If You’re Not #OwnVoices, Maybe You Shouldn’t Write It

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Trigger Warning: The following discusses self-injury.


A couple days ago, a book blogger posted a photo on Instagram that several members of her audience and the book community felt triggered by. In the photo, she’d painted her hand and arm blue and added bleeding cut marks in gold. When several people politely pointed out that her photo was making them think of self-harming, she became defensive, saying she hadn’t read the book yet and didn’t know that it was harmful. She continued by stating that because she’s an artist, her photo can’t possibly be harmful because it’s art. (See screenshots of the photo and one of her comments here; the rest of her and others’ comments have been mysteriously deleted.)

It got worse from there. While more people politely spoke up and said that they too felt triggered by the photo, she became more defensive and began accusing these people of bullying her. She began deleting anyone’s comments who disagreed with her, and invited her friends to jump in and defend her from this horde of mean people recovering from self-harm. Other people started jumping in, saying “Well, it doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you.”

When someone tells you “This hurts me, please stop,” your job is not to get defensive or angry. Your job is to listen to the human being in front of you. An appropriate response would be “I’m so sorry. I had no idea but I’m listening and I’d like to talk about this so I can do better.”

Whenever this happens, though, it’s almost always a marginalized person being bullied by a person of privilege. This blogger had no idea the effect of her photo because she’s never suffered from self-harm. She even admitted it herself, saying something to the effect of “I have depression and anxiety, but never self-harmed, so no one should be bothered by this.”

If you don’t know what the motherloving hell you’re talking about, maybe you should just not.

The book in question is Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth—a book that has been discussed to great extent for its many problematic themes. There are so many issues with this book, it’d take me a whole other blog post and then some to cover them, so I’m not going to go into detail. What I am going to talk about, though, is how privileged authors and their hordes of privileged fans are doing the marginalized communities that they pretend to serve more harm than good.

This should be obvious, right? Gather ’round. I’ll Liz-splain it to you, in case it isn’t.

Here’s how this goes down. Authors like Roth—who don’t suffer from chronic pain or self-harm, and are white—decide they want to tell a story. Maybe their intentions are good. Maybe they genuinely want to shine light on what it’s like to struggle with self-injury and chronic pain while showing the world that dark-skinned people are not dangerous by default. But in their lack of experience, their inherent prejudices show through. You don’t have to be purposely hateful to be prejudiced, by the way. This is another thing that privileged people can’t seem to wrap their heads around, but I digress.

Roth’s portrayal of these themes is problematic because of her lack of experience and neglect to consult anyone with those experiences. Often privileged authors go dancing into writing a diverse book like they’re doing marginalized communities some great big favor. They’re not.

Look, I’m a huge advocate for diverse books. I believe that the more of us who are writing them responsibly, the more normal they become. Readers won’t have to search very hard to find characters like them. But if you can’t be bothered to admit that something is outside your area of expertise and find an editor plus beta and sensitivity readers who do have that knowledge, then you shouldn’t bother to write that book. Leave that space for someone who does know what they’re talking about.

It’s pretty simple.

And if your fans are behaving problematically, posting triggering photos without regard for the people who are very nicely speaking up about it, then your book is acting as a catalyst for abuse, completely condoned by your flippant interview responses.

As authors, we have a responsibility for the weight of our words. There’s nothing wrong with including a particular topic or theme in our books—so long as it isn’t inappropriately glorified or vilified. We can’t control how our words are interpreted, nor can we control our readers’ actions, but we can do our very best to articulate ourselves well. That’s our damned job, after all.

I’ve been seeing a lot of marginalized people asking non-#OwnVoices people to stop writing diverse books, and I’m inclined to completely agree with them. Even when privileged authors do so responsibly, those who think they’re above serving their readers with care ruin it for everyone else. There are so many POC, chronic pain patients, and survivors of self-harm who should’ve had this publishing opportunity over someone who has never experienced these things and can’t possibly understand the perspective she’s written from.

