Monday, May 13, 2019

Problematic Patterns In White Narratives About BIPOC Critique

“Cancel culture,” “Attack,” “Toxic,” “YA Twitter mob,” “McCarthyism,” “Apartheid,” “Online lynch mob,” “New-Age censorship,” “Orwellian,” “Cesspool,” “Public shaming,” “Pile-on culture,” “Thought police,” “Book burners,” “Diversity Stormtroopers,” “Cannibalistic,” “Dangerous people…”

The list goes on and on (and on and on). These are just some of the phrases regularly leveled at BIPOC scholars who utilize anti-racist lenses in their critiques of children’s literature.

Who levels these charges? Overwhelmingly, White people: librarians, teachers, book creators, publishing professionals, journalists, bloggers, and more.

Today, we examine patterns that crop up time and time again as White people create, disseminate, and escalate racist narratives about BIPOC advocates and criticism in the world of children’s literature.

(“We,” today, is Allie and Kazia Berkley-Cramer, our newest RWW member, who you can read more about at the end of this piece. Welcome, Kazia!)


Critique and criticism are an integral part of any literary or artistic community, and the world of children’s literature is no exception. Members of the community--reviewers, creators, librarians, teachers, booksellers, parents, authors and artists themselves--constantly share feedback publicly, whether on Goodreads, blogs, Twitter, or other preferred social media platforms. It’s part of the process. And at least once a year, a children’s or YA book--often a highly anticipated release--is publicly critiqued and the situation quickly escalates.

Here is the pattern we’re seeing:
  1. As per usual in children’s lit publishing, folks from the community get hold of a galley, egalley, jacket copy, art sample, early copy, etc. of a book.
  2. Folks (usually BIPOC) provide critique laying out the precise ways the work reinforces problematic, oppressive ideologies, sometimes asking others to reconsider their initial enthusiasm--sometimes publicly, sometimes privately, sometimes semi-privately. These are often intra-community conversations.
  3. White people, especially journalists with mainstream platforms and huge numbers of followers, blow up these discussions--mischaracterizing the nature of criticism, equating critique with attack, ascribing motives that include jealousy, attention-seeking, and downright malice, describing the critical community in ways that depend on racist and sexist stereotypes, crying “censorship” and “book banning” and leaving all nuanced discussions behind.
In her recent Arbuthnot lecture, Dr. Debbie Reese commented on the long history of this pattern, which predates social media and the Internet itself, and the media’s framing of these discussions. “Instead of taking children’s literature seriously… and the analysis that we try to do as critics of children’s literature, it got framed as entertainment, and drama. Assaults on freedom of speech. To the [Diversity] Jedi, those mainstream articles were ignoring the criticism that can shape children’s literature, and they were ignoring the audience for all these books. That audience is young people.… For the mainstream media, articles about these books were part of the 24-hour news cycle. They were big news in these 24-hour periods, gone from the next 24-hour cycle. But for the parents, and the teachers, and the librarians that use children’s books, and for the writers and editors and publishers, reviewers and critics who create, promote, and study children’s books, our concerns about books are not a 24-hour news cycle. For those of us who believe in the power of children’s books, we’re in it 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. We know children’s books shape the future. For hundreds of years, Whiteness has had its way, but today, we’re using social media to push against Whiteness.” (We highly recommend the entire speech, which you can see here. These remarks, 50:20-52:53.) The media’s framing, with its emphasis on “drama,” ignores the context of these discussions and their place in the long history of the fight for BIPOC representation. It also ignores the real impacts these books have on real people--primarily children.

When the overwhelmingly White, mainstream, media report on these “dramas,” they rarely include the voices of the BIPOC scholars whose critiques are under fire. We highly recommend following our Kindred Spirits (list on the right-hand side of the screen) as they lead the field of criticism as well as discussions about criticism. We especially recommend, in addition to viewing Dr. Reese’s Arbuthnot lecture, these Twitter threads by Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.


