Point / Counterpoint: Should privileged writers represent marginalized communities?

Two Journal staff discuss privilege in storytelling 



Sarina Grewal

Assistant News Editor   

Diversity in literature is a strength: it allows for the presentation of new ideas and can educate readers about the experiences of others. 

For authors, tackling diversity means facing their own positionality: can a white person write about a person of colour? Can an able-bodied person write about someone with a disability? Can a cisgendered person tell a story about a transgender individual? 

I’d say yes. But in taking on a story involving a marginalized group as a person in a privileged position, the key lies in acknowledging the responsibility and weight in writing about the experiences of another. 

Cultural appropriation is absolutely a concern: objectification, exotification and stereotyping people of other identities is definitely not something to be condoned. 

But there’s something to say for a person trying to understand the experiences of another and to portray them in a way that’s both impactful and accurate. Sometimes the stories we need to hear can be imagined by people outside of those communities. 

For example, Beartown  is a book about a young woman who is sexually assaulted and the ripple effect this incident has throughout her town. Alongside this young woman, one of its other primary characters is a young Muslim boy. This novel is written by a Fredrik Backman, a white man who isn’t a survivor of sexual violence. 

Nevertheless, Backman presents the characters in a highly nuanced, multi-faceted way, without relying on stereotypes; the girl’s assault and the boy’s religious faith aren’t the entirety of who they are. These aspects aren’t ignored, but the two are depicted as people with many layers beyond one facet of their identity. 

There’s a right way and a wrong way to write about marginalized voices. It’s vital to ensure people of the community have significant input into how they’re presented. 

Research is necessary and the principles of proper allyship must be remembered. To express important ideas and convey essential stories that aren’t necessarily your own is tenuous as a person with privileged positionality. 

If done wrong, it can set back an entire community. But if it’s done the right way, it can often be incredibly powerful.



Clayton Tomlinson

Assistant Arts Editor 

For some people, family histories are fortunate enough to be without accounts of marginalization or government persecution. While still meaningful, their stories come from a more privileged place in society than those in the margins.  

These privileged people have stories to tell and issues of their own that they can better reflect upon. Because of this, it seems unnecessary they should feel a need to tell the stories of marginalized peoples instead. 

In Canada, for example, marginalized peoples have just recently begun the process of attempting to overcome the still-fresh wounds of the history of residential school. 

That’s the difference between a privileged writer telling the story of a marginalized community and someone speaking about their own pain. If people in privileged positions keep telling stories beyond their experience with regards to race, ethnicity, gender and other minority groups, we’ll never get it right.

For example, Canadian playwright Tomson Highway wrote his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen after a first-hand experience of abuse in a residential school. People who are disconnected from their characters’ experiences shouldn’t tell the stories of those more directly affected. Simple as that. 

There’s nothing problematic if an artist wants to depict someone of another race. It becomes problematic when the artist takes other peoples’ stories and defining experiences out of their communities’ context.

Privileged people shouldn’t be able to tell other marginalized people what their lives are like. Telling their stories in the form of a novel or movie is the same thing — we’re just disguising this with discussion of artistic license.

Marginalized communities should be self-represented because stories — and their ownership — are central to identity. 

If we crowd out self-representation, marginalized communities’ stories will continue to be misrepresented as they make way for privileged writers who perhaps have more access to publication. 



Canadian literature, diversity, point/counterpoint

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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