Amy Cheney is currently the District Library Manager of Oakland Unified School District after working for many years on the behalf of incarcerated children. All views expressed are her own, and do not reflect those of her employer.
With the horrors of Amerikkkan White entitlement showing more of itself in Charlottesville this past August, I received this email from Center for Popular Action, which I quote in part:
“White supremacy (...) is a reflection of centuries-long oppressive structures that permeate every aspect of our government, financial systems, cultural norms, and society at large. It’s a system in which Black and Brown bodies are continually devalued, marginalized, and criminalized, and those that perpetrate violence on people of color are protected, promoted, and honored.”
This paragraph gave me pause. When I read “those that perpetuate violence on people of color are protected, promoted and honored” I immediately thought of a recent experience I had that illustrates this--and NOT by the Alt-Right plowing cars into people, or Sheriff Arpaio, but by well-intentioned White librarians and a venerated graphic novelist.
I attended an event about Diversity in Graphic novels in May. Jack Baur and Amanda Jacobs Foust, whom I highly respect, gave a great presentation about a history of comics that illuminated much. Thi Bui and Mariko Tamaki were on the panel representing their beautiful books. You can see the presentation here and find more useful information on this site. [updated 10/11/17]
However, I wondered why Raina Telgemeier, a White writer, whose book Ghosts has been shown to be inaccurate and an act of cultural misappropriation was on this panel about diversity.
Let’s be clear: by being on the panel, this White person was being promoted and honored.
I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was not going to go well.
And, it did not.
As a White person, I have had many experiences of my privilege in the realm of showing up to a public forum without adequate preparation because I am used to being believed, listened to, honored, promoted and protected. Donald Trump exhibits an extreme version of this where he believes everything he says is important and true and he can say it just because of who he is. I have talked on and on about something I actually knew nothing about, all the while thinking I was making a valuable point. White people don’t have to prepare or analyze, or take time to understand people’s point of view because what we think fits into cultural norms, and…..truly, underneath it all, we’ve bought into the belief that we know what we are talking about, that our conversation and voice is important because we are good, we mean well, we are a part of the solution, and... we aren’t racist.
The analysis that follows is both personal and not personal to Raina Telgemeier (RT) and the moderators (JB and AJF). They are good people, fantastic librarians and a terrific author/illustrator. It is personal only in that they have a responsibility, as all of us White people do, to uncover, unearth and deal with the legacy we have been born into.
At 41.07 in the video, a question is asked to RT.
From 41.35 onward RT deflects, devalues and marginalizes what people of color and First/Native Nations have been saying to her about her book while displaying all the classic signs of White fragility. AJF and JB support and protect her.
What is absolutely horrifying to me about this interchange is:
1. RT did not and was not able to provide a clear summary and context of the criticisms leveled against her book and break down her responsibility in perpetuating the devaluation and marginalization of people of color and First/Native Nations. She actually turned to the person of color who asked the question to provide the context.
2. RT devolved into her “right” to write a book because “some of my best friends are _______.” She focuses on her validity to write a book about Mexican Americans, in part because she married into a Latin American family. "I didn't think I was borrowing, I thought I was experiencing something on a personal level and sharing stories" (43.01). RT does not show a clear understanding of what people of color and First/Native Nations have been saying about cultural appropriation. She says that she has been thinking deeply about this, but whatever thinking she has done was not apparent or shared in any meaningful way. Here’s just one article (the basic 101 version) that outlines some issues about cultural appropriation.
3. RT’s comments devolved into personal issues that deflected from the very real issue of the genocide her book glosses over and normalizes. At 43.14 there is a clear example of White fragility and deflecting from the issues raised by people of color and First/Native Nations: “I’m not allowed to talk about going through a divorce right now, but it’s really difficult,” she says with tears. Somehow RT is now the victim - “not allowed to talk” and has extenuating circumstances - difficult divorce - that explains away/detracts from addressing the question. This is what often happens when White people are confronted about racism and it’s what people of color have brought up time and again. This was a complete deflection from the racism in the book Ghosts, the question at hand and what the panel was supposed to be about.
4. At 43.28 the moderators AJF and JB jump in to “take care” of and protect RT from her personal issues that she is using to distract from addressing the real issues of the problems of her book.
