A 2015 survey by Publishers Weekly found that 89 percent of people working at publishing houses are white. There’s been a lot of organizing to diversify the publishing industry. For example, a campaign called We Need Diverse Books has been publicizing the demand for more books by and about people of color. But change has been slow. The publishing industry often seems to move at a glacial pace.
On today’s show, we’re exploring the impact that the overwhelming whiteness of the publishing industry has on how Americans write, read, and respond to books. We talk with journalists about the complexities of writing about race and hear from authors in Los Angeles, Colorado, and Montana about what it’s like to be a writer of color in a very white industry.
This show features interviews with author Erika T. Wurth, Northwestern journalism professor Deborah Douglas, and writer/journalism student Rebekah Frumkin, plus essays by Lisa Lee and Ari Laurel. Tune in!
RACISM AND BOOK BANNING:
LISA LEE ON ERASURE AND INVISIBILITY:
ARI LAUREL ON REDEFINING “UNIVERSAL”:
INTERVIEW WITH ERIKA T. WURTH:
ADVICE FOR JOURNALISTS:
The Lisa Lee essay on this show was originally published by VIDA. Read the whole essay at VidaWeb.org.
The image featured on the full show is from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which is discussed on the episode.
Our show is transcribed by Cheryl Green of StoryMinders. We're proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
SARAH: In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, recently, you should know that there is something going on in Hollywood.
MAN: Two time Oscar nominee Viola Davis with Michelle last night.
VIOLA DAVIS: The problem is not with the Oscars. The problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system.
SARAH: Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Ava Duvernay, and many, many others, have calling out the whiteness of this year’s slate of Oscar nominees. On front pages and primetime TV, they’ve connected the dots between the lack of diversity at the Oscars and the systemic racial discrimination of the whole film industry.
Today we want to take a look at systemic racial discrimination in another part of our pop culture: the publishing industry. Books don’t have an awards show as flashy as the Oscars, so the issue of diversity in publishing probably isn’t going to wind up on Entertainment Tonight anytime soon. But if books did have an awards show that was as much of a media spectacle as the Oscars, it would probably be just as white. Or, likely even more so.
A 2015 survey by Publishers Weekly found that 89 percent of people working at publishing houses are white. There’s been a lot of organizing to diversify the publishing industry. For example, a campaign called “We Need Diverse Books” has been publicizing the demand for more books by and about people of color. But, change has been slow. The publishing industry from top to bottom often seems to move at a glacial pace.
On today’s show, we’re exploring the impact the overwhelming whiteness of the publishing industry has on how Americans write, read, and respond to books. We talk with journalists about the complexities of writing about race, and we’ll hear from authors in Los Angeles, Colorado, and Montana about what it’s like to be a writer of color in a very white industry.
Let’s start somewhere close by: Your public school library.
A lot of Americans really don’t like talking about race. You want to make a room of white people feel awkward? Bring up race.
Late night host Stephen Colbert joked about this on his show last week, when he was interviewing racial justice organizer DeRay McKesson. Stephen Colbert noted that one night on his show he wore a bracelet reading “Black Lives Matter,” and some people got REALLY angry.
STEPHEN COLBERT: Why do you think people get so mad about the idea of Black Lives Matter? Cuz it's an idea as much as a movement.
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah, I think that people are uncomfortable talking about the racist history of this country and what we need to undo the impact of racism.
DERAY: And people would just like to act like we don't have a legacy of racism here. So I think people get really uncomfortable with it. But we know that we can't change it unless we address it, right?
SARAH: One important way of addressing race is to read about it. Books are both a vision into the lives of others, people with different racial backgrounds and different lived experiences than us, AND a representation of ourselves, a way to reflect society. It’s very interesting to look at what books make Americans the most uncomfortable.
KRISTIN: Well, hello, Sarah. I am Kristin Pekoll. I'm the Assistant Director with the Office for Intellectual Freedom with the American Library Association.
SARAH: Kristin's job at the American Libraries Association is to help keep track of censorship. Specifically, they help out schools and libraries when somebody tries to ban a book. Books can get banned a couple ways. A parent or teacher can challenge the book and say it shouldn’t be on the shelf. Or a person in authority, like the principal, can just remove the book. This might sound archaic, but it actually happens pretty frequently.
