The Struggle between Diversity and #OwnVoices

Sometimes hashtags take on a life of their own, becoming viral and leaping from screen to screen. Such is # OwnVoices, which started out as a small movement to encourage adequate representation of minority authors in kidlit, but now is a buzzword that’s been beaten to death.

I remember using the # OwnVoices hashtag when querying agents on Twitter. It assured that my voice was heard over the millions of white voices. It assured my tweet got seen among the thousands of others, as someone with an authentic and important story to tell. I was proud of being associated with # OwnVoices, because it felt the right step in the direction of representation.

If you’re wondering what this hashtag really stands for, here’s the simple explanation: #OwnVoices means the person telling a story is from the same group as one or more of its main characters. Most of us may not really grasp the importance of this at first reading. Consider this: Instead of hearing a story about a group of people from an outsider, wouldn’t it be better – more authentic – to hear that story from someone within that group? Rather than bystanders, someone with lived experience? I would think the latter would always be a better option.

It’s not that simple, though. Who gets to decide what a lived experience is? If my father had schizophrenia, do I have the authority to write about it? If my aunt gets cancer, am I now a cancer expert? If I lived in a Muslim country for twenty years, is my experience less valid than someone else who did too, but wasn’t Muslim? An expat white American teacher, perhaps? If I’m Muslim but Pakistani, should I be writing about Muslims who are Arab or African?

If these questions are making your head whirl in different directions, you may have an inkling of the struggle that takes place when a minority story gets written by a non-POC author. Whereas once upon a time we were worried about adequate representation of minority stories, now we have an added concern of who’s writing those stories.

As parents, educators and the general public, we’re so grateful that children’s stories with POC main characters are on the rise. The CCBC (https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp) first began compiling data about POC children’s books in 1985 when they discovered that only 18 were eligible for the Coretta Scott King award. The word they use on their website to describe their reaction is “appalled” which is an apt word indeed.

Over the years, the situation has gotten somewhat less appalling. We now have more books about African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians, but nowhere near what could be described as “adequate representation”. Nowhere near what our kids need, or what society needs in terms of creating empathy and racial harmony. But at least it’s grown, and we hope it will continue to grow as the years pass.

There is, however, another portion of the research that is still, to me, appalling. When CCBC gathers data about books, they not only capture who the book is about, but also who is writing the book. In short, #OwnVoices. The latest statistics revealed in March 2018 were no less disappointing. Of the books with African American main characters, only 29.41% were #OwnVoices, which means written by Actual, Real-Life African Americans. Similarly, of the books with Latinx main characters, only 33.8% were #OwnVoices. And so on and so forth. The full analysis of this aspect of the research is here (http://ccblogc.blogspot.com/2018/02/ccbc-2017-multicultural-statistics.html).

If you’re reading this, thinking “so what?” consider this: white people are still telling the stories of POC. On one hand, this is good because in the past POC stories weren’t being told at all. So we have the first impulse to sit down and shut up, because as POC we’ve gotten some of what we’ve been asking – begging – for. Our stories must be told. We are part of the fabric of this nation and we want to be represented in kidlit. Why then, are we complaining about #OwnVoices?

Here’s why: I firmly believe that stories told from our perspective are the only ones that should be called “our stories”. This is our right as storytellers, as people from a particular group, whether it is racial or sexual or other. We are the ones with those lived experiences that need to be shared and celebrated and explored. Not someone whose intent is to conquer and appropriate those stories just as our lands and bodies were conquered and appropriated centuries ago.

The resistance to # OwnVoices by predominantly white authors has been swift and horrific. “So nobody should write alien stories because we’re not alien?” is the common refrain. “Or animals?” Yes, writing about aliens or animals or leprechauns is okay. Writing about People of Color whose communities you’re not part of is not okay, because we have cultural context and histories and generational pain that has shaped us. Aliens, animals and leprechauns don’t. To be equated thus is an insult, but not as insulting as taking over our stories and writing them.

Let’s be clear. Many of the authors I’m talking about are my friends. My colleagues. My mentors. I write this not from a place of anger, but from a place of gentle reprimand, a reminder that we can do better. In fact, I’ve found that many white readers and writers are trying to do better. If you’re one of those who’d rather be on the right side of the # OwnVoices struggle, here’s what you can do:

  1. Learn about obstacles POC face in careers like publishing. This may mean getting out of your comfort zone and understanding things like systemic racism or micro-aggressions or cultural biases.
  2. Seek out aspiring POC creatives and help support them. This could be through mentoring them, critiquing their manuscripts or just being there as a sounding board as they try to get published. This could be a POC student in your classroom, or a friend.
  3. Support POC creatives in their work. Shout about their work, buy their work, and review their work. If you have the choice between a book written by a POC versus one written by a white author, you should know who to support. It’s not rocket science.
  4. Give POC creatives a seat at the table. Sometimes this can be in the form of referrals for illustrators, or passing on a work-for-hire opportunity. Sometimes this means co-writing a book with someone else. There are so many ways, and all of them are risks. Take them.
  5. Accept that you may not be the best person to create something. If you have a great idea about a book with a main character who’s not white, don’t automatically think you’re the perfect person to write it. There is a perfect POC to write it, so find someone to refer or suggest.

# OwnVoices was created to give people of color the same opportunities that others have. It’s a reminder that not only is the story important, but also who tells that story. It means understanding when to sit down and let someone else talk. It’s about acceptance and empathy and well-being, all things we want to teach our children.

So let’s start with ourselves.

Photo: QZB Photography.

Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series “Yasmin” published by Capstone and other books for children, including middle grade novels A Place At The Table (HMH/Clarion 2020) co-written with Laura Shovan, and A Thousand Questions (Harper Collins 2020). She has also written “Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan” a short story collection for adults and teens. Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She resides in Houston, TX with her husband and children. 

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