Sunday, October 11, 2015

Spouting Off While White

I was just getting ready to turn in last night when I began to see a new fury erupt on Twitter. First there were subtweets flying back and forth among people I follow. Apparently some unnamed author had made a comment saying we don't need diverse books because kids of color can find themselves in newspapers, on television, and in movies. It was such a bizarre statement that I wanted to know where it came from. I needed context.

Unfortunately, many people were complaining but they weren't naming names or providing links.

But my Twitter feed was lighting up with outrage. I noticed a reference to queer Black boys, and knowing how few children's or young adult books are out there about queer Black boys,  I figured the anonymous author who started it all must have been referring to a new picture book called Large Fears by Myles E. Johnson and Kendrick Daye. It had been featured on Huffington Post a few days before in an article called "This Book Is Creating a Space for Queer Black Boys."  I had found out about the book from Edi Campbell, who had posted a link to the Huff Po article on Facebook.

And sure enough, a few minutes later, a link came up from Edi's Twitter account that referred to a blog post she had just made in response to the author who had made the outrageous claim. And Edi had the courage to name her by including a screen shot of the Facebook post that started it all.

It was Printz Award winner Meg Rosoff who had made the comment. Her claims are ridiculous, showing just how out of touch she is with children's and young adult literature. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that there are not  "hundreds and ... thousands" of books about kids of color, certainly not Black boys, and even less so about queer Black boys. In fact, the only one I can think of Finlater by Shawn Stewart Ruff. And now, of course, Large Fears.  Both books were self-published. What does this say about there being space for queer Black boys in the book industry?

So what Rosoff must really be saying is that "marginalized young people," including queer Black boys, should find themselves in White narratives. That is the epitomy of White privilege -- the notion that White perspectives are not only universal but should be. And she makes it even worse when she goes on to suggest that if queer Black boys want a mirror, they should turn to newspapers, magazines, and movies. Where... what? They'll see themselves bullied and brutalized at school? They'll see other Black boys being shot and killed by policemen? They'll see ordinary young Black men getting killed on the streets?  Has Meg Rosoff  been keeping up with current events?

Thanks to Edi Campbell for being courageous enough to name names in her swift response. And to author Justine Larbalestier, too, for calling out a fellow White author on Twitter. And to Ceilidh, co-editor of Bibliodaze, for responding this morning with her essay "The Unbearable Whiteness of Meg Rosoff." And to Debbie Reese for keeping us all up to date with the latest developments.

I wish I could say this was an isolated case, but it isn't. There are plenty of White authors, teachers, and librarians out there who spout off like this in private or even in public when there are only other White people around. It's time for White people to stand up to them whenever we hear comments like this -- not to shut them down necessarily but to engage them in discourse. They may not be open to listening, but there are likely others in the group who will be.

Meg Rosoff don't need our protection. She needs to be challenged, as editor Laura Atkins did so well in the Facebook exchange shown above.  Too often we are willing to allow bigots to remain anonymous, or to write such comments off with "Well, you're entitled to your point of view." And that's that. Let's move on to talk about something else.

No, let's not change the topic. Let's talk about this now. And let's keep talking about it until there are so many books about queer Black boys that such conversations become unnecessary.

Update: Check out these great open letters to Meg Rosoff from Linda Sue Park, Kaye, and  Sarah Hannah Gomez. And this insightful essay from Camryn Garrett.
Also, Edi has made the whole ongoing Facebook post that started it all public. 


Laura Atkins said...

Thanks for the post, K.T. I feel kind of out of words on this one. As in, I can't figure out or get my head around what she was thinking. Meg seems to think everyone is misunderstanding what she said, which I think comes down to authors being able to write whatever they want. Which obviously ignores how publishing works, who has power, whose voices get heard... And as you say, TV, the movies, the news - none of that will give mirrors, or even act as "pamphlets," to use her expression. It boggles my mind, and that she's continuing to defend her words, saying that people haven't understood what she was trying to say. I would like to see a bigger and more honest conversation about this - particularly including White folks. As you guys are doing on this blog, which is fantastic. So after Daniel Handler made those outrageous and racist "jokes" at the National Book Awards. And then, sure, he tweets that they were racist (thanks). And gives a lot of money to WNDB. But where is the real challenge? Where do the conversations happen that REACH the people who work in publishing and hold people to account? The honest and hard work of really coming to understand how privilege and power work. I have plenty more to learn, and have gained so much by listening to people whose words are full of wisdom. Zetta Elliott, of course, being a key one. I wish there was a conference, recorded, full of people who have been barricaded out of the mainstream systems. And that people in publishing, librarians, teachers...people who bring books to kids, would be given some drug that makes them open minded. Turns off the immediate defensive reaction. And that they would watch and internalize some of what they hear. One can but dream...

