Friday, June 12, 2015

"Dear Publishing Industry: Fix Your Own Racism Before You Beg for Diverse Books"

Hey all! We've got another #WriteInclusively guest post :D 

I've committed to making my blog free & open to writers who contact me. Writers wish to write about issues concerning diversity in writing, and this blog is a platform for their voices. Me posting this is part of honoring that pact.

(The author wished to remain anonymous for this post.) Since I'm writing a book concerning race, this post was powerful and frightening. We have work to do.

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Mixed feelings. That's what I get when I see a "We Need Diverse Books" logo. Mixed feelings because I love the campaign and everyone in it, but I also get so frustrated with the campaign for many more reasons.

I'm a writer of color writing characters of color who deal with issues of color. My book's characters are almost all of color, and my book explores black culture, black family, black viewpoints, black frustrations with white society and racial oppression, and black truth.

In querying, I failed, drastically. Despite my beta readers' assurances, my crit partners' praise, I didn't get a single request from many dozens of queries. The personal rejections I got came around to, "This isn't for me, but please query me with your next project," or, "The writing is beautiful, but subjectively this isn't for me."

I'm aware, as I write this post, that I have to tread softly, for people will think of me as simply another writer upset at rejection and playing the 'race card'. Yes, I am upset. Furious. And here's why. A movement supposedly for me has failed me.

I am no stranger to rejection. I'm a constant member of the online Twitter community, I'm respectful and polite. I know how the industry works, I am not just an upset rejected writer. I've been rejected over a hundred times for past works - I have tough skin.

When I got rejected so constantly despite years of revision, I started to think - do I have to make my book less 'radical'? Don't get me wrong: there was no call for 'white genocide' or 'all white people are horrible,' but the book honestly reflected some of my own experiences and my friends' experiences, experiences that people that aren't black don't always understand and might be frightened of. The book reflected black individuals' frustrations with white society. I knew that if I watered the book down, I would not be writing the truth.

What should I do? And then I decided, let's research! I realized every single agent I queried was white. I need to search for black agents who might understand.

From the major NYC agencies, I could only find a few black agents - I can count them on one hand and still have many fingers left over.

Almost all are comprised solely of white agents. Here's a few: Wolf Literary, Laura Dail, Harvey Klinger, Donald Maass, Fine Print, Corvisiero, The Book Group, Curtis Brown, Writer's House, the Gernet Company, the Knight Agency, Waxman Leavell, and Folio. Some of these have over a dozen agents. But if you take into account the major agencies that have no black agents, the list goes on and on: Foundry, Fuse, The Bent Agency, just to name some (these three only have one non-white agent). The only agency that has many writers of color is Serendipity, and that agency was created specifically in response to the lack of institutional support for writers of color. (It scares me, though, that Serendipity does not accept submissions from currently incarcerated authors, since for many black people, the prison system is the greatest oppressor.)

The lack of diversity is a big part of the reason why truly diverse books - books with characters that people of color can relate to - haven't been on bookshelves as much as they should. Even if people write diverse novels, they must first be filtered through a very white institution.

"But how are you deciding if these agents are white?" you say! "That's racist, you can't tell if people are of color simply by their pictures."

I used a flawed system and I deeply apologize for that - there was no better way, but that is no excuse for my propagation of erasing the identities of people who identify with color but may not look of color. This erasure is a major issue (people of color needing to 'prove' their color) and I'm sorry for falling into this oppression. I used something called the Paper Bag Test. If you know the history behind this test, you should be horrified and appalled at the idea that I used something like this.

Source
The Paper Bag Test is discrimination based on color (not necessarily race) that granted a higher position to those who were lighter than a brown paper bag. Historically, by granting light-skinned black people greater privileges, it was used to cause internal conflict within enslaved Africans and within black peoples in the Jim Crow era. Currently, it is used to make people of color conform to European standards of beauty (and erase their identities) in exchange for mainstream acceptance (Beyonce's commercial is one of the most blatant and outrageous examples of this). The Paper Bag comes up when magazines digitally edit people of color to look lighter (and make them 'better') or make them darker (and make them 'worse'). The main gist is this: "If you can pass for white, or are white enough, you are accepted."

Only one of the fifty major/famous agencies I looked at (I did not look at every single agency out there - that would be impossible) had any agent that did not pass the Test.

This brings us back to my querying journey. My book is deeply concerned with black issues. The polite rejection from many agents, and my subsequent thought: "Should I make this book less radical?" was nothing more than the Paper Bag Test. My book was not 'radical'. It was Black. Blackness, sadly, has become radical.

"Should I make this book less black?" I wanted to pass the Paper Bag Test. I needed to make my book more white to get into the gates of Publishing. The only way I would be published, practically, was if I either wrote an outstanding classic of black literature that no one could deny as a powerful novel (I wish), or if I passed the Paper Bag Test. Although I'd like to think my book's a classic, let's be serious: few of us have written classics. So I needed to pass the Paper Bag Test.

This is through no fault of the white agents. They simply may not be able to relate to black issues and aren't subjectively interested in them, or wouldn't be able to faithfully or responsibly edit these books. It is amazing that agents realize they may not be the best for the book. But the trouble is, that leaves these books on the wayside. In the mainstream publishing world, those books have nowhere to go, only hope that those one or two black agents will take them on. There is a solution: get more black agents. (When I queried the few agents of color, I suddenly, magically, got requests.) Otherwise, we must always appeal to a solidly white audience.

Agents are subjective, but subjectivity doesn't just spring up. White agents, generally, will not be attracted to race issues as much as agents of color would be, because race is not a big part of the white life. White privilege is being able to live life not thinking about color. White privilege is being colorblind. When the entire publishing industry is based around the idea of 'subjectivity,' and when the entire publishing industry is so very white, race-related novels are left aside.

That's why #WeNeedDiverseBooks makes me angry and why I can't fully support it. I still love it, and the campaign has done some of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in terms of anti-racism work. That's where the mixed feelings come in: I love it, but I feel it has distracted from institutional change. #WeNeedDiverseBooks can't succeed due to two reasons.

1) It relies on grassroots instead of institutional change. Don't get me wrong: there are amazing books out there by diverse writers, about diverse issues. And #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been instrumental to getting them visibility. But there's little action trying to push the industry to change. It has given a free pass to the industry insiders. What if the true issue is that diverse novels have a harder time getting published in the first place? The campaign relies heavily on writers to make changes in their novels and agents to take on these novels, but unless there are a lot more agents and editors of color, all we will do is write books that will pass the Paper Bag Test, books that are 'diverse enough' for agents and publishers to applaud themselves for, books that #WeNeedDiverseBooks can promote enthusiastically, but books that are not 'too diverse' to make the industry uncomfortable, or unable to relate. These are books that don't make enough change. Having diverse characters in novels is great and a huge step forward - but to think it's enough is sadly mistaken. There are huge barriers that render it almost impossible for race-issue writers to get published in big companies. If literary agencies are so diverse-lacking, I don't even want to think about the racial demographics of publishing houses. Maybe institutional change isn't the campaign's purpose. That's fine. But that's why I can't fully support it.

2) #WeNeedDiverseBooks champions diverse representation in literature (which is great!) but doesn't champion diverse issues as much. The campaign champions authors of color, books of color, and does try to champion issues as well. But that last challenge has been secondary. It is like taking the knife out halfway and calling it quits. It assumes that the average person of color has the same access to libraries, money, family, books, time, academic freedom, independence, and quality education as the average white person does. A big way to support writers of color is to create more writers, agents, and editors of color. Support race issues, get more libraries in black neighborhoods, advocate for a better police force so that black and brown people do not fear white-looking institutions. We writers are humans, too. We don't live in a bubble separate from the world's racial problems. There are so many writers calling out for "books that aren't issue books," as if our issues aren't novel-worthy. Who are they saying that for? For me? For my friend's younger brother who is told to hide from the police? Who switches from "talking white" and "talking black" depending on who he's around? Who has the 'talk' at age seven? Not the sex talk, but the "Many people are going to treat you different because of your skin. Only because of your skin."

