I used to read pretty white. And honestly, despite paying a lot of attention to what I’m reading, I still read a lot of white people. My goal is roughly 1/3 of my books being written by people of color this year, and though I think I am on target — half of the books I read in July were by authors of color — I know 1/3 is still a small target.
Making a commitment to diversity as a white person is hard, but it’s essential. For people like me who are gatekeepers in some capacity, it’s vital to be aware of the entirety of the world around you, not just your immediate space.
Intersectionality is essential. I’m privileged, and I have no problem saying as much. I’m white, able bodied, cis gendered, and present heterosexual. I fall on the lower end of middle class, but I can pay all my bills and afford the small things I want in life without worrying how dinner will get on the table. While I’ve got mental illness to contend with, I’m able to afford medical care and treatment to make them manageable. The biggest roadblock for me anywhere is that I’m female and that I’m fat (a social disadvantage that yes, indeed, has ramifications, but it’s not insurmountable). I take it as my responsibility, then, with this level of privilege to make sure I shut up and listen to those dealing with any disadvantages I don’t have. Black women are faced with racism and sexism, and if they’re queer, that’s a third intersection of disadvantage they contend with. It’s not feminism or being an ally to only consider one of those aspects as societal disadvantage. The challenges are amplified through those intersections.
I’m not an expert by any means, and there are plenty of people who have written about this, but because race and consciousness of race have been on my mind lately, I thought it would be worthwhile to write a quick and dirty primer to better committing to a mindset that thinks about, embraces, and promotes diverse voices, creators, and writing. Many of these ideas can be applied across topics, too; that is, if you want to be a better reader or ally to the LGBTQIA community, many of these should be applicable, as well.
1. Set Reading Challenges
I’m 100% conscious of who and what I am reading. At first, this was tough. I was used to picking up whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. But when I became conscious of who I was reading, things began to change. It wasn’t that I had to sit and research the background of the author of any book I considered reading. Rather, as I began reading more diversely, I naturally gravitated toward more diverse reading.
At some point, this clicks.
One easy way to better diversify your reading is to set a challenge for yourself. My goal is 1/3 of my books being written by people of color. It might sound daunting to do the math here, but it’s not: that’s one out of every three books. And when you start noticing that every third book you read is written by an author of color, you begin to just pick up books by authors of color when you’re doing your book shopping or borrowing from the library.
This is, of course, challenging when you’re faced with the realities of a world where authors of color aren’t as prominent or advertised or marketed the way white (especially male) authors are. In those cases, go to those authors of color you know and read through their backlist. Jacqueline Woodson, for example, has a marvelous backlist. Same with Walter Dean Myers.
Likewise, really pay attention to debut authors. When debut groups begin popping up for each new year in YA, I look through the author lists and pay special attention to those who identify as authors of color. I give those books priority because I know how many challenges are already present, on top of being a debut.
Here is the thing with this, though: you can’t pride yourself on being open and aware of who you’re reading. It cannot be your selling point and it certainly doesn’t make you an expert when you’re white. Rather, you need to do this because you need to do this. I read diversely because it’s my responsibility to do so; setting up parameters is how I keep myself in check. No one is holding me accountable here except myself, and I’m not going to ever expect another person to pat me on the back nor congratulate me for doing what I am responsible for doing.
2. Diversify the voices in your every day life
If you’re on social media, look at who it is you’re following. Do all of the people look the same? Sound the same?
Are they all white?
I follow a broad spectrum of people in my social media life. I don’t keep the same people on all social media accounts, either — I follow some people in one place, some in another, and yet more in other places. This makes sense for me and how I work with and within social media.