Anonymous said...

KT, remember how beautiful this began, with tweets about the adorable book? I'd taken to FB late last night and had no idea what was brewing on twitter. We do need a conference. We need to all be in the same room to share resources and knowledge, to energize our collective power and to move forward.

I have made that FB post public because the conversation is continue with her.

K T Horning said...

Laura, I really appreciate the way you stood up to Meg Rosoff on Facebook, More White people need to be doing this on a regular basis, whenever we hear these kinds of comments.

Yes, so often the person who says them goes on to claim they were misunderstood. Meg Rosoff is a professional writer. If she can't use words to make herself understood, then something else is going on, Yes, we understand her just fine, just as we understood the implications of Daniel Handler's racist watermelon joke last year. Just because it's not what they wanted to communicate does not mean the deficiency is with the listener.

I am White but I am also queer so can read between the lines and hear between the words due to a lifetime of slights and snickers toward queers. I recognize insult and discomfort with "other" when I hear people like Meg Rosoff speak. She is used to the comfort of all of the privileges she was born with. She doesn't like anyone to rock her little cocoon. But why she would attack a self-published picture book about a queer Black boy is beyond me, unless she thinks it somehow threatens her privileged position. She could have just continued on undisturbed for the rest of her career as a Superior Author of Fine Literature without mixing with the rabble down here in the real world.

K T Horning said...

Thanks, Edi. Right now I think that same room is Twitter. But it would be great to have that conference you and Laura have described.

Anonymous said...

I find it perplexing how some white people did not call her out and share her name. Being honest and interrupting moments like this doesn't automatically make someone rude or unprofessional. A culture of “niceness” (in which people ignore/choose not to respond to micro- and macroaggressions publicly) silences critique and completely disregards the experiences of people in groups not privileged by the status quo. Thank you, Edi, for your courage in sharing the details. They show just how much work white people (myself included) have to do to disrupt these moments when we hear, see, and read them—no matter who is making the mistake. Ignoring someone’s missteps means they aren’t worth the time. Engaging in these conversations is hard, but it is more important than it is difficult.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

I agree with you completely, @trybrary, about the culture of niceness and how toxic that is (and how much it shelters white people). Personally, I'll take aggressive aggression over passive aggression any day. I know that people of color and First/Native Nations people run real risks when they name the White people like Meg Rosoff who say such problematic, clueless things. The same is not true of White people. We might face some backlash but not NEARLY to the same extent. I do think it's White people's responsibility to be upfront in these situations, and not shelter ourselves and others in a veneer of "I'm nice".

Laura Atkins said...

And to be fair, to my mind her words were so egregious that it was easy to respond. I think the risk is almost greater when it's not so obvious. Same with the Daniel Handler jokes, where the racism was so obvious. When people reveal these more deeply-held societal beliefs in the open - there's an opportunity. Because it's there in plain sight. I'm impressed that Hannah Gomez has pulled the conversation forward on Edi's post, pointing Meg Rosoff towards the Rudine Simms Bishop essay. And also have been contemplating Allie Jane Bruce's recent post and the discussion that followed - how important is it to try to engage people in discussion when they aren't open/ready for it? Allie Jane posed the idea that maybe we don't try to include everyone in the conversation. Maybe we don't.

I'm pondering this - how much to try to engage in wider conversations as opposed to finding allies/fellow activists. People who I can be my full self with, and with whom I share basic values. I don't know the answer. But I'm down for trying to work with others to figure it out!

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi Laura. In thinking about the comments I made that you're referencing (which were comments on Angie's excellent Presenting While White post), I probably should have said: It can be helpful when someone has left the room in a physical sense. I do think that unpacking all these things that happen online has tremendous value. I don't think Meg Rosoff is learning anything, and frankly, I don't care about protecting her feelings; I do think that there may be other White people studying the situation, and maybe some of them think to themselves "I don't really see why what she did was wrong..." but then, if they continue to read, they might "get it." That's my goal in continuing to participate in the online discussion--educating more open-minded White people than Rosoff. And a bunch of people of color and First/Native Nations people are doing a kickass job in continuing that conversation.

mclicious said...

