Monday, February 4, 2013

In Which I Defend Multicultural Stories.

Hello everyone!  The time has come for a blog post that I've been contemplating since Saturday night, but that I wanted to wait to write, to make sure I sounded more reasonable and less angry.

This weekend I was very, very lucky to attend the SCBWI NY Winter Conference.  I had a fabulous time and really loved being around people who cared about children's literature as much as I did.  But there's always that one person you run into who makes you wonder/gets you thinking about the different ways people can perceive the world.

This post is a response to a few of the points someone at the conference brought up to me and one of the other award winners.  I'd like to re-iterate that the award we won was based on finding voices that are currently under-represented in children's literature, and that I am doing research about issues that relate to multicultural students, so I'm just a little biased when it comes to my views on multiculturalism.

Anonymous Person's Point 1: Multiculturalism is a "one-way" road right now, and it needs to become a "two-way" road.
When pressed further for clarification (because I was honestly trying to give them the benefit of the doubt at this point), they said that, as of this point in time, White authors are being pressured by people of color to write stories about their cultures.  So, for example, I'm half-Filipino, and I would walk up to someone who was White and ask them to write about the Philippines.

This, anonymous person said, was what was wrong with "multiculturalism" because when White authors aren't writing other people's stories, the people in other cultures start to write their own stories.  The inherent problem with people writing about their own cultures is that, inevitably, they end up leaving out "White Culture."  In anonymous person's opinion, when people write about their own cultures, they use such a narrow lens that they end up leaving out other cultures (they emphasized, again, that it was primarily "White Culture") and that these stories truly weren't multicultural because of that.

My counter to Point 1.
First, I'm not sure I'm aware of ever asking anyone (or knowing anyone else who did this) to write about MY culture.  I'd like to think that, if a White author were writing about the Philippines, it would be because they were genuinely curious about the culture/country and wanted to learn more about it and then, in turn, help others learn about it as well.

And you know what?  I'm totally okay with them writing about it if they've done their research.  I mean, think about it, I wouldn't go off and write about Blackbeard if I hadn't read about Blackbeard.  You can't know what you're talking about if you don't do any research.  There are a bunch of great cultures and people out there, and it's definitely worthwhile to learn something new!

Also, to her point about it being a "one-way" road - uh, sorry, it's not.  The other award winner and I both tried to explain that just because a book focuses on one culture doesn't mean that we're excluding everyone else.  My book has characters that come from different countries, ethnicities, and, because it's sci-fi, they also come from two different universes.  The other award-winner's story focuses on Hispanic culture in America.  America.  You know, that place people often call a melting pot.  

When we wrote our stories, we weren't purposefully sitting around, twirling our evil villain mustaches, as we tried to figure out who we would exclude.  No.  We wrote our stories to try to expose people to something new, or to get them to think of the way they view others, or just to write a fun story.  As the other award-winner tried to express, anyone can enjoy a book.  That's the great thing about art, books, movies, music, television - there's something universal, something everyone can relate to, in each piece of art.

It's all subjective anyways, right?

Anonymous Person's Point 2: Blanket SES statement about low-income families.
After the other award-winner stated that she wanted to write more stories about her heritage/culture, anonymous person said, with a completely straight and very serious face, that the award-winner was wasting her time.

And why was she wasting her time? Because she knows that the parents of said children (in this case, Hispanic children) won't have enough money to buy a book.  

Yeah.  She made a blanket statement about the SES of a certain group of people.

My counter to Point 2.
First, WHAT?

Second, it's funny, because I was talking to someone an hour or so before this conversation started, and I brought up the Twitter account "Yes, You're Racist" - an account that points out tweets that usually start off like "I'm not racist, but..." and RTs them.  It's amusing and sad all at once.  Anyways, the way this point was phrased reminded me of that Twitter account.

Third, I don't believe in blanket statements like that and am still offended.  

Anonymous Person's Point 3: There aren't enough multicultural stories right now because the people who could write them don't have the right amount of schooling.
I'm really, really trying to benefit the doubt her here and think that she was referring to how we need to fix our education system.  But, if she isn't, then...

My counter to Point 3.
I'll try not to sound too conspiracy-theorist-y here, but Standardized Tests are biased, not all schools are created equal, and we're way behind in terms of the quality of our education than a lot of other well-developed countries.  Yes, there is something broken and yes, our education system needs to change for the better if we want to produce well-rounded individuals who will contribute to society, BUT there are already people, lots of different kinds of people, doing just that.

This is another terrible blanket statement that's offensive and insulting.  It's so insulting that I can't even form the right words to describe how I feel about it right now.  Yes, the majority of people who move on to higher education in this country are White, but, here's the thing - life's different for everyone.  Maybe there are certain circumstances holding someone back from going to their dream school, or maybe they just don't have any desire to go to college.

