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Mainstream culture versus minority representation

An essay on minority representation by Nalini Haynes

Jeannette Ng wrote an excellent article on mainstream culture versus minority representation. I recommend you read it. Also, I interviewed Jeannette; this interview is available here and on all good podcast platforms.

Ng says,

The thing about the mainstream is that it is constantly telling itself about itself. It is how the mainstream maintains itself, how it re-enforces that mythology. The mainstream can be functionally defined as the culture that tells you about itself the most…

Despite commonalities, there is no singular experience of being marginalised.

So the dominant culture is not only all-pervasive but it reinforces itself while continually positioning itself as dominant alongside marginalising anyone, any group, that is too different. Ng talks about Twinkies, Moon Pies, weddings and picnics to illustrate her points. “Everyone” knows what Twinkies and Moon Pies are. Weddings and their symbolism are self-reinforced in every ceremony and every depiction of ceremonies. Picnics are apparently “sad” if the picnickers are children on concrete. In contrast, minorities can have unique cultures. Ng cites her family’s adaptive blends of cultures as an example. Problems arise with expectations of representation and explanations of these cultures and lived experiences.

Twinkies and Moon Pies

I’ve been part of Western culture nearly my entire life. I’ve actually googled “moon pie” only to find that no one talks about what it is because that knowledge is assumed. I imagine Twinkies are sponge cake with fake chemical-filled cream sodden with preservatives to last longer than a MacDonalds’ cheeseburger. Wedding symbolism is prevalent in Western culture, and deviations from accepted norms incur the wrath of those with too little else to interest them. I guess the symbolism of picnics on concrete is kind of sad but if the kids are having fun, who is anyone to judge? Hey, if it’s a group of kids, they have friends, amiright? We find our joys where we can, and if we make those joys frequent and accessible, that’s fabulous. But that’s my opinion, and not that of the majority of writers and movie directors.

The assumptions upon which mainstream culture reinforces itself cause problems in archaeology. Archaeologists have questions about assumed knowledge from as little as one hundred years ago. Recent discoveries revealed that central Melbourne, Australia, was so swampy that houses were buried to increase the height of the land. These events were forgotten despite remembered history of wetlands in west Melbourne. Artefacts from Hobart’s women convicts’ gaol perplex because their use is obscure or ill-defined. And this is relatively recent history.

Explanations of minority culture can disenfranchise

Ng discusses how explanations of minority culture can disenfranchise those people. She says

There’s an excellent episode titled “Hold Up! Time For An Explanatory Comma” from the podcast Code Switch that explores how the explanatory comma breaks the flow of a joke or an interview, how it centres the stubbornly ignorant mainstream and can serve to further make those from marginalised backgrounds feel like they aren’t the audience of a piece.

This framing of minority experience for the mainstream has larger ramifications. It says the story is, for example, for the male gaze even when the subjects are women, or for the nondisabled gaze when the story is about disabled people.

When I was at RMIT studying writing and editing, lecturer Michelle Aung Thin critiqued a scene in my novel. This scene involved a disabled parent and disabled child talking to the powers that be in a high school where staff are both ignorant and flagrantly bigoted. Michelle Aung Thin said both that the scene gave too much information about disability and bigotry BUT ALSO NOT ENOUGH. She acknowledged the contradictory nature of her feedback but refused to identify what she wanted taken out or added. It seemed she wanted a magic wand that taught her about vision impairment and how to behave towards vision impaired people while not making her feel lectured or uncomfortable in any way.


(Full disclosure: Michelle Aung Thin also instructed me to accept advice to change my degree and change my career aspirations because she agreed that the publishing industry would never consider me as an employee or contractor, despite my grades {distinctions despite writing disability and speculative fiction} and academic awards for excellence. It’s possible that Michelle felt my depiction of violence against a disabled teenager in a high school was too close to then-current disability discrimination by RMIT. However, in 2015, once the Australian Human Rights Commission set about convening mediation, RMIT chose to end the disability discrimination and facilitate my studies. I graduated at the end of 2015.)