She stopped replying as soon as I posted the link, and I hoped that meant she was taking time to read it. Maybe she did. Maybe someone knocked on the door and she had to go. Maybe because of the time difference, it was bedtime. maybe she felt overpowered and like she should go lick her wounds. Maybe she took some time to think. Or maybe she stopped engaging because she just does not give a shit and never will.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

KT, this is what struck me about Meg Rosoff's words as well. She made the choice to comment on Edi's Facebook page, in the context of this particular book. I saw this as a bullying move because of the huge imbalance of power between her and Myles Johnson, and I appreciate the grace and courage with which Johnson responded. I'm also in awe and appreciation of the community that has stood up to Rosoff and called her on her words and actions, because it's not without risks. She is powerful and has powerful friends.

Jason Low said...

I noticed quite a few white commenters on FB writing: "Poor Meg...", which says to me that Meg has a following who may or may not agree with her words or at the very least understand where she is coming from. Meg represents the educated, award-winning, white author's worst nightmare - speaking out about race and having the online equivalent of a pile on take place. In the world of happy endings and if Meg were open to it, a nice teachable moment could have resulted from this, but instead has left her feeling misunderstood, singled out, and as a result banning anyone on Twitter who disagrees with her worldview. Will others who feel the same way take something positive away from this or see this as a sign to keep their true thoughts to themselves or risk being publicly ostracized?

Unknown said...

If people feel like they have to keep quiet about their potentially racist views, it means they realize their views are potentially racist. And if they're keeping quiet about it because they realize it's not socially acceptable, then they're not spreading it around trying to make it socially acceptable. It may take away immediate opportunity for people to 'teach' or try to change their ingrained views, but how often does confrontational argument really work, anyway? There was that study recently about how it really is more likely to make people dig in and hold, right? Oftentimes, people's views change quietly, over time, after seeing things like this and following the dialogue, seeing what is considered acceptable to others. And if it's so deep that it won't change at all? Well, better they keep their nastiness to themselves, rather than encouraging others. So best to call it out when you see it and let everyone hear: "Not acceptable."

Bradin said...

"It's time for White people to stand up to them whenever we hear comments like this -- not to shut them down necessarily but to engage them in discourse."

C'mon, let's be honest here. We don't want to engage in discourse. We just love this chance to exercise our ressentiment. It's a nice feeling to feel morally superior; and why the hell not? But to dress that up by saying we want to engage in discourse? I find that hard to believe. At best we want them to stop talking and listen. More likely we're just jumping at this and any chance to project our own unwanted racist feelings onto an external scapegoat.

Sam Bloom said...

But you conveniently left out the next line, Bradin: "They may not be open to listening, but there are likely others in the group who will be." Do you see that as a negative?

Personally, I DO think that in this case Rosoff should have done just what you said here: stop talking and listen. But now she's banning people left and right on Twitter. As for your last statement, talk about jumping: you've made quite a leap there. You're implying Rosoff is the "scapegoat" here, if I'm not misunderstanding? Do you think she is innocent of all wrong-doing?

Bradin said...

Sam, I'm not really sure how that next line disproves my point, which is why I didn't include it. Whether or not others in the group are open to listening, I don't see how the online response to Rosoff is an attempt at discourse. It may have started out that way with Laura's response, but it quickly changed into something else. It became more about publicly shaming Rosoff and shutting her down, and I'd argue that's what we really want when someone "sins" against our dearly-held moralities, especially if they appear unwilling to repent. I don't see anything wrong with that, but we should at least be honest about what it is.

I was definitely implying Rosoff is a scapegoat here. Of course, I don't think she is innocent of all wrong-doing. But I don't think we are either. I think we get caught up in episodes like these because scapegoats insulate us from responsibility and guilty feelings. We can project those feelings elsewhere and that helps us deal with our own failings. I'm not saying that's a positive or a negative, but I think it can be healthier to at least be aware of this psychological phenomenon, and perhaps use moments like these to look inward rather that outward.

Jason Low said...

Rosoff represents a rare perspective in publishing, that of dissent. The prevailing opinion in publishing is that most will tell you they are all for more diversity, but why does the lack of diverse literature remain a decades old problem? Rosoff’s opinion may very well represent what people really think as opposed to what they will actually tell you to your face. What I think is interesting about this is that Rosoff is absolute in what she believes and hasn’t tried to walk back anything that she has said. Perhaps her views will evolve over time, but the real value in this is, as Sam mentions below, is to have the discussion out in the open and just maybe those who are still be on the fence about diversity will be drawn into the fold.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

This will be my 1 comment on this particular thread.

