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I'm Still Here


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.




Somaiya Daud

Somaiya Daud received her BA and MA from a university in DC in English. She is currently working on her PhD. When not writing or studying, she spends too much time on the internet yelling about comics and robots. Her first novel, Mirage, is coming 2017 from Flatiron Books.

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16 comments:

  1. Interesting. I hadn't thought of it that way.

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  2. "Like."

    :)

    I've wondered about this before, and it's good to hear you write it and verify that, yes, it can be disrespectful to piously set yourself up as someone writing diversity in YA if you're also ignoring the actual minorities who have been writing diversity because that's just their life, their culture.

    And not to keep going with those same old conversations you talked about in the beginning - but how do you think privileged writers (i.e., me) who tell stories about "minority" characters should posture themselves? How do we tell stories that need to be told without taking away from the voices that are already there, talking about their own cultures and religions and ideas?

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    1. I like your first paragraph, because that's not how I read the piece originally, but it's a very useful takeaway. Glad I came back to check the comments.

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    2. How do we tell stories that need to be told without taking away from the voices that are already there, talking about their own cultures and religions and ideas?

      As a POC myself (yes, I am a POC and NOT a "minority"), I think you have to talk to the POCs you are writing about and learn from their experiences. And you have to talk to a LOT of those people, because one POC's experience does not represent all POC's experiences.

      Honestly, my gripe with non-POC writers writing about POC characters is that you just write what YOU personally observe. You really believe you're being diverse and thoughtful and respectful, and your intentions are good, but as Sumayyah said, your entire perception is already distorted because you ARE overrepresented and privileged and ignorant of the microagressions we deal with on a day-to-day basis.

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    3. "because one POC's experience does not represent all POC's experiences."

      Here's the thing, though: When I write about someone from another race, culture, religion, gender, sexuality than my own, I'm not trying to write a character who's representative of that entire population. I'm simply writing a character. I don't expect people to believe my character is representative of every member of that population. I also don't write those characters because I'm trying to be diverse. I write them because they're the people I see in my world every day. I write diverse characters because I live in a diverse world.

      "Honestly, my gripe with non-POC writers writing about POC characters is that you just write what YOU personally observe."

      But isn't that true of everyone? Personal observation is how we experience the world. I will never know what it's like to be a woman, you will never know what it's like to be a man. I will never know what it's like to be the child of an alcoholic, or the daughter of a pageant mom, or a gang member, or homeless or addicted to heroin or Asian. But I grew up with friends who had alcoholic parents, and I have friends who were homeless at some point in their lives, and I dated people who abused drugs, and the Native American blood I have may be too diluted to matter, but I have family stories going back generations of those who had enough to be persecuted for it.

      I think it's dangerous to tell people that their opinions don't matter if they're not part of that underrepresented group. I think it's dangerous to tell people that they shouldn't write about underrepresented groups unless they check with that group first to make sure they've written a character who's accurately representative of that group. Those efforts aren't just writers trying to add diversity to their books because it's this month's buzzword, it's an attempt to try to understand people who aren't them, and I think it's dangerous to discourage that. Sure, when I read about or see another flamboyant, sex-obsessed gay character, I roll my eyes because, while there are certainly plenty of flamboyant, sex-obsessed gay men, there are tons of other kinds of gay men too that deserve to be represented. But at the end of the day, I'd rather see those flamboyant gays on TV and in books than none at all. When I read books with gay characters written by straight authors, I can just tell that they don't really understand what it's like, but the fact that they're trying to understand gives me so much hope for the future. The fact that they want to understand and they want others to try to understand too is something we should encourage.

      I don't know, I think I got way off topic here. I get that diversity is about more than blog posts and peppering books with non-white, non-male, non-cisgendered, non-christian characters, it's about promoting the value of underrepresented characters, authors, and voices. But I don't think silencing any voice trying to advance those goals, even if they're from a privileged, overrepresented group is the right tactic.

