Good Intentions, Bad Outcome

So, here’s what this is about: the other day YA author, Justine Larbalestier, wrote a piece titled “On Writing PoC When You Are White.” I thought her piece went seriously off-the-rails, so I wrote a response in her comments section. Ms. Larbalestier chose not to allow my response to appear.

But, I think more than one point of view should be heard. I think this is an important issue. I think there’s pretty close to unanimous support among YA writers for the We Need Diverse Books movement, and I’d guess the majority of us would welcome more writers of color.

Unfortunately, while I am sure Ms. Larbalestier’s heart is in the right place, I believe her piece subverts the very cause we both support.

So, first her post in its entirety, (linked back to its source) then mine, unedited. And then at the end, I’ll add a bit and then maybe we can all talk about this issue, the goals we should share, and how to get from here to there.

Larbalestier:

On Writing PoC When You Are White

20 October, 2015

My comments on white people writing People of Colour in these two posts has created a wee bit of consternation. This post is to clarify my position.

First of all: I am not the boss of who writes what.1 This is what I have decided for myself after much trial and error and listening and thinking and like that. Do what works for you.

I have decided to stick to white povs when I write a book from a single point of view.2 This does not mean will I no longer write PoC characters. There are people of different races and ethnicities in all my books. I have never written an all-white book. I doubt I ever will.

I didn’t make this decision because I was called out for writing PoC. Before Razorhurst all my main characters were PoC. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.3

The decision has more to do with the way the debate about diversity in Young Adult literature plays out. Almost every time the overwhelming whiteness of YA is discussed a well-meaning white authors says, “I shall fix this. My next book will have a PoC protagonist!”

I cringe. All too often the white folks saying that don’t know many people who aren’t white. They rarely socialise with them. There’s a reason for that. As many as 75% of white people in the USA have entirely white social networks. I’m sure the numbers are similar in Australia.

That’s why I now largely recommend that white people with little experience of PoC don’t write from the point of view of PoC characters. Research will only take you so far.

Writing about PoC when none of your friends are PoC is not the same as writing about an historical period you weren’t alive for. If you perpetuate stereotypes you hurt living people. When you don’t know any PoC, even with the best research in the world, you’ll get things wrong. Stereotypes are harmful. Especially when you don’t realise you have written a stereotype.

Who are you going to get to read and critique your work if everyone in your social circle is white? Are you going to ask someone you don’t know very well? It’s a huge thing asking someone to critique your work. It takes a lot of work and if they don’t know you well how do they know that you’ll be receptive to them pointing out racism in your work?

We whites are notorious for freaking out when PoC so much as hint that something we did or said is racist. Many of us seem to think it’s worse to be called on our racism than it is for a PoC to experience racism. Even though being called racist can not kill us.

On top of all that I’m increasingly unconvinced that white people writing more people of colour solves anything. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center this year whites wrote most of the YA books with African-Americans, American Indian, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans and Latino main characters.

Representation is improving but it’s mostly whites doing the representing, which is part of the problem. We need more writers and editors and publicists and publishers and booksellers of colour. We need publishing to be more representative of the countries we live in. Right now US publishing is 89% white. Australian publishing is at least that white.

We white writers could do more to increase diversity in our industry by drawing attention to the work of writers of colour. By mentoring, introducing them to our agents, by blurbing their books, by making space for them at conventions and conferences, by listening. Check outDiversity in YA. Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon and the others involved with that organisation have lost of concrete ideas of how we can make YA more diverse and inclusive.

The other reason I’ve shifted to predominately white points of view is in response to all the critics who’ve pointed out for many, many years that too many white writers think they can only tackle race through the pov of a person of colour. The implication is that race is something white people don’t have. We just are. We’re colourless neutrals.

No, we’re not.

Expectations about our race — our whiteness — shapes our lives as much as our gender or our sexuality or our class. Yet all too many whites are unaware of it.

I wanted to write about how whiteness obscures our understandings of how we are who we are and of how the world operates. For the next few books, including Razorhurst, I’ve been pushing myself to examine whiteness in my fiction.

A recent book that does this well is All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The character written by Kiely has to confront the ways in which his whiteness makes him complicit in the racist violence inflicted on Jason Reynolds’ character and what he can do about it.

Overt racist violence is not at the centre of Razorhurst or My Sister Rosa4 or of the book I’m currently writing. I’m looking at the less overt ways in which whiteness shapes lives.

I fully expect many of the people who read these books won’t notice. That’s okay. Many readers didn’t notice that everyone in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a person of colour. Books do many different things. No one reader is going to notice them all and many readers are going to see things the writer didn’t intend. It’s how it goes.

