“I feel like a mascot if I talk about my race”
|Mar 5||Public post|| 11|
This post on toxicity in online communities devoted to young-adult fiction probably won’t make all that much sense if you don’t read yesterday’s Singal-Minded first. And if you’re a regular reader confused about all this YA stuff, don’t worry — we’ll be back to normal programming soon.
Well, pretty soon. Yesterday I said I was going to spread the YA emails I want to publish out over two posts, but I’m going to make that three, actually. Today I’m going to focus on a few interesting and sad notes I got from aspiring writers of color in which they explain how the current climate in YA is affecting their ability to write what they want to write and introducing new kinds of uncertainty and, in their interpretation, at least, offensive tokenization into the already daunting process of getting published. I’ll post a lot of the remaining emails later in the week — not because they’re less interesting, but because the three I’m posting here all touch on similar themes and feel like they belong together.
Because the internet is the worst place on earth, it’s inevitable that someone who doesn’t like what my correspondents have to say will accuse them of not actually being people of color, one way or another (the accusation will either be that they’re white people with axes to grind pretending to not be white, or that I simply made them up). It pains me that I even have to do this, but for the record: I confirmed the author of the first email’s identity directly. He’s a real person and proved conclusively to me that he is who he says he is. I confirmed the second author’s general identity in a different way — her email address brought up a live Goodreads account, which had a very specific two-word username that, when Googled, was itself linked to a Twitter account. Email address matched Goodreads account matched Twitter account in a way which indicated to me that all is kosher with her story, as well.
The third author emailed me from a throwaway email account and said she was too nervous to reveal anything more about her identity even to me, which I can understand given what’s going on in YA Twitter. I think she is who she says she is, too, for what it’s worth, but her email is also the least personally detailed and least reliant on her own story of the three, so it seems like there’s a bit less potential for trolling or identity-tomfoolery there anyway.
And with that out of the way, to the emails themselves:
“She judged based on my name that I should be writing ownvoices and apparently only male”
This is from a male aspiring YA author who is a person of color. The term “ownvoices” is a reference to the #ownvoices hashtag, “a hashtag that was created by Corinne Duyvis to highlight books that are written by an author that shares a marginalized identity with the protagonist.”
I’m combining excerpts from multiple emails for continuity’s sake, and I’ll use ellipses to indicate inter- or intra-email stitching throughout this post:
I’d like to be anonymous, but for whatever you're working on feel free to use this screenshot where the agent in question rejects my work (featuring a white female protagonist) asking me to write a male ownvoices protagonist instead. I looked at her standard rejections on Query Tracker, this is custom. Meaning she judged based on my name that I should be writing ownvoices and apparently only male.
[...]I know a mountain of other PoC writers who feel like this ownvoices diversity push has become an imposition on what we should write, rather than what we want to write. It's just rare for an agent to say this so explicitly. Other PoC writers are all too afraid to say anything because they hold out the hopes of being published, and you've seen how the gatekeepers act.
My name is [ethnicity], but I'm going to err on the side of caution and say [to be] vaguer. ‘Non-white’ is fine. Who knows how many minority-sounding people she sends that message to? I’m in a weird spot since while I decided I’d never write YA again or submit to that agent, I still am somewhat active in the writing community and have a kind-of-agent through this PoC in Pub program and I don't want to make things weird and shitty since she’s very nice.
I think the biggest thing I resent is that being told to stay in my lane for me apparently means writing about a country I wasn't born in, have only the vaguest connection to or knowledge about, and doesn't particularly interest me. I’d much rather write about the Roman Empire or the Diadochi states after the collapse of Alexander’s empire, but it’s clear they want a very specific kind of ownvoices from me rather than letting me write about whatever I feel like. The irony of (mostly) white women telling me the kind of diversity they want aside, if they really wanted to amplify diverse voices they’d probably be better served going and translating books from other countries that are written in their native language and selling them in the US market.
It just seems to me like these crusades for literary purity are getting worse and worse, and there's no real self-reflection on what it means when your movement to bring about diversity destroys minority writers you're supposedly trying to support. It's a very “the Emperor who persecutes Luther for the Pope is forced to destroy the Pope for Luther” moment, and it’s kind of mindboggling they don't see it.
Anyway, I hope you get enough that it prompts some self-reflection among them, though I don’t hold out much hope for that. It still feels like a weird relief to get that off my chest.
In case you’re wondering, I googled the name of the agent in question and she does appear to be white. So the racial dynamics are striking and fraught. The #ownvoices hashtag is seen as a good thing, and for very understandable reasons, but let’s strip that term away and zoom in, reducing an interaction like this to its simplest possible form: Imagine if a white agent said to a black author who had submitted a manuscript with a white protagonist, “I’m going to have to pass on your story, but please send me whatever you write in the future, particularly if it features a black protagonist.” Wouldn’t that come across as weird? As reducing someone to their minority status?
