Bridging the Current Cultural Chasm | Opinion

Can only a Black person explain the Black experience? In the current cultural climate, the question dominates, but it is narrow. We may similarly ask, can only a Jew explain the Jewish experience? Can only an Arab explain Arab culture? We have a broad cultural question that, if deflected by a popular answer, will permanently polarize us.

Alexandra Duncan certainly thinks that only a Black person can explain the Black experience. 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 reportedly had received a handsome advance.

Did Duncan err in thinking that a white person cannot depict a Black perspective?

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. Likewise for an Arab, or any member of a distinct ethnic or racial group, whether majority or minority.

However, this is far different from saying that it is necessarily a mistake for someone who is white to write about the Black experience. There is no 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 and valuable, but it is not the only perspective. There is the outsider perspective, which, if conscientious, can only add to, not supplant or distort, the insider perspective.

Consider 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. A personal relationship provides a unique perspective, but also a limited one. An outsider sees things that an insider cannot see. Because of the limitations of both insider and outsider perspectives, a first-rate biographer will seek both.

Take Robert A. Caro and his unparalleled, multi-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson. It is based on exhaustive interviews with, and knowledge of, people who were close to Johnson at every stage of his life. That is the insider perspective. Caro also doggedly tracked down seemingly endless documents and other facts about Johnson. Supplementing the insider perspective, these facts provided a fuller picture of Johnson than those who knew him could alone provide.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, mercilessly exposed the injustices of Black slavery. Arguably, Stowe gave more power to the abolitionist movement than anyone else. Not to mention that her book was a bestseller in many languages that went a long way to discrediting slavery in other countries, too.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was white.

Precisely what it was she portrayed in the Black experience of slavery has been subject to varying interpretations that shift with the decades. At a minimum, Stowe's book bolstered the morale of abolitionists when it was published in 1851, since Stowe's depiction of Black slavery revealed its horrors more powerfully than anyone else had ever done. Had Stowe refrained from writing about Black slavery, decisive sentiment in the North for ending slavery would have been set back dramatically. Does this mean that Stowe's insights were beyond critique or supplement? Of course not.

Martin Luther King Jr. marching alongside Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (far right), among others William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Another analogy: religious discipleship. Can only the disciple understand the master? I have written about religious masters as both a disciple and a scholar. Each perspective has its advantage; neither is complete. A revealing incident: As a scholar, I had depicted a religious master whom I had never met. One of his disciples thanked me profusely, since my dispassionate portrait revealed for this disciple the source of his extreme discomfort over the master's posthumous hold on him, and relieved him of it. A disciple's insider perspective could not have done that. Does this mean that the outsider perspective is superior? No, it means only that it is different from the insider perspective. Each is limited, but each is illuminating.

Can only Jews explain the Jewish experience? Paul Johnson, a Gentile, wrote one of the finest short histories of the Jews. His perspective was limited by virtue of his not being Jewish, but he also provided insight that a Jewish writer could not.

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 implication is not only fallacious, but divisive. The implication is that objective 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 writing about Blacks, or how a Jew sees a non-Jewish writer writing about Jews, or how an Arab sees a non-Arab writer writing about Arabs, the outsider perspective is worse than wrong. It is malicious, unworthy of consideration and a contributory to evil.

Exclusive claims for the insider perspective spawn an unbridgeable chasm. If, for example, one imputes inherent racism to any non-Arab, non-Islamic writer writing about Arabs and Islam, then a Jewish state in the Middle East can only reflect a colonialist mindset and must be dismantled. This illustrates why the claim that only ethnic, racial or religious minorities are able to understand and write about themselves is necessarily dangerous.

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

Both are legitimate. Both have their place. Both contribute to the whole. And both, to be sure, require nuance and self-critique.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is editor and publisher of Intermountain Jewish News.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.