Reading Minorities and the Limit of Empathy

Consuming art means confronting many archetypes and structures built from eons of culture and experiences.

After some consideration, I have decided to go through my long, long list of “to reads” I had saved in my Tumblr “likes”. All of these “to reads” were solely diverse reads. Meaning, the writers (and characters) are not straight, Western, white men, and only a couple are straight, Western, white women.

I have read and watched diverse fiction, but not in a particularly challenging way. They were either presented to me through school or I just happened to stumble upon the work.

A while back, this challenge of not reading straight, Western, white men for a year caused a stir. Particularly among straight, Western, white men. Clearly, the idea that some people are tired of the standard fare is offensive. Obviously, there are incredibly talented straight, Western, white, male writers. The problem is that most of what I, and others in the West, have spent time reading has been from that demographic. Obviously, not every non straight Western, white, male writer is incredibly talented. But the pushback on the challenge to seek out new perspectives, new forms of art, reveals a kind of reliance on whitewashing art. The assumption is that any “talented” writer has already received their accolades and exposure.

There is an assumption that this sort of free-market capitalist, egalitarian system trickles down to the arts.

But if that’s the case, we must accept that there are simply more talented straight, Western, white, male writers than literally any other demographic. And yeah, that’s kinda racist. And sexist. And homophobic. And transphobic. And xenophobic…you get where I’m going here.

But let’s go back to this idea of “talent”. As a value-judgement, “talent” is essentially the innate and/or learned mastery of a particular art. When you look at the global history of fiction, there are clearly many forms of telling a story. But we primarily focus on Western forms, academically. We can examine Shakespeare and appraise his mastery of the three act system. We can read Lord of the Rings and appreciate Tolkien’s worldbuilding talent. We learn about the Odyssey and Greek theater. We learn about how Greek and Roman mythology influenced our notions of psychological archetypes. Whole doctorates are focused on Western literature, on the origins of these markers of “talent” and “mastery”. Indeed, I have friends who will happily talk about Western lit for hours. I know I do!

However, our reliance on largely Western forms of storytelling shouldn’t constrain our enjoyment of global art. In fact, we must train ourselves in understanding other forms of storytelling if we wish to gain a wider sense of empathy. Art has a way of evoking emotion—art incites nostalgia, shared experience, and catharsis. However, this emotional vulnerability doesn’t quite work when you do not understand how a Bollywood film is usually structured.

As an undergraduate student, I took two incredibly formative classes: Words and Power in West African Traditions, and Religion and Gender in Bollywood.

These two classes exposed me to forms of storytelling that were completely foreign to me. At first, they were highly difficult to follow and connect to. But as we were taught the frameworks of the oral, religious, and historical traditions of these cultures, we could better find that catharsis that these stories were made to invoke.

It would be easy to point to a film like Slumdog Millionaire and say that this conflicts with the idea that Westerners can’t enjoy a non-Western/white/male story. The problem is thatSlumdog Millionaire was 1: not a Bollywood film and 2: it did not present any challenging or—literally—foreign concepts. Even Hayao Miyazaki films have heavy Western influences and references, making it more palatable to Western tastes.

I would say that people who have not been exposed to other cultures and their storytelling frameworks absolutely have more difficulty enjoying those stories in their native forms.

Consuming art means confronting many archetypes and structures built from eons of culture and experiences.

I write this because we eventually have to confront the reality of limited experience. Claire Light wrote about Sense8 and the Wachowski’s ultimately flawed hope to create a story about universal human experiences. Light points out that while Sense8 brings a uniquely diverse cast to the Western watchers of Netflix, it relies upon a “global imagination” that is suspiciously American. This is largely blamed on the lack of diverse writers/directors on the show, and the Wachowski’s limited worldview. Light attempts to provide reasons why this could be fixed through introducing native writers/directors, including the praise of how Nomi’s character and San Francisco scenes glowed brilliantly under the guidance of writers and directors who know those particular experiences intimately.

We will not be able to fully understand The Other’s experiences, just as I—as a third culture kid—will never fully grasp what it means to be a person born and raised in the United States, Canada, Cuba, Italy, Argentina, or Bolivia. I spent significant amounts of time in each of these countries (except Cuba), and have formative experiences being immersed in these cultures whether through family or while living there. However, I have to accept that the experience of someone whose family has lived for generations in these places is something that I can’t quite understand. My experience is limited. I am only human, and I’m only me.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. I wouldn’t blame people for not having deep emotional understanding of an infinite amount of experiences. I know my comfort reads are primarily Western. But I will say that the idea of a “universal experience” of art, of emotion, is impossible at best. I will also say that remaining comfortable in one cultural genre isn’t such a good idea, either.

So this is why I will start reading more diverse stories, preferably not on the bestseller lists, because those tend to be chosen based on the largely whitewashed sensibilities of straight, Western, white men. I will do so while understanding that I can’t pigeon-hole these writers’ experiences to their culture. I do so while also knowing that I can only read English and Spanish, and the diversity of language constrains my empathy even further.

And that’s okay, as long as I see where I can grow and where I can’t. I can listen to—and trust—the experiences of others.

And that’s an art in itself.

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