Who are these writers speaking for when they say they don't want issue books? Me? Or themselves? It is not me who is uncomfortable with 'issue novels'. The trouble is: whiteness is power. Whiteness has the privilege of getting its voice listened to over mine, and has the power to scoff at 'issue novels'. I want to ask, who is #WeNeedDiverseBooks for? What is the real point? To put on a facade of racial utopia in the publishing industry? Because that's what it's doing. When you 'write inclusively' or have characters of color in your books, do you really research and ask how the lives of people of color are? Or do you make a character black, have them deal with stereotypical issues, and call yourself diverse without ever understanding what you have written? Do you advocate for black issues, or are you content with only having a black body in your novel? Black bodies aren't here to lift up your novel. Remember: if your 'diverse' book gets published, you are profiting off of bodies of color. You cannot turn blackness on and off like a switch. You cannot cry out for #WeNeedDiverseBooks and then stay silent when the next innocent black child gets murdered by police. If you can't even send a Tweet in support of black issues, how can you even imagine that your novel will advocate for issues of color? What does diversity mean to you? What do you think its purpose is? Be brave. Advocate for us. It's scary, but if you can't be brave, reconsider using our skin.

But I can't get too angry in this post. I have to be careful every time I type 'white people'. Even here, I must pass the Paper Bag test so that you will listen to me, so I won't lose you as an audience, so I won't be denounced. Just like my book must appeal to the industry, I must appeal to you.

I shouldn't have to.

Will writers use our skin and make it theirs without asking for our permission, and then expect us to be grateful? Will white writers let writers of color lead this movement? Will the community listen to us? (I think they will. This community is...a Godsend. Seriously.)

Agents, editors, publishing industry: before you so happily cry out "I'm looking for diverse books!" ask yourself if those books you represent (the books you pride yourself on) depict reality or depict some racial utopia. In your diverse books with 'race-related' subplots...do those subplots have a "happily ever after"? Why? We people of color rarely do. Ask yourself if you feel proud about having a diverse book on your roster and why you feel that pride. Are you willing to represent inclusively, take on gritty issues of color instead of shrink when a query saying Black Lives Matter hits your inbox? Are you willing to back up the only non-white agent in your agency (if you even have a non-white agent) when they're pushing an editor to take on an 'issue' novel? Are you willing to be a true ally to the movement and push your agency to hire more black agents? Are you willing to put aside your own hopeful ideas of race and listen to a person of color's ideas? You don't know race as well as we do. Listen to us. Be allies. Let us through the gates. We deserve it.

I am not alone. There are a lot of diverse authors out there. But the same cannot be said for the publishing industry. And so I, and many other writers, face something we've seen all our lives: we, a racially-diverse group, look up to a totally white institution for a fundamental right - the right to be heard. We compensate by making our books 'not too diverse' and by erasing all our truths. We don't publicly advocate for our community in fear that Publishing will scoff at us and turn its back to us. We display our color only as much as Publishing will tolerate. We silence ourselves to join. And the thing is, we know there are amazing writers in the community who are such amazing allies and listen so well! We've seen them. We love them and appreciate them so much. But all unpublished writers have very little power to change Publishing. There needs to be institutional change, and since we have little power, it can't come from us. It has to come from you, publishing insiders.

For writers like me who are seeking a solution: Look for books that deal with race issues and then see who represented them. This is a list of 22 black books that can get you started. Note that almost every single book on the list is historical fiction, memoir, or international-based fiction. It tells us that black stories must be a) based in the past (because we can't talk about current racism) b) nonfiction (a level of truth that no other story needs to attain) or c) based outside the USA (because the USA cannot be criticized). Don't mind me while I laugh, rage, and nod (because it all makes sense) when I see that diversity has become really powerful in one genre: fantasy.

For agents/editors: This post is written directly to you. All of you. Saying you want 'diversity' or are looking for 'diverse novels' is not enough. Please advocate for agents of color, and while you do that (since it'll take a while to get agents of color), try to #RepresentInclusively. If you can, consider publicly acknowledging this on Twitter or something so we writers can find you. Really try to represent our issues. Be an ally, please. Without institutional support, we writers can #WriteInclusively as uselessly as we want (sorry, SC). #WeNeedDiverseAgents.

For everyone: This petition is not enough (please don't assume it is), but it's a powerful step: if you wish, sign this asking publishers to be publish reports on staff diversity. We need the Big Five to sign onto this. Look at the updates section of the petition. So many great links.

I know there are some of you out there - writers, agents, editors - that are amazing allies and ARE advocating for true diversity. Please prove me wrong. Go on Twitter, Facebook, anything, and vocalize your support, tweet out facts that prove me wrong. Prove me wrong, please. I truly truly want to be wrong about the industry's racism. I will be watching this post and will reply (anonymously) to any comments if you want to talk.

A disclaimer: I talk about black agents because that's closest to me. But think about every other identity -- Native agents, Asian agents, Hispanic agents, LGBTQIA+ agents, agents with disabilities, etc. Even with this ironic new hurrah for diversity in writing, the publishing industry lacks diversity on one of the most severe levels I've ever seen. It feels almost hopeless, because for so many of us writers of color, the written word looks like our only 'racism-free' outlet. But looks are deceiving.

If you want our support in this movement, then you must share the burden and take up our issues. We do not have to let you use our skin. You can't ignore the publishing industry's racism while supposedly advocating for diversity. That's hypocritical and superficial. Learn about us, write about us. As of now, #WeNeedDiverseBooks doesn't feel like my movement.

I'm tired of being an apologetic about my skin and my problems. I'm tired of people expecting me to be grateful for half-liberation. I'm tired of being told, by people who do no activism, to be patient. We, who have lived with diversity, should be front and center in a campaign about diversity. This is our space.

If you think I'm complaining too much or overstepping, then, for God's sake, this conversation isn't for you. This conversation is for those who will listen, and I know there are so many of you out there. Writers and agents and editors should not be scared or angered at me. If you are, please reconsider why you support #WeNeedDiverseBooks. For my upliftment, or for your book's?

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If this post made you think, if you learned something from it, and if you want to learn more about what you can do, please consider signing up for the Write Inclusively monthly newsletter. PLEASE SUBSCRIBE. I am starting a #HireAgentsOfColor initiative, and making #WriteInclusively focus on institutional change. We need to build people power - this movement cannot stop or die out as many have done in the past.

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Also, feel free to continue the conversation in the comments below!

64 comments:

  1. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this. It really packs a punch in my privileged white gut as I whine about Query Kombat. I feel passionately about these issues, and I have to admit that as a self-examining educator, I'm shocked by the racist thoughts that occasionally pop into my head and wonder how many times I've done that little thing that perpetuated racism without even knowing it. Raised in the south in a largely white community, it wasn't until I hit my 30s that I realized how much I'd been lying to myself about "color-blindness." As a writer, I feel woefully unequipped to wrestle with racial issues. Yes, I write non-write characters, though I constantly fear that I'm just passing the paper bag test, yet if I delve deeper I will write something even more offensive to those I can't truly represent. I'm not quite sure what the point of this comment is, other than letting you know your post was beautiful and I would love to read that novel someday. And I signed the petition, and will promote it. Thank you for your bravery and strength.

