IN SUPPORT OF ELLEN OH

I’ve been largely off social media lately. It’s not unusual for me to go underground for periods of time to deal with work and/or life stuff. But as I was underground this week, I missed Ellen Oh’s very important post on diversity, what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and about white authors writing POC.

I’m reposting Ellen’s blog here so you can read it if you haven’t already: http://elloellenoh.tumblr.com/post/139448275729/dear-white-writers

It’s a great post, thoughtful and thought-provoking as are all of Ellen’s posts. But there were some who felt angry and slighted by Ellen’s words, who took offense and interpreted her words as saying that white authors cannot and/or should not write diverse characters. Some attacked her. Some sent vile hate mail. To this, I would say, please reread Ellen’s post as well as the reprint of Jacqueline Woodson’s important speech from 1998 (Yes—1998) that Ellen cites. Read their words carefully and live with them for a few days. Also, do not send hate mail. That shit’s not okay. Period. It takes an extraordinary amount of strength to stand your ground in the face of such hostility, but Ellen does.

I’m not speaking for anyone but myself here. So my interpretation of Ellen’s words is as follows: She’s not saying that white writers can’t write characters of color, but she is asking us as white writers to take responsibility, to ask ourselves very honestly why we are writing those particular characters and then to do the work necessary to make those characters real people rather than diversity placards. Because truth: It is infinitely harder for the creative work of POC to be heard/seen/recognized in the marketplace, and white writers get swag bags of advantages and passes they aren’t even aware of. Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay and Lee Daniels have to jump through a whole lot more hoops to get their movies made than white filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino do when covering the same material. A white filmmaker writing about black lives has an easier time of securing funding for his film than actual black writer-directors writing about the same material. Just…take a moment with that. So if, as white writers, we are taking up one of the coveted, few spots at the publishing table for books about POC and A) we’re not POC and B) we do it wrong? Well, that’s doubly galling—and gutting.

This is why We Need Diverse Books isn’t “Diverse Books Would Be Swell When You Can Get Around to It.” No. It’s Need for a reason. We Need Diverse Books told by diverse voices. If you haven’t done so already, please watch this powerful TED Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about “The Danger of the Single Story.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg This is about access and representation, two avenues that have often been denied writers of color. (I am exclusively focusing on writers of color for this post, though I am not denying that other voices have been marginalized as well.)

As you probably know at this point, Lee & Low’s Diversity in Publishing report came out a few weeks ago. The numbers were sobering: Publishing is overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, cis, female (interesting), and straight. (Wait, what? Really?) Here’s the link to the report: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/ It highlights in cold, hard facts the challenges at hand and how much needs to change to make publishing more representative of the actual world. And, of course, when you have such an overwhelming cultural hegemony, the default is toward that cultural hegemony. It’s a giant blind spot of a system. Before there can be real and lasting change to that system, there has to be dead-honest dialogue about uncomfortable truths.

This is what Ellen is trying to bring about: hard, honest, uncomfortable conversation. Again: No one’s saying that as writers we can’t write about whatever we feel deep inside and go wherever our imaginations take us. That’s our job. But it’s also our job to do it right. And, I would argue, that as story tellers, i.e., truth tellers, it’s important for us to acknowledge that the world in which we operate advantages us and prioritizes our stories and voices over those of POC.

I’m going to beg your patience with a personal story. When I was a child, my father was the minister of Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was the late 1960/early 1970s, another time of change, another election cycle, another war being fought half a world away. “And so it goes.” During my childhood, we boycotted grapes in support of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement and we boycotted Nestle when the company aggressively marketed their baby formula over breast milk to mothers in underdeveloped countries resulting in many infant deaths. My mother explained that we wouldn’t be having grapes or Nestlé’s chocolate chips because we were supporting people who were brave enough to make a stand, and it was going to take all of us, united, to bring about lasting change. I was trying to understand, but I was a kid, and my argument boiled down to “But chocolate chip cookies and grapes taste good!” My mother’s argument was, basically: “Yes. Still.”

“Still.” Acknowledgement.