In all my books I try to tell a story that engrosses readers and lets them forget the real world for a few hours. That my books do that for even a handful of readers is glorious.

TL;DR: I’m writing predominately white pov characters because of reasons listed above. You do as works best for you.

Now, here is my response:

Your piece rests on false assumptions.

1) First is your assumption that the white experience and the black experience is uniquely unbridgeable by imagination. You do not suggest that writers should stick to writing only their own gender, so you assume that the experiential gap is significantly greater between whites and PoC than between males and females.

Nor do you suggest that the gap between straight and gay, or between cis and other sexual iterations is equally great. Or the difference between rich and poor. Or between clever and dull. Or between healthy and ill. Or between coward and hero. Or young and old. Or American and, say, Kazakh.

In effect you are singling PoC out as uniquely different. Way different. Much more different than every other dichotomy one can think of. All but impossible for others to understand. This is of course exactly what an unreconstructed plantation owner in 1860 might have said, though less eloquently. “They” are so different from “us” that there’s really no point in us trying to understand them.

2) You treat the black experience as. . . “the” black experience. Singular. As though every black person or Latino person or Asian has one life, one experience, one kind of world view. Of course this is not true. PoC have as many variations in experience as whites. Not every black person comes from Compton and not every white person lives in Beverly Hills.

By treating the experiences (plural) of something like 25% of the American population solely according to the single factor of race, you diminish PoC and turn them into static archetypes. The PoC I tend to know were in the restaurant business because that’s where I was as well. No doubt at all that a Salvadoran line cook had very different experiences from the white waiter, but if you were to do a Venn diagram of life experience you’d find a whole lot more overlap between the Hispanic cook and the white waiter than between the cook and say, Carlos Slim. Slim is Hispanic, certainly, but as the richest person on earth I doubt he worries much about finding someone to cover a shift so he can attend his daughter’s soccer game.

But in your suggested cosmology, Slim and the cook are living one life, one experience, the official PoC experience, while the white waiter is what, secretly hanging out with the guys from Goldman Sachs? So, despite the fact that I am far more familiar with the Salvadoran cook’s daily life than I am the goings on at Goldman Sachs, you’d suggest I should write about the bankers I don’t know, rather than the cooks and waiters and busboys I do know, solely on the basis of race.

3) I recognize that your heart is very much in the right place. We are on the same side in despising racism and sexism. But suggesting that the vast majority of writers — who as we know are white — should avoid writing PoC as main characters, you are effectively segregating kidlit, and worse, perpetuating it into the future.

Many kids become writers because they find in literature characters with whom they identify. Very often that identification is race-based. Having once found delight in reading, some percentage of those readers are inspired to become writers.

Your approach would stop that (by your lights) imperfect but useful mechanism for creating writers of color, while we wait for a better though unproven mechanism to come along at some unspecified point in a possible future. You’re making the perfect the enemy of the good. You would drastically reduce the number of black characters in kidlit now while hoping for the rise of more black writers in the future, fewer of whom would have been inspired to become writers in the first place since they’d have seen damned few characters of color.

In effect what you’ve done is argue yourself into what is plainly a racist position by reducing PoC to nothing more than their race. You are now opposed to We Need Diverse Books, calling instead for less diversity now and hoping for a utopian future. A utopia which you define in part as everyone sticking to their own race as far as writing main characters at least. Literary segregation now, leading to more segregation in the future, unless you envision some future in which it will become okay to write about people different than oneself. Do you? Because, if not, then you are in fact pushing for literary segregation. Forever.

I don’t think this is the end-state you want. Neither do I.

You have thus far written a handful of good books. I stopped counting at 150 books. You’ve been at this for a few years, I’ve been at it since 1989. I don’t mention this to over-awe you, but to point out that I’ve been in it long enough to see the downstream effects of my own work. When my wife and I wrote Animorphs we had six main characters, one white male, one Hispanic male, one black female, one white female, one white male permanently turned into a hawk (it’s a long story), and an alien whose human morph was a melding of male and female, black, white and Hispanic DNA.

Now (somewhat disturbingly) I’m meeting writers who became writers in some degree because of Animorphs. And we’re getting letters from now-grown Animorphs fans who go on sometimes at great length about how their whole world view was shaped by those books we dashed off at a rate of 14 a year. Those formerly-young readers grew up in a fictional world where girls could be tougher than the boys, where black characters talked philosophy, and where it didn’t matter if you were sexually ambiguous. 2 million readers at its peak.

