Windows, Mirrors, and the Spaces In Between

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about audience and what it means in terms of increasing representation of marginalized perspectives (recent brouhaha can be read here and here and here and here).  The windows and mirrors metaphor is a favorite in diversity and multicultural discussions.  It refers to the idea that books featuring characters from underrepresented groups can be a window for those from other groups or a mirror for the group lacking representation. In passing it can seem like windows and mirrors are equal.  They aren't.

The problem is in the difference between window books and mirror books, namely that in terms of diversity those intended audiences are very different.  A book intended as a window can be a terrible mirror.  Think of it as the difference between Iggy Azalea and Beyoncé.  Or the difference between bacon and turkey bacon.  Sure, you can say it’s bacon. But anyone who has had real bacon will be able to call bullshit in a heartbeat.

This brings us to the ever touchy subject of people from outside a marginalized group writing about those within a marginalized group.  This gets shortened in most discussions to white folks writing about PoC, but really this applies to anyone writing about a marginalization they don’t have.  Race dominates the discussion, but terrible and damaging depictions are also pretty common with regards to disability, genderqueer or trans characters, conversations around body size, and discussions of neurodiversity and mental health. That’s because it’s really, really hard to write about a room you’ve never been in.

I mean, imagine you’re writing a book about your neighbors. You might look in through their living room window and see a couch and a lamp and some gross shag carpet.  Anyone who is looking into the house from your perspective would see the same thing, which is basically what happens when books make it through the publishing process with problematic elements.  Someone inside that room may read the description you wrote and say “Hey! That shag carpet is actually grass, and you didn’t mention how that couch and lamp were left to me by my grandma. And you completely missed all of the art on the walls. Oh, and why the hell are you peeking into my living room like a creep anyway? If someone wants a description of my house I can totally do that myself.”

This is why a book written as a window fundamentally cannot work as a mirror.  So all books should be mirror books, right?  A book written as a mirror is less likely to get published because those standing outside the room (ie, most of publishing) have trouble seeing and believing what is actually inside of the room.  They may ask “Why the hell would you have grass in your living room? That makes no sense. And how many people really care that much about their grandma?  I was hatched from an egg! I can’t connect with this narrative.”

Ideally, all diverse books would be written by insiders of a marginalized group. But honestly, that’s unfair to marginalized authors.  There are so few of us as it is.  What if a person wants to write about the view from their window instead of the inside of their living room?  Part of an own voices movement is implicitly expecting everyone from a marginalized group to live inside of their marginalization all of the time.  That’s exhausting, yo. And marginalized groups didn’t create their marginalizations.  Why should they be responsible for fixing it by themselves?

As with most big issues, there are no easy answers.  But I deeply believe that authors writing about the marginalizations of others need to understand that while they may attempt to write a mirror what they’ll accomplish will be closer to the 2-way mirror in an interrogation room.  Folks from within a marginalized group will catch on after a while, but success isn’t about not letting us in on the secret, but in letting us get happily to the end of the interview before we discover it.

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How Far is Far Enough?

Recently someone asked me about my feelings on Hamilton, most especially the way slavery is downplayed in the show.  How could I, an author who is pretty vocal about representation, see that kind of sidestep of the elephant okay?

Let’s talk about two things: audience and intent.

All artists think about their audience when they set out to create, even if on a subconscious level.  If you’re creating for yourself then your audience is people like you. If you’re creating for your fans, you have an idea of what those people are like as well.  No matter who you think you’re creating for, the perceptions of your audience will shape your narrative.

Now, intent. There are two levels of intent in every story: that of the actual story itself, and that of appealing to an audience.  A story about the Black Panthers is going to look very different whether it’s created for a black audience or a white audience.  So the intent, to tell a story about the Black Panthers, is greatly shaped by the audience it’s intended for.

Which brings me back to Hamilton.  One of the reason it’s such an amazing piece of art is that Miranda is actually writing for two very different audiences within the same piece of work.  He is writing for a Broadway audience (usually white and well to do) AND he’s writing for everyone else.  By taking the format of a Broadway show and using hip hop (an art form born in the streets) and PoC tucked into traditional musical minutiae, he’s presenting this amazing façade of propriety to the denizens of Broadway while sneaking the rest of us in through the back door.

But what about slavery, you ask?

Miranda addresses the issue of slavery in two ways. By addressing it indirectly he is developing his characters. Burr never talks about slavery. Jefferson calls Sally a lamb (little Biblical reference, anyone?) and Washington dismisses it (Washington's "Not yet" is chilling at the end of Yorktown). Laurens wants start a battalion of freedmen. Hamilton is an abolitionist and speaks openly of how wrong it is. But slavery was never a cause that fully eclipsed these men's lives, so it's cast as the background issue it was for them, and the background issue it would be for most Broadway audiences. But at the same time by using hip hop and POC within the cast Miranda is saying "We were there, we've always been here, and just because you choose not to acknowledge us doesn't mean our story is any less important." So even though he puts slavery into a sort of backdrop function, the cast itself makes the issue the forefront of the conversation. It's brilliant, really. By not talking about it in an obvious way, Miranda has actually forced traditionally unwilling audiences to confront it on a subconscious level. What I like to call “medicine in the hot dog diversity” (if you have pets you get this reference).

But at the same time, the call outs in the Cabinet Battle and the aside of “immigrants, we get the job done” assure audiences made up of PoC that Miranda is still thinking about them as well.

By not talking about slavery and equality Miranda is actually talking about it very, very loudly.  His intent has been shaped by the audiences he’s creating for, but the statement is still there.

This is something every author has to consider.  When you are creating your intent and your audience will always inform your narrative.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t talk about some things.  You just need to find a better way to do that.

Sometimes it’s not the things that are said, but the things left unsaid, that give the greater impact. 

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A Brief Guide to Beyoncé's Formation for White People

Because I am a kind, generous person I decided to break down some of the references in Beyonce’s Formation.  Because I know that some white folks are probably pretty confused right now:

“I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros

I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”

Translation: Fuck your respectability politics, I like my natural self.

So, there have been numerous calls on the Internet to either straighten Blue Ivy’s hair or get rid of her natural afro.  Part of respectability politics, the idea that is black people are good enough then racism will cease, is trying to conform to white aesthetic of beauty: narrow nose, straight hair, pale skin.  Most famous is Michael Jackson, who went through numerous surgeries to make his narrower and more in line with European genetics.

Pushback against natural hair is a constant problem for the black community, and this pushback is usually perpetrated by whites who consider black hair textures to be ugly or unkempt. Children have been kicked out of school, news anchor have been fired, and even the military passed regulations that would have prohibited most styles favored by black women, punishing them for their natural appearance.

