Friday, June 11, 2010

More on Race

There's a thoughtful post on race in children's publishing here. I really am glad these discussions are now taking place on blogs and forums where folks with decision-making power might pay careful attention. I also love that more and more editors are looking for work by authors of colour. It's certainly a step in the right direction.

However, I've heard more than one editor say that, while they've thrown their doors wide to submissions by PoC, the work they're receiving seems to be sub-par, not polished, or in need of more work than they have time for in this highly competitive business.

I have a couple of thoughts on that. PoC have not had the same opportunities and privileges that white folks have had for hundreds of years in many parts of the world. To expect equal results from white writers and writers of colour when there has never been a level playing field in terms of economics, social and political power, representation and privilege, is to set oneself up for disappointment and to perpetuate the dynamics already in place.

When I was a more idealistic version of who I am today, I went to work at a women's shelter. I felt strongly about domestic violence and I was a young feminist and I wanted to help. I had never grown up around domestic violence so I was unprepared for what I'd encounter. And it wasn't pretty. I had to learn a whole lot, FAST. It was eye-opening, it was brutal, and it was excruciatingly painful to see just how deep misogyny and patriarchy run in our world. But it was necessary. It showed me the Truth. And the Truth is one of the most solid tools you can have in navigating through life.

If you are a publishing decision-maker who wants to do the right thing by publishing or selling more titles by authors of colour, brava!! But you have to know that there is work to be done. The way the system is currently set up, writers of colour must bend and distort our work so that it is recognizable and appealing to white editors. Editors are not required to bend their reality or lens so that they can understand and relate to the styles, traditions, and aesthetics of PoC. So our work is always judged through a white lens. And the work is read and judged based on whether it will appeal to a white readership. The default assumption is that only brown folks will want to read work written by brown folks. And that white readership is the goal. This is problematic on so many levels.

If you want to create true, lasting change, you can't go in thinking you can keep doing what you've always done, only now it will be with brown faces. Dr. Phil (sorry) says the definition of insanity is to keep doing what you've always done and hope for different results each time (what can I say - my mom is a devoted watcher). It's not the same. There are very real differences between white writers and writers of colour, heterosexual writers and LGBTQ writers, writers who've grown up with lots of money and those who've grown up with without - differences that have painful histories behind them, and sometimes the results are not pretty.

This is the same discussion feminists were having years ago when men ran and owned all publishing houses, and women's writing was not taken seriously. It was too "emotional", it was too "flowery", women didn't write about "serious" things, and women weren't getting published. Men were viewing women's writing through a very male lens and never had to bend or shift their perspective. It was out of this that feminist presses and women's presses began sprouting and taking root. They showed that women could write and there was a market for that work and that it sold. Eventually, these small presses began dying out because the larger publishers began publishing more work by women. AND because there were now spaces for women to write, to nurture and cultivate their careers, there were grants and financial support for women who wanted to take writing seriously. In other words, there were larger, societal changes *in addition to* well-meaning editors. AND, here's the key, there were more women editors.

The children's/teen publishing biz has a whole LOT of women editors now. And two of them are women of colour. Ha, just kidding. It might be five. But the same needs to happen now. This is a subjective business. Editors and booksellers can like whatever they like. Let's just get more - including those who understand and value different aesthetics and traditions, and those who aren't necessarily looking for a polished, refined, brown version of Twilight or Harry Potter or Gossip Girl. Let's think outside of the publishing box we've all been shoved into. Let's get representation of ALL children and their histories/stories. Even if it means taking a little more time to nurture a new writer or new voice, or reading everything you can in a particular genre by authors from different backgrounds and literary traditions.

These are important and necessary changes. Painful, eye-opening ones, too. They might show some of us just how deep the roots of racism run in this country. But they may also show us something more important: the Truth. And that is invaluable in all of our journeys.

21 comments:

triciasullivan said...

I saw this article on Zetta Elliott's blog and it's been tormenting me since.

I'm a white writer. (I just had a Freudian moment and typed 'rider'--I'm that, too, because I've had an easy ride on a system that's cut out for people like me.) Before I started selling my work, I used to teach school in Manhattan. The obstacles that many of my students had to cope with before they even got to class were beyond anything that I could really imagine. They had many gifts, but an awful lot of their talent died on the vine because the system (including us white-liberal-often-clueless teachers) could not adequately help them develop.

