I love husky voices in women, which must be why Ryan’s bullying didn’t usually bother me. It got annoying, the way anything done repeatedly and publicly would, but not annoying in a way that made me feel small or self-conscious (that I recall), rather annoying the way boys tend to be when they have a crush and you don’t.
For what must’ve been all four years of high school, usually during French, because I don’t remember him having any other IB classes, a boy I’m almost sure was named Ryan mocked me for having a man’s voice. I don’t think our seats were assigned, but we routinely sat next to each other — which means he sat next to me — and I remember being certain in multiple, nonconsecutive seasons that he had a crush on me, and occasionally I’d consider him a entry level, lowercase friend, in that I didn’t avoid him or feel the need to. So why did it go completely unnoticed that he deepened his own voice when mimicking me in class? Why did no one say anything, and why didn’t I remember it until very recently? And how did he know at that age that the masculinization of cisgender Black women was a long-running form of abuse?
Michelle Obama. Serena Williams.
The darker the skin, the more constant the barrage of defeminizing attacks.
So why didn’t it register, even to me? The answer I’ve come to assume is that I don’t remember caring. It didn’t hurt my feelings, that I can recall, so it didn’t stick. I was disinterested in him, so—what? I feel like this speaks to the constant threat of abuse, or the expectation of it. It feels like I must’ve deprioritized aggressions from people who didn’t matter to me, which honestly checks out. It’s always confounded me when people I don’t know exist or whose existence about which I’m ambivalent expect me to feel strongly about their opinions of me.
Black women sweat more than other women, so I hear. I know I do. Black women have higher levels of testosterone. It’s strange because epigenetics is fascinating when we’re talking about how an Irish descendant of grandparents who lived through the famine have genetic repercussions, and yet there doesn’t seem to be the same academic curiosity to meet higher levels of adrenaline, and what that might have to do with prolonged and persistent seasons of racially specific stress. It isn’t that Black women may have a sickle trait disorder, sickled cells, and therefore higher levels of testosterone might be related to the body’s attempt to vasodilate blood vessels to allow flow with lower risk of red blood cell destruction. It’s just that Black women are manly.
So why didn’t Maybe Ryan’s abuse “matter” at the time? And then why did it resurface? Of recent racist remarks, I’ve said: I don’t care that that individual feels that way. I don’t have any emotional investment in them, so their thoughts aren’t impactful–at least not because they’re from them. It can be dismissed easily, in the moment, because it isn’t new. But that’s the problem: it isn’t new. It therefore gets sifted through and only the individual gets discarded. The sentiment, however, has company. It isn’t the first of its kind, it’s not an isolated incident. So it either lays dormant, waiting for the next and the next until there are enough of them that the weight is noticeable, or it is that final straw. It adds up and eventually the abuse succeeds, not because Maybe Ryan matters, but because he is part of a great tradition that is also allowed to continue unabated until committees involved in a woman’s sport and passion can decide she has no place in competition. Until journalists can sully great moments of accomplishments with coded language and intentionally selected photographs. Until someone who does impact our lives adds their length of straw.
When is a comfortable space with like-minded people suddenly considered a useless “echo chamber”? I’m beginning to think, when you’re Black, it’s wherever you have the audacity to find a moment of peace.
This stage of pandemic illness appears to be grief. My first stage was pandemic distraction: a noticeable but not debilitating interruption to my mental process, or ability to stay focused. It was understandable that I wasn’t more impacted at first. Very little of my day-to-day changed. I work from home, and because nothing about my work or finances is traditional, even if I didn’t know what was coming, I had no reason to worry for the foreseeable future. It was still strange, of course, but so strange that it wasn’t possible to really process the extent right away. After all, I’ve been an expat for years, and even in crossing the border back to the US, I’m on the opposite side of the continent to my extended family. I had no expectation of seeing family, aside from my son and his father, and we were all going to be sheltering together. Something was different, but it was calmly so.
