This weekend I went to a wonderful writing workshop. It was an intensive workshop for people who had a completed manuscript, and I am so grateful to the volunteers who put it together. There was a keynote speaker, critique groups, and two sessions with editors that work for major publishing houses. Surveying the room on Friday evening, my first thought was, “White women sure do like to write books.” Among the crowd of about 30+ writers were three white men. There was one writer who was a person of color, and her name is Judy. She and I got to know each other a little over the weekend. We discovered that I had the pleasure of knowing her good friend, picture book author Kelly Starling Lyons, and we bonded over our desire to see more diversity in children’s literature.
In the last moments of that weekend, when we were walking out to our cars, Judy and I saw a TV screen in the lobby airing a news story. Bold words on the screen shouted at us, Is the t-word the new n-word? Judy said that the t-word must mean “thug.” In my white privileged world, I hadn’t even been able to think of that myself. I don’t have to worry about my son being called a thug, being followed by the police because of his skin color, being shot because he is walking down a dark street at night and someone saw him as a threat. All weekend we had been immersed in our fantasy world of writing and publishing, and here it was, the reality of life in America 2015. We are still coming up with code names to degrade and stereotype other human beings.
A few moments later, the topic of Judy’s presence at the workshop came up. She breathed a sigh of relief when I acknowledged that yes, I noticed she was the only person of color there, and yes, it bothered me, too. Judy said she felt some guilt – were there people of color she could have encouraged to come along to the workshop? She used the description of putting out her hand to lift others up. It made me reflect that noticing the lack of people of color at the conference is not enough. What am I doing to lift other people up? What am I doing to bring forth the voices of those who have been silenced for so long? This is not about white guilt. I know someone will think or say, “But you can’t help that you were born white.” No, I cannot. But I can acknowledge that some things have been given to me because I am white. I did not earn them. I can acknowledge that it is difficult to be the only person of color at a writing workshop. I can invite people of color to come speak to my students about their writing, and I can read their books in the classes that I teach.
The first thing we usually talk about when we discuss the need for diverse books is that children of color need to see themselves in literature. They need to see themselves traveling to magical lands, solving a mystery, falling in love. This is absolutely true. But I contend that white children need diverse books just as badly. The “thug” stereotype will only disappear when it is replaced by a positive image that is more powerful. White children must be required to look through the lens of someone with a different skin color. It doesn’t matter if the book has anything to do with race or prejudice. I believe that white children need to experience being the “other” because it shifts the paradigm in a powerful way.
I hope Judy keeps working on her book and that it gets published and not just because she is a warm, kind, talented person who deserves success. I want that book to be in the bookstore and the library for children to read. We must all hold out a hand and take accountability. Thank you, Judy, for reminding me of that.