I feel a deep, personal sense of guilt because I walked away from a profession where I might have done something about this inequity and moved to Britain to become a full-time writer. I feel like I've done it on the backs of the people I could have been helping. During this same period (mid 1990s), I was living with a young agent and he observed that at the publishing houses, the receptionists were usually PoC, as were the mailroom staff. Everyone else? White. We both thought it was not on back then--and it doesn't seem to have changed greatly in the fifteen years since.

I understand what you're talking about here, from the point of view of manuscripts needing that extra bit of work and polish possibly due to educational disadvantage of the writers, from the point of view of the voice and maybe subject matter being different in all kinds of ways that are IMPORTANT and that are NOT DEFICITS, and from the point of view of editors feeling uncomfortable about what they're reading on various levels because the writing probably calls white people out on our shit. All of these things are issues that I can get a grip on--but until I'd read this post I wouldn't have been able to separate them out in my mind.

Thank you so much for articulating this. The article, and your analysis here, provide some clues for concrete action as well as ways to think about this issue.

I'm doing my own thinking about what little personal steps I might take.

Thank you, Neesha.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Having read a lot of excellent writing by people of color that was published by small presses or self-published, I don't think "unpolished" is the problem. I see two problems--access to connections, and authors of color who are set up to fail.

Lack of access to mainstream connections means that when authors of color find a publisher, it is often a small press such as Arte Publico/Pinata Books, with its connections to Latino communities. Maybe the writer has already suffered rejection by mainstream publishers; maybe he or she didn't even try. I know that when I tried to sell a book with PoC characters that was also political, I didn't have an agent, and when one agent and one mainstream publisher rejected it, I went with a progressive small press that I knew would appreciate the manuscript. Until the doors are wide open, and authors of color trust that they will be considered fairly at every stage of acquisition, production, and marketing, they will head toward alternative presses.

As far as authors set up to fail, to the extent that publishers drop authors who don't meet sales quotas, there will be PoC authors who may even win all sorts of new talent awards and are never heard from again. Whether the mainstream publishers don't care to invest in authors of color or don't know how to market their work, the result is the same--a debut book and nothing more. Or self-publication.

Alyson Greene said...

I wish I had something insightful or intelligent to say. But thanks for the post. This is an important conversation that has been ignored for too long.

I found you through the Rejectionist.

Neesha Meminger said...

@ triciasullivan - I've taught in NY public schools and know what you mean. But it's the same all over; it's a deeper, systemic issue that needs a multi-pronged approach.

With regards to guilt, I'm going to repeat what I read somewhere (if anyone knows where this comes from, please chime in): "Guilt is a useless emotion. It allows us to remain stagnant while fooling ourselves into believing we're being active. The answer to guilt is action."

I've had to use those three sentences on many occasions for myself, my parents, and just about everyone I know :).

@ Lyn: I agree completely. That was precisely the point of this post - the fact that saying work by PoC is "just not good" or "just not polished" are excuses. I know authors who've received twenty-page editorial letters for *acquired* manuscripts. That tells me those works were far from polished, but that someone saw something in them, or connected with something in them and was willing to put in the work of writing a twenty-page, single-spaced editorial letter, and then going through several rounds of revisions! So I'll add to your two problems and say there is also a lack of "cultural connection" (for lack of a better term).

If the work seems too "foreign" perhaps, or is viewed as not "universal", or as inaccessible to mainstream US readers (again, these are all SUBJECTIVE opinions), there will be less likelihood of acquisition. There has to be some connection between the person considering the manuscript and the writer. And writers of colour struggle with making that connection because of some of the reasons I've outlined, plus a whole host of others. That is a pretty huge issue in such a subjective business. If all the readers making decisions on what gets acquired are not just white, but haven't even begun to notice the disparities in publishing, we have a long way to go.

@ Alyson - thanks for stopping by. Even comments as simple as yours let us know there are supporters. People who want to see, and want to make changes. Stay in the conversation :).

Leona said...