I don’t interact with all of the people I follow, in part because my responsibility as a white person in most cases is to shut up and listen. With racial tensions high in this country, I want to know what it is people who aren’t white have to say about it. I want to listen, rather than talk, because I have been granted so much permission to talk throughout my life. The history I learned in school — while progressive, especially in college — still was written from the perspective of white people doing the right things for and by the minds of white people. Black history was a subset of a history class once in a while, or it was an elective you could take. I remember zero classes on Latino/a history, Japanese history, Indian history, or the role of Native Americans through the course of American history. Women’s history lessons were very white, as well, even when relegated to elective, once-in-a-while when-we-have-time sessions.
I’ve heard enough of that. It’s my responsibility as an adult to educate myself, and in doing so, I sit back and listen. If I have a question from something that a person of color says, then it’s also my responsibility to do research about it.
No one is responsible for my education but me.
What’s amazing is that when you begin listening to more diverse voices through the course of your every day life, the more you also gravitate towards reading more diversely because you want to and need to better educate yourself.
3. Amplify diverse voices and perspectives
Something I am conscious of, and I know that Kimberly here is, too, is that when we write a book list or create a genre guide, we do our research before reinventing the wheel. There are so many people writing incredible blog posts and creating great resources for readers that we’d be dumb not to take advantage of that work and share it with our readers. I try to do the same thing on Book Riot, especially when I write about diverse issues.
One of the most annoying things for me to see is when a white person, especially someone with a large platform, misses an opportunity to amplify diverse voices when being asked for recommendations for reading. Is it that hard to find a person of color who has written a killer book list on diverse urban fantasy? Nope. Is it hard to find a person of color who has developed a list of comics creators of color? Nope. What about lists of diverse YA books created by authors of color? Also nope.
The reason this matters is because no matter what you’re doing, you’re probably not the first to do it. And more, it was probably — and continues to be done — by someone of color first. Don’t shout over them. Instead, give their voices the opportunity to be heard before sharing yours.
The more resources that other people have at their finger tips, the more exposure artists and authors of color are able to get that they might not otherwise get. It’s simple. Blog readers don’t read everything on the internet, so for bloggers especially, taking the ten minutes to do research before diving into a post can be hugely beneficial to those voices that you take the time to link to. They are given new audiences, and then those new readers have a new go-to resource to help better educate themselves, to help hear more diverse voices, and in turn, read more diversely.
4. Put your money where your mouth is
I do not buy books by white men.
I read them, absolutely, but I make a point to only check them out from the library, rather than plunk down $20 or $30 for one of their books.
Instead, when I go out to buy books, I make sure I am only buying the work of people of color or women. This is because that $20 or $30 makes a much larger difference to their career than it does to the career of a white man, already benefitting from a system where he’s a winner.
And here’s the best part: I have yet to be disappointed in this shopping experience. It forces me to look harder, to browse more deeply, and to pick up books that may otherwise fall outside my comfort zone.
We all know, or at least should know, that what’s available in the chain bookstores is hardly representative of what’s actually being published. The most diverse section in the YA area is, without much question, the non-fiction area — which is also the most undermarketed, under seen, section of the store.
So sometimes, what putting your money where your mouth is means walking out of a bookstore without buying a book and instead, going home, doing some research, and buying the book online. I keep a running list of titles that catch my attention; when I can’t find something in store, I’ll pick up one of those titles online later.
Like the other tips on this list, this particular one makes a huge impact. It might not seem like buying one book by an author of color matters, but that’s one sale not otherwise had, and it’s a book that then gets put into your reading rotation, which then becomes a book you talk about, which then amplifies a voice which otherwise might not be heard, which then encourages more people to pick up the book.
It does matter.
5. Be prepared to be wrong — and be okay with that
The biggest, most important, and yet hardest commitment to make when you choose to be a better ally is that you’re going to be wrong and you’re going to be called out for it. It absolutely hurts. But being told you’ve misstepped in something you’ve said or shared or that you could do better is absolutely nothing in comparison to being told your life is wrong or has less value than a white person’s.
