23

The R Word.

On Friday night, I went to see a screening of the movie Dear White People, a wonderfully funny and warm but still very biting comedy about race relations on an Ivy league campus. (“Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man, Tyrone, doesn’t count.” ) The filmmaker, Justin Simien, said that he wants the movie to start a conversation—nothing gets better without a dialogue. He also cited as his inspiration great black cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s and movies like Do the Right Thing that had things to say and left you feeling not just entertained but moved, sometimes uncomfortably so.

So race was at the front of my mind the next day when I went to the NYC Teen Author Book Festival to see some of my authors present on different panels. The audience was probably 90% white women in their 30s and 40s. This is an observation, not a judgment. But it’s something I kept thinking about because in the middle of New York City, that’s an awfully homogenous crowd.

I was not alone thinking about race that day. One of panels was called “Summer Reading” and the four authors discussed their novels, each set during the summer. At the end, an audience member stood up to say that she had been at the festival for two days and only seen one author of color. She also mentioned that she works with underprivileged teens in Hartford whose summers wouldn’t at all resemble those in the books being read from. She wanted to know what the panelists had to say about that.

It was an uncomfortable moment not just because a big issue was being raised but because my first thought was, “These four authors have nothing to do with planning this event and shouldn’t be asked to speak to such a large issue when they were just there to talk for five minutes about their particular novels.”

That’s a lie. My first thought was, “Please don’t let my client say anything stupid.” Listen, I’m an agent. It’s just in the bones.

Happily for me, my client on the panel, Gae Polisner, actually had a very thoughtful response, explaining that she writes fiction that comes from a very internal place and that her leads resemble her because she can only write from a place she knows and understands and just hopes that she touches on truths universal enough that they’ll resonate across the broadest spectrum of people possible. That is a great answer for an author. It does, however, leave some great big questions for an industry. Take a look at these articles by Walter Dean Myers  and his son Christopher Myers.

Those articles were spurred on by a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin showing that of 3,200 children’s books released in 2013, 223 were by authors of color, and 253 were about people of color. That’s less than 7%. To give some perspective, nationally, approximately 27% of the population is people of color.

Happily, I have easy answers to this diversity gap.

Ha! Just kidding. I don’t have easy answers. I actually don’t have any answers—just more questions. Like where is the root of the problem? Is it in the largely white make-up of the publishing industry? Are we weeding out material by and about experiences we simply don’t understand? Is there an institutional racism that hasn’t been broached yet? Is the problem that people of color aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in writing? Is it possible that there aren’t enough of these books being published because there aren’t enough being written? And, perhaps my own biggest question: are we too overwhelmed or scared to ask these questions because we don’t know what we’ll uncover about ourselves?

I won’t lie—I almost scrapped this blog post several times. It makes me nervous to bring up such a big subject because I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to offend, and I don’t want anyone to cringe while they read it. But in the spirit of Dear White People, let’s do it. Let’s have the conversation.

23 Responses to The R Word.

  1. Jenz says:

    I’m nervous just posting a comment on blog posts like this. It seems a lot of talk about diversity issues online goes bad fast, and I’ve stepped in it on a couple other blogs already. So mostly I just shut up and listen. Which I will do again now. 😉

  2. Joelle says:

    I’m glad you brought this up, but like you, I’m hesitant to chime in! In fact, I’ve already deleted the next sentence three times. I don’t think I’m going to weigh in on writing characters of colour as a white, forty-something female after all…but I will say that my next book is going to be about kids who live in a low-income area, with no college expectations, hell, they’d just like a job after graduation, assuming they graduate. Hopefully kids who don’t feel represented (economically) will identify with this book, but I’m writing it because it’s the story I want to tell. However, the only reason I feel like I can write this is because I knew kids like that growing up – personal experience.

    Okay, I will say something about including characters of colour after all. I grew up in Portland which was a pretty segregated city back then (I’m not so sure now as I don’t live there anymore). In my middle class suburban junior high, there was one black kid. One. How he felt about that, I have no idea, but I imagine it was something like when I was a grown-up on the El train in Chicago and realized I was the only white person on the train (first time in my entire life), only it was probably magnified by about a thousand for him – first because it was every day, and second because junior high is its own minefield. I feel like as a writer I could draw from this experience, but only from my POV or my peers’ POV. Maybe I just don’t have the confidence as a writer to tell his story? I’m not sure.