 

“I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag”

Translation: hot sauce is delicious, and even though I'm rich and famous I'm still like you.

Here’s the thing: when you ask for hot sauce in most restaurants the wait staff will either look at you cross-eyed or bring you a dried out ass bottle of Tabasco. Tabasco is probably the worst hot sauce ever, since it basically tastes like hot vinegar ass.  Most black women know that if they want any flavor in their life they need to carry around a bottle of hot sauce with them.

Here are, in no particular order, acceptable hot sauces for your purse:

  • Crystal
  • Texas Pete
  • Cholula
  • Tapatio
  • Sriracha
  • Frank’s Red Hot (if you’re desperate)
  • That bomb ass hot sauce your uncle makes once a year from peppers from his garden

 

“Albino alligators”

Translation: predatory white people

Beyoncé can’t do a single thing without a cadre of white women rising up to criticize her in think pieces.  Look at the response to her MTV Awards performance a few years ago, in which Beyoncé stood in front ofa lit sign proclaiming “Feminist” and the whole of the white feminist internet took to their computers to explain to us why Beyoncé actually wasn’t a feminist.

This line also alludes to the fact that black people were sometimes called “alligator bait” and black babies and children were used as bait in parts of Florida and the rest of the South under slavery. So Beyoncé is acknowledging that her actions tend to cause a feeding frenzy amongst her haters in white media while also acknowledging the painful history of slavery.

 

“’Cause I slay”

Translation: I’m fucking incredible

Damn right you are, Queen Bey.

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Diversity 101: An Intro to the Diversity Discussion

So, I think we can all agree that it is incredibly frustrating to have the same conversation over and over.  At some point your eyes glaze over and you sigh and say “Never mind, don’t worry about it.”

This is what is happening with regards to conversations surrounding diversity.  The same three or four convos keep getting repeated over and over. So, as a timesaver, consider this your introductory course to the diversity discussion.  I doubt this will be the last entry, but it’s a good first step.

So, what’s the deal with diversity, anyway?

Diversity advocates want more variation in their media.  Whether it’s books or movies or television or stage, most media favors a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, male aesthetic (let’s call this the WHAM for short).  These stories often fetishize other groups into either stereotypes or plot devices.  Diversity advocates want to see the starring roles within these mediums  given over to lesser told stories, stories that are well told and give marginalized voices credit as being also the norm, as opposed to the “other”.  It isn’t about limiting creativity, it’s about changing a single narrative that is often marketed as “universal” into a truly universal narrative.

 

That’s cool. But I just like what I like.  I don’t even notice what the main characters look like, you know?

This is inherently untrue.  Scientists have proven again and again that the human brain is governed by internal, unconscious bias.  These hidden drivers prompt us to make hundreds of decisions a day, whether it’s ordering a tuna sandwich instead of ham or stepping aside to avoid a puddle.  The same survival instinct that keeps you from touching a hot oven also makes you shrink back from a strange black man in an elevator.  The difference is that while you learned about hot stoves from experience, your behavior toward that black man is a product of a long, sustained campaign in which society has bombarded you with the narrative of the dangerous black man, as opposed to the narrative of the dangerous white woman or the dangerous Asian man.  So if you don’t question that narrative that you’ve internalized you are going to automatically select media that promotes WHAM perspective, because that is what is considered good and right in Western society (and increasingly in other societies that consume Western media).

So, your apathy is actually a large part of the problem.

 

Wait, so do you expect me to question everything I read/watch/create?  That sounds like a lot of work.

Yes, it is.  But if you aren’t part of the solution you’re part of the problem. And the people who don’t have the luxury of seeing people who look like them everywhere probably don’t care about your whining. Also, the more you start to question the media you consume the easier it will be for you to consume better media and make choices that include better representation.  It’s the difference between eating candy for every meal because it’s easily accessible and driving to a four star restaurant.

 

Okay, but you can’t deny that good quality is just good quality, no matter if the creator is a one eyed purple people eater!

This perspective advances the idea of that everything in the world is meritocracy, which is inherently untrue.  If things were published because of quality and not because they were considered marketable or because they catered to a certain taste, the percentages within publishing would more closely match that of society at large.  When you say something is based on quality what you’re saying is that the WHAM narrative equals quality and everything else is not good.  It ignores the systemic issues that lead to certain things getting passed over, issues that link back to age old constructs of availability of resources and societal hierarchies.

And bringing mythological creatures into a discussion about diversity does the opposite of what you wanted to do.  It gives the impression that you think the possibility of a thoughtful black author is as unlikely as an alien, stripping the person of their humanity and relegating them to a fantastical status.  And the first step in devaluing a person’s opinion is to strip them of their relevance and their basic humanity.

 

Okay, okay, I get it. Diversity is important. But I don’t want to buy stuff just because it has a marginalized person in it. I want to read/watch GOOD stuff.

This statement assumes that the media produced by people from marginalized groups is fundamentally lesser than other groups, which in turn feeds back into the WHAM perspective.  WHAM stories aren’t better or more universal, they’re just the stories that have been privileged over others.  This also harkens back to the discussion of publication/production being directly related to quality, instead of a complicated series of human decisions and interactions.  There is not a single unbiased person in the decision process of what gets made/promoted.  So the end result is indicative of the collective bias of the people in charge, not happenstance.

 

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Don't Be an Asshat When You Grow Up

2015 was my year of Hulk Smash.  My resolution for 2016 was Less Hulk Smashing, More “Talk Less, Smile More.”  But, alas, I am more She-Hulk than Aaron Burr by nature.

Today, at the very quickly losing every last shred of credibility Horn Book, the Editor Roger Sutton posted this on his quasi personal blog (it is a blog or just a place for him to show his ass? I have no idea):

 

From the Editor – January 2016
Well, a few years ago the Caldecott Medal went to what many people thought was a novel (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), and this week we have the Newbery going to a thirty-two page picture book, the first time this has happened since A Visit to William Blake’s Inn in 1982 and only the second picture-book winner ever. I do like surprises, and even if Sophie Blackall’s Caldecott win is not a complete surprise, it is both well deserved and justice poetic. (A friend cracked that they should serve blackberry fool at the banquet this summer.) We have rounded up all of our reviews of the ALA award winners; go have a look.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, Roger Sutton is a clueless asshat.

