Ok, this post might be a little incoherent because my head feels kind of full these days. I’m still reading Sarah Schulman’s Ties That Bind, and I’m still taking my time as I navigate her many profound ideas. Today I want to talk about interventions, because yesterday I received an email from the NYPL in response to my complaint about the lack of diversity in the NYC Teen Author Festival. Now, it seems that the NYPL is only hosting some of this festival’s events, but I rely on public institutions to get it right—and that leads me to question #1: should we have different expectations of public and private institutions? I didn’t send a letter of complaint to the other hosts, Barnes & Noble and Books of Wonder—should I have? I wasn’t really trying to launch a campaign, and if I’m honest, I have to say that I’m not as concerned with goings-on at those privately-owned bookstores. But I take it personally when a public library lets me down, perhaps because I grew up (and continue to be) dependent on libraries for books and access to information. I never met a black author as a child, and had graduated from college before I even saw a real live black author (Maya Angelou here in NYC). I want things to be different for today’s kids, and so my expectations of the public library are quite high.
The public/private split is a major issue in Schulman’s book. Often times well-intending people will refuse to intervene on behalf of a victim for fear of crossing some invisible boundary that separates the public from the private. But why should privacy be used to shield a victimizer from justice? Schulman writes:
In fact, people evoke the word “privacy” as justification for refusing to negotiate. They don’t have to negotiate; it’s their right to privacy. The “private” family doesn’t have to account for their treatment of gay people; the “private” citizen doesn’t have to account for her treatment of gay people…Industries like book publishing, theater, film, and television production, religion, and education are all private endeavors that have no public accountability to gay people. Even the Saint Patrick’s Day parade is legally a private event and is permitted to shun Irish gays and lesbians annually.
Sometimes we use privacy as an excuse not to intervene, even when we know something’s wrong—and the wrongdoers hide behind this veil of privacy, knowing those on the outside are loathe to tear it down. What really strikes me, however, is Schulman’s suggestion that the community has an obligation to intervene on behalf of its least powerful members. Or rather, what strikes me is that even though I totally agree with that idea, I don’t really expect certain people to stand up for me. If our experiences inform our expectations, then I’d have to say that in terms of anti-racist discourse, I don’t “expect” white people to do the right thing. I hope they will, and some times I demand it…but for the most part, my life lessons have taught me that the majority of whites don’t care that much about people of color—or not enough to do what’s right.
Now, obviously, there have been many moments in history when many white people have stood up, rejected white supremacy, and aligned themselves with PoC. But there have also been many moments when those with privilege simply said or did nothing while PoC were shoved to the margins and silenced. Now—here’s question #2: is it reasonable to expect white authors to align themselves with authors of color? I wrote to the NYPL and offered to provide a list of authors of color in NYC so that future festivals aren’t 90% white. But what if a group of white authors—let’s say half of the 60 invited participants—wrote the festival organizer and said, “We’re not going to participate because we don’t want to support the marginalization of PoC—especially in a city as diverse as New York.” Can you really see that happening? I can’t. Because as Schulman pointed out earlier in her book, there’s very little incentive for those with privilege to give up some of their power. Are white authors likely to remove themselves from the festival so that authors of color can share the stage? Should they be pressured to do something they didn’t offer to do voluntarily?
Many of the authors are white women. Women, as a group, have been marginalized forever. Should I, as a woman of color, expect my “white sisters” to rush to my side and stand in solidarity on this issue that doesn’t negatively affect them? When the whitewashing scandal hit the blogosphere, some white women bloggers immediately spoke out—but others threw a hissy fit and resented the expectation that they should issue a public response. Schulman writes:
Frankly, I often find that the myth of the angry lesbian/angry woman/angry black man [or angry black woman!] is really the rage of the dominant culture person at being asked to look at themselves. They are so furious that they see other people’s productive positive actions for change as threatening.
And, of course, people who have been oppressed or marginalized can easily reproduce that oppression and marginalization—yet still only see themselves as the victim, not the victimizer. This particular festival actually has 10% involvement by writers of color, yet the overall children’s publishing industry only has 5%. So perhaps objecting to the festival would require white authors to similiarly object to the racial imbalance in the industry…it’s a slippery slope. Best to keep quiet and hope the troublemaker goes away…Ok, so here’s the letter I wrote to the NYPL:
Thanks for taking the time to respond to my concerns. Below is the list you requested; to my knowledge, all authors are from the tri-state area (some may be upstate NY). To be clear, is the festival arranged around authors who live in NYC, write about NYC, or originally hail from NYC? Also, is Scholastic the primary or sole sponsor? If so, they certainly have the right to promote their own authors, but when so many events are hosted at public library branches, one expects the invited authors to reflect the incredible diversity of NYC’s many communities (including languages other than English). Is there no budget for bringing in authors from out of town? If not, you might consider having fewer authors overall so that there’s greater balance among the participants.
Also, may I ask who was on the festival’s coordinating committee? Did authors apply to participate, or were they selected? Again, what were the criteria for being selected? A while ago Kathy Ishizuka shared this great link to a site that outlines ways event organizers can ensure diversity.
Philana Marie Boles
Veronica Chambers (roots in NYC)
M. Sindy Felin (roots)
Sheba Karim (roots)
Walter Dean Myers
Ishle Yi Park
Linda Sue Park
Sung J. Woo
Lyn Miller-Lachmann (author of Gringolandia and editor of MultiCultural Review) also had this suggestion: “contact La Casa Azul Bookstore and Javier Molea at McNally-Jackson Bookstore, since they’d know authors who publish in Spanish and can present programs in Spanish.”
I often do school visits here in the city, and the overwhelming majority of my students are black and Latino—many hail from the Caribbean, Africa, and South & Central America. It would be wonderful if all NYC children could go to their local public library and see themselves reflected on the stage you’ve created for young adult authors. Thanks again for taking the time to consider my concerns.