Can Only a Black Person Explain the Black Experience

Can only a black person explain the black experience?

Can only a Jew explain the Jewish experience?

Can only an Arab explain Arab culture?

Alexandra Duncan certainly thinks so, at least when it comes to whites and blacks. She withdrew a novel because she is white and some of her novel presents a black perspective. That she, as a white person, originally thought she could write about blacks was a terrible mistake, she said in explaining her decision to shelve her novel, for which she had a large advance.

Did Duncan err in thinking that a white person cannot not accurately present a black perspective?

Clearly, a person who is black has a handle on what it is like to be black in a way that a non-black person does not have. This is intuitive.

Similarly, one who is Jewish has a handle on what it’s like to be Jewish that a non-Jew does not have.

However, this is far different from saying that it is a mistake for someone who is white to write about the black experience. It is not a mistake, since any single perspective is limited. To be black and to write about the black experience is to provide an insider perspective. It is unique. It is valuable. But it is not the only perspective. There is also the outsider perspective. This can add to, not supplant or distort, the insider perspective.

An analogy: the biographer. Who is best suited to delve into the essence of a person? Is it someone who had a personal relationship with the subject, or someone who did not? The answer is not either/or. The personal relationship provides a unique perspective, but also a limited one. An outsider can see things that an insider cannot see. It is precisely because of the limitations of both the insider and the outsider perspectives that a first-rate biographer will seek both.

Robert A. Caro’s unparalleled, multi-volume biography of former President Lyndon B. Johnson seeks out exhaustive interviews with people who were close to Johnson at every stage of his life. That is the insider perspective. Caro also sought out documents, records, interviews, radio and TV appearances, and speeches of Johnson. These supplemented the insider perspective. These provided a fuller picture of Johnson than those who knew him could never provide.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, provided the most powerful insight into the injustices of black slavery. Arguably, Stowe gave more power to the abolitionist movement than any other person. Not to mention, her book was a bestseller in many languages and went a long way to discrediting slavery in other countries, too. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of the most influential books in American history ever written.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was white.

Precisely what it was she portrayed in the black experience of slavery is subject to moods of interpretation that shift with the decades. At a minimum, Stowe’s book bolstered the morale of black slaves when it was published in 1851, since Stowe’s depiction of black slavery revealed its horrors more accurately and powerfully than anyone else had ever done.

True enough, black slaves did not necessarily have the ability or opportunity to tell their own story, but that does did not affect the capacity of white people to tell their story.

Had Harriet Stowe refrained from writing about black slavery, sentiment in the North for fighting to end slavery in the Civil War would have been set back dramatically.

An analogy: religious discipleship. Can only the disciple understand and describe the master? I understand this question as one who has written from both an insider and an outsider perspective about masters of the Torah.

As one who is not the disciple of a certain master, I have written as an outsider. Clearly, I did not understand the master as a disciple could. I knew this well because I myself have been a disciple of other masters of the Torah.

As a disciple of one master, I can provide the unique, insider perspective. Not as a disciple of another master, I can understand him in a way that disciples cannot.

Is the outsider perspective valuable? Indeed so, based on the reactions I received from disciples of various masters of Torah to the portraits I drew in Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transition Figures from Eastern Europe.

Does this mean that the outsider perspective is superior? No, it means it is different from the insider perspective. Each is limited, each is illuminating.

Can only Jews explain the Jewish experience? Paul Johnson, a gentile, wrote one of the finest short histories of the Jews. Was his perspective limited by virtue of him not being Jewish? True enough. Did his perspective provide insight that a Jewish writer could not? Also true enough.

Can only an Arab Muslim explain Arab and Islamic culture? The late Edward Said of Columbia University thought so. If you follow his logic, which is really the same logic that would have only blacks describe the black experience, or only Jews describe the Jewish experience, the conclusion is fallacious and divisive. The conclusion is: facts do not count. Evidence does not count.

For if only the insider perspective is legitimate, it can never be challenged, modified or complemented by facts. Reason is expunged. Common language is impossible. Discourse is dead.

This is an especially dangerous approach if one attributes to the outsider perspective an inherent racism or claim of cultural superiority.