Now, let me say that there are lots of asshats in the world.  Asshats come in a number of colors and sizes.  I myself have been on occasion been an asshat (and I will be again, no doubt).  But Sutton’s asshattery is unique in its particular brand of self-involved importance and deliberate cluelessness.  Because it is obvious from his comment “even if Sophie Blackall’s Caldecott win is not a complete surprise, it is both well deserved and justice poetic” and “A friend cracked that they should serve blackberry fool at the banquet this summer” that Sutton JUST. DOESN’T. GET. IT.  Whether it’s caused by an inability to empathize beyond his own life experiences or because he’s a member of the Meg Rosoff Big Fat Jerk Club, I don’t know. 

And, I don’t care.

He, like so many other willfully clueless folks within kidlit, persists in thinking the outcry and criticism around A Fine Dessert was about Blackall’s art or Blackall herself or about a Personal Agenda (always an agenda), instead of the part her behavior played in sustaining much larger evils in the world.

Let’s be clear: no one cares whether Blackall’s art is good or not.  The quality of her art is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that her smiling slaves are part of a narrative that erases the cruelty and impact of chattel slavery. No one complained because her slaves were lopsided, they complained that because in a year where a textbook manufacturer changed slavery from a brutal institution into immigration for work this was One More instance in which the complexity of the black experience in America was erased and black suffering was minimized for the comfort of a white audience.

An audience that will watch the shooting of a twelve year old black boy on repeat on the evening news.

An audience that will refuse to indict the man who killed that boy.

An audience that, by either their complicity or their apathy, will stand idly by while a system that puts a premium on white lives and a price on black ones continues to thrive.

The criticism around A Fine Dessert wasn’t “Sophie Blackall is a bad person” it was “even good people like Sophie Blackall can fall into this trap. We must all be vigilant.”

Asshats like Roger Sutton choose to turn this into an Us versus Them discussion.  They chose to ignore the valid criticisms of people in the kidlit community, minimizing their critique in order to quip about a dessert.

And he’s just one of many.

It makes you wonder how people so unwilling to examine their own biases, how people so confident in their ignorance and narrow point of view can be responsible in deciding which books are good for children.

One of the things people always gush about is how nice the kidlit community is, how supportive.  And for the most part, that is true.  As long as you’re white.  For the rest of us, people like Roger Sutton are a constant reminder that many would rather those of us vocal about quality representation take a step down, be tractable and amenable.

But the price of silence is less representation, less empathy.  It’s watching a few think their experience is the universal one, with the rest of us cast as bit players in their epic journey.

And honestly, the price of silence is another dead black kid, somewhere, somehow. Dead because he lives in a system that erases his humanity and his lived experiences, distilling his history into a single, smiling narrative.

That’s just not a price I’m willing to pay.

No More White Knights, 2016

Son, I am not a maiden in need of defending.

~George Washington

 

 

Lets talk about White Knights, shall we?

If you aren’t familiar with the term, a White Knight is a man (usually white and well intentioned) who jumps into any discussion (usually one about sexism) to save the women already involved the discussion.  The idea is that when a woman is arguing or debating, usually with a man, the only person who can save the conversation in the name of equality is, wait for it, a man!

The problem with this behavior is that it directly reinforces existing inequalities.  By a woman relying on a man to save her in the conversation she is demonstrated to be lesser or in need of masculine influence, so that the existing framework of misogyny is reinforced rather than deconstructed.

White Knighting is not about helping women to be equal to men. Women are already equal to men, whether large sections of society acknowledge that fact or not.  White Knighting is very much about men reinforcing their self worth.  “I’m a good guy because I jumped into the fray on the side of this woman!”  It’s not about the woman and her struggle.  It’s about the man and his self-worth.

Keep in mind that many of publishing’s White Knights have had their own paternalistic reactions to events in the past, events where they very much acted as though their possession of male presenting traits placed them in a position to give advice.  So no White Knight is without their own history of sexism, like most people.  But in this light their action can rankle even more.  After all, aren’t you the guy that just did that dickish thing a few months ago? How dare you defend me now?

White Knights are also way more likely to rush into the fray to protect white women, harkening back to not so distant history where white womanhood had to be protected at all costs.  So, not only are White Knights inherently not helpful, their self-proclaimed feminism is rarely intersectional.

Allies are important in any fight, but what potential White Knights need to know is that their role should be one of support, NOT rushing in to save the day.  The same way white people’s perspective on racism is kind of inconsequential, a man’s perspective on sexism adds nothing to the discussion.  Instead, White Knights should elevate the voices of the women speaking around them without expressing any opinion but one of support.

If you really care about battling sexism more than personal accolades, it shouldn’t be that hard.

On Earned Equality

I’ve been thinking a lot about the inherent flaws of bootstrap equality, especially within the publishing sphere.  If you aren’t familiar with the term, bootstrap equality believes that those from marginalized spheres should lift themselves up by hard work.  It’s complete and utter bullshit for several reasons, mostly because it ignores the very real impact of systemic oppression while at the same time implying that marginalized groups have only themselves to blame for their problems.  Ideas of justice that rely heavily on bootstrap equality are at their heart discriminatory because they intimate that marginalized groups are inherently lesser, and therefore need to work harder to be equal to the majority.

The past two weeks have been chock full of established authors and influential librarians playing off of ideas of bootstrap equality via their criticisms of the objections made by people from marginalized groups.  More marginalized voices within publishing have become more open about objecting to problematic content and this is a good thing.  But the more people speak up, the more certain elements of the publishing establishment push back, usually with some variation of “Well, I guess you won’t get any representation, now, since you keep complaining about the representation we gave you.”

This, quite frankly, is bananapants.

The subtext here is that marginalized voices have not earned the right to quality representation, a right that was pretty much given freely to those in the majority.  If underrepped voices are equal to those in the majority, why should we have to earn a place to have our stories told and promoted and read?

Not only that, the objections here aren’t to being included, but the fact that the stories have been told by people who clearly didn’t consider the impact of their words on marginalized groups.  Sometimes, your help is not helpful.  This is akin to giving a starving man maggot-filled meat while you sit in front of a buffet.  To tell marginalized groups that they should be happy with shitty representation is saying that marginalized people don’t deserve to be represented at all.  It’s blatant discrimination, plain and simple.

Let’s be honest: people within the majority do not have the solution for better representation within kidlit.  You can’t depend on people who already benefit from an established system to fix the system.    It’s up to the well fed to listen to what the starving need.

When marginalized voices criticize, instead of complaining about all the yelling and the noise, listen to WHAT they’re yelling.  Instead of sniffing at tone, listen to the WORDS, consider the critiques and examine why you don’t share those opinions.

I guarantee you will learn something.

#NaNo Freakout Post

Hello Lovelies!  It's almost time for NaNoWriMo, the month where we all punish ourselves by attempting to write fifty thousand words in a month.  So, since NaNo starts tomorrow it's time to have a proper freakout.  Luckily, I'm here to help.

