Deconstructing literary privilege

Exploring how systemic racism oppresses authors today

Credit: 
Supplied by Julia Mallon

Intersectionality is crucial to dismantling literary privilege. 

Society teaches ideologies through institutions like prisons, hospitals, armies, and educational systems. The systematic racism and white privilege embedded in these institutions impacts how people learn; consider that in the early 1800s, law in South Carolina prohibited children living in slavery from learning how to read and write.

With the right tools and knowledge, however, the current generation can break the boundaries of literary privilege.

Denying people of colour an equal opportunity to develop literacy skills in the 1800s created a ripple effect still felt today. In the current education system, students learn primarily from the works of white authors—students in 2020 often learn about Black experiences as told by the racial majority. This literary privilege afforded to white students has facilitated the success of white authors while building a towering barrier for writers of African-American descent.

Consider the famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It examines the prejudices intertwined in the fabric of the Southern United States during the 1930s in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The novel depicts racism and oppression through the eyes of a young girl as she grows up in a cruel society.

Although the novel focuses on the mistreatment of Black people at the hands of white people, Lee herself is a white author. Her perspective on these issues is that of an outsider from a position of privilege.

In many ways, it feels disingenuous to read and teach a novel about the troubling realities of being Black in America that isn’t written by a Black author. This is the embodiment of white privilege—talking about racism without experiencing it.

Being a white woman in the 1960s better positioned Harper Lee to publish her novel and be more successful than Black authors of the time. Even today, novels written by Black authors about Black experiences are rarely taught in classrooms. Literature written by wealthy, cisgender, and white authors is typically viewed as more sophisticated and credible as it aligns more closely with the privileged values ingrained in the education system.

As a white woman, Harper Lee never truly understood the racial oppression and discrimination portrayed in her famous novel, as she never lived it herself. This applies to all white authors who, at most, can sympathize as allies. A failure to contextualize the work of these authors is facilitating ignorance and white privilege, two traits which pose detrimental threats to social circles, the workplace, and our communities as a whole.

Intersectionality suggests people consist of various identities created from past experiences and social relations within the framework of power structures. Academic literature is the tool used to teach students about the foundations of societal knowledge. Therefore, it’s imperative to study literature through an intersectional lens. Doing so allows for the contextualization of authors and the potentially privileged conditions surrounding the creation of their work. This lens makes it clear why the telling of Black experiences by white authors is problematic.

Now, perhaps more than ever before, Canadian students have a responsibility to question why their literature focuses primarily on the experiences of the white middle-class authors with a formal education. They must recognize that authors of colour, particularly women, are actively overlooked by academia. The burden of contextualizing written work falls on educators and their students. As a result, classrooms must analyze literature through an intersectional lens.

In 2020, white privilege has been on full display, and it’s never been more imperative that the positionality of authors be understood. The Black Lives Matter movement should inspire the Queen’s community to actively educate themselves and their peers about the systemic racism embedded in literature and support Black authors. 

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