Our church was representative of the changes happening in the world. It was diverse, eclectic, sometimes contentious. One of the wealthier parishioners was an elderly white woman named Miss Julia. As such, she was used to walking through life with a fair amount of entitlement and deference. She was also the old guard staunchly holding on to her bigoted beliefs. (To be clear: There were plenty of awesome old ladies in our church—fierce wearers of hats and dispensers of love and “You better straighten up and fly right” justice.) During a Bible study session, Miss Julia told a story in which she repeatedly used the N-word. My father interrupted her and gently explained that the word was as offensive and hurtful as she might find a four-letter word to be. Miss Julia was unbowed. She continued her story, doubling down on the word, because, in her mind, she “didn’t mean it like that.” To her, the word wasn’t a problem, therefore, how could it be considered hurtful by anyone else? In her mind, she had a right to use that word and, after all, no one had called her on it before. But again, my father stopped her. “I’m going to have to ask you again not to use that word, Miss Julia.” The air was charged. Miss Julia seemed to feel that my father was trying to control her, to deny her. She glared at him. “So this old {N-word}…” she said, to which my father shot back, “No shit?” That probably wasn’t the pastorly response one expected in 1968 in Texas, but you know what? Miss Julia never used that word in church again.

The point of these stories, and thank you for indulging me, is that A) as white people, we take for granted that we have largesse in our story telling, largesse not granted to writers of color. And because we “don’t mean it like that,” we think that’s enough, even if somebody else points out, “Hey, that hurts.” And B) My mom was right: It takes all of us to make change happen. If we don’t acknowledge the problem and support the change, we risk being the obstructionist force to change.

I am consciously using “we” here and not “you.” It’s very easy to slip into wily semantic defenses. It would be easy to separate myself from the problem instead of doing the hard work of looking inside and asking, “How am I a part of the problem? How can I change?” I’m asking myself that a lot. And I don’t want to give myself a hall pass.

Often when I read the comments section of an article about better representation across all mediums, what comes through is this vague, almost schoolyard notion of forced loss, of theft, even. The mistaken idea that when marginalized people demand their full humanity—whether that is civil rights or gender parity or the use of the pronoun that corresponds to their identity or writers of color wanting to tell THEIR stories in THEIR voices and have those stories be every bit as recognized as the stories white writers get to tell simply because we are white—it’s somehow internalized by many in the dominant culture as “Hold on! You’re taking away my right to X, Y, Z!” Playing into that knee-jerk feeling of loss is a tactic being exploited by the front-runner candidate for the GOP right now; it’s lowest common denominator stuff—and, unfortunately, it’s working. This zero sum game argument is also not true. I could get into a philosophical argument about how absolutely nothing in this life belongs to or is guaranteed us. But I will say that there are two things that are ours and ours alone and we have absolute control over them: Our humanity and our consciousness. We can choose to think and feel and reason. We can use these exceptional powers to explore and examine our motivations and actions—“The unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates would say. We can use them to connect to and empathize with others. And in connecting to and empathizing with others, we are brought face-to-face with unavoidable issues of social justice. To see is to know; to know is to change.

You know what helps with that? Books. Books written by myriad voices about experiences lived from the inside out so that when we read those stories, we can walk in another person’s shoes. Books help us push against the walls of ourselves and expand. And so, again, if those myriad voices can’t get in to tell those stories, if no one gets to hear them, we go back to the bubble of the blind spot. To the Matrix.

This is, again, why voices like Ellen’s are so important; they keep us from avoiding the tough stuff and defaulting to the bubble.

In these conversations, Ellen and Daniel José Older and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (among many other voices) are talking about nothing less than complete Thought Revolution. About the Neo-like overhaul of the way we see and move in the world. About dismantling a bad system that spews noxious fumes and only works for about one-third of the population and replacing it with a new, more inclusive, sleek egalitarian one that works for the whole damn building. They’re talking the active shaping of the hopeful future. In the immortal words of Funkadelic, “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.” (Can you get to that?)

Sometimes, I am uncertain about the best way to be an ally in this work. My feeling has been that I didn’t want to take up space at a podium, virtual or literal, that should be occupied by a POC. If anything, I have seen my role as being there on the assist, not the slam-dunk. To stand in solidarity with my friends and hand over a bottle of water if they’re thirsty so that they can keep right on talking. Sometimes, though, it’s important to be vocal, and this is one of those times.

