I just finished reading an excellent article by Mitali Perkins (seen via Mitali's blog entry) for School Library Journal.
I've been thinking a lot lately about books written by white authors about different cultures. A colleague was telling me recently that a parent came to her, upset about a book written by a white author about her ethnic group. The parent complained to my colleague about this, stating that she felt it wasn't appropriate. I was really upset by this (although not surprised). While I can understand the initial feeling that your story has been told, perhaps not accurately, by someone else who may not know all of it, it worries me immensely that there is a feeling that "this is my story, not yours." Increasingly, the line between mine/yours is and should be blurring. What of the white writer who grew up in an African country? What is his story? What of the mixed-race author? And so on.
Mitali raises some interesting points. She mentions how Toni Morrison, in her book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the American Literary Imagination, "described how white authors have used stock black characters to help a white protagonist spiritually and emotionally." That's one issue, for sure. It would be great if there was more variety in stories, and in characters. I think this will happen as time passes, and Western culture becomes even more diverse than it already is. We also have to nurture this diversity, as Mitali points out, by ensuring that authors are supported and, in my case, that libraries are buying material that tells a story from a different perspective.
Mitali also hits the nail on the head with respect to the mine/yours issue. She says, "Am I suggesting that a white author should never articulate clearly that a secondary character is not white? Not at all. [I'm not] calling for a rule in storytelling that restricts us from creating characters who don’t have the same racial makeup as we do." This locks us "into smaller and tighter boxes. What I hear echoing in that sort of talk is the mad drumbeat of apartheidspeak."