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Space for Rent: The Fiction of the White Interpreter


Tweet of the Day: Oscar loves a white savior

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Reading the article I linked to above (the Tweet of the Day) got me thinking that a) this is a writing blog and b) that not all tropes are good. That means that I should, once in awhile, write post related to writing in general. Well, the article got me thinking about the prevalence of the White Interpreter. This is an old trope and not exclusively white European, but certainly abused by such writers for the past six hundred years or so.

What do I mean by “White Interpreter”?

This is when a story about events in a foreign land, people or the land itself are told through the a western visitor to the place. There is a subtle distinction between the story of the traveler himself and the story that is ostentatiously about something or someone else. The first one is totally valid, we want to know what the traveler experiences.

It is his story.

But when the story is supposed to be about something or someone else, the interpreter gets in the way. Take for example The Last Samurai. A beautifully shot movie about an Civil War veteran who goes to Japan and adopts the samurai lifestyle. However he is not the Last Samurai for which the movie is named. He simply serves as a interpreter (of two, there is a literal interpreter in the movie who serves as the narrator as well) for the story of how Japan transitioned from the shogunate to a modern Imperial framework.

The story belongs to someone else.

The problem lies with the fact that the White Interpreter is a framing device that creates a wall between the real story and the audience. It assumes two things: a) the audience can not understand a story without the interpreter and b) that the interpreter point of view is the dominant one. Instead of facilitating understanding, the interpreter merely reinforces the audience prejudices and creates a wall between the culture/story and the audience.  We don’t see or read what is really happening and get to judge for ourselves. Instead we are told what is happening. The interpreter is a filter as well as a framing device. Only those things the interpreter wishes us to see, hear or understand are emphasized usually those things that fit his prejudices while the rest gets ignored.

In a world of global media, it is time to abandon this trope once and for all. Let us experience things directly and judge the stories by ourselves. It won’t eliminate all our prejudices, but it certainly will remove a wall between us.

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