When White folks jump in, leveling charges of censorship and thought policing, responding as if the very existence of criticism with an anti-oppression lens is irrational and unexpected and new, they can literally endanger the lives of critics who have been doing this work for eons. To call criticism a “mob” or similar is to further marginalize already marginalized voices, to irrationalize them and often to equate oppressed groups with oppressors, such as when online voices are referred to as “lynch mobs.” Equating resistance to oppression with oppression itself is a highly effective, long-practiced technique used to weaken that resistance. Framing advocacy for marginalized groups as “violent” also ignores the fact that BIPOC critics run the risk of real violence from White supremacists and other terrorists who wish them bodily harm. The vast majority of us would never send a threat of violence, or wish such a thing on anyone, but when we White people buy into the narrative that BIPOC critics are “overly forceful” or “violent”--even White people who want to support their advocacy work--we are part of this problem.

Many times, White journalists (and non-journalists) cite the fact that many of these conversations happen on social media as evidence of the irrationality and ignorance informing it--conveniently disregarding that many of the people engaging and leading these discussions on social media are experts in their fields, with enormous credentials and decades of experience. White professionals frame the BIPOC who participate in criticism, especially women, as ringleaders, out to censor and damage other authors. This framing is rooted in racist and sexist stereotypes, not in facts. And although the presence or absence of scholarly qualifications shouldn’t ever disqualify someone’s lived experience, framing BIPOC critics doing advocacy work as an “angry Twitter mob” railroads over the fact that many of those prominent critics hold PhDs.

And when White journalists who employ all of the above techniques insert themselves into conversation about and/or among BIPOC critics and creators, they exploit the intra-community nature of these conversations and discredit the multi-varied expertise, opinions, and experience of Black, Indigenous, and people of color--an especially pernicious and toxic form of racism.

As Sam Bloom notes, we as a broad professional community, and White people in particular, need to come to terms with our hypocrisy in discussion criticism--who gets to be a critic, and when? Do we only cite BIPOC criticism when it’s convenient and furthers our viewpoint, or do we genuinely absorb what these scholars say to better form our own opinions? Do we value “professional” reviews over blogging and other social media, thereby prioritizing people who have the privilege of time (and thus also money) to review for journals, either completely for free or very little? While several organizations, including Kirkus and SLJ, have made a particular effort to diversify their staff of reviewers (in the best and broadest sense of the term), those with the time, energy, and connections outside of their “regular” jobs to take on this work are few and far between.

And, accusations of censorship are often wielded as clubs to strike down well-reasoned arguments; who gets to wield these clubs? Who gets to say “this is censorship” and have that sentiment believed? Throughout modern US history, the answer is almost always: White people. When BIPOC cite the CCBC statistics as evidence of the censorship of BIPOC voices, do prominent anti-censorship organizations like the NCAC and PEN throw the weight of their institutional support behind them? We’ve yet to see that.

Furthermore, whose books are canceled or postponed or celebrated by the establishment? Who bounces back, and how easily? We’ve seen an abundance of White authors and illustrators--Sophie Blackall, Jack Gantos, Daniel Handler, Meg Rosoff, Lane Smith, Raina Telgemeier, Jonah Winter, Nora Raleigh Baskin--win awards, headline book festivals, and publish further titles with ease after BIPOC scholars and critics laid bare the racism in their words, works, and deeds. Indeed, each of these authors had a long list of White protectors ready to go to bat for them, and none of them has had books actually canceled due to a public, critical outcry. This is White privilege at work.

Note, too, the pattern of specific anti-Blackness at work here--the protective outcry in defense of Black creators has been strikingly small in comparison to the fervent defense we see time and again of non-Black creators, especially of White creators. We urge anyone who believes Black creators are treated equally in this industry to check both the facts and their privilege.


Fellow White people, we ask you to consider how you perpetuate racism in how you talk and write about BIPOC critics. We ask that you evaluate your priorities, consider that books have an impact on their readers, and that impact CAN be harmful. We at Reading While White are White folks committed to learning about, and undoing, our White fragility in the context of how we respond to criticism--we ask you to join us in that commitment.