Pandemic fatigue, my second stage, changed my daily life. Immediately upon waking up, I started to feel tired. After a short while, I began describing my brain like a computer, as there was now a background program constantly running whose entire purpose was to remind me of the new reality we’re all living. It had to make sure I didn’t forget, because inside my home was very different to what I was seeing on my timeline (Twitter being the starting point of all my news intake), and instead of one, big jarring re-realization every day, it apparently was better to just have a constant state of dysphoria. Just a quiet, creeping remembering. An always unfinished reconciliation between how I thought I was doing and how the world was clearly doing, and then a sharp disconnect followed by a million subsequent attempts to reconnect, with varying success. Attempts to keep them separate were unsuccessful, and attempts to blend them were worse, and just resulted in exhaustion.
I was actually okay, but the world was not okay, so I was not okay.
This stage lasted from roughly April through August. If you’re wondering: yes. I did debut my YA novel in that time. Yes, I did roughly a thousand events and interviews and podcasts and lives and meetings. Yep. Did I enjoy it? Yes! Did I hate it? Yes. Can those two things be simultaneously true? Apparently! Life is not a pie, with feelings and the like taking up a certain percentage to make up a whole. It’s an overhead projector on which many transparencies can be stacked, all contributing to a whole. I’m not unhappy just because I’m sad, if you follow.
Which brings us to pandemic grief. It isn’t the beginning of grieving. This summer was a marathon of that, as even a pandemic was not enough to stop the ongoing campaign of violent anti-Blackness. It’s just that now my daily life and state of being are characterized by it, by grieving.
I don’t know when I will feel at home in my native country again, if ever.
I don’t know if I will ever feel physically comfortable among white strangers again.
I don’t know how to explain why it’s not okay to face anger for feeling the way it is most logical for a Black American to feel, in light of: the public executions; the public defense of systemic abuse and tyranny; the immediacy of criticism leveled at our resistance to terrorization, even from people supposedly sensitive to our oppression.
I don’t know how to make you care that white supremacy is abiblical. That I shouldn’t have to hear my oppressors defended in my place of worship. That a defense of Rome is not an apolitical stance. I don’t know how to tell Bible-believing Christians that they shouldn’t be comfortable with my execution. That their desire for quiet comforts has more to do with white privilege and exactly the ways the western church has adopted a separate and contradictory doctrine than it has to do with them wanting to fulfill 1 Timothy 2:2.
I don’t know how to get through to someone who despises the 1619 Project not because it’s ahistorical, but because curating the national memory and imagination is more important than telling the truth–regardless whose terrorization must be erased and ignored.
I don’t know how to explain why I shouldn’t have to worry about getting through to that person in the first place. Why I should be safe regardless who disagrees with me.
There is too much observably true for me to have to give a history lesson that would be ignored anyway because it’s not the history we’ve decided to keep. If you already know about COINTELPRO, and it’s readily researchable, why would I have to remind you that the idea of my liberation has been directly correlated with anarchy, violence, and the fall of the nation? Why would I have to stop you spouting obvious lies or passive skepticism about Black Lives Matter when you already know you’ve been intentionally socialized to assume any group trying to reverse Black dehumanization–literally calling for an end to murder and inequality–is the enemy? Why wouldn’t you do the follow up work of deprogramming yourself? And if you haven’t, why would I think you ever will?
So grief. Because the intentional evil done by my government can be revealed and it changes nothing. The impact remains. COINTELPRO still bears fruit; we are discredited in the American imagination as soon as we are Black and demand to be free. All of which matters because the result is death. Slowly, through “preexisting conditions”, which is a funny way of saying, the long-term, epigenetic effects of prolonged and persistent oppression and terrorization. It’s visible in the human body; racism kills. Quickly, through state violence and “vigilante” heathenry. But is it genuine vigilantism when you’re all but deputized? When your violence is incited and invited? Grief, too, because my country slanders me to the rest of the world, so that even leaving again doesn’t promise relief.
