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February 16, 2009

Daring to Do the Daring: Storytellers and the Stories They Tell

Recently Clint Eastwood has been praised / assailed for a film he made (Gran Torino) where he ventures into somewhat foreign territory to tell a tale of one man’s xenophobic excursion through a culturally diverse neighborhood. While I would like to laud Eastwood’s efforts, especially in light of other stories he has recently told that provided insight into underclass realities (the plight of the 18th Century Western prostitute in Unforgiven the plight of women in a man’s sport in Million Dollar Baby), he missed the mark for me considerably. His story is of one man’s perspective on a burgeoning Hmong culture within a context of that man’s refusal to succumb to white flight (a phenomenon whereby Whites depart from once racially White communities as those communities begin to become more racially diverse). Where the story fails for me is in its overtly banal use of stereotypes. Now, I am definitely averse to cavalierly dismissing stereotypes, recognizing that they originate from somewhere real and therefore do occasionally have merit. However, wanton use often reveals the users lack of sophistication with the subject matter.

Having said all of that, what I am wondering is this: Should Eastwood have even attempted to tell this story of a aging White male’s difficulties transitioning into relationships with a new culture that he already has a bias towards? It is the same old discussion that took place with Spike Lee’s frustration with Debbie Allen enticing Steven Spielberg to direct Amistad, and Alice Walker’s green lighting Spielberg to take on The Color Purple. Woody Allen, to advance his stories would often appropriate marginalized cultural groups in a stereotypically inclusive-systematically exclusive manner. Should we allow storytellers to tell stories that they are culturally distant from? Is it appropriate or artistically responsible for storytellers to bastardize images of people that they know nothing about and haven't thoroughly researched?

I remember when I first arrived at SUNY Plattsburgh and two of my colleagues, Dr. Amy Bass and Dr. Tracie Guzzio were both teaching with a research interest that delved into the African American experience. I, a Black man, benefited greatly from these two talented White scholars when the time came for me to teach my version of African American Culture. However, there are purists who insist that Whites shouldn’t be teaching African American anything, heterosexuals shouldn’t be teaching Queer Studies, etc.

Is this throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Don’t people outside of certain cultures have a perspective on those cultures that is worth hearing? While the risk is always run that “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” will emerge, with this outsider learning the ways of the differing culture and then using what they learned against the culture that taught them (Is anyone thinking of the Afghanistan Mujahideen?), it isn’t the best strategy to prematurely dodge bullets from a gun that hasn’t been fired, is it?

I once addressed a Gay-Lesbian group by prefacing my remarks acknowledging that as a heterosexual male my perspective was limited as to the lived realities that Gays and Lesbians must face. Later, as I left that moment I was informed that the advisor to that group used my preface as an indicator to these impressionable young women and men that I was homophobic. While I was blown away by how the advisor manipulated my words to advance an agenda, I also wouldn’t have done anything different. If I had addressed that group and not put out there a preface of my limited perspective, I would have come across as obnoxious, so on some level I couldn't win. What do we do when we (artists, teachers, neighbors, lovers, colleagues, humans) dare to enter forbidden or not often traveled territory? What are your suggestions about things we should do? What are your observations or stories about those moments when we dare to do the daring?