Reflections on the #AMEshooting and an author's call to action

On Thursday, I was shocked (or not shocked? Which is worse..) and saddened to hear about the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Sunday's service at the
AME Church - from npr.org
On Friday and Saturday I read others' reactions and tried to process my own emotions about the incident. I thought about our history of race issues, gun control, perceptions of mental illness. I answered questions on FB about 'the other crazy white guy who shot people in Colorado' and grieved that white men who shoot people are 'mentally ill' and taken alive to jail, while poc who shoot people (or are even suspected of it!) are 'terrorists' who often never make it to jail or a trial. I cried as black friends expressed fear for the future of their children. Again.

On Sunday and Monday I once again found myself struggling with what I can do as a white ally to help stop the violence against people of color in our country. When I worked at universities, the answer to that question was 'easy', even if execution wasn't always - talk to white students about our privileges and support students of color in whatever way I could. Now that I work from home, that answer is more difficult. I felt hopeless because my sphere of influence has shrunk. After all I go hours at a time without speaking to another person.

I came up from my pit of white guilt this morning knowing that I am not helpless. As a white author what I can do to help effect change is to write diversity into my books. Think about it: my book has entered hundreds of homes, further books that I write will reach hundreds, maybe thousands more. My writing mostly falls into the category of Young Adult. If I write diversity into my books and young folks read them, that is one more voice of equality speaking to the next generation.

So I want to talk to my white people for a second.

In a lot of cases I think we take the 'write what you know' advice too much to heart. What we know is white culture. As white people, we rely on people of color to talk about 'black people things' or 'hispanic things', or whatever. As white people we don't want to make a misstep and say something bad or accidentally racist, so it's better to just leave the talking about non-white people to non-white people. Right? Wrong.

I am issuing a challenge to my fellow white writers. Look at your fiction through a lens of social justice and equality. I've written about this before when I was at an LGBT conference, but let's expand upon it. I want us all to be honest with ourselves while considering these questions (I'm including myself in this):

  • How can you, as white person, write diversity into your fiction?
  • How do stereotypes and prejudices inform your writing? (and they do, for all of us) I'm not just talking archetypes here - really look at it. Are the good guys white and the bad guys black? All the people of color uneducated or 'urban'? All the children of color from broken homes? These are tropes we see constantly in popular fiction.
  • Is white'ness a necessary component of all your characters' story arcs in your current WIP? Is there someone who could be non-white, and is it possible that it might enhance their character development?
  • As writers we are not just creative people. We are also researchers. When was the last time you learned about a culture outside your own for a piece? When was the last time you went to a place where people of color worship? A cultural celebration? The 'other' side of town? Interviewed a non-white person to hear their story?
  • What about the books you read? Do they have multicultural protagonists? Non-white authors? Do you know about We Need Diverse Books? or the Unconventional Librarian?
  • Have you ever, in the course of your creative development, written a non-white protagonist? Are you uncomfortable with the thought of writing one? Why? No really, why?
I'm asking my literary friends to: consider the questions above and commit to writing more diversity into our works of fiction. Comment below and let me know your thoughts and how you are committing to expand the worlds you create.

I'm not saying we should be striving to speak for people of color, because we shouldn't (and that's a whole other blog post). I'm asking all of us to stretch our writing to include people who don't look like us, and to let them be real, not just the asian lady in the grocery store, or hispanic woman praying a rosary who don't even get names because they are so unimportant. When we show people of color as being well-rounded, intelligent, non-violent agents of their own destinies we give our readers a more truthful portrayal of reality.

What an impact we will have if we all focus on bringing more diversity to our fiction! If each of my literary friends writes with diversity in mind we will reach thousands of people. We quiet, introverted people who sit alone in rooms with keyboards, can aid the revolution. It may not be fast, but it will be potent, and the impact will last for as long as people read our words.

In fiction we create worlds - let's make those worlds better than the one we live in, and maybe someday reality will catch up.