Grief, because it’s all related. The white-washing of history that leaves white people delusionally certain that this country is in fact theirs, that their entitlement to it is logical. The electoral college, a gift to slave holders to ensure they always had an advantage, regardless how outnumbered. The rotten core of every system, and the way it impacts Black Americans, who are now dying, incarcerated, homeless, so many things, and disproportionate to their national percentage. And grief because anyone could overlook it all. The international hatred for a small diaspora who refuses to give up their birthrite, who refuses to stop demanding their due.
Grief, because I am acknowledging that communities I’ve been part of for ten years are toxic to me now, after all the work, and love, and dedication. It’s like another divorce. A host of beauty and blessing inextricable from an ugliness that cannot be overlooked. Grief, too, because I wonder how in the world I could replace these loves in the world as it stands? Where would I find them now, and how many traumas would I have to stomach in searching?
I think I’ve exhausted this vein, and I’m happy to end it here, however incomplete.
Someone will ask why I didn’t pitch this somewhere else to be published, to be compensated for the emotional labor of writing it all down, but something stage two taught me: there are certain things I cannot submit for editorial notes and suggestions, that I cannot make into an assignment or I’ll never get it out. If you’ve read this, received anything of use to you, and feel so inclined, you can always tip me here, or by clicking the green “Buy Me A Coffee” button, but be warned…I don’t actually drink coffee.
It’s not like there’s a lack of things to talk about. I just haven’t been sure I want to or I want to yet.
Some of that is because I have learned so much about the power of social media through having found a thriving, articulate community of people to hear and by whom I feel my identity – or aspects of it – reflected. Most people would probably never think I needed help speaking up but then I think people mistake hearing your voice ever with hearing it all. There’s plenty the world has succeeded in making me self-conscious to assert. Plenty of times I didn’t want to go through the work of replying to something unacceptable because I knew that the attention would be given to my response (with words like “here we go again”) and not to whatever caused MY “here we go again” moment – here someone goes undermining my beauty, worth, intellect, love, faith and identity as a Black woman.
And I’ve found so much – so. much. – relief in scrolling through my timeline in those times and “hearing” these people speak. Because the truth is, I have a right to not engage every time. Often, I think of Toni Morrison’s genius commentary on the work of racism:
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Sometimes I will exercise my right to be heard, to respond, etc. Sometimes I’m not having it. Just like the woman who tweeted that a male scientist at her convention commented that her attire was not appropriate (let’s not even) – and then so many women responded by affirming that her outfit WAS appropriate. This is our socialized response, no? Not “You do not have the authority to make such a claim/approach me in the first place” but defending the outfit in question. (And I know, for myself, part of the reason for that type of response is also born out of a desire to let the other party know that I know s/he’s wrong. Hashtag: Just so you know. So it’s not like I don’t get it.)
But sometimes, as when a deserved artist wins a National Book Award for the first time, I (a) know that one of these people I admire will speak and I will read it and be able to breathe deep because someone gets it and someone spoke and that means I have the validation everyone who takes it for granted wonders why I need and I (b) am unsure how best to support the artist. Does she want another thinkpiece to come up when her name and win are googled? Does it bother her at all? (Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe they’re best friends and while she wishes he hadn’t spoken that way in mixed and streaming company, she knows his heart. Maybe he thought he was making social commentary on the ridiculousness of antiquated stereotypes – yeah, that one’s a long shot but remember when I said we’re socialized to give anyone but us the benefit of the doubt?)
Then there’s times when a new tv show comes on – particularly one with a problematic or at least confusing title – and it is everything you hoped it would be and you feel for the first time in a long time like the audience. You feel this way because instead of being about the gaze, it’s actually about things as we see and experience them. And it doesn’t have to be perfect just because it’s one of few, and did I mention it’s that pressure to be the perfect representation for a varied and diverse people group that demonstrates the problem with white-washed broadcasting.