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    4. For sure, I don't think one single character necessarily needs to, or SHOULD, embody an entire population. However, in my reading experience, non-POC writers who write POC characters do tend to take ONE person's experience and equate it to the culture as a whole. See: Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park. To get around that, you need to be more thorough in your research and understand the nuances of a culture before you blanket it in your outsider perspective.

      "I write them because they're the people I see in my world every day. I write diverse characters because I live in a diverse world."

      The problem with this is that, like I mentioned, you write what YOU personally observe, and when it comes to other cultures, your personal observations tend to be more ignorant and distorted. Basing your writing around personal observation is all good and fine, but not when it comes at the expense of another culture that already tends to be marginalized and that IS subject to those daily microagressions that are invisible to and unfelt by you.

      Also, I might argue that I have a relatively better sense of what it's like to be a man, than you have of what it's like to be a woman, simply because of gender politics and representation in the United States alone. :P The same thing applies to race and culture.

      "I think it's dangerous to tell people that they shouldn't write about underrepresented groups unless they check with that group first to make sure they've written a character who's accurately representative of that group. Those efforts aren't just writers trying to add diversity to their books because it's this month's buzzword, it's an attempt to try to understand people who aren't them, and I think it's dangerous to discourage that."

      To understand people who aren't them, don't you kind of HAVE to talk to a variety of people in that underrepresented group, versus talking to the one kid and telling yourself it's enough? Otherwise, you don't understand that person at all because you don't understand the context in which they've been raised, or grown up, or are living; and you don't understand, for example, what is a collective struggle, versus one single person's plight.

      It's about doing your research. If you don't do your due diligence, you end up just laying your "otherly" lens on top of them and you're not really trying to understand them at all. You're just trying to fit them into a neat little box and call it a day. You don't have to write a character who is representative of an entire population. It's impossible. It's a stereotype. See: The flamboyant gay. See also: Justina Chen, who writes really great, complex POC characters who don't fit into stereotypes but who still embody or acknowledge the cultures they come from.

      Look. I appreciate your thoughtful response, but I'm not going to keep participating in this conversation, because it's exactly what Sumayyah is writing about. It's exhausting. Listen to the voices of real-life POCs instead of arguing that YOUR voice shouldn't be silenced.

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    5. Tiffany, I apologize for the use of the word "minority" - I only chose that particular word because I was trying to find a way to refer to, not just POC, but also members of the LGBT community, disabled characters, etc. I realize it still wasn't a good word. Please let me know if there's a more appropriate phrase!

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    6. Also, Tiffany, your response to non-POC writers attempting to write from the pov of another culture is essentially more research + more empathy? Or, just write about what you know?

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  3. Kristin Otts raises the same question I have as a white author who loves diversity and includes diverse characters in my writing.

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  4. Actually, I think the diversity issue has been getting a lot of attention lately. The only thing that bothers me is that more people point out the lack of diversity than write diverse books. Identifying a problem doesn't fix it. We have to write or it will never get any better.
    I keep coming back to that Toni Morrison quote-"If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

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  7. I understand, and I don't. That's the nature of this conversation. (And I understand that you don't want to have the conversation, but I am leaving this comment as comments are turned on so I am guessing that to voice my thoughts as a contribution is respectfully okay.)

    Unfortunately, we are at an impasse. While you ask me not to look around and make observations based on people without knowing what they've been through, then I must ask that you do the same. You may look at me and see a white, Christian, cigendered, heterosexual, East Coast female, but you'd be wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But, as I've been told many times, I don't have to explain myself to you or anyone as to why. I should just let you see me how you see me and vice versa and let us both stew in ignorance? I can't agree. (And yes, I get blue in the face explaining myself to those who don't have a clue over and over and over and over...maybe just like you. See, we may be more alike than folks think.) In fact, I think that's true of everyone.

