To My Fellow Straight White Writers: On Diversity

| Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hi, fellow straight white writers. Gather 'round. We should have a talk.

Ever since #WeNeedDiverseBooks started, it's had incredible support, amazing feedback, and lots of attention. It's been near-impossible not to at least notice it. Many people have contributed, most positively, some neutral, some negative. I point this out because I want to be clear that the participation has been overwhelmingly positive for the most part, albeit sometimes in a way misses the point a little (or a lot), and that's what I'd like to talk about.

Photo Credit: außerirdische sind gesund via Compfight cc


In the last few weeks, I've witnessed what feels like an excessive amount of straight white people saying the same thing: "I think this movement is good, but I don't know if I can write diversely! I'm scared. Will someone please tell me it's okay for me to try?" Similarly, whenever the subject of promoting diverse AUTHORS comes up, it seems that a straight white person always comes from the sidelines to say, "You mean diverse BOOKS, right? Authorship doesn't matter if the book is good, right? We're still talking about me too, right?"

These questions are most typically posed to marginalized people by privileged people. They are also completely, utterly missing the point. Questions like these take something that is supposed to be about creating large-scale change through the inclusion of diversity not only in books themselves, but in authorship and at all levels of publishing, and flip attention back onto the "plight" of the straight white writer. It's refocusing attention on ourselves. Missing. The. Point.

(Edited to add: I originally only mentioned "straight white" writers in particular in this post, but I'd like to make it clear that this applies to other privileges and marginalizations, as well. This includes, but is not limited to: gender identity, disability, body size, religion, etc. In my head, I thought it'd be clear that this could be applied to other areas as well, but I decided it'd be best to state it outright.)

Furthermore, you are putting your responsibility at the feet of marginalized people when you ask for nebulous "permission." Please stop doing that. It's not an okay thing to do. It is NOT the responsibility of marginalized people to pat you on the back and tell you that you're a good person, you're doing okay, and not to feel bad. Don't put that on them. NO ONE can give you some kind of magic blanket "okay" on your writing, ESPECIALLY when they've never read it.

That's perhaps what bothers me most... asking people to tell you it's okay for you to write something when they have absolutely no context or idea of how you write. They don't know if you're going to research. They don't know if you're going to write stereotypes. The real answer to this question is always going to be I don't know, it depends on how it's done.

It's tiring for *me* to read comments from all my fellow white people hand-wringing about how they're just so SCARED of... something. Criticism, I guess. Being called a racist, maybe? And look, I get it. Criticism can be hard and painful. But in this particular context, we really need to suck it up, because we can't keep asking other people to take that personal burden for us. If it's uncomfortable and irritating for *me* to see this so often, I can't imagine how exhausting it must be for the people on the receiving end.

Similarly, there's another thing I've seen that's really rubbed me the wrong way: straight white people dipping into the conversation to promote their own book(s), often alongside a description that reads kind of like a "diversity checklist." I love diversity! That's why I wrote this book with a black boy astronaut and a blind girl warrior and their gay teacher! Here's the Amazon link!

You guys. No matter HOW you do this, it ALWAYS feels gross. Always. I don't know how else to say this, so I'll just say it: if you are a straight white writer who has written a "diverse" book, #WeNeedDiverseBooks is not the platform with which to promote it yourself. Cut it out. You may feel your intentions are good, but your actions read as self-serving, and just... don't. You're taking space on a floor that isn't FOR you. And yes, I am calling white writers out in particular for this, even though I've seen POC authors doing the same, because you know what? This particular platform was made for them. Not us. Sometimes you need to step aside. This is one of those times.

And look, I get it, being an indie or midlist author is fucking hard and there's a ton of pressure to promote yourself. You want to succeed. You want to survive. I know. This is still not the space for that.

"But that's not fair!" you cry. Well, it's not fair that other people are being shut out of publishing and literary success by an imbalanced system. Their level of unfair trumps yours by about a million-billion. Let them go first.

Your book may be wonderful. I'm not saying don't promote your book. I'm saying don't do it HERE, in THIS particular context. And I don't even have words for the people who are posting books about animals in the tag. You wrote a metaphorical "animals as racism" allegory? SUPER not the place for that.

