The War on Inclusion: How Publishing’s Refusal to Confront Systemic Whiteness Fails Authors of Color
I can’t help but notice parallels of discrimination against people of color whenever controversies like American Dirt come up. They always point to how strongly systemic whiteness functions among industry gatekeepers and bars people of color from access to the industry.
Publishing is a business tied to long-held fears of slave insurrection, and anti-literacy laws that barred Black people from reading, which adds context to why white-centric stories are held in higher esteem. When stories about people of color are valued, they are more valued if they’re by white people, or written with the white gaze in mind.
Publishing does a disservice to much of the world’s most valuable literature by stacking social and economic barriers between the writers of this literature and reading audience. The windows that authors of color can get in through are narrowed by the way we present ourselves at the gates. We have to write with excellent syntax, be masters of form, story, and structure, and be able to effectively prove to white readers why our existence matters, and why they should care.
I came into publishing in 2017, when a hot diversity movement took the young adult industry by storm. Diversity discourse was joined by the Twitter sphere, which provided an opportunity to amplify underrepresented voices. The activists that came out of the We Need Diverse Books movement inspired me endlessly as an aspiring queer Black author.
I learned from authors of color, most notably Black women and women of color, who were unafraid to take the industry to task for its crimes in co-opting narratives and denying us our right to be represented on our own terms. The outspokenness of the authors involved motivated me to turn my own voice and not be afraid to use it.
Some point along with way the YA Twitter space started to reveal a Twitter-specific kind of power dynamic, where authors of color in positions of power could speak over authors of color without it, and the disparity in platforms would always support the more powerful author’s point.
I saw authors relying on power to push their points, which made evident that Twitter was a bad place to have nuanced conversations, because the loudest voice would always win, regardless of if it was right.
The dynamics of YA Twitter discourse started to veer back to a re-brand of the same unjust power structure the movement was supposed to be to fighting.
It started to look a lot like tokenism.
The industry shows disinterest in coming too close to people of color. It doesn’t have to listen to us if it does not want to, and as long as its symbolic diversity effort, which involves cherry-picking people of color as representatives for their entire communities, stays intact.
I detached from establishment diversity when the productive discourse got lost in the gladiator sport of destroying people who dared disagree with you. The platform so quickly devolved into an inverted high school where book nerds were now popular kids, and your opinion was only as strong as your clique. How expected you were to reconcile with any sort of privilege, blind spot, or shortcoming was directly connected to your follower count, and how willingly you riled up your supporters to fight for you.
In late 2017, I wrote a critique about the way these conversations were had.
My article YA Twitter’s Diversity War is Hurting Writers of Color provided two main takeaways for more productive discourse:
1) The umbrella terms of marginalization should be broken down. E.G. “POC” and “LGBTQ” should be dissected and explored by their individual parts, to realistically engage with how each experience is unique, so we can elevate individual voices and experiences rather than washing all of them out by insisting on an amorphous “marginalized voice” that only says one thing.
2) The online conversations surrounding diversity are regulated by the power dynamics that exist in YA publishing itself — meaning white people and a tiny dispersion of people of color, some of whom show unwillingness to share their soapbox with less powerful voices, and would rather speak on behalf of them.
The article was almost universally loved by people who felt their power being removed almost universally criticized by the establishment. The worst repercussions of the backlash were lost network connections and a series of rumors spread to paint me in an immoral and dangerous light. I triggered, for a moment, publishing’s deeply ingrained fear of insurrection, and their first instinct was to put me back in my place.
The lengths that establishment authors and gatekeepers went to destroy my confidence in my voice may have removed me from the industry had I not already had a book, and an agent, and a foot in the door. It did, however, have a catastrophic effect on my self-esteem. I took a year off of opinion pieces, and listened and tried to learn if there was something I was missing, and some way I could improve.
And then I realized there was never anything wrong with what I was saying. The only problem was that I was the one to say it. The real problem was that my audience was an industry that valued power over morality, fear-mongering over productive conversation, white voices over Black ones, and tokenism over inclusion.
YA Twitter’s pattern of bullying people of color who are essentially powerless, off of social media, sets us in a unique position in the cancel culture conversation. Here, cancel culture really is aimed at people who haven’t the means to recover from the bullying. Here, celebrities and those with proximity to them are protected, not just by their safety net of money and access, but by the voices and discourse itself. Here, cancel culture is, in fact, harmful.
In early 2019 controversies rocked the releases of two different books by authors of color. First there was Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao, which was charged with criticism for allegedly featuring an anti-Black trope wherein a Black-coded character dies to spur on a white character’s journey. About a month after Zhao self-cancelled the book in response to the backlash, a different book, A Place for Wolves by Kosoko Jackson, came under similar fire, for allegedly placing a gay love story about an American boy in the foreground of a genocide affecting Muslim Albanians, and villainizing victims of the genocide.