As you know, Bob

Ng also contrasts explanations of minority culture with how, in real life, we tell each other things we all already know. This narrative — according to founder of Narrative Therapy Michael White — shapes and reinforces our socially-constructed identities. Thus, stories could shoe-horn awkward exposition or dialogue into the narrative or characters can naturally reminisce about something relevant. I’ve seen examples of both and have read excellent examples of the latter this year … and cannot, for the life of me, remember which book/s I applauded for excellence in this regard.

Showing versus telling

Showing versus telling in stories is an age-old argument. Ng writes

Many have written on how this rule against “telling” enforces the idea that cultures and symbols should all be self-explanatory, that it doesn’t allow space for writers from marginalised cultures and racial backgrounds to provide additional context and history. “Showing” relies on the ability to draw on a pre-existing network of iconography and tropes that have established by other works and broader culture. If the iconography of your culture is unknown to the reader, then there is simply no option to draw upon it.

How do you understand when you haven’t encountered iconography before? Or, if you have encountered it before, how do you understand now when you didn’t before? Hearing “Je ne comprends pas” over and over does not tell you that it means “I don’t understand”.

Learning in isolation

I’ve spent most of my life isolated from ‘my tribe’, vision impaired people, because of my parents’ prejudices and decision to hide me and my disability away from public view when I was a child. They put me into a school for vision impaired kids because it was cheaper than creche. Then they took me out that school, transfered me frequently, left me at home during family outings, and generally pretended (and still pretend) that I don’t exist.

I learnt things from books instead of interactions: how far to stand away from people without seeming too distant or too close, that a small degree of touching people on the lower arm can help create a connection (I’m not naturally the touching type), and the pervasiveness of visual symbolism, a language with which I still struggle. I’ve learnt certain cues, so sometimes I’ll google a particular item or action searching for deeper meaning. Or I’ll just note, mentally, that “X happened, it obviously meant something — to the writer”.

Nondisabled authors writing vision impairment

The reverse also applies. Nondisabled authors write vision impairment without research and without sensitivity readers. Thus, they get it horribly wrong. For example, N K Jemisin writes eloquently and engagingly about issues regarding race but uses the same old broken tropes that misrepresent vision impairment in her One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy. The following may seem harsh but I’m using Jemisin’s novel as an example because IT’S ONE OF THE BEST REPRESENTATIONS I’VE READ FROM A NONDISABLED AUTHOR. Context is queen.

Jemisin’s blind character pulls weeds out of the garden, never mistaking a weed from a seedling no matter how small. Apparently, her acute sense of smell enables her to say “this sprout is a weed but not that sprout” when they are side by side, without shoving her nose into the dirt and never making a mistake.

Magic gives this character a sense of sight (‘blind but can magically see’ trope, sigh). Ironically, her magical sight is probably the closest description to my eyesight that I’ve read from a nondisabled author. But this representation is still problematic. Without magic, she cannot tell the difference between a cobblestone and an ice-covered cobblestone with her cane because Jemisin hasn’t consulted with cane users. Her arms never ache and her cane never catches on cobblestones. In real life, they’re a trap! No one kicks her cane nor shoves her aside because “inferior disabled object, not a person”. With magic, she has to take time to figure out what she’s seeing but she’s never confounded and never makes mistakes. If only!

Mainstream vs everyone else

For me this discussion is never “just” about representation versus the mainstream, it’s about misappropriation and the mainstream deciding how to represent minority stories, thereby reinforcing the dominant discourse about minorities. The issues Ng recounts are real and prevalent. The mainstream tells us about itself every minute of every day while continually and in myriad ways reinforcing its marginalisation of ‘others’. If we tell our stories, we’re lecturing or “telling not showing” or we’re giving too much information or not enough… We’re exoticized and eroticized or confined to the attic or angry or…

I Am Change: an example of respectful minority representation by a mainstream authorWhat is the solution? Let us tell our own stories. Listen. Allow our truths, our experiences, to become part of the zeitgeist. Stop trying to silence us as Margrit Shildrick does when she says, in Dangerous Discourses, that her research into disability is better than that of disabled people because she knows what it is like to not be disabled and she can imagine other states of being. And please, for the love of all that is decent, stop “using [your] imagination” to write minority stories. And never ever try to “put one over on” the reader, which is apparently Lionel Shriver’s goal. If you’re part of the privileged mainstream and you’re writing minority stories without Suzy Zail’s sense of respect evidenced in her research and consultation, then you’re part of the problem.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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