    But I can say that in my second book, there is a black male character and one of the big trades accused me of creating a racial stereotype. No one else mentioned this anywhere. It seemed like it was a nit she had to pick. I wonder if she would’ve said that if she hadn’t know I was white? Would she have said it if she’d known my editor was black? So…while I am planning to go forth and write the stories I want to tell, with and without racial diversity, you can see why a forty-something, white woman might be hesitant to do that which is a HUGE shame and also ridiculous. And yet, no one wants to be called a racist. That’s why you walked carefully as you wrote this post, and I’m doing the same thing here.

    It’s fascinating that women dominate the world of children’s literature because where else is that true? Certainly not Hollywood. It’s been a while since I was in the theatre, but I don’t remember reading a lot of female playwrights at University. Maybe women dominate children’s literature because so many of them come originally from the education and library systems? Maybe men don’t write for kids because they think it’s “not real” or “not serious” writing. I see this stereotype being broken down every day as more and more kids’ books by men fall into my hands, but it seems a fairly reasonable argument for the lack of male authors. It’s only been the last few years, as YA has gained a crossover audience and readers realized its merit, that people have stopped asking me, “So when are you going to write for adults?” as if writing for kids is just practice.

  3. Elizabeth Lynd says:

    I’m white. My work-in-progress has an Indian American protagonist, and a major secondary character is a black woman. Of the four major characters in the book, only one is white, and he’s a guy. But not an American.

    Am I nervous? You bet. Not about getting representation (well, I am, but not because of the color of the characters’ skins), but because if it gets published, I know I’m going to get some questions about who the heck do I think I am writing about these people who look nothing like me.

  4. Katie Newingham says:

    Growing up on a military base as a child, there were two primary schools: one for officer’s kids, and one for enlisted kids. I was an officer’s kid, but was allowed to stay at the enlisted kids school – being uprooted so much, the administration and my dad thought it was in my best interest to stay in school with my friends. If I could find my class picture, you’d see there are more mixed race kids than white.

    It was there I started to see strong divisions between race and opportunity. Most of the officers were white, with wives who stayed at home. Their children were often in extra-curricular activities, and when the time came to go to public schools, the parents were usually able to afford to live in the best areas with the preferred schools.

    The enlisted families struggled financially unless both parents worked, which is why I usually spent my time with their children. Latch key kids tend to stick together. Our after school activities consisted of making dance routines to TLC (as the only white girl in the group, I was truly terrible) or going to the rec center.

    I’m still friends with all of them, and I’m sorry to report I’m one of few who attended college, and the only one to attend grad school. Intelligence isn’t key. It’s opportunity. Eventually, my dad got re-stationed, we bought a house in the best public school district. It was a difficult transition, but the high school I would attend, would graduate 98 percent of students, and somewhere in the 80 percent range would go to college.

    Fast Forward:

    Now I live in the south, where a man I knew with a greater education than myself, who was a near Olympian, and truly upstanding citizen, was pulled over by police and searched for no reason. He was simply riding his bike to our news station, in a shirt and tie, because he’s a meteorologist. He had intelligence, opportunity, and black skin.

    Obviously, the answer to why more books aren’t written by people of color, is deep and multifaceted, and I’m not trying to be polarizing, but certainly, there are advantages to being white, at least in the south, to having a stay home caretaker to help with homework, to having more education which affords more opportunities, and to having more money – which perhaps means more flexibility with the things mentioned above, except, perhaps, the color of ones skin.

  5. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I think the larger issue here is the tendency of people in the publishing industry (or anywhere, for that matter) to retreat into comfortably stereotypical, conventional wisdom thinking; i.e., if there’s a character who’s black, gay, or otherwise atypical, it’s a lot easier to play the guilt card regarding their place in the storyline than have them doing something which might be actually interesting. There are several fairly well-known authors who dine out on this practice (meaning their books usually sink with all hands and the cook before they get past the harbor lighthouse but the authors get invited to lots of literary cocktail events) A great example of the right way to do it, IMHO, is the character of Dick Halloran in Stephen King’s THE SHINING FROM BACK IN ’74. There’s several other examples, but one gets the idea. Basically, storytelling should always be first-never, ever, intro a character (or an entire plotline) just for the purpose of correcting a societal fault or promoting an agenda. It does a disservice to both the book and any larger issues looming in the background………..

  6. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Damn cap lock keys-that’s THE SHINING from ’74-see what happens when you wander away from storylines?

  7. Pingback: It’s More Than Representation: My Thoughts on the Lack of Diversity in Children’s Books | Whimsically Yours

  8. To begin with, I want to say thanks to Jim for opening this dialogue. I get how scary it is, and I applaud your bravery and for giving us the opportunity to talk about this tough subject.

    I am a writer of mixed race: Black, White, Native American. I am also a former television news reporter, and it is that experience that partially informs the way I draw the characters in my books.

