I was going to challenge Ellen Oh’s use of “WE” when I read the first paragraph of her blog post “Dear White Writers“ because I had a knee-jerk reaction and found the use of this collective pronoun problematic. Indeed, I often find sweeping generalization of all kinds problematic. And because I believe strongly that ANYONE CAN write about ANY topic and create ANY character they are passionate about as long as they have done diligent preparation, her proclamation of “Yes We Need Diverse Books. But that doesn’t always mean that we want YOU to write them” made me feel that I was not included in that general “We.” My thoughts went immediately to these queries: What did she mean by “We”? Who are the “We”? Did she include me, a Chinese American librarian, when she used “We”? Or did she mean only the people who are officially involved with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks organization? (By the way, when I submitted my volunteer form through the site, I was informed that too many people were interested in being involved so that my request was denied.) Or did she mean just the Korean American writers, like herself? Or all the Asian American writers? Or anyone that is not White? Or simply all those who agree with her? You see — the use of We is too imprecise and too absolute at the same time to not make me think of all the possibilities in one shot!
But I went on and read the entire post and found that I actually agree with most of her points, except perhaps this following accusatory sentiment. She wrote,
Don’t do it because “you believe in diversity and want to help the cause.” Don’t do it because you think you are helping us. Because you’re not. The truth is, you’re only doing it for yourself. Because you think it is going to help you get published.
I think it is GREAT if all writers believe in diversity and want to help the cause — regardless of their skin colors. Actually, I think many of such efforts could be very helpful. In any kind of social movement, ally-ship between the insiders and the outsiders is crucial in its success. So, I say, please do include diverse characters and address many topics in your books: whether you are white or a person of color and whether you are writing from an insider or an outsider lens. Just be very aware of which lens you are using and do not presume that you know it all. You just may be helpful. I also feel very uncomfortable seeing a universal condemnation to an entire group (white writers, in this case) and accusing them all for wanting something (to be published) that is simply a natural desire for anyone in the field (children’s and YA lit world.)
Aside from this strong disagreement, I want to specifically endorse these following points.
Ellen wrote in her blog post:
We don’t want publishers to say, “Well, we already published a book about that,” and then find that it was a book that did not speak the truth about us but rather told someone on the outside’s idea of who we are.
And I cannot agree more! “That” refers to topics or characters existing to fill a “diversity quota.” There should not be a quota. The publishers of children’s books must start examining their own output and ensure the widest possible diversity in character representations, subject matters, and book creators. Diversity should not be something that needs policing and reminding. It should be so natural that no publishing teams would think twice about offering all kinds of books and about all kinds of characters and experiences. In fact, the publishers themselves should be the frontline champions of diverse books!
Ellen also wrote this paragraph that a white author who has been worrying about whether they are “allowed” to write POC stories should take to heart:
So here’s the truth that needs to be repeated again and again. Don’t write a POC’s story unless you need to tell it with such a burning desire that it will eat you alive and so you will come into our houses and walk in our shoes to get it right, and that way it isn’t written ONLY from a white lens. Don’t do it unless you are willing to invest in a whole lot of time and commitment and get into some heavy conversation about what it is like to live our lives, deal with racism and micro-aggressions and fear and hate. Don’t do it because you think it is a hot trend. Don’t do it because you think it will help you get published. Don’t do it because you just love Kpop and Kdramas and oh wouldn’t it be cool to bring it to an American audience? Don’t do it because your mama is 1/32nd Native American and somehow that gives you a pass to write about the culture (it doesn’t). Don’t do it because it is exotic, mystical, spiritual, etc.
Thank you, Ellen Oh, for proposing these sensible and achievable goals for your fellow writers. Even though you are not me, WE (two) definitely share a lot of common expectations and aspiration.