The Problem with Marginalised Narratives

24 November 2020

Despite its rampant discussion, to this date diversity remains ill-defined. “People of colour” for one, is an umbrella term that groups individuals into potentially restrictive spaces while aggrandising their white counterparts even further. To generalise various ethnic groups into a single voice and pit them against whiteness is a problematic practice which diminishes their truth. In reality, “people of colour” encompasses so many in numbers and cultures i.e. East Asian, South Asian, Korean, African American. It’s irresponsible to lump them into a single voice. Still, such groups face a myriad of hurdles in the literary world, occupied by a largely white demographic of gatekeepers who require a real understanding of diversity without imposing their own implicit biases. These biases often result in unequal opportunities and higher rejection rates for underrepresented writers of colour (further mentions are abbreviated to WOC).

The demand for nonfiction WOCs largely intersects with the need for marginalised narratives to create a dialogue of empathy. While the intent is positive, this is often complicated by the subliminal agenda of having a diversity initiative to thank for the inclusion of WOCs, with writers being placed into a designated quota. The already rare prize-winning WOCs have to face assumptions that the recognition they received was due to tokenism. The idea that diversity is curated, filtered and intentional scrutinises and imprisons the craft of WOCs inside an echo chamber, limiting them to write about their experiences only in a racial context. The extent this is taken to ventures into the realm of exploitation. While the nuances of an immigrant story written by WOCs are lost on predominantly white editors, these stories must further conform to an unfair standard in the face of political judgement.

The plight of Otherness has become a designated selection for marginalised narratives, whereby its treatment is questionably backwards and cyclical. The homogenous perspective of the white mainstream is incapable of accepting minority experiences that don’t align with white conceptions of diversity. A privileged readership who doesn’t possess the lived-in experience of a minority story will jeopardise WOCs’ supposed mission of communicating identity. If someone can only engage with a piece when they find a mirror of themselves in the narrator, then they shouldn’t be in the business of critiquing marginalised narratives when they have no autobiographical understanding of that community. Characters of colour will seldom ring true to them. This in-demand criterion of believability dangerously intersects with likeability—this makes controversy unwelcome and ultimately clashes with the genre itself, given how nonfiction prizes a strong journalistic integrity. Narratives are requested to inspire identification and unity through shared experience, but not at the expense of upsetting the dominant majority. Editors find it difficult to spearhead such pieces which confront ethical quandaries that endanger their own inherent status quo. The reliance on familiarity for engagement becomes a constricting bubble which prevents nonfiction narratives from being enriched by expanding and promoting real inclusivity. Publications are expected to be challenging enough to invite discussion but not too risqué or discomfiting—a burden often felt by female authors. An unfortunate by-product of the norm built from masculine viewpoints, narratives which focus on feminine experiences are often snubbed for displaying attitudes that aren’t necessarily likeable. Western European ideals standardise the disembodied voice of literature as male, while the personal is attached to the feminine and robbed of authority.

WOCs express frustration over the all too common demonisation of Black female anger in the face of race-based prejudice and assault, as opposed to the allowance given to the rage of their white counterparts. The latter’s acceptance in society is even fetishised and commoditised à la misogynist fantasies. If there’s ever a narrow margin for the expression of Black female rage, it’s in music, which says a lot about how damning it is to convey inherently feminist views, how hard it is to normalise compassion for negative, coloured narratives. Stories become balancing acts discouraged from interrogating and interrupting existing power structures, or otherwise risk withdrawal. Conversely, editors tightly embrace systemised aesthetics on racial narratives with mainstream aspirations. The more traumatic and sensational the adversity, the more likely it is to achieve breakthrough. Testimonial witness lends shape to personal essays, but graphic experiences of brutality and injustice will only hammer home negative stereotyping.

Minorities are labelled poverty-stricken, “ghetto” and are only recognised as such while the white remains idealised. This is mirrored in narrative models of fiction where there’s an unconscious bias to assume the dominant race when not stated otherwise. The white default in an unraced narrative also applies to nonfiction. If a character isn’t white, they have to conform to a discriminatory experience. The work of a WOC is thus inseparable from their colour. Here the “Other” is attached to a representative predisposition. The reader’s failure to distinguish anything different as valid is thus a reluctant but sure admission of racist thinking.

It takes a self-assured consciousness to publicise this truth, to begin with when there’s a prevalent culture of censorship in traditional communities. An underlying theme in colonist survivors is a migrant narrative, with such authors similarly burdened with the struggles of displacement and belonging largely engineered by the dominant discourse. Gatekeepers have no reservations in deciding if there’s value in other’s stories and have continuously decided otherwise. This marks their inability to empathise, going as far as to facilitate the psychologically damaging practise of taking possession of othered voices despite how non-white spaces should always belong to non-whites.

There exists a cultural anxiety about who gets to speak. WOCs are left wishing their stories were valued and heard in a world that’s taught them their stories were unimportant and by extension, their persons. It’s a given they must reconcile with self-rejection and self-erasure in such conditions.

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