15 Sep 2016

Lionel Shriver, Race and Privilege

Reading the comments on The Guardian's transcript of Lionel Shriver's speech, recently given at the Brisbane Writer's Festival about cultural appropriation, fiction writing and diversity, it's apparent that many see her words as a victory for "common sense," and view Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out of the speech (and wrote about why), as a "special snowflake" who was just looking to be offended or pulling a publicity stunt.

I'm going to make a massive assumption here: that most of those commenters were white. And since Shriver is white, and so am I, I'm not sure my analysis is going to be tremendously helpful, so I'm going to suggest that it's up to those most affected by cultural appropriation to decide where the boundaries lie, not those of us who have benefited from and continue to benefit from white skin, the legacy of colonialism, an expensive education and the privileges of being middle class. In other words, I'm not going to examine Shriver's speech (much) as I think writers of colour have much more to add to it than I ever can. However, I do want to add a perspective that makes it much harder to defend Shriver as "just talking common sense," and which suggests that maybe she does actually have a worrying sense of white, European superiority.

Let me preface this by saying I did (do?) love Shriver and her work. As a proudly child-free woman who often found very little community or empathy from other women, it was a revelation to me to read her 2005 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin and find there was an author capable of speaking my thoughts so baldly and articulately. Finally, a woman was saying all the things I'd ever suspected: that motherhood was tedious, unfulfilling, robbed women of their mental, physical, social and career potential, and for most people was simply a method of keeping the wolves of life's futility from their door. Pregnancy meant being colonised and turned into public property in a way that men's bodies will never be, and motherhood inevitably meant some degree of return to 1950s-style gender roles--perhaps temporarily, but the damage would still be done--however hard one tried to resist the tide with feminist parenting. Basically, Shriver articulated all the uncomfortable truths that a pro-natalist society doesn't want said, and then raised the stakes even higher by suggesting you could do everything right to raise your kid and still create a monster. It was breathtaking to me. I loved that book so much I wrote excerpts of it on index cards and pinned them to bedroom walls, as if warning visitors that these were my beliefs (i.e. both life and having kids is pointless).

I've loved many of Shriver's books since then: So Much For That, which excoriates the American healthcare system, Big Brother, which takes on the twin devils of obesity and the obsession with thinness with surprising compassion, and The Mandibles, a no-punch-pulling view of a not-too-distant future America in economic freefall, predicting what might happen when the shit really hits the fan. However, some passages in the latter did point to what I've suspected about Shriver ever since I read her essay in the 2015 anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: 16 Writers on The Decision Not to Have Kids, which is that, frankly, she is a bit of a closet racist.

Maybe not even a closet one, actually: after all, Shriver's fiction writing is always bold, unapologetic and advances a pretty misanthropic view of humanity, so it stands to reason that her non-fiction would be similar. But it gets harder to defend her when you read phrases from her essay "Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later" like "Maybe the immigration debate has sufficiently matured for us to concede that white folks are people, too."

Wow. Where to even start with that one.
It's so disappointing to see such an intelligent, clear-eyed author fall for the same moronic propaganda that causes people to ask "Why isn't there a Straight Pride day?" or "What about White History Month?" or, as any feminist is so utterly sick and tired of hearing "There's sexism against men, too!" I mean, as if there has ever been any question that white people are human, nay, the default human, the dominant stereotype by which all other races have traditionally been measured and found wanting! 

She goes on to ask why the British can't be proud of their Yorkshire pudding, White Americans their apple pie, to which I found myself scribbling down the side of the page "They can be proud when those things stop being a pretext for racism and xenophobia!" Trust me, I'm a Brit and live amongst our fragile multi-cultural peace every day. In my very own town, Milton Keynes, just a few days ago, a pregnant woman of colour was kicked in the stomach so hard she miscarried, in a racist attack by a white man. I read with horror the story of the xenophobically motivated murder of a Polish man in Harlow just a few weeks ago. I've heard with dismay the tales of women walking up to Eastern European mothers at the school gates and saying "When are you fucking off back home, then?" the day after the Brexit vote. I am not going to buy for a second that we live in a world of "political correctness gone mad," or that "things have shifted so far in favour of minorities that white Brits are now second class citizens!" when this culture of casual hatred for other nationalities/colours is still on my fucking doorstep. 