    We in the news biz are slowly, painfully evolving toward a new way of describing the people in our stories – trying to talk about them in terms of their achievements or failures and their personalities, rather than the color of their skin. This is necessary, because for too long we used “The black suspect” or “The black professor” as a crutch and ended up enforcing stereotypes (suspect) or being condescending (professor). We still do, but it’s getting better.

    And so, in my new incarnation as a YA/MG novelist, I find myself working hard to draw characters that are notable because they are quirky/funny/damaged/scared/happy, et al, not because they are of a certain color. I don’t want their color to be the thing about them that’s remarkable or the reason it sells. I want people to read my books because the characters are good, not because someone finally wrote a book about a Black person with extra sensory talents.

    BUT. I also want my children to read books that are populated with people that look like them. And I want that not to be remarkable that those books were readily available and on the NYT Best Sellers List.

    Dilemna. No answer yet. I do write multicultural characters and often make their races and their physical characteristics as ambiguous as mine. Because that’s my world and what I know.

    One day I will get to write the scene where a woman hops into a taxi and the driver tries Spanish, Yiddish, and Arabic to communicate with her because her looks are so hard to pin down. Yup. Happens to me all the time.

  9. Amy B. says:

    I think it needs to be pointed out that these are not new questions, that plenty of people ask them and discuss them, and that this is far from the beginning of a conversation. (Children’s Book Council even created a whole website dedicated to such questions: http://www.cbcdiversity.com/about) I guess it depends on who exactly you were addressing when you say “we.” If you meant purely in the context of DGLM, then apologies, but it did read as addressing the wider publishing community.

    It’s great that you are now aware of and want to join the conversation, but rather than framing this post as the start of a conversation, you might be better served by some googling and reading up on the conversations that are going on as a first step.

    There was also this great response to your post: http://whimsicallyours.com/2014/03/24/its-more-than-representation-my-thoughts-on-the-lack-of-diversity-in-childrens-books/

  10. I am super happy you ARE opening this dialogue and what is more, I think the questions you ask are on the right track:

    Is it in the largely white make-up of the publishing industry?
    I don’t have the birds eye view to this, but from what I *can* see, I do see a largely white business arena. And yes, I think this is part of the problem.

    Are we weeding out material by and about experiences we simply don’t understand?
    EXCELLENT question. Sometimes our prejudice comes through in this respect. We may not always even be aware of it. How to change this? Purposefully change our reading lists. Make a conscious effort to read fiction with non-white protagonists. Make a conscious effort to read fiction by non-white authors.

    Is there an institutional racism that hasn’t been broached yet?
    Maybe.

    Is the problem that people of color aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in writing?
    Likely. At least one of the problems.

    Is it possible that there aren’t enough of these books being published because there aren’t enough being written?
    No. I don’t believe this is the case. I do know that I have read agent blogs and other bookish articles that like to say publishers are selling to a market that supposedly favors white. There are many problems with this claim. This might be where we might be able to answer “yes” to the institutional racism part after all.

    Thank you for asking the questions. I think we all need to be part of the answers. If we think a non-black reader should be able to identify with a white character, is there a reason why a white reader cannot do the same with a non-white character? We need to read not just more, but more broadly and therefore help contribute to sharing the amazing wealth of storytelling that too many are missing.

  11. Thoughtful says:

    Jim, I really appreciate this post, but I’d like to ask you to consider your last statement: “Let’s have this conversation.” The conversation in question has actually been going on for many years with many people speaking–see Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo, see the Carl Brandon Society, see Neesha Meminger and the Rejectionist and Andrea Hairston and Nnedi Okorafor and on and on and on, so maybe consider rephrasing that?

    I bring this up because it happens a lot, that the person of privilege becomes aware of an issue that the affected have been speaking about for much longer, and thinks they are the first to do something about it, thus erasing the affected’s voice(s). I know that’s not your intention here, but words matter.

  12. Jim says:

    Really appreciate all the comments. And “Thoughtful,” I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression. I meant let’s have the conversation here, or start having that conversation here–certainly not that it’s a new discussion or realization. Hope that clarifies!

  13. Anonymous says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this question, Jim. I can’t speak to why there isn’t more racial diversity in authors–I haven’t studied it enough. But speaking as a caucasian author who would dearly love to see more diversity in authors and in characters, it’s very intimidating to try to write characters outside my ethnicity, especially as protagonists. I have done it, but it’s nerve-wracking because there’s a sense that as a white person I can’t do justice to the experience of someone of a different race. There’s a level of scrutiny there that I don’t feel is there when I write about other types of experiences that are outside my own. Or maybe that’s just me putting extra pressure on myself. I worry about either accidentally stereotyping, or writing out of my own privilege, or opening myself up to accusations of cultural appropriation. As your client said at the panel, I think most of us try to write characters that come from as authentic a place within us as possible, and then hope those universal experiences of being human will bridge the racial or ethnic gaps between us and our readers. But that’s only a partial solution.

