To me, it looks like White people seeing and naming race, but refusing to acknowledge that race has meaning. For example, we White people have a vested interest in continuing to call for and champion books in which characters’ racial identities mean little or nothing (to us). Conversations and criticisms about what some refer to as “casual diversity” aren’t new, but I’ve seen them showing up more and more in conference sessions, book clubs, and other spaces in recent months. We need to ask ourselves: What is it about the idea of “casual diversity” that makes it so appealing to us White people?
One look at the CCBC statistics shows the imbalance of power in kidlit, and the need for more stories expressing a range of genres, experiences, emotions, and characterizations. I am NOT saying that there is not a need for increasing books by and about POC and Native people about all sorts of experiences, including books about contemporary, “normal” kids. I am not saying that we shouldn’t listen to people speaking about their own marginalized racial identities and what types of books they would like to see or write more of and why (please let’s do that!). I am asking us White people to recognize that when we have a laser focus on “casual” racial diversity over other issues in kidlit, it takes on a layer of meaning given the overwhelming Whiteness of the industry. I am asking us to recognize that we have limits to our understanding of others' racial experiences and we also have the unearned privilege to define and regulate what is seen and perceived as “normal” or “casual” in the first place. And as fellow RWW contributor Megan Schliesman pointed out to me in a recent email about this post, when we White people categorize #OwnVoices books as “casual diversity,” we are erasing their cultural context whether we understand and see it or not.
As Laura Jiménez recently wrote in this thoughtful post, kidlit has seen calls for more diverse representation answered with more White people publishing “random non-White, non-straight, disabled, non-neurotypical characters, as long as those characters are just like them. You know, ‘normal’, which is White code for ‘White, like me.’” In our White-dominated industry, racial diversity is sometimes reduced to picking a paint color or a character’s name. This is shallow, and it ignores the realities that people and characters with those marginalized identities live, see, experience, and endure. This way of thinking, publishing, and promoting literature devalues the concept of #OwnVoices and maintains White supremacy culture, spreading a flawed message that the world is experienced universally. Can writers from a dominant culture create characters from minoritized groups that “just happen to have” any oppressed identity? Nobody “just happens to be” a member of a racial group. Race has meaning in our world. Whiteness has meaning. Kidlit doesn’t just happen to be a “white space.” The Whiteness of the industry, just like White-controlled neighborhoods, schools, and institutions, is not an accident. (Note that even our assessments and norms for what “good art” is are rooted in centuries of White dominance that has largely gone unchallenged by other White people.)
Contemporary colorblind racism also shows up when White people support the myth of meritocracy, the idea that White creators today have success because they have earned it as individuals with no added racial privilege, and that criticism—especially criticism from POC and Native women—is just sour grapes, oversensitivity, attention-seeking, or toxic bullying. The belief that calls for equity involve Native people and POC getting opportunities over "better qualified" White people is rooted in literal White supremacy; it assumes that White writers are superior or writing from an objective stance and that critiques against them aren’t the “right” way of thinking or acting. When we White people are afraid of the “D-Word” or attack, discredit, and mischaracterize the work and lived experiences of leader-scholars from marginalized groups, we are refusing to acknowledge the concrete forms of discrimination that have created the way our industry looks like and continues to function today. When White people say we want diversity but then complain about one’s right to publish books about characters outside of our experiences without criticism, often what we are saying is “I want diversity, but I don’t want equity. I still want the power. I am entitled to control.” When we White people complain about how hard it is to be White in today’s publishing landscape when only 7% of children’s books in that landscape are written by Black, Latinx, and Native creators...those feelings might be real, but they are not rooted in reality (and as the saying goes: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”).
Whether we White people are miscategorizing criticism against us or trying to control narratives for change, we are refusing to engage. We are refusing to believe. We are refusing to listen. We are refusing to learn. This is where our racial colorblindness and where all of our predictable behaviors of White fragility or White aggression show up. It is willful ignorance and it is incompetence. It is power hoarding and it is aggression. It is racism. Unless we are working on understanding that and working to build the stamina to own it and and try to push against it when we see it in others as well as in ourselves, we are supporting it.