The Complexities of Diversity

Let me guess: you’re white, right?

For those of you who aren’t, I hope you can excuse me for addressing the white elephant in the room. And for those of you who are — I’m guessing alarm bells just went off in your mind, because nobody starts a conversation with those words unless they intend to take it to places that get uncomfortable.

Unlike people in marginalized groups, most of us white people don’t typically find ourselves in situations where our ethnicity makes us stand out. So we aren’t confronted regularly with the topic of race, especially our own, and we typically don’t seek out discussions about it, either. But a lot of people in and around the publishing industry are talking about race right now. As writers of any ethnicity we need to be aware of what is going on. So let’s not avoid it. Here’s what’s up.

You may already be following the We Need Diverse Books movement. WNDB came about in order to correct the disproportionate representation of white characters and culture in children’s literature.* We are all aware that not all young readers are white, and many of us are of the opinion that young white readers need to practice seeing the world through non-white** perspectives, lest they grow up thinking that white equates to normal and non-white equates to other. This awareness is good: it’s all about the reader, and the reader is the most important person in the kidlit equation.

But what We Need Diverse Books didn’t initially take into account was that writers of color have already been trying — and trying, and trying — to get their own stories told. The problem has not entirely been that white writers so often choose to write about white subjects — although this is part of the problem. And the problem is not a shortage of non-white writers. Much of the problem is that writers of other ethnic backgrounds have been having a significantly harder time getting their work published.

So, as WNDB’s rallying cry snowballed, there was a matching outpouring of anguish from non-white writers, beginning with this heartbreaking blog post by an anonymous writer.

Here’s the crux of it: the publishing industry is a very white place. Agents, editors, publishers, and on up: the gatekeepers are white, and so what gets through the white filter is very white, too.

The reason the publishing industry isn’t diverse has a lot to do with the privileges that come with being white: money, the ability to choose not to interact with members of other ethnicities, and subtle, unacknowledged bias. For example: white agents may choose not to represent work that they don’t feel confident to champion due to ethnic differences. White people are generally the ones who can afford the publishing industry’s non-paying internships.  White gatekeepers are the ones deciding that there is not enough market for books that present non-white perspectives. Or when given two applicants of equivalent skill-level applying for a job, one white and one black, a white person hiring will often unconsciously default to choosing the white applicant.

writers_MC-2B
Illustration by Almitra Clay

And the list of reasons for the industry’s whiteness goes on. It’s not personal. Nobody in the publishing industry is malicious, nobody is behaving like that repugnant mental image that comes to mind when we hear the word “racist.” But there is no denying that there is a self-perpetuating system at work in publishing that keeps people of other ethnicities out. The term for this unintentional exclusion is “institutionalized racism.”

Intersecting this issue is another one: who should be writing diverse characters?

The fundamental answer is, of course, everybody. Our young readers of all backgrounds deserve to see literature that accurately portrays themselves and their world.

The wider answer is more complex. Some people are convinced of the near-impossibility of a non-marginalized person ever accurately portraying members of a marginalized group. But others believe that with sufficient research and empathy, writing characters who are different from oneself is possible and absolutely worth striving for.

But of course any attempt at something difficult comes with the possibility of failure. And failure is particularly scary when it means that a book may not just dwindle in obscurity, but may be actively and loudly loathed. None of us wants to invest effort and passion just to be told “this character who is supposed to be me is wrong.” But perhaps more than any other form of critique, we need to embrace this feedback, and we need to seek it out before publication, because what’s at stake isn’t abstractions of grammar or plot, but the very identities and self-worth of our young audience.

And this is where the issue of writing diverse characters collides painfully with the exclusion of non-whites from the publishing industry. Given the situation, I wouldn’t put it past any writer of color to arrive at a most bitter conclusion: that publishers want their stories but don’t want them.

If you are like I was when I encountered these ideas for the first time, and your heart is now torn into little pieces that are being stomped on the floor — yes, it hurts to learn this as a white person. Especially as a white writer who is committed to doing the right thing for a diverse young audience.

It’s a work in progress.

