Vocabulary For Conversations About Race

Lately, it seems that every word or phrase related to race sounds wrong or laden in certain circles. It matters who uses which words or qualifiers, and I worry that I'll get in trouble if I don't know the rules. Who makes the rules, anyway, and why do my teens seem to know them way before I do?

It might seem safer not to enter the discussion, but safety isn't always a good priority for an industry during times of change. The best way to innovate is to give each other freedom to make mistakes, and to trust one another. As artists, publishers, agents, publicists, librarians, and booksellers, we share the goal of getting stories and knowledge into the hearts, hands, and minds of young people. How do we best do that in a society with a heavy past, a tentative present, and an unwritten future when it comes to race?

Yesterday's call for questions about diversity in children's and YA books elicited great responses. I thought I'd post edited versions of the questions here in the hopes of getting more. I've italicized certain terms, however, signifying the challenge of ensuring we're on the same page as we hear or speak them.

Creating it
Does it matter if an outsider writes an ethnic story if s/he does her research?

Why don't more books for early readers reflect a diversity of names? Does it sound contrived when a writer includes ethnic names?

E.B. Lewis, winner of numerous Coretta Scott King awards for his illustrations, has said that there's no such thing as an African-American painting. There are African-Americans who paint. Couldn't this also be said of writing?

Doesn't everyone bear the responsibility of including everyone in their art? Doesn't that mean that white people must write about people of color?

How can white writers be bold about including other cultures without fearing the label of cultural appropriation?
Publishing it
How do you meet the challenge of white agents/editors/publicists/librarians/booksellers serving as gatekeepers between writer and reader?

How much is it a publisher's responsibility to seek out multicultural books?

Which editors or imprints actively seek authors and illustrators of color?

Since so many editors--even at a multicultural press--are mainstream, what steps are being taken to at least achieve a level of (multi)cultural competence to aid in negotiations with minority writers?

How can white people in the industry successfully advocate for diversity without seeming to be "speaking for"?
Getting it to young readers
What makes a book multicultural, and does the label help or hinder sales?

Will the term multicultural literature be obsolete someday? Is that something to be hoped for, or avoided?

How can librarians influence publishers and authors to create books by and about children and teens of color?

As a white librarian, how do I make sure that my voice as an ally counts?

Isn't basing an award on ethnicity/race an essentialist practice?
Keep the questions coming, please. There's power in asking them. And if you think some of the words were mistakenly italicized because they're clear as glass to you, I'd like to hear your definitions. In fact, I'm desperate for them.

Photo courtesy of Shapeshift via Creative Commons.


beckylevine said…
This is great stuff, Mitali. I love and truly appreciate that you keep this discussion open. On the surface, the MC of my WIP "matches" me--a Jewish-American daughter of immigrants (my mother came here as a young girl), and in who's life religon plays no role--my family hasn't practiced in generations. Still--because the story takes place almost 100 years ago, and I WASN'T there, I feel a bit like some of your commenters are talking about--as though I'm trying to write a story/person I am NOT. Maybe that's what this is all about. None of us are writing ourselves as the main character, so we all have to stretch--in the way that feels right for our story and for ourselves. I don't know if I will ever say, in the story, what she is or how the balance of religon or non-religon plays in her life, but I guess its important for me to KNOW it.

I'm not sure about the responsibility to include everyone in our stories. I think we do have a responsibility to represent the world as it is (or WAS!), and--yes, honestly--I'll say that it's too easy for some of us to see past the small piece of the world we live in and remember that we're not all white or all Jewish or all anything. But I think the true responsibility is too our stories--what world are they inhabiting and what is the reality there. If we're hesitating to include someone for fear--either that we aren't QUALIFIED to include them or that they might make a conflict in our world that we don't YET know how to handle, I think we have to push ourselves past that fear and see how things play out. So, I guess that's what I'm shooting for. I'm writing my WIP remembering that Chicago was at once a HUGE melting pot and that, at the same time, the areas of that pot had pretty solid boundaries between then. There have always, though, been people--great, strong exceptions--who crossed those lines and I want to remember them in the story as well.

Not sure this is making any sense, but what the heck!
AliceB said…
Shoot. I don't want to sidestep what Becky said (which I agree with), but I do want to answer your question about the words put in italics -- at least the ones I used.