I don't disagree with you, Bradin, that we need to look inward when these things happen. You emphasize that in these moments, we should not "scapegoat" someone, because it's really just avoidance of facing the problems within ourselves. I agree. And I also read a lot of protectionism in your response (see our glossary if you don't know the term).

You prioritize the needs of white people in this scenario rather than the needs of people of color and First/Native Nations people. When something unacceptable happens, the world needs to say "THIS IS NOT OK". Otherwise, people of color and First/Native Nations people are left to wonder: "Why is the world not naming this? Is it just me? Is what she said really not that bad? Is this another thing I need to just swallow and internalize, knowing the mainstream will never lend legitimacy to my feelings?". We need to prioritize the pain of oppressed people over the pain of the oppressor whose actions are being named as such.

I screw up. Regularly. Frequently, even. I screwed up last night (in a different setting, offline). And I thanked the person who pointed it out to me.

It is statistically impossible for white people in this world not to screw up and say racist things. You cannot live in our current culture without having internalized some aspects of race-based prejudice. Just like someone who drives every day for 30 years is bound to, at some point, have an accident (or at least a fender-bender). And when those accidents happen, drivers still have to take responsibility. You can't say "but I've been driving for 30 years!! EVERYBODY gets in accidents!!!" and expect the judge to say "oh, you're right, you're excused." We are responsible for our actions, and the right thing to do--regardless of whether Twitter is abuzz or not--is to own one's mistakes, take responsibility for one's actions, and apologize.

K T Horning said...

Bradin, I have been thinking a lot about what you wrote. You're right -- I wasn't really aiming for an online discourse with Rosoff. She never came to this post to comment, and I didn't expect her to, but she did make several comments on Edi's Facebook page after Laura's comment. (You could go to it and read the whole thing, if you want to. there's a link to it in the above post.)

What I was thinking -- and obviously didn't communicate well -- were all the times when we as White people hear other White people make comments like the one Rosoff made in person and in real time. I think it's hard for us, in those cases, to stand up to them. What do you do in those cases? (I'm genuinely curious.) Do you let the comments stand? Do you go home and do some quiet soul searching later? Or do you engage?

A lot of White people and, I confess myself included at times, are willing to just let those comments pass when we hear because we don't want to make a fuss or cause a scene. We have been raised to be polite and not to discuss race. Or we write off a person like Rosoff as unreachable and think, "Oh, well, she's never going to change her mind, so why bother?" That's the way we rationalize it, anyway. It's probably more a case of avoiding conflict and discomfort. Those two things are hard for me as a White person. I can pretty much opt to avoid either one, and that makes my life so much easier.

All too often discussions of this nature get polarized and turn into name-calling, and, yes, both sides feel they are claiming the moral high ground. It can quickly turn into a screaming match in which no one hears anyone, and no progress is made on either side. Nothing changes in the end. But isn't that what we're all aiming for? True change? I don't want to silence racists -- I want there to be no more racists. I believe racism is wrong and only hurts humankind. I also believe that White people are at the root of most racism. We have to examine that and confront it, if we want things to change.

So perhaps White people can do what we both suggest: challenge other White people when we hear them making racist or bigoted comments, and we can look inward, too.

I hope you (and others) will respond to this, Bradin, because these are the sorts of honest discussions White people need to be having, whether we agree with each other or not.

Megan Schliesman said...

-I was just mulling over a "can we start by admitting we all screw up sometimes" message and then saw Allie's comment (Fallible minds think alike I guess.) Thanks for that, Allie, and for pointing out the issue is in owning it when we do. Ideally, we are able to do in the moment. But we don't always see it in the moment, or sometimes the opportunity just isn't there--the elevator door closes before you are hit "Door Open" even though you hoped to let that person who was running to catch it on. (You do cars as metaphor, I do elevators.) Sometimes it's, if not enough at least a start to own it to ourselves in those situations, and think about what we can learned, how we can change our behavior and thinking moving forward. But social media like Twitter is both a curse and a gift --it amplifies the worst and best of what we say, and also erases the middle ground where both nuance and discourse live.

But of course we started this blog because we believe we and other White people have a responsibility to speak out on racism in the children's lit world. Not a choice, but a responsibility. There is no nuance to the idea behind that. How we choose to do so is inevitably up for discussion, however. And while I think of myself as a big fan of nuance and finding the common ground, more and more I think that this way of thinking is in and of itself a sign of my own White privilege.