KRISTIN: Last year, we had 311 reports for 2014.
KRISTIN: But we also estimate that that is only about 15-20% of the challenges that are actually occurring.
SARAH: Tell us about the books that are being challenged. What patterns do you see within what kinds of books are getting challenged. Is it mostly the same books getting challenged over and over and over?
KRISTIN: Yeah, it really is. If you look at the lists from the last decade of the Top 10 books, you're going to see a lot of recurring titles. The Perks of Being of a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
SARAH: When the ALA counted up all the books that had been banned last year, they saw something alarming: the books that received the most pushback were mostly by or about people of color.
KRISTIN: Right. So when we took a look at last year's titles, we started to notice that the author was either not white, or it took place not in the United States. The main characters might've been not white or not straight or not Christian. And we're like what is this saying about our culture that people don't want these books on the shelf? And it's not always why they said they chose to challenge it. You know, they usually say it's sexually explicit or it's bad language, but a lot of times a pattern like this, where eight out of the 10 books, it's hard to say that it's not for the reasons of diversity and race and sexuality that people are choosing these books.
SARAH: So eight out of the top 10 books that saw the most challenges last year were either by people of color or focused on people or color or took place not in the United States?
KRISTIN: That's correct.
SARAH: And so what you're saying here is that the reasons people give for challenging these books might not always line up with what they're actually thinking.
SARAH: So they might say like Persepolis, for example, which is by the artist and writer Marjane Satrapi, which is set in Iran, they might say this book is sexually explicit. But there's a pattern here of being more critical and having more scrutiny of books that are by people of color or focused on the stories of people of color.
KRISTIN: Right. And if you look at the reasons why someone might have said they wanted to challenge Persepolis, [chuckles] they said it was the political viewpoint, offensive language, and gambling. And this is a graphic novel where it depicts, I believe she's about 10 years old, during the Iranian revolution. It's an incredible story about a time and a place, through the eyes of the innocent. And if you think about our childhoods in the West, there's just this difference. It's not the status quo, and I think people are just uncomfortable with that idea. And rather than say, “I'm uncomfortable with the Middle Eastern culture being taught in schools,” I'm going to challenge this book and say that it's actually just because of the offensive language.
SARAH: So let's take a book that's set in the United States, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This is frequently on the Top 10 list of books that are banned. What sort of reasons do people give for wanting this book out of their schools, and what do you think is actually lying underneath that?
KRISTIN: Well, many people have said that the book is unfitted for the age group; or the violence; it's culturally insensitive, the drugs, alcohol, and smoking content; and sexual education or sexually explicit. Because this book deals specifically with a Native American teenage boy kind of putting himself into a white culture, he's seeing things that are happening in white culture that I think many white people don't want to see in themselves.
KRISTIN: He's holding up a mirror to people, and they're not liking what they're seeing. And so they would rather just take away the book.
SARAH: Well, I think this is so interesting because the role of literature and books is, in a lot of ways, to expand our horizons and to make us think about things that we wouldn't normally think about in our daily lives and to push us to think about different perspectives and new ideas. And so it's just kind of alarming, I guess, to see people say, “I don't want that to happen,” that these are books that are pushing boundaries for people. That's what they're made for. That's why we read things in school.
KRISTIN: Especially in communities that are not diverse. Reading fiction can often expand those horizons, they can lead to empathy, it can show people cultures and worlds and beliefs outside of their own. And the more diverse perspectives that we have widely available to us, the more we can learn about things. Independent reading really is a learning process. It allows for people to choose different things and have knowledgeable choices and exploration. And we need those in order to create thoughtful citizens, people who have independent thought, and we can make decisions in our world.
SARAH: Book banning isn’t a thing of the past. Even today, books that deal with material that some readers are unfamiliar with—like life experiences that are colored by race and racism—prompt some Americans to say they should be banned. But those kinds of books that push boundaries are good. Like DeRay McKesson said, “We can’t change it unless we address it, right?”
SARAH: Hi, Amy.
SARAH: This is Amy Lam. She's the Associate Editor of Bitch Magazine, and she's here to share an essay with us, right?
AMY: Yeah, I'm really excited about this essay.
