Saturday, September 26, 2015

"Do I have the right to write about ______?"

A question that flies around the Children's Literature field quite a lot:

"Hey, ________.  You're ________.  Do I have the right to write about ________ people?"

I will address this as I see it applying to White people (like me) because really, it's not my place to tell people of color and First/Native Nations people what constitutes appropriate writing.  So let's suppose that the person doing the asking is White.

This is the wrong question to ask.

The answer is easy.  Yes, you have the right to write about whatever you want, in the USA, at least.  The constitution guarantees free speech (although, and this is key, it does not guarantee consequence-free speech).  So, yeah--we White people can write pretty much whatever we want and nobody will send us to jail for it.

But either or both of the following might be true:
1) You might drown out or overshadow (effectively silencing) marginalized people who justly want to tell their own stories.
2) You might get some stuff wrong and evoke criticism from people whom you misrepresent.

And nothing you do can alter either of these truths.  Not even asking permission from someone from the culture about which you're writing.

Let's face it--often, those who ask for permission from marginalized people are really asking for insurance and the ability to, in the event of criticism, point to the permission-grantor and say "But!  Look!  __________ said I could, and she's _________!"

And even if someone asks for permission with the best intentions, wanting nothing more than guidance from an expert, the time that __________ has to spend pondering the question (and how in the world to answer!) is time away from __________'s job/family/friends/garden/gaming.

So, White people:  Please stop asking people of color and First/Native Nations people this question.  It's the wrong question to ask.

Instead, ask yourself, and your White friends/colleagues:

"What do I have the responsibility to write about?"

And the answer is: Your Whiteness.

White people, we have to look at White culture, White norms, how we enact them, and how we oppress people with them.

Some starting places:

-Robin DiAngelo on White Fragility and White Women's Tears
-Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun on White Supremacy Culture
-Gail K. Golden on White Supremacy As Addiction

And after we've done that for the next 500 years or so, we can re-visit that first question.

One final thought, and then I'm done:

As a teacher, I have, indeed, seen many books for children written by White people about marginalized people that are exceptionally well done.  These are books that are exhaustively researched and thoughtfully written with a child audience in mind.

No, they are not all problematic.

But as a teacher who tries to have honest conversations with kids about race, what I really need is a book that gives a detailed and developmentally-appropriate explanation of Whiteness, White culture, and White dominance.  I'm still waiting for that one.


K T Horning said...

I have heard that question now for thirty years now. I agree that White authors who direct this question to Native authors and authors of color are looking for some sort of permission or seal of approval.

I've always said, yes, you have the right,a nd publishers have the right to publish it. But others also have the right (even responsibility) to criticize it if you get it wrong. Don't expect gratitude and accolades.

White author Justine Labalestier just had an excellent post of this from her perspective:

And don't miss Lamar Giles great post on Book Riot that touches on this subject:

Lastly, I just came across this article called "What's Wrong with Cultural Appropriation"

Megan Schliesman said...

"What do I have the responsibility to write about?"

Thanks for this, Allie. I think it's a question that applies to those of us evaluating books, too.

I do think many authors may be more inclined to ask--or be asked by editors perhaps, "Why do you want to write about _____ ?" And I'm guessing the answer is often one that boils down to good intentions. But good intentions are not enough. Good intentions and, as you note, thorough research that beings with understanding oneself as outside the experience, can be a starting point.

I will confess that in evaluating books, I cannot NOT be suspect of the content when an author is writing outside their experience. I don't mean that negatively; it's simply a matter of coming to the work knowing they may not know. This is not to say I haven't admired and recommended such books over the years. I have. Many times. And some I would still recommend. Others, I would not, because of what I've learned and continue to learn.

Anonymous said...

That doesn't settle too well with me--that as a White writer my responsibility is to write about my Whiteness. Sounds like more of an agenda than a story. Kids don't want to read about Whiteness--or "gayness," "Blackness," or "[pick your]ness" for that matter. What they want, and what all writers have the responsibility to write for them, are stories that feature POC and Native people--in short, a diverse cast of characters--saving the world, questing, and--in short, again, enmeshed in all the great plots that are too often reserved for White characters. All kids benefit (and our country does, too) by reading such inclusive books.

