Wednesday, July 3, 2013

For What It's Worth Coming from Someone White as Rice

So yesterday in the morning I read Lee & Low's blog post about why diversity in children's books isn't any better than it was 20 years ago, and went out to do yardwork while I had cool morning to do it in and composed a post on the topic. Which is difficult, because in a lot of ways - as a middle-aged white woman writing in a field traditionally dominated by middle-aged white women - it's not my discussion to have. The conversation is not about me and what I can do is limited, though I hope I manage to do that limited amount. But I'm in the middle of it anyway, and the problem won't go away on its own, so it's not out of line to have an opinion.

And then I crashed like a helicopter driven by a chimp and don't remember any of the things I meant to say.

But I can tell you this.

Yesterday, I got a royalty statement and a check. A sizable check by the standards of the checks I've been getting lately. For Switching Well, which is 20 years old this year. An educational company bought some subsidiary rights, and now I may be able to put something into my Roth.

Switching Well has, of course, two protagonists. Both are middle-class white girls, swapping places across a hundred years of time.

As far as I'm aware, the only controversy there's ever been about this book is over the scene in which Ada, from 1891, is plopped down in modern San Antonio during Fiesta and, far too trusting, is nearly carried off by a child molester. I've never understood exactly why this scene is sufficient to get the book shut out of some libraries (without due process; I know this by hearsay talking to public school librarians) - it doesn't contain anything outside the standard "stranger danger" dramatizations that have been shown in schools for decades, and in fact I relied on modern schoolchildren's familiarity with the "stranger danger" meme to keep them ahead of Ada in this scene and enable them to understand what was going on. One teacher who had me for a school visit with her class of underachievers told me that this scene was when they sat up and started to take notice and get engaged with the characters. But whatever.

The point is, I did not feel I could avoid race when writing this story, and I did not want to. Racial issues were part of the suite of cultural changes and continuities with which both girls were logically confronted. Since 1891 was before Jim Crow laws (which surprised me; the impression my history classes had left me with was that Jim Crow rolled over seamlessly from slave codes after Reconstruction ended, but it's more complicated than that. It always is.), I was surprised at some of the ways this manifested. I didn't dwell on this stuff, but it's there, especially in the case of Violet, the black girl who becomes Ada's mentor and guide through the inadequacies of the child welfare system. One of the notable things about the nineteenth century system modern girl Amber encounters is that she's placed in an all-white orphanage; but I also stuck a misdiagnosed deaf child into that orphanage, because the tendency of deaf children to be misdiagnosed as "feeble-minded" was one of those things that leaped out of my research. None of this is or can be the focus of the story, but it's there, for what it's worth.

Practically everyone's favorite character is Violet, by the way. And the same teacher whose class was electrified by Ada's near-miss with the child molester has a deaf child and was enthusiastic about the sequence with the misdiagnosed deaf child.

The point being that, even if you and your protagonists are from the privileged categories of people, the diversity issues are there. It doesn't harm your story or your chances in the market place to acknowledge them. No, truly, it doesn't. I have 20 years worth of checks from Switching Well to prove it.

I can tell you this much about racism, sexism, ableism, and all the other societal tendencies that group us into more and less privileged groups: It's always present. It's always complicated. Talking about it often doesn't seem to do any good, but ignoring it does harm and talking about it - doesn't.

Don't be afraid to take your story down those uncomfortable paths we mince along every day. We're on those paths anyway, and so are our audiences. We might as well acknowledge that.

It's something we all have in common.


  1. This is a great post! I think that writers have a tendency to stick with what we know, partially because we are afraid of backlash if we get something wrong. But the bottom line is that we need to reflect reality as well, and even if we are writing about white children, these days, those white children will be only one piece in a rainbow of colors that exist in the world around them. The heroine in my upcoming series has a godfather who happens to be a black drag queen. It scared me spitless starting to write the character, but when I asked myself who would be living in the apartments around my mc's mother at the time that mc was born, that was the answer. I didn't do it intending to write an African American character, or a gay character, or anything with a label on it. Mark was simply Mark, loving and generous enough to give my mc the only love she knew as a child. He came out the way he did, and even though he started by being a minor character who wasn't supposed to go through the whole book with the protagonist, he refused to get out of the way. He is one of, if not *the*, characters I love most in the book. I adore him. And I would never have gotten to know him if I hadn't taken the risk of writing something I didn't know.

  2. People treat "write what you know" as a limitation; not as a challenge to get to know more. Which is what I always find I have to do.

    And I think people similarly treat the call for more diversity as meaning they need to shoehorn it in; but that's nonsense. Look at your life. Just look at it. If people would write books that reflect the real life around them, they'd write diversely automatically. Whitewashing is a choice - not often a conscious one, but a real one nonetheless. Make the choice consciously, choose differently, and the result will be, not only more diverse books, but better ones.

    And if the publishers and bookstore owners and marketers and other people who exacerbate the problem by ghettoizing non-white-middle-class authors and whitewashing covers and all the rest of it would stop being defensive about their unconscious decisions, acknowledge reality, and choose differently, too, the problem would solve itself.