Instead of waiting for them to get to Editors for help, why don't we send them to the internet to learn? Most of us aspiring writers (I don't care what color the skin) do not have a degree in English. This puts us behind in the sense of polish.

If we can pass on the knowledge of websites that help with this (eg edittorent has a HUGE list of grammar sites and post their own grammar rules to help out the masses)we can further help them cross one more hurdle and take away one more excuse for rejection.

I WAS a victim of Domestic Violence. The pitfalls were similar, except that the black eye was literal and not figurative. We have to teach the writers new behavior and give them the tools they need to overcome the rest, not just pep talks.

Send them to the free spots, library and internet sources, encourage, critique etc. so that when the work is presented to an agent/editor it will be read on its own merits. No matter what we say, we will need someone a cut above the rest to break the barriers.

Women who don't learn skills to combat the "Well, I deserved to be hit" mentality, will always fall back into the same trap.

Let's not let any writer do that, no matter the color of skin. Let's give them access to support groups and let's all expand our horizons.

I have found that in helping others with domestic violence helped me realize I made the right choice, even as I have faced poverty, and his telling my children that things would have been great and never a loss for money if ONLY I HADN'T DIVORCED HIM, and their resulting anger.

Helping others with their manuscript can help you find problems in your won quicker. Let's give them the stepping stones to make the road to publishing what it should be.

Also, those in the publishing circle with clout need to be doing as we have seen here and in the original post - Keep It In Plain Sight.

On DV households, it is often a dirty secret and that secrecy gives it power. Keep the issues in the spotlight while authors take away the excuses and we will win and perservere against the attitude as women did for women's sufferage.

Salad Dressing anyone?

Kirstin Cronn-Mills said...

I keep thinking about teachers and access, since I'm an English teacher. When the canon cracked open in the 70s/80s (canon being "what colleges consider good literature") and it was no longer just dead/alive white guys but PoC and women and LBGT folks and folks with disablities, etc., the world did shift, but there's still so much more shifting to go.

Teachers can provide a version of access by including non-white stories in their classrooms (which I know lots of people do), but teachers can also *encourage*. I teach at an open-enrollment community/tech college with a different version of at-risk students (economic, mostly), and I have seen the value of encouragement. I realize it doesn't solve much, but it's something anyone can do. And those of us with access should do it A LOT. Not that teachers are gods--but sometimes it just takes a couple kind words for someone to see their own self-worth.

The author side of me also agrees with @Lyn about marketing--that's so key these days. One of the ways we market college to our immigrant communities is to go to the elders who have the say-so. How could that be translated to marketing in publishing? There's got to be a way.

Olugbemisola (Mrs. Pilkington) said...

Oh, Neesha, I am so glad that you are here to speak truth to power so gorgeously and POWERFULLY. Thank you. People, listen up! And then do something.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thank you for this post. The more the issue is discussed, pointed out, elaborated on, opined, and done with grace, the less it gets swept under the carpet.

jonnyskov said...

Well said, as always. So much of the material selection is based on certain European literary aesthetic. Time to broaden the horizons, people.

Kirstin Cronn-Mills said...

Sorry to add in again, but it feels relevant: I was just doing homework for my Intro to Lit class and paid close attention to representation. Out of probably 40 poems, I found 3 that were from PoC (this is in a Bedford college anthology), but those were only the ones I knew for sure because there were author photos. There might have been more who were not identified. There were also some translations of the lesbian poet Sappho, and the ratio of representation for men/women was probably 65/35%.

Not totally awful, but not great. And this anthology tries harder than many, many others to be representative. There is a chapter about assimilation later on in the poetry section, with several writers of color, but it's only one chapter.

I realize this is outside of the YA discussion, but it's not, in my eyes, for a couple reasons: 1) college kids aren't very far out of the YA world, and 2) they're the ones who who need the encouragement to tell their stories in their way with their language. Without models, it won't happen as quickly.

I think it's time to change books.

Ibi Zoboi said...

