A few small ways your life may differ from mine, although on the face of it we may be similar:
At the conference I repeatedly walked into a room full of 200 industry peers and was the only black person there except for a member of waiting staff. Most other attendees probably didn’t even notice that was the case, but to me it was strikingly obvious.
I hear people speak about experiences overseas where they have been the only white person for miles. But what I’m talking about isn’t some rare experience that happened on holiday. This happens to me every day.
And on those rare occasions of being the only white person in sight, you only have to open a book or magazine, or turn on the TV, or go to the movies, and you can very easily see the faces and stories of people just like you. Then you return from your holiday and it becomes a quaint anecdote. It’s not everyday life.
I’ve been asked about my heritage so often in situations where it’s completely irrelevant, that even in what should be a strictly professional setting, when someone asks “What’s your background?” I have to second guess whether they mean “Why are you black” or “What do you do for a living?”
This happened to me during a pitch meeting. Luckily, I was being asked about my work history, but in my experience it could have gone either way.
I could trot out examples forever, but these are things that happened to me in 24 hours at the conference, never mind over the course of 42 years.
The takeout here is to proceed with caution…
Do so knowing that you, and we all carry with us conscious and unconscious bias, and it’s very hard to divorce ourselves from those biases and write with objectivity. In fact, it’s probably most likely our subjectivity that makes us good writers. That’s what gives us our unique voice and take on the world. It’s really the essence of our storytelling chops.
But it’s also another way you may accidentally slip up if you decide to write outside your “lane.”
Another small example of this from my life:
The number of times I’ve been asked what university I went to and then when I’ve replied “Cambridge” the person has said “University?” doesn’t bear thinking about. The fact is many people’s unconscious bias precludes them from easily grasping the concept that black person (with a strong South London accent) could have attended one of the world’s top universities.
Bias. It’s a thing.
I hear you ask.
Here are a few comments that were made during the aforementioned Facebook conversation that illustrate where we’re at.
“Either we’re not being inclusive or we’re practising cultural appropriation. You can’t have it both ways.”
“We get slammed because we only write white casts and yet when we go outside the box and write something different we get shamed for that too.”
The flawed premise on which they’re based is that all diversity is good diversity, and/or that all diversity is created equal.
Which of course it’s not. What the #ownvoices movement is about exactly that. Our. Own. Voice. Allowing the opportunity for authors of colour to tell our own stories in the mainstream media in our own way — that means all kinds of stories, not just those specifically of “ethnic” interest — and not be consigned to some ghetto in back corners of romanlandia (or publishing in general), but to have as much of a chance of seeing publication as any other book.
We’re not looking for white saviours. Nobody is saying “Hey white people, fix this problem for us,” but what we are pushing for is ample opportunity to fix the problem ourselves. What that translates to is a greater breadth of opportunity for writers of colour across the board.
And if you’re still struggling to see why this approach is important, just imagine that the issue was the poor (or non-existent) portrayal of women in literature, and the suggested solution was to urge men to write more female characters, rather than making way for women to have a voice.
Now flip back to race and representation, and it’s pretty easy to see the point.
If you missed Part I of this conversation, you can find it here.