If that is how a black sees a white writer about blacks, or that is how a Jew sees a non-Jewish writer about Jews, or that is how an Arab sees a non-Arab writer about Arabs (Edward Said’s approach), then the outsider perspective is worse than wrong. It is malicious. It is unworthy of consideration. It contributes to evil.

It represents an unbridgeable intellectual and cultural chasm.

This is a possible end point of the view that only blacks can write about blacks or Jews about Jews.

That is actually the end point of Edward Said’s approach. He imputes inherent racism to any non-Arab, non-Islamic writer about Arabs and Islam.

This is why he dictates an interloper status to Jews in the Middle East and requires the dismantlement of Israel.

But, in truth, there is no necessarily unbridgeable chasm in discourse between races, religions and cultures. There is, rather, both the insider perspective and the outsider perspective.

Both are legitimate.

Both have their place.

Both work.

Originally published in the Intermountain Jewish News

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8 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    I believe you are essentially correct. Without any doubt, the late Prof. Jacob Katz provided greater insight into the halakhic process than almost all poskim are capable of. Similarly, Prof. Bernard Lewis had a unique insight into Arabic history and culture.

    However, anyone’s approach, native or outsider, will (subconsciously perhaps) reflect personal biases. Your book, Between Slabodka and Berlin, is a perfect example. Your mussar orientation and underappreciation of the methodology of Brisk colored a few of your interesting insights. Where those personal biases are greater is debatable.

  2. DK says:

    Beautiful article. This idea is so necessary to be spoken out in these days where so many different types of people, whether Republicans or Charedim are vilified because others cannot understand their opinions or way of life. If one just shrugs it off by saying we can never understand them then progress can never be made. We must always try, and we always can (as R’ Hillel writes) understand, at least to a certain degree the other side in order to live in harmony with each other. Without attempting to understand the other side there will never be able to be the possibility of accepting the other side and working together in harmony with them.

    • Shades of Gray says:

      “Republicans or Charedim are vilified because others cannot understand their opinions or way of life”

      An article in yesterday’s New Yorker on Borough Park’s demonstrations made a similar point. It quoted R. Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, who said “It is imperative that we always recognize others as individual human beings,” “and not lump them together and treat them as a monolithic blob.” It also quoted Ben Smith, a NYT reporter who commented about Jacob Kornbluh’s unique perspective as an Orthodox journalist, an “insider”(who writes for “Jewish Insider”):

      One of Kornbluh’s most distinctive qualities as a journalist is his closeness to the community. When he covers local news, he is hardly an outsider “parachuting in” to get some quotes from a seemingly opaque group of people. “Political reporters sometimes don’t realize how real the stakes are and don’t have to live with them,” Smith told me. He added that Kornbluh “is writing about these life-or-death issues in this community, whose divisions mirror the country but where passions are really, really high.”

      The other side of the coin is that Republicans and Charedim should likewise see others’ opinions. Rashi in Parshas Noach quotes the Gemara about marital relations in the Teivah, making reference to מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָעוֹלָם שָׁרוּי בְּצַעַר, “the men separately and the women separately, because they were forbidden to live together as man and wife since the world was living in a state of distress.” While this may not be practiced today for various reasons, the general principle is noteworthy, that one should think about the pain of the larger non-Jewish society even when making weddings, such as by following reasonable health guidelines, or when davening in shul according to best health practices, for that matter. The need for this sensitivity מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָעוֹלָם שָׁרוּי בְּצַעַר, and seeing others’ perspective is universal, and goes beyond any segment of the Jewish community.

      • Shades of Gray says:

        Further to my previous comment on Rashi ( 7:7) regarding מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָעוֹלָם שָׁרוּי בְּצַעַר in the Teivah:

        At first glance, Rashi is saying that having empathy, being nosie b’ol for people suffering, is the reason why intimacy was proscribed in the Teivah.

        However, Midrash Tanchuma, the source of Rashi , seems to explain the reason as not building and procreating during the Mabul when Hashem was, to the contrary, destroying the world. This other reason , “not building during destruction”, is mentioned by Meiri in name of Yerushalmi regarding a famine, and is discussed by Tzitz Eliezer in context of Israeli wars and by the Debrezener Rav. See link to Midrash Tanchuma:

        The Gemara Taanis (11a) similarly discusses refraining from intimacy during a famine. Rashi there does explain it because of the need to have empathy for people suffering. However, that Gemara is limited to when the hunger affects a Jewish area, according to Ritva, Rashi, and the Ran.