As a mom, an educator, and a writer, I'm thrilled that this conversation is taking place. Just yesterday I signed my children up for a Summer Reading Program at our local library--you get a free book as part of the RIF program. All I wanted was at least one brown face on a cover--this is a Carribean/African-American community. I have the advantage of knowing who the AA authors are so I seek them out. As I watched the other mothers just stand back as their children picked any book that just had a nice cover (not with a brown face), I realize that parents have to be well informed of what's out there. And FYI, the English speaking Caribbean community is highly literate, but it's in a British colonial education kind of way. When I visited a few bookstores in Trinidad, the shevles in the YA section were filled with Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books! There can be a whole other blog about this 'cause folks of color do have access to books outside of the U.S. & Europe.
On the education end, there are plenty of nerdy, highly literate black kids. And they read what their nerdy white friends are reading. In the cases I've encountered, they're immigrants or first generation citizens with parents who demand that they read, but have no way of offering diverse selections of books that their children can relate to. My point here is that even the Afican-American population isn't homogenous, of course. I'm coming from the perspective of the smart black immigrant kid who reads voraciously but really doesn't relate to the slave/MLK/black girl in the 'hood narrative. There's even diversity with the diversity. There are so many narratives to explore that even having the Brown version of anything barely shifts the tide.

rissawrites said...

Pardon my pun, but I guess I am in the minority here. I don't really care about what race the characters are, I care about the story.

When you said, "To expect equal results from white writers and writers of colour when there has never been a level playing field in terms of economics, social and political power, representation and privilege, is to set oneself up for disappointment and to perpetuate the dynamics already in place" I don't think that is a racial issue at all. It is a social economic one.

If you are talking minorities in America- there is no reason why their writing should be any less polished as a white persons. Education in general is the issue, race isn't.

I won't pick up or put down a book because there is or is not a white person on the cover or the characters are white. A previous commentor judged parents for letting their kids pick any book out with covers with no brown faces. That is racism and is literally judging a book by its cover. Is a minority not supposed to read what they enjoy?

I have read ethnic books that are awesome and I have read some that I couldn't even finish because I couldn't connect with the character. To be honest, I'd rather read a good urban fantasy, even if it is a white protagonist, than a mediocre book written about a minority.

I don't see the need to designate a book as being minority or not- genre is good enough for me.

Allowing subpar books from minorities because they may not have had as many opportunities as white authors is wrong.

I don't care what race, creed, religion or color you are- write well.

Rissa (a half Asian, Italian married to a Black man)

Andrea Hairston said...

Thanks for this post Neesha. I will pass on your wise words to others. Our children need more writers like you getting the stories out there!
The discussion is also intriguing.
@Rissawrites says that "I don't see the need to designate a book as being minority or not- genre is good enough for me." but finishes her post with a declaration of her ethnicity and the race of a familial relation. If race/ethnicity is insignificant, why declare who you are?
Editors deciding a book is "Subpar" is always a subjective evaluation. There are no absolute standards. Editors are trying to psyche out the market and often don't care about the writing as much as the perceived market potential. They will work with someone who is perceived to be a good market risk.
The market is not some absolute magic force. It is socially, culturally, historically determined. Editors live in the past to make the future. What has sold, will sell. In the United States, whiteness often sells better than blackness or Asian-ness or Indian-ness because of historical/cultural factors. Gangsta rappers can work their "lethal blackness" as market ploy, but writers wanting to focus on PoC face severe obstacles.
History doesn't just disappear, allowing us all magical equality. We have to read more stories about PoC before we can get those stories, before we can believe in the truth of those stories. Editors have to take risks and so do the audience. We have to demand, we have to insist on diversity or we won't get it.

rissawrites said...

Andrea- I declared what I am so people didn't accuse me of being racist- which I did get accused of when I commented on a different blog.

Neesha Meminger said...

@rissawrites: thanks for reading and for your comment.

Re: "Allowing subpar books from minorities because they may not have had as many opportunities as white authors is wrong."

Just a couple of points about this -

The assumption here is that books will be "allowed" simply because they are written by PoC. No one is asking for a free pass. This is about *opportunity*.

