I have stopped taking part in the “diversity problem in children’s lit” conversation. Diversity in the literature I read (mostly YA) matters to me a lot. But the same conversation crops up every six months or so, and the same concerns get voiced, and sometimes the statistics changed (in 2013 there were more books with POC than books with speaking animals, so yay, I guess), but overall it’s too much. It’s frustrating and tiring to have your community never be listened to and then watch while other people debate the merits of offering you full representation in a genre where you invest a lot of money and love and time. Eventually, I kind of just stopped.
But I have a lot invested in this conversation, both as a reader and a writer. I’m a scholar invested in recovering the diversity of our past. But part of the reason I decided to just write books instead of talking about how we need diverse literature is because no one was listening to me. Not the specific me, but the me that encapsulates a community that is often not represented (or represented well or respectfully) in literature. This is, I think, at the center of what is wrong about the ways we discuss inclusiveness and diversity. By and large those conversations are being taken over by people who benefit a lot from the current system in place. It’s an important conversation to have, everyone wants to put in their own two cents, everyone wants to boost the issue so more people can weigh in.
But here’s the thing: your opinion doesn’t actually matter.
If you are part of the overrepresented, privileged group, your opinion doesn’t matter.
I think, for most people, this is a really hard thing to hear. No one wants to think that they should be quiet and listen, or that they should give up their platform, or stop advocating for inclusivity and diversity. Your opinion is probably valid and positive and rooted in a place of deep compassion.
But your opinion, and the ways you voice that opinion, and the space your voice takes? Those things are not ahistorical. They are happening in a place where historically your voices (your straight voice, your white voice, your able bodied voice, your cisgendered voice) are privileged over ours. You automatically get boosted over us because of both distance (you are distanced from the situation therefore, the perception goes, you can be more lucid and unbiased), and authenticity (you have seen first hand or you are intimately acquainted with the system or or or). And though it might not seem like it, though this is not your intention, you are exacerbating a historical problem: we cannot speak for ourselves. We are not good enough to speak for ourselves, or we are not in these spaces therefore we cannot speak for ourselves.
That thing that just clicked for you over the weekend? Someone from that group has been living that for a really long time. This oppression you suddenly seem really fired up over and want to dismantle? Yeah, there’s someone on the ground who’s been doing it for ages. Those kids you wanna save? That opinion you wanna voice? This issue you wanna spotlight? Done. Done. Done. Trust me. We got it.
There’s this weird thing that happens when we talk about the overwhelming whiteness of publishing and it assumes that because publishing is overwhelmingly white that the only people we should ask about fixing this are the white people in the structure. Or that because you can’t see us, we’re not talking. And it ignores first that most of us have set up our own groups and communities to talk this out, because we’re safest among people who understand the macro and microaggressions we experience day to day without judgement or fear. And second that we have been having this conversation for a long, long time.
Think about it this way:
There’s a group of us. We’re either whispering quietly because we don’t want to upset anyone, or we’re just out of your sight so you can’t really hear us. And then, all of a sudden, somehow you hear us or someone leaves the group and tells you or someone voices their frustrations to you. And instead of listening, or providing them a space to boost that voice so people in other rooms will hear them, you walk back to their private room and start shouting. And people in other rooms hear you and they say ‘wow this is so great I’ve never thought of this before’ and they keep passing it on.
But we’ve been having this conversation the entire time.
If you think your platform or voice or space is big enough that it can make a difference, then it is absolutely necessary to consider turning it over, however temporarily, to someone from the community you want to speak for. That is useful. I’m not advocating for silence, but for a restructuring of how we think about those of us underrepresented in the young adult publishing community. Instead of thinking of us as people that need to be lifted up or spoken for, consider us equals and the people who should be driving this conversation, instead of just grateful to sit at the table.