I think a lot of White writers are in a tough spot right now (I know, boo-hoo) because we hear the message from We Need Diverse Books (and other groups) and we want to do the right thing--we want to diversify, but are we "allowed" to? Should we presume to try? And if we do what happens if we get it wrong? There's a lot at stake! Who wants to perpetuate stereotypes, offend (even harm) readers, or damage one's own reputation? Some of us may ask the stupid question that is the title of this post. I wish White people would stop doing that. The ones who do make us all look bad. But I can see where that question comes from: fear.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the target audiences for WNDB are White writers (because they, sadly, are the majority of published writers and as such could effect more diversity in children's lit) and White editors (because they have the power to publish underrepresented writers). With this backing, White writers don't need to ask permission to write outside their "Whiteness" so much as they need to write RESPONSIBLY outside their Whiteness. But that's a topic for a different post, isn't it? Perhaps one with the title "Writing While White."

Nina Lindsay said...

S Muse, I think that asking White writers to write about their Whiteness means asking them to examine that first. It might mean not writing what you were planning to. It might mean examining your perspective and changing it. I appreciated this blog post from Linda Sue Park on why it may be harder for White writers to write from outside :

Nina Lindsay said...

Ack. Just read the Jones / Okun Allie mentions above. I can identify my managerial style with at least 40%.... Crap.

K T Horning said...

But I can see what S Muse is saying, and I do think White writers are in a "damned if I do, damned if I don't" position when it comes to diversity. I think perhaps it's awareness that matters. You don't just change a formerly white character to Black without understanding how that might change the story, for instance.

I'd also add that White writers have the luxury not to explore their Whiteness, and most wouldn't even think about it. But I wonder if Black and Latino and Native authors have that same level of freedom. (I have purposely left Asian authors out of this mix because the vast majority of them are NOT writing about Asian kids.) Are they pushed to write about characters that share their same race? And are they pushed to write a certain kind of story? And if they do choose to write about a character that is not of their own race, do they feel guilt about that? These are questions that I doubt many White authors have had to think about.

Leila said...

I am from the UK (British-Asian - Asian means Indian/ south Asian in the UK btw!). this blog post is great, and Muse's comment is so very, wearily, predictable. The truth is that when a white writer writes a POC as a character, or a POC story - not matter how 'good' the book (and let's not forget that literary standards are not neutral or natural but were created and developed by exclusively white, colonialist, almost exclusively male people) *nothing changes in real life for POC children or adults*. All that happens is that they see, again, that white writers can write whatever they like. On the other hand, when a POC writes a book, an overwhelmingly white occupation (writing) is made slightly more equal and just. I believe what we need to do is encourage and support writers of colour to write - the pen has to be handed over, and white writers need to learn to *listen* and not to instantly change any conversation about race so it centres around their own anxieties.

Leila said...

To clarify - I'm quite tired, up late last night writing an article, sorry!- we need to remember that representation of POCs in books is not important for its own sake but for how it can change the lives of real, living POCs. When a white write writes a POC character/ story, for me the huge difference is that they write from the comfortable side of racism (the nice, padded, soft side as opposed to the side with the sharp bits on it :)). It is possible to research details of life, say, for POCs in 1900, but it is not possible to live racism from the sharp side without being a POC yourself - you cannot research this experience, which is, for your POC character, the defining experience of their life.

Debbie Reese said...

Great comments, Leila! And helpful, as I write up my review of Rae Carson's WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER. The mother of one of her main characters is Cherokee, but the author's note has no mention of Cherokee sources she used to create his voice, or, the source for the traditional Cherokee story she used.

As I read her book I wrote notes and uploaded them to my site. I shared them two days ago, received questions about my concerns... Not surprisingly, the conversation exploded into a who-can-write fest with writers on a broad spectrum expressing fear of writing self, and other, too. I really wish that the conversation had been about my notes. I provide that depth of detail to help people develop an awareness regarding Native representations that most do not have.

Anonymous said...

I hear you, Leila. When I mentioned in my post that White writers need to write responsibly outside of their Whiteness, I said it was a topic for another post because how to do that--or even if we should do that--would take more time to discuss.

As a White person, I don't feel comfortable writing about racism--for all of the reasons you mentioned. But I do feel a responsibility to people my stories with more than White characters. Doing that means I don't make the focal point of my story racism. Perhaps your point is that the focal point of any story that includes POC must be racism because racism is the defining experience of that character's life. If that's the case then I can see why you think it's time to "hand over the pen."

Anonymous said...

Nina, Thanks for the Linda Sue Park link. Awesome post to read.

K T Horning said...