And wouldn’t it be frustrating, as a nonwhite person trying to break into an “industry [that] is still extremely, extremely white,” as Ruth Graham put it in Slate yesterday, to be told by white gatekeepers what character-ethnicity lane will maximize your probability of publication?
“I feel like a mascot if I talk about my race”
A Latina writer I’ll call Rachel wrote in with the following story:
Hi, thank you for writing about this. I’m an immigrant, and race has played a big part in my life. I’m also a writer seeking an agent. An agent’s website asked for my Twitter handle before I could query, so I thought, huh, if that’s important, I guess I’ll get on Twitter. Wow. That opened up a whole new and ugly world. As time goes on, I become more aware of the madness. It’s like a pack of scavenging animals hunting for a kill every few weeks. I’m afraid that — even as a minority woman — I’ll be silenced by what’s usually a white gatekeeper, and called racist. That's the craziest part... White people controlling me, or at least telling me what to think. Every other writer’s Twitter bio goes to great lengths to explain how other-gender and minority-supportive they are. What does that have to do with writing? I don't care if you “support me.” It’s clearly not shouted out so that I feel included, but so they are included in this gatekeeping club.
I had an agent ask for my full MS [manuscript]. Things seemed to be going well, and she even interacted with me on Twitter, which I assumed was a good sign. She emailed me a very short rejection after claiming that she’d “loved it so far,” and being very generous with her words. So then I panic. I wrote mostly about nonwhite people. I had one black person mentioned, and not 100% positively. But I don’t write ANY character 100% positively. No person is 100% positive. Maybe that wasn't the reason the agent gave a sudden cold shoulder, but with the atmosphere the way it is, I can’t help but worry. And wonder if I should change the character. Change what I have to say, which feels wrong, and like I’m being muzzled. Or, horror of horrors, if the agent was offended enough to tell other agents.
By the way, that agent is a white straight woman living a typical American life. Married, kids, normal and beautiful. I say this because I feel like they fetishize my race. Then, if I don’t act like a trained dog, they get rid of me... how is this “supportive,” “progressive,” “inclusive,” and most of all HOW IS CENSORSHIP WRITING?
I followed up to ask if she was okay with me identifying her as Latina, and asking her to provide a bit more detail about what happened with the manuscript:
Sure, you can call me Latina. Beyond that I’m afraid to be further identified. Sorry if the first email was confusing. I typed it on my cell while I was worked up and in a hurry.
I sent that agent the first 3 chapters after she liked my query. After reading them, she said she loved it, and asked for the full MS. The story eventually brings up race and inequality. The way it’s mentioned isn’t completely in agreement with current SJ [social justice] narratives (that every minority is good and every villain is white), but it does reflect my real life experiences as an immigrant that’s lived with both white and Hispanic culture, and is, in my opinion, pro-equality. After I’d sent that whole MS, the agent eventually emailed back with a short rejection of, “Thank you for letting me read your story. Unfortunately, I'm going to pass,” and stopped interacting with me on Twitter.
However, the very next day she tweeted to ask for “sensitivity readers” [my link] for manuscripts she was considering, which is another reason I assumed something I'd said in the MS about race or gender had rubbed her the wrong way. A few days after that, she jumped on a bandwagon to shame a white woman for daring to tweet that a white person could write about a person of color and that race didn't matter as long as it was written about respectfully. The original tweet by the writer has since been deleted.
I have a screencap of their shaming that female writer. It’s funny because the top comment on the thread is by a white man, first apologizing for his privileges, then saying “voices need to be heard” after bullying a woman into silence. I’ve seen a lot of similar things happen on Twitter.
As I mentioned in the first email, I’m not completely certain race was why the agent rejected me. I don’t want to blame my failures on something I had no part in, but, with the culture the way it is, it’s difficult not to wonder and worry. It’s very concerning, and making race relations worse. It’s created a double edged sword for minorities. I feel like a mascot if I talk about my race, and I feel that if I play up my race to gain points with these people, I feed their fantasy narrative of how they're heroes saving minorities from... whatever it is they think they're saving us from.
Anyway, thanks again. I appreciate you shining some light on this issue.
Again, it’s that uncertainty thing. Rachel acknowledges that there are other reasons her book may have been rejected — of course there are — but the current climate on social-justice issues in YA introduces a new, pernicious form of doubt. I got the sense that Rachel felt like the “white gatekeepers,” as she called them, had a very particular set of political beliefs on matters of identity that she didn’t necessarily share. This has come up before in this newsletter: There is sometimes a tendency, on the part of white progressives, to talk over members of marginalized group and to assume that they’re a very specific type of, well, woke.
“I think the dogpiling is horrifying and unfair”
This final one came from another aspiring author woman of color:
Hello! I saw your articles and tweets and thought I'd share my experience too.
