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Fiction’s Big, White Problem

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One has to wonder why author Jennifer Weiner thought she was in a unique position to start a conversation about diversity in YA by creating the #ColorMyShelf hashtag on Twitter.

Natasha Carty, owner of the book blog Wicked Little Pixie, wondered: “Why is it a white author starting this hashtag? […] We need to talk about the issue, we truly we do, but some will always raise an eyebrow that it’s always the white author starting these types of conversations.”

If this sounds unjustifiably cynical, consider the direction the conversation took when one Twitter user told Weiner that racism, rather than profit, drives the decisions of our predominately white publishing culture:

bottom line driveCreated with GIMP on a Mac

money on the table

Is the publishing industry missing out on cash that could be earned by embracing diversity in their authors, offices, and readership? Of course they are. But Weiner’s inability to grasp anything but the bottom line underscores a commonly held position in the publishing world: that cultural diversity in fiction is only attractive if it is profitable and comfortable for white people.

The first title mentioned in #ColorMyShelf was  Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, a novel in which a white protagonist gives voice to the oppression of black housekeepers. Asks Carty, “Who thought that The Help was a great book about people of color?”

It is unsurprising that it was a white woman making that particular recommendation. A book like The Help becomes a blockbuster because we white people care deeply about racism and social justice when we can be the heroes. We like to be reassured that we’re “not all bad” and that on a personal level, we couldn’t possibly be racist. We feel pity, rather than empathy, for the women of color on the page, and take pride in knowing that in this literary narrative, only we can heal racism through the power of our whiteness.

One can only assume it was this well-meaning sentiment– giving a voice to those who are underrepresented– that drove Weiner to start the tag in the first place. But as several twitter users pointed out, the conversation about the lack of diversity in fiction isn’t new. Weiner’s own crusade began after reading an opinion piece in the New York Times, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” by author Christopher Myers. She took to Twitter to express her dismay:

first

She bemoaned the difficulty she had trying to find non-white characters in her daughter’s reading material, and suggested a way to fix the problem:

I try to find my daughter

 

Theyll give us more

But the issue at hand isn’t whether or not Weiner and other white mothers can find books to “color” their children’s shelves, nor was that the point of Myer’s article. Children of color deserve books that satisfy their need for representation, regardless of white interest and spending power; that Weiner wishes  to purchase those same books for her daughter is and should remain a secondary effect.

Also troubling was the fact that  many of the initial replies came from white women eager to boast the titles of the racially diverse books they’d given their children. As Carty states, “While the sentiment was probably in the right place, the amount of racism in the replies is disturbing.”

Considering the number of existing lists found by a simple Google search (including Melinda Lo’s “Diversity in YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults“), it’s no wonder that Weiner’s leap from opinion piece to enlightenment was considered by some to be the actions of an “ally” using her platform to solicit education from the very people she believed she was helping. Rather than asking her followers to consider the predicament of non-white and interracial families trying to find fiction for their children, Weiner created a conversation directed by white need. How could we, as white readers, “color” our shelves?

That isn’t to say that valuable discussion didn’t come from Weiner’s hashtag, or that the venue was devoid of participation from authors, readers, and bloggers of color. Still, it was Weiner who created the hashtag and who began the conversation by suggesting that publishers should deliver more characters of color that white parents can feel good about and spend money on.

As white authors, bloggers, and readers, we must stop promoting diversity as a business opportunity or a chance to buy ally points with our disposable income. By perpetuating the white supremacist belief that all media must be created for white consumption and profit, we are erasing people of color from our literary legacy, no matter how good our intentions. Every child deserves to see themselves in stories they can enjoy, but it isn’t the place of white people to decide how and why those stories are created and marketed. If we truly seek diversity in fiction, we have to let the needs of others come before our need to define ourselves as social justice allies.

[In the interest of protecting twitter users from harassment, Weiner’s tweets have been photoshopped to remove user names.]

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11 Comments

  1. To be honest, it seem to me that if anyone with any modicum of renown tries to do anything to help anyone who is different from them, in their own country, at least, they are in danger of looking a bit cynical. She probably meant well but just… well if you’re trying to champion a cause then, unless you understand the people really well, it’s easy to sound very condescending.

