All I Think When I Think About You is White, White, White Thoughts

Sarah Nicole Lemon
Aug 9, 2017 · 7 min read

Twitter might be toxic, but discussion in YA isn’t

It was Christmas morning in Florida and the letter on the concrete trailer steps was from the Klu Klux Klan. It was red and had a picture of Santa carrying a cross in his bag, and in black letters covering the page, celebrated the birth of a Savior who had come to bring about the white man into power.

“Throw it in the garbage,” my grandpa said.

I clutched the paper in my fist and glared out into the sunny Florida morning. “I’ll be back,” I said like an eight-year-old Terminator.

Outside, I got my bike out of the shed and kicked off onto the road, riding in my pajamas and bare feet through the trailer park. The salt wind rushed through my hair as I scanned every step — and stopped when I saw the red paper.

By the time I came home for Christmas breakfast, I had a pile of Klan Christmas letters and looked like a tiny white power child making deliveries.

I dumped them in the garbage and sat down to the special treat of bacon.

I’m telling you this story to show that I’m a Good White Person (same as this essay), but you didn’t need to hear it. Just like you didn’t need that Vulture article. Or anymore Hot Takes on diversity from white people. It’s natural for us to see ourselves in stories where we Do the Right Thing and feel good as a result. We white people like to think we’re each The Great Exception, either because we’ve been raised with this false idea of “colorblindness” or a meritocracy, or because we just don’t like the idea that we are predisposed to sympathize with white people. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us think that we might be racist. It makes us worry what’s happening to others will happen to us.

“I’m uncomfortable with this censorship.”

If we did a top ten list of most misunderstood, misused words on the internet, censorship would be number one. Number two is the First Amendment. Censorship is actually when a government prohibits its citizens from publishing media that the government finds inappropriate. The First Amendment protects us from that. That’s it. Talking about publishers pulling books from shelves is not censorship; it’s control.

To say that “not publishing damaging books is censorship” is to start from the presupposition that the industry is publishing a balanced amount of books across the full spectrum of diversity. In that scenario, eradicating one part would be “censorship”. But that is not happening. What is happening is that we continue to broadly publish white people and white stories. When there was pushback about diversity, we started writing stories about PoC and other marginalized groups in an effort to prove we were Good White People. It’s only when we fuck up and get criticized that we cry Foul.

“But what about IDEAS? We shouldn’t suppress IDEAS!” Look, the notion that our media can be controlled in order to eradicate important perspectives and ideas that make us uncomfortable and challenge our worldviews is a real concern. Publishing absolutely has a control issue. It has absolutely been guilty of suppressing the narratives of people, especially PoC and other marginalized groups.

But it’s not now and never has been guilty of suppressing white thought.

“I am uncomfortable with a world in which there are rules about what we write. It’s art.”

There aren’t rules, but there are consequences. If we don’t want consequences for what we write, we shouldn’t be writing.

Art is not made in vacuum. Even the most inane, guilty pleasure, frothy story can be weighty with cultural meaning. (Think of the movie Clueless). Everything has place and context. Therefore, the basic, and somehow still new, demand for white writers to understand the institutions of racism and misogyny in order to not contribute to the oppression of others is absolutely necessary. The consequences are real.

But the consequences when we make mistakes is never to the degree that writers of color receive when they dare to tell their own stories. Their books are subjected to a harsher level of criticism on every level. Their success is devalued almost immediately. Writers of color receive pushback from white publishing when they deliver a story that doesn’t fit our predetermined narrative for that marginalization (the tragic gay, the drug dealer with a heart of gold black kid, the might join a gang Latinx kid, etc.). We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it with When Dimple Met Rishi, when a white blogger accused Dimple of being “abusive” for not adhering to their preconceived notions of how a brown girl should act.

If white publishing isn’t tearing them down, then writers of color receive pushback for not being enough of whatever marginalization to tell their own stories, aka cultural policing, in which white people are only too happy to pile-on in. We’ve seen Angie Thomas and Jenny Han be subject to a barrage of tweets complaining about how the actors representing their characters in their upcoming movie adaptations are “the wrong color” or “the wrong kind of Asian.” This zeal for “perfect representation” is a form of cultural policing we white writers don’t ever have to deal with. We have enough books showing the spectrum of whiteness that we don’t feel let down when we don’t find ourselves in books. We will always find ourselves in books.

Yes, there are discussions about toxicity and control and cultural policing on Twitter that need to happen, but white writers being limited in what they can write about is not one of them. The majority of the writers mentioned in that Vulture article have not had their careers materially affected by criticism or Twitter callouts. The Continent was delayed, but it will still be published in the future. The Black Witch’s Amazon ranking skyrocketed when the article came out. Looks like all this so-called “bullying” doesn’t really harm our careers — only our feelings.

The only writer mentioned in the Vulture piece to have their book actually pulled was a woman of color: E. E. Charlton-Trujillo, the author of When We Was Fierce.

White supremacy, ftw.

“I want to write diversity, but I’m afraid of getting into trouble for it!”

People of color do not need us to write diversity. Say it with me: PEOPLE OF COLOR DO NOT NEED US TO WRITE THEIR STORIES. We can sit down.

But I get it. We can’t write books full of only white people, that’s not the world in which we live. So, what’s a white writer to do?

We write the places we intersect, the places where we’re uncomfortable to go in our whiteness. We get a shit-ton of sensitivity reads, and we listen to those sensitivity reads. We take the knocks we’ll get in reviews as part of our job, because it is. We’ll apologize when we mess up, because we will, and it won’t be the end of the day or our careers. It wasn’t the end of Veronica Roth’s or Laurie Forest’s.

The point isn’t that we do everything perfectly the first time; the point is we listen when we make mistakes and go back to correct them.

So if marginalized people don’t need us to write their stories, then what are we supposed to do?

What marginalized people need is support for their books. For their careers. They need us to stop giving our White Thoughts on Diversity (which, is ironic because that’s totally what this essay is). We need to get off Twitter and make sure there are writers of color on our panels, in our festivals (more than one in your YA lineup, BOOKMARKS), in our stores and libraries. They need us to tell our publishers when ARCS have problems, to tell our fellow white writers when they step in it. They need us to not tell other people’s stories and profit from it, which is exactly what a white writer writing people of color is. That’s what we do to promote diversity — unrewarded work. We should not get credit for it. We should not be praised for being a Good White Person.

“I don’t feel good about any of this, and I’m going to twitter with my feelings about your dumb article….”

Oh boy, I GET IT. There is so much emotion as a white person, when we can’t see what the problem is. Marginalized people are asking us to critically reevaluate our entire worldview based on the idea that we aren’t at the center of it…and that makes us feel like the bad guys. We don’t want to be the bad guy, so all the discourse around diversity and criticism makes us emotional because we’re protecting that place we feel we belong in our own heads. And it sucks. But what sucks more is to have to defend your right to have any space at all, which we as white people will never have to do.

Lest you think there is any pinnacle of White Ally I’m pretending to have reached, let it be known that I had to go back in this essay and edit all the “you” in this article to “we”, because no matter how aware I profess to be, I’m just like every other white person. I don’t want to be wrong. I don’t want to be racist. I want to tell my Klan story and get cookies. I want to be The Great Exception.

But I’m not, and neither are you.

Sarah Nicole Lemon

Written by

When life gives you a lemon, make her a drink. Author of DONE DIRT CHEAP (3/17) & VALLEY GIRLS (2018) Instagram: @sarahnicolelemon