And when I recently announced I was doing a “descendent” of the Gone series that would include a small number of characters from the original series, guess who kids mentioned they’d like to see most? Dekka, a black lesbian. All those Dekka fans are not black lesbians though some are and I get the same heartfelt, humbling letters I’m sure you get from kids saying they were feeling hopeless and lost, even suicidal, but then they saw a character who reminded them of themselves, and they fell in love with that character, and their lives were changed.

I’m not ignoring your caveats about not wishing to dictate others’ behavior, but the basic thrust of the piece is that you don’t think I should write Dekka because I’m neither black nor a lesbian. You want me to subtract that character and replace her with a white male? Justine Larbalestier says: lose the black lesbian and give us another white kid? Because why, again? Do you think maybe there’s a black lesbian kid out there somewhere who will read about Dekka and feel a little more cool, a little more empowered, a little more accepted and maybe translate that into a career as the writer of color we’d both like to see?

This thing we do can have an impact long after we’ve typed the last hashmark and hit ‘send’ on the email. We don’t work for aspiring authors, not even the most deserving and under-published authors of color. We work for the readers, and I believe that includes any and all readers. I certainly wish all writers well, and I would love to see more writers of color, but those writers however worthy are of secondary importance because they are not the essential point of what we do. This is a communication between us and our readers. Many of my readers are black, Hispanic, Asian, gay or trans, most are female, and I write for them, as much as for the white male kids.

Okay, so that’s her case laid out, and my response. I’m going to add something I did not include originally because I was aware of filibustering Ms. Larbalestier’s comments section and didn’t want to write a whole treatise. But since this is my space, what the heck:

To suggest that white writers should avoid writing main characters of different races means applying the same principle to writers of color. That’s the way principles work, they necessarily apply to all. In other words, while I don’t think this is Ms. Larbalestier’s intention, she is ghettoizing both white writers and writers of color, with one rather major difference.

Picture book readers as a giant pie. Let’s assume the reader pie roughly follows the overall demographics of the US, so about half the pie is male, half female. The ethnic-racial breakdown’s a bit trickier because of the overlap between white and Latino, but round numbers: 62% white, 17% Latino, 13% black, the rest Asian, mixed, Native American.

Let’s further suggest that white readers are more likely to read stories about white characters, Latinos and blacks ditto. Fair enough? I mean, that unfortunate fact is at the heart of We Need Diverse Books.

If white writers stick to white lead characters, and black or Latino writers stick to their own races — the inevitable take-away from Ms. Larbalestier’s approach — we are “suggesting” that black writers get to compete amongst themselves for 13% of that pie, Latino writers get to compete for 17% of the pie, and hey, what do you know: white writers get to compete for 62%.

Who gets the shot at hitting the New York Times list? Who gets to be the next Suzanne Collins? Who gets the movie deal? Here’s a hint: 13% won’t do it.

If we believe in literary apartheid, whites writing white, blacks writing black, etc…, the economic repercussions are rather better for whites than for anyone else. Separate but very unequal.

This is clearly wrong. I don’t think this is the end-state Ms. Larbalestier seeks. I don’t for a minute think this formed any part of her motivation. I think she is a sincere and passionate person trying to stay on the side of the angels. But it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that if white should not write black, then black should not write white, which inevitably means that the really big slice of pie is a white monopoly. I am not a black writer but I will nevertheless make an intuitive leap and suggest that at least some black writers don’t want to be mid-list but have their sights set on Suzanne and JK and Veronica and James.

My approach on writing diverse characters has been and will continue to be: do your best. White writing black, Latino writing Anglo, black writing Native American, Asian (Japanese) writing Asian (Indian), male writing female, gay writing straight, rich writing poor, or in one case near to my heart, human writing gorilla, do your best.

I realize that seems simplistic. I recognize that it does not appear to “solve the problem.” It does however push things in the right direction without subverting core principles, and without turning good intention into bad outcomes.

We need diverse books. We need more authors who don’t look like me. We need both for the very reason that I have always had diverse casts in all my books: because variety is inherently better, more interesting, more fun. Those of us who have gained a little traction in the business should do all the things Larbalestier suggested: introduce aspiring writers of color to agents, mentor if that’s your thing, blurb, encourage, etc… But well-intentioned literary segregation that inevitably harms the minority more than the dominant group, is the wrong approach.

How about this: We write what we want to write. We do our best to show the diversity that defines this country. We try to be honest. We try to be fair. We reach out to marginalized writers. We encourage kids of all races, genders, religions etc… to get into the business, to become writers, editors, even agents I suppose.

I look forward to the day when I can gaze resentfully up at all the writers who out-sell me and see that in addition to getting my ass kicked by white women, I’m also getting my ass kicked by black men and gay Latinos.

Well, maybe “look forward to” is overstating it. . .