    I guess the nub is that the differences shouldn’t matter enough to be noticeable. The colour of someone’s skin should have no more significance than their eye colour. Nobody should have to crusade for different coloured heroes and heroines in literature. They should just be there. And if they’re not it’s the sign of a different, deeper failure; in education, in publishing… in the role models of those particular groups? As time goes on, as equality deepens, hopefully the diversity in literature will continue to grow. I guess it’s a question of making sure we support those there are and encouraging those who are starting.

    Cheers

    MTM

    March 18, 2014
    |Reply
  2. Tracey
    Tracey

    So how would you suggest going about getting our YA publishers to open their eyes and pay attention to this issue? They’re clearly not influenced by the needs of other races to have these books represent the diversity in their communities; they are too far removed. So whom do we turn to? Is it so wrong that as a white woman author, Weiner attempted to continue an important discussion that has been going on for decades, but has never produced any results? I believe that any attempt to garner support for the creation of more books with multi-cultural characters is positive. To view it as a byproduct of “white guilt” is ludicrous. What can the authors of these racially diverse books achieve when they have not one foot in the door? You would think that they would welcome anyone who would champion their cause, and attempt to fight on their behalf.

    Now about the argument that Weiner’s main focus is that these books do not profit as well, and that white mothers should seek to purchase these books to show the publishers that, indeed, there is a viable market for this type of literature – ok. Yes and no on that one. On the one hand, it is ignorant to believe that the only reason these books are not published is because they don’t make money. It is also ignorant to encourage the purchase of books like these to “color bookshelves.” That is racially ignorant. I just feel as if, on the other hand, that she may just be coming from an racially insular place, and truly means well, but doesn’t see the foolishness of her “#cause.”

    We should just be happy that someone is talking about it. I know Jenny that when something irks you, you go in. Hell, the way you rip 50 Shades of Shit is a prime example, but I have to feel that using white privilege and white guilt arguments is pulling threads that aren’t really helping. But I do agree, she should quit while she’s … somewhere in front. I hope I haven’t ruffled anybody’s jimmies on this one. I do, however, enjoy hearing your views and love discussions like this.

    All the best, truly

    March 18, 2014
    |Reply
    • Erin
      Erin

      Funny, the only place in this article that the term “white guilt” comes up is in your comment. Same with “privilege”. As far as I could tell, Jenny was challenging the assumption that diversity matters because of how it affects whites, financially or as allies. Not exactly a question of guilt or privilege: more one of arrogance and egocentricity.

      I’m glad Jennifer Weiner is getting involved in this issue. I’m glad there’s another voice being added. I’m REALLY glad that she’s speaking to Malinda Lo, an amazing YA author and cofounder of the Diversity in YA tumblr.

      But you know what? This story isn’t actually about Jennifer Weiner. She’s one voice among many, a face in the crowd. This story is about people like Walter Dean Myers, and Malinda Lo, and Nnedi Okorafor. This story is about people like me, who actually cried when they found a character that truly represented them. People who have been fighting for YEARS to get some diversity in YA. And there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out.

      (Forgive me if this is a little incoherent. I just came off a ten hour shift, and I’m not at my best.)

      March 19, 2014
      |Reply
  3. Tayci
    Tayci

    The problem is not supply and demand. The Walking Dead videogame by Telltale Games featured a black male protagonist and a black female protagonist. They had persian-americans, asian characters, and belgian characters. They had characters that were old and young and poor. It did very well and people were very connected to Lee and Clementine (the main characters). People want diversity, its just easier to maintain your supremacy when they delude you.

    One reason I started writing is I’m tired of not reading about people like me. I’m biracial and I’m tired of watching shows about white people or reading books about white peopl, sorry. It’s why I started watching Scandal and Merlin and I’ve been reading a lot of Octavia Butler (who is one of the best scifi writers I’ve read). And I just find it sad that a tv show set in medeival Europe has more people of color in it than a show set in modern day Atlanta (I’m looking at you Walking Dead, and don’t get me started on how they killed off T-Dog and Oscar when a new black character showed up).

