May 2020: White privilege and writing about our world

At the end of 2019, Escalator Press, that I am involved with, published a novel called Chosen Boys, by Petra Molloy. It is a novel about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, in a multicultural Catholic community in the 1970s. It’s a beautifully written, compassionate novel. In it, Petra was writing about her own European culture, and also about the Samoan culture, and the novel shifts between various points of view.

Petra was writing from decades of experience, both as a member of the Catholic church, and also as part of a big multicultural community. During the writing of the novel she sought advice from Samoan readers, and the final manuscript was read by a Samoan cultural expert.

Although she was writing about her own, and another culture, she received some sharp criticism for daring to write about another culture at all. One reader described her as a white woman of privilege writing about Samoans and Māori.

So what to make of this? Are we not allowed to write about our own and other cultures? Does ‘white’ equal ‘white privilege’ equal ‘don’t go there’?

My own take on white privilege is that it’s a defining concept in the colonisation debate. It’s fundamental to understanding that debate. But real life, and fiction, are a lot messier. For example, I have lived in Porirua for a long time. I never doubt that I am a person of privilege. I am that because I am well-educated, I’m articulate, I know how to use the system, and I’ve had opportunities to use my abilities. But in Porirua there are many white people who have none of those privileges, and there are many non-white people who share those same privileges.

When the notion of white privilege is applied to what we are allowed to write about, (ie a white person can only write about white people) I think it is very unhelpful, in fact seriously constraining. In New Zealand we simply don’t live in that world any more.

There’s been a big generational shift. To use myself as an example again, I’m one of a family of five, and all of us married (yes, married) Pākehā Europeans. The partners of my oldest brother’s five children are Māori, Samoan, German, American and Pākehā.  At the moment, there are four people living in my house, two Pākehā, one Indian and one Vietnamese. Our neighbours have been Indian, Māori, Chinese, Samoan, Pākehā.

That’s our reality. And I think it’s important that contemporary NZ fiction reflects that. I don’t mean that we should write in some glib or careless way. But if we write in a very well-researched, well-informed way, and if we are writing about the life lived – and Petra was doing all of these things – I strongly support that. But then I would – I have a big stake in this discussion in my own writing!

Although ‘white privilege’ has been extremely important for all of us in doing some historical unpacking, I feel very sad if it becomes a major constraint on what we are able to write about, particularly in fiction, and in fact prevents us from reflecting the world we live in. I would like to see us move on from that now. Issues around privilege itself are very important, especially in relation to inequality, and if we take the concept of privilege seriously, not just in terms of race (I’m thinking about Porirua again) we can have some serious debate.

But there’s an ideology at stake here, and ideology often overrides experience. And it’s a complex issue. I’m running the risk of oversimplifying it myself. I’m guessing that the discussion about white privilege will be around for a long time yet, and writers will be criticised for making choices outside of that boundary – but I hope they’ll take the risk!

Petra has written an excellent  essay about this question in The Spinoff.