I'm a woman of color that was hoping to get agented by the end of the year. I'm not giving up, but I'm going to hold out on querying for a little while to see if the climate improves. If it doesn't, I may need to pursue other options.
I’d like to say that I'm not scared of the powers that be in the YA community, but I am. I can't help but notice that young writers of color seem to have a harder time recovering from these allegations, probably because they are more wary about these issues and have a harder time shaking off the criticisms, however illegitimate they may be. I think the dogpiling is horrifying and unfair, and people I once considered role models have disappointed me by participating.
I think my biggest issue is not books being called out for things that are perceived to be racist. If a reader feels that way, they're more than welcome to share that opinion. No, my issue is the relentless bullying that disguises itself under social justice. It's not good enough to share their opinion and discourage people from reading it: They have to make sure that the book is never published and that anyone who disagrees with them suffers. This is amplified by the fact that these crusades begin when the books are still in [advance reading copy]-only phase [my link], so outsiders don’t have easy access to read for themselves and have to take the influencers at face value. In addition, the people leading these crusades come off as if they get off on these “corrections,” instead of from a place of genuine concern. I think a lot of the people who lead the crusades are either so far into it and themselves that they believe they're genuinely doing the right thing, or are not genuine in their antics at all and are doing it for selfish reasons, like clout, jealousy, etc. Maybe it's a mix of both, I don't know.
If any of them are reading this, I'd like them to know that they're only hurting young writers of color by either a) scaring them off or b) scaring publishers off of diverse works. You think publishers aren't going to react to this? It sucks, but if authors keep getting bullied into retracting their books, the publishers are likely going to blame the diverse writers and stop offering them contracts, and instead pat themselves on the back for the five big diverse writers they already have. And I don't think any of us want that.
Thanks for listening.
A lot of the time, debates about callout culture and online toxicity in social-justice spaces get reduced to a silly and oversimplified formula in which anyone who questions what’s going on is deemed to not care about oppression, or to be an oppressor. It’s a very effective derailing tactic: Oh, so you’re mad that racists are getting yelled at? Iiiiiiiiiiiinteresting. How it was determined the person getting yelled at is racist, whether the yelling is helpful or proportionate, and a number of other important-seeming questions are simply ignored, because the person pushing back against the toxicity has been placed on The Bad Team and must now defend him- or herself.
One of my favorite things about Michelle Goldberg’s vital 2014 article in The Nation, “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” which highlighted a lot of stuff that has since gotten much, much worse, is how it puts the lie to this very silly trope, given the fact that in many cases, marginalized people are themselves hit harder by online toxicity than members of majority groups:
That doesn’t mean, though, that social media’s climate of perpetual outrage and hair-trigger offense is constructive. “There is a problem with toxicity on Twitter and in social media,” [the black feminist scholar Brittney] Cooper says. “I think we have to say that. I’m not sure that black women are benefiting from the toxicity.”
After all, it’s not just privileged white women who find themselves on the wrong side of an online trashing. The prospect can be particularly devastating for marginalized people who depend on the Internet for community. As an academic, [the feminist sociologist Katherine] Cross studies the terrifying harassment many women face from sexist trolls, but she says that putative allies can be nearly as intimidating.
Being targeted by other activists, she says, “leaves you feeling threatened in the sense that you’re getting turned out of your own home…. The one place that you are able to look to for safety, where you were valued, where there is a lot less of the structural prejudice that makes you feel so outcast in the rest of the world—that’s now been closed to you. That you now have this terrible reputation… I know a lot of friends that live in fear of that.”
If your professional life is tied up with activism, the threat is redoubled. “To suddenly be tarred by the very people that I’m supposed to be able to work with, my allies, as being a sellout or being infatuated with power or being an apologist for this, that and the other privilege—if that kind of reputation gets around, its extremely damaging,” says Cross.
This final letter reminded me a lot of Goldberg’s article, and particularly of that last point by Cross. All in all, YA authors and aspiring authors who are less established — and who are, on average, younger and less white than more established ones — probably have more to fear from online mobbery than writers who are confident that, if things get rough, they can just log off Twitter for a couple days and wait for the storm to pass.
It’s not for nothing that in just the last month or so, two would-be debut authors experienced such intense Twitter-heat that they unpublished their own books. Anyone who portrays this whole online-toxicity thing as being about white people “versus” people of color, or even liberals “versus” conservatives, is being either willfully ignorant or disingenuous. It’s significantly more complicated than that, and many of the victims look exactly like the people the outrage brigades claim to be acting on behalf of.
Anyway, that’s it for now. Suffice it to say I’d love to hear from more YA-affiliated people, whatever their ethnicity, who have thoughts on this stuff. If that’s you, email me at the below address.
Questions? Comments? Elaborate conspiracy theories, complete with rambling YouTube videos, about how all three of the above emails were written by the same middle-aged white man who works for the Trump adminsitration? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Lead image via.