Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Rocky Unpaved Roads of Good Intentions

          by Ibi Zoboi

I write for children. I have the very best of intentions. This is a dream career and one that relies on altruism, empathy, love, and most important of all, respect. The same goes for parenting children. However, I am a smother. I have the very best of intentions to keep my children safe and arm them with the necessary tools to navigate life’s challenges. I am raising Black children. I have a tendency to hover, hug and squeeze for a moment too long, and shower them with wet kisses in public. But as they approach their teen and tween years, I have to step back and allow them room to breathe. The same goes for writing middle grade and young adult novels. I have to step back and allow the story, characters, and setting room to breathe. That book will go out into the world with wings of its own and fly, planting seeds in the hearts and minds of young readers along the way. And like parenting, this all begins with good intentions.

My children attend a wonderfully diverse progressive school where good intentions are woven into the fabric of the school community—from their social justice curriculum to their over-the-top parent involvement. The school has been lauded for their racial and socioeconomic diversity. However, the mostly white teaching staff and volunteering parents paint a different picture.

I am Haitian-American. I have family in Haiti who are often in need of money. Even in a country drowning in good intentions with its ten-thousand non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and constant stream of aid money, there are still those who have to rub two sticks together, as they say in Haiti, in order to make a buck. The shoe company, TOMS, launched an ad campaign last year where white twenty-somethings are shown frolicking through Haitian countrysides and beaches amongst laughing schoolchildren. THIS IS HAITI, they proclaimed.

My children’s school sounds like an ideal work environment for a young teacher of color—one that honors social justice work and educating the whole child. Yet, for whatever reason, the school seems to be in a perpetual cycle of “trying to find the right fit” when it comes to hiring teachers of color. And as for Haiti, there are Haitians who desperately want to work with these NGOs, not as noble artists in some equal exchange agreement, but as administrators with long-term contracts and housing benefits. However, as the TOMS ad suggests, humanitarian work is healing waters, warm island sunshine, and grateful, laughing children for outsiders only.

My husband, Mr. Z., is a public school teacher. He has good intentions as well. He has a deep well of patience, and goes above and beyond for his students, much like many of his colleagues. However, over the course of his twenty-year career, I've witnessed how time and time again, his deep connection with his students is sometimes seen as a threat. The evaluation often begins with, “You have a great rapport with the students, but…” As a Black male teacher, his good intentions come with risks. A recent Huffingtonpost video and article about his former school highlighted this dichotomy. A fellow art teacher, a white woman, was featured in the video, shedding a few tears and speaking of her love for her students and the many hardships in their lives. The video also showed glimpses of an art show that Mr. Z. helped to curate. Mr. Z. was not featured in the video. He could not have possibly shed a tear for his students and their hard lives, I suppose. In this case, someone else’s good intentions are held up as an example of excellent teaching, while Mr. Z.’s was simply “a good rapport, but…”.

This is the hierarchy of good intentions that reeks of White-Man’s-Burdenism. There is a self-perceived burden of doing something, making it right, and fixing things for the Other—that this Other cannot help themselves, even if this help comes from members of their own community.

Make no mistake, members of marginalized groups can also wear the cape of White-Man’s-Burdenism. In 2010, six months after the devastating Haitian earthquake, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to conduct a writing workshop for teen girls in Haiti. It was successful. I published a beautiful anthology of their poems. I reaped the rewards of my good intentions. However, toward the end of the workshops and my stay in Haiti, I had to step back and listen.

For many of the girls, it was not their first time participating in a writing workshop. Their schools have had poetry recitals and contests. Most importantly, those girls could not eat my good intentions. They could not use them to pay for school or uniforms or much-needed toiletries. I could not press cold-hard good intentions into their hands so they could go about living their lives after such tragedy. This workshop and resulting anthology was my own accomplishment. It was for my own healing and need to do something, anything. I felt duty-bound to give these girls a voice, but didn’t realize that they already had a voice. Their writing and thoughts exceeded my expectations. They didn’t need me to give them a voice. They had spoken loud and clear when I asked them what they wanted and needed: money and opportunities to make more money. My anthology and good intentions did not do that for them.

Recently, I spoke out online against this sort of well-meaning activism. Several fellow children’s writers participated in a Black Lives Matter initiative. Something didn’t sit right with me when I was asked to use the name of Alton Sterling, hours after his death, to offer critiques or ARCs of my novel in exchange for donating to the Sterling family or the Black Lives Matter movement. I had the visceral reaction that this was too raw, too soon. I asked that the founder consider removing the middleman and rewards, and have people donate to the family directly. As another fellow writer pointed out, it was a “mismatch of cause and activity.” But the initiative continued because, in this situation, direct action trumps mourning. The overwhelming need to “do something” supersedes quiet, reflective time to ask “wait, what is happening to us?” Good intentions outweighed perceived inactivity. 

