Ever since Kat Rosenfield’s Vulture piece on toxic YA Twitter drama went viral, vitriolic discussions on problematic content have erupted in the YA book community. Rosenfield’s piece highlights Laurie Forest’s “The Black Witch,” a book that generated negative buzz on accusations of a racist narrator—so much buzz that its GoodReads rating dropped to a 1.71 before it hit shelves.
The problematic book of the hour is Laura Moriarty’s “American Heart,” accused of peddling a white savior narrative at the expense of Muslims. After a handful of passionate, early reviews erupted online about the offensive nature of this book, a starred review from a Muslim Kirkus reviewer disappeared from its website for revisions.
It’s important to challenge writers to be better about inclusion and to accurately reflect the world’s diversity. The messages that narratives leave us with are tremendously important for the way we treat and understand others. I do not endorse white savior narratives or offensive narratives of any kind, but I also believe that what’s offensive is relative, even within PoC communities. I can choose not to pay for or boost what I think might offend me without trying to save the rest of the public from the material. Unfortunately, the debate over diversity in YA thrives on the false binary that you either don’t care about people of color or you’re a champion of diversity. It’s a two-party political system with liberals on both sides, and it’s complete and utter bullshit.
What no one seems to be discussing is how white-dominated the conversation is. A recent survey by Lee & Low Books revealed 80 percent of publishing staff and review journal staff are white, which means the books getting through reflect the propensities of those who let them through. The voices in the industry talking about them reflect the same demographic.
While it may seem like plenty of Black, Latinx and Asian voices are participating in discussions over “problematic” books, that is absolutely not the case.
While it may seem like plenty of Black, Latinx and Asian voices are participating in discussions over 'problematic' books, that is absolutely not the case.
A handful of PoC voices are being amplified by a larger number of white people who think they’re putting their support in the right place. Our actual voices don’t yet carry the volume to communicate with nuance. Our thoughts are swallowed up in what that tiny fraction of successful marginalized writers have to say, producing biases based on what they believe is best for the future of diversity and inclusion. More frighteningly, they’re given stamps of approval by white writers and gatekeepers, who clearly have a lot to learn, themselves.
You can’t only latch on to a narrow field of PoC views you choose to endorse and ignore all the rest. If that’s your game, you’re not the diversity warrior you claim to be. You are dressed in a costume of wokeness, which, if removed, would reveal little more than an attention addict, driven by the likes and retweets that come of hopping on the diversity bus in an increasingly political online sphere. Maybe deep down you really do care about making a difference, but your strategy is flawed and incomplete.
It’s asinine to assume I’d let gatekeepers notorious for not letting writers of color through have these conversations around me, a writer of color.
Some readers are accusing Kirkus of censoring itself in response to public ridicule, which may be true, but there is solace in the fact HarperCollins itself hasn’t pulled the book. A world where that could happen—where a book could be ex-communicated from the market based on early bad reviews—forebodes an oligarchic system of content policing, where a small group of people has the power to deem a book too harmful for the public.
What the people crying censorship are actually afraid of is the possibility of facing the public shame that Forest and Moriarty have had to face, which could, at worst, destroy their careers, and at best scare them out of creative autonomy. People are afraid they won’t be allowed to take risks in their work on the off-chance they’ll be name-called online. They don’t want their right to write what they want revoked. They want to be read and received with an open heart. They want to be given a chance.
YA writers like me, agented or otherwise unpublished, regardless of our PoC identities, are vilified or made to feel naïve when our opinions don’t match those of that fraction of our influential published counterparts. So we watch ourselves, carefully learning what we can or can’t say based on what our predecessors deem appropriate. Protecting your career is more important than sharing your opinion—all black people know this. We cannot be nuanced, because the Twitter fights chain us to opposite sides of an imaginary battlefield, with white supremacists on one side and freedom fighters on the other.
People of color aren’t generating a unified message. We have no voice to yet, and anyone who says we do is wrong. Even if we did, it’d be silly to believe that all PoC would say the same things. Words like “marginalized” and “PoC”, while inclusive, dismiss individual marginilizations, many of which only have “non-whiteness” in common. The term herds our voices into a broad, all-inclusive diversity umbrella where each one is united against the oppressive powers of the white man. Too often it ignores the severity to which those powers have affected certain communities more than others. There are multiple levels of division even within one community itself. The debate goes on and on, and no one is really having it, because everyone is afraid to.
Conversations about content policing read very differently in private Twitter messages. They sound different in whispers in book festival hallways than they do on panels, on the stages. It doesn’t matter how much influence a writer has in the industry. No person is righteous in taking it upon him or herself to claim their viewpoint as the only one. No writer of color is righteous in using their platform to make their voice the most important, while failing to uplift differing PoC opinions.
No writer of color is righteous in using their platform to make their voice the most important, while failing to uplift differing PoC opinions.
I wonder what it says about the industry if even the people this conversation is built to assist feel silenced by it. To me, it says the YA industry has a listening problem. It says that even with a handful of PoC writers through the door, its strategy is as dysfunctional as ever.
I am a gay, black, 23-year-old—a double minority with no representation in the YA world, and about as close to teenhood as an agented YA writer can get. Yet I fear once this piece is read, a sprinkling of PoC backed by a horde of whites will do everything they can do discredit my opinion. What no one having this conversation is recognizing is that people of color are shaking in our boots too.
This conversation is not really about what people of color have to say. I watch us get silenced on Twitter when our opinions don’t match the accepted norm, because our accounts aren’t verified and many of us don’t have enough industry connections to make a noise. No doubt selling my soul to the callout gods would make me the good little gay black boy the industry can trust and believe in. While I feel at liberty to criticize the white savior narratives I’ve experienced firsthand, I am not criticizing American Heart because I have not read it. Period. That is my opinion on the issue. That is what this person of color has to say.
I am putting my money, energy, and time toward uplifting diverse narratives that are doing it right, and I have no interest in destroying another writer’s career before it begins.
Allegedly, the whole point of these discussions is to make way for voices like mine, but seeing writers who have not yet been published get attacked makes me fear I’ll be chewed apart and ex-communicated from the industry with my little foot barely in the door. I’ll be kicked out on the basis of my viewpoint not fitting a mold, never mind how I identify.
Making room for marginalized narratives is not about knocking books off shelves—it’s about putting better ones on. It’s about offering varied perspectives.
The harm of callout culture is quietly dripping into PoC communities and making us afraid of our own narratives. It is sabotaging itself, because it’s making us afraid to speak. This is hardly a war of censorship vs. harm, and it’s definitely not PoC against white people, no matter how the thought pieces and Twitter skirmishes would have it painted. It’s a skirmish among two tribes (both predominantly white) who want to do the right thing but are too busy fighting to hear each other, or anyone beneath them, out.