Leila wrote: "It is possible to research details of life, say, for POCs in 1900, but it is not possible to live racism from the sharp side without being a POC yourself - you cannot research this experience, which is, for your POC character, the defining experience of their life." Thanks for this comment, Leila. It reminds me of something Virginia Hamilton once said years ago: The lives of Black people are best written about by the people who have dared to live them.

I would add that racism has been a defining experience of most White people's lives, too, but we seem mostly unaware of it because it benefits us. Soft and cozy, as you say. What would YA literature look like if this reality had sharp bits in it?

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Since KT mentioned the "damned if you do damned if you don't" comment I had to share this post.
It is one of my favorite things for really crystallizing the issue of white vs POC writers. "You're a white writer trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, it's wrong. And that's so unfair to you, isn't it?Welcome to a tiny taste of what it's like to be a person of color."

Nina Lindsay said...

Glad you liked it; and thanks for this exchange. I think the whole idea of writing "responsibly" is so hard...

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Gotta say I totally agree with Ellen, Leila, and Debbie on this one, and thank you all for commenting. I watched the entire Twitter situation that Debbie referenced unfold, and wrote this blog post that night. Claire Light's post is awesome, here it is again for anyone who missed it:

@SktzofrenicMuse, you're avoiding responsibility for your Whiteness when you dismiss my "ask" as an agenda. Yes, I have an agenda, and it's not a hidden one: I want White children to examine their Whiteness because that's how we'll achieve a more equitable history. I try to accomplish that with them, in my role as a teacher. Right now, I'm getting very little help from White children's authors, for all their good intentions.

White authors have a responsibility to write about Whiteness, just as White readers have a responsibility to read about Whiteness and I have a responsibility to teach about Whiteness. White PEOPLE have a responsibility to learn about our Whiteness because we have a responsibility to change the balance of White power.

We could create the most diverse, inclusive society in the world, but unless we change systems and structures of power, Whiteness will still dominate. In Apartheid-era South Africa, less than 10% of the population was White. Equity is not about reaching the point where "minorities" are the majority, it is about changing the balance of power. The United States is very, very diverse, and yet, White people and White culture dominate. In order to change the balance White power, we need to examine and dismantle it.

And to set the record straight, WNDB is not targeting White authors. We are actively working to increase the presence of marginalized people in publishing, via our Walter Dean Myers awards and grants, our short story contest, our Booktalking Kits, our WNDB in the Classroom program, and more (see

Thanks for the discussion, everyone!

Nina Lindsay said...

I'm reading the intro to "The Racial Imaginary" (Ed Claudia Rankine, Beth Lofredda, Max King Cap) tonight.. "To say, as a white writer, that I have the right to write about whoever I want...that I have a right of access and that my artistry is harmed if I am told I cannot do so--is to make a mistake. It is to begin the conversation in the wrong place. It is the wrong place because, for one, it mistakes critical response for prohibition .... [much later] ... We acknowledge that every act of imaginative sympathy inevitably has its limits. Perhaps a way to expand those limits is not only to write from the perspective of a racial other but instead to inhabit, as intensely as possible, the moment in which the imagination's sympathy encounters it's limit."

Wendy said...

Great discussion going here, and I agree with this post!

Just something I wanted to add, though, is to keep in mind that there's a line that I've often seen overstepped when discussing whiteness, which is treading over the POC (character's) perspective on racism when it really should be THEIR story. I won't name anything specific here, but there are a few books I've read where there was every reason for the protag to be POC and instead it's told from a white character's perspective and their angst about the poor friend who has to endure racism, their viewpoint is upheld as more important, and the worst manifestation of this is in white saviour complex. This is obviously pretty damaging, and in situations like this I'd much rather the author had written from the POC character's perspective instead, even if they made a few mistakes.

So that's why I really like what Allie says about 'changing the balance of power' - YES, ultimately that's what the purpose of talking about whiteness is, and everything should stem from that.

Vicky Smith said...

In light of this conversation, I'm wondering if anyone has read NIGHT ON FIRE, by Ronald Kidd. In its synopsis (Billie is transformed when she sees her neighbors attack the Freedom Riders' bus in her hometown of Anniston, Alabama), it seems like just another white-kid-joins-the-Civil-Rights-Movement novel. But it's more Billie's encounters with her Whiteness than it is her assuming any white kid's burden. I can't recall any other middle-grade novel that's taken a white character into such (earned) psychic discomfort. Kidd seems to be doing what Allie is asking white authors to do, albeit in a historical context.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback, Allie! And thanks to all who contributed to the discussion.

