with Paisley Rekdal
We caught up with Paisley Rekdal as she marks the publication of her new book, Appropriation: A Provocation.
I believe that empathy activates and preserves communal memory, X; it extends the historical record by asking people to carry the narratives of others not like them in their own mind, and that is no small thing. Empathy allows us to transcend the damaging effects of historical institutions such as slavery or genocide by paying witness to them, by intimately imagining and understanding their construction and effects. And yet readers should be mindful of the artifice and racial hierarchies built into the creation of any empathetic performance. Empathy may be a profound, exciting, and beneficial emotion, but it cannot be used to justify or critically frame any work engaged in appropriation. As the writer Namwali Serpell suggests in her article “The Banality of Empathy,” perhaps you and I might employ Hannah Arendt’s theory of “representative thinking” instead of empathy in our writing, which means that rather than trying to imaginatively become another person in our work, you and I imagine our own thoughts and feelings but from another person’s position. “Representative thinking” is akin to what Loffreda and Rankine argue for in The Racial Imaginary, when our imagination encourages us to visit but not encompass or homogenize the other’s perspective. By doing this, you and I maintain our own detachment while also respecting the independence of the other person’s experience.
There’s one final note I’d like to add about empathy as a possible definition of desire. I find it bemusing that when we talk about empathetic forms of appropriation, we often speculate about how to write about the trauma of a marginalized community. However, one obvious but little practiced way to write about the trauma of racism, say, would be for a white writer to imagine the position of the racist. Why not write about slavery from the slaver’s perspective? Remarkably few writers have done this, perhaps because it is more appealing to imagine yourself as the victim rather than the perpetrator of violence, perhaps because the white writer fears that the audience would do to her what it tends to do to the writer of color, which is to collapse the identity of the narrator with that of the author. Regardless, the story of racism does not simply happen to people of color. In a White-centered society, racism necessitates the presence of White people, and so the White writer could easily empathize with a multitude of historical traumas by locating her Whiteness as the subject to be examined.
For me, as a writer, one of the most dangerous side effects of empathetic desire when it appropriates another culture’s trauma is that it elides the minoritized community with its marginalization and pain. These in turn risk becoming the community’s authenticating narratives, both for readers outside and within the community. Because if writers outside a marginalized community imagine its trauma poorly, writers from within the community will be spurred to respond, to correct the record. Their artistic resistance becomes, over time, a feedback loop. If the literary marketplace publishes stories appropriated on the basis of their empathetic reception, we risk letting the narrative of racism and trauma for writers of color prevail, because that’s what the literary system recognizes as authentic based on its publishing record, and that’s also what the writer of color can ensure is distinctly within her autobiographical control. Over time, the literary marketplace and the writer of color unconsciously but complicitly work to elide the raced identity with pain, with suffering, with racism, with psychic damage. This system of literary power requires that writers, in trying to dismantle the system, are implicitly put in a position of performing their own disempowerment for an audience eager to understand it, thus this disenfranchisement becomes the primary trope that both the publishing world and the writer of color can agree frames the writer of color’s experience as different from the white writer’s.
And I think this, again, is why it’s offensive to many writers to see the experience of racism appropriated. Not only is this an experience we suspect the White writer hasn’t experienced, it also reifies something few of us want to imagine: I am the body that is wounded, othered, stigmatized. It makes racial difference a continuing trauma that must only be endured, never celebrated. And I don’t think that’s how most people of color experience their bodies, or the world.