Mostly, though, what I’m doing is reading and listening to people who make me think, question, and change. Taking a cue from the awesome Shannon Hale who tweeted about this as well, I’m also happy to list some of those paradigm-shifting people: Daniel José Older, Alyssa Wong, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sunil Patel, Debbie Reese, Mike Jung, Jenn Baker, Mikki Kendall, NasB, Roxanne Gay, Alexander Chee, Kaye M., Malinda Lo, Jay Smooth, and Bree Newsome, to name but a few.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Toni Morrison speak at Beth Elohim congregation here in Brooklyn. I’m not sure I can do justice to the feeling of sitting in that beautiful synagogue hearing one of our greatest living novelists speak about story and the craft of writing and of the importance of telling it true, but I can say that her presence filled that space and then some. The last question of the evening was this: “What have you learned from your female characters?” Ms. Morrison took a breath and replied, “Sovereignty.” Again, I cannot do justice to the slow taffy pull of that word delivered with the gravitas of 84 years of living in a world whose very machinery is set up to be a Decepticon-like roadblock to your humanity, but try to feel that word inside you ringing like a bell: Sovereignty.

To me, this is what Ellen Oh is saying, what Jacqueline Woodson is saying: To be denied your voice, your story, is to be denied your sovereignty. And right now, the system is set up to deny writers of color their sovereignty while granting us as white writers that sovereignty over fictional lives that we have borrowed and have not always earned. And so we must do the work.

I would argue that “doing the work” in our stories goes hand-in-hand with “living the work” in our lives—diversity not as something we’re scurrying to add to our books like a new ingredient or trend, but diversity as a reflection of the integrated lives we are leading day-in, day-out. This is about being better writers and better humans. It’s up to us to change, and change is hard. Since children, we’ve internalized change, even good and necessary change, with fear: “I want to grab the next rung on the ladder. But this is the rung I know, the one I’ve grown accustomed to. I’m too scared to let go.” And yet, we all know deep down that we must let go of that old rung if we’re going to grab for the new one. And you know what? That new rung is better. It’s stronger and sturdier. It doesn’t drop a good portion of the population into the crevasse below. And it leads up.

I’ve pretty much played out my ladder metaphor here, so I’ll move on.

Some might point out, “Well, of course you’re saying nice things about Ellen. She just said nice things about your work.” Yes, she did, and I’m honored. But here’s the thing: I have fucked up before. I have gotten it very wrong. And when I did, people I respect and trust as well as complete strangers who cared came up and told me how and why I had gotten it wrong. Some were angry and hurt and told me so. Did I feel ashamed and embarrassed and like an ignorant racist asshole? Absolutely. But to stay in those feelings or to seek reassurance for those uncomfortable feelings from the people I had offended is not to move on and up. It’s to live in denial. And so I had to do whatever I needed to do to let go of that faulty rung so I could reach up, so I could learn and grow and do better work—be better. Those friends and strangers set me on a path with a lantern, but they expected me to use that lantern to light my own way. To educate myself. And I’m trying. Every day, I’m taking that opportunity to listen, to read, to think, to learn, to change on the inside—and then, most importantly, to support meaningful change on the outside.

My interpretation of what was said to me then and of what is being said now by Ellen and so many others is this: “I respect you enough to know that you want to get this right and I believe that you can. I see you as a grown-ass woman capable of change and not a fragile house plant that keeps looking to me for more water when you’re already outside in the rain and I have got more important things to do.”

I’m really, really interested in being a grown-ass woman. And not just for the shoes.

Awe-inspiring change is happening. It. Is. Happening. And it’s happening because of the courageous, amazing refusal of POC to let the conversation be nodded at politely and patted on the head and placated with a slim lollipop of representation with the idea that the whole “diversity trend” will eventually go away and everything will slide back into business as usual. Because that’s what it takes to make real change: hardcore vigilance. It also takes a shit-ton of support.

“Still.”

I am grateful for the continued courage, work, and words of Ellen Oh. I support her. I want to make sure she’s got a water bottle at the podium and that her mic is at exactly the right height.

And then I’m stepping back to listen to what she has to say.

15 thoughts on “IN SUPPORT OF ELLEN OH

  1. I wish I had your words, Libba. You sum up things so beautifully. I have failed too in that I have written a story with a POC. I thought my story was fine as is. My critique group loved it, even some editors embraced it at various conferences. But none had the thought of talking to me and calling out my error. They were as naive as I was. I feel very passionate about diversity. Not only in writing but with other circles as well. When confronted with uncomfortable issues, I am willing to talk about the “elephant in the room” when others won’t. But I never considered I was part of the problem until I read Ellen’s post. Since then, my lantern has illuminated a path that was dim for too long. But with every step I take, it grows brighter the more I learn and educate. I too have a bottle of water ready anytime Ellen or anyone else wishes to speak. I just hope we as a society listen more, and stop merely hearing the words.

