Tag Archives: white privilege

White Privilege and a Career as a Children’s Author

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She is my cousin and a dear friend, someone I love very much.  And she was defending me as part of the support for her argument.

We had tumbled into a conversation about Black Lives Matter, specifically about the term “white privilege,” which offended her.  I have heard the same from some other white friends.  The one whose response speaks to me most clearly is Jewish, and surely her life has not been one of “white privilege,” whatever the tint of her skin.  Yet I believe hearing it said does have a way of opening eyes.

When I said so, my cousin protested, “Don’t you see how it denigrates all the hard work you have done to get where you are?  It suggests everything was just handed to you because you are white.”

We ended the conversation disagreeing amicably, but I kept thinking about what she said.  “It suggests everything was just handed to you because you are white.”

It took me a while to realize how true that is.  Not everything, maybe, but a great deal.

Yes, I have worked hard.  I still do.  And my hard work has much to do with where I am now in my career as a children’s writer.  I haven’t just learned how to write one thing and then kept doing it.  I have explored.  I have stretched.  I have tried and failed and tried again.  The failures don’t show when you look at my publication record, but they are there, tucked away in my computer . . . and in my heart.

And yet for all the hard work, for all the mix of success and failure, I know that my being white has always given me a leg up.

I began publishing in 1976, and if in 1976 I had been black and writing the kind of deeply interior stories that are given to me, who would have published them?  Stories about being a black child in a world hostile to black children?  If I had the literary chops of a Virginia Hamilton, maybe, but I’m not Virginia Hamilton.  And if some brave publisher had taken me on, who would have then purchased my books after they found their way into the world?

(I once heard a Midwestern children’s book-store owner say, “We put books with a black child on the cover on the shelf, and they stay on the shelf until we send them back to the publisher.”  Of course, the reasons for that are various, for one that too many whites don’t see a story about a black child as being of interest to, appropriate for their white children.  For another that history has taught blacks not to expect to find anything relevant to their children on the shelves of a book store.)

And beyond the reality that forty years ago black writers had little chance of finding publication another even starker reality looms.  I have achieved what success I have, the publication of just over 100 books, because I was given the profound privilege of time in which to develop my craft.

I was married and the mother of two young children when I decided to turn my desire to write into the actual work of writing.  And all I had to do was make the decision and then work to implement it.  My then husband was a clergyman.  His salary was pretty limited as clergy salaries tend to be.  But it covered our family’s needs well enough that I could forego salaried work to tackle my unlikely dream.

Even today, when publishers are, presumably anyway, more open to writers of color that is the privilege that keeps too many from even tapping at the gate, let alone storming it.  You have to be able to work for a long time, for most of us it takes years, without earning anything at all before you have a chance of entering the ranks of published writers.  And while there are plenty of white people these days for whom taking that kind of time to develop a skill is a profound challenge, certainly many more than when I was young, there are even more people of color who haven’t the time or the energy or the heart at the end of a long day of surviving to explore a career as a writer.

I wish writers of every hew could be discovered on the basis of merit and supported while they find their stories, develop their craft, polish their work to a fine glow.  If only we could go back to the time when kings chose their own personal artists and musicians and paid for them to live and create.  I suppose, though, there were problems with that system, too.  We’ll never know how many talented artists and musicians never came to the attention of a king.

Would I give up the privilege that made my career possible if I could return in time to do so?  Of course, not.  But now my career plays out its final years in a different time, one when the pendulum of attention, at least to already published work, has swung to the side of people of color.  And I step back, in my privileged whiteness, and say, “At last!”  and “Hurrah!”

I only wish the swing of that pendulum could reach those who aren’t getting a chance to discover what they can create.

Writing Across the Divide

kidsMuch discussion in the children’s literature world centers these days on the topic of diversity. Do those of us who are white, which is still the vast majority of us who are publishing, simply go on writing out of our accustomed white privilege without any thought to the changing world around us? Do we write out of a place where our skin, our culture, our way of being is the standard for “the way things are”? Do we go on assuming that if race or skin color isn’t mentioned then a character must be white, because—certainly in books for young people—white is the norm?

And then the next level to consider. If we’re white and decide to write about other cultures because books about other cultures are needed—or more interesting, somehow, or even more salable—do we have any chance of getting it right?

The “getting it right” can be hard to do. I am reminded of a novel by a well-known Jewish author. A character had left a Jesuit seminary in order to be in a gay relationship, and this character’s deepest concern was that his partner hadn’t yet accepted Jesus Christ to be saved! Clearly the difference between Evangelical Christianity and Catholicism meant nothing to this author, and such a profound misunderstanding of the culture she was writing about discredited the book in my eyes.

Even as I was reacting, though, I realized how impossible it would be for me to write about Judaism without making equally egregious mistakes. And by extension I am aware that I would be incapable of entering fully enough into any culture other than my own to write about it authentically. I believe that some writers can, but I know I cannot.

When I was teaching in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts this kind of question came up often. My answer was that the writing should be judged, not the author. If a writer, through passionate involvement, deep research or other kind of immersion, can write with full understanding about another culture, why should anyone complain? And I still believe that.

I am embarrassed, however, to remember my own suppressed irritation when one of my students who was clearly heterosexual chose to write about a lesbian relationship. What right does she have? I found myself thinking. What can she possibly know? (Though I never said it out loud, I’m glad to report.) And I reacted even though I have rarely written out of my own more personal understanding of relationships between women.

I also remember, however, my wonder and admiration when the student got it right.

All of which says only that the issue is a complex one, often muddied by emotion. And I’ll add that writers from other cultures—we have traditionally called them minority cultures and continue to do so even as their populations expand, sometimes beyond that of the “majority” culture around them—have a right to their resentment over being used to make “a good story,” however good that story may be.

The transition from a publishing world totally dominated by white experience to a multi-cultural one has been rife with mistakes and defensiveness of all sides, my own included. Some years ago I heard a librarian in my own city, St. Paul, Minnesota, a city with a diverse school population, say, “If I pick up a picture book and see only white faces, I don’t buy it.” I was indignant, That’s unfair! I thought. I have no control over the faces in the illustrations in my books!

But what else is “unfair” in this picture? I remember sitting with my beautiful two-year-old African-American foster daughter on my lap, reading her the same books I had read my own blond children, and suddenly realizing that not a single child on those pages looked anything like her! I had never before noticed that fundamental lack.

That was more than forty years ago, though. Surely the problem is solved now. Isn’t it? What is your perception if you are white? Maybe even that these days people of color get all the publishing breaks?

Take note of this: The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin recently reported that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 only 93 were about black people. And other ethnic groups were even less represented.

Setting my books aside to make room for those by and about people of color may be exactly the dose of “unfairness” our children’s book world needs.