In the nearly three weeks since white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, many of us have been (rightfully so) discussing ways to combat hate and dismantle systemic racism.
But the truth is, these conversations have always been urgent and necessary. And not just in that large-scale, overwhelming, how-do-we-stop-more-white-supremacists-from-marching kind of way. Our efforts to build a more just and equal society cannot be reactionary, galvanized only by tragedy. They must be happening constantly, in large and small scales, in each of our communities.
This includes our community of writers, editors, and publishers. What happened in Charlottesville is a chilling example of why diverse representation matters in the books and media we consume. It’s a chilling example of why sensitivity reads are not about censorship, but preventing harm. A book that stereotypes its characters of color and a Neo-Nazi march may be two very different things, but they exist on the same plane and slope. No one lights a torch and joins a hate-fueled march without ever having been exposed to ideas that—intentionally or not—dehumanize people who are different from them.
That being said, this is not a post about how to write the other (this, however, is a very good one). This is a post about writers of color, and the kind of help and actions we most need most from our white writer allies. To all who have felt helpless, or asked what you can do, here are some ways to be better allies, compiled by me and other writers of color whom I asked to weigh in.
- Listen to writers of color. This is a simple, but often difficult to understand, request. When we share our experiences, we are not offering them up for debate as to their validity.
- Support our books. Buy them, read them, review them, recommend them to your book club and online. Take note of how others different from you review these books. Avoid viewing and discussing works by writers of color only through the lens of your own experience.
- Question your spaces, always. I notice this so often on Facebook when threads asking for book suggestions get started. Too often, the books suggested are overwhelmingly by white writers. When this happens, consider why, and be proactive about diversifying your reading and your reading groups.
- Teach our books, and learn how to teach them. Whether you teach high school or college, creative writing or literature, make sure your syllabus reflects the vast and varied experiences of reality. During class discussions, make sure that participation isn’t skewed towards one perspective. This essay by Matthew Salesses rethinks how we lead writing workshops when the works or the writing being discussed are by POC. “When the group critiques a piece of writing from the position of a single normative reader…it demands that difference, individual difference, be erased or exaggerated.”
- Include writers of color in your festivals and conferences. If you’re invited to participate in these kinds of events, ask who else will be participating as well. If you find a panel or workshop is made up of all-white writers or publishing professionals, bring this to the organizers’ attention, and insist on change. Yes, sometimes this will mean stepping aside to make room for others.
- Don’t seek out diverse writers just to avoid bad PR. If your main motivation for inclusivity is to avoid getting called out for a lack of diversity, you will help no one. This is how POC end up being tokenized, or expected to carry the weight of speaking about race all on their own. Instead, says ire’ne lara silva, author of Blood Sugar Canto, approach your inclusivity with a focus on all that your event or publication will gain: a richness of experiences, voices and perspectives.
- Look beyond one-time events in your inclusivity efforts, and think long-term impact. Are you in publishing or academia? “Invite writers of color to be real editors, not just for special issues; to be curators, not just Black History Month curators,” says Minal Hajratwala. “Advocate for tenure track candidates of color. Invite us to be paid visiting lecturers, master classes, part of a speakers series, etc. Make sure [your] peers and classmates of color are getting equal time and fair critiques.”
- Be a mentor. Be generous with your time, knowledge, and connections. Jasmine Guillory, author of The Wedding Date, credits another POC writer with some of her first big breaks into the writing business; it’s all about helping others access spaces you are already in. “Mentor more inexperienced writers: give them advice on pitching, getting an agent, working with editors, and writing craft,” she says.
Of course, this list is just a beginning. If you are a writer of color or part of a marginalized group, what are some things you’d ask your allies to do to help you? I look forward to reading them in the comments!
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About Natalia Sylvester
Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the U.S. at age four. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. She is the author of Chasing the Sun, named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad and chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is forthcoming from Little A in 2018.
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