And you know what? That's fine. Not everyone has to follow the same path.
Also, going to college is not an indication that you're better than someone who didn't go.
There are different types of intelligence.  For example, I love writing, and words, and scored in the 90th percentile in the Verbal portion of my GRE.

How'd I do in math?
I definitely scored wayyyyyyyy lower. like, terribly lower.

Conversely, my best friend got a perfect score in her math section.

See?  Different ways to be intelligent exist.  I may never know anything about how a car works, or how to calculate the velocity of a falling object, or how to make a donut.  And I'm cool with that.

To get back on track, I think there are plenty of qualified people out there writing stories about their culture, and who are just as willing to share them with the world.  I don't believe that it's fine to discount someone totally based on their heritage, or to generalize not being "educated enough" to a certain group of people.  

To wrap this whole thing up:
This conversation showed me why it's important that people (regardless of what they look like/identify with/etc) should write stories about cultures that are currently under-represented.  It's only through trying to understand someone else's view-point that we can move past terrible and false generalizations and start to understand that yes, people are all different and yes, it's okay to be different.

Ignorance is a two-way road.  Perhaps if we all work together, instead of shoving past each other without another thought, we can start closing that road down. 


  1. Great post. Sorry you dealt with such idiots. And big congrats on your award!

    1. Aww thanks! Sadly, this kind of thing happens more than I'd like to admit. This one just happened to rub me the wrong way enough to post.

      I hope said anonymous person *does* end up broadening their horizons, though. Otherwise, this whole thing is just very, very sad.

  2. Found this via Twitter -- great post, and congrats on the award! Sorry you had to deal with comments like these, but kudos to you for writing such a great breakdown of the person's points. My mouth actually dropped reading some of what they said. I love how the person's point did nothing to undermine multicultural stories, but as you concluded, stressed why we actually need them!

    1. Thanks for the congrats!

      I'm glad you enjoyed my post! Yeah, when anonymous person started to talk, the other award-winner and I were pretty shocked, but we tried pretty hard to get our points across.

      And they totally *did* show why we need more stories about a variety of people - ignorance is a terrible, terrible thing.

  3. Great post. I've heard lots of absurd arguments against multicultural literature, but these really took the cake! Talk about ignorant.

  4. It definitely took me aback, but the more I look at it now, the more I wished I'd fought harder to get anonymous person to see where we were coming from. Ignorance on it's own is a terrible thing, but for ignorance to exist and no one to point it out is much, much worse. We tried, very tactfully, to state our case, but this time it just didn't work out, sadly.

    I guess it's a good lesson for the next time this happens, 'cause I'm sure something like this will happen again. It always does.


    1. Whoa... I'm sorry, this person you spoke to made some pretty ugly comments. I can't believe they came from an SCBWI member, because I've always felt so welcome in this community. I struggle with this as well - wishing I'd fought harder to get my point across. It just boggles my mind the lengths people will go to to argue AGAINST diversity. But you know, I think your work will speak for itself in the long run, and will probably have a much larger impact. Lose the battle, win the war. :) Great post, thank you for sharing your experience!

    2. Yeah, fortunately it was only *one* member, and I've never had any other negative experiences with another SCBWI member, which might've been what threw me off in the first place. Every other SCBWI member that I've met has been nothing but kind and awesome, though - I guess there's just always going to be that *one* person in any group who thinks they're completely right when they're not.

      I guess there'll always be people like that, but like you said, if we let our work speak for ourselves, hopefully we can advocate for diversity in a really impactful way :)

  5. Why are people so stupid? Argh.

    Miss you already! Come to LA sometime...

    1. I guess sometimes people just don't understand certain things, which really isn't a good excuse, for that kind of thing. Maybe it's more like an attempt at explaining how oblivious someone can be. Hopefully they'll come around soon.

      And I miss you tooooooo! I've always wanted to make a trip to LA, so this could probably be arranged!

  6. Hi Alex,
    Your story is rather disheartening and perhaps the reason why we don't see a lot of multicultural stories...someone with too much power decides they don't make money and no one wants to publish them when it really should be about more than money.

    I've written a inter-racial love story that will be published by a small press this year. Hopefully, you and I and other writers can keep at it and break through those stupid, insipid sterotypes, with or without those traditional publishers. Keep up the good work :)

    1. I think there *is* starting to be a call for/push toward more diverse stories, which is definitely a good thing! And hopefully we can take as many people along for the ride as we can!


  7. Wow! It kinda sounds like that person was trying to bash multiculturalism in books to make her feel better about her own racist beliefs. How freaking annoying. I'd say sorry you had to sit through that, but I guess in a way, it's good to have those eye opening conversations to remind us how ignorant some people really can be. Keep doing what you're doing! I think your award totally rocks! Maybe old girl was just jealous:)

    1. Oh, it was definitely an experience I'll never forget! From the way she spoke to us, she believed every single word she said, which was the truly terrifying part. How one can write books for children with such a skewed view of the world (and their families), I'll never know.

      And thanks :P I think my award totally rocks too! ;D