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    1. Thank you!! If you feel guilt because of white privilege, and if that guilt is something you need to experience - go for it. But we all have privileges. I, for example, have the privilege of being able-bodied and live in America, for example. I have these unearned privileges due to nothing else but the way I was born. I did not earn these privileges at all. And it makes me feel guilty a little, but I know my task then is to use my privilege to make my privileges universal. For example, I can use my privilege as an American to push my government to give aid to refugees in other countries. I can use my able-bodied privilege to push for greater wheelchair accessibility in my local grocery store. It is so important to be aware of our privilege, know that many people do not have these privileges, and to use our privilege to grant make these rights universal. For you, that might mean learning more about racism, reading books, following activists on Twitter. Thank you so much for signing the petition and promoting it! If we can get the data about publishing's diversity, it will help a great deal.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

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    2. Thank you for your reply! Yes, I think it's hard for many of us privileged progressives to turn our guilt into useful actions. I'm working on it. :-)

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  2. Excellent piece and I agree on so many points. In full disclosure, I am an Irish-Italian-Native American mutt. I was raised by parents who truly did not see color. When I began writing YA novels, I wanted to write stories my students would enjoy and relate to. I heard so many times from my students who weren't in the mainstream that they never saw themselves in books. My goal with my writing was to people my stories with the diversity I saw in my classroom. I had students with every possible disability so I wrote a YA character who was a paraplegic. I had bi-racial students and students of a hundred ethnicities so my stories have had some of all that I've seen. But my books aren't about race. They're just stories. I work hard to respect every character I write. I don't pretend to have lived their experience. I shoot for the human emotions that we all experience. Because inside we are all the same. No one's heart or brain is a different color than our's. We've all been betrayed, fallen in love, been hated, and a host of other things. I'm not saying that there isn't good reason for black Americans nor Native Americans to have an issue with white culture. There is documented proof of that. I just don't write about those issue. I leave that to those who have experienced it. I hope that makes sense. Thanks for the good read.

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    1. Hi Dawn! Thank you so much for your comment.

      I wanted to draw your attention to one thing. "I shoot for the human emotions that we all experience." When you do this, and when you write about the universal experiences - which exist! - think about what experiences you might be erasing. What truths about your characters are you erasing? What experiences might you accidentally be ignoring? If you do leave this task to those who have experienced it (which can be great!), may you still be misrepresenting the truths of the cultures and races you are writing about? When something is published, especially about people of color, it is read as a truth - the truth for many of us people of color is that we experience racism.

      But racism is DEFINITELY not the main conflict of many of us people of color (we are more complex than that). We have spouses, family, setting, money, all types of other problems that so many people have! We are human. But racism is part of many of our experiences. We would love for literature to reflect that and not shy away from it. Again, not saying that racism should be front and center whenever a person of color pops into a book. But if you can switch out your character of color with a white character and leave everything essentially the same (other than editing out descriptors), what experiences might you be accidentally erasing?

      Thank you so much for your comment!

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  3. Thank you for posting this powerful piece. Like the first commenter, I tend to shy away from racial issues in my writing -- as my way of avoiding the possibility of writing something that feels inauthentic. Yet I've written characters from a male POV though I'm female. This is such an important post, I hope it's widely read, and I hope after mulling your words, people act upon them.

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    1. Hi Peggy!

      A good way to tackle racial issues that might be outside your experience is to read books, read articles, follow people of color on Twitter, activists, get diverse beta readers (but treating them like friends and reciprocating the help), and more. Learning and reading about these issues will take you far in making your books as diverse and (especially) authentic as possible!

      Thank you so much for your comment!

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  4. Thank you for sharing this. I've been following the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, but there's a lot here that I've never considered (specifically, the flaws) because I've never had to because I'm white. So I am so glad to be able to read this and learn.

    Like JS, I signed the petition, too. I have a feeling the results will be ugly. To get into publishing (agenting, editing etc.) for the big houses pretty much only happens after years of unpaid interning, which severely limits the pool of people to those who have the privileges to allow them to do something like that (at least, as far as I know...). I hope the results will be enough to spur some changes in the system.

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    1. I hope so too. The results will be ugly - I fully expect that. But hopefully seeing the data in front of our eyes will spur change. I hope the Big Publishers sign on, though. That's the trouble! Releasing diversity data is voluntary. Which will make it biased as well.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

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  5. Hi! Thank you for writing this post. I work for a public library. Since I work a lot with children, I face the issue often of not being able to find books for the kids with characters they can truly relate to. It's tough to explain to a young person why it's so difficult to find books with characters who look like them. I'm trying to build our collection with writers of color and read and support these books on my own time. I did sign up for your newsletter, so looking forward to receiving more information. In the mean time, I'll keep trying to get books into the hands of my young patrons, and maybe someday some of them will grow up to write about their varying experiences so the next generation won't have to struggle to find books by and about people of color. I sure hope so!

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    1. Hi!

      That is SO SO SO SO AMAZING. And that's what we need - to CREATE writers of color, people who will grow up to write about their experiences.

      That's what I love about this time. We are making change so the next generation won't have to struggle through what we did. Thank you so so much for your support and, especially, your action. It means a great deal.

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  6. Thank you for this. As a white writer who tries to write inclusively, I know the writing all by itself isn't enough. I've noticed the lack of people of color when I look at agency profiles too and wondered where all of the black agents are.

    I don't know what more there is to say except this: I'm glad you see allies in the writing community and I'll do what I can to be a better one. I just hope that on the writing end of that promise, I am doing a good job of authentically portraying what other people have much more of an insight into than I ever will. But I'll keep reading things like this and staying up on current events in the hopes that I can be a supporter you would be proud of and not one who you will feel is "using your skin" as you put it.
    I'll be thinking about this post for a good amount of time, because it deserves to be thought about and acted on.

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    1. Hey Brownwyn!

      I can't say anything but this: *thank you*. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

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  7. Thank you so much for writing such a powerful piece! I definitely want to see more books that state issues and I don't think they should be muted. We need to embrace writers of all colours so we might learn from them and our children can find heroes among their writings. Books should be for everyone and if writers are encouraged to write what they know then nothing should limit them. You are very brave and amazing for stepping up to address this. I hope the industry will listen.

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    1. Hi Kathryn!

      Thank you. I wouldn't call myself super super brave - I did this anonymously! But thank you :) I hope they will listen as well.

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  8. This truly is a powerful piece an it hits at something I admit I have rolled my eyes at too #WeNeedMoreDiverseBooks ! Yes I’m frustrated and often annoyed that I see this hashtag yet I’m not seeing the ‘results’ of this movement.
    Full disclosure. I’m not black. I’m not American. I’m an Croatian Australian. I was born in Croatia and raised in Australia. I don’t write about the US or American’s – of any cultural background – because I’ve met so few. And yes, I do agree with one of your comments about reading A LOT to get a glimpse of another country or another culture, in fact it’s half the enjoyment of reading, discovering new places and people. Even so, I too have experienced a lack of #WeNeedMoreDiverseBooks follow through – not on your level, but it’s there.
    I’ve written about this myself but I’ll share two examples.
    My first MS was a trilogy. It got some interest, several requests for fulls and a lot of praise, but no offer. I was fine with that, because, like you, I accept that it’s a long way between ‘bended knee and altar’ – however, I was shocked, honestly shocked, when one agent, of good standing, who requested my full, offered me representation with a few caveats.
    To fill you in, the trilogy was set in early medieval Europe (10th century) and finished in the future, and was based around Slavic mythology and the ancient Croatian Royal Dynasty, early Christian faith and ancient Pagan Slavic beliefs. The main character was a (Croatian) woman with numerous other women (and men) of Roma, Slavic and even Arabic backgrounds. The creatures, monsters and Gods were all Slavic.
    The caveat that shocked me was this one (I have the comment imprinted to memory & it was almost 4 years ago)
    “…if you’re prepared to change the mythology to a more well known one, such as Roman or Greek and if you’re willing to change the focus from Croatian to say a better known dynasty then I feel we can work together on this project. Please don’t misunderstand, you’re writing and creativity is strong, however I cannot foresee anyone being interested in such an unknown mythology or such a small country few would even know where to find on a map…”
    After that comment I decided to set this MS trilogy aside – as I was not prepared to change the very essence of the story and basically make it yet another generic tale.
    As I mentioned, that was four years ago.
    Since then I’ve written two other novels and am working on a new one. One of the other novels I wrote is currently doing the rounds. It’s a WF set in Australia, France & Russia with the MC (female) being of French/Croatian heritage and raised in Australia and France. She has a Croatian first name. I got a rejection from a different (again highly regarded) agent who said and I quote “…it worries me that if you cannot even spell your MC’s name correctly, then what does it say for the rest of the manuscript?...”
    My MC is called MARICA
    The agent in question went on to ‘correct’ the spelling (more eye-rolling here) saying it was off putting seeing MARCIA spelled wrong!
    I have so many more examples I could share, but I think this demonstrates your point, though not black issues and/or characters, the issue of #WeNeedMoreDiverseBooks as a movement, while trendy and a great catch-phrase, means little and I feel you are on to something, what we need is this: #WeNeedMoreDiverseAgents !