Then sometimes kids give interviews and ho-my-word, I don’t even think I can do this one. Because they’re kids. And despite the fact that they are basically the embodiment of what I can only assume would have been one of Dr. Marvin Monroe’s social experiments (what happens when you are tragically wealthy, do not engage in agencies of socialization such as corporate schooling, are “trusted” by your parents enough to make and immortalize your own life choices as a pre-teen who will have one of two options going forward: a really painful period of realization during which you are haunted by your nonstop public declarations and images – or – refusal to undergo said very-public process and therefore stay the course and just…just be horrible) – it’s not fair to anyone to have such an exhaustive record of these years.
Or what about when part one of a two part adaptation of a third book comes out and people are so upset over that concept – which apparently and seemingly has been done unnecessarily before but this isn’t that time and it isn’t those books and it was so good and I’m not sorry that we might actually lose friendships over this discussion because you will NOT badmouth MOCKINGJAY PART 1.
These last few, what has it been? days? weeks? is it a month yet? I’ve been wide awake, even when I don’t want to be. It’s been hard to relax, hard to lay down and keep my eyes closed. Because someone’s living it, someone’s talking about it, and someone’s denying the world that imposes on me exists.
We think that strength comes from not caring what other people think. I don’t see how that’s true. We were created to be relational beings, even if we don’t all execute that in the same way. I’m not sure what the stoicism that says I’m not upset or I don’t mind what other people say or think would gain me. What kind of person would it make me, if that were true? More than that, why is the expectation that it could be true?
I am a socialized being (albeit an intentionally re-educated one, by the grace of God which I mean quite literally). I’m an American, and I’m Black. I’ve gotten messages all my life as to the value system of the culture into which I was born. I don’t say this to absolve any other country of their scarred history, but to say that because of ours, the answer to our questions and our issues and our homegrown terror must take them into account. If I’ve been told all my life – on every conscious level and whether I agree with it or not – that the White American voice is required for all manner of validation, shall I be held wholly responsible then for dismantling all of the privilege that is therein implied, denying its destructive impact and cultural capital, by simply denying that a single voice does harm when it’s declaring injustice to be a lie, accusing us of “attacking western civilization”, saying that “white people are being demonized” (because there is no way for someone to be wrong without being undone entirely…) or any of the willfully blind and unapologetic other things being said? On my own, I should just be the bigger person when someone tries to rewrite the definition of racism, which – if I can be – somehow means it won’t feel the least bit deflating? I won’t be discouraged or disappointed or further disillusioned, not ever or least only by admission long after the fact?
But if these are your countrymen, and that means anything, why wouldn’t I be? It *isn’t* enough for *me* to know the truth. People who look like me were the enslaved and then the segregated and then the scorned and mocked and antagonized and still the oppressed, but I should today in 2014 because ostensibly time heals all wounds brush off that so many people still refuse to acknowledge the truth? Why would I want to do that? How would that not grieve me?
I don’t *want* to live in a world where everyone looks like me or sounds like me or only knows the things that I know. I don’t want to go our separate ways, stick to our “own” kind, because where and when did that ever work? And, because it matters to me, how does that please God?
It does bothers me that you don’t get it. It just doesn’t change my mind. It doesn’t make me think maybe I’ve got it wrong. It doesn’t mean I’ll let myself be shut up, even when I don’t want to have this conversation all over again, even when I’m tired of having my heart race waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting to be completely disregarded. I’ll never stop knowing what I know about you, about me, about us, about respectability politics and the fact that anyone would find murder justified whether a boy had stolen cigars or not. I’ll never stop knowing that criminalization and oppression and self-loathing and crime are related, even if you don’t know. I’ll never stop knowing how – before I can show my talents – I must first disprove a prejudice.
People don’t buy books with people of color on the cover.
People don’t read books with people of color as narrator or MC.
People can’t relate.
First of all, one of the best things about that collection of quotes explaining racism is that it calls us out for not identifying who is being racist. Because of the way we police our speech, there are no racists, right? Just racist things that are happening all on their own. Just a machine already in motion (which is true) that no one is controlling (which could be true but that doesn’t negate) that someone is benefiting from. So s/he is responsible for shutting it down.