With the recent criticism of e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce, I couldn’t help but to wonder about this heavy burden of good intentions. When the discussion about the book was first brought up in a private Facebook group, I was at my agency’s retreat. Charlton-Trujillo was also there. I was one of two Black people at this retreat, and the only Black woman. My dear friends were very vocal about the problems in this book. And at times, I was within arms-length from the author. So we talked. I set the book and everything I’ve read about it aside to connect with the person away from screens and social media, to have a real heart to heart. The beautiful scenery and overall good vibes at the retreat begged for this sort of exchange.

After our conversation, I was reminded of the few times I had to approach some of my children’s teachers with, “I know you love your students, but this is problematic.” I truly cannot deny the author’s love, heart, and purity of intentions—it was all there. Having my children in progressive schools with mostly white teachers warrants that I rely on intuition—to feel a person out, connect with their heart, and gauge where their intentions may lie. And in most cases, this heart, these good intentions, are shrouded in White-Man-Burdenism—this need to save or help or give voice to without asking, “What is it that you want? What is it that you need from me, or how can I help you?”

I’ve learned this from my husband over the years. He’s realized that he’s a high school teacher, not a replacement father-figure to his students. He only listens without rushing to action, then asks, “What are YOU going to do about it?” or “What would YOU like me to do?” He empowers his students this way. He’s not there to save them from themselves. As an art teacher, he gives them supplies to create mirrors in the form of visual art. These mirrors are outlets and tools for self-expression. These mirrors are not windows into their hard lives for others to watch with pity. Their perceived pain and trauma is not fodder for guilt, thus fueling White-Man’s-Burdenism in the minds of voyeurs. Their art belongs to only them—however beautiful, disjointed, or painful.

I’m still learning how to do this as a writer for children. I have to shed the need to save, to write for, or to give voice to. The mirror needs to be held up to myself first. When I tell a story, I have to remind myself that this is about me and others like me first and foremost. I center my own experiences within the story, so that when it goes out into the world, I will personally connect with my readers, and they to me. Writing gives voice to the writer and no one else. The truth within the story will resonate with readers on its own. Problematic books written by outsiders are a mirror held up to that writer and the group she belongs to. The book says “This is what I think of you, or this is how I perceive you.” This voice, this perception does not belong to us. That is your voice as the writer. That is your truth, not ours.

Like the smothering parent that I am, every good intention needs to step back and check itself. Loosen that grip, let go of that need to save or protect or speak on behalf of, and ask instead, “What do YOU need?” or “What would YOU like me to do?” 

We need room to tell our own stories. Even if we hurt ourselves in the process with our own problematic content, we need breathing room to be reflective and unearth those deeply-planted seeds of colonization. We were taught to hate ourselves and everything about our traditions. Serving us more self-hate in the form of help, or placing warped, tainted lenses -- not mirrors -- before everyone’s eyes in the form of story, only deepens this wound. 

And like those teen girls in Haiti, we would like you to give us money (grants, scholarships, etc.), or create opportunities that will enable us to support ourselves and our families. Money and opportunities are tools for empowerment. Intend to empower us, level the playing field, cultivate true equity. Instead of writing our story, let us write it ourselves and get paid for it. Then we can begin to create self-sufficiency to rebuild our families and communities. Step aside and let us also stand at the helm of your non-profit organization or company whose mission it is to help or save us. Don’t stand on our backs and shoulders perpetually reaching down, offering to assist, while you remain standing on our backs and shoulders for all of eternity.

Most important of all, listen. Yes, to the help. Yes, to offering to assist and doing something so that there is a sea change. But when we say, “Ouch! That hurts,” or “We can do it ourselves,” step back and listen. Give us room to breathe.

Here are some bite-sized questions:

Before Writing the Other, ask yourself:
1) Is there another book like it written by a person from that community?
2) How can I center my own story and voice without appropriating another culture or community?

3) How can I discuss [insert issue here] through the lens of my own community?  

Ibi Zoboi holds an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her debut young adult novel, American Street, will come out from Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins in February 2017, and a middle grade novel My Life As An Ice Cream Sandwich is forthcoming from Dutton Young Readers. 


Unknown said...

Thank you for this thoughtful essay. I am quietly trying to understand and this was helpful.

Anonymous said...

Yes, thank you. I'm really struggling with this one, because I've met the author and think she has a great heart, but I know that "but she means well, so you shouldn't call her out" is white privilege at its worst. I really like the way you explain what it means to tell our own story. I've worked with Latinx students for decades, but if I were to try to write their lives--argh.

"Don't stand on our backs and shoulders perpetually reaching down, offering to assist." I maybe need to stamp this on my arm for easy reference.

Traci Sorell said...

Beautiful, well-stated and on point. Wado!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this!