Freak Out #1: I'm not ready!

Response: Of course you aren't. You will never be ready for the stress of the writing equivalent of diffusing a bomb underneath a stadium full of puppies and kittens.  But you can do it. JUST THINK OF THE PUPPIES (arf) AND KITTENS (mew).

Freak Out #2: Maybe I should outline?!? Should I outline?!

Response:  Sure you could outline, if that's your jam.  Or not.  If you find yourself comforted by the idea of a road map then dash off a quick outline.  If not, just go in like a literary badass, ready to dash off some words without any idea of where the larger story is going.

Like this! Only a tad less psychotic.

Like this! Only a tad less psychotic.

Freak Out #3: I think I can do this, but what if I run out of words to write? What if I get writer's block?

Response: Um, you've heard of the dictionary, right?  There are lots of words.  And words are an inexhaustible resource.  So don't worry about running out of them.  Just do your best and try to write a little everyday.  Or write a lot a few days a week. It's up to you!

At some point, this will be your day.

At some point, this will be your day.

Freak Out # 4: What if everything I write sucks?  What if it's terrible?

Response: It will! Your NaNo novel will most likely be a hot garbage fire of plot holes, wooden dialogue and people sitting down multiple times in the same scene. But that's okay! Because that is what REVISIONS are for!  The point of NaNo is to get the words out quickly so that you can fix them later.  It's much easier to revise than to build a world from scratch, just like it's easier to patch a boat than build a whole new one.

Freak Out # 5: I'm not sure why I should even NaNo.  I tried it once and only got like twenty thousand words.

Response: But that's twenty thousand words you didn't have before! That's awesome! And you probably learned a lot about your writing style from those twenty thousand words.  So you should definitely try.  Even if you don't finish, it's a good way to learn about what does and doesn't work for you.  So why not give it a shot?

Just keep in mind, you can do it! And if you don't, at least you tried.

Two Truths and a Lie

Last night I read a post by SC Author over at the Write Inclusively blog.  It was on the ever-thorny subject of writing marginalized perspectives from a position of power.  Now, you can ask twenty different people this question and get twenty different answers.  This isn’t a topic that anyone can agree on.  And really, it doesn’t matter.  Because people can write whatever the fuck they want, and the pushback from marginalized groups will always be pushed aside in favor of majority opinions.

But for those folks who truly want to do better it can help to approach it from a different direction.

I like to think of writing, all writing, as playing the game Two Truths and a Lie.  If you aren’t familiar with the game it involves telling a group of people three “facts” about yourself, two of which are true and one that is not.  The group of people then has to guess which fact is the lie.  If you’re good enough at selling the lie, you win.

 I didn't LIE. I was Writing Fiction with my mouth.

 I didn't LIE. I was Writing Fiction with my mouth.

This is how writers, especially new writers, should think about writing books.  Your job as an author is to have just enough truth in your story (universal truths, personal truths, whatever) that readers will also buy the bullshit. That is the secret to writing a successful story (easy, right?).

The key here is that marginalized groups have a helluva bullshit detector.  They see that shit coming from a mile away.  And they’ve seen it a billion times.  So when you have a stereotypical sassy gay character that swishes across the page they aren’t going to make it very far before they commence to eye rolling and give your story a big ole “NOPE”.

So don’t think of writing marginalized characters as some overwhelming task, think of it as selling the lie.  Just like with any other character who may not be like you.  I wouldn’t write a cop, because I know I couldn’t sell the lie in a way that wouldn’t make cops everywhere sit up and take notice in a negative way. 

If you can’t sell the lie of writing from a marginalized perspective without your privileged assumptions coming into the way, don’t write it.  But if you think you can take on the challenge, go for it.

Just don’t expect accolades for attempting to write a little more truth into your lie.

Why Hamilton is Important (and What Kidlit Could Learn)

I don’t really like musical theater.  To me, it was always something that was unbearably white.  Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera, Cats: these were things rich white kids liked and could afford, like going skiing in Big Bear or trips on an airplane to the East Coast.  So there was never much of an entry point for me when I was in school. I sang West Side Story and the Sound of Music songs in choir, but it was more of an endurance than any real love.

My first and only Broadway show was American Idiot.  That was five years ago.  It was a surprise gift from my husband, because I love Green Day.  And even though I really dug it, I mostly endured the whole thing because of my love of 1990s punk music.

When the soundtrack to Hamilton came out and people started talking about it, I was doubtful I would find anything there.  I mostly listened because I really love Hamilton.  Like many of my favorite historical figures (Ida B. Wells! W.E.B DuBois! Ida Tarbell! Huey Newton!) Hamilton exudes a certain “fuck you” attitude to the status quo of the time period he occupied. He was born into poverty, young compared to most of the other Founding Fathers, and embodied a kind of young upstart swagger that is super appealing.  Plus, there’s the duel.

Mostly, I wanted to know what had everyone so excited. I have a degree in history.  I know, firsthand, that no one is excited about history.  Seriously.

So I listened.

What I found was magic.

The Hamilton soundtrack is important because what it offers is two things.  First, it’s an entry point into history for people who hate history.  It’s really hard to wrinkle your nose in distaste when you’re singing along to “GIVE IT UP FOR AMERICA’S FAVORITE FIGHTING FRENCH MAN!” in “Guns and Ships.”  By the time you get to the end of the soundtrack, tears and all, what you’ve gotten is a pretty decent overview of the first thirty or so years of the United States, probably more detail than you’ll get in a typical high school survey course.

Secondly, and more importantly for me, using hip hop and R&B and voices that are clearly people of color gives minorities an entry point into history.  See, it’s hard to be interested in history when the only story you get to hear is one of servitude and struggle.  American History for black people has for the most part been distilled into Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr.  It’s hard to find a foothold in a story that consistently shuffles you in through the back door.

So what Hamilton does is takes history and views it through a modern day lens.  It tells those who have been left out of history, and everyone else as well, “This is a story where you could have had a role.  This is a story that is timeless.  It is a story that belongs to you.” In this context, Hamilton could be played by a woman.  Eliza could be played by a man.  Because the story is bigger than the people on the stage, and it’s a story that welcomes everyone.

Hamilton has made history inclusive.  It has taken a story and opened the aperture so that it allows everyone to participate.  And that is awesome. 

This is what kidlit needs.

When we look at history and sigh at the way it excludes underrepresented groups, whether intentionally or unintentionally, this is what we are saying.  We are saying “Yes, the past is past, but now is now.  And those people you’re excluding, the ones you’re ignoring? We have a voice.”