        A shiur on YU Torah by Rabbi Moshe Sokoloff this March discusses the above two reasons and whether there is any contemporary applicability(“Are Marital Relations Allowed During A Coronavirus Outbreak”). In his 11/4 Mishpacha column, Eytan Kobre writes relatedly:

        “The halachah (see Orach Chayim 574:4) requires (or at least lauds) the curtailing of pleasurable activities during a time when the world is being convulsed by death and travail. And Chazal (Yevamos 63a) also teach that large-scale tragedy only comes to the world in order for us Jews to take heed and repent… “

  3. Robert Lebovits says:

    The notion that only a person of a particular identity can write about that identity (racial, religious, ethnic, gender, socio-economic status), is predicated on the premise that no one who is not of that identity can accurately portray and convey what it is like to be of that identity.
    The flaw in that logic is exquisitely simple. If that is true, then only someone of that identity can also read and accurately comprehend the writer’s work. If you have not lived it, the words describing it will make no sense. Therefore only male readers should bother reading books by men since a woman won’t understand the sentiments being expressed, and vice versa – only women should read female authors. Of course, this logic carries forward to all identities.
    For decades the field of psychotherapy addressed this question regarding the match between therapist and client. Can a woman treat a man? Can a single person treat a married couple? Can someone who was never a parent work with families? Et cetera, et cetera. The answer given in my training era was, “Yes. Anyone can work with anyone.” It was determined that someone trained to understand and be attuned to universal human development and experience could apply their knowledge and expertise to any other human, irrespective of specific cultural or identity differences. As an aside, in the early years of the field of psychology in the nineteenth century a clinician was referred to as an “alienist”, because the severely mentally ill were thought to be so aberrant from the norm that their thinking and behavior was truly “alien”.
    The perspective that there are universal human experiences transcending specific group differences I believe has support in Torah. The concepts of Odom HaKadmon, na’aseh Odom b’tzalmeinu, and of course Chochmas Ha’Odom, all speak to the genus of Man, without differentiation by a specific quality or character. We canappreciate and have empathy for those unlike us and perceive their inherent humanity.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Some people are better able to empathize with others and to see things from the others’ vantage point. Every person, group, and situation is different. This won’t stop many of us from believing no outsider can ever “get it.” You can live in a place for half your life and the natives still set you apart.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    An excellent response to cancel culture another manifestation of the left to suppress and deligtimratze academic political and cultural dissent of what were once mainstream views on race culture and gender

  6. Shades of Gray says:

    Compare with an incident in an upcoming parsha, where Rav Soloveitchik famously commented that Avroham was both a Ger and Toshav, and that as an “outsider”, so to speak, his sectarian faith did not preclude his commitment to further the welfare of the general society, which assumes understanding and relating to it to an extent.

    The ultimate example in the Torah of an outsider bringing benefit that comes to my mind is that of Yisro. From R. Berel Wein, which he applies to people joining the frum community(“Outsiders Looking In”, available online):

    Yitro is the ultimate “outsider” looking in to see Torah and the Jewish people. Many times the “outsider” sees things more clearly than the “insider” in a society does. In Yiddish there is an expression that a temporary guest sees for a mile. (I know that this lost something in translation but you get the gist of it.) The Jewish people, especially in our religious world, live a somewhat insular existence. Due to this, many times we are unable to see what otherwise can be plain to others.

    The example of Yitro encourages us to give respect to the insights of “outsiders” in our community. Oftentimes they come from different backgrounds and have fought their way through many false beliefs to arrive at Torah and the observance of mitzvoth. Their views and experiences should be important to us. The tendency to force the “outsiders” to become exactly like the “insiders” is eventually counterproductive to both groups. Yitro never becomes Moshe but Moshe and Israel benefit from Yitro’s judgment and advice. We can all benefit from insights, advice and good wishes from our own “outsiders.”

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