  2. As Ellen Oh says, “This movement isn’t about white people, it’s about people of color,” but I think there is a little branch that needs to work out how to be a white ally without appropriating or derailing the cause. How, in an industry of writing about ideas, can we not be part of the white wall of books, but still shut-up and make space for the voices of POC? Thank you for this post, which does a great job talking about being a white ally and about further raising the profile of POC voices, like Ellen Oh’s post, which I hadn’t heard about.

  3. Very well said. Thank you. Many years ago in pre-Facebook & Twitter times, Salon had a forum, Table Talk. I followed a very heated discussion with Sherman Alexie about white writers writing American Indian stories. It was part of my education as a South Dakota raised white woman. And no one could have written Diary of a Part Time Indian like Sherman did. It is one of those books I reread every few years.

  4. Yay, Libba. Well said. As someone who has been writing while brown now for 25 years, it’s as important for me to not slip into semantic defenses. Am I always supportive of other writers of color? Have I ever been in a room, witnessed tacit or implied racism, and failed to speak up? Do I speak up in support of my little in-group, to the exclusion of others? “How am I a part of the problem? How can I change?” Absolutely, white writers and others in the industry need to be asking those questions. But as a writer of color, I need to be asking them too.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts and your support of writers who haven’t had the same access to the marketplace. This has been a problem for a long time, and the fact that people like you are standing up and making it an issue means we have a better chance of changing things than ever before.

  6. I am still marveling that when a writer speaks up in this way, the response is so hateful. I’ve seen it before but it never stops surprising me. What does it say about us, not only in our children’s/YA lit community but as a larger culture, that White people repeatedly refuse to hear or have this conversation? I’m White. I think a lot about whether I’m being a good ally and when I should speak up versus shut up. I have gotten it wrong before. I will make mistakes in the future. I know how uncomfortable, how embarrassing, how disorienting it is to be called out on privilege. I don’t doubt that I will feel all of those things again when I make a blunder and have to acknowledge it even though I didn’t mean any harm. Even though I am a good person. Even though.

    When we’re used to being the center of the universe, it’s hard to feel pushed to the side — and even harder when refuse to acknowledge that we occupied that prime position to start with. But I would hope that people would learn to reflect on that positionality and power dynamics that affect it rather than respond with anger, self-righteousness, and/or outright venom. When I read Ellen’s FB feed, I saw how the numerous comments from people of color were dismissed by White writers who insisted that they should write whatever they wanted to write. And then I saw comments from White allies dismissed in the same way. That’s some grade A denial there.

    I count myself incredibly lucky to have a circle of people who want to grow into more awareness of their own intersecting privileges and by doing that, change the way that they see the world. Because of that circle, I sometimes forget how ugly these conversations can get — and how, bafflingly, that seems to be the norm. Libba, I am so glad that you wrote this — and still furious that you had to write it.

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  9. I’ve always wanted to include POC in my stories but I’ve always been very scared to do so as a white woman because there may be things that I do get wrong. However, I do think there needs to be more diversity in the media of POC, whether it be in characters or in the writers writing about them, and not to play on stereotypes. This was a very thoughtful piece, and I genuinely enjoyed it. Thank you!

  10. Hi Libba. Fantastic post. “Sovereignty”, love it! I was just wondering what your views were on race in books out with the genre of literary/realist fiction e.g. sci-fi/fantasy, in which entirely new humanoid worlds and histories are created. Surely the lack of BAME characters here is downright racist, indicative of the lack of BAME authors? Do you think it problematic if white authors were to write from only white perspectives in settings removed from our own history? If so, and if white authors included more or only non-white characters, would an explanation for why a certain character or race in a created world looked a certain way even be needed? And if it wasn’t, would diversity in the race of characters different to that of the author then seem equally problematic, like “token” races thrown into the story to make it more diverse and therefore directly dependent upon the race, persuasion, and political agenda of the one behind the pen? Or would “over-explanation” seem equally “self-conscious”? Sorry for such a tangled web of musings but as a prolific reader I’m just really interested in different perspectives on this! Anyone who happens to read this, please pitch in with your own opinions, thanks 🙂

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