A few years ago, an author of color contacted me privately about a review I wrote that hurt her. I didn’t say anything offensive, but I conflated discrimination against fat people with racism. Both are types of discrimination, but she noted in conflating the two, I didn’t take into account the long-standing history of racism.
And you know, she was right.
That was not my intention in the review, but when I went back with her concerns in my mind, I 100% saw what she saw, and I realized it mattered to do right. I apologized profusely, I listened to her criticism, and then I committed to do better. She in no way owed me the head’s up, and she in no way owed me a kind private email about it. But she did those things.
I’m often wrong on a lot of things. But I am comfortable enough with that. I’d rather try and screw up than not try at all. This has made me many enemies over the course of my life, but I believe in my convictions strongly enough that I know those who choose to walk away weren’t really there with me from the beginning anyway.
6. Read non-fiction, essays, and other personal works by people of color
This is a bit repetitive of numbers 1 through 3, but it’s important enough to pull out on its own. We’re in an amazing age of communication and sharing, especially when it comes to long form essays and personal anecdotes on the internet.
The number of people of color who are given platforms remains small, especially compared to white people and white men especially, but those voices? Listen to them. Read them. Share them. Engage with them thoughtfully and purposefully. Sometimes the best course of action is to share them and offer none of your own insight or reaction out loud. Rather, the important take aways are the internal ones that you and you alone wrestle with.
If you don’t know where to start — and this can be hard because knowing where to begin is intimidating when you’ve never purposefully set out to change your reading and thinking habits as an adult — some suggestions include The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coats, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Once you read one of these books, finding more isn’t difficult and it becomes almost imperative. Because these are the stories we don’t hear on a daily basis, and they’re stories and insights we simply do not get in our white media.
Once you read more non-fiction, once you dedicate yourself to listening to these personal stories online and off, and once you begin investing time and money into diverse reading, you will change your life and you will change your approach to interacting with different people in your life. Writers don’t share their stories or perspectives just for fun. They do it because it is important and because if they don’t, no one will do it for them.
When you open yourself up to the possibility you are wrong, that you’re biased, or that you could do better, you will do better.
Likewise, when you open yourself up to those possibilities, you better believe the stories people of color tell you, you better believe their life experiences, and you’re better able to be an ally to them, rather than an ally for them.
Because here’s the thing: I am only responsible for the truths in my life, and the truths in my life are that I’m pretty privileged. And it’s by being privileged I could choose to ignore the truths of other people’s lives. But I can’t.
I believe everyone’s truth matters, and I want to better understand those truths.
Looking for more ways you can be a better advocate for diverse voices and stories? Here’s a round-up of other people talking about actionable and mental steps you can take. These are not posts on why, because there’s no reason to even ask the question. They’re posts on the how:
- Angie talks about the role libraries and librarians play in diversity, how they can be advocates for diverse books, and how readers can work with their local libraries to raise awareness.
- Justina Ireland shares non-negotiable random thoughts on diversity. Also, her recent post on why you’re not really colorblind is required reading.
- Leonicka’s #DiverseCanLit chats are all Storifyed and organized by topic. These are must-reads.
- Malinda Lo’s look at perceptions of diversity in professional reviews should be required reading for anyone considering reviewing books, either professionally or as an amateur. I think about this series of posts every time I read a book that’s not about a white girl/boy.
- On Book Riot, the “Diversity FAQ” series covers a lot of the whys and hows of diversity.
- Aarti talks about reading diversely AND authentically — a series of really worthwhile comments about how reading a single experience doesn’t tell a whole story.
- I pulled together a list of bloggers, Book Tubers, and Tumblr book fans who are people of color.
- Edi Campbell has built a tremendous collection of diversity resources, ranging from publishers who focus on diverse titles to professional associations for librarians with a diverse focus, and more.
- Rebekah Weatherspoon talks about taking actual action behind the talk of reading and being more open to diversity.
- Read and share the books on this beautiful and thoughtful inclusive summer reading list.