I’m all for bringing diversity into your fiction whenever you can, but this attitude that some authors have—this sense of entitlement that they can do whatever they want and too bad for anyone who’s hurt by it—needs to stop. It’s a message loud and clear to your horde of privileged readers that it’s okay to treat other people with the same prejudice and disrespect.

We see you.

The Weight of Words

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Words and the way we use them are immeasurably important. The adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” never rang true for me. Growing up, I was a damned near constant target of bullying. Nothing has had a deeper effect on me than the words that permeated through my soul.

When you hear something often enough, it chips away at you. No matter how hard you try to just shrug it off, you begin to believe it.

Words are my art medium, so I feel an even stronger responsibility for their use. This is why I was appalled to see this:

Not because I didn’t know that “spook” was a slur, but because an entire publishing team didn’t know—or didn’t care. There aren’t nearly enough people of color in publishing, nor are there nearly enough white people in publishing who actually speak up or, at the least, listen to their colleagues.

It’s true that words often change over time or hold multiple meanings, but that’s never an excuse for using them. As writers and publishers, we have a responsibility to choose and use words wisely. As white people living in a world that has always been diverse and always will be, we have a responsibility to remember the weight of racial slurs, to teach each other and our children their meaning and why it’s harmful to use them.

I’m white, so I can’t know what it’s like to have toxic words lobbed at me, stripping me of my humanity because of my skin color, but I do know what it’s like to be pelted with poison

again

and again

and again

until it seeped into my skin and became a part of me. I’m a full-grown woman but to this day I carry certain negative beliefs about myself because I heard them said to me so often. The difference is, the words that hurt me aren’t intertwined with my daily life, embedded in society. I don’t have to worry about whether a book that I pick up to enjoy will remind me that I’m viewed as other and wrong in the world that I live in.

No one should have to worry about that.

Yes, “spook” also means “spy” in the U.K., but here in the U.S. it’s also a derogatory description of black people. Its etymology varies depending on the source, and the Merriam-Webster doesn’t even list it as a slur. A huge part of progress is remembrance; here in the States, we have a bad habit of erasing important things from our collective memory, especially when it makes white people uncomfortable.

The things that we don’t talk about always come back to hurt us as a collective, doing the most damage to people of color. Ignorance enables oppression.

This is why we white people need to remember the weight of our words, to teach our children and each other how septic they can be. Pretending they no longer exist enables an entire publishing team—linguistic professionals!—to overlook an eviscerating racial slur.

Just like it wasn’t my responsibility to explain to my abusers why their words were harmful, it is not the responsibility of people of color to educate white people about slurs.

As a nation, we must remember them and confront the pain they cause head on.

And dammit, we need more people of color in publishing. We also need more white people in publishing who are willing to challenge these things right alongside them.

Enough Is Enough #BlackLivesMatter

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On the night that Trayvon Martin was shot to death by a white man full of hate, my entire world flipped upside down. Up until that moment, I’d naively believed that racism, for the most part, was a thing of the past. It was only four years ago, but I can still remember where I was when I heard the news. I can still recall the chill that ran down my spine. Gone was the secure world I’d been living in.

That same feeling crashed into me again two summers ago when Michael Brown was fatally shot and killed by another white man. I felt sick to my stomach and completely helpless as the world around me erupted. The #BlackLivesMatter movement began, and with it all of my preconceptions about racial relations here in the States were deconstructed. Late nights on Twitter and long sessions on Google provided me with an entirely new education; I learned about white privilege and how my experience growing up here in the northern state of Connecticut has been extremely different from someone my age growing up in a southern state.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve made a lot of new friends on Twitter—people just like me, with similar dreams and needs, but because of our skin colors, we’ve had vastly different experiences. I’ve never been treated any differently because I happen to have been born white. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have other people assume I’m dangerous because my skin is dark. I have, however, experienced unkind treatment because I’m a woman, because I’m disabled, because I have a mental illness, and because I’m bisexual. But I’ve never feared for my life because of my skin color.