This is the point at which I would like to be able to dramatically unveil a solution. But of course I can’t; this problem isn’t yet solved. Which isn’t to say we can’t try to help — there are plenty of pixels online devoted to what we white writers can do to assist. Yes, we can promote books that are written by people of color. Yes, we should continue to write diverse characters.

But whatever the solution will eventually be, for sure the first step is being aware that this discussion is happening. People are on blogs and Twitter talking about race in publishing. It behooves us as white writers not to shy away from the discussion, but to listen in, learn the nuances, and to take part.

To readers who are white, whom I’ve made uncomfortable, but who stuck around regardless — thanks for listening. I can attest to how hard it can be to hear this stuff if you haven’t already been aware of it. And to readers who are other than white, whom maybe I’ve also made uncomfortable but who stuck around through this post: Kids everywhere need your stories. Keep writing. Keep submitting. All of us want you to succeed.

*We Need Diverse Books also, of course, focuses on other marginalized perspectives, such as sexuality. I’m focusing on race here for the sake of brevity.
**The term “non-white” leaves a lot to be desired, because it defines someone in terms of who they are not, rather than who they are. Again, I’m using it here for the sake of brevity.

RESOURCES: If you know another good one, please share it.

Further Reading
I’m the one sitting alone at the table.
There is no “Evil Racist” in Publishing.
Aversive racism in traditional publishing.
NPR on the importance of writing diverse characters.
NPR: A difficult dialog beats silence.
American Indians in Children’s Literature.
The Diversity Gap in Children’s Publishing, 2015

Related Posts on this Blog
Naturalized Diversity by Joyce Audy Zarins
Diversity Part 2 – To Make a Difference by Joyce Audy Zarins

Resources, Blogs, and Discussions
Should a white person write a POC?
The #WriteInclusively campaign
We Need Diverse Books
Writing with Color
Ten Tips on Writing Race in Novels by Mitali Perkins
Writing Race in YA: Guest Post by Nicola K. Richardson on YA Highway
Children’s Books by and about People of Color and First/Native Nations Published in the United States

Keep the discussion going–write a comment!

12 comments

  1. Almitra, you “got” me on the first sentence! I’m a white author of children’s picture books featuring multicultural kids, and I’ve had some interesting experiences around the diversity issue. The kids of color in my books are family. When I started created storybooks for them, I honestly never gave their racial or cultural identity a thought. They’re just kids. Part of all-white me.

    My first book with them as main characters earned multiple first place book awards, including Mom’s Choice and Indie Excellence. But neither the awards nor the reviews mentioned the kids’ identities. So, again, I didn’t give it much thought. While creating the new book about to be released, I began to pay attention to discussions re lack of diversity in children’s literature. On one hand, I thought – great – I was unwittingly addressing an unmet need. On the other hand, I began to question my authenticity as a white person writing about kids of color. What had felt very “natural” and organic as an author and illustrator, suddenly felt alien. So, at the 11th hour, I made changes to the story and images based on insights from diversity colleagues/educators/experts because I stopped trusting my own instincts.

    A moment of truth occurred when feedback arrived recently from a top reviewer. However anyone defines “diversity,” it went right over this reviewer’s head, except to ask the kids’ racial identity which is blatantly obvious in the story.

    So I have to ask, do some reviewers (and publishers) give lip service to multicultural books because they don’t “get” multicultural themes? Is this partly what we’re seeing in the industry? I wonder…

    I’d be interested in your thoughts. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences Jo Ann Kairys! As to what is going on in the industry, I can only guess. What I suspect is that there are already many people on the inside who are reading these diversity discussions and who do passionately want to help change things for the better. But anybody who works at a company is going to be bound by non-disclosure agreements and other policies that may prevent them from speaking publicly about controversial issues. The company has got to digest the issue and respond as a single entity after having internal discussions. The bigger the company, the longer it may take, especially if there are people in decision-making positions who remain convinced that the money remains in the status quo. I suspect there are some people in the industry who do only see diversity in terms of money.

      Like

  2. I agree and stand with you. I have so many questions regarding the reality of this issue in publishing, it really is something I struggle with. I’m always saying how can we have a bazillion whites at the table and only three people of color at every literary venue, ALWAYS. It just does not make mathematical sense.