We notice. And if you can’t shift the lens to include all of us, you will be as relevant as Charles Lee.

 

 

On Opportunity

So, on Friday a well known children's author tweeted the ever condescending advice "All you have to do to get published is write a great story." And while I agree that is part of the answer, that kind of trite advice ignores a lot of other things, mainly that the idea of opportunity is impacted by a lot of things beyond our control.

When I pointed this out the author responded with "Well, I had a hard life," ignoring how the intersections of race and gender still have an impact.  And I started to think about how often this same conversation happens and decided a post to explain why keeping intersections and privilege in mind when having conversations about opportunity is vitally important.

So, in order to fully explain this ideas I went back to high school physics, mainly the idea of vectors.

If you remember vectors, these were those wonky arrows that should the movement of an item and the outside forces acting upon it.  In this case, the "Item" is a person.

So, the success matrix for a white man may look like this:

So, as you can see, access to education and poverty may have an impact on achieving success, but since they come in from an angle they're things that can be mitigated. More effort in the success line, such as getting an education or finding a way to escape poverty, would make success easier.

So, if that is how a success vector would look for a white man, this is how it would look for a black woman:

You can see that poverty and education are still barriers, but also there are the added obstacles of racism and sexism.  But while poverty and education come in from an angle and are incidental obstacles, sexism and racism require a concentrated effort to overcome, basically harkening back to the old "Twice as hard for half as much" adage.

And of course, these intersections apply in other situations:

And so on.

And of course the more marginalizations a person has the harder it is to achieve a measure of success.

So next time someone starts to talk about opportunities and privilege, consider the source.

On an Author's Expectations

I don’t usually respond to comments on anything I write on the internet, because it’s pretty much an exercise in futility.  But there was one comment on my post yesterday about the Hired Girl from a commenter named Bennett that I felt warranted discussion:

I have to say that it really bothers me that the author of this piece has not read the book in question. I think it's totally valid to avoid a book because of things one has heard about it, or because one senses that it's "not for you." I think it's understandable (even if it can be annoying for the author) when people have casual opinions about books that they haven't read, and participate in conversations about those books on places like GoodReads/Twitter/etc. But when it comes to professional criticism-- which I would consider this piece to be-- it really seems like reading the book should be a minimum requirement.
How does one know, for instance, whether a character's views are "redirected on the page in any meaningful way" when one hasn't read the entire book? (Mr. Sutton, and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Bird, seem to say that they are?)
If it seems like I'm not engaging with Ms. Ireland's larger points here, it's because I haven't read THE HIRED GIRL either. And although I have general feelings about some of the things this piece is saying-- most of which are informed, perhaps unfairly, by criticisms my own work has faced-- I don't think I can decide whether I really agree or disagree in the context of a book that I haven't read.

 

I’m going to begin by saying I read a significant portion of the Hired Girl but did not really finish it because I found it trite and offensive and catering to a very narrow worldview. Hence the conclusion:  not for me.  I spent a good bit of time skipping through the book to the end hoping it got better.

It didn’t.

As an author, I agree that it sucks when someone reviews a book and only gets your intent half right.  But I’d also say that readers know themselves better than an author does, so any thoughts an author might have on the matter are irrelevant.  Our job is to tell the story in the best way that we can, and when we fail we need to accept that failure and move on.

The part I wanted to discuss, in depth, was this:

How does one know, for instance, whether a character's views are "redirected on the page in any meaningful way" when one hasn't read the entire book?

Just how long is a reader supposed to endure problematic content before they decide it is offensive?  How long do they have to read and put up with tropes they find distasteful (slut shaming, girls as objects, racism, gross stereotypes, homophobia) before they decide that the story probably wasn’t written with them in mind?

I often say that problematic ideas, if intentionally placed in a story, have to be deconstructed on the page.  What I don’t say is how close in proximity to the offense the deconstruction has to be placed.  Can sexist ideology in chapter one be diffused in chapter twenty?  Yes.  But don’t expect a reader who feels personally attacked and marginalized by your words to survive that long.  Do not expect a reader to endure twenty chapters of pain and microaggression for some possible payoff, especially when you’ve done nothing to gain reader trust in the opening chapters.  That isn’t fair to that reader, and it demonstrates that the author clearly did not have that group in mind when they wrote the book.

Opening chapters are a covenant between the author and the reader.  The author tells the reader in those first few pages “This is the story I’m going to tell you, and this is how I will treat you, dear reader, as the story goes on.”  If those first few chapters are filled with racism and sexism and homophobia that personally attack the reader or make them feel othered, less than human, why should they continue reading?  Especially if the author cannot be expected to make the feeblest of attempts at a redirect?  Why should they put up with your (and yes, if you don’t do it well and clearly demonstrate that it is the character and not you, you do own it) personal bias in the hopes that at some later point in the story you’ll acknowledge their humanity?

What this conversation ignores is the fact that this kind of marginalization and othering isn’t new for those groups that are hurt.  They’ve experienced sexism and racism firsthand in the real world.  They know it sucks.  They don’t have to watch a character engage in it for twenty chapters in order to learn some deep and meaningful lesson, they’ve come into the story already having learned the lesson.  If you haven’t written a story to acknowledge THEIR experiences and emotions, then you haven’t written a story that is inclusive to them.  And you excluding that group means that your work in and of itself is a microaggression and a further marginalization.  It is one more way of telling that group that they are unimportant.

And that message isn’t any historically marginalized group’s fault.  That failure and shortcoming rests solely on the author.

Apathy

I have a love/hate with the diversity conversation. In the past few days that feeling, all of the uncertainty and irritation that comes with it, has come burbling to the top.

While I think that quality representation of marginalized voices is vital to good craft and is vital for young minds, I realize that it’s completely inconsequential to those in the majority.

Meaning: white straight able-bodied people don’t have to give a single fuck about representation. Not one. They already win without even opening their mouths.

I’ve spoken out a lot about diversity and representation.  This past year was basically me saying to the world “I see your bullshit and it isn’t okay.”  But at the same time I’ve seen a lot of other bullshit, some of it from people fighting the same good fight as I am, and it’s made me take a step back and think “That isn’t helpful at all.” 

There has to be a way to have the conversation without chasing away every single ally.  And I worry that we haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

Yes, I know that any ally that bails at the first sign of trouble isn’t a real ally.  But at the end of the day, in order to change publishing, in order to push for change, we need white, het, cis allies.  Not the allies that are going to parrot the same sentiments that people of color have been vomiting out into the ether for decades and take credit for being clever, but the ones working quietly behind the scenes.

