How NOT to Write Like a White man: An Inadequate Guide

*No white men are harmed in the writing of this guide.


You don’t have to be a white man to write like a white man. White women can write like a white man. Asian men can write like a white man. Multiracial non-binary folks can write like a white man. Ironically, a lot of white men, indeed, try not to write like a white man. “A white man” is an abstraction that has nothing to do with a “real” white male human, and at once has everything to do with him, his domination, his colonization, his inscription of and control over history. Perhaps, it would be appropriate to title this guide as “How not to write like a dead white man.”

“Writing like a white man” is less about trying to imitate a white male author, than it is about playing an exclusive game with rules that have been invented by and negotiated among white men. In one way or another, to write is already to assimilate oneself into the system of knowledge production created by white men. Trying not to write like a white man is like a misguided effort to, in Audre Lorde’s words, dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tool – it is like playing a game without following any of its rules – in the end aren’t the rules what make the game a game? In a similar vein, aren’t white men the ones who make writing writing?

The most powerful attempt to disrupt this hegemony of knowledge production and dissemination, perhaps, would be to not write at all (I will come back to this later). But if you do choose to write, or are forced to write a lot of times, there are some ways to disrupt the status quo, even if they are just feeble attempts to poke tiny holes into the existing social structures. I do not believe you can escape the root of whiteness and maleness in writing at all; even in the attempt to not write like a white man I am defined by the negative zone of whiteness. Yet, in this performative refusal I do believe that something else can be imagined and reimagined, that another mode of knowing can break away from the suffocation of this universal white-male-ness.

If to write is to assimilate, how can you stir the pond a little bit during the assimilation process, or to fuck with the system altogether?

  1. Do not assume (1) objectivity and (2) authority. Objectivity is fundamentally a technology of whiteness and/or maleness. Authority is fundamentally a technology of whiteness and/or maleness. The relationship between objectivity and authority is no different from that between whiteness and maleness: each of them has its own unique essence, but they feed on each other, entangle into each other, and absorbing each other, to the point where it is hard to distinguish which is which. Historically, white man has always been authorized by God, by biological “nature”, by law, by normativity, by his own will itself to be the only one who are capable of touching the objective truth, which is to say that objectivity is a matter of having authority, and having authority is the prerequisite for the quest towards objectivity. It is time we stopped pretending we have authority over a subject, or assuming a kind of inherent superiority over the readers. How can we make writing not an act of manipulation and a maneuver of power? Maybe to not write like a white man is a maneuver of power itself, a kind of guerrilla warfare to tear apart the white male fabric stretched across society.

  2. Use “I”. The absence of I assumes a universal subject, a know-it-all entity  that can discover the truth of the universe, which ties back to the question of objectivity and authority. The absence of “I” in academic writing is often disguised as a matter of formalism, but it is genealogically a product of white male entitlement – who else has the agency to conceal one’s identity within writing, choosing not to be named by power? Who can go and study (white) women and study the racialized “primitive” others without making himself visible? The whole premise of feminism, queer theory, black theory or any person-of-color theories is made possible by the confession of one’s identity and the abstraction of that identity, in order to counter the white male mode of knowledge imposition. At the same time, using “I’ forces us into an incessant mode of baring our identity, of selling our minority status so that we can be accepted by the white male authority in the game. The place for us will not be in the existing white-man game of philosophy, for instance, but in the new sub-fields of feminism, queer theory, black theory and any person-of-color theories that are characterized by and also limited within our identities. So maybe don’t use “I” after all? I don’t know. I guess we’re fucked.

  3. Pour emotion into your writing. Women are too emotional and hysterical. Black people are too angry and demanding. Queer people are too sexual and passionate. Emotion essentially contaminates the quest for pure and objective knowledge embarked by white men; thus, emotion is seen as a weakness that needs to be weeded out completely. However, it is only a weakness insofar as it is thought of as a weakness. Emotionless writing is essentially a form, a convention that exerts whiteness and upholds toxic masculinity. Just as whiteness is a color conceptualized by a lack thereof, emotionlessness is a form of emotion in itself, with its own codes and conventions manifested in writing, demonstrating more the values of what white men promulgate, than the legitimacy of a piece of writing itself. Be emotional. Be hysterical. Be angry. Be demanding. Be sexual. Be passionate. Knowledge makes itself known through both emotion and emotionlessness.

  4. Do not (feel compelled to) cite white men. The whole system of academic writing keeps propping itself up and reproducing itself, because the history of writing is white men citing each other. Thus, people of later generations coming into the academia have to repeatedly cite these white men in order to prove some sort of legitimacy. No one takes you seriously if you do not cite Plato or Aristotle – that is just an unfortunate fact, and also a beautiful risk you can take to be frivolous, be emotional, be foolish to imagine another world. Nonetheless, not citing white men do not mean they will not haunt your works, it is more of a performative act that attempts at a different way of thinking. This is the equivalent of applying scotch tape on a cracked wall, but doing something is better than doing nothing.

  5. Do not write. This last point is perhaps ironic and hypocritical coming from a written guide. It is the kind of irony and hypocrisy that I just have to sit with to interrogate my act of assimilation, my egotistical need to be taken seriously, my colonial desire to be among the rank of white men. Nevertheless, it is important for me to refuse to write, instead finding values in other forms of knowledge production such as dance, performance, pornography, and the everyday social cultural exchange, which do not privilege inscription and individualism the way most writings do. The efforts to reform writing can only go so far, because often it is white men themselves who try not to write like white man, which means my effort to not write like white man ends up as an argument against white men anyway.  As Joseph Roach quotes a Yoruba proverb, “The white man who made the pencil also made the eraser,” or in Vietnamese idiom, we would say, white men both play the soccer ball and blow the whistle. Sometimes, you just need to not use pens or pencils, so that you don’t even have to think about making erasers.


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