So we’re not talking about “people.” We’re talking about white people. White people is not a dirty word, you guys, unless you insist on just being people while the rest of us have always been identified by our phenotype or ethnicity. Which says something. (I’m convinced that there are at least a slight number of people who – if they had something pointed out – can get the message.)
And while others have already eloquently spoken on the fact that the thing about diversity is that white people shouldn’t have to be able to relate to everything in the marketplace – which I will sum up as follows: Diversity in literature is having something for everyone, not everything for someone – what I wanna talk about is how that’s baloney. That whole can’t-relate dealie. Is baloney.
Because the thing is: none of us fell out of the womb relating. We were *taught* how to relate to the default voice. From the first reading assignment through to the last, by whom we were assigned to read, by the way we were taught to decipher it, we were taught how to relate to literature.
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Frost, Atwood, Wharton, and everyone else we read. We were taught how to read them. We were socialized to identify and identify with the style, the imagery, the pentameter, the allusions, the themes. We were taught.
Which means you can learn. Anyone who wants to. Everyone. Because – instead of trying to edit out the minority voice – the standard response should be, lemme stretch myself so I can hear the things I’m not hearing. Let me learn a new way to read, just like all of the western world was taught to hear the white, (mostly) male voice.
White is an ethnicity as well. Which is why you can’t take a white character, slap a skin color on, and say, “Tada, now you’re (insert race)!” Because your character, depending on what race and background they have, isn’t going to look at white things the way a white person would.
This is where I started to write a hilarious (to me) post about how when elected, Diverse Author will make the world a better place in general, a la Homer Simpson’s Sanitation Commissioner campaign.
Like any passionate politician, I was going to promise the moon – or at least a doing away with the new PRH logo.
If one can really call it that. I feel like they were going for clean and minimalist, forgetting that they’d gone with PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE as a name. When we all had already decided on Random Penguin.
When you choose to support Diverse Author, you get my personal guarantee that I will fight for the PRH logo we deserve. The one where the penguin is wild-eyed and wearing one sock, possibly brandishing an umbrella. You know, something you’d be proud to have on the spine of your book.
But it would go well beyond rebranding. Diverse Author promises to increase your daily word count by combining things the internet assumes every writer has to begin with. A cat. And a laptop. Using a cat’s innate desire to sleep on your keyboard, I will help you produce record-breaking and experimental content without ever plotting or world-building.
I was totally gonna write that post. And then I worried that the joke might be lost on many, if a joke is what we could call it. The strange expectation then that seems to constantly accompany diversity hires – POTUS included – which dictates that we must be The Living End. That which shall set right all the things and purify every iniquity.
The expectation that makes such hires and initiatives unsustainable.
Because the thing to realize is that the world is improved precisely by our having a voice, simply by righting the wrong. Not if we exceed sales expectations with a single bound, not if we surpass our cultural icons and heroes. By taking our place.
Can we replace “diversity problem” with “delusion”? Google’s mostly white-male staff underline Tech’s delusion sounds more honest. Let’s call it what it is. It reflects a clear and persistent and almost inspired inability or unwillingness to operate in the real and actual world. Concurrently, it reflects a system so lopsided that there is an overrepresentation of white men in the corporate world which, if scrutinized even slightly, would point to significant problems with the socio-educational-economic-everyinstitutionever complex that makes up our nation.
Click-bait titles for self-aggrandizing, pseudo-radical-social-revolutionary stories that in no way challenge the foundation, you’ve done it again.
How do you get Latino children into classical music, NPR? Really?
Somehow get people out of the ethno-social class that is historically and perpetually marginalized. Give them a break from chaotic and desperate circumstances which perpetuate the comparatively high percentages of academic under-performance and criminalization and thereby allow them a longer scope and vision. Give them access to all the things you have access to while doing away with the institutionalized barriers and negative expectations and baggage that inhibit upward mobility and create self-fulfilling prophecies. Because we know that “classical music” is code for something else entirely.