I didn't mean to minimize the wonderful work that WNDB is doing. Sorry about that.

Unknown said...


Not that this changes your argument necessarily, but I think the updated numbers that you have listed for Asian authors at CCBlogC is correct--mathematically impossible, in fact.

By 21
About 49
By but not about 90

Obviously, if there are only 21 books to date by Asian authors, then the number for "By but not about" must be equal to or less than 21.

I did see the 2014 numbers that Zetta blogged about . . .

K T Horning said...

Vicky, thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to check this book out.

Another one that sounds vaguely similar is MY MOTHER THE CHEERLEADER by Robert Sharenow, which deals with the daughter of woman who was one of the people who stood on the sidelines to jeer at Ruby Bridges every day. (They were called "cheerleaders.') She begins to question everything she's been taught about her White Chistian superiority when she gets to know a Jewish Communist newspaper reporter who is staying at the boarding house her mother owns.

K T Horning said...

I can see how that would be confusing, Jonathan. There are 49 books so far in 2015 that are about Asian/Asian Pacific Americans. Of those 49, 21 are by Asian/Asian Pacific American authors and/or illustrators. In addition to those 49, there are 90 books by Asian/Asian American Pacific authors that are not about Asians.

K T Horning said...

Thanks for the link, Ellen! Lost of illuminating reading there.

Unknown said...

OK, I got. There are 111 total books created by Asians.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Thanks for the apology, it's appreciated and accepted. Thanks for a great discussion.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Yes! This! This! "the moment in which the imagination's sympathy encounters its limit." That's what I'm trying to say when I say "examine your whiteness." Their way is prettier... but mine is more straightforward, let's face it!!

Allie Jane Bruce said...

I remember this one! It was definitely interesting, and I remember that there was a love/loathe binary reaction to it. I did like certain aspects of it, by also remember feeling that Ruby Bridges had been "used" and that the rape scene was irresponsible in that it was a device used to make us feel sympathy for a racist character.

I also remember reading BONE BY BONE BY BONE by Tony Johnston around the same time and finding it much superior to MY MOTHER THE CHEERLEADER. I'd have to go back and take another look at that to see if it holds up...

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

BONE BY BONE BY BONE is the title that came to mind when I read your request for books examining whiteness, Allie. I reread it last winter and was struck by the visceral and searing portrayal of David's father's vicious racism, how the threat of his cruelty, ignorance and violence haunts his son's life, how David is torn between his love for and desire to be loved by his father and his revulsion at his father's attitudes and behavior, especially towards his black friend, Malcolm.

I haven't been able to find any critiques by reviewers of color; I'd be very interested to see how the portrayal of race reads through other eyes and what I might have missed.

K T Horning said...

Boy, I don't even remember a rape scene in that book, Allie.

And I wouldn't say Ruby Bridges was "used" in the story. There would be no way to tell it without her being in it in the way she was. Are you objecting to the fact that she was a real person? I myself have always wondered who those people were who screamed and spat at Black children walking into schools (who were, in fact, being "used" to integrate the schools). I always look at their angry faces in those historical photos and wonder what their lives were like and what led them to be there on the sidelines.

Is there a problem with humanizing racists, or making us feel sympathy for a racist character? I fear that when we portray racists as all bad or irredeemable, they become stock, cardboard characters that we can just dismiss as "other." That makes it possible for a White reader to feel superior to that character, and to think: "That's not me." when, in fact, it very well could be. If we want authors to explore Whiteness, they have to be able explore all aspects of Whiteness, even the parts we'd rather not think about. Look how upset people got about Atticus Finch 2.0.

K T Horning said...

And I like the "it mistakes critical response for prohibition" line. Nina, you are making a real dent in my book budget with all your recommendations!

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Yeah, the mother was raped by the bad guys, the lynchers.

I remember feeling uncomfortable with the Ruby Bridges passages because of how the author wrote about her--she came across as very pure and noble and tragic, all of which I found dehumanizing. That's what I objected to. But maybe my memory is off... it's been a while since I read it.

You're really calling me in (as opposed to calling me out) on my objection to dehumanizing racists, though. You're absolutely right that I was wrong to try to "other" a racist person, when tomorrow, that might be me, and I will never undo my own internal racism and biases if I think of myself as a "good one, not like the others."