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    1. Hi Nikola!

      YES. 100 TIMES OVER, YES. You understand, and we need more writers like you to share these stories because it is a very very real thing!!! The troubling thing is that agent probably wasn't even aware that she was being culturally insensitive. 'Mistakes' in one culture's eyes are truth for other cultures. And we can't expect agents to be well-read in every culture. The solution: get more diverse agents!!

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, I truly appreciate it. Stories like these are proof that racism is alive and well - although may unintentional? - in the publishing arena.

      Maybe we need to start a hashtag to share these stories on Twitter. Maybe, #DiverseRejections? I'm sure other writers have similar experiences with these types of rejections. Sharing these stories is very powerful.

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    2. Oh I completely agree, neither agent was intentionally trying to be insensitive, but isn't that at the heart of it? It's easy to address an open bigot, it's not so easy to explain why correcting someone's name is laced with bigotry :)
      Whenever I'm faced with this sort of thing in real life (and it still happens to me as a non Anglo Australian more often than people think), I recite (a shortened version) of the story of explorer John Smith & Pocahontas.
      When John smith was learning Pocahontas' native language he'd point to various things, trees, river, sky, rocks and ask how to pronounce them. Each time Pocahontas would use the Powhatan word for the objects.
      After some time John Smith said to Pocahontas that the Powhatan people have strange words, to which Pocahontas replied, "You also have strange words."
      John Smith said, "Such as?"
      "Such as your name, John Smith"

      I always find, even when it takes the listener a second or two to catch up, that this works as THE BEST example of individual reality and correctness, of what is strange and foreign to one person, is acceptable and familiar to another - and also that the person listening is likely a bigot and doesn't even know it :)

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    3. Sorry for being so late to this conversation, but I had to comment. My goodness, Nikola. What an ignorant response you got from that agent re the spelling of your MC’s name and how disappointing it is to hear that anecdote from you.

      I also want to congratulate you for not bowing to the pressure of changing the focus away from Pagan Slavic beliefs in your aforementioned trilogy. Your stories sound wonderful, and you must be talented to receive all those full requests, so please keep at it (because you are writing the kind of books I am actively seeking out to read!).

      We could just laugh this off as the lazy/clueless marketing department of some large pub houses not knowing how to/not wanting to promote a book with Croatian/Slavic themes.
      But the reality is, those changes the agent suggested are an act of whitewashing, and of cultural imperialism which says that a marginalised perspective is not as good as the hegemonic cultural perspective (which in the publishing industry, means a white North American or British perspective written in the English language).

      How disappointing that the gatekeepers of our popular culture are so unwilling to explore a background that is ‘different’ to the one they are used to. It is my view that the majority of people are either scared of cultures they don’t know about, or are too ignorant to give them the time of day. Yet while the experience of being human differs vastly across culture and time, we are all people at heart, and we will all have, at the core, stories to tell about love, loss, identity, betrayal, politics and power, etc. These themes can resonate with any other human being, regardless of what our skin tone looks like, what we ate for dinner, or which language our grandma grew up speaking. There is no excuse for rejecting a different cultural setting because it is ‘too hard.’ People aren’t stupid. If you are educated enough to read a novel, you are educated enough to read from another perspective than your own. Period.

      I’m also Australian, and I’m a graduate of anthropology, which means one of my favourite past-times is learning about other cultures (whether through travel, watching documentaries, doing heavy academic library research, or through reading plain old enjoyable fiction). I write historical fiction with the aim of exploring lesser-published settings, which for one reason or another, have not been the focus of blockbuster hits (I walk straight past the Tudor-era historical fiction section in all book stores for that very reason). Currently I’m taking a hiatus from reading the English literature classics we get fostered onto us here in Aus. If I have to read another ‘classic’ set in the English country-side I will scream.

      Re your comments about the word ‘race.’ Yes, that word still gets bandied around as a way of scientifically categorising people according to genetic differences. Well, the ‘science’ results were in ages ago, and as you of course already know, there is no such thing as ‘race’ from a scientific perspective. Academics now consider the concept of race to be a social construct, meaning that it is largely a fiction created by the society in which a person lives. I much prefer to use the term ‘ethnicity.’ For me the word ethnicity connotes a whole range of things which are at the core of a person’s identity, such as their language and cultural background, their nationality, and their religious and family expectations. Appearance is an optional component of ethnicity. You don’t necessarily need to look a certain way to be of any ethnicity, and you may add elements to your own ethnicity as your identity grows and changes throughout your life.

      Please keep on writing about your own cultural heritage Nikola. If you don’t, maybe no one else will. And that would be a very scary world to live in.

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  9. This was so powerful, thank you. My experience comes from a very different viewpoint. I was born into a white family where there is a small group of racists. I have spent my life trying to figure them out, argue with them, but it feels hopeless. And I keep hoping for change, and trying to push for that small measure of change and it feels impossible. So much of my recent writing has reflected this viewpoint, writing about race issues, but from white eyes looking upon the dysfunction. But I'm scared every time I write. Scared that I'll upset the white community, scared that I'll get the black community wrong, scared that I shouldn't even be writing about it because what right do I have. But I want things to change. I want my kids to grow up in a different world than I did. Where they don't have to be surrounded by hate. And I think that literature is a key point in getting us to that place. So thank you for sharing this. I hope it leads to some measure of change. If nothing else, you've given us all something hard to think about.

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    1. Hi Anna!

      First off, I am so sorry. Being an ally is tough especially when you are the only one/feel like the only one advocating for us. Thank you so much for doing it, though. We don't have access to these spaces (families) and your allyship really means a lot.

      Secondly, thank you for considering the reactions of the black community! Even if you feel fear, thank you for that fear (although we don't want you to feel fear :D). It means that you do care about the community and you are trying your best to help them.

      I would recommend reading a lot of articles, following a lot of black activists on Twitter, black magazines, getting black beta readers, etc. There is a way to write about black people even if you aren't black.

      Literature is so powerful. It's why this is so important.

      Thank you for your comment!

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  10. I don't want to become annoying by posting replies too often but there is something I really would like to add (and my last post was long enough already). It's something I feel is important, it's the term RACE, as though being Indian, or French, or Arabic, or German (etc.) identifies a cultural background as a different race... because IT IS NOT.
    I have started my own personal protest against the word RACE - it shouldn't exist beyond one human race.
    If someone asks "What's your racial background?"
    The answer should be HUMAN
    If Klingon's are one day discovered to be a real RACE then there will be humans and Klingon's - until then we are ONE RACE - the Human Race. I know many people use the word, many of my friends use it, I hear them say "I'm multi-racial" when what they mean is they are multi-cultural.
    As I said, I have started my own quiet revolt against using words like racial, bi-racial (etc.) by using the correct term - CULTURE.I don't ask people what race they are (because I assume they are human) I ask them their cultural background or their family origins.
    Racism/Racist is such an ugly, dirty word, it's so much uglier than we sometimes realise. To accept there are different 'races' of people is to (in my opinion) give a 'nod' to the concept of one 'race' being superior and another being inferior. To acknowledge we are the one-and-same race is to make us equal (from a DNA viewpoint) and our only differences are our cultural, social, economic, sexual, spiritual, physical diversity.
    So, if you're reading this and if what I have written above rings true to you, join me in a new quiet movement of diversity. Someone is not mixed-race they are culturally diverse!
    I think in order to change the world we need to change ourselves a little too :)

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    1. Hey Nikola!

      I love your comments, feel free to keep commenting!

      I have deep struggles with the word 'race' as well but I keep using the word because of a few reasons. One reason is that skin color does not a culture make. Culture, to me, is not a good substitute for the word race. Within skin colors, there are multitudes of cultures. What does the 'black' culture mean? There are thousands of tribes, so many different black 'cultures': American black culture, Australian black culture, Ethiopian black culture. When I talk about race, I mean only the skin color - and culture doesn't do that for me.