    Basically, to find the answers may mean subjecting myself to what I already know to be truth. People of color, and I’m going to say it plain and simple those who have experienced systemic racism throughout their existence in America, are not chosen because of writing ability, craft, marketable data or any other excuse that is constantly thrown around. But simply because the Majority is not interested in us unless we can help them win in someway. Fame, fortune, notoriety. Simply placing an entertaining, or thought provoking, or reflective book into the hands of a child is not enough for those who hold the decision making positions. And I don’t believe its a conscience decision. Its a privileged one.

    It truly is not a priority or even thought for those in power, ‘white’ to really provide the same opportunity in becoming published as their white authors. Just placing a clarion call for submissions is not enough. Do we truly believe that’s leveling or providing opportunity? C’mon Man!

    How about truly mentoring, or educating a budding author that may not be quite their in skill but has the passion to develop their craft. Read a query or provide a critique and say, “you know maybe you’re not what we are looking for because of a myriad of possible reasons that most likely has to do with America’s disparity economically, educationally and so forth but I’m (Mr. & Mrs. Agent/Book Editor/Publisher) is willing to invest to get you there. Because we need all voices heard. Truly give back to the profession. Relevance is used alot, but to whom should the book or novel be relevant to??

    Yes its nice when we get noticed because we’re prolific and epic in scale such as a Walter Dean Myers or Jacqueline Woodson, and the list goes on. But to be an average joe, you can forget it. Its exhausting, but I’ve decided to just keep writing, perfecting, submitting and then let them celebrate when its iconic, because of the foresight to have it published. The late, great Walter Dean, who mentored me on several occasions once said to me “we have to keep trying, because if we don’t our stories will never be told truthfully.”

    I echo Lee Daniels who said, “Y’all don’t want us.”
    http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/lee-daniels-damon-lindelof-a-794430

    But how sad that the industry that saved my life as a child, represents this to me as an adult.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your frustrations, Pizzos. And thank you for sharing your ideas. I hope more people who are inside the industry will step forward with mentorships or something similar. I’m glad that you are continuing to write despite the setbacks you have faced. I hope I get to see your books in print some day.

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      1. You gave me a place to speak or ‘vent’ and I thank you for that. Now I can get back to writing and try only to create great work without the pressure of meeting the demands for or against diversity.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Hey Almitra! This is a thoughtful post on a powerful topic. I am heartened though by some recent events. I am looking at a copy of “Crossover,” by Kwame Alexander, which has two impressive medals on the cover: the 2015 John Newbery medal (given to the best children’s novel of the year) and the Coretta Scott King Honor Award. That second one bears the words “Peace,” “Non-Violent Social Change,” and “Brotherhood.” I bought “Crossover” at the NESCBWI conference where Mr. Alexander was a Special Guest Speaker. Christopher Cheng, who is an Australian of “half Chinese” descent was a keynote speaker. Man, he has the best hair – a hip-length braid and an intensity about children’s literature to match. Another keynoter was Dan Santat, also of Asian descent, but he is American and an awesome illustrator of dozens of books for kids of various ages. There were other diverse editors and others presenting. For the first time there was also a somewhat more colorful audience at this NESCBWI conference this past May, including racially, Culturally and in terms of gender identification. Being an optimist, I believe that shift will continue on an upward trajectory because the awareness you refer to is now there. There is an open conversation going on, which will lead to progress.. There have been enduring African-American superstars in the past, too. The Pinckneys, for example, who have enjoyed a multi-generational reign. The Dillons (Leo and Diane) also – in a unique one white and one black team. Leo was from Trinidad. They were the only Caldecott recipients ever to win two years in a row. My point is only that there have been inroads and we all should look forward to more progress. Meanwhile, the white authors and illustrators among us can contribute by making our characters reflect the real “melting pot” America we live in every day.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Thank you Carol. I truly believe that though the issue is taking a while to resolve, that there are editors, agents, publishers, authors, illustrators, and consumers who are all pushing to equalize the imbalance. Each of us can do our bit. Write inclusively and buy inclusively. It is only fair to the children of the world. i believe change is happening. Slowly though, like everything else in the publishing industry.

        Liked by 1 person

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