Normally I'd agree 100% with anything Ellen Oh says on needing diverse books, and I still feel we as writers and readers, and I personally as a diverse author, owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude for what she has done with We Need Diverse Books, but her Dear White Writers post left me feeling, well erased. You see, I'm both a diverse writer, and a white writer, the two aren't mutually exclusive.
Before I go any further, I need you to go read what Ellen wrote if you haven't already: Dear White Writers
And her follow-up: here (in which she says she's taking a break from social media, so I have the unfair advantage of talking without the likelihood of reply)
That second post recommend's Shannon Hale's tweets on the topic, which is Shannon being a wise ally as usual, so read them too.
There's also Upstart Crow Literary's White Writers: Don’t Write Diverse Books. Instead, Read Them post, which I think is important because it shows agents are seeing this happening in their inboxes and that it is a very real phenomenon (and also for the way they phrased that title).
Caught up? Good.
What I'm not linking to is the reaction to Ellen's post. I missed that, having a couple of days off social media, and I'm glad I did, I can well imagine how ugly it will have been. And what ended up in Ellen's in-box is likely to have been far worse, the well publicised examples from Gamergate and its ilk are all too virulent in their hate of those of us who say the status quo cannot stand. A friend faced that over Christmas and I bitterly regret not being on line to be able to offer her support and challenge the aggressors. I'm taking issue with the way Ellen phrased her point, but I'll stand by her to the last against those who deny she has one.
I absolutely understand that Ellen was addressing white writers who are deciding to write protagonists who are People of Colour because of the prominence of WNDB, and in fact I agree with her, We Need Diverse Books is not some fad to be jumped on by non-diverse authors for their personal gain. The question that worries me is: did most of her audience understand that distinction?
Since We Need Diverse Books gathered momentum, I've been worried by the number of people, primarily outside the core WNDB movement, who have phrased diversity as purely an ethnicity issue, and that goes particularly for the industry and popular press. If people only see diversity being addressed as an issue of ethnicity, it will drive them to see it as only a question of ethnicity. Amd the result may be the further marginalization of already marginalized voices.
But diversity is far more than ethnicity alone, and We Need Diverse Books addresses more than simply the exclusion of Authors of Colour and Protagonists of Colour. Similarly missing from the bookshelves and the lists of new publishing deals are the QUILTBAG authors and protagonists, the disabled authors and protagonists (that would be me, and my characters), the non-Christian and atheist voices, writers who didn't grow up in the chattering classes, writers with atypical family backgrounds, and so on. I can't be exhaustive, the list of unrepresented minorities is simply too diverse. Yet when people phrase WNDB as solely an ethnicity issue, those of us whose diversity isn't an ethnicity issue can't help feeling a little erased.
One thing I've loved about WNDB is it has never shied from saying it was about the intersection of diversities as well as individual diversities, because so many of my friends live at the intersection of multiple diversities. Intersectionality may not cover the privilege of being white (and even as a disabled, white male, middle-class author I am hugely privileged), but it should remind us of the existence of those of us with non-ethnicity based diversities, and that some of us will inevitably be white.
Now Ellen's point addressed white authors leaping onto the back of WNDB for personal gain. As I said, I agree with it. As a white author I lack the direct personal experience to write a Person of Colour as a protagonist, at least without very considerable input from people who have the lived experience of being People of Colour. And at a time when we are attempting to create the space to establish the careers of Authors of Colour, I, and other white authors, should step back in order to give those careers space to bloom. As Ellen Oh says: "Aren’t there enough stories from the white perspective already? Must you tell our stories through your lens too?" But her point has wider applicability. Whatever your ethnicity, unless you are also disabled then you haven't lived as a disabled person, someone society rejects as broken.(or as a gay or trans person, a non-Christian, or whatever). Imagine what it feels like to have you existence erased by an entire genre that, when it deigns to notice you, insists that you need to be fixed (SF/F I'm looking at you). I've faced the classic forrms of disability discrimination first hand: abuse, assault, accusations of benefit fraud, dismissal as a 'bitter cripple' for daring to speak out, demonization in the press, destruction of career, perceived as asexual, and so on. I've lived not being able to get into every other shop on the High Street, of being required to give 24 hours notice if I want to take a train or a plane, and if you haven't faced that, how much insight will you bring to writing a disabled character?
Ellen phrased her point as about ethnicity, which is valid, but also as about diversity: "Diversity is not a new hot trend for you all to jump on and write about" If it had been solely phrased as ethnicity, despite the wider applicability I referred to above, then I might have sighed at being ignored again, and moved on, but it's neither clearly solely about ethnicity, nor clearly addressing the wider issues of diverisity as a whole, and the danger, to my eyes, is that the diversity=ethnicity and white=non-diverse messages are further reinforced. I'm absolutely certain that isn't Ellen's intent, but I do believe a lot of people will read it that way - just look at how Upstart Crow titled their piece.
One thing we don't want from We Need Diverse Books is for any diversities to become even more marginalized, but that requires us to recognise that diversity is not ethnicity, and make that point to our audience. If you're talking only about ethnicity, then absolutely, talk about People of Colour and White authors and characters (and make it clear your point relates to ethnicity alone), but if you're addressing general diversity issues, please, don't use 'People of Colour' and 'White', use 'Diverse', or 'Non-Diverse', that way the rest of us won't be left feeling further excluded.