on totems

Recently, the Native American critic and scholar Dr. Debbie Reese, whose work focuses on representations of Native Americans in children's literature, wrote to me after reading my first novel, All Our Pretty Songs. (One of the main characters of the book, Raoul, is Navajo.) She was kind enough to tell me she enjoyed the book; however, she wrote that:
A task ahead of me is how to write about a book that [...] has one of those 'one line' problems that I rail about:
"High school has gotten no less prisonlike over the summer. I’m a senior now, officially at the top of the totem pole, building memories and planning for my future." McCarry, Sarah (2013-07-30). All Our Pretty Songs (p. 158). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
As she rightly points out, to describe a person's status as "high" or "low" on the totem pole is a misrepresentation of the culture of the Northwest Native tribes who create totem poles and the meaning and purpose of those poles. Further, as Robin K. Wright notes:
In the late 1800s most tribes ceased to carve these monumental poles when the potlatch, the ceremony held when poles were raised, was made illegal in Canada. Nevertheless, some families, especially the Kwakwaka'wakw people at the north end of Vancouver Island, continued to potlatch in secret. They carved and raised poles and made many masks to use at these ceremonies. During this time, Indian agents and missionaries discouraged the carving of new poles and the associated ceremonial activities, and people began to move from their old clan houses into single-family frame houses located near fish canneries, lumber mills, and trading posts. Very few old poles still stand in their original locations today. Many of the poles were taken or sold to museums and collectors around the world, others were allowed to decay, or cut down and chopped up. --"Totem Poles: Heraldic Columns of the Northwest Coast," Robin K. Wright
"Officially at the top of the totem pole," then, is a single line that invokes an entire history of genocide, erasure, and oppression; what appears at first glance to be a minor misrepresentation becomes a kind of synechdochic stand-in for centuries of violence against the indigenous peoples of the part of the world where I was born and that I love more than any other landscape on earth. As Ayesha Siddiqi notes, "every border implies the violence of its maintenance"; my glib reproduction of a cultural misrepresentation, far from being a minor slip, fully implies the violence required to create and disseminate it. And my own individual response to Dr. Reese's rightful highlighting of that violence--whether it is embarrassment, shame, a heartfelt apology and promise to do better--neither alters that violence nor undoes the actual harm it both represents and reinforces. Dr. Reese's careful and attentive reading of my work, for which I am deeply grateful, came when I had already been thinking for some time about white writers' responses to individual or structural critique of structural oppressions within the publishing industry, representations of race in texts by white writers, and white writers' anxiety around "punishment" of white writers who reproduce stereotypical and racist representations of racialized bodies.
It is important to recognize that, while the perceived and emotional consequences of that often very public castigation are real, there are almost never material consequences for white writers who participate--either with awareness or unwittingly--in the propagation of institutionalized racisms (and sexisms, and homophobias). In particular, white writers who are already commercially successful will continue to be commercially successful and will see few to no professional consequences for actions or language that are complicit with or openly supportive of those institutional oppressions. They will, in short, continue to make money. The same degree of material safety is not in any way extended to writers, especially writers of color, who call into question dominant ideologies or individual actions. Publishing is an industry, not an anticapitalist project, and any industry whose end goal is capital is not an industry that will ever invest in--or, frankly, have any interest in--material, transformative justice. If "diversity" sells, publishers will sell diversity, but increasingly effective packaging and distribution of "diverse" stories should not be mistaken for anything resembling structural change. (See here Jennifer Pan, "The Limits of Diversity.")
I do not mean at all to discount individual experiences of harassment, shame, or scrutiny via social media; it is not fun, by any stretch of the imagination, to experience the wrath of the internet. But it is also important to recognize that the more social and material capital an individual has access to, the more he or she is able to mediate the real or perceived emotional consequences of that attention, and the more likely that attention is to be a single moment in the span of a lifetime rather than, as it is for marginalized people, a lifetime's span of oppressions ranging from daily microaggressions to physical assault or even death. (I am deeply indebted here to Tressie McMillan Cottom's 2014 piece "Racists Getting Fired: The Sins of Whiteness on Social Media.")
