|Author Justine Larbalestier. Photo by Niki Bern.|
My theory is that it makes us feel like we are the baddies. A notion we recoil from because we have been taught all our lives that white people are the goodies. So many of our stories are about us saving (some part of) the world from racism and exploitation: Dances with Wolves, The Help, Avatar (some other world) etc. All too often in these stories, as in probably the most famous example, To Kill a Mockingbird, we're also the baddies doing the terrible things but that's okay because we're the white saviours.
The story we often tell ourselves about white colonialism is that we saved the "savages" from their brutish, cannibalistic lives by giving them Christianity and civilization. We tend to edit out our "gifts" of small pox, massacres, slavery, and the fact that the vast bulk of verifiable incidents of cannibalism were committed by white people. *Cough* Donner party.
Coming to terms with the fact that, not only are we not the goodies, that historically we are, in fact, the big bad is not easy. Nor is realising that individually we white people can, and frequently do, hurt people on a daily basis because we don't think about how our whiteness smooths our path for us while flattening others.
When we are called on our (usually) unthinking racist statements and acts we tend to fall apart. All too often other white people rally around to tell us that the problem is not what we’ve said or done—nope, it's those mean people calling us on it.
“I'm a good person. I can't be racist.”
This spectacle is called white fragility.
It doesn't have to be that way. We white people can get out of our own way.
Here's what I do when a Person of Colour or an Indigenous person calls me out (in the non-duelling sense):
1. Assume they're speaking in good faith because they know more about racism than I do. Too many of us whites are convinced we know more about racism than the people who actually experience it. We don't. Even those of us with PhDs on the subject. Someone saying something mean about us because we're white is not the same as systemic racism.
2. Listen. That uncomfortable feeling? I've learnt that it's a good thing. I no longer run away from it.
3. Learn. This is the part where I figure out why the criticism is making me feel uncomfortable. Always remembering that feeling uncomfortable is nothing compared to being subjected to racism. Discomfort isn't lethal.
4. Assume that the calling out is not about me but about making the world a less racist, more equitable place.
5. Do what I can to make the world a less racist, more equitable place. Obviously, this is the hardest part.
Ways white writers can make the world (or publishing, at least) a less racist, more equitable place:
To help diversify YA, we white authors can support Indigenous authors and Authors of Color by reading their books, recommending their books, blurbing their books, and recommending them to our agents. When we're invited to conferences, or festivals, or to be in anthologies, make sure they're not majority white. We need to make more space for People of Colour and Indigenous people in our very white publishing industry.
These are by far the most important things we can do personally to increase diversity.
However, I keep seeing white authors getting hung up on whether white people are allowed to write from points of view not our own. Spoiler: we're allowed. No one is stopping us. Will doing so make YA more diverse? No, it won't.
Obsessing over that question has little to do with making YA a more diverse genre and everything to do with centering the concerns of white authors. A more important contribution to making YA more diverse would be to stop obsessing about it. Yes, we were taught by To Kill a Mockingbird that racism can be solved by a well-intentioned white person saving the day, but maybe it's time to say goodbye to that more-than-fifty-years-old model.
Recently I've said I'm going to focus on writing white main characters in my single point of view novels. That's a personal decision. I've not told anyone else to do likewise. This decision is also not much of a contribution to diversifying YA. It's about my journey grappling with my whiteness and racism and fragility.
My name is Justine Larbalestier and I'm white and fragile.
For too long time I believed in being a white saviour. I thought that by writing from the point of view of a Person of Colour I was helping make YA more diverse. I was helping YA's diverse readership see themselves represented. There were so few books for them! I was supplying the lack! I was doing good!
For years the response to my books—glowing reviews, award nominations, fan letters from People of Colour—supported my belief that I was doing good.
I had read critiques of the white saviour complex but was sure they didn't apply to me. But one day in early 2009 a black woman blogger wrote a critique of my novel Liar.
Liar has a black teen protagonist. The blogger wrote that the book hurt her, that it was full of painful tropes, and that she would not read anything else I wrote unless it was not about People of Colour because I could not be trusted with the stories of anyone who isn't white. Further, that she wasn't going to read any more books with PoC protags by white people because we always get it wrong.
I felt like I'd been punched.
It was the most painful criticism any of my books had ever received and I've had reviews call for my books to be burnt and me to be slapped.
I sent the critique to several friends so they could reassure me she was wrong.
Yes, in the face of someone literally stating she had been hurt by the racist tropes in my book, all I wanted was reassurance. I thought my hurt feelings were more important than her actual pain.
That right there is white fragility.
I'd love to tell you that I understood that at the time. I didn't.
I knew enough not to say anything publicly. I just moaned to my friends.
Not long afterwards people started realising that the cover of Liar had been whitewashed. That particular blogger wrote brilliant critiques of the whitewashing. She was one of the many voices who helped get the cover changed. I continued to follow her work online and found myself agreeing with the majority of it.