      Also, race is a very human word. We don't use race to describe any other species (as far as I know, please correct me!). We use 'strains' or 'breeds' to describe different characteristics in non-human species, but race is for us. Race, academically, has also been defined as a social construct with little-to-no biological basis for 'racial distinctions'. It is a system based on skin color.

      But yea. The word makes me cringe a little, but if I fall back on the definitions, I *guess* I'm okay with using it (?). Not sure.

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  11. This was a powerful post. As a white, female writer I strive to make my MC's voices authentic. Among other things, I've taken many of the steps you've suggested. Nevertheless, one of my biggest fears as a writer is cultural appropriation. (Race and culture are different, of course, but they link, and often link very strongly). I can write all I want, be inspired all I want, research all I want, and yet, in doing so I fear I will be subsumed by the trope of the 'white savior' a stereotype born of my white privilege. I am not here to save anybody. I do not want to usurp bodies and skin for the sake of my writing. I think all writers deal with a double edged sword when it comes to writing characters of a different 'race'. That said, I think the edge on that sword is sharper when comes to a white writer. If a white writer writes about general human experiences, they effectively strip characters of other significant identity forming experiences. If they include those experiences and author a character whose voice is a potentially beautiful and authentic representation for a particular community, then white writers have effectively usurped a movement they do not and can't fully understand.

    How do we choose? Should we choose? And if we don't write diversely, so as to avoid the above, aren't we effectively propagating the very boundaries and walls in publishing we want to deconstruct?


    The thing is, we haven't had the same experiences. There's no way we can. We have white privilege. Sure, there's plenty of factors that make up our experiences, that affect how we perceive the world, and how society perceives us. But race affects us all differently and some more strongly than others.

    I too received a talk on skin when I was seven. This was a reactive talk rather than the proactive conversation on skin I've seen friends give to their children. It came after I asked a babysitter why the kids I'd tried to play with at the park hated me, after the kids had told me flat out they hated me and that I couldn't play with them. The talk went something like this: "Sometimes our skin makes people think that we aren't nice. That's okay. They aren't looking at your heart. Show them your heart and it won't matter." But it did matter. It mattered to those kids. They beat me up for it (which sucked) and yet, I found that their lives were affected by the color of my skin far more then mine ever was. I could do things they couldn't without anyone ever blinking an eye, my family was able to pull off the American dream and go from dirt poor to the middle class without anyone questioning the merits of their work, the doors to education were spread wide open. And now, all I can think is that that talk only skimmed the surface of a bigger problem.

    Race, heritage, culture, problems—these things should be reflected in writing. For now, I do what I can and I write, using what I have, and hoping I'm not stepping on and over the people I care about as I write.

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    1. Hi!

      This is the hardest question I've gotten, and the hardest comment to write. I'll be completely honest with you. Just like the kids beat you up due to their legitimate racial frustrations (which they NEVER should have vented on you - I'm horrified at that), people of color might/will criticize any white writer that takes on people of color as main characters if the author does not 'share the wealth' (and I will explain this in the next paragraph). This blaming is due to many reasons. One reason is that if writers of color make their main character a person of color, the writer of color will NOT get the same visibility/promotion for their book as a white writer would. (This can be paralleled by the sexism in the industry, in how if John Green was a woman, there is a high chance that "The Fault in Our Stars" would be condescendingly considered 'chick lit' instead of literary fiction.) The white savior mentality, whether you want it or not, will be thrust upon you. This gets us into tricky territory: the bigger your diverse novel becomes and the more popular it gets, the more people of color will be frustrated.

      Here's what I mean by sharing the wealth. If the book shows that you know what you are talking about, you are talking deep truths about racism, if the book rings true the (diverse) people-of-color experience, and (biggest thing) if you work on uplifting the voices of people of color and cite your sources (make it visible that you learned your racial information from sources of color), you will be a great ally. Promote HEAVILY other writers of color (you are asking to join their community, after all, and must share their burdens). If you learned something from someone else, make sure to credit them with that information. Society will FORCE the white savior trophy upon you. You must not accept. Interviews may ask, "How does it feel writing about such tough issues?" "What are the nicest things people of color have said to you?" "Do you feel proud of helping people/writing this book?" It'll be vague. You have the task of not accepting this trophy no matter how many times or how slyly they thrust it upon you.

      Your book itself will matter above all. If it's a race-centered book (meaning, race is the BIGGEST conflict in the novel), it will be very tricky, and you must get betas of color! Ask them to call you out on any problematic things, no matter how small (or how big) they are in your novel. The best way to know if you are being truthful to our experiences is to get someone from our community to read it. If your book does not have race as its biggest conflict (people of color have many other conflicts and are human and complex), you can flesh out these characters and humanize them. The racial subplots that might come up, you should not shy away from, but research and investigate carefully.

      Above all, get betas of color! (But ask nicely, reciprocate, and don't expect them to read.)

      It might seem like a minefield, and looking down to make sure you don't step on any mine may seem treacherous. It's like trying to walk a straight line while looking down. Many micro-adjustments to your feet, wobbling, fear. But here's the thing: if you look up, you can walk so easily and perfectly. If you learn how to be a good ally and, in addition, if you research race, it'll be the equivalent of looking up instead of learning every small thing you should not do. You will know instinctively. I know because I wrote a book about a person of color outside my own race, and I had to navigate the 'mine field' as well. It's hard, but it's doable - and it's so, so worth it.

      I REALLY hope I didn't scare you off. I just have a lot of experience with this! It's hard, but the writing is so much better, because in writing like this, we deconstruct racial prejudices and make our books more true. In this, we become changed forever, and for the better.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

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    2. I feel the same things this poster feels. And getting beta readers that are people of color has been something I struggle with. I am more than happy to return the favor of reading their writing (I want to read their writing!), but I don't know how to sensitively ask for beta readers that are non-white without offending. Any thoughts on that? I don't want to come across as "hey, black community, please help me write a book about you so I can get it published". Of course I do want my book to be published, but I want their books to be published too and I don't want anyone to think I'm using them for my own good. I think my story is relevant and important to tell...but ultimately, it isn't really my story. It is the story of people who have been repressed and continue to be repressed and I would be heartbroken if it was seen as further repression because a white writer wrote it. I'd feel I was moving backward as an ally. You are right. It is like a minefield.

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    3. Thank you for this! It did not scare me off. If anything, it lifted a weight. I've got wonderful betas, I've been doing my research, and I've been making those micro-adjustments. I read- a lot. (Danielle Evans, ZZ Packer, Ernest Gaines, Alice Childress, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Donald Goines- among others) My current WIP fits your latter description- race is not the main conflict (and boy am I aware that people of color have many other conflicts and are human and complex. People have human problems. Race is a part of an identity, it isn't the stopping point. It's one thing I dislike about the world we live in. So many people trying to pigeon-hole everyone else. And that is dangerous. I may have nothing to fear from being racially pigeon-holed, but so many I care about do.) In any case, may lightning strike me down if I shove my character into a role without human depth! Thank you again. This is really helpful. I look forward to navigating the minefield and, with any luck, sharing the wealth.

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    4. Hi Bronwyn!

      Yes, that is why it is so tricky. Because the reality is, the writer of color will be helping the elevation of your book - about *their* race and culture - at no benefit to themselves. There is an imbalance of racial power already, and asking for writers of color to help with books about them (but not by them) reinforces this power imbalance. The writer of color will be giving you a unique benefit (being 'vouched for' by a person of color, getting unique feedback) with very little unique benefit for themselves.

      If you can get a beta of color, that's the best. But that's not reality for many people because of this power imbalance. There is another way: read read read, research research research, and learn learn learn. If a beta of color comes up to you and asks to critique, consider yourself lucky!

      I was considering starting a #DiverseBetas trend on Twitter where writers of color can offer their services in exchange for crits in return, but I thought against it. Doing this hashtag would reinforce the fundamental flaw in the We Need Diverse Books campaign: writers of color being marginalized/in the shadows of white writers.