As creators, it is extremely difficult for us--for all of us, no matter our race, religion, ethnicity, ability, or sexuality--to decenter ourselves from conversations around the purpose and production of what we create. For those of us who occupy one or more identities privileged by the dominant culture, it is also extremely easy to fixate on the wrong questions. "Why aren't I 'allowed' to write characters of color," "How do I 'correctly' write characters of color," and "Who is the 'expert' I can access to 'authenticate' my portrayal of a character of color" are far less useful questions for white writers to be asking ourselves than "What does it mean to write characters of color within the confines of an industry that routinely privileges narratives by white writers over writers of color."
We are all inhabitants of an explicitly and implicitly racist, sexist, homophobic, and imperialist system. There is no out; there is no story we can tell that will exonerate us from its implications or liberate us from its effects. For many white writers, including myself, writing stories that include a diverse spectrum of sexualities and racial identities is an accurate reflection of the world we live in. But the professed longing of white writers to reproduce the "authentic" racialized body, the "correct" narrative of otherness, is a convenient disguise for the underlying gestures of colonization and erasure that enable those reproductions to be canonized and rewarded to an extent that narratives produced by othered writers themselves are not. The performance of that longing for "authenticity" serves only to further insist on the centering of whiteness at the expense of writers of color, whose sole role in any conversation about "authenticity" can only be as experts whose testimony serves to reassure the all-pervasive anxieties of whiteness. It goes without saying that that labor of authentication is unpaid.
For white writers, it is imperative as well for us to remember that we are not producing these stories in a vacuum. As writers of color--and in particular, women writers of color--have been pointing out for literal decades, white writers' work is far more likely to be praised, promoted, published, and financially rewarded than the work of writers of color reflecting their own experiences of the world. White writers have the institutional power to constantly refute any interrogations of that injustice with our own individual hurt, anxiety, or insistence that we ought to be "allowed" to tell stories that do not mirror our own lived experiences (as if any Twitter controversy has ever actually prevented a commercially successful white writer from telling whatever story about people of color he or she wishes to produce). We are far more likely to receive material and emotional support and sympathy if our work is called into question than the writers of color who are investing time and energy into producing those critiques. And we are far less likely--indeed, not very likely at all--to suffer any professional consequences whatsoever if we produce narratives outside our own experience that reinforce racist tropes and ideologies. There is no correct performance of allyship, no perfect narrative, no story we can tell that makes institutional racism go away. There is no institutional body that will punish us if we cause harm, whether or not we intend to. If language is our business, it is our work as well to at the very least pay attention to it.
All of which brings me back to All Our Pretty Songs, totem poles, and the thankless, exhausting work of writers and critics like Dr. Reese, who have devoted their careers to calling into question the constant reinforcement of stereotypes and racist tropes that occurs within the publishing industry. As an individual, I can apologize all I like for failing to do my job as a writer, but no apology I can make will take away the fact that my error is indicative both of my own inattention and the inattention or outright disinterest of an industry that continues to put into wide circulation that error and thousands of others like it by thousands of other writers. There is no closure available here. And so I will leave you not with my words, but with those of Dr. Reese, who has given me permission to reprint them here:
In talks I give, and in conversations, I suggest that teachers teach kids that books are not sacred. We can write in them, if they're ours. What if you said to your readers, that you want them to take our their copy of SONGS and turn to that page, and do x or y or z.
First, they need to know the phrase "low man on the totem pole" is inaccurate because those poles do not have that kind of value associated with them. They cross out that sentence. Second, they can choose what to do. Kind of like those "choose your own ending" books. They can... Replace those words with ones you give them. Come up with their own phrase to replace the one in the book. Redo the passage, maybe with the character saying that out loud to someone, Raoul, maybe, and having him say 'hold up' in some way. A mini-lecture, but delivered in a clever and not didactic way.
I am, as always, hugely in debt to the work of a great many writers of color in my thinking around these issues, including but by no means limited to: Ken Chen Daniel José Older Justina Ireland Camryn Garrett Debbie Reese Tressie McMillan Cottom Sara Ahmed