We ask you to consider this: choosing to not buy, not read, not keep, or not lift up books that are not in keeping with values of embracing equity is NOT censorship. Choosing not to provide additional platforms for creators who perpetuate racism and white supremacy is NOT censorship.

We ask that, before you level knee-jerk and irresponsible accusations of “censorship”, you consider this: do you believe that critics have the right to criticize? Or does that not fall under your definition of “free speech”? And, in turn, by leveling charges of censorship, who might you be silencing? We ask you to listen and understand critique for exactly what it is: asks for action, asks for better.

-Allie Jane Bruce
-Kazia Berkley-Cramer is excited to be joining the team at Reading While White! She’s been an avid (but quiet) reader of the blog since its inception, and is honored to be jumping into the fray. She is a White children’s librarian at a medium-sized public library, and in addition to an MS in library science, she also holds an MA in children’s literature. She co-founded the Stonewall speculation blog Medal on My Mind, is a book reviewer, and served as a member of the 2019 Sibert Award committee.


T Bigelow said...

Great article. The only point I disagree with is that I think it is important for me as an adult to read the book under discussion as part of the criticism. Its part of my learning experience.

Unknown said...

I'm interested in the writer's continued use of "White" (and subsequently Black) descriptors in CAPITAL LETTERS? What is the purpose here? A capital letter indicates a proper (and thus *specific*) noun. You ate effectively creating White as a specific group, as opposed to white as a descriptive term. But why? It seems as though you are creating the same schism you attribute to "White" critics of BIPOC critics: the defacto labeling of ALL white people as "the enemy". Would you care to explain?

Mithridates said...

'We ask that, before you level knee-jerk and irresponsible accusations of “censorship”, you consider this: do you believe that critics have the right to criticize? Or does that not fall under your definition of “free speech”? And, in turn, by leveling charges of censorship, who might you be silencing? We ask you to listen and understand critique for exactly what it is: asks for action, asks for better.'

Do you think that what you are asking in the final sentence here might contradict the rhetorical questions you ask before it?

Of course critics do indeed have the right to criticize. And let's say for the moment that those who are criticized shouldn't be histrionic about it (though their livelihoods do depend on their ability to publish in a cutthroat capitalistic publishing system).

But those who are criticized and those who disagree with the criticism should also have the right to criticize your position - no? The juxtaposition of the last sentence with those preceding it illustrates a fundamental discord embedded in your approach that your opponents can easily perceive--namely, that you ask readers to *act* on your criticisms, not to *respond* to them or *engage* with them. This doesn't seem to be a very thorough dialectical process that you want to play out: A work is put out the world; some people criticize it; the person who made the work and those who consume and enjoy it should simply change their minds and agree with everything you say and make the changes you require: end of story. Doesn't that strike you as rather too good to be true?

On the one hand, you posit creative work as that which is to be criticized and altered (or aborted) accordingly by humble and obedient authors, but on the other, you imply that your criticism is immune to further critical engagement and that it is simply to be acted upon. Some might see this as rather galling.

I think you might also reckon with an asymmetry in the stakes involved here. Those whom you ask to respond to your criticisms - as though this were easy - would definitely lose money and security if they had to respond (withdraw, delay publication) to all of your criticisms. You can agree with this, right? I mean, it's obvious. But criticisms of you, on the other hand, don't really affect you in any comparable way: You'll still have your library jobs and no one will dock your pay as a result of some critique you might have made. Your criticisms just do not take this obvious power differential into account; hence your confusion and outrage over the reactions of these authors, which you attribute to other factors. People whose livelihoods are threatened - and even if you don't think they are, they definitely *perceive* that they are; but I know some of these people and I know they have had book proposals rejected and contracts cancelled because editors and publishers are afraid of these types of criticisms - people whose livelihoods are threatened will NEVER respond to your criticisms, however well-intended, with anything except fury. If you've spent your life reading literature you should know this fact about about human beings by now. Those with institutional protection will always draw fire when they attack those without it.

sharon said...