  14. Hart Johnson says:

    I may be in sort of a unique position here. I am a (white) author, (friends with Gae Polisner) but I am speaking as somebody who has been studying racial and socioeconomic disparities by day for nearly two decades. I would place a resounding YES at the feet of institutional racism in the system, but I don’t believe for a minute it is an AWARE racism. It stems from the ‘we sell what works’ and the ENORMITY of what is needed for a work to break people out of a position of comfort to get them to try something new.

    I have several author friends of color, but by far the most successful of these started her own publishing company and proved readers would like her before she managed a traditional contract. The fault is on a circular cycle with readers, too–because most books are ‘so white’ people of color are more likely to choose less mainstream literature which makes publishers think ‘well that isn’t the demographic that reads’ when in fact people read more when they find more to identify with. I think it’s CRITICAL that YA literature gain in diversity. Adults will find what they want to read and there are genres that feed desires, but I think it’s important for young people to not feel excluded when their peers are talking about books.

    In our supposedly ‘post-racial’ world we have forgotten the importance of dialog and celebrating differences and cooperation between people who intentionally reach across cultural divides and the anger and tension about it is bubbling up (check out the Twitter #BBUM campaign if this doesn’t ring any bells). I think we all could benefit from being more cognizant about who is present in books and really think about who cares about who is absent.

    (and on another note–your Captcha is the most picky-jerk of an interaction I’ve ever had–I’d really recommend getting rid of it. Trying now for the 5th time to get this to post)

  15. Debbie Reese says:

    A note to writers who want to create American Indian themes/content. Be very careful. You were educated/socialized in the USA, where American Indians have been misrepresented for literally hundreds of years.

    Start by dumping your ideas about who we are. Tragic? Romantic? Primitive? Savage? Dump all of that and start reading books by Indigenous writers. See the list of Indigenous Masters at Betsy Bird’s blog at SLJ.
    http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2014/02/26/top-100-books-by-indigenous-masters/

    Read my site — I’m a respected critique and am pretty thorough in my analyses of what went wrong in this or that book. http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/

  16. RaeChell says:

    Yes. We’re overwhelmed and scared, but unfortunately fear separates.

    There are so many answers to this questions, and I don’t think any of them are correct or incorrect. The issue will have to be dealt with from more than one angle.

    From a purely publishing standpoint, books written by black people (I’m only speaking for black people because I am black.) are often marginalized. Most times you’ll read how the book was written by an African American (ad nauseam), African Americans will love this book, this book is for the urban (code for black) reader. And that pretty much says to a potential audience, if you aren’t black don’t read this book. You won’t get it.

    From the reader standpoint, there’s this idea that reading a book with a MC of color is going to be somehow different, i.e. material or experience we just don’t understand. I think that’s a bit of a cop out. I’m going to venture a guess that very few can relate to Katniss and Tris, or even Eleanor and Hazel. I can’t, (and not because they’re not black) but I love those MCs. Who knows, though. Maybe I’m that way because there wasn’t much choice in the bookstore when I was a kid. You had to read about white people, as do my children today.

    That said, we aren’t just writing “issue” or “black experience” books anymore. Our subject matter is as varied as we are. Maybe if that were more widely recognized by readers things could begin to change.

    P.S.- Please listen to Mr. Simien. Being the only black friend is a tough job. :)

  17. Lisa Maxwell says:

    This is such an important topic, but it isn’t a new topic.

    It’s a topic that goes back to the 1800s, when slave narratives had to be prefaced by a white writer. It’s a topic that goes to the Harlem Renaissance, when Carl VanVechten’s Ni##er Heaven made headlines (for various reasons) and Langston Hughes’ novel did not, when white patronage helped black artists get published and a public, when authors like Jean Toomer passed (or at least didn’t specifically say they were African American) and, later, when authors like Richard Wright wrote dangerous prose that was banned and the 1960s when Amiri Baraka called for poems that kill.

    It goes back to the development of American Literature as a discipline (back in the 1950s), when the books that were selected as classics helped to solidify what students were taught in high schools as well as colleges (which, surprise! had everything to do w/ testing out this newfangled thing called the paperback), and even to the 1980s, when African American Literature started to gain a foothold as a separate and legitimate discipline (and was often ghettoized in departments as such). It comes full circle, when I see many many many of the reviews for a friend’s awesome YA book with a strong, smart African American male protagonist gets meh reviews on Goodreads because the main character wasn’t “likable.”