Now let's talk about one of the less supportive questions that keeps popping up: "You can't FORCE people to write diversely if they don't want to! You're going to DESTROY CREATIVITY by forcing people to write and publish a certain way."

I honest-to-goodness do not understand why people think this is a "mandate" or call for "forced diversity." I don't know why anyone believes that proponents of WNDB want them to do this against their will. I sure as hell don't. What exactly would be the point of expending energy trying to rope in people who are kicking and screaming when there are literally thousands of people who are and will write this way gladly? Why on earth would we want begrudging, imagined-quota-based "diversity" when we could lift up someone writing from their heart and experience?

If you're not interested in this, FINE. Go on and do your thing. Literally no one will stop you. This has never, ever been about you. This is about EXPANDING OPTIONS, not forcing your hand.

Okay, this is long, and I am (mostly) done. For now. If any of this struck you as unduly harsh, then I'll ask you to consider those feelings and roll them over in your head for a little while. I'm not trying to be harsh. I'm trying to let you know that you may have been unintentionally putting yourself ahead of those you claim to be supporting, and now you know. Just think about it.

14 comments:

{ Tez Miller } at: May 21, 2014 at 6:24 PM said...

Thank you for writing this post. It's in no way "unduly harsh" - it says what needs to said.

{ Becky Mahoney } at: May 21, 2014 at 6:35 PM said...

(enthusiastically gestures toward this post)

Thank you for writing this!

{ Moony } at: May 21, 2014 at 7:01 PM said...

Amazing points! I think harshness is needed because it's much easier to get stuck in your own head and exaggerate things than to see things as they really are. It might be a human thing but I think writer's are more prone to it, being naturally expressive (and then lots of some).

That's what I love about this movement. It's not trying to prove, sell, soapbox or complain (mostly). At heart I think it's about celebrating (even if the tag starts with "we need"). I take it like a gathering, and gatherings, of any size, always attract people, and more people and eventually a community is created or expanded and other communities get to know of it too.

Also, through that community, support can be found that can open platforms to allow for that proving, selling, soapboxing and general expanding of the community's purpose and values. Least, that's how I see it.

{ Paul Anthony Shortt } at: May 22, 2014 at 5:18 AM said...

Yes! Privileged people have this awful habit (I know because I used to do it) of reacting to a call for change as though it's an attack on them, personally. As though diversity and equality mean they lose out and won't get a fair shake.

The worst one is "I agree with diversity so long as it's right for the story." I've yet to any story where diversity is "wrong" for it. It's a lazy way to get out of considering just why people need to speak out in support of diversity, and questioning why we should assume that characters who look the same as us should be the default.

{ Nathan } at: May 22, 2014 at 10:06 AM said...

There are a lot of don'ts in this article, and I agree with every one of them, but can you also suggest some "do's" for your fellow straight white writers?

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: May 22, 2014 at 10:44 AM said...

Sure.

DO plenty of research.
DO read books and information written BY the people you hope to represent.
DO find representative beta readers for your work, but do NOT expect it to be a free service. Compensate people for their work.
DO understand when you can't (or shouldn't) handle a certain story.
DO read up on damaging tropes and stereotypes.
DO act compassionately and honestly.
DO understand that people are individuals, not monoliths.
DO know when to listen.
DO change your story when you realize you've fallen into a bad trope instead of making excuses for why it should stay as is.
DO buy, share, and promote the work of diverse creators.
DO realize that criticism comes with the territory and nothing you do will be universally adored.
DO keep learning and growing all your life.

{ Nathan } at: May 22, 2014 at 5:07 PM said...

An excellent set of suggestions. Thank you.

{ Alexander Pierce } at: May 23, 2014 at 6:55 AM said...

Very well put!

{ Blair B. Burke } at: May 23, 2014 at 8:10 AM said...

While I don't think you're being too harsh and what you're saying makes sense, I still think it's very important to understand where people are coming from. If you want to make a change, telling people what to do (or not do) generally just creates pushback.