I said I wouldn't talk about Shriver's speech but I do have to link this thinly veiled whine of "WHY can't I freely express my view that whites are the superior race?!" to the total straw man example she gives of complaints about sombreros at a student party. This is a deliberately selected, caricatured example of what Shriver and the "anti-PC" (far too often sadly, a synonym for "pro-the freedom to express one's bigotry") brigade deem a growing culture of thin-skinned crybabies who can't abide any expression of stereotypes, however "harmless"--and it's deployed for one reason only. To remind oppressed groups to get back in their boxes and fucking stay there.

Well, y'know what - my radical suggestion is that as a white, non-Mexican individuals, it's not actually my place to tell people affected by Hispanic stereotypes that they're being over-sensitive. And it never will be. As long as I enjoy the freedom to walk the streets without having to constantly carry my passport everywhere I go (as a Latina friend of mine currently does), as long as I will never have to worry about being called "beaner" or "wetback" or reduced to the stereotype of an overly fertile, hypersexual, big-bootied hot'n'spicy mama, and as long as I will never have to endure humiliations such as the waitress who a white couple refused to tip because "we only tip citizens," it's clear that I have massive privilege. So I'd rather hand off to those directly affected by the sombrero stereotype, and hear their voices. I don't get to decide what's offensive to Mexican people. Neither does white, middle-class, European-American Lionel Shriver.

And I'd believe her complaint that she's simply trying to strike a blow for creative freedom so much more if she hadn't previously penned an essay saying that if white Euro-Americans like herself continue to refuse reproduction (as she herself has), we might end up a minority, and wouldn't that be a shame. Seriously. That was the point at which I lost so much respect for this writer. Not just because she admitted that she had changed her tune since being portrayed as the "anti-Mom" at the time of releasing We Need To Talk About Kevin, (everyone changes over 10 years, and at least she hadn't changed it to the point of giving in and having kids, which everyone who fails to take my childfree status apparently somehow KNOWS I will do). It's her reasons for doing so that astonish and appall me. Which are that, despite her sneer that "liberally minded white Americans are not supposed to care. . .that by 2043 whites will constitute a minority in the US," she clearly does care (why else mention it?), and never gives a reason why except presumed racial superiority.

Her essay is cleverly couched; she uses the words of three other white women (couldn't find any non-white childfree women to speak to? Hmmm) to say what she doesn't want to just come out and admit. One says "Many Western cities will be largely black/Hispanic/Asian in fifty years' time. Does that bother me? Well, I vaguely regret the extinction of gene lines that in their various ways played a part in the establishment of Western civilization..."
...a civilisation often built on the invading, colonising and outright robbery of other countries and cultures, but do go on....
"But the gene lines coming in from the developing world will have their own strengths, energies and qualities, I guess." Not quite brave enough to stand up and simply say "Look, I think white people are superior, I prefer to be around them, I like it when they're in the majority, and if I could be arsed to have kids that would be my main reason for doing so," Shriver instead does it through her interviewees' words, saying "That poignant but politically charged "I guess" captures a conflicted melancholy that many liberal white Westerners will only give expression to in private--if then."

Who are these multiple closet racists masquerading as cheerful lefties for whom Shriver claims to speak? This here lefty is sure as shit not one of them. I think that the idea of anything being "truly British," "truly European" or "truly American," is both nonsensical and laughable, when all of these places are mongrel nations, built on the backs of immigrants, benefiting hugely from colonialism, and very good at forgetting both those facts when they want to pretend that there's something inherently superior about whiteness or speaking English. I am not proud to be British. It was an accident of birth. I'm definitely glad about and aware of my privilege at living in such a diverse, well-off, country where bonkers abortion laws and mass shootings are noticeable by their absence, but I have no "pride" beyond the occasional smile when we do something good at the Olympics, and that pride ain't got shit to do with white Europeanness (indeed, I do love the sarcastic memes that fill Facebook the moment British long distance runner, Mo Farah--a black Muslim immigrant--wins gold again and the right-wing newspapers all fizz with fury and swallow their own tongues). 