I didn't phrase it well, but my real objection is not to humanizing a racist. I object to using *rape* to humanize a racist. Rape is real and serious and not a "trick" that an author should pull out of his/her pocket to make us feel sympathy for a character. Also, in real life, a rape would most likely NOT magically turn a horribly bigoted person into a non-bigot.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Oh, and Anne, let me know if you find any Bone By Bone By Bone reviews by people of color. I'd be hugely interested too.

K T Horning said...

I see what you mean, Allie, thanks for the clarification. Agreed on rape as a literary device. Obviously, I blanked that part of the book out completely.

Unknown said...

I've read both MY MOTHER THE CHEERLEADER and BONE BY BONE BY BONE, both of which I think are great reads and can bring a lot to this conversation. I think they only be problematic when a pattern emerges, and the pattern is this--

When the white main characters are somehow immune from all the racism of their upbringing and never internalize any negative attitudes, behaviors, thoughts, actions, or words; when they can clearly see how VERY WRONG racism is. They are always gifted with this perspective; they never have to earn it. They never have to divest themselves of an inherited worldview that doesn't jive with what they come to believe through their own experience.

I don't think white authors intend this, but such characters kind of become an embodiment of liberal white guilt, a way to teach young readers that racism is wrong. And I think such books do teach that racism is wrong, but I often feel like they pull punches because they neither present racism from a black perspective or from a racist white perspective. I understand the political necessity of writing the artificially enlightened perspective--what white author wants to characterize their protagonist as racist?--but it presents a warped sense of reality when you read it in book after book after book.

K T Horning said...

I think it would be quite a challenge for a White author to do that, Jonathan, but I'd like to see someone try.

Not the same exactly but related: Hans Peter Richter did this kind of writing about antisemitism back in the 1970s. His book FRIEDRICH shows the events leading up to the Holocaust through the eyes of an innocent young child observing changes in the life of his friend and next-door neighbor. I WAS THERE is an autobiographical novel based on his own experiences as part of the Hitler Youth. Both books are quite eye-opening and well-worth tracking down.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Really good thoughts here, Jonathon. It would indeed be very painful to live in and unpack a character's problematic thoughts and the racist impacts of his/her actions, even if no racism is intended. Almost as painful as trying to unpack one's OWN problematic thoughts and racist impacts. But this is work we white people need to do.

K T Horning said...

There's a new book I've been hearing a lot about lately that does a lot of groundbreaking work in naming and unpacking whiteness and white privilege. It's ALL AMERICAN BOYS by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely and it launches TODAY. (There's a copy waiting for me at my local book store.) I can't wait to read it -- and discuss it here on this blog.

Unknown said...

I'm half way through ALL AMERICAN BOYS right now. :-)

Reminds me slightly of BLACK AND WHITE by Paul Volponi. Did anyone read that one?

Debbie Reese said...

Did you read SHADOWSHAPER? There's a part in it where the protagonist is having a terse discussion with an aunt about the aunt's racism regarding dark skin and kinky hair. And another part where the protagonist and her brother (I think) are talking about machismo ways of their grandfather. I think Older handles both discussions with candor, but in a seamless way.

erica said...

The discussion about My Mother the Cheerleader reminds me of my own negative reaction to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - which sets up readers to feel empathy mainly for the naïve son of the Nazi prison warden, without much focus on the fact that millions of other people are dying.

Written by an Irish novelist in less than 3 days, it has sold millions of copies and was made into a movie. Coincidentally, a novel by a Jewish author, originally published in Yiddish in 1940, was translated into English & published the same year as Striped Pajamas. Yet that book (Emil and Karl) is virtually unknown, is not taught in schools, is never requested, and wasn’t made into a movie, but features 2 boys of the same age, is set roughly in the same time & place, and (to me, in any case) seems more authentic to the Jewish experience.

Although Boyne has said he aimed to write a parable of the German’s willful ignorance of the Holocaust, for teens and children reading this, it’s the death of the poor little son of a Nazi (when he puts on the striped pajamas) that becomes the focus of the reader’s empathy, not the Jewish boy nor his entire community who are in the concentration camp.

Knowing how much this book upset me, I can see how the Cheerleader book would upset people who lived through or are descendants of the folks described and perhaps used & similarly slighted in that story.

Monica Edinger said...

My Mother the Cheerleader and Bone by Bone by Bone were eligible my Newbery year so not only did I looked at them very closely, but I got highly favorable feedback from African Americans readers as well.