But we also know that no one was genuinely asking in the first place.
We Are The People That You’ll Never Get The Best Of.
But this is a reminder: any and all campaigns dedicated to increasing diverse representation have to be constantly self-regulating. Sometimes finding a solution isn’t the first order of business. The first order of business is resetting the way we all think.
Yep, #WeNeedDiverseBooks. But that means #WeNeedDiverseAuthors to write books that reflect the actual reality. This is my story.
My broseph-in-law, Andy, is actually the person who asked whether I was going to post this somewhere. Having edited gently to remove indicators of to whom this was originally submitted, here is a recent essay about My Story and why it’s being told overwhelmingly in speculative literary form.
I’ve long been conscious of what is inaccurately regarded as merely a Black predicament – and that such consciousness isn’t a characteristic of being Black – so, a devourer of gorgeous general fiction, I bared my soul in short stories and novels where the only character more important than language itself was the overwhelming social commentary. Overwhelming because it seemed inherently more aggressive in my present-day settings than the commentary in the work I adored.
My father was born a Black man in the Midwest in 1944 and when Affirmative Action debuted it wasn’t a dig, it was a divine intervention. His isn’t my story.
As much as I love whatever brought us Lupita Nyong’o, the Academy most honors PoC stories sub-titled: When We Were Slaves – but that’s not my story either.
I adore them but I’m not Toni Morrison’s Denver, whose safety and wholeness is most possible in a world necessarily away from white people, or Octavia Butler’s Dana, whose engrossing tale is untellable without reliving the past. I am closer to Elsie in my novella, Keepsake – a clone born of a memory extraction who doesn’t live (and die) as she’s expected, who straddles two worlds, who’s not real but isn’t a Mem, who wants her loved ones to tell her who and what she is until she understands: they don’t know.
It’s not a story I could satisfactorily tell when I was writing purely general fiction. The characters kept getting reduced to their Blackness, to their remarkable ability to express themselves and decode the world. They were all poets and writers and professors, none of which is bad, but it was the “exceptional voice” all over again. It took place in the real world with a decided default class and therefore automatically became an “issue book” from which I shielded loved ones. They wouldn’t understand; they weren’t ready to hear; they’d reveal their own prejudices and I’d be faced with how to respond.
Because my story is having had to choose between the token – a story wherein the Black protagonist is inevitably the only PoC – and the exception – wherein a) the Black character is “not as colored as she seems” and her wavy hair, her green eyes, her lighter-shades-of-coffee skin are incessantly described, or b) every Black character is a genius, a master, a far cry from being average. My story is living in a post-movement world where a “normal” story is what we’re disallowed; we earn a story either because we’re victims still destructively reeling from the world we never made or because we’re noble pantheons of bootstrapping achievement. Society taught me I must be one or the other. But fighting that in black and white sometimes felt reductive, too.
Science fiction lets us hold the truth just far enough away to see it in our world. To speak directly while outfoxing those among us who refuse to acknowledge it or care. Should people need such coddling? Of course not. But if internet comments prove nothing else, privilege cripples. That’s never more obvious than when we call for diversity in the genre, not just on the page but behind the typewriter.
Right now, I write for the colored girls living the normal life we’re not supposed to. Who, like my character Avrilis, are the heroines in their story not because they’re exceptional “for colored girls” – but because they’re exceptional. Because they get to have love and planet-hopping steampunk adventures, too. (And because I know on such a journey, their hair wouldn’t be an after-thought.)
I’ll keep writing it because only after finishing Keepsake did I hear it speak to the way oppression and identity policing aren’t safely in our past, but are woven into a sometimes beautiful world that, yes, can knock the wind out of us when discrimination catches us off-guard.
Abrupt finish, I know. The last (omitted) sentence referred, you may have guessed, to the scholarship for which I was applying.
