As I've observed before, I am very nearly the type specimen of the oppressor. I am white, male, middle-aged, of above average height, the college educated child of college educated parents, native English speaker, with a short Anglo-Saxon name, employed at an above average salary. If I cut my hair short, lost thirty pounds and dressed rather better, I'd be indistinguishable from a high dollar Wall Street trader or an early-career Congressman.
Speaking as a card carrying member of the Patriarchy (it says "M" right on my Oregon driver's license), I am wrapped in an envelope of privilege. If I'm standing in a group of people waiting for a clerk, and they haven't been tracking the order in which we arrived, more often than not I'll be asked first what they can do for me. I do make it a point of tracking the order in which we arrived, and defer to those before me, but even that very tiny, simple piece of social justice requires proactive attention on my part. Far more often I am privileged in ways that don't even impinge on my consciousness — not having my ID scrutinized when presenting payment, for example.
At the same time, I grew up in very nonstandard settings. Many times in my life I've been a racial minority of one when walking down a street in Africa or Asia. A privileged minority, wrapped in the cloak of my disposable income and my American passport, but it's still an experience many white Americans have never had. Most of us never leave the country, and for many of those that do, the beach at Cabo San Lucas or the plaza at the Louvre aren't quite this same thing. It gives me an awareness of being linguistically isolated, ethnically isolated, the subject of stares and glares and not-so-quiet whispers.
My family is multiracial as well. Like myself, the_child was born in China. Unlike me, she is ethnically Chinese, from the southern part of the country where people have darker skin and lower status within the Chinese culture and economy. Mother of the Child and I have made meaningful efforts to keep her engaged with her ethnic and cultural identity, but what we seem to have on our hands is a young person who is color blind in the most admirable sense of the word and quite happy just being an American girl. the_child and I don't go places and do things that get us harassed or refused service. These days, on the West Coast, such bigotry isn't easy to find in a public setting. Besides which, in the calculus of racial prejudice, Asians sometimes seem to figure as an odd variant of white people.
Still, I am a racist. Not by intent, and not where it can be corrected, but I have, for example, driven into gas station at night to find half a dozen young black men wandering around the pump area shouting good-natured insults at each other. I left again, without buying gas. My passenger called me on this, accusing me of being a racist. I told her I felt unsafe. Would I have felt as unsafe if they'd been young white men? Fear of the other is hardwired into us — the pink monkey phenomenon. Part of being an intelligent, responsible citizen is overcoming that fear, setting aside those judgments and impulses, and seeing others for who they are instead of who you fear them to be.
Racism and sexism are both dependent on power dynamics. If I were ever to say to a writer of color, "readers won't accept this sort of thing because it wasn't written by a white man," I would be called out hard for arrant racism, and rightly so. Yet I've been told in so many words that as a white man it's wrong for me to appropriate the experiences of other races, other cultures.
This was said by two other panelists at World Fantasy last year. One was Canadian, commenting on how First Nations stories and experiences belonged to their writers. The other was Australian, who went on to claim that white writers who talked too much about Aboriginal traditions were literally risking their physical safety. (I have no idea if this is true, but it struck me as bizarre.) As I pointed out at the time, by their logic I couldn't write stories about Jewish characters, as I'm not Jewish. I've been in similar lopsided discussions about what I could and couldn't write about women.
I think the issue here could be characterized as one of "standing." Disempowered minorities have standing to talk about their oppressors without offense, but the reverse is not necessarily true.
Where is the balance between "writing the other" — stepping away from what Steve Barnes calls fiction about white people and their imaginary friends — and not engaging in power-driven cultural (or gender) appropriation?
That is utterly context dependent, obviously. For example, I remember as kid reading a very early Heinlein story which included a comment on the narrator's cab driver whistling, "doubtless intent on some later Darktown assignation of his own." (Quote culled from imperfect memory, if anyone has the correct cite I'd love to see it.) In 1975 I found this shocking, specifically the use of "Darktown", which is only slightly euphemistic for "Niggertown" — it was perfectly clear to me at 11 years of age how grossly wrong this was. Yet insofar as I can remember of the story, Heinlein was writing in a minor character of color without making an elaborated point of his color, and using a term which was still in common currency immediately after WWII.
These days we have a very powerful meme in our culture (at least the liberal-progressive end of it) that in a social justice context, the aggrieved party is entitled to define the boundary of the offense. This can be seen in the very simplified example in that some Native Americans find the term "Native American" annoyingly politically correct and prefer "Indian", while some find the term "Indian" racistly offensive and prefer "Native American." In more complex terms, look at the ongoing kerfuffle over the ENDA legislation in various portions of the politically active LGBT community.
So how do I write? Do I shut up and stick to white people, mostly male? This is certainly the default of our genre, and it's possible to write quite successfully without ever really leaving that pasture. It's where my "standing" is.
Or do I write about people of color, LGBT people, women, or any other oppressed class present or past, and risk, even guarantee, giving offense to some readers? It sometimes takes a conscious effort on my part to remember to people my stories with women, with gay characters, with non-whites. Does that admission make me racist/sexist/genderist? Does the fact that I try to make that conscious effort only deepen the offense, or ameliorate it?
The enormous irony here is that our genre is all about the secondary world. We can tackle anything through the lens of metaphor. Our writers always have, from Jonathan Swift to Ursula K. Le Guin to Suzette Haden Elgin to Nalo Hopkinson. Writing the other is what we do. Yet when we remove the lens of metaphor we seem to fall prey to the same interlocking pitfalls as any other field of arts and literature.
Writing is hard enough. Writing about real stuff is harder.
Do you write the other? What does the other mean to you? Am I an example of self-justfying white, male privilege, or am I on a useful track?
I don't even know the answers to questions like these, but I think asking them, repeatedly, is important. I will write what I want to, what I'm moved to, to the best of my abilities. I don't know what else to do besides that.