While you may be in the "minority" on this little blog, your argument is one that has been used repetitively in the world at large, especially with issues like Affirmative Action. It is the same fear those in power had when they perceived PoC as having "unfair advantages" through "hiring quotas". This argument does not take into consideration the innumerable advantages certain segments of the population (which, yes, tend to fall into certain racial categories, whether we like it or not) have had for hundreds of years. Once Affirmative Action was signed into law, the uproar was that now the top positions in government, academia, and other places of employment would be flooded with sub-par and "mediocre" PoC, or incompetent and emotional women.

If writers of colour (which is the focus of this particular post because it was a followup to the PW essay I link to in the first paragraph) were provided equal opportunities and a level playing field, there is no telling where our writing/careers could go. And we will never know because that hasn't happened yet.

Let's also not gloss over the fact that, while there are certainly wonderful, powerful, evocative gems out there in the big chain stores, mediocre and "subpar" writing by white authors gets published all the time, often heralded as "awesome!", "amazing!", and "brilliant!"

Also, I have to vehemently disagree - race is *absolutely* an issue. In this country (and many others), it factors into socio-economic positioning, level of education, access to resources, opportunity, housing and so, so many other areas.

For *all* readers: this post (and the subsequent comments) recognizes the disparities in the world at large in general, and in children's publishing in particular. Those who hang out here are engaged, in some way, in the struggle for change.

If you agree that change is necessary, this is definitely the place for you :). If you want to make arguments for the status quo, there is an entire industry that supports you, and several mainstream media corporations that regularly broadcast the fact that we live in a fair and just world - and those who suffer do so as a result of their own choices. And those who don't "make it", fail because they deserve to. Your arguments will be better served elsewhere on the internet.

This blog is about writing, publishing, and creativity; and a critical look at the messages, norms, and defaults so many of us are already abundantly familiar with, and want to re-shape. It's about articulating and formulating responses, supporting one another, strengthening morale and resolve, and moving forward in a different way.

Those are the conversations I want to have here. I will not have the "Does racism exist?" conversation on this blog (or anywhere else, for that matter). That work has already been done, and well, by women and men whose spirit and intellect I could never dare to match.

The Rejectionist said...

Sometimes when I try to wrap my head around how smart you are part of my brain comes out my ear, Neesha Meminger.

Kaethe said...

I love your writing.

Rae Lori said...

Excellent article, Neesha. If anything, your awesome blog, Zetta's blog and Ari over at Reading in Color and the PW article are getting people *talking* around the blogsophere which is hopefully a movement toward getting the industry in general to make a change. No matter how much the status quo tries to remain stagnant.

Azul said...

I do not think unpolished or lesser writing should ever be tolerated on the basis of ethnicity. This has been the big mistake by our society: creating systems that allow people of other ethnicities to be held to a lower standard than people of European ancestry. How can you expect writers of other ethnicities to compete if they are held to a lower standard and thus allowed to publish lower quality work? That type of thought should not be allowed to perpetuate amongst any business, and certainly not the writing business. It's already taken hold in education system much to the detriment of our youth.

I can understand encouraging editors to accept subject matter that may fall outside the commonly accepted norms. But I cannot see any benefit to accepting lesser work. They should instead offer more guidance on how to polish the work and make it better for submission.

And I would also use this as an opportunity to encourage more minority folk to start their own publishing businesses. It is useless to continue to allow the power of bringing a product to the market in the hands of folk so unlike yourself in terms of ethnic background and life experience. The power structure of society won't change much if they are not folk dedicated not only to develop product, but also bringing that product to market.

It is no accident that the most powerful people in this world are those that control access to the market, not the content that access brings to the market. They make the most money by controlling the vehicle of business and then they use that money and power to find products which they bring to market for maximum profit. Often those products are the work of others such as we who write.

Authors should seek to support publishing companies run by businesspeople that are willing to give their material its due. And if that person also shares their ethnic background, that is even better. We need to stop supporting the centralization of power in business where only a few publishing companies are controlling 90% of the content being released and thus having an undue influence on what the public receives and thus perceives.

As a person that is from a mixed a family ethnically, I have never enjoyed the idea that minorities must somehow beg their way or guilt their way into having those of European ancestry accept a minority and their work as equal. To me that is a path to permanent subjugation and inequality. It is vitally importnant that minority folk determine the standards that are to be met and work diligently to meet them regardless of background, ethnicity, or wealth.

