caring is not trying, trying is not succeeding

Diversity Cupcakes

“Diversity Cupcakes.” I love google. (Photo credit: clevercupcakes)

May 16, Charlesbridge, a children’s publisher in Boston, co-hosted a panel, with CBC Diversity, on diversity in children’s literature with authors, illustrators and editors. This happened awhile ago, obviously, but somehow I never had time to write about it. But I think it’s important to, because it was sponsored by CBC Diversity, which is trying to be this huge, multi-publisher effort to promote diversity, and yet I can’t really understand what it is they think they’re doing. For one thing, I keep seeing invitations to participate in their efforts and their blog on various listservs, other blogs, etc, and yet they don’t reply to (if they even accept) comments, they don’t respond to emails, and they basically keep it very much in their club of favorite people, which is the opposite of “Advocating for an inclusive and representative children’s publishing industry,” as they say on their blog tagline.

The usual questions were asked, like can authors write outside their culture, how can you avoid stereotyping or tokenizing, what’s it like to be a creator of color in the industry, how do you edit a book for authenticity if it’s not your culture, etc. Mostly the creators told funny racism stories, by which I mean the silly things people say that you can laugh about later, and then said how in general, they are treated just fine. Great for them. The editors basically said it’s hard to sell books about kids of color and how they wish they received more submissions. Not sure how those two work together, but sure. There was also this overarching thing behind many of the things said about how children are delicate creatures, and we need to hold their hands when it comes to reading things outside of their comfort zones, which is apparently white kids reading about Mexican kids, or something.

Ultimately, through the panel and the milling about afterwards, I learned that diversity will forever be more common in historical fiction, magical colored people, and noble savages, and that nobody wants to be the first to do anything remarkable.

Big whoop. That is all we talk about on the blogosphere, all the time. I left the panel feeling down, and the only thing that was good was that my expectations were met: it was a disappointing waste of time. People say they care, but they don’t try things.

Hey. Intent doesn’t mean anything, as we all know when it comes to accidental racism, and feeling sad about the state of things doesn’t make you a better person than the people who happen not to care, because you’re both doing nothing. You don’t deserve to feel proud of yourself. You’re not doing anything. Period.

I’m tired of people claiming to care about diversity but constantly touting it as “diversity.” I’m not diversity. I’m just not white like you. To mutilate a already cliched first line of a book I own but will never read, I’m as boring as you are, just in my own little way.

If you actually care about diversity, do something about it. Here are some things you can do. If you’re not willing to do them, fine, but then stop saying you care. Trying is better. And if it doesn’t work, and if you don’t sell as much stuff (I know it’s about money, but if you buy crappy books from celebrities that will make money, and if you stop buying a lot of the same old stuff, you can afford to take chances), push a bit further – maybe if shelves are saturated with diversity, more people will buy books with them, if only by accident. Chances are they’ll stop being disappointed that things aren’t about white people if you take the time to actually buy good books about people of all colors. Here are some things you can do if you’re an editor. If you’re not willing to do them, stop saying that you’re into diversity and just admit that you don’t actually care. Because you’re wasting your energy and my time, and you’re getting people’s hopes up when you have no right to.

  • If you have two books that are equally mediocre, or even just nearly equal, reject the one about the white kids and choose to work a bit harder on the one that reflects a more inclusive world. That white kid one is already mediocre, and you’re not hurting that author’s chances of being picked up by another house. Listen to Gandhi, yo: be the change you wish to see in the world.
  • If your longtime authors that you like working with are not good at diversity, EDUCATE THEM. Show them articles and blog posts about privilege, about stereotypes and tokens, about what it feels like to be erased. IT’S YOUR JOB. As an editor, you are supposed to help make a manuscript better. So do it.
  • Make people realize that “diversity,” as you so love to call it, is not scary and does not mean that a book is irrelevant to non-diverse peoples, since you think that there is such a thing as diverse and non-diverse people. Use the same cliched book covers of headless girls in pretty dresses that you would for white people, but do it for a book about a black girl. Or use more symbolic covers all around. Make it look as if diversity is matter-of-fact, not a creature that is strange and untamable.
  • Pick up a dictionary. You’re an editor! Why do you not know what words mean? Look up the definitions of “diversity” and “multicultural” and start using them correctly. Here’s somewhere to start.
  • Be honest. Please. If you care, do something. Otherwise stop holding meaningless panels and having a purposely non-inclusive blog. Because right now, you’re assholes. Plain and simple.