      Anonymous:

      I'm so happy to hear that! I'm happy to hear that you want to make a true impact on other people, and that my words helped (however little) on that path. Thank you for your comment!! And good luck :)

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    5. Thanks for you replying. I have am definitely reading and researching and learning. So hopefully, I am on the right track. I totally understand your reservations about staring that Twitter #. Makes sense. I'll keep looking for anyone who is requesting betas and CP's and providing them as much support as I possibly can for their work in return. And in the mean time, I'm going to try to get other white writers reading works by people of color. That is one thing I can do that will benefit everyone.
      Again, thank you for such a wonderful call to action and for getting those of us that are white to be thinking outside of our privilege (as much as that privilege will allow). We all have a long way to go yet, but conversations like this are a step in the right direction hopefully.

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    6. And thank you thank you so much for being such an amazing ally. These conversations are hard but you, seriously, have done something that most people are unable to do, but something that is critical to this movement - evaluating privilege. I still struggle with deconstructing my own privileges as well.

      Thank you so much!

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  12. What a phenomenal, courageous post. Thank you for taking that risk. I know you don't think you have, but still.. I am an elementary educator and my school has spent the past couple of years talking about diversity on our campus - student body and faculty alike. The admin did it in a thoughtful way with talented people guiding us. It was pretty wonderful. Not everyone agreed, but most did. I think what was most powerful for me was they know it has to be a deliberate, slow process and we had to start with ourselves first. We need to talk about our own experiences before we can really ask others to join us on the quest (let's be honest - to bring in more faculty and families of color). I thought that was such an important point--that it starts by analyzing ourselves first. As you and other commenters have said, we often don't know what we don't know. It takes conversations. Through our work at school I've had some eye-opening realizations of my own upbringing, which have really put me more at ease in my interactions in person and online. Not to mention some great book recommendations on race. Thanks for starting up yet another conversation in the long line that are going to be necessary to keep moving forward. I've been planning a book set in my diverse urban neighborhood and I look forward to visiting the idea eventually as a more informed writer. And I think a writer with that kind of careful thinking can then bring a potentially important story to kids - and probably have a greater chance to connect with a wider variety of kids with all kinds of their own personal stories.

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    1. Hi Mark!

      Yes, for sure. It all starts with analyzing ourselves. And how scary is that?! We all think, "Surely, I'm not racist," but racism is never overt. It's in society, it's in our everyday interactions. It's normalized. And we must learn to see it in ourselves in order to realize how dangerous and constant it is. A good 'Racism Test' is the Harvard Implicit Bias Test for Racism. It's saddening and heartbreaking, to take that test. And it almost feels like we'll never be able to escape racial stereotypes. But we can work on doing that for the next generation, like you are doing now.

      Thank you so much!

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  13. Thank you for this post. I read through the comments and am so glad to see open dialogue about race in writing and the industry. I support We Need Diverse Books, but I also get that it is only one facet, and one grassroots campaign that simply can't do all the work itself needed to change the industry. But it's only been around officially for a year or so, and look at the attention that the movement has gained. And though it's small, the campaign also has an internship fund to put a diverse candidate into a publishing internship. Now, if only publishers themselves and colleges had initiatives and a whole sea change could occur.

    For me, I'm white and I've grown up in a diverse environment--a Midwest city that is racially diverse and a bit liberal, so I had positive representations of LGBT population even back in the 90s. I want to see that reflected in what I write, but I'm also constantly aware that I might not always be the right person to depict those characters. I know I am not the one to write a coming of age epic about an immigrant to the US but I hope that I can at least write a teen girl with heritage and culture differnet from mine, and draw on those shared experiences.

    I agree with all the commentary here that there is no one right answer, and white writers are never going to find a seal of approval to write non-white/non cisgender etc, and some people will not like what you write regardless. But it did resonate with me this idea to not take on that white savior trophy, and to call out leading questions that make it seem so. I like the idea of pointing back to writers who are diverse themselves and to call readers and the industry to support their work.

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  14. Thank you so, so much for writing this post.

    I hope everyone reads it and I will continue to remind people to do so on Twitter/blog etc until they do!

    It's taken me days to think how to respond helpfully to this, and the answer is, I can't. So now here I am, in the middle of the night again, and all I can think about is how angry and frustrated I am that you (and probably so many others who didn't speak up!!!) had to go through this and that I am sitting here, feeling powerless to help bring about institutional change.

    We need to work on this. Where do we (as writers, in my case, white) begin?

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    1. Hi Carissa! Charleston has destroyed me today so please forgive me. I'll try my best to respond. Much of my response will be centered away from writing because this has impacted my entire life, not just writing.

      First of all, if you have children, nieces, nephews, cousins, family members, talk to them and teach them about white supremacy and racism. You have access to them in a way we people of color do not. We usually do not have close blood ties with white people and so these discussions are not coming to them in an educated way. That is the biggest thing you can do for us, and I mean that honestly. Good gosh, I'm so desperate/hopeless/gray/done with all this. But we have to keep going, right?

      What you can do in terms of writing: be educated. Read up about race. Read a LOT. Follow Blavity, Black Voices, Huffington Post's race articles, and more. Read books about racism and once you do, everything will fall into place. You will write in a way that is totally different than you ever did, and in a way that will make an impact on the world for the better other than just slipping onto the treadmill of racism where no one is racist if everyone - society as a whole -is.

      I'll come up with a better response soon, my apologies!

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  15. I hear you, OP. Charleston is what spurned me to come back and post a comment - something, anything - even though I had nothing coherent to say. I'm just floundering here, trying to figure out where, in my liberal white-privileged, world, I can make a meaningful difference.

    And I think that's one problem right there: the white, liberal subcultures don't have access to those people either. Not often anyway. We're the ones who leave the racist churches, who cut ties with "those" high school friends, or, as is more likely the case --- never knew those people in the first place. We live in our own insulated bubbles, where all of us are already talking the same talk.

    I know that's totally unhelpful. I'm just blabbing my thoughts on the page, trying to figure out how to break out of this. Books are so powerful. Words are so powerful. That's why I wanted to get into novel writing in the first place. Fiction can reach people in a way that so many other mediums can't.

    But I want to do more than just write these things into my own novels in a (hopefully) thoughtful and thought-provoking way. I want to hear your stories. And I want to see your stories on our bookshelves and in the hands of America's children. I want to see young minds changed. To stop another Charleston before it starts.

    But I'm not a publishing company. Not a literary agent, or even an agent intern. I'm just another writer. Beyond just talking about institutional change, is there anything I can do to make institutional change happen? I don't have any particular skills. All I do is write, and think, and beta-read, and edit others' work, chase my son around the house, and do it all over again. I feel so inadequate.

    But maybe talking is enough. Maybe if enough of us talk about it, they'll listen.


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    1. (sorry, that was supposed to be a reply to the previous comment)

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  16. Thank you for writing this. Full disclosure: I'm the PR Chair for WNDB, and have been with the movement/org since its founding, for context.

    I'm not here to defend WNDB or talk about the things we do -- I like to think that everyone who's been following the movement is fully aware, and this isn't a place to talk about us. I just wanted to come in personally, as an individual (rather than a representative of the org) and say that criticism like this is important, and I do see it, and it makes me think. I talk about it a lot with my fellows. It makes me consistently want to push harder and further. These issues are absolutely as deep as the industry level (and deeper), and reader support and advocacy can and will only go so far.

    I completely understand and respect where you're coming from, and I hope one day that I'll be able to fully live up to everything outlined here. This is advocacy that I believe in very strongly, and I plan to continue doing my part to keep going as far as I can.

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    1. Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. And I speak on behalf of this post's author as well (the author expressed their thoughts to me) in expressing deep thanks.

      WNDB is amazing, and wonderful, and the fact that you came out to comment on this means so much. So many other organizations would never do such a thing. And we really hope that this post moves WNDB into a slightly different direction.

      If you need help, suggestions, anything, please feel free to contact me - I'd be more than willing to help.

      Again thank you, from all of us. It feels...revolutionary, to be heard.

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    2. I take that back, not "all of us." I have to self-correct myself; I don't represent anyone else other than me :D

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  17. Thank you for writing such a powerful piece and sharing your experiences with all of us. This phenomenon, the rejection of narratives of marginalization because the agents are too privileged to relate, must be discussed openly and then fixed. Too many white people would rather get uncomfortable and walk away if someone is trying to explain anti-blackness.