I think I need to spend more time working quietly behind the scenes.  I need to recharge.  I need something.  Because this conversation is going nowhere fast, and it’s upsetting to see people who are trying in good faith to help get burned to the ground. 

That doesn’t mean I think white folks should appropriate the stories of the marginalized carte blanche.  I will still always champion an authentic voice over one who writes from a position of privilege.  It means I think we need to do better at looking at representation and seeing nuance (if it exists).  There’s a difference between trying and failing and just failing spectacularly.  A lot of that gets lost on Twitter and the like.  But maybe what remains, amongst the yelling and fingerpointing and soapbox stomping, is a more essential truth. 

If so, I’m not sure it’s one I like.

I often say that it’s a thin line between social justice and self-interest, and I’ve been feeling that more keenly than ever.  I’ve always been willing to talk to those who have an open mind.  I still am.  But I feel the need to put some distance between me and those more concerned about RTs than changing the conversation and improving representation.  Because the reality is that getting underrepresented voices to the table is hard, and none of that happens without allies who are willing to pitch in and help.

No battle is truly won if the war is lost, and I feel that over the past month more people have stepped away from the diversity conversation than have joined it. And that’s something that scares me.  A lot. And I can’t help but wonder if I have something to do with that.  For me, that is more unbearable than any other thought.

So I’m stepping back.  Stepping away.  I’m going to reevaluate and reassess.  I’m going to write words and read books and live my life.  And maybe when I come back it will be with a better sense of direction.

Because right now I’m lost. And that helps absolutely no one.

On the Visibly Marginalized

I’ve been thinking about lifting up marginalized voices more than often because reasons.  Part of my diversity death spiral is because I’m kind of dreading what publishers will be putting out under the “diversity” umbrella in the next few years.  I’ve been reading authors who write outside of their racial experiences (I had to narrow my focus because, yikes, is there a lot of problematic material) for a thesis and it’s pretty fucking awful.  These books went through an agent, an editor, and a copyeditor and this is what came out?  Were there beta readers from the outside culture?  I kind of doubt it, and that makes me fear the future.

Part of it is because we’re at the end of conference season and online images of panels are a great visual reminder of publishing’s diversity problem. Panel after panel after panel of people, not a single brown person in sight.  I’d dare you to walk outside of your house, go to the local Wal-Mart and see if the world is that monochromatic.  If you don’t think the inevitable whiteness of panels sends a message, you’re wrong.

I had two panels at AWP. After each one people of color came up to me and said “I’m so glad you’re on this panel.  I didn’t know if I could actually get published. Now I know I can do it. Thanks.”  And…I died a little inside.  Because these folks hadn’t read my books.  They have no idea how good or bad of a writer I am.

But my skin color, that was validating.

I’ve been thinking about racial representation.  A lot.  A lotta lot.  Because we talk about diversity and we talk about the importance of those hidden marginalizations also being talked about (and Yes! They are important) but at the same time it takes the focus off of what is happening in the diversity discussion to some degree.

Namely: people would rather talk about ANYTHING but race and what race and racism means in the context of publishing.

I honestly think people are more comfortable talking about neurodiversity or sexual minorities or disability than ANYTHING surrounding race.  Race is scary (second place in THINGS PEOPLE DO NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT we have Judaism and Islam, discussions of which also meet some awfully loud crickets).  It’s the big Other.  So instead of having uncomfortable conversations we defer to the gay white men for our diversity (always white, always male, which is interesting).  Intersections? Who needs intersections? There’s a gay dude on the panel. Check the block, go home. Diversity accomplished.

Someone wrote that white people should be allowed to write people of color because people of color can write white people and that’s only fair.  That statement shows so much ignorance about race, about how it functions in this country, about power structures and survival, that it didn’t make me mad.

It just made me tired.

The categories of marginalizations are deep and wide, but I feel like shifting the discussion away from race is unconsciously less about improving representation for everyone (a noble goal indeed!) and more about shifting the focus off of race.  Women of color are actively silenced and tone policed in a way that other groups never are.  We need to be more polite, to ask for better representation nicely.  Black Lives Matter gets replaced with All Lives Matter.  And to some degree, it feels like this is a very real possibility in the bookish community with regards to the diversity discussion.

Or not. Prove me wrong.

 

EDITED TO ADD:  Kayla Whaley was kind enough to point out how I pretty grossly erased disabled folks and other categories in order to make a point about race, and since that is gross read this Storify of her tweets as well.  Because it is important:

 


Aversive Racism and the Traditional Publishing Model

So, I think we’ve reached the point in the diverse books discussion where we can start talking about more nuanced aspect of publishing’s diversity problem, namely the existence of a double-standard for books featuring marginalized voices over those that support a viewpoint which centers on the white, masculine, heterosexual cultural experience.  That’s all a very fancy way of saying what Papa Pope said on Scandal:
 

Twice as hard for half as much.

When we get into conversations about diversity there is always a little pushback.  Most often the discussion shifts to being one of quality.  “I just think we should give the award to the BEST person, not a person who is marginalized or female or whatever.”  The problem is, if you participate in this culture of aversive racism (and by extension aversive sexism and aversive homophobia) you are still part of the problem.  By ignoring your own inherent biases and the existing, flawed structures, you are perpetuating the overt discrimination that thrives in the world in smaller, more fundamental ways.  After all, every wall is built one brick at a time.

Basically, there is no neutrality when it comes to equality for all.  You are either for making things equal or you are not.  And when you are not you are just as culpable as the dude waving the Confederate flag and burning down synagogues and black churches.

Does that sound harsh? Welp, it’s proven by SCIENCE!

Gaertner and Dovidio have found across multiple studies that when the choice is obvious, for example when a black applicant is wildly more qualified than a white applicant, the choice will go to the black applicant because people understand that to choose the white applicant would be racist.  But when the choice is more ambiguous like in publishing, the white candidate is far more likely to be chosen, which leads to discussions of “quality” and of books being written by white authors being of a higher quality than those written by marginalized voices.

This even happens when books feature characters of color.  The centering of a white perspective has made books like The Help and Eleanor and Park popular as books featuring characters from marginalized backgrounds, but these voices are not authentic.  They are filtered not only through a lens of white experience but of white cultural superiority.  The marginalized voice is subverted to the white authorial voice, resulting in at best a whitewashed rendition of the marginalized voice, and at worse a caricature or gross stereotype.

So don’t tell me that you are colorblind or that race and sexuality and disability don’t matter when you read, because they do.  The challenge is for you to recognize your own inherent biases, and to move past them.

You can’t do that if you refuse to acknowledge it in the first place.