Which only made her criticism burn more. She was right about so many other things, did that mean she wasn't wrong about my book? I wanted to believe she was wrong. My friends had told me she was. Besides, she'd gotten several details of the plot wrong. Clearly her anger blinded her. It was an angry, disgusted, sarcastic review. She used the word "ugh" a lot. She wasn't being reasonable.
I ignored the critique and went on to write (with Sarah Rees Brennan) yet another book with a PoC main character, Team Human. This time the protagonist was Chinese American. There were no critiques from well-known bloggers. I saw one or two reviews on Good Reads by Chinese American reviewers who had problems with it. But it got great trade reviews! Lots of other Chinese American readers loved it!
I kept thinking about that review. More and more blog posts and articles were appearing about the lack of PoC and Indigenous writers in YA and the need for diversity. The conversation was starting to shift from merely being about representation. There was growing talk about who wrote those trade reviews, who gave out those awards. Overwhelmingly white people.
I'm not sure when it happened but sometime in the last few years, amidst the growth of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices, I started to realise that blogger was right. Of course she was right. Liar had hurt her. I had hurt her. More than that, I finally realised her critique was not about me. It wasn't all that much about my book, either.
She was explaining what it's like to read books by white people that purport to be about people like her, that arrogantly trample on her lived experience, without a thought as to how that affects her. She was saying she'd had enough. She didn't trust white writers like me. And why should she?
We white people tend to judge books individually and not within the wider context of systemic racism. PoC and Indigenous readers don't have that luxury. They can't step outside their lived experience. The racism in one particular book might seen mild—or even invisible—to white me, but for the PoC reader who has been bombarded with those tropes over and over and over again, it's too much.
Her critique showed me how high the stakes are.
Before I read her critique I had never seriously considered the harm I could cause writing PoC and Indigenous characters.
Her angry, disgusted, sarcastic critique was what finally got through to me.
The fact that it took me so long to hear what she was saying also made me realise that there is no way to talk about white privilege or racism that doesn't get heard by many white people as an attack. Even if she had written her critique in a nice way I'd still have felt gut-punched.
Frankly, back when I first read that critique I'd read hundreds of books and articles about white privilege, white supremacy, appropriation, diversity, racism. Most of them written very nicely indeed with nary an angry word. I'd not thought any of them had much to do with me because I was sure that I'm one of the good ones. Like that nice white lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird who saves the day.
Frankly, her anger got through to me more effectively than if she had been nice.
I reread that critique while writing this essay. Here's the thing: it wasn't that angry or sarcastic. It was more sad and disappointed.
It sounded angry to me back then because I didn't want to think about how my books weren't helping YA to become diverse. I didn't want to think about how I was part of the problem. I wasn't ready to listen so I heard it as angry yelling.
Until we white writers are ready to listen, until we're ready to accept that, yes, we are a part of systemic racism, yes, we benefit from white supremacy, it doesn't matter what the tone is, we won't be able to hear or understand what's being said.
A big part of why we find it so hard to listen is that we whites are rarely taught about race. Unless we're very lucky, our parents don't sit us down and explain it. Our teachers mostly don't either. Most of us have not been prepared to think or talk about race. As a result most of us will literally do anything we can to avoid talking about it.
This feeling that we're the baddies is so uncomfortable we change the subject as soon as possible.
Or, just as bad, we follow through on naive notions about how we can fix it. You know, like writing a nice book about a good white lawyer who tries to save a black person from being jailed for a crime they didn't commit because they've been framed by a bad white person and now racism is over. Yay! A white man once told me that was the most important novel ever written about race. He wasn't joking.
We white people have much unlearning to do. Step one: throw away the myth of the white saviour. Let other communities speak for themselves.
Note: Thank you, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Scott Westerfeld and Doselle Young for your feedback on earlier drafts of this essay. All remaining infelicities of expression and unclarity are mine all mine. I'd also like to thank Edi Campbell and Debbie Reese for their amazing blogs. They are two of the best resources out there on YA, Children's Literature and representation of PoC and Indigenous people. For some of the other people who have shaped my thinking on these issues check out the people I follow on Twitter.
Although the single point of view novels I write now have white main characters they are not all-white books. I don't live in an all-white world so I don't write all-white books. The books I'm working on that have multiple point of view characters are also not all-white.
I didn't name the blogger I discuss above because she critiqued my book without naming it. She did that because she was tired of white people yelling at her every time she critiqued a book for being racist. I wasn't about to point more of them in her direction.
Justine Larbalestier is an Australian-American author of eight novels. Her most recent, My Sister Rosa, is about a seventeen-year-old boy whose ten-year-old sister is a psychopath. It was published in February by Allen and Unwin in Australia and New Zealand and will be out in North America in November published by Soho Press. Her previous novel is Razorhurst, which takes place on a winter’s day in 1932 when Dymphna Campbell, a gangster’s moll, and Kelpie, a street urchin who can see ghosts, meet over the dead body of Dymphna’s latest lover, Jimmy Palmer. Her most popular novel, Liar, is kind of self explanatory, i.e. it’s about a liar. She edited Zombies versus Unicorns with Holly Black. Her other novels include How to Ditch Your Fairy and the Magic or Madness trilogy.