"And like those teen girls in Haiti, we would like you to give us money (grants, scholarships, etc.), or create opportunities that will enable us to support ourselves and our families. Money and opportunities are tools for empowerment. Intend to empower us, level the playing field, cultivate true equity. Instead of writing our story, let us write it ourselves and get paid for it. Then we can begin to create self-sufficiency to rebuild our families and communities." -- Every publishing company needs to hear and remember these words!

Monica Edinger said...

Really appreciated this. Shared it with my school community, an NYC progressive one with many white faculty and staff who need to think hard about White-Man-Burdenism as well as everything else in this complicated situation. Thank you so much.

Jenn said...

Love this essay so much as it touches upon everything being felt. Thank you, Ibi for this dichotomy and expressing it in this forum for understanding.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you for this essay, Ibi! Your experience in Haiti shows that insiders in one context can be outsiders in another and how important it is to listen.

Laurie Thompson said...

A beautiful and thoughtful post, Ibi. Thank you.

David Macinnis Gill said...


Debra Johnson said...

This essay covers a lot of ground, and it does so beautifully. I truly appreciated that you addressed both savior mentality and victim narratives.

My focus here is on books that center on black suffering. These books are profoundly damaging to a child's self-image. When there are few books allowed in the marketplace that differ from this, a false narrative emerges. These books are no more representative of the black community, than a book centered on mob life would be for the white community. And yet, by their proliferation, they become the predominant image of blackness.

I've read that some authors seek, with good intentions, to educate white audiences on the trials and travails of black life through these stories. I don't know if that was the case for the book referenced in the essay. But in that instance, the author gave birth to a language that is barely recognizable (to black people) as some form of English. How does this help the black community fight negative stereotypes? What good intention did it fulfill-for black people? How is the black child who reads this book to feel about herself or her future? My guess, and it is just that, is that those questions were never asked. After all, it may be that this book that is about us was never meant for us. I understand that, so instead, I'll ask: what will the non-black child who reads this book learn about the black community? How will reading this book help dismantle white supremacy? Or is this a book that will, unintentionally, reinforce the idea that white supremacy is founded on black ignorance, promiscuity, and/or criminality?

The proliferation of victim stories is disheartening. Count the number of books about slavery or ghetto life in any library, and know that similar works are written and published every day.

For those with good intentions, I would hope that more consideration will be provided to the long lasting impact of feeding the internalized racism many children of color carry.

Lindsey Lane said...

This post will have me thinking for quite sometime. Thank you, Ibi.

Anonymous said...

I am grateful to learn through your experiences. I really want to learn to learn more.

Hanna said...

Don't stand on our backs and shoulders perpetually reaching down, offering to assist, while you remain standing on our backs for all of eternity.

Hear, hear. Thank you for this. I hope writers heed your wise words and ask themselves these essential questions. Readers and writers alike will all benefit.

Unknown said...

This is a beautiful essay. I did want to say something, though. I am a neurodiverse person. My partner, who also is, was very nearly shot by police for no cause whatsoever, so when I hear about people dying that way, it makes me feel like my world is falling apart. Set aside that I have that reaction even when the victim is a POC and not neurodiverse- of course I know that's nothing the same, but the reaction is visceral. In order to keep myself and my world together and stop the bright visuals of people dying from destroying me, I have to take action. I became involved in CIT for police. I also consider myself an ally in Black Lives Matter, and give money/ help to those causes. I know I do it for myself. But I need to. I can't stand back and solemnly reflect in those moments. I'm sure there are members of the Black and other communities who feel the same as I, and there needs to be room for us to do what we need to do for ourselves in those moments, as well.

Anonymous said...

Reflecting on Ibi's essay which I read a couple of times through and also some of the comments, I am reminded of something I did and found "wrong with myself" as a younger person: I kind of "needed" some other people to be in distress to prove that I could be the shoulder to cry on, the compassionate ear to divulge sufferings to (even at 3 a.m. in the morning,) and the arms that open to hold and embrace during times of sorrow. There was a strong desire in me (perhaps still is) to be that hero, be that unique and necessary person in someone else's life. It took me a long time and some fairly drastic friendship/relationship seismic changes to realize that it is so important to actually understand and figure out what IS the best and most needed ways to help with any particular situation -- sometimes it means for me to offer encouragement but not to do something FOR someone else, and sometimes it means for me to reach out to others who can help with the situation better, and sometimes, in order for things to become better, it takes for me to stay back, stand aside, and be quiet.

I think sometimes, believing that those who are in distress will be able to find their voices and ways to express and fix problems is also a truly respectful way to show one's ally-ship and support. (But of course, in a way that it is clear that it is out of compassion, respect, and not nonchalance.)

Thank you, Ibi, for a beautiful and multi-layered, many-pronged essay that remind all of us the importance of the work and also the importance of figuring out the best way to achieve the goals.