These books were penned by a Chinese woman, who is also an immigrant, and a gay Black man. The timing of their cancellations felt strange, like the books were being weaponized by two sides of one toxic culture and leaving new authors of color left hanging with no support. Both books were called into question by a small group of people with access to advance reader copies (ARCs) before they even came out.
The campaigns on Twitter felt uniquely designed to get people who couldn’t even read these books yet, in on a conversation about why they were harmful. Why reviews covering the problematic nature of the books wouldn’t have sufficed remains unclear. Whether or not these books are or were problematic, also remains unclear.
My first instinct isn’t to negate legitimate offense taken with these narratives, but I don’t believe a small group of in-industry voices with ARC access should be able to effectively spark outrage about something the general public hasn’t even had access to. I especially don’t believe in leaving authors of color hanging in the balance. A Place for Wolves was cancelled, but Blood Heir was postponed and ultimately released.
The larger media sphere often reports on YA Twitter when these big scandals take place, so the community has been covered in digital magazines like Vulture and Guardian, as well as the New York Times. The larger sphere always seems to pose the same question, in a different way: where is the line between productive diversity discourse and toxic drama?
Larger media coverage is often met with anger from the YA space, because the deep dives come from writers on the outside looking in, who lack context to speak about the industry. It’s true there’s no way anyone from outside of YA could realistically understand the nuances of the behavior coming from the space. You’d have to have tracked what it’s like to be a writer of color coming into this industry and understand the source of the unrest.
It’s also true that YA is unwilling to examine its own internal issues. The discourse surrounding Blood Heir carried hugely problematic undercurrents of anti-immigrant and anti-Chinese rhetoric, which no one was challenged to reconcile with. It couldn’t talk about A Place for Wolves without being violently homophobic and anti-Black, both toward the author of that book, and toward me, another gay Black author, whose crime was commenting on the controversy.
The argument against larger media coverage is more valid in theory than practice. Sure, YA should be left up to its own devices, if its own devices weren’t legitimately problematic, and if the larger publications weren’t actually making several points that YA itself, can’t admit.
It resists self-reflection, and hisses when it’s challenged to turn its activist theory into on-the-ground praxis.
Had I not seen my access threatened after my first YA piece, I would have voiced more critiques on the way these conversations are had earlier on. I’m always interested in bridging economic gaps and improving the access that Black and brown kids in under-served communities get to books.
For a long time, you’d walk into the YA section of any bookstore and only see white girls in lovely gowns on the covers. The modern diversity movement emphasized the problematic nature of these optics, and emphasized the visceral joy that Black girls, Black boys, and kids of color would feel being able to select a gorgeous cover from the shelf where they were represented. It’s true that aesthetics are a huge factor in getting kids to read, because people judge books by their covers — there’s no denying it.
But the cover conversation also felt limited, when a character of color being featured on a cover became almost more important than the way this character occupied the narrative.
And so, came a small but powerful rush of diverse books, under a spotlight that felt unprecedented for characters of color. We were finally in the mainstream, and the corollary would be that white power structures would be dismantled along with the new ways we challenged people to see and identify with heroes.
During this period, I read most of the YA books that centered Black protagonists, and found some to be ground-breaking in their unapologetic representation of Black life, culture, family, and conversations about how our identities are diluted in white spaces.
Others that were popularized I found to be hugely problematic. The ones starring Black boys I found almost universally harmful, which wasn’t surprising, as most of them weren’t written by Black men. I never felt room to say so, because the industry conditions us to accept representation just because it is there, regardless of what it’s doing.
I read only diverse books. I like seeing fuller ranges of humanness represented in what I put my money toward. Diversity is an entry level requirement, so my interest in books is naturally influenced by practical questions that go beyond if it’s present.
· What does this book’s diverse entity do?
· What changes if the marginalized character(s) is removed?
· How does this portrayal with identity reveal truths about an underrepresented experience?
· What have I felt, as a Black person, from this narrative, if it’s about Blackness, as opposed to what white people have learned?
· If it’s not about Blackness, is it written by someone with experience in the culture I am reading? How can I challenge myself to engage with or re-frame biases about this group that I may have had going into this story?
· How do I examine my privilege, if any, that I have in relation to this group, and lend support to them in the real world?
I ask myself these questions to sort out not only where I could improve and do work, but to notice where true work is being done among my peers and where buzz pain is being traded for money.