There can be no room whatsoever for those of European ancestry to view minorities as having achieved their success with crutches provided by them. Programs that encourage such things such as affirmative action built on Euroepan guilt have done nothing but exacerbate racial tensions and give them further ammunition for devaluing minority work and contributions.

Work standards must be equal. I would not support any editor tolerating work of lower quality or "polish" as they call it. But I can understand pressing for a need to accept content that might be considered targeted to a minority audience and giving it a chance. Which hoepfully will be done by people seeking to build businesses that target under-represented markets and build market share that will encourage competition that will lead to greater diversity in the publishing market.

Neesha Meminger said...

@Azul: Thanks for taking the time to comment :).

"I cannot see any benefit to accepting lesser work."

I've re-read my post and the subsequent comments a million times and can't find anyone suggesting agents, editors and booksellers accept "lesser work."

"It is no accident that the most powerful people in this world are those that control access to the market, not the content that access brings to the market."

Totally agree with the first part, but have to disagree with that last bit. The most powerful people in the world DO control the content in the market. Case in point: Fox News. Also, please check out the music video documentary in my post after this one. Only certain types of music videos are produced because the men behind the camera are always the same. It is the "single story", and it is the only one that is being bought and sold. Content is controlled by restricting access, allowing only certain types of writing to be published, and only certain types to be sold. My book was never picked up by the large chain bookstores in the US. Thus, it will never be available to a certain market (not everyone checks in to this particular blogosphere, or shops at indie bookstores). And so, to the masses, the story I tell in SHINE, is another story untold - and it is far from being work of "lesser" quality if you ask my editor, my publisher, my agent, and the reviewers who've raved about it ;).

"We need to stop supporting the centralization of power in business where only a few publishing companies are controlling 90% of the content being released and thus having an undue influence on what the public receives and thus perceives."

Yes. See my previous point about large corporations/publishers having control over content.

"There can be no room whatsoever for those of European ancestry to view minorities as having achieved their success with crutches provided by them. Programs that encourage such things such as affirmative action built on Euroepan guilt have done nothing but exacerbate racial tensions and give them further ammunition for devaluing minority work and contributions."

Ah, we'll have to agree to disagree on this one, my friend. Programs like affirmative action were not built on European guilt and providing crutches. They were created to address historical inequities and disparities, and to level a playing field that was horribly uneven. If you take something away from someone (rights/opportunities), giving it back does not equal special treatment or crutches; it is an acknowledgment of systemic obstacles due to oppression that have, historically, kept certain people out of certain arenas.

And these programs are not what exacerbate racial tensions. Racial tensions are exacerbated by the *belief* by some segments of our society, that these programs are "free handouts", "special treatment", or, as you refer to them, "crutches".

(more . . . )

Neesha Meminger said...

(. . . cont'd)

"Work standards must be equal. I would not support any editor tolerating work of lower quality or "polish" as they call it."

I haven't met a single editor out there who would tolerate work of lower quality. But editors and agents and booksellers acquire work they LIKE. And when you don't LIKE something, it is easier to point out its weaknesses/flaws. When you DO like something, it is easier to forgive its shortcomings (::cough-Twilight-cough::).

"But I can understand pressing for a need to accept content that might be considered targeted to a minority audience and giving it a chance."

*Stands and cheers* YES! Precisely the point of the original post.

Folks: as much as I love the discussion and comments this post has generated, my little blog has to move on. I don't have the time to keep moderating comments that go on for pages about how racism doesn't exist (funny - no one is commenting at all about the parallel I draw between racism and sexism in publishing. The uproar is all about race), and the status quo works just fine, and if PoC just work hard enough, we will all be successful.

I will keep posting my thoughts and blogging about this issue as things come up, but I am closing this comments thread to avoid having the same discussion about race, over and over again (and sucking up time I should really be spending on revisions). This conversation/debate, almost verbatim, has been had in many, many places online already. Just google "whitewashing in publishing" or "racefail" and you'll find threads that go on for hundreds of comments, including duplicates of some of the ones here.

As with the women's movement, those of us pressing for change will keep plugging away and, hopefully, everyone will benefit in the long run.