So #WeNeedDiverseBooks has incorporated. That’s great. Hopefully they will actually be able to make real change now that they can raise money. And a few posts back I highlighted some of the other great, tangible things that different groups are doing to ensure that the publishing landscape actually becomes more diverse. These all seem to be great steps. But most of the conversation I’ve seen have been tweets in which folks lament the lack of “diverse” writers in the publishing landscape. Not many people seem to be engaging in honest dialogue about what diversity really is, why it’s important, and what our readers really need.
Even the term “diverse” is kind of a disguise. I mean, what are we really talking about here? Are we talking about race? Most of the efforts on the diversity front seem to be about increasing the number of individuals from racial minorities who are represented in the traditional publishing landscape. But I bet many folk engaged in this conversation would say that diversity is more than that. Then perhaps they would mention GLBTQ and religious groups? And then they would say that we need more characters who represent many different groups. Then, perhaps, they would talk about how to make that happen. Maybe I’m dense, but I’m still not quite sure what we’re talking about. And I think that’s because we’re not really talking about it.
We aren’t talking about race. We’re not talking about religion. We aren’t talking about sexuality. We aren’t talking about socio-economic status. We aren’t talking about mental and physical disabilities. In fact, as far as I can tell, we almost never talk about these things. Never ACTUALLY talk about them. It seems to me that we either don’t talk about them because A) we are part of a marginalized group and we don’t want to be treated badly for owning our connection to that group and talking about it or B) we are too darn politically correct to have such a conversation.
Political Correctness might have its uses, but it might also be the biggest scourge of actual dialogue in our country today. So, if you’re still with me, here is a start to an unpopular conversation that maybe we should actually be having:
Last night on facebook, somebody recounted an experience she’d recently had in which a young woman working at a coffee shop had graciously accepted her tip in coins saying, “Change is money. I don’t know, maybe I’m Jewish but I collect and count my change when I find it in my house.” The person who posted this got the predictable 60 outraged politically correct responses for how she should deal with this situation (many of which suggested going to the girl’s boss). I, myself, didn’t respond because I didn’t want to be flamed.
But can we look at this? So, the direct implication of the comment is that Jews count coins. The possible underlying implication is that Jews are tight. The stereotype that this is coming from is that Jews are rich and careful with their money.
Every single facebook response to that comment was about schooling that young woman that her words were wrong so that she would never say something similar again. But instead of shutting down dialogue by being the politically correct police, is there a way that we could actually open it up?
Nearly all of the really rich people I’ve met in my life (I live in America, I’ve spent a decade in New England and I grew up in Florida) were Jewish. None of them had recently acquired that money. Their families had made it some time back and they had been very good about investing it so that the family money has grown. For that matter, I have known a lot of really poor white folk, a lot of really poor black folk, and a lot of really poor latino folk. None of the really poor folk I’ve met have been Jewish.
Now I can’t even begin to speculate on why this is, but am I a bad person for noticing it? Is it an inaccurate observation? Have any of you noticed the opposite? In short, does the stereotype that Jewish folk have money come from somewhere? Is it completely groundless? And if it’s not, then is there a problem with us noticing it? To be clear: I am not advocating that we go around using slurs and stereotypes indiscriminately. But I am wondering if we could actually talk about them instead of shutting conversation down whenever one of these topics come up.
Essentially, we’ve created a society in which all of these tensions–racial and otherwise–actually exist, but we work to change them without ever talking about them. And without having these conversations, how could we ever actually write a culturally sensitive portrayal of a character from a group that is “other” from ourselves?
Here are some other observations we might have a conversation about: I have worked with a lot of latino kids since moving to New Mexico. And out here, at least, I have noticed that the girls are, in general, much brassier and tougher than other “white” girls. In fact, they’re tougher than “other white” boys, too. And they are also alarmingly in control of their sexuality.
And in my high school growing up, about half the kids were black. My friend, Tris, was accused by her black peers of being “too white” because she was in student government and the math club. We lived in the same neighborhood, we were the same amount of poor, we were in the same clubs at school, but that didn’t mean that I liked listening to hip-hop with her. Nor would I ever have put my hair up in corn-rows. Is it bad to notice that the black kids in my school had their own community and identity? Is it bad that they did?
But here’s another question: if we can’t really talk about race, religion, etc. then how do we talk about kids like Tris who were caught across the cultural divide? Can we actually have a conversation about kids shaming each other for not fitting into their racial group if we aren’t willing to admit that there are racial groups? Or how can we talk about the alarmingly high teen pregnancy rates out here without acknowledging the way the latinas in my classroom dress and carry themselves?
Is our rabidly enforced color-blindness serving us well? And is there a way that we could have honest, non-angry conversations about things like race, religion, money, politics . . .? And what might we gain if we could?