    Your post made me feel that I did the right thing in not seeking an agent with my novels. I chose to go the unagented, tiny-press route because I had a sinking feeling that queer Jewish fantasy would get laughed out of an agent's desk. All I was doing was representing my own experiences and trying to celebrate them by turning them into fairy tales.

    I read and review f/f novels and short stories, and I actively seek out books by WoC to blog about because I know that otherwise the stuff by white women will just continue to block out everything else.

    Anyway, good luck with everything!

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    1. Hi Shira!

      I was thinking strongly to do the same thing, even self-publish. It's hard because I don't have the resources to market, etc. by myself. To have institutional support is so so valuable - but if the institutions don't support us, we have to find alternatives (which is why BET, the NAACP, and other black-centered organizations exist; we may just need more in the publishing world).

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    2. This makes me so, so sad. When I get out of agency-assistant-land and into actual-agent-land, "queer Jewish fantasy" is exactly what I want. Never doubt that there's a place in publishing for your diverse book! Look to the younger agents and editors. (You'll probably find us on Twitter.) We're hungry, we're here, and we grew up hoping to make a difference. Most of us still haven't lost that goal! And yes, a good number of us are white (and/or Jewish!), but we recognize our privilege. We've interrogated it. We want to use it to lift up writers. We want to publish books that reflect diverse experiences. We want to open up doors for the generation below us. Just...we're here. We might be loud or we might be quiet, but we're doing what we can within the system until we can change it for good.

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  18. I'd like to see the major agencies actively recruit assistant agents who are people of color. Not only would this put new eyes on the slush pile but it would provide a path to professional advancement within the industry.

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    1. Hey Amber!

      Yes, definitely. It would need a lot more than just picking agents of color. There's a reason the pool of candidates is so heavily white; class, education quality, and more intersect very strongly with race. Many black and Latin@ people don't have the ability to take on unpaid internships that many agencies require. Hopefully, #HireAgentsOfColor exposes all of this.

      Thank you for your comment!

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  19. Your comments are very thought provoking. I'd just like to wish you the very best of luck with your publishing journey.

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  20. I am an editorial assistant at one of the Big 5, and anyone who says that the "diversity problem" has been fixed is seriously deluded. I am white, as are the majority of the people I work with. Some people I work with consider diversity (in books and in our personnel) a serious problem, and some consider it just a trend.

    A group of the younger assistants in my company got together last year to start compiling information about how diverse our books actually were. We gathered every title from the past year or two, and studied how many of our books included characters of non-white races and ethnicities, or a range of sexual orientations and disabilities. The results were not looking good, which we expected (and that's even being generous with books that "included" nonwhite faces as secondary or tertiary characters). We hoped to create a report to show our publishers to help them get a realistic view of where we are and where we need to be. Unfortunately, before we could finish our report, it was shut down by the publishers who felt that our probing was sending a "negative message" when we should be focusing on the positive diversity already represented in our house's booklist. We told them that if we don't pull together this information, somebody else will, and it will reflect poorly on them. I hope somebody does.

    You are right that the uniformity of the publishing industry is a serious problem, and that as a white person, I'm part of that problem. I think it goes beyond race, too, and into other forms of exclusion. Nearly everyone I work with was able to accept a very low starting salary relative to other college-educated professions. If I didn't have a reasonable safety net, going into this career field might not have been worth the risk. I also had plenty of unpaid internship experience before applying here, which isn't an option for many people. And I am certainly no exception in the industry. Our (paid) intern last summer was a black college sophomore who was part of a leadership program that helps students from low-income households get ahead. She was brilliant and everyone loved her. I'm sure she would get hired here in a heartbeat. But I doubt she'll apply, and I can't blame her. She's had other internships and work-study jobs in much more lucrative fields since then, and I'm sure she was great in those jobs, too. I hope she'll choose to become an editor, but when she could make much more and still be creatively stimulated elsewhere, why would she?

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    1. Hey Anonymous (I'm Anonymous too!),

      Yes. 100 times over, yes. See how it all works? Any attempt to expose the institutional racism will be suppressed in some way. Thank you so much for even trying and going so far with it - that means a lot and your allyship is incredible.

      It does go beyond race, but it is so centered on race too. Class, wealth, is so heavily racial, which is a big reason why black and Latin@ people can't take on the unpaid or low-wage internships needed to become an agent. That's what makes it so tricky. The conversation on class must include a conversation on race, and vice versa.

      Thank you for your comment!

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  21. Hi Michael,

    Thank you for your very direct and well-written post addressing the ongoing issue #WeNeedDiverseBooks. So where are the books, right?? Is it just some kind of superfluous phrase someone threw up to state the obvious, like "We need to end world hunger" or is it something anyone intends to actually move on?

    I think your concerns are totally valid. If you're pitching your work to primarily white agents and they tell you they can't connect with your writing, it might be because they truly can't - because of the color of their skin. But, even if they did connect, was it their own fear holding them back from representing something they didn't truly understand? Also, no one wants to be the one to rock the boat. It takes a brave soul to lead a movement.

    As a white author, I find beauty in all cultures, and I stepped way out of my comfort zone and wrote about a POC character and her struggles to rise up in white America. It also deals with sexualization based on race. The novel addressed a topic close to my heart, and I did as ton of research, but I fear the response it might garner, because I am not a POC.

    I've queried sparsely and recieved two full requests (from white agents). Is it because I'm white so that makes it less threatening - I don't know?

    What are your thoughts on my project? Curious-Were any of your Beta readers white?

    Thanks so much for this post!
    Cara


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    1. Hi! My name is not Michael (but that's okay).

      I answered a question very similar to yours in reply to Anonymous, on June 12, 2015 at 11:40 PM. Please let me know if that reply doesn't fully address your question.

      Thank you :)

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  22. I'm so sorry, could've sworn someone addressed you as that and I was trying to personalize! Well your post confirmed my fears and this will be the last time I try to write somethingike this, but I'm glad I did.

    Best of luck with your pursuits!
    Cara

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    1. No no! Do not let the fear of writing POC make you not write them. You simply must do it responsibly, and in an educated way, and work to uplift writers of color. It's a scary thing to do, but very necessary :)

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  23. Hello Anonymous,

    There is so much I want to say but I had better stick with the short version for now. I’m white and I’m paying attention. Thank you for saying everything that you have said, even (and perhaps especially) the parts that make me squirm. I agree with that of which I was already aware, and I am horrified (though perhaps not shocked) at the parts which I wasn’t. Thank you for your perspective. Thank you for taking the time to so patiently and compassionately reply to so many of the comments here (which I am still working my way through). I know that you have no responsibility to explain black experiences to white people, which makes me all the more grateful that you have done so. I hope you are able to find some hope in some of the conversations that you have brought about. I hope the jerks aren’t getting you down. You are making a difference.

    I’m not in the publishing side of thing, but I hope it matters that I am white and I am more and more seeing the problems in our country’s institutionalized racism from which I have benefited. As a writer and a parent and a person with much privilege, I am trying to bring about what small change I can.

    Thank you.

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    1. Hi Almitra!

      First of all, thank you. You really do understand. "I know that you have no responsibility to explain black experiences to white people, which makes me all the more grateful that you have done so." That really means a lot.

      I am feeling a bit off, troubled, by commenting so much - because even if I say that I do not represent anyone else but me, my words will always represent an entire race, an entire "color". And teaching other people about this is exhausting at times - but it is important at the same time. Thank you thank you thank you for not expecting me to teach. That, in itself, gives me hope that you might be the ally to do the most change.

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  24. Hi, Anonymous,
    Thank you for this deeply honest, penetrating and important piece, and for your enormous generosity in sticking around to welcome all responses and continue to guide people to deeper understanding for the last six weeks, through Charleston and everything else. This cannot have been easy.

    I, too, have been at once excited and frustrated by the WNDB movement - not by the organization so much as by the lack of focus on whiteness in discussions about diversifying books. In writings and workshops for SCBWI and other forums, I've coined the term, "White Mind" - the combination of majority identity and the resulting silence around and invisibility of race, white privilege, cultural dominance and implicit bias - to describe the unconscious patterns that white people have to get through to make change happen. White Mind is pervasive in the children's book field as in every industry in America, and all the well-intentioned actions in the world will not shift the balance until enough white people become aware of and start acting to correct their own bias.