    I was trained as a cultural anthropologist at a time when everyone in academia finally admitted that it was impossible to be objective, to remove yourself from your observations and filters no matter how much due diligence and research you conducted because people experience reality through the filter of their opinions and experiences (either personal or those adopted from sources they know/love/trust); so were we being told that we could only study people who were "just like us?" Was I supposed to base my career studying only people who looked, acted, thought, voted, dressed or talked like me? Ridiculous! I wouldn't even know if that were true of the people I *thought* that might be based on the same sort of observation-only logic that you are pointing out doesn't work in the first place. (On that we agree, too!) No, I have to take responsibility for my filters, to identify them and admit my biases and blind spots as I am made aware of them to the best of my ability, open my mind up to the possibilities of others and not speak FOR anyone but WITH anyone in order to understand. I have championed alongside people who are "just like me" in some ways and "nothing like me" in others but we are all human beings who want to stand together equally. Look who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr.--it was not just people who looked like him, believed in the same G-d as him, lived int he same neighborhoods, were the same age, went to the same church or were they people who wanted to speak for him--these were people who believed *in the same thing* as him and were willing to stand up and walk the talk. He knew that strength came in standing together. Dismissing my opinion or my voice in this conversation (or career) is as bad as me dismissing yours, which I would never, ever want to do.

    I respect your opinion that I should be quiet because of your perception of who I am, but I respectfully disagree.

    I am not you. But I am an ally. You don't NEED me, and you don't need to explain yourself to me if you don't want to, but I'm here because I believe strongly in everyone having a voice.

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  8. I think others read this post differently than I did, so I deleted my earlier comment in favor of a new one. I agree very much that this conversation has been going on for a long time, and it seems whatever headway we make each time it surfaces isn't very much. And I do wish we would give marginalized groups the chance to speak for themselves. That doesn't mean I don't want majority writers to write about us, just that they didn't get all the attention, kudos, etc., and yes, I do want them to do their research and run their stories past people of the groups they're writing about. But I think we can only get to where we want to be by everyone chipping in. It's more a question of understanding privilege than anything else, I think (and which is what I believed you were saying).

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    1. "Look. I appreciate your thoughtful response, but I'm not going to keep participating in this conversation, because it's exactly what Sumayyah is writing about. It's exhausting. Listen to the voices of real-life POCs instead of arguing that YOUR voice shouldn't be silenced."

      I wrote a longer response but deleted it because you make great points, but then undermine them all with this last paragraph. Your entire stance is based on assumptions about me, about who I am, when the truth is that you have no idea. You make assumptions about me based on my skin color and what kind of genitalia I was born with, but your assumptions are wrong. You assume that because I disagree with you, that I'm not listening to the voices of those who are marginalized. The discussion about diversity isn't one-sided. The discussion about diversity should never begin by silencing one group of voices because you assume you already know what they're going to say. You can't demand people listen to you by telling them to be quiet.

      When it comes to writing diverse characters, I will always put my money where my mouth is. Like I said before, I write the world the way I see it, and I will never apologize for that. At the end of the day, I'm not writing books about diversity, I'm writing books about people. Fully fleshed out, three dimensional people. Will I sometimes get the details wrong? Yes. Will I ever stop trying to learn about all kinds of people so that I can get the details right? No.

      I also hope that even if you stop participating in this conversation that you won't stop participating in THE conversation. Even if we disagree on some points, I'd like to believe that we want the same things. Everyone deserves to be heard, and we should all listen more.

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    2. Just now seeing this comment... I do apologize for any assumptions I may have made, especially the gender thing, but please understand my stance is not based on you, specifically. Within my argument, I meant "you" as a collective identity that embodies all non-POC writers/readers. My stance is based on my accumulated experiences with others who consistently undermine our cultural experiences and struggles.

      The discussion on diversity doesn't mean shutting all other voices out, certainly. But I think non-POCs need to understand that their perspectives hold limited weight relative to people who actually experience these microagressions, erasure, etc. firsthand. That's the point I'm trying to make – not that you should stop talking. Just that you should respect their voices, instead of making the argument that YOU need to be heard.

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Item Reviewed: I'm Still Here Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Sumayyah