Final thought – which I hope won’t be too big a distraction to my above point: the chasm between genre fiction and the respectability of general fiction is particularly unfair to writers of color. And I say that as someone who didn’t know I’d end up on this side.
While my experience of feeling burdened and caged in cannot be applied to everyone else – because there are clearly too many writers of color writing beautiful and contemporary and yes sometimes historical works of art in general fiction (that give.me.LIFE) – I can’t escape the feeling that by writing anything else, my work is even further from ever being seen as capable of universal truth. I resent the feeling that I’m not writing “important work” anymore. And I disagree. (And heaven forfend, because that steampunky story I keep referring to? It’s YA to boot!) But just in case anyone else is in the same place as me, I wanted to let you know.
I’ve been applying for a lot of fellow/scholarships for writers of color or diverse literature. For these, I’ve written a few essays, one of which I’m going to share with you tomorrow. I’m not looking for it to blow your mind. I’m hoping it can do what diverse, or rather realistic, writing can do – speak back to somebody who thought no one else knew.
The essay is about who I’m writing and how writing speculative literary fiction has been expansive for me. But today – before that – I want to tell you what the actual writing is like. Because while I’m making up these other worlds, I’m living in the real one.
I’ve observed that privilege is largely what you don’t have to know. For those of you who don’t, here’s a glimpse into things I think about when presenting a character.
Scratch that. Necessarily first, lemme give you a glimpse into how my brain works when I want to tell you anything.
Disclaimers abound. Know that. Because I have to say, do not try to apply this to every Black writer. If you meet a Black writer and they say something different, do not say, “But I know a Black writer and she said…”
Then I think about how I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that.
And before, during and after having said something, I will wonder if the way I said it will keep you from hearing what I said. Because privilege is precious. It is aggressive and yet easily threatened. I must be calm (rational) and gracious. Passion = rage, if you’re a person of color. Ask …any human. The hardest part about telling people what things are really like is knowing that you’re supposed to care most about what it’s like for them. Even the telling. Discomfort might be a way of life for you but you’ve got to make the telling of it palatable. Or you’ve got to set it so far in the past that it doesn’t threaten them now…but that’s a separate story.
And now, we will actually come to What I Wanted To Tell You In The First Place. (See how we’re already exhausted?)
It is frustrating to:
A) be denied the privilege that doesn’t have to introduce itself (because if I don’t tell you my character is Black, and sometimes even after I do, you’ll misrepresent her)
while B) also keeping said required introduction from becoming part of the story (because my character’s adventure shouldn’t have to be overwhelmed by the un-privileged experience of not being white)
when C) there are so many ways I already *shouldn’t* introduce her. She can’t be brown like anything that is in reality brown because comparison offends. So I must somehow and without politicizing my story tell you she’s a Black girl except she isn’t because this is a story set on a different world so the entire predicament that brought about who I am does not exist.
And then, inevitably, someone will ask why it matters what color she is. And the exhale will feel as long and decisive as a final breath because sometimes you have to know what is just a brick wall. But this is my blog and everybody deserves some corner of sanity, so let me answer: if it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t default her to one specific race of people.
If it didn’t matter, innumerable stories with white protagonists would seem like overkill before two stories featuring people of another race did.
That story about the Asian-kid-at-summer-camp book getting rejected [because one already exists] brings to mind how unpleasantly editors and publishers tend to react to the idea of instituting racial (and/or gender) quotas as a mechanism for diversifying their lists. But, as that incident and so many others reveal, informal quotas are already in place.
They got it so right, Sarah and Jennifer.* There is already a quota, it just doesn’t work in my favor.
And newsflash? I don’t want it to matter either! I’m not fighting to keep this system of injustice in place. (Feel like I need to throw in a how-dare-you for that one, y’all.) Talking about a problem and acknowledging that it is a problem is not the same as creating the problem.