Writing Past Your Shit 101: Getting Out of Your Own Way and Writing People NOT Like You!

So, I’m kind of getting tired of folks asking me vague questions about writing People of Color (PoC) but at the same time I’m glad that folks are so focused on writing something other than John Green paper dolls (yay!).

So here, for you, dear reader, is my guide to Writing Past Your Shit, an easy starting point for thinking about how to craft characters that are NOT like you.

 

1. Who is your character? Make a list.

This is a pretty easy exercise that we usually do in our heads whenever we start a story.  We think about our character, what she wants, who she is, and who the people around her are.  She may be a little flat in our first draft, but by our second draft she (hopefully) has a voice and a unique personality. Meaning, by the second draft you should know your character.  You should probably know her in your first draft, but if you’re an exploratory writer like me (fancy words for pantser) it might take you a couple of false starts before you get her down pat.

For this exercise I’m going to use a character from a book I’m working on.  Ophie is an eleven-year-old black girl from 1930s Mississippi who can throw fire.  At the beginning of the story her mother sells her to a circus sideshow.  So Ophie’s list would look like this:

 

Young

Throws fire

Sold by her mother

Circus

1930s (black and poor)

 

Your list can be longer, but I think it’s best to start with a relatively short one and grow from there.

 

2.  Compare yourself to the character you’re writing. 

At this point we’re going to identify our shit.  Your shit is any of the traits on that list that you do not share with your character.  Ideally, that list should be pretty long (DO NOT WRITE WISH FULFILLMENT CHARACTERS THOSE ARE ICKY).  Write your shit next to that of your main character’s:

 

Young – Not young

Throws Fire – Doesn’t throw fire L

Sold by her mother – Mom Hasn’t Sold Me Yet

Circus – No circus

1930s – 2015!

 

Simple, right?

 

3. Identify Your Shit. Now Get Over It.

For every trait where you identified a huge difference between you and your character, these are potential hurdles to nailing your character’s perspective.  To get over your shit you need to realize how it colors your worldview.  For example, even though I’m black, being black in the 1930s was way different.  So this is a place where my expectations of how the world works could really get me all twisted up.

So how do I get past that? RESEARCH! For each of those categories I identified I need to get my happy ass out there and research.  I need to read as close to authentic, primary source documents as possible.  That means I need to see if I can find pieces written by circus performers from the 1930s, and if not, then circus performers from the early 20th century. 

THE GOAL SHOULD BE TO GET AS CLOSE TO YOUR CHARACTER’S TRAIT AS HUMALY POSSIBLE. 

I need to read pieces written about neglectful mothers, and I need to either hang out with younger kids (in a non-creepy way) or try to remember what being eleven was like, since I once actually experienced that.

Does it sound like a lot of work? Fuck yeah, it does.  Writing is easy. Writing well isn’t. Enjoy the suck.

The only things I don’t have to avidly research are things that aren’t real. So, luckily, I don’t have to research throwing fire. Because no one is going to tell me my fire throwing was totally wrong. And if they do? They can go pound sand.

And sometimes recognizing your own shit can be awesome! Because if you live solidly lower class and your character lives a life of luxury, you don’t have to think about how she’d react to never having money.  But you do have to think about how being rich changes her perspective from yours.

IT IS ALL ABOUT SLIPPING INTO ANOTHER PERSON’S PERSPECTIVE.  Which is incredibly difficult when you’re all tangled up in your shit.

 

4.  Revise, revise, revise.

Once you’ve identified your shit you have to revise with an eye toward spotting your shit.  Does my 1930s girl use modern slang? Is she too outspoken in the presence of white people she doesn’t know?  Does she have warm memories of her mother? Should she?  These are questions you have to answer within the pages while revising. 

REVISION IS YOUR SWEET, SWEET SNUGGLE PUPPY OF A FRIEND.  Embrace it.

 

5. Ask a friend to beta read and check for your shit.

Beat readers are the best! They spot your issues! They’ll tell you what rings false! Even an inexperienced beta reader is better than nothing.

For your beta you should have someone unfamiliar with your story but quasi-familiar with your shit. Or maybe you tell them “Hey, this is my shit. Can you make sure it isn’t too obvious when you read?” A good beta reader will catch about 75% of your shit.

But, what about the other 25%?

Welp, no story is ever perfect, friend.  So you just hope that enough people read it that you get as close to 100% as possible.  WELCOME TO THE QUESTIONABLY SATISFYING WORLD OF WRITING BOOKS!

************

 

And that’s it!  A beginner’s guide to Getting Out of Your Own Way and Writing People NOT Like You!

Now get off my lawn.

Everyone Has a Limit

Here's mine.  I'm tired of the constant harassment. I'm tired of seeing good people dragged through the mud for caring.  I'm currently transcribing the full lecture for review.  But until I do, here is the full letter I received from Jane Resh Thomas, student names within the letter redacted:

July 15, 2015

My dear fellow writers,

As I wrote to REDACTED, damned if I can understand what causes people to think (as she implied) that I don't understand the face of racism. I care what you think about me. Since my lecture has been mis-characterized and I have been misquoted, I need to speak here about some of the things I said.

What I said about anger seems to be part of my having failed to say clearly what I think and believe. As I look back over the past almost-eighty years, I think more people are more angry about more things than ever in my lifetime and less willing to cut anybody else any slack.  I am not talking in a limited way about the real and proper rage of marginalized people who have suffered tortures for centuries and continue to do so. I was talking about the anger I hear from everybody: women, men, PETA, bigots, wives, husbands, practitioners of religions, atheists and agnostics, pro-choice people, anti-abortionists, hipster, teenagers, white people, Democrats and Republicans, people who hate hipsters, parents, environmentalists, citizens who want to kill policemen, policemen who do kill citizens, vegans, billionaires who fear that their huge proportion of the world's wealth might be tapped, anti-environmentalists (some people even want to cut down redwood trees and Sitka spruces)--everybody, in all sectors of society. Look at the anger this lecture has stirred.

Never in my long life have so many people been so angry about so many things. I think that this anger results from hurt and fear. We need to alleviate the hurt and fear. We need to stop calling other people names. We need to turn down the temperature. We need to stop telling other people what they must do and what they can and cannot say. All of us need to examine ourselves.

To what extent are you responsible for my feeling state? To what extent do I get to determine for myself how I will react to the hurtful things people say to me. If somebody insults me, I get to decide how I will feel and do about it. In fact, I have been insulted and wronged this week. One of the things I am doing about it is writing this letter.