I think I do understand why some people (straight, white) think the call for diversity is a mandate - it often comes across as such. Not saying that you are doing that, but it can be very hard to distinguish the difference between 'We Need Diverse Books' and 'We Don't Need Your Non-Diverse Book". No one likes being told they're not invited to the party, even if they're already at a bigger, older, easier, more publicized party.

Maybe speaking up for diversity shouldn't raise the hackles of the privileged majority, but it does. And those are exactly the people who you need to reach, the ones who have power and a seat at the table. I do care what kind of books they write. I don't want them to walk away.

It's human nature to put ourselves first, whether we're privileged or been marginalized. That's okay and a natural reaction. I want to convince people how diversity will really affect them - how it will ultimately help them because it helps everyone. It's okay if you don't write a diverse story, but maybe you'll read one. Maybe that diversity will show you something new. Maybe that new idea will spawn something in your head. Maybe that will lead to a new story, this one with an element of diversity that makes it better and more compelling. Maybe EVERYONE will be lifted on the rising tide. It's in everyone's interest to celebrate the reality of the diverse world, and I hope everyone learns to see that.

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: May 23, 2014 at 8:30 AM said...

Okay, I'm going to be frank: people who don't want to hear this message will not hear it. We can be as "nice" as we want (and, quite honestly, the WNDB has been largely kind, or at least cordial, to just about everyone who wasn't a clearly antagonistic troll). It doesn't matter how "nice" or "reasonable" you are. If people don't want to hear it, then they will find any excuse.

This cause is too big and its parts too many to expend energy on mollycoddling people who need constant reassurance. The message has been clear: we want more options, not fewer. We want more books, not less. We want diversity AS WELL, not to eradicate books about straight white people. If people are hearing a message that is not being sent, we can't stop that from happening. We have said and always will say "write what you want."

These things can co-exist. It is not either-or.

{ Ron Estrada } at: May 23, 2014 at 9:23 AM said...

Well I don't think you're being too harsh. I admit that I've held back from writing diverse characters because I happen to be a white male and have feared screwing it up. But that's a cop-out. Every character I create is not me, so there's always the risk of screwing it up. True, I can pretty much peg a 47 year old conservative engineer from Detroit, but he'd be boring read. If anything, your words should free us to expand out of our comfort zones. Last I checked, a writer is supposed to do that anyway. Thanks for the butt-kicking. I'll stop whining now and write.

{ Rebecca Christiansen } at: May 25, 2014 at 11:22 AM said...

I think, when people contribute to the conversation by bringing up their own book and the diverse elements it has, it's often the only way they feel they can contribute to the conversation. I'm white. I'm straight. I live and work in an environment with people of many races and backgrounds co-existing, but myself, I'm that straight/white/cisgendered combo. Sharing a tidbit of information about the interracial relationship in my WIP (or whatever, it's an example) is basically the only thing I can speak about from personal experience at the moment. It's either that or lurk and not say anything at all. Would that be preferable? Privileged writers who can't help being privileged, writing diverse stories... isn't that at least a start and deserving of inclusion in the conversation?

Obviously the movement is about inclusion of minority writers as well, but I think if privileged writers are allies, they shouldn't be maligned against. There are a lot of privileged writers who were involved in starting this movement!

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: May 25, 2014 at 3:36 PM said...

Honestly, if we recognize that we don't have anything valuable to add to the discussion, that's a pretty strong indicator that yeah, it's a good time to sit and listen. You do not have to personally contribute to a discussion to be supportive. Feeling like we HAVE to say something in order to be a part of this is indicative of being used to having our voice heard. Our voice does not always need to be heard, and that's an important lesson.

I'm personally not super fond of the term "ally" because it feels to me, again, like re-centering the attention on myself and going "pay attention to what a good person I am." That's not why I do this. Not for attention, not for cookies, not for some imagined perk. I do it because I feel that it's the right thing to do.

If you (general "you") feel "maligned" because you feel like you can't add to the discussion, then I don't know what to tell you. The people who are involved in this are, as a general rule, not malicious.

{ Becky Levine } at: August 30, 2014 at 4:49 PM said...

Absolutely love this post.

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