One of the things I love about the YA community is that they’re fearless when it comes to calling attention to things that matter—things like diversity and bullying and the way we treat each other. Having conversations about these things is important and necessary. But sometimes it’s more important to listen than to talk, and that’s something I’m slowly coming to realize I haven’t been doing enough of.
A few months ago, I read a blog post about non-minorities and their role in the conversation about diversity. The gist of the post was that, while it’s good that we’re calling attention to these issues, non-minorities have a tendency to hijack the conversations. Not out of malice, but because they feel like they have something worthwhile to add. And that tendency ends up drowning out the voices of minorities. I read the post a couple of times and—I’ll admit—I didn’t get it. I was annoyed at the tone, which I felt was essentially saying that if you’re not a minority you have no business discussing issues regarding minorities. So, rather than listen, I spoke up. My point was simply that any attention drawn to the issues minorities face is good, no matter whose responsible for drawing the attention. As a gay man, yes it’s annoying that so many gay, lesbian, and transgendered roles in Hollywood are given to straight actors, who then go on to win awards for their work, but the fact that they’re drawing attention to the LGBTQ community is a good thing.
I exchanged comments with some people on that post, and I walked away feeling like I’d made my point. Yet, here I am, months later, still thinking about it.
I am an American white male who grew up in an upper middle class town. I went to college, though I never graduated, and I live a comfortable middle class life. When I write, I include diversity in my work. I include diversity because I’m writing the world I see around me. But am I doing more harm than good?
Here’s the thing: I believe there’s a huge difference between writing about a black character and writing about being black. As a white male, I don’t know the first thing about being black. I didn’t grow up in a black household, I didn’t have many black friends growing up because there weren’t many black families living in my town. When I wrote the character of Shane in Deathday, I based him partly on a young man I worked with at The GAP when I was 16. When I decided that Cassie in FML was going to be mixed race, I based her on a girl I very, very briefly dated in high school. But neither of those characters deal with their otherness. They are characters of color as seen through the lens of a white male character and as written by a white male author. They don’t speak at all to the challenges of growing up black or mixed race, and they shouldn’t because I don’t know the first thing about those issues.
For a while I labored under the false notion that being gay gave me insight into what it’s like to be a minority. And, in a very small way, it does. I’ve been afraid of holding my partner’s hand in public, I’ve felt the stares of people who thought I deserved to burn in hell. I’ve worried about walking out of a gay club and being assaulted. But at the end of the day, I can still pass as a white male. When I walk into a store, no one instantly looks at me and flags me as a thief. No one has to know that I’m gay unless I want them to, and that means that I don’t have to worry about discrimination unless I want to. Most minorities don’t have that option. I can wait to tell people I’m gay until they’ve gotten to know me as a person, whereas most people instantly judge a person of color immediately based on the color of their skin without bothering to understand them as a person first.
I can write about being gay because I am gay. I get it, I’ve been through it. And I can write minority characters into my novels because South Florida has a huge Hispanic population and because I have Jewish friends and black friends and Asian friends. But I can’t write about being any of those things because I’m not Jewish or black or Hispanic. Maybe, if I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people, I could learn to write about what it means to be black, but why should I?
That’s the point the original blogger was trying to make. There are so many minority writers out there writing about what it’s like to be them and to live their lives that adding my voice to their discussion needlessly draws attention away from theirs. As writers, we should celebrate diversity by writing about the world we see around us. But if we want to understand what diversity really means, we should look to those who really know rather than trying to add our voices to a discussion that we can’t ever truly understand.
I wish I could find that blog post because I’d go back and tell her that I probably still don’t fully understand all the points she was trying to make—hell, I’m probably still getting some of it wrong even now—but I’m ready to shut up and listen.