And what is this whitewashed "heritage" that I'm supposed to be proud of, exactly, anyway? Am I proud to have been born on the same landmass as Shakespeare? Meh, I suppose it's kind of cool. But I'm not proud that it took "my" country until 1928 to give women full voting equality with men, or until 1945 for every university to award women degrees. Not proud that the Equal Pay Act didn't pass until 1970. Not proud of Enoch Powell, the National Front, the BNP, Britain First, UKIP and the fact it was acceptable to display signs saying "No Blacks No Dogs No Irish" in boarding room houses until only a few decades ago. Not proud that "my" government spends taxpayer's money on illegal, pointless wars. Certainly not proud that people are being fucking beaten and murdered in this country for the crime of trying to live their god damn lives. Sure, I love Jane Austen and the Beatles, but ultimately national heritage is only something you can feel proud of once you've cherry-picked all the shit away--and my God, that's a lot of shit.

But Shriver never explains why she feels "oh, a little wistful about the fact the country of my birth will probably in my lifetime no longer be people in majority by those of European extraction like me," or why she gives considerable attention to the "the Lats" becoming the dominant population in her latest novel, The Mandibles. I guess she isn't quite gutsy or tell-it-like-it-is enough to give her reasons. And she, of course, would blame a culture of PC-gone-mad for her hesitancy to just come out and say that she prefers a world where the majority of people look like her. But she is not being censored; she clearly has a massive platform. Books, newspapers, writing festivals; the kind of free rein to say shit that most of us will never be awarded. What "PC gone mad" might just mean is that she actually has to face some consequences for saying she thinks white Europeans are superior, and naturally, she doesn't like that. But people holding you accountable for your words when they appear hateful and baseless is not a crime, nor is it going to hurt you that much when you're rich, educated, white, middle class and Western. It might piss you off, but it's not the same as someone's boot in your stomach, or their knife in your jugular. Which are acts you tacitly condone by pushing this bizarre, faux-inoffensive "wistfulness" for a society that never even fucking existed in the first place.

That's why it's so disappointing to see someone as intelligent as Shriver disingenuously setting up false equivalences, like claiming because she's German and she doesn't mind anyone donning lederhosen and perpetuating Bavarian stereotypes, that gives her carte blanche to dictate what's acceptable to people of other, usually much more globally shat-upon, nationalities. Funnily enough, I don't mind if anyone dons a moustache, deerstalker cap and pipe and runs around drinking tea and being overly polite, because that stereotype cannot hurt me (and not just because it's inoffensive/funny/accurate in some ways). No, it can't hurt me because my nationality can't hurt me. I'm never going to be turned down for a job because I'm white British, or assumed to be intellectually inferior, or lazy, or denied the right to stay in someone's country (more likely I'll be waved through customs without a glance and never referred to as an 'immigrant' but rather an ex-pat), or have shit put through my letterbox, or be sworn or spat at in the street, simply for having been born in Britain. I have the immense privilege of hailing from a first world, rich, politically powerful country who used to own half the world, whose language is widely-spoken as a result of this fact, and that is why I do not have any right to be telling people from economically disadvantaged, colonially ravaged, developing countries, that because I don't mind the deerstalker they should stop being such wusses and accept whatever reductive stereotypes being imposed on them. We are not coming from a level playing field. To pretend otherwise, as Shriver is doing, implies she thinks her audience is either a lot less intelligent than she is, or simply as racist and xenophobic as she is.

So, defend Shriver's words to the Brisbane audience all you like, but don't fool yourself that this is bravery or an important act for "freedom of speech." Defending the dominant group's right to assert its dominance isn't brave--it's easy. Standing up to that nonsense when you're going to be at best, shouted down as a crybaby and at worst, lose your fucking life for it; that's bravery.

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Jane Chelliah said...

I was cheering you on as I read your blog post. You have magnificently exposed white privilege for what it is and that's rare when it comes from a white person.

is... said...

Fantastic blog post. You articulated all of the thoughts I've been having on this issue.