When the diversity of a work is affirmed more by its cover than from its internal engagement with its themes, it’s a “ticked-box” diversity work. If the work is “diverse”, but the diverse element can hardly be engaged with beyond, “well, it’s there” . . . I don’t want to read that, even if it is diverse.
There’s always room, it seems, for stories about the tragedy of Black men’s lives, or ones where queer Black men serve as cutesy diversity stickers in books by white women or gay white men. We’re left without claim to our own stories, or opportunity to send messages back to Black boys that would allow them to see themselves heroically, beyond their place in political martyrdom. The exploitation arrives with a high-level threat that dictates how anyone, including Black boys and men themselves, are allowed to critique these narratives. In a word, we can’t engage unless we’re accepting ourselves as narrative co-opts, sacrifices, or unreasonably noble cutesy side characters. Our voices do not belong to us.
I invoke this issue not to open a dialogue about the ultimate tragedy of my existence. I’m fully aware of my privilege as a cisgender male and how I benefit from it in the outside world. But in the context of publishing, which is largely run by white women, I do not experience the same privilege.
I invoke the issue because I can only ever open conversations of systemic bias from my own lens so that I don’t speak out of turn. And I believe this problem to be part of a broader conversation affecting more groups than just mine.
· How diversely we are allowed to represent ourselves?
· Why can’t we claim ownership of our stories in a way that empowers?
· Why can’t we validate stories that center our joy in the same way we validate the ones that center our pain?
With the interest of becoming aware of myself, I meditate on how colorism, my middle class background, and experience in white spaces may have offered me a leg up in breaking into the industry. I think of ways to pass off power to folks in my community that don’t come across it as easily.
When you’re truly aware of yourself and others, you start to see how the concept of “being seen” is endlessly complicated not only by colorism, but class, gender, sexuality, and ability.
“Being seen” as it’s used in diversity discourse regarding race, refers to seeing a part of yourself that structural racism has erased from public narrative and ascribed a damning label to, to tell you that you’re unworthy of a story.
Giving kids a place to be seen starts with including race, but it ends where people of color are given space represent diversity of humanness. That means occupying stories as heroes, villains, and everything in between. It means giving room to Black kids who are goths, and scientists, and royals, and dancers, and painters, and mathematicians, and gay, bi, trans, and ace and so on and so forth. It means being seen in the full range of experiences.
It means seeing Blackness even when it’s not performative or branded through Blackity-Black buzz slang that white people have already taken and immersed into frat bro culture. Word, fam.
To open an honest dialogue about AAVE as a dialect continuum with the same rules of form and function as any other, we’d have to acknowledge there are things white people wouldn’t inherently understand, or be able to participate in. Then we’d need to say that is okay and disconnect from the idea that we can be reduced to brands regulated by white activists who wish to lock us forever in a cage of what it means to be Black. We’d have to be somewhat disruptive.
Young Adult is a derivative from the greater publishing industry, meaning it comes with all the same racist bias, but with a big emphasis on pretending you care about diversity. It lacks dialogue on how representation dismantles racist power structures. It doesn’t talk about how the barriers we face today are derivative of anti-literacy movements, and how to identify those conservative traditions when they show up. It functions as a liberal white cult that infantilizes teens and young people to the point of dehumanization. It marries itself to the idea that teens must be protected and sheltered from “harmful” narratives.
I saved myself mentally from this industry by listening to community organizers and writers on the ground in my hometown of Atlanta. I came to understand the ways that they engage with their own Blackness, fight cultural dilution, and insist on upheaval of a corrupt American system built on the backs of Black people. My politic is heavily informed by redistribution of wealth and fair treatment for all people.
My disagreements with the industry were never intended to invalidate or erase anyone, but to expound upon and provide a more complicated understanding of issues which it was not discussing. My goal is not and has never been to tear anyone down. The only thing I tear down is the thing that tears all of us, collectively, down — white supremacy.
My crime is simple: I exist, and insist on my own voice, and say what I want to say, when I want to say it. My crime, to publishing, is that I am not a slave, and show no interest in ever becoming one.
I believe that publishing must analyze its value system and hold itself accountable for a refusal to reflect on its lack of empathy that stretches through history. It needs to assume reasonable responsibility for its crimes, and its damage, and then focus on changing its morally depraved habits.
It needs to respect its community of readers, and the ideas and valuable discourse they bring to the table. It must keep a healthy and respectful divide between authors and readers and know that no artist is immune to criticism.
And it must organize in ways that are actually disruptive, while protecting the most vulnerable voices among us. This practical application of inclusion has never been more important to publishing than its forward-facing presentation, and I think it’s time we change that.