Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Language Bias and the Other

I wrote two quite lengthy comments today on Moonrat's blog, so I've decided to copy them here. The first is in response to some quotations about people writing of the Other, which usually means some white Western person writing about someone who is either not white or not "Western". In this case, the discussion was about Dickens' portrayal of Jews. I have some reservations about such discussions, which I explained thus:

I must say I always have huge reservations when people talk about writing the Other with a capital O. Who exactly is an Other? If a non-Jew such as Dickens writes about a Jew, he is writing about an Other, say many. So maybe he would not be writing about the Other is he only wrote about Christians. But, wait, he's a Christian man, so if he writes about a Christian woman, he is writing about the Other. So which is more Other-ey for Dickens, the Jewish male or the Christian female? Hmmm.... Hard to say. As is clear when you get into these discussions, every single other person in the world is an Other in the end.

And, yet, here's the funny part: Often we understand ourselves very little and have better perceptions of others....

So it's not clear there is any such thing as the Other, and the use of this term Other, which is intended to help analyze or present one group of people "dominating" a different group, often one with less power, instead becomes its own little prison where yet a new group of people divide everyone up into these little compartments of Otherness.

I might add to that now that it might be more useful to forget all this Otherness and just say, "Dickens wrote a Jewish character who exhibits few qualities of any actual Jewish person," and then get into details. This would be very similar to someone saying "James's mystery suffers from a seemingly complete ignorance of police procedures." I'm not saying we shouldn't jump on some writer who portrays an ethnic group in one way, either stereotypically or overly sentimentally, nor that the portrayed group should not fight to represent themselves instead of letting the more powerful group define them. I'm just saying that we might be able to fight that fight without creating new prisons in which we strongly suggest things like, "oh, she's gay, so she can't write genuinely about straight people," or "he's white, so he can't write about an Asian person," and on down the list.

Life is far too complex for that. I probably have a lot more in common with a 30-something university-educated Chinese father than I do with, I don't know, a white 70-something childless serial killing dandy. And yet for many, I would be writing about the Other if I wrote about the former and not the Other if I wrote about the latter.


And then on today's post, Moonrat discusses the issue of non-white characters and non-white writers being underrepresented in publishing, and so I wrote this diatribe:

One thing that might be worth adding to this is the role of linguistic prejudices. Standard literary writing has traditionally been based on an ideal that, not at all coincidentally, is close to the dialect of English spoken by the white middle-to-upper class mostly around the Northeast (particularly in decades past). This doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of very successful writers who have very different voices than that, and we can all start rattling them off, but those voices are often interesting precisely because they differ from the expectation. One is considered educated-sounding if one speaks the prescribed dialect which is closest to that of upper class white speakers. (There are of course lots of complexities to this.)

Now, it's certainly the case that lots of people of different ethnicities and social backgrounds speak this same standard dialect, but the proportion is less and the expectation of that dialect by others reduces the number of people who are considered writers. There must be a great number of children who spoke some non-standard dialect, such as African American Vernacular English (a dialect of English which has been rooted in black America, but is not spoken by all or only black Americans), who never considered themselves as possible future writers because their teachers were always trying to get them to drop their own dialect for the standard (white in origin) dialect.

Some of those children will convert over to the standard dialect, some will not convert but succeed with their original home dialect, but some will just internalize the belief that they are uneducated and could never write well.

This could affect who gets published in many ways. 1) By people never trying to write since they don't sound like they've been told they should; 2) By agents, editors, and publishers expecting a certain style and rejecting things that don't fit that style with only periodic exceptions, and 3) the readers not buying books that don't fit their model of what an educated writer should sound like.

I hate to say, but many readers are extremely particular about what they think good writing looks like. They'll get all "eats, shoots and leaves" on you. You would hope that people who love words would love to hear words in all the different varieties of English that exist, but the opposite seems more often the case to me. (Actually, there are good and bad reasons for this.)

Final note: No, I am NOT saying that everyone who is not white speaks in a different dialect. More often than not, it is very difficult to tell the ethnicity of the writer from, say, the style of their blog comments. I am only saying that this is one contributing factor.

It's similar to the bias on language tests in standardized testing like the SAT. I happened to grow up in a household where people spontaneously used words that could show up on the SAT. So I only had to actively learn some portion of the words through my own efforts; the rest I just picked up. But if you grow up in a household that uses words of a different dialect, you get no benefit from that, because the standardized test never tests for those words. They only test for the words of the standard dialect.

If we always expect good writing to be in the dialect originally spoken by some white Americans, then we will end up with fewer non-white writers.


fairyhedgehog said...

That's very thought-provoking.

It's also interesting to me as an English woman to see the emphasis on white Americans. I'm hoping that publishers will also consider white, middle-class British writing as appropriate as that is my dialect!

pacatrue said...

Oh, I know, hedgehog. I really did think about the American-focus of my comments as I wrote, but I had enough qualifiers and hedges as I went. The most direct parallel I know in the UK is the, as I understand it now-being-abandoned, dedication to Received Pronunciation at the BBC. Apparently, not more than a couple decades ago, one could not be a BBC broadcaster without a perfect RP accent, and the BBC maintained some sort of group to enforce this standardization. I mean how could you take someone who sounds like they are from Birmingham seriously? But, now, as I am told, one could very well be a Scot or a Scouse perhaps, or at least have a lovely Lancashire accent, and still get a job. I don't know how this would show up in writing, but it must.

fairyhedgehog said...

It's very funny if you listen to really old BBC programmes, like some of the early Watch With Mother. The accent is so extreme. (That's not a linguists reaction, I know.)

Nowadays, you will hear any accent on the BBC, but none of them very far from the standard English, which is nearer to American English than it used to be.

pjd said...

This post is a perfect example of how you piss me off frequently, Paca. Once I start, because your points are so interesting and insightful, I just can't. stop. reading. And I don't have time for all this reading and thinking! (I am one of those Neanderthals who must hear ever word in my head as I read. Slow.)

Damn you!

Oh, by the way, excellent points as always. Both diatribes are insightful and hopefully will cause some of the dogpile participants to think a bit in a different way.

I like the "own little prison" comparison. Perfect analogy. And the entire second diatribe: Two thumbs up.