5. At 43.33 elaborate and nonsensical arguments are used to protect RT. AJF uses the bizarre argument that why we need more diversity overall is because “when there are these unique stories presented they are highly criticized because there are no other voices telling these stories” and that “it’s really easy when there is one example of it to be picked apart because it can’t be everything to everyone.” I know AJF didn’t mean that we need more diversity so that White people don’t get criticized, but that is actually what she said!
6. Accurate context is not provided by the moderators thereby perpetuating White point of view as normal. At 44.15, AJF says the book deals “a lot with California Missions” and “the things that we are taught about California Missions and the things that we are not taught about California Missions is huge.” The moderators should have been prepared--i.e. thought through carefully why they included RT on a panel about diversity, be prepared to provide a context of the feedback given by people of color and First/Native Nations and to unequivocally denounce what was written/illustrated in Ghosts that glosses over and thus perpetuates genocide and violence.
For example, they could have credited Debbie Reese, who has already been so kind to inform those that didn’t already know that California Missions were the sites of massive genocide of First/Native Nations peoples. See her analysis here to understand how Ghosts whitewashes the brutal history of the missions. The moderators and the author could have highlighted and distilled what Debbie Reese and others say in order to educate the audience as to the issues, thus honoring, promoting and valuing the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations.
7. White supremacy is used as an excuse for non-accountability. It seems that AJF’s point was that due to White supremacy we can’t be held accountable to the ways in which we have bought in, been misinformed, etc. If that’s the case, how have people of color and First/Native Nations been informed? Yes, due to White supremacy we are taught a whitewashed version of history but that doesn’t excuse us for perpetuating what we have been taught, for being so vague in our answers and not taking the platform that is given to educate, unequivocally, those in the audience that still may be unaware. Instead these three White people did not take the platform they had to do this.
The book was not criticized “because there were ghosts at the Missions” as AJF says, but 1. because the Missions setting was portrayed in a benign and thus false way and 2. as Yuyi Morales points out (in the comments section): Day of the Dead is not about ghosts but about the souls of the departed. These things could have been clearly articulated by any of the White people.
8. White supremacy is blamed and also used as an excuse for not taking personal responsibility. At 45.00 RT sorta takes ownership: “It (What is It? This needs to be clearly said!) was an oversight and I have to take responsibility for that.” However, within 7 seconds, at 45.07 she clearly does not take responsibility by saying “but it was not something flagged by a single reader, and I had several of them.” This comment highlights privilege (“I had readers”) as an excuse to justify personal innocence. She seems to be saying that not ALL these White people and other readers could be wrong! Uh, yeah. They could be and are.
9. White supremacy is blamed for victimizing us all. Non-acknowledgement of inherent bias/racism is used to justify not doing adequate research. At 50:50 RT says she did a ton of research and wishes that books and information would have been available to her. This is an example of a mistaken, passive and dangerous belief that we are all victims of White supremacy. Let’s be clear: RT is benefiting from, not victimized by, White supremacy throughout this entire debacle.
At 44:39 AJF says that “I don’t know of an editor that would have that kind of experience to question what we were taught.” First of all, this is a completely arrogant statement, second of all, it’s not true, and third of all, that’s not an excuse, reason or explanation: all of us need to learn how to question what we were taught and how we perpetuate the myth of White supremacy. In addition, it’s NOT up to people of color and First/Native Nations to do this work, but it IS up to us White people.
A simple Google search of “california missions racism” pulls up all one needed to know. On my browser this is included in the second entry: “Missions were little more than concentration camps where California's Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured and virtually exterminated by the friars.” Elias Castillo.
As to the possibility that the Scholastic editorial team did not question, fact check, google or utilize their resources to either hire a person of color or First/Native Nations to write this book or fact check a book by a White author about people of color -- that is also their responsibility that doesn’t diminish RT’s responsibility.
This “oversight” might have occurred because it might not have occurred to any of these White people that they could be unqualified or racist and that it’s their responsibility to question the status quo.
10. 46.42 Continued elaborate justifications by the moderators take more time and deflect from the purpose of the panel. Both AJF and JB appear to hold the book in such high esteem for the fact that it is taking on “this topic” (meaning Day of the Dead? Missions? Biracial kids?). All of these topics have been shown to be problematic! Why is this not acknowledged and instead explained away? JB’s perspective that “this could be the ONLY book that kids in Kansas read about this topic” means that somehow this justifies the writing of it and completely undermines, devalues, and Whitesplains away what people of color and First/Native Nations have been saying about the book.
