Reading and Writing While White – Part Two: Reader Perspective

In the past 2-3 weeks I ran across some great articles about perceptions of diversity in both reading and writing. Normally they would have only shown up with some brief commentary by me in a Saturday Summation post, but since I hadn’t been updating those this past month, it allowed me to see the various posts all together, causing me to formulate some broader thoughts on this topic. I’ve turned it into two posts- this second one addresses reading across differences (as a white person, in this case). You can find the first part, the writer perspective, here.

Perspective: Reader

In my last post, I mentioned the introduction of Peanuts’ first black character, Franklin. Ronald E. Franklin talks of how this character entered the Peanuts world with no fanfare.

He and Charlie Brown struck up a friendship just like any two kids who meet on the beach might do. It turns out that Franklin lives in a different neighborhood on the other side of town. Interestingly, he goes to the same school as Peppermint Patty, and plays center field on her baseball team. So, he and Charlie Brown find that they have a lot in common. They have such a good time together on the beach that Charlie Brown invites Franklin to come and stay overnight at his house. “We’ll play baseball, and build another sand castle,” Charlie tells him.

Of course, some readers at the time didn’t like the introduction of this new character, just as some people balk at non-white characters in book-to-film adaptations (sometimes, even, when the character has been written as such). While these protestations carry overt racist overtones and represent a major issue in and of themselves, the more covert problems lie in letting our whiteness judge anything non-white.

Author Malinda Lo wrote a four-part series about the perceptions of diversity in book reviews. It is a fantastic reveal and analysis of high-profile trade reviews (such as those found in Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly) in which books that cover characters of color carry a subtle stigma or even a higher expectation of story delivery than those of white or otherwise dominant culture protagonists. Just as when we write, we should not start from a “all characters are white unless we say otherwise” default setting, so should we not assume that all those who read reviews are white, nor should we assume that all books are written for whites or to educate whites about non-white experiences.

The four areas that Lo focuses on are how reviewers put forth the idea that a diverse character set is “contrived”, that a book might have too many “issues”, that an author does not explain the non-white cultural references, and that the plot line surprisingly does not reflect a cultural stereotype (because it doesn’t have “any” of the “issues”?).

If ever we needed evidence of how white privilege plays a role in tamping down the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, Lo’s series provides it clearly – even in reviews that seem otherwise positive.

I decided it is only fair to put my own book reviews under scrutiny because as much effort as I put into acknowledging my white privilege and trying to leverage it for good, obviously I am not always successful. I am a work-in-progress.

When I looked over all my book reviews that covered stories with non-white protagonists, I will not shy away from admitting my belief that I have done a pretty good job of avoiding the pitfalls mentioned in Lo’s perceptions of diversity series – especially in my more recent reviews (which hopefully, therefore, reflects growth). Below are some questionable lines, however.

Let’s start with the worst (and it’s from 2011 and thankfully I have definitely grown since then). My whole review of Finding Miracles by Julia Álvarez is rather severe in more ways than one. Check it out here. In one respect, my criticisms actually lean away from the positive depiction she created of the white parents of the story, so one “could” argue that it’s not so horrible, but on the other hand, the whole rest of it is condescending and a poor marker for providing balanced reviews for diverse stories. (Note in that same link is a review that features a novel with gay characters. The line “Parts of this novel were more sexually explicit than I like to see in a YA novel of any sort…” runs into the danger of the straight population resisting “seeing” gay sex, but I stand by the statement because I know it wasn’t about seeing sex, but it was, truly, pretty explicitly detailed.)

Next, Lotería – Mario Alberto Zambrano

I wrote:

“’Lotería’ is a Mexican version of ‘Bingo’ – except with a lot more nuance. The lotería card has pictures, instead of numbers, and when a caller draws a card, s/he sings a riddle that makes you guess the picture rather than just calling out what it is. There are a few more differences, but the cards create the backdrop of this novel.”

Look at all that explanation as though none of my audience would have experience (this falls under Lo’s “a lot to decode” category) – as though my entire audience is white and would have no idea. Ugh. Better I should have replaced all of that with simply “Zambrano uses lotería cards as the backdrop of this story…” and then continued as I did with the rest of the review.

Then, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – Jamie Ford

I wrote:

Ford does a lovely job of telling a love story within a love story and manages to give fresh eyes to a time in our history that is not told enough.

I’m uncertain on this one. I do like that the novel focuses on what feels like to me a part of US history that is overlooked more than it should be. I think the issue is my use of “fresh eyes” as the equivalent of Lo’s “readers may be surprised” category.

The Bone Season – Samantha Shannon

This final example is one that addresses the “decoding” aspect, too. I don’t recall if non-white characters were prominent (although I think not), but I wanted to juxtapose it with a book that did have non-white protagonists: “Additionally, it was full of slang and jargon. If you are a Brit and familiar with the your own slang, then that part will come easier, but for this Yank, I was actually pretty frustrated at first.”

Is it better that I at least clarified that not all readers would be from the U.S? Maybe, but it’s certainly something for me to be aware of as I noted “jargon” in a later review of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue:

The passage of time in this novel is slow, but the overall narrative is kind of funkily interesting. There was a lot of jargon that I didn’t understand, but impressively, it didn’t matter.

In this case, I’m pretty sure my jargon comment was in reference to the music industry, but if not, then that whole “impressively” is obnoxious on my part.

I share these examples of my own reviews to show how even with my diverse interests and efforts, my white privilege still pushes its way through sometimes for worse instead of for better. Certainly not all of my reviews read like this, but it’s a good reminder for me to check my privilege.

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign is to remind all of us that the reading audience for ALL books is diverse – ethnically, racially, culturally, genderly (pretty sure that’s not a real word, but I’m using it anyway), religiously, and all the other adjective/adverbs I’ve left out. Should white readers assume that books are written only for them? Absolutely not. I would hope that we all remember that we read for the empathic experience of living another’s story whether set in our contemporary world or a fantasy one.

If you still haven’t clicked out to Malinda Lo’s link and at least bookmarked it for later reading, I highly suggest you do it now. 😀 It’s very illuminating and represents how the industry still lags behind the actual reading population and why publishing has a long way to go to catch up. Shouldn’t we all be able to see ourselves in the fiction we read?

How diverse is your reading list? As a white reader, have you found yourself more critically judging books that feature non-white, non-straight, non-dominant culture characters? As a non-white reader, what has offended you most? Where do we see hope?

Have you ever fallen into a Poetry Slam YouTube vortex? I’m not huge into poetry in general, but slam poetry recitations are pretty engaging. This one, in particular, is a powerful commentary on the raising of our children to be SEEN.

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