    I have no doubt that a few more racially diverse books will be published over the next years as a result of the awareness brought by the WNDB discussion. If only all our industry needed was a wake-up call so that well-meaning people (nearly everyone in the field, as far as I can see) would see what needed to be done and do it... But if that's all it took, we would have solved this problem in the late 70s when the multicultural book movement was born in response to that generation's waking up to how white children's books were. What is needed is a campaign that is far more challenging, comprehensive, and far-reaching, that identifies and interrogates whiteness so that all of us can work together to dismantle institutionalized racism.

    The good news is that any individual can start challenging White Mind by doing the kind of reading and research you recommend. I would add these books:
    Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity by Beverly Daniel Tatum
    Are We Born Racist?: New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology
    Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    and the writings of Robin DiAngelo on "White Fragility."

    Thanks again for your truth-telling.

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    1. Hi Anne!

      You almost made me cry. Thank you, so much. Especially Between the World and Me. I am reading it now and it is...I can't describe it. It is Black Life. And it is majestic.

      White Mind is a BEAUTIFUL term for it. Even to this day, the discussion about racism centers around Whiteness, around protecting White feelings, and also to get allies that believe they are white (I like to use Coates' term from now on). You are doing amazing work - please keep doing it. Please challenge the institutions that we have been silenced and barred and patronized from/by. Please advocate centering the discussion on people of color.

      The White Mind is so interesting, because it operates under the idea that white is not a race. That people who believe they are white do not have a racial identity, or do not embody their race, or are separate from the systems that privilege their voices. That must be challenged. People who believe they are white must acknowledge they have a race - and racial responsibility will grow from that.

      Thank you for your action.

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    2. I would really love to take this discussion on whiteness to industry professionals. I've done it with a few small groups that included editors, with quite a few groups of teachers and of writers & Illustrators. But what I think would be most effective would be groups of editors, agents, sales reps, publishers.

      Writing this, I just remembered a few contacts I might talk to to see if they could set something up. I will commit to contacting them. Thanks for the push, and again, for your fierce honesty and clarity.

      Annie

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    3. Please let SC know whatever initiative you do. If you need help, visibility, etc. he'll be on your side.

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  25. p.s. Here are the pieces I wrote on "White Mind" for SCBWI:
    http://coloringbetween.blogspot.com/2010/05/white-mind.html
    http://coloringbetween.blogspot.com/2010/07/white-mind-part-ii.html
    http://coloringbetween.blogspot.com/2010/10/white-mind-iii.html

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  26. Thank you for the beautiful and heartfelt expression of the vagaries of the publishing industry, especially towards POC. I agree that lack of diversity is an issue; however, I think it is more ubiquitous than just color or the many shades of differences in our society. I believe it is the new mediocrity, to steal a phrase from Christine Lagarde, which is at least partly to blame. A pervasive mediocrity of lukewarm ideas, microwaved for mass consumption. Ideas which are easily digestible with a little salt or pepper added, depending on your tastes. Publishing is a business and it is a no brainer to sell the same ideas--but is that what we want in a publishing industry? I’m not saying that all publishing houses and the agents which feed them are this way, but there seems to be enough to sway the manuscripts which are accepted.

    I personally believe there is a hunger for fresh ideas and fresh viewpoints, but unfortunately, the publishing industry seems to be in a rut and, paradoxically, becoming less relevant. If there is a bubbling of demand for thought-provoking novels, perhaps a revival in literature can’t be far ahead? Hope springs eternal.
    Karen

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    1. Hi Karen!

      The mediocrity of ideas usually comes from an orgy of the same narrative, a sort of incest of sameness that results in boredom. The ideas are not mediocre - they have become mediocre because they are all we see. The only way to challenge this mediocrity is to bring, to the forefront, stories by people of different experiences (and that mandates an honest look at racism). To do this, we must lift the bars that block these stories from being published and heard.

      It is not a case of mediocre writers that need to simply find fresh ideas and fresh viewpoints. It is a case of changing the entire demographics of the writer-pool in the first place. White writers will never be able to *fully* understand the intricacies, faults, and genius of Black thought. To get publishing out of this rut, we need to systemically revolutionize Publishing's demographics.

      Thank you for your comment!

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  27. Hi,

    I work in publishing and it is a very white business. I think the industry needs to be less insular and--not only publish writers of color--but also really focus on hiring people of color. The problem for agents is, of course, that publishing doesn't pay well to begin with and many agencies are starting to pay purely on on a commission basis to save overhead. Since books come out so slowly, a newbie agent is facing several years in which they aren't making money. Only people from privileged backgrounds can afford to take these jobs.

    I don't want to sound like I'm defending the industry. Quite the reverse. There is a systemic problem in the hiring practices and payment of workers (the fact that so many people have to do an unpaid internship before they can be even considered for a paying job is another thing that gets me).

    Using a hashtag isn't enough to change things in publishing. I wish there were more programs like the WNDB initiative to give grants to publishing interns and such. Maybe a grant to POC agents? I'm worried this "diversity thing" will be seen as a trend instead of long-term change. We need to keep at it. Keep after publishing in general.

    I can only think of a few black literary agents (Regina Brooks, Monica Odom, Ayanna Coleman...) so clearly there is work to be done.

    it's sad.

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  28. White guilt is the best guilt! But truthfully, I hate to say this, but this sounds like alot of whining to me. I am a black male who grew up in the South, I am the only black business owner on my entire block of Brooklyn, I am Haitian American and went to school overseas. I am alot of things, and what I am not is a Republican.

    But I have been hearing this same clap-trappery my whole life. Maybe your writing sucks and no one has the cojones to tell you. Or maybe the people you sent it to were just jerks and you should send it to other people.

    I see your point, but then I look at Langston Hughes. Black, gay. poetry -writer, jim crow, Langston Hughes. I look at Fredrick Douglass, who taught himself how to read and write and met with the President of the United States, in the oval office. I look at Harriet Tubman who, was a woman, did stuff that would give me nightmares to think about if it were me and I was caught.

    And then I think about 2015 and our black brothers and sisters creating hashtags. What? We don't need to "like' the struggle. There is no struggle. There is a war, and that war is against white people and their racism.

    Mostly suburban, mostly lower-middle class, mostly stupid. You can't hashtag that. The only way to win that fight is to write about stuff that matters.

    I am black, when I see a heart felt memoir about the black struggle I roll my eyes and read Harry Potter. Why? Because Harry Potter is interesting.

    I am sorry, but you're not going to compete with Richard Wright, Alex Haley, or W.E.B Dubois. Why would you?

    Being black in America has sucked for 400 years, and we have thousands of books on the subject. I don't understand why so many "black" or "minority" writers write about being black or minorities.

    It's like a bad science fiction movie, or book. When the movie is good, you don't see the science fiction, you see the story.

    So in 2015 how do we as black people convince a new audience that we had it worse than slaves?

    My daughter is 9, she has only a small inkling of what it was like to be 9 in a small white town like the one I grew up in. Why? Because I moved out of that small town (Houston,Tx) and moved to real city with people who don't get their news fro FOX. Now we live in Brooklyn, and there is diversity everywhere.

    My point is that myopic view point on what it is like to be black and how it sucks is boring. I don't want to read about that, and if I were your publisher, I would not want to sell that. The story should be the story.

    Racism is not a dictator the way it used to be in the black experience. We have a chance today. Self-publishing is one route, another is what you are doing here. It is a longer way to go, but Terry Mcmillan sold books out of her car.

    No one in these agencies is going to give a shit. They will pay lip service, but thy have the feeling that "we can't find a qualified person of color" it is not true of course, but that is their tag line, and it won't change.

    We, as writers, need to make stories that make them pay attention, then we have to pay it forward and help other writers do the same.

    clavel-

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    1. One caveat- I di not mean make war against white people, I meant against racism FROM white people. Bu really from all people.

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