I want it not to matter anymore, just not in the “I don’t see color” way, because let’s not even. In the way that my character (like me!) is ready for adventure! She’s ready for a fire-fight in another universe without getting bogged down by the baggage you’re trying to assign her and the lengths we have to go to so you see her in the right skin but not in the wrong light. I am MORE than ready to be done with that. I’m more than ready to be done with having the poetic negro story be the only one that seems marketable and of lasting value for a Black American author to tell – not to mention the only one to be considered “authentic.”
I’m ready to be done with the diversity that means, “Showcasing Marginalized Groups in Order to Provide Colorful, Enriching Cultural Experiences for White People” (Jennifer Pan).
I’m tired of the burden to educate when my character wants to escape. In the first place because it’s a trap. If it’s historically accurate, it’s heavy, it’s issue-driven, it is the story and we’ve already decided who we’re willing to hear the truth from. If we throw historicity to the wind, it’s unbelievable. (More and more that burning down the house bit seems like the right answer. Throw the imperial, euro-centric steampunk restrictions away from the start and I won’t have to worry about the circumstances under which my character would be there in the first place.)
I promise. I want to be past that at least as much as you do.
But we’re not.
Be careful that while we mourn a great orator, poet, activist, VOICE, we don’t send the message to younger women of color to keep quiet.
*Read the article, if you haven’t already. And comment if you’ve got something to say – I did! And to see descriptions of my writing, check out my Writing page.
You would think I haven’t had much to say. And you would be wrong. The problem is moreso that there hasn’t been a brain-to-blog plug-in yet that works. Get on that, nerds.
Okay, but I’m not gonna try to remember all the things I thought to tell you over the past month so we’ll just do the most important stuff. Starting here:
First ribs of the season. If we facebook, you’ve already seen this but I mean… can you ever see this picture too much? Montreal does this thing where she waits until you’re pretty sure you cannot handle cold any more and then she keeps it cold for about three months longer and then when it lifts, you have never loved a city so much. She’s a cunning little minx.
And then Mother’s Day happened, which was awesome and I’ll post a picture at the end because there’s this one other thing that got in my craw (assuming that’s how you spell that) and I want to end on a high note.
So, pre-picture honest time: the worst thing you can do during a campaign about needing diversity in literature is be the guy/gal who – blinded by the privilege of having a voice (see Orange Is The New Black for more examples) – is completely ignorant to the fact that a problem which involves an overrepresentation of white writers is not also going to be solved by white writers writing about diverse people.
Like…why would that be your go-to plan A?
Don’t be the person who has to interrupt to say diversity isn’t just what I’m writing about either. (Have you noticed this??) The “what about ___” response? To which I always answer: one story isn’t enough. MY story isn’t enough. Why would it be expected that ALL the diversity need be in one place? The imperialism is staggering. We this way, you that way = stop it. There’s room in here, guys. You just might have to give up some of yours.
And where I could link to the individuals who have tweeted something that made me shake my head, I’m just gonna say: it happens or I wouldn’t be mentioning it. Instead of trying to justify or explain or point out that you don’t do that – as though I’m incapable of appreciating that not all people of a demographic are the same (hold for indignant snort at all the ironies) – maybe go further out of your way to not just tweet the real solution, but to also support diverse authors. Support presses dedicated to supporting diversity. And if you’re in doubt, listen to what #diversityisnot. Ask questions. Just make sure you respect the reality enough to not make your questions about you. Don’t ask immediately whether you should write diversity, don’t ask how you should go about it, don’t interrupt to tell us that you did. You are not being called upon to save the day. The whole point of this is every story isn’t yours. It’s true of everyone else and we survive. You’ll be fine.
Now this is not a link round-up because we all have fingers and search engines and book stores and seriously, feed yourself or you’ll starve. Here instead is a place to start supporting.
And you know what, understand diversity isn’t the same as multiculturalism. I think I may have mentioned this before. My story is not safely segregated from the mainstream and it won’t make you feel enlightened and worldly to read it. It’s not about the past (not the one you’re thinking of anyway) or some far away place of my own developing world. It’s about a black girl, right now, in the same space who has the right to lead the story.