Though I’ve been loud on social media, doing my best to amplify the #BlackLivesMatter movement and educate others, I’ve still been mostly quiet about all of this. Most of my white family members and friends don’t exactly get it. After all, we grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut—a city with only about a 50% white population. Racial relations here are good. I mean, there are some assholes, but they’re vastly outnumbered. It’s not out of the norm to see an interracial family or to go to the mall and see a diverse group of kids shopping together. Growing up, cliques in my schools were separated by lifestyle and music preference, not skin color. News about racial tension always seemed far away to me.

I’ve also been quiet here on this blog. It’s not usually acceptable for authors to get political. We’re expected to be neutral, to keep our mouths shut and just write our damn books. It’s a big no no, because political issues are naturally very dividing and tender topics. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t see human issues as political issues. Keeping quiet is what got us into this situation. By not talking about these things, we’ve allowed them to continue happening. We’ve allowed a racist, sexist, bigoted man to become the Republican presidential nominee. By not standing up and saying “This is not okay,” we’ve allowed two more slaughters: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

The longer we don’t talk about this, the more Freddie Grays, Sandra Blands, and Tamir Rices we’ll have.

Because the truth is, we have a severe racial issue here in the States. Now, I’m not saying police officers deserve to be killed; there are many fantastic men and women who serve and protect. But that’s just it; they’re sworn to serve and protect, not seek and destroy, as my brother-in-law said on Facebook. Police officers are trained to disarm a person suspected of being armed—not to shoot to kill. It is statistically proven that white people have an inherent fear of black people. Those same white people will vehemently deny it, but will be the first to cross the street or avert their eyes when a black man passes them on the sidewalk.

13620720_10154262410674840_1112169846526122814_nPolice have shot and killed at least 136 black people this year. Those are just the ones we know about. That’s not even counting violent racial crimes committed by white civilians. This shit bothers me. It deeply disturbs me. It literally keeps me lying awake at night, my heart pounding because I’m fucking scared. It is a major problem that we cannot afford to ignore. As I said on my personal Facebook yesterday, “I share because I don’t want my black friends or family to be the next ones found hanging or shot dead in front of their families.”

This problem is out of control.

And it will continue to be until we do something about it.

We need to stand up and say NO MORE. This is not a political or black issue. This is a crime against humanity. It is an American problem that will ripple into the rest of the world if it continues unchecked.

Our world is hanging off a precipice right now. Either you can be part of the crowd that shoves it over the edge and into the fire, or you can pull on the rope with the rest of us, trying to yank it back from danger.

Here in the States, we’ve done so much damage to people of color. We’ve pillaged and stolen their land. We’ve traveled overseas, stormed peaceful tribes, and enslaved their people. We’ve segregated and desecrated. We’ve murdered and raped. And then we’ve turned our backs and closed our eyes and ears.

We claim to be a land of the free, but no one is free when we live like this.

We’re still a young country. There’s still time to change. It’s not too late. It’s almost too late, but not yet.

But it starts with opening our eyes, unplugging our ears, and saying “Enough.”

Use Your Voice

  • Join the movement and get involved with Campaign Zero. This is an accountability program started by #BlackLivesMatter activists Deray McKesson and Johnetta Elzie. Johnetta, by the way, was recently featured in O: The Oprah Magazine.
  • Amplify #BlackLivesMatter voices. This is as simple as retweeting and sharing posts on social media, or joining a chapter in your area.
  • Educate yourself. Black people and other people of color have been systemically oppressed in the States for decades. History has been twisted to serve political purposes. The last couple of years have been eye opening for me as I’ve studied black history. This article and this one are great places to start. I also highly recommend watching PBS’s Black Panther Party documentary.
  • Speak up. When your white friends say something damaging or untrue about people of color, correct them. Saying nothing is just as toxic.

Solidarity matters more now than ever. We can no longer afford to remain silent.