Ellen Oh is co-founder, President, and CEO of We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing diversity in children’s literature. She is also a former adjunct college instructor and corporate/entertainment attorney. She is the author of the YA fantasy trilogy The Prophecy Series and the MG novel Spirit Hunters: Book 1. Spirit Hunters: Book 2 will be published Summer 2018.
I am going to be blunt. I am asking you not to get offended with what I have to say but to listen with an open mind and don't take anything personally. This is not personal to any one individual; it concerns the larger community.
When We Need Diverse Books launched, I received heinous death threats and rape threats on such a continuous basis I had to shut down all social media for awhile. At one point, I deleted my Twitter entirely and only came back because of the #whitewashedout movement. I still get accused of promoting White genocide and I have been called the c-word so often it doesn't even faze me anymore (and it used to make me livid). I've had emails from people who clearly knew where I lived and made comments about my children; I had to skip ComicCon due to specific threats that made me very uncomfortable. And all of this, for something I do on a voluntary and uncompensated basis.
And yet, here I am 4 years later still trying hard to teach people that diverse books are not a threat to anyone, but rather, that they make for a better world. So. Let’s talk about fear, confusion, and scarce opportunities that White writers have been complaining about. Let’s talk about how White writers are afraid of asking questions for fear of being labeled bad or racist.
Asking questions is part of the growing process. Being afraid to look bad, or racist, because you asked a question--this doesn't even make sense to me. Just ask me, or any of us who have shown a willingness to discuss this issue. Yes, we are tired of constantly talking about the same thing, but we would much rather answer questions than deal with misrepresentations and hostility. And, so what if your question makes you feel bad, or you are embarrassed? If those uncomfortable feelings are the extent of the problem, who cares? People ask me questions all the time. I have never threatened them with death, rape, or attacked their children for existing. But threats have become a part of my life solely because I advocate for diversity in children's literature. So to me, your uncomfortable feelings stem from a place of privilege that I and other IPOC have never had the experience of, and will not experience, in our lifetime. And I know that it offends people when we point this out. But I would much rather be offended than deal with threats of violence.
Let’s talk about the heart of the question. Do we want people to write diversely? Yes. We do. When you write your White main character stories, you should people those stories with lots of diversity that reflects the world around us. And that should be par for the course. Next question, should you write a main character who is an IPOC? The answer is: It depends. Will your story use a White lens to tell the story? Then NO. Will your story have a White savior theme to it? Then NO. Will your story exploit the pain of a marginalized culture to get you a paid writing gig? Then NO. Would your story be better told by a person writing from that marginalized community instead? All of these points are based on racism, colonialism, and the White lens and how it shapes the telling of IPOC stories. That's why when you do research to write your story, part of your research is to explore these very points to see if you even should tell the story. There are plenty of great writers who can write outside their lanes brilliantly. They don't ask these types of questions publicly, because they ALREADY know these issues, have already figured out if they can do the best job writing these stories, and then they just do it. And you know what? Sometimes even they will still get it wrong. But the difference is, they listen, they learn, and they do better.
I have never ever said that White writers should never write about IPOC. And in fact in every talk, every event, every workshop I have ever given I always repeat the same advice to writers who want to write a story about IPOC:
1. Do you need to tell this story?
2. If you really feel you need to tell this story, then get it right!
3. And be prepared for criticism if you don't.
It is amazing to me that I'm so often attacked as some kind of militant diversity police officer stopping White writers from writing about IPOC. Here's the blogpost that gets me in trouble all the time. I wrote it back when We Need Diverse Books first started, in response to a pattern of White writers calling diversity a "hot trend". They were trying to leverage the sudden interest in diversity to help themselves get published. This problem continues today. The CCBC's data doesn’t lie: There’s been an increase in IPOC books published, but they are mostly by White writers. That was the main point of my blogpost, which is from February 2016. The last paragraph of my post is a paragraph of Don'ts pointing out how not to use diversity to get published. For all those who seem to think this post was telling White people not to ever write about IPOC, try reading it again. And you will see that for every don't, there is a do.
Listen, I know criticism can hurt. My first book received reviews that said it read like a "bad translation of a Shlocky Chinese book". Reviewers also said, “don't read Prophecy for good Asian Fantasy, read Eon or Stormdancer or Across the Nightingale Floor” etc.--all books by White writers. Some bloggers trashed my book so badly that I actually received emails from several bloggers telling me that although they liked my book, they were afraid to say so publicly for fear of being mocked by these more influential bloggers. This broke my heart but it didn't stop me from writing. Receiving criticism--sometimes harsh--is not unique to White writers, but feeling entitled to no criticism--particularly criticism along racial lines--is unique to White writers.
People get so mad at Debbie Reese for criticizing bad Native American representation. They say she is tearing down people who are allies. Why does it matter if they are an ally if they made a mistake? If I messed up, I would thank Debbie for tearing me a new one and teaching me to do better and in the process teaching everyone else. It hurts. Yes. But it isn't about you as the writer, it is about the kids reading the book. And DAMN IT in a world where a major football franchise refuses to give up its racist name, and public schools across the country won't recognize the racism of their mascots, we need Debbie to keep us accountable and to remind us of the pain of an entire community of people.
So yes, ask questions. There are people who will answer them for you, if you just ask. And please don't get offended if we get cranky or short or if we aren't as nice or as polite as you would like us to be. Remember you are not the first, nor will you be the last, to ask us.
-Allie Jane Bruce helped edit this post.