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Op Eds

Can the Oppressed Speak?

By Brian Baltazar Pimentel, Crimson Opinion Writer
Brian Baltazar Pimentel ’23 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Eliot House concentrating in English.

No, seems to be the answer. The question of “Who can write what?” comes up in my English classes more often than I like, forcing me to push back against the champions of (white) artistic freedom. The oppressed cannot speak for themselves, so their voice must be adopted by the white hand. It amuses me how naive this stance’s defenders are when they call upon objectivity, believing that the art they produce has no repercussions, no politics, no subjectivity. Let us retire this discourse and practice: do not speak for the oppressed.

In her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak presents the Western practice of investigating non-Western cultures through Western “universal” concepts and frameworks. At its basis, she argues that Western academic thinking is produced to support Western economic interests, holding that knowledge expresses the economic interests of its producer. As a postcolonial writer, Spivak’s essay suggests that the knowledge production of non-Western cultures in the West is colonial; defining the “Other” and their culture through the white gaze.

Spivak engages in a discourse on “sati,” the Hindu practice of a widow sacrificing herself with her deceased husband, and constructs the brilliant phrase “White men are saving brown women from brown men” to generalize the approach of Western knowledge on non-Western peoples. The Western voice is perceived as superior to that of the oppressed, who are not given space to speak for themselves.

Literature, as a form of knowledge production, adopts this same framework of colonization, where white people reap the benefits of oppressed voices when they write from oppressed experiences unknown to them. The benefits do not have to strictly be monetary compensation earned from sales: It comes in access to a new social network. Other consequences include producing a representation of a people (and causes) unknown to you, and trampling the voice of someone who may have wanted to speak but was not allowed to.

I do not mean that one should only write from what they know, nor do I mean that one should only write about members of their own race and culture. White writers should not be replacing oppressed perspectives and it should be recognized that these writers are writing from the "oppressor" identity even if they aren't an oppressor themselves.

It is challenging for white authors to use Black and brown characters in their work accurately because they see these characters under their white gaze. Take “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins for example. It is the tale of an upperclass Mexican family’s escape to the United States as undocumented immigrants, fleeing a drug cartel after their leader murders her journalist husband — all written by a white woman. What did Cummins know about oppressed Mexicans? Immigration? Mexican cartels? Likely she knew what the Western media and white gaze allowed her to know. Because it is a near impossible task for white writers to articulate and represent the dynamics of non-Western cultures.

I will accept that white authors can write about non-white characters in their work; however, the work must not be centered on the politics of those peoples. Jane Austen wrote about white people white-people-ing even when they were above her class, and this was not problematic because she dove into the dynamics of her own race and realm of experience!

The bottom line is that white writers speaking for the oppressed is not trivial. You cannot remove politics from literature and literature from its impact; literature impacts politics which dictate our material conditions, which can decide whether many of us live or die. Some argue that we should put aside our differences and enjoy a good read over a cup of coffee without race, class, gender, and sexuality weighing in. The shadow of “putting aside our differences” discourse lingers in this discussion of who can write what. However, these differences are often the very object of people’s oppression. Hair, color, and fatness are politicized in our world. What makes you think that something as concrete and long-lasting as literature is not? Literature impacts how we as a society think, and thus is inherently political. We breathe politics. How could we set it aside?

This discourse is important and necessary; I am just tired of being the only one defending it every time it comes up in my classes. Let us reexamine “artistic freedom” after shedding the Western universality and objectivity attached to it. I now look to the Harvard English department — and any other departments producing art — to implement this discourse and do right by the oppressed. Acknowledge the harm caused by a white writer using the voice of the oppressed, or when possible, don't give them that space altogether. Integrate race, class, gender, and sexuality into the literary pedagogy instead of doing the occasional unit. I am optimistic about the work that the English department has done and can do. This is just another step along the path to creating the best version of our beautiful department.

Brian Baltazar Pimentel ’23, is a Crimson Editorial editor in Eliot House concentrating in English.

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