Just to be clear - the criticism isn’t that RT is White and therefore shouldn’t have written the story. No, the problem is that she used (culturally appropriated) Latinx characters and culture that she didn’t accurately represent, and she erased a genocide. Please see Nic Stone’s terrific article about the dangers of “helping” marginalized people be more visible.
11. The people of color on the panel had just a few moments to introduce some good points and places of exploration. These were not picked up by the moderators and built upon, instead the conversation was ended. For examples: at 49.34 Mariko Tamaki clearly acknowledges her process of understanding how she might be inadvertently racist and outlines a very simple way to make an apology. This is not heard or followed up on. At 51.35 more from Mariko that’s not expanded upon. At 53.57 Thi Bui gets a few moments at the very end, when she speaks about telling stories from marginalized perspectives and listening to feedback. This is where JB ends the discussion. There were many opportunities on the panel (and before!) for RT, AJF and JB to hear what people of color and First/Native Nations were saying. Instead, the attention and time was used to support and protect RT’s personal defended stance.
12. This entire exchange took from 41:01 - 54:51--almost 15 minutes of time. This panel was supposed to be about Diversity in Graphic Novels and was derailed by a bunch of White BS.
Dare I say that all of this individual lack of ownership of the problem by White people adds up to collective systemic oppression? What I’m shining a light on here is a perfect example of a group of good, well-intentioned White people -- publishers, author, “readers”, editors, moderators, etc--acting together to assert their point of view, meanwhile devaluing and marginalizing the point of view of people of color and First Native/Nations.
Let’s be clear: promoting, honoring and protecting White people who have been educated but haven't owned their inadvertent racist mistakes = violence against people of color and First/Native Nations. It’s not complicated. It’s plain and simple.
The solidification of “White is right” violence continues with what looks like the all White judging panel for the Eisner Awards selecting Ghosts to win Best Publication for Kids (ages 9-12).
It is our responsibility as White people to:
● Assume, own and understand that we, as White people, by definition and experience, are racist, regardless of whether we are consciously bigoted.
● Realize it’s a lifelong process to understand all the ways that we are positioned in power, and consciously or unconsciously perpetuate this racist system.
● Take the time to analyze cultural norms and prepare so as to be aware and inclusive
● Question the status quo
● Expose, attend to, and acknowledge--when appropriate--all the ways that we are racist, inadvertent or not
● Be VERY clear how we benefit from and perpetuate White supremacy
● Provide clear examples and information to other White people about how we benefit and perpetuate racism and White supremacy.
● Take action to point out and dismantle the system that we are benefiting and profiting from
● Listen to, find the validity of and reach a deep understanding of people of color’s and First Native/Nation feedback--especially those we don’t understand or seem contrary to our views
● Move through our shame and excuses (didn’t know, didn’t mean to, but - blah, blah, blah)
● Come to a clear acknowledgement of feedback
● Incorporate this information into our conversation
● Take action to rectify the problem, especially at personal expense. This means taking action that is not easy, convenient or lucrative, but is doing the right thing to make amends and reparations.
● Not expect people of color and First/Native Nations to shoulder the burden of analysis, feedback, context of how we have bought into and perpetuate White supremacy.
● Google “racism” + keywords
If indeed, if RT, AJF and JB want to take responsibility, the response could have been/can be any number of things such as:
● Use the platform of the panel on Graphic Novel diversity and Eisner award to inform about the many problems of the book
● Acknowledge the people of color and First Native/Nations that brought the racism to light
● Not accept the award or the position on the panel but refer a person of color or First/Native Nations to participate and highlight
● Have a forum to extend deeper the racism brought to light
● Give back all proceeds of the book to small presses that are highlighting people of color and native people such as Blood Orange Press, or one of the presses listed here.
● Stop the press run of Ghosts and refuse to make money by perpetuating ignorance and inaccuracies that ultimately harm us all and that are off of the backs of people of color and First/Native Nations.
● Issue an apology
● Keep the video that is linked in this piece up on the web. In this way other White people who want to see what covert yet solidified racism looks like can.
Unconsciousness or good intentions doesn’t excuse behavior or make it less racist and violent. Illuminating and eradicating racism takes vigilant work that can only come about if it’s understood that we are inadvertently and covertly racist and that we will inevitably expose this. We then need to learn to own this racism, learn from our mistakes, speak out, refuse to participate with the status quo and take positive action for a more equitable and just world. Only when personal responsibility is taken can oppressive systems be dismantled.