All white people benefit from the systems of opression in place in our society. White people are very uncomfortable being named as a group or confronted as a group. I would guess that the author capitalized White intentionally to help emphasize that we ARE a group. That we DO, as a group, have different lenses we see through and different outcomes than other groups. That excepting onseself from the group is a tool White people use to get out of talking about race, racism, and the role we might play.

Sam Bloom said...

Unknown from 5/13 at 7:28, check our FAQs for info on why we capitalize White:

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Just going to respond in brief to points from T Bigelow and Mithridates

T Bigelow - This is a conversation I've had many, many times over with many people who disagree with me, and I'm not sure if this is what you're advocating, but I don't agree that in order to criticize, 100% of critics need to read 100% of the things they criticize. I don't want to get into the weeds on this because that's a different blog post, but I come back to this powerful thread by Kaye over and over:

Mithridates - We are not by any stretch asking people to never engage with, disagree with, respond to, etc., any criticism. Just like I have a right to criticize, you have a right to criticize my criticism. If you read that paragraph again, you'll see that it refers specifically to people who jump immediately to "that's censorship". It is those irresponsible accusations of censorship that we are asking people to re-consider.
We critics disagree with each other all the time, and we value the resulting conversations (indeed, we disagree within RWW with some regularity--one example:

I am struggling to respond to your final paragraph because the entire premise is off base--"criticisms of you, on the other hand, don't really affect you in any comparable way: You'll still have your library jobs and no one will dock your pay as a result of some critique you might have made" -- you are directing that at someone who is currently unemployed and who has seen people in my circles be fired, lied about by mainstream media, sent death threats, forced to leave home, and more. If you look at the patterns of overall clout and power in the children's literature field, you'll find it's overwhelmingly on the side of creators over critics. Any many of the BIPOC critics doing this work do it independently and do not have any backing of any institutional power. To suggest that creators are vulnerable and unprotected and critics are safe and unassailable is entirely incorrect.

Debbie Reese said...

The first comment sort of echoes a contentious discussion that I see online from time to time. It goes like this:

"If you haven't finished the book, you can't comment on it."

I disagree with that idea.

A few days ago, the person who tweets at JenReadsRomance had a great thread (I hope my insert of HTML code works here):

One thing they note is that if a book has offensive content, reading it (or being told to finish it) is asking for the reader to subject themself to harm. It protects the author, not the reader.

Go read the thread!

T Bigelow said...

Debbie see my comment to Allie. I am talking about me as a reader and my own personal growth in understanding. However I do think decide to pursue a disagreement with the content of the book by asking for its removal from a library shelf or from publication, I do need to read it as part if this. Probably not explaining this well. It is an easier in person discussion rather than a written one.

maecarmel said...

I have never seen any complaints about very cutting reviews in the New Yorker and elsewhere that only complain about writing style or not liking the book. I guess this is done to establish the elite reputation of the reviewer/publication. Compare that to how many names there are for people who object to racism.

Once racist books are in circulation it is even harder to get them removed. Even if they are decades old. Libraries and schools might feel their budget is too tight to let go of a book. People who buy the book are unlikely to see the Twitter conversation about it, or seek out small publishing houses with better material. Whether the author wishes for this responsibility or not, white people and others often do look to media as a source of information about people from other groups. I met people in college who admitted they had only seen black people on TV before coming to campus.

I can understand how #ownvoices sounds galling to some, that a writer should not write outside their ethnicity. While in theory it is possible to do this well and it has probably been done, in practice it is harder than it looks. Residential segregation alone makes it hard to have firsthand experience to draw on. An author doing research would have to be able to sniff out biased sources when they already know little about the subject. And research isn’t going to give you every detail you need, so you are going to fill out details from your experience, which may not be applicable.