    Sorry /rant

    March 22, 2014
    |Reply
    • JennyTrout
      JennyTrout

      I knew T-Dog was a goner the second the other guy showed up. I don’t remember the other guy’s name because I stopped watching right around that time.

      It was so frustrating to see Jennifer Weiner chalk it all up to supply and demand, while arguing with the people of color who were saying, “It’s not about the bottom line, it’s about white supremacy.” She went from, “I didn’t know about this,” to “I know everything about this” in like, a handful of tweets. Authors and publishing insiders have been talking about this for a long, long time. I don’t know where she was when those conversations were taking place.

      March 22, 2014
      |Reply
    • JennyTrout
      JennyTrout

      Also, I approve heartily of Merlin watching.

      March 22, 2014
      |Reply
  4. TayciBear
    TayciBear

    The problem is not supply and demand. The Walking Dead videogame by Telltale Games featured a black male protagonist and a black female protagonist. They had persian-americans, asian characters, and belgian characters. They had characters that were old and young and poor. It did very well and people were very connected to Lee and Clementine (the main characters). People want diversity, its just easier to maintain your supremacy when they delude you.

    One reason I started writing is I’m tired of not reading about people like me. I’m biracial and I’m tired of watching shows about white people or reading books about white peopl, sorry. It’s why I started watching Scandal and Merlin and I’ve been reading a lot of Octavia Butler (who is one of the best scifi writers I’ve read). And I just find it sad that a tv show set in medeival Europe has more people of color in it than a show set in modern day Atlanta (I’m looking at you Walking Dead, and don’t get me started on how they killed off T-Dog and Oscar when a new black character showed up).

    Sorry /rant

    March 22, 2014
    |Reply
  5. Ilex
    Ilex

    One thing I always end up wondering is, where do all these writers of whitey-white books live? Do they actually inhabit towns where they never run into POC or otherwise non-default folks?

    I grew up in a college town in Ohio, so we had maybe a higher than average number of Asian and Indian kids whose parents worked at the university, but we also had plenty of black kids, a few biracial kids, some mainstreamed special needs kids, Jewish kids, some Muslim kids — it certainly wasn’t some isolated white/secular Christian ghetto like some of the YA novels I read seem to take place in. Now I live in a town just outside of Boston, also full of pretty much every kind of human being you can think of. And those are the kinds of characters who end up in my stories, because I’m looking at and interacting with different kinds of people every day.

    When I read YA novels, I play a game with myself in which, if there are are no obviously non-default characters, I find one who is only vaguely described and make that person something other than white. But some books make this exercise really hard, and I find myself sharing the frustration of POC kids looking for themselves in stories, and feeling irritated that I have to go to this effort to mentally override the text.

    A few years ago, a movie reviewer in the Boston Globe described the Fast & Furious movie he was reviewing as being “one of the few movies whose cast looks like America” — that is, not solid white-white-white. And that’s the phrase that crosses my mind when I’m reading. Why do so few children’s books have casts that look like modern America? I honestly don’t think the authors are consciously intending to exclude close to 40% of the country, and yet they’re managing to ignore it anyway. Do they see a completely different America than the one I live in? I just don’t know.

    March 22, 2014
    |Reply
  6. Ilex
    Ilex

    I tried posting a long comment yesterday and it disappeared into the ether. This is a test to see if it happens again, and also I’m wondering if there are so few comments here because this is happening to a lot of people.

    March 23, 2014
    |Reply
    • Ilex
      Ilex

      Well, it worked this time …

      March 23, 2014
      |Reply
  7. Thank you, Jenny! Your insight is spot on. 🙂

    There has been a ginormous market that has demanded books (and other media) for nonwhite children for decades. The problem is not a lack of demand. The problem is institutional racism. The fact that Jennifer Weiner JUST discovered the lack of diversity in children books in 2014(!) is an glaring example of the institutional racism involved.

    March 25, 2014
    |Reply

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