Faculty members are encouraging students to "write outside their culture," but when they do, they don't have much chance of being published. I know an editor who would not publish any book about a minority member by any writer who is not a member of that group; too much risk. Nor do writers writing about somebody outside their own cultures have much chance of getting it right. Probably an African American writer would have as much trouble writing about a Caucasian family as Caucasian writers have writing about an African American or a Chinese family. We don't even know how people in other cultures feel about outsiders telling their stories or how they sound in their own houses. Once I overheard a friend I had known for some years talking with others of his own culture, not realizing I heard. I could hardly believe my ears at the difference between his two voices. All of us speak differently at home than we do in public. One of my private students is writing about homo sapiens and Neanderthal characters thirty thousand years ago, in order to tread the minefield without being blown up.

This furor started in a faculty meeting when I mentioned a manuscript that merely plugged in a black character who might as well have been white or green. Moreover, in a scene where the bullies of the small midwestern town where he has been improbably sent into foster care attack him with the racial slur typically directed at African Americans by bullies. We all know what that racial slur is. I (I can't even write the coy euphemism.) I told the writer that, authentic as it may be, in this climate, in either real life or in fiction, that word is unsayable, even in order to dramatize the racism in a story, even to denounce it. Although that word and other slurs are words that I have never used, I quoted the manuscript. (Well, I may have said prick a few times. I wish I had not.)

This matter is an important issue for writers who are trying their best to do the right thing, either to expand the scope of children's literature or to avoid causing hurt through their work. It is a legitimate topic of craft. As soon as I brought the issue up, however, nobody in the faculty meeting heard anything else I said about it, as if I were the bully who had called somebody by that name. Seeing the distress about my even mentioning such a thing, I rewrote my lecture. Twice. In the next two days.

Now I have been slandered and ostracized as a racist or a bigot or an old crock who doesn't get it, either the pain or the modern conversation. The latter, by the way, is one element in the stereotype of old people: we are crocks who don't get it, who can't get it, doddering old fools that we are. A staff member of the program has added fuel to the internet fire. I have been smeared and condescended to this week as a bigot who can't empathize with marginalized people, things that none of my many marginalized friends have never thought of me. My response is to say that I am sorry that people feel hurt, as I profoundly am. And I stand by the ideas I expressed in my lecture. Although I am heartsick (literally as well as figuratively), I am showing up at some lectures. I want people to see that I am neither intimidated nor ashamed. I am not the intimidated sort. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I will not be slandered and libeled and misquoted without talking back. The word racist can be a slur, too.

My mis-characterized lecture also made the point that we are being censored and censoring ourselves in the effort not to hurt others. That effort not to hurt is essential. We need to keep the conversation going, however, not shut it down, or we will shiver ourselves and our country to pieces. In Ursula LeGuin's The Wizard of Earthsea, the greatest fantasy for children of the twentieth century, Ged tries to escape his shadow self, to deny the things that are most base. Doing so, he is in danger of becoming the thing he most abhors. In our abhorrence and anguish about the worst of our history, slavery and prejudice and hatred and repression, we are imitating Ged. I think that we must examine our past and come to terms with it, as we must also examine our present attitudes and hearts and souls. We cannot cleanse ourselves of our history by suppressing slavery as a topic in history textbooks, as the state of Texas is doing, or by removing the confederate jasmine from the Louisiana State University campus, as some students demand. And we must treat one another as human beings and be kind; saying so is not to shut people down about their anger but merely to express it as kindly as they can. Most of us are doing the best we can. As you would want me to treat you kindly, I would appreciate kindness from you.These were things I tried to say in my lecture Monday.

I spent last night in the hospital, because the stress of this week has caused an attack of angina and cardiac arrhythmia--not a heart attack but pain and malfunction that happens to people who have failing hearts, as I do. In the talk about the disproportional power of a white teacher, nobody is thinking about the power of the mob against an individual. As REDACTEDwrote in a letter to me so kind that it moved me to tears, there is something contagious about taking offense. I am heartsick that students and faculty feel hurt and angry. However, my lecture achieved what I hoped for: people are definitely talking. I do not regret it.

Yours ever,
Jane Resh Thomas

 

 

Daily Invalidations

“I don’t understand why you’re so upset.”

These are the absolute worst words to hear from someone you confess your feelings to under any circumstance, but it’s even worse to hear it from someone pretending to be an ally.  Can you imagine someone saying this to a hit and run victim? Or someone stabbed in a random act of violence?

And yet, this is the response people from marginalized backgrounds get whenever they bring up microaggressions in everyday life.  It is the pinnacle of aversive racism and a lack of empathy couched as a scholarly search for understanding.

This has been the response of too many people within my MFA community. And honestly? I’m sick to fucking death of it.

If you don’t understand why taking facts out of context to make the point that minorities need to just calm down is a problem...

If you can’t put your personal feelings of warmth for a person aside to see their destructive behaviors...

If you don’t understand that invalidating the experiences of large groups of people is not “starting a conversation”, but rather ending it...

You are the problem.

I shouldn’t have to justify my feelings with charts and graphs.  My lived experiences shouldn’t be an academic exercise for you. And my emotions shouldn’t be subject to cursory dismissal, especially when you make so much of yours.

This is what it’s like to be from a marginalized group. It’s exhausting, it’s enraging, and if you find yourself questioning and making excuses you need to realize your ignorance and subsequent feelings of shame have nothing to do with me or my tone.

This is all on you. So go fix it.

 

I’ll wait.

 

 

Moving Beyond "Diversity"

How many people of color have you read in books?

More specifically, how many people of color have you read in sci-fi lately?

That one crewmember who was the main character’s second in command and died terribly?

That girl, you know, the one who’s going to bring down the corrupt government? Not her, but her best friend?

Or maybe none at all, just an endless array of white folks and alien species that are not so subtly people of color.

The erasure of people of color from literature is pervasive and terrible.  But it is even worse in science fiction and fantasy.  When you go to great lengths to create brave new worlds and can’t seem to find yourself imagining more than a few token people of color, or none at all, this speaks volumes.

With a few keystrokes you have systematically erased most of the world as we know it. You have created a future or whole new world where people of color no longer exist, and if they do exist they serve no purpose beyond forwarding the plot for your white main character.

It’s time to start calling this what it is.

Literary genocide.

We like to pretty up our language when we talk about the bleak representation of people of color in books and media.  We talk about diversity and elevation of marginalized voices and increasing representation.  But I think it’s time we start acknowledging what it really is.  It’s cultural genocide, as though not seeing ourselves reflected in media will eventually make us disappear from the real world as well.

When you write stories with no representation by people of color, especially in a created world where you control what it means to be a person of color, you have become an architect of erasure.

Literary genocide.

It’s time we stop pretending that it is anything else.