and gender as to be of negative value. It is irrational to reduce a person’s actual or perceived worldview to their sex, gender, or skin color. I suspect you’d never do that to another individual.
Don’t do it to yourself.
Every human has a unique perspective. There are some areas where perspective and race or gender identity are inextricably bound.
But even on topics related to “identity,” a white male might offer any number of perspectives unique to him, and will certainly use unique language to convey his perspective. And his thoughts and language will vary from the perspectives of white men in bygone eras, who varied among themselves as dramatically as, say, Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. Is it really your belief that the white men of bygone generations exhausted themes like fatherhood for all time, or that no white male writing on fatherhood today has any verse in him that an Asian man or woman might value?