That is all.

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21 thoughts on “caring is not trying, trying is not succeeding

  1. I hear you, Hannah. Everything about publishing involves frustration, and tries our patience.
    But I’m of the school that a good writer can write not only about that which they know intimately. I used to think otherwise, but then I read… and read some more. I’ve changed my mind.
    To me, diversity is a whole lot more than race or little known cultures. Diversity, in literature, is just as much about un-formulaic writing, rare in kid-lit traditional publishing. The call for “something different” invariably means the-same-with-a-different-twist.
    Keep climbing.

    • I thank you for your comment, Mirka, but I have to take issue with just about everything in it.

      First, the write what you know idea is, basically, debunked. JK Rowling has no experience being a boy, being a Moses archetype, or casting spells. Zadie Smith has never been an aging college professor with grown children. George R.R. Martin does not know what it’s like to be 50 different people. And if you take a look at the link to my bitly bundle, you will see hundreds of people agreeing that research and experience give you what you know, not a limited world and even more limited ability to look at it (I doubt that you have never had a meaningful conversation or relationship with someone different from you, for example). Write what you know is a misunderstood edict.

      And while I can certainly attest to the dullness of repeated plots and cliches, to say that that is diversity is, like I noted, to completely and utterly not understand what words mean. “Diversity” means variance. It does not mean “unique,” and to say that moving away from a Cinderella story is as important as telling people that they exist, that their lives and stories are relevant and compelling, that they are not OTHER, is, quite frankly, utterly insulting.

  2. I’m sorry you left the panel so frustrated! It’s sad that an event that was supposed to help push the topic did the opposite. The protagonist in my next tween series is half Korean and I must say that I struggled with how much I should focus on that in the story–plus I struggled with the whole “do I have the right to write about someone who doesn’t look like me” question–but my editor was so supportive that it left me feeling really encouraged. I hope that’s a sign of positive things to come.

    • I was curious about that when I saw the cover! I admit, I hear about you all the time at Simmons and I still haven’t read your books because I’m terrible, but I’m looking forward to them! And your editor sounds awesome – it’s definitely a positive thing to see someone willing to work extra hard to convey a wider world. 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Diversity and the whole idea of educating our youth with it is HUGE for me. It’s such a close issue to my heart that I wrote a book with a Asian character. My concern is many people put down authors who write outside their ethnicity. So I know that I will be putting myself out there and it’s risky for someone like me to do this. But I came to the realization that it’s more important for me to write what I love and what I’m passionate about than to worry what others will say or for them to tell me I can’t write about characters that don’t have the same skin color that I have.

    As far a myself as a reader, one of the best ways is to buy and promote books of other cultures and ethnic races.

    Finally, as a teacher, exposing my students to characters of diverse backgrounds is one of the pivotal roles that I have and I find it exciting to be the one to introduce my students to these characters.

    I firmly believe many publishers have to look at their sales for what they buy. But what they don’t understand is the kids love a good story. It doesn’t matter what color skin or what culture that character comes from.

  4. Have to say I was surprised by your article “Reality Check” in VOYA–I’ve always thought of librarians as very progressive and more culturally aware than the general population and I’m sorry that you have been treated so rudely. I wondered at first if it was due to the fact you were in AZ (have been appalled at the stories of book censorship going on there), but I see you are studying in Boston. Is the treatment similar in both places? While I feel I am pretty hypersensitive to racial treatment, I have never encountered such poor behavior in our local libraries. (perhaps because we live in a very liberal place?) I also thought my SLIS professors were good about tackling uncomfortable issues–we did have a very multicultural staff at the time I went, but one white male professor (Wayne Wiegand) was probably the best at making us confront our own biases and ways of thinking. His was the first class we were required to take and I wish it were required for everyone.

    • I think of them as that way, too! That’s why I am one. But yes, I’ve had these experiences in AZ and MA. And in MA more. I think the professors I’ve had have been pretty good (or at least well meaning) about tackling this stuff, but the big problem is, I think, that they’re not required classes or considered essential parts of curricula. That’s what needs to change.

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  6. Hannah, I like what you’ve written here and the sentiment that thinking that diverse books is a good idea, is not the same thing as actually doing anything to support them. People who truly believe that the amount of diversity in books should increase need to actually buy the books. It’s simple math: Without an increase in demand, there will be no new players or a reallocation of existing funds to produce more diverse books.

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