    This is a historical issue with present-day resonance. It’s an issue that occupies the intersections of business and emotion and of writer and reader. It’s an issue that uncovers uncomfortable truths about our present-day situation in this country and a longer issue that’s always been part of American publishing. An issue that needs to always be placed in that large context of literature and books and literacy in America.

    And it’s such an important conversation to have.

  18. Jason Ginenthal says:

    Publishing, much like advertising, PR and broadcast media, has largely been a “white” industry. And while I think that stories featuring minority characters exist, they’re often boxed into their own genre. For instance, a novel with a Black protagonist might be deemed “African American” literature while a novel with a white protagonist is just commercial fiction. Hopefully, this will change — there are simply too many great stories NOT being told!

  19. cindy says:

    thank you for posting this, jim, and starting a dialogue here and on twitter too. yes, the conversation has been ongoing, but the more awareness it’s raised–the more it’s brought to the forefront by agents and editors–the better! and as a selfish plug, malinda and i do run the Diversity in YA tumblr chock full of great lists and guest posts from authors featuring diverse YA titles: http://diversityinya.tumblr.com/
    cheers!

    (i agree that the question a hard one to pose to the authors on the panel. but the question needs to be asked in mainstream spaces. it can’t just be discussed at diversity cons or diversity panels, etc. so i’m glad that person asked that question at a big NYC Teen Author Book Festival. NYC–KNOWN for its diversity.)

  20. Lynn says:

    No, I’m not going to lay out my childhood here. Instead I’m going to answer some of your questions from my “minority” POV.

    Where is the root of the problem?

    The root of the problem has to do with the almighty dollar. That’s what everything boils down to. If minorities sold like hotcakes (Yes, I’m full of clichés today!) you better believe publishing houses would be all over themselves to sign up the next Latino/Asian/African-American/…author. Yes, I know, it’s a business, but businesses need to move with the times or they become stagnant. In the not so distant future, minorities will be the majority.

    I think part of the problem has to do with agents and publishers underestimating what Caucasians will read. Jaime Ford’s bestseller, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was about a Chinese boy falling in love with a Japanese girl during WWII. A love story is a love story and if the writing is good, does it really matter that the MCs are white in a novel for a Caucasian to read it? I don’t think so.

    Is it the largely white make-up of the publishing industry?

    Of course! Read my answer to the above question. It’s not that there aren’t minorities writing manuscripts, it’s the agent/publisher fear that the book won’t sell enough copies to break even.

    Are we weeding out material by and about experiences we simply don’t understand?

    Let me ask you, do people live in some far away galaxy or in some other dimension or futuristic world? No, yet writers of sci-fi/fantasy find publishers. So, your question:

    Is there an institutional racism that hasn’t been broached yet?

    I think you, being an insider, can answer that question better than I can, Jim.

    Is the problem that people of color aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in writing?

    Is anyone encouraged to pursue a writing career? I don’t think so, or not many. Most writers write, regardless of race, because they have a desire to say something, not because they’re going to make tons of money. Most writers hold a regular job and write on the side.

    Is it possible that there aren’t enough of these books being published because there aren’t enough being written?

    No. That “writing desire” I spoke about above doesn’t just happen to Caucasians! But you tell me, how many manuscripts about minorities have you turned down? (Not because the writing wasn’t good, or great, but because of a fear factor that the money wouldn’t be there.) That’s another question that you can answer better than I can.

    The last question you asked – only you can answer.

    (Thanks, Jim, for bringing on this conversation!)

  21. Pingback: My Writing Process: #diversity and #amrevising edition | I. W. Gregorio

  22. Hi Jim!

    Loved this blog! I was there. In the room at NYTAF when the bomb, I mean question, was dropped. Being SouthAsian and one of a few non-white authors in the place I didn’t know whether to stand and applaud or crawl under my chair and hide. I did approach the woman who asked the question and give her a copy of my first book. Because it and the sequel are painted with diversity. My personal opinion is that you can write a great story with characters that don’t resemble you personality-wise so why doesn’t the same principle apply to race. I think research is necessary and no one person represents their entire race so, as we all know, haters are gonna hate, and you can’t please everyone. Having said that, I think we just need to dig into our
    Crayon boxes and not be so afraid to use the colors that we’re not used to. After all, some of the best stories happen when we color outside the lines!

    Best,

    Raj (Rajdeep Paulus)
    Author of Swimming Through Clouds and Seeing Through Stones

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