I watched About a Boy again last night and chuckled at the single moms support group sharing their stories in the “circle of truth.” The film plays up all the stereotypes about bitter feminists and the inability of shallow men to understand or participate in critiques of patriarchy. It’s Father’s Day and last weekend in Berkeley I witnessed some outstanding parenting by Maya Gonzalez‘ partner Matthew. After making small talk and enjoying the potluck brunch, we gathered in Laura’s sunny living room and formed our own circle of truth. And while we stood and discussed the issue of diversity in children’s literature, during that time Matthew was the ultimate dad, playing with, feeding, and minding baby Sky so that Maya could more fully focus on and engage in the conversation. This was my first time in California and I’ve always known there was something different about west coast folks, but I came home thinking they really are a unique breed with very different energy. Compared to New Yorkers they’re more relaxed but every bit as engaged and passionate about ethics and equity. The people I met in Berkeley were daring (to me) but they didn’t seem to see themselves that way. I’m not a particularly open person so maybe I was just struck by how open they were—to me, my books, and the plea we were making for greater inclusion of indie authors. I wish all librarians were as progressive as the ones I met last weekend. I owe a great deal to librarians and have definitely met some radical ones here on the east coast who are committed to change. But when you’re part of a larger system it can be difficult to think beyond the rules that have been in place for decades. I think it’s hard for many people to acknowledge that the diversity gap in children’s publishing is deliberate—not accidental. It’s not about merit (there just aren’t enough good writers of color out there!), and it’s not about money (we just have to prove that the industry can make a profit off books by writers of color). It’s about POWER. As Léonicka Valcius points out in her recent article over at The Toast,
The lack of diversity and equity in the publishing industry is not a theoretical issue for us to intellectualize over coffee. It is an injustice. The destruction of libraries and burning of books has historically been used to strip peoples of their history and culture. Those in power continue to limit the ability of those they have subjugated to share their stories. They retain ultimate control of the narrative and their power.The publishing industry creates and disseminates stories. The fact that the industry neither includes marginalized people in those stories nor gives marginalized people enough access to share their own stories makes the industry itself oppressive.
So what do you do when you realize you’re part of a system that actively and deliberately disadvantages others? Most of us aren’t prepared to divest completely. We want to believe we can remain within the system and try to work against the policies and practices and attitudes that are oppressive. So many people are caught up in the excitement of the World Cup and yet almost all of those people are aware of the appalling poverty in host country Brazil. The corruption of FIFA is also well documented and there are allegations of games being rigged. But the overwhelming majority of football fans aren’t boycotting the World Cup. Black players endure racist chants and bananas being tossed onto the pitch throughout Europe but they haven’t pulled out of the league. It’s hard to create change when people find pleasure in the system—despite its flaws, limitations, and the very real damage it does to others. I’m watching a Game of Thrones marathon right now and eagerly await tonight’s season finale, even though the show is sexist and racist and problematic in other ways. I publish with Amazon and don’t feel much sympathy for a corporate publisher like Hachette that feels bullied by the online giant. My choices disappoint others just as the decisions of others disappoint me. So how do we create change? I don’t have all the answers. But I think one way to start is by standing together in a circle as equals and speaking honestly about our needs and fears. And perhaps we also have to admit our sometimes shameful investment in the systems we seek to change.