"White"/"People of color"/"African-American" -- they are all racial terms that don't really describe the groups properly. White people come in all shades and have as much color as people of color. African-Americans can have ancestry from every populated continent in the world. Yet these terms are used to divide up who we are. So what do these terms mean?

The terms are colonial and reflect that bias. I was taught that white usually refers to people of European ancestry, although not usually of Spanish or Portuguese ancestry. People of color usually refers to people whose ancestry is other than European and encompasses all continents plus Spain and Portugal. African-American usually refers to people who have some ancestry from the African continent, although usually not from Arabian-African portions of the continent.

I'd love a better way to speak about people that is easily understood and less loaded with problematic history.
AliceB said…
Sorry, I posted before finishing.

"Cultural appropriation" -- My understanding is that it's applied to situations where someone uses elements of another culture than their own, for their own use -- e.g. dress, or music, or language -- without regard or understanding of the source. I have only heard this label used in derogatory ways. I have seen it applied to writers who attempt to write about people who are not from their cultural background (e.g. a white writer writing about African-American characters, or a North American writer writing about characters from Pakistan).
MotherReader said…
I just want to add one, though maybe it was there and I didn't notice it. Minority. Lately I want to put it in quotes, because it feels -wrong. A group of people who are in the minority in this country, aren't so in their country of origin. And what does "country of origin" even mean to people who were born in the U.S.? And when we're poised to hit a point where the groups of minorites actually now form a majority, it all becomes even murkier.

I love the dialogue you kindle. I'll say that sometimes I worry when we get too caught up in terms. I see your point about it being important to define terms, but on the other hand, it makes broaching the subject of race and culture even more difficult. A lot of people don't like difficult. (Even this email was a lot harder to write carefully than my usual tossed off garble.)
Mordena said…
Definitions can be regional, too. I had an African-American friend in New Mexico who used to get a big kick out of being called "Anglo" -- because there were only 3 choices: Anglo, Hispanic or Indian (the Native American kind). You had your blond, blue-eyed Hispanics and your dark-skinned Anglos and yet this all made sense to people.
Mordena said…
(more on that thought) ...Which I guess goes to show that we make up our terms of ethnicity and race based on where the tensions in the culture lie. If the local tension is all along Hispanic/Anglo lines, you don't bother labeling other differences.
tanita s. davis said…
Mitali, I deeply appreciate the dialogue you encourage. I can't always articulate these things well, and the fact that you keep opening the door really helps.

I always joke about the show Friends when I talk about including other ethnic groups in a storyline -- I don't think that was a realistic racial makeup at ALL, yet it reflected their shallow dip into the big melting pot of New York. So be it. I don't think every race has to be represented in our writing -- or we'll end up with those U.N. looking Star Trek episodes that seem extremely contrived -- ! However, I do think that at least showing different people in a grocery store, in a street scene, etc. can give a novel a balanced, realistic feel. Diversity goes both ways, after all. A U.S. city would rarely be completely one race or another, and if so, there's a reason for that which may need to be part of the work.

I agree with the idea E.B. Lewis has about there being no such thing as an African American painting, however, that doesn't seem to translate to books. Just like there's really no such thing as YA -- it's all marketing smoke and mirrors -- publishing houses live and die by those terms, and now, so do we. I fear very much that my work will never be African American enough to meet people's expectations, and that my own ambivalence about ethnic issues will translate into my books not finding a home with African Americans, because they're not African American enough, nor with anyone else, because they're not written by a majority culture author.

Hmm. And none of that is a question helpful for your panel. I'm sorry. I'll think about this some more...
Suzi W. said…
When I read these conversations, I think of some of my favorite books about with African-American characters/protagonists that were written by Anglo writers: Mina in the Tillerman cycle books (esp. Come a stranger) by Cynthia Voigt, and The moves make the man by Bruce Brooks. Not to put to fine a point on it, how many books with female protagonists have been written spot on by male writers and vice versa. Gilead (an adult novel with a male protagonist written by a female novelist.) Artists are chameleons. It's part of what it is to create art--to enter a world that might not be your own, populate it with characters...