The world doesn’t need your diverse story. Let me repeat, we don’t need you to shoehorn in an Asian best friend or a biracial love interest with almond eyes and coffee in cream skin. It’s unnecessary. This is not how you will be able to facilitate change in the world. Please put your safety pin away.
I was reading Dodgers by Bill Beverly for my teen book award committee and from the opening stanzas that sixth sense of inauthenticity started to prickle. I gave it until the third chapter before I had to look up the author. Was it the language of the characters that got me? No. The setting? Nope, sounds good. What got me was the description of the mother.
In the living room, in a nest of dull air, his mother lay watching a game show. She looked older than her thirty-one: runny-nosed, fat and anemic at the same time. She drank from a plastic cup, a bottle of jug wine between her knees. (p. 23)
Cue, record scratch.
I know the ghost of the welfare queen when I see her. This description cannot go unchecked. This description, if written by a person of color, would be accompanied by some humanizing element, but the story gave none. She’s an animal in her habitat. An author of color knows that she plays into a stereotype and she cannot go unchecked in some way, because we know that seeds are planted when reading. Expectations are sowed.
These seeds may not sprout while Ann from suburban Salt Lake City chats it up about the Superbowl before the morning meeting, but it damn sure grows ten feet tall when she hears about Trayvon Martin and sympathizes with Zimmerman. You know, ’cause she would have been scared too. She can relate. Our worlds are so different.
Is the story bad? No, it’s actually very well written, but it doesn’t matter. A story of four black boys in the grips of crime suffering from a world that has made them not-yet-hard killers is not his to tell. The boys and girls who will read it will nod their young heads and say “yes” this seems right. It’s a caper. It’s simple. There were no hard choices for these boys. The ‘hood is rife with interesting characters just going about their days, sometimes they die, but how they are and who they are is nobody’s fault. Ghetto is just a place, not a construct. They live like that because they choose to.
Art is political. If you’re white and middle class you can’t put words in the mouths of immigrant, Native, Mexican, Black folk in America. The legacy of racism and continued oppression will not allow you to. What you can do is support and promote the words of immigrant, Native, Mexican, Black folk in America who are telling their own stories. You can listen. You can nod and suggest these books for your book club and you can want. There is nothing wrong in wanting. We all want things we cannot have. I want to be able to sit in the front row at the famed Drag balls in New York and see a death drop live in the wee hours of the morning, but I can’t. It’s not my place.
The death drop isn’t for me. That place is a place of safety and familiarity for gay men and women of color and it is made safe BECAUSE of it’s exclusivity. My presence is destructive.
Know when your presence is destructive.
Now if you’ve always been writing people of color into your stories, because they exist in your real and fictional worlds and always have, that’s authentic. Attending a seminar about how to write those people in your stories is not.
Let’s talk about it.