The Dangers of Writing Through a Strictly White Lens

After a brief vacation from blogging, I had planned to give you an update on the trying to get published process- and I do actually have an update.  BUT I’ll have to tell you next time (next week, I promise!) because, as happens sometimes, I read something yesterday that I feel compelled to discuss.

NYT Article Renders Suicides of Asian American Students Invisible

A couple of days ago the NYT wrote a story about mental health issues and suicides among college students.  Yesterday a writer at Reapproppriate, a site dedicated to Asian American activism, noted the glaring omission of any discussion of the Asian-American students.  She writes:

“Asian American students are more likely than their non-Asian peers to report experiencing [depression or anxiety]. Asian American women have the highest suicide rate of women of any race. Asian Americans are also among the least likely of patients to seek and receive medical help for depression or related symptoms… [the NYT] had ample opportunity to mention this Asian American disparity — and the impact of racial identity in general — with regard to on-campus mental illness and its treatment; but she repeatedly and disconcertingly fails to do so.”

She asks, why did the NYT make Asian-Americans invisible in a story about an issue that deeply affects that community?

The NYT Article Shows the Dangers of Writing with a Strictly White Lens

I talk often about how most movies or books about life or humanity (i.e., not about race or difference) by default feature white characters, as if white people are the only ones who feel love or loneliness or have issues with their parents or a blinding ambition.

The consequence is that the world sees and internalizes a very limited portrayal of people of color.  Even Obama said that, growing up, his understanding of what it meant to be black in America was primarily based on what he saw on TV.  In other words, the way minorities are depicted in the media not only affect how others see us, but also how we see ourselves.

This is what makes the NYT’s omission of Asian-American students particularly troubling.  She’s writing about an extremely sensitive topic and people who feel marginalized and invisible, but she’s doing so through a completely white lens.  As a result, not only does she contribute to the limited portrayal of people of color, she contributes to the very problem she’s trying to address by suggesting that the death of students of color (and therefore the lives of student of color) aren’t as meaningful as those of white students.

On Twitter, the writer acknowledges there is an issue in the Asian-American community but that “one story can only do so much.”  She then points out that she didn’t discuss men either. I understand the impulse to defend herself, but I think she’s missing the point.  The racial component isn’t a separate story.  It’s a crucial part of any discussion of suicide on campuses.

I don’t think her omissions were malicious.  I don’t think the writer is racist.  But her perspective was limited, and therefore so was her ability to write the story.  Writers, publishers and newspapers- especially the NYT – should hold themselves to a higher standard.


5 thoughts on “The Dangers of Writing Through a Strictly White Lens

  1. What is this “white lens” that has entered the literature? People are people, with varying emotions, problems, voices. Suicide has no color. Murder has no hue. Skin colors are everything but white. Perhaps looking through “colored lenses” is a manufactured perception that needs to be explored.

    • I’m not saying she had to look at things through an Asian or minority perspective (but I think it’s important to have writers who do but that’s a different issue). I think that she missed something huge and obvious- that there was a racial element to these suicide clusters. Yes, I believe her perspective was limited- I think everyone’s perspective is limited. Still, its a little shocking to me that not only she missed this and all the editors at the NYT did as well. I think they need to diversify their staff or start asking different to make sure this aspect isn’t completely ignored in the future. In this case, I think identifying this component of the issue could help in the effort in addressing it.

  2. Pingback: Will black lives ever matter? | ILLEGALWRITING

  3. Perhaps the problem is with reading, not writing. I grew up in a culturally mixed neighborhood, reading Chinese classics that depicted their struggles, Dutch fables that grew empathy for the the dike crises, and American migration stories of bondage among people who crossed country to work in fields. All these lives mattered and made me a better teacher. Eye to eye contact sees no color differences if each brings understanding of the other. Read, people, read. Get out of your head and look around. There are other people in this world.

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