SARAH: Tell us about this essay and who wrote it and where you found it.
AMY: So I'm in the group that's comprised of writers and artists of color locally, in Portland. And it's a really casual social group, and we just get together just to hang out and support one another. Within the group, we have smaller groups specifically for writers or performance artists and things like that. But we have a secret Facebook page [laughs]. It's like a secret club, but oftentimes folks will post random things in there just to be like, “Hey, heads up. This is happening,” or like, “Check out this essay.” And another writer in the group, he posted a link to this essay, and it really hit home for a lot of us in the group. It just speaks a lot to writing about race as a person of color.
SARAH: Great. Well, what's the title of the essay, and who wrote it?
AMY: It is called Report From the Field: Racial Invisibility and the Erasure in the Writing Workshop by Lisa Lee.
SARAH: And where was it published?
AMY: It was published on Vidaweb.org, and Vida is an organization that promotes women in the literary arts. So it's a great place to learn more about women and particularly women of color representation in literature.
SARAH: Great. Well, let's hear this essay. You're going to read aloud for us. Lisa Lee, the author of the essay, gave us permission to read it on the show, and you're going to read it in her stead because she has a newborn child. And the child is screaming in the background all the time!
AMY: [laughs] Well, that's what she said! She's like, “My newborn is crying a lot.” And then she explained why newborns cry a lot, and it's because I guess they have to fart, and they can't [laughs]. So they're crying until they can, and after they can fart, they're happy babies. So that's why I'm reading her essay for her! Cuz her baby has to fart a lot.
SARAH: All right. Well, thanks so much for reading this essay, Amy. Let's get into it.
Report from the Field: Racial Invisibility and Erasure in the Writing Workshop
from vidaweb.org , VIDA Women in Literary Arts
SARAH: That was an essay by Lisa Lee, who's the recipient of the 2016 Pushcart Prize for her novel excerpt Paradise Cove. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere.
You can read the full essay at Vidaweb.org. We’ll link it from the podcast page on BitchMedia.org. It was read by Amy Lam.
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today we’re talking about writing about race and the overwhelming whiteness of the publishing industry.
Ari Laurel is a writer living in Montana. For a while, she was enrolled in a graduate writing program at the University of Montana at Missoula. But she wound up quitting the program. In this essay, Ari explains part of the difficulty of writing freely and honestly in an MFA program that expected her to cater to white audiences.
ARI LAUREL ESSAY on “universal”
SARAH: That was Ari Laurel. She’s no longer an MFA student, but she’s still a writer. She’s a blog editor for Hyphen magazine and is now doing social justice programming for the YWCA in Missoula. You can follow her on twitter at @ari_laurel.
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today we’re talking about race and writing. One of the big issues we’ve been exploring on today’s show is the concept of gate-keepers. Since the publishing industry is 89% white, it’s mostly white people who are making decisions about what books should be published and what authors should be hired. Race colors our subjective understanding of what makes something powerful; experiences that would profoundly resonate with some readers wouldn’t with others because they have different life experiences.
So what is like to try and get a book published if your book is about a person whose identity is often stereotyped, pigeonholed, or altogether ignored by white-dominant pop culture? Author Erika Wurth knows a lot about this. Erika is an Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee poet and novelist who was raised outside of Denver. She published her first novel, Crazyhorse’s Girlfriend, with the publisher Curbside Splendor in 2014. It’s a gritty book about Margaritte, a sharp-tongued, drug-dealing, sixteen-year-old Native American girl trying to get out of her life and find something new. Now, Erika’s in the process of trying to find a publisher for her second novel, which is about a teenage Native American boy who’s in a gang. In addition to being an author, Erika is also a researcher. She’s a Creative Writing professor at Western Illinois University and did her PhD dissertation on The Politics of Reading and Readership in American Ethnic Literature. So this is a really interesting time for Erika as a writer, being both a professor and trying to publish her second novel.
SARAH: Well, let's start out by talking about your first book, Crazyhorse's Girlfriend, which is about a teenage girl named Margaritte, who's Native American. She's living in Colorado. Why is this a community and a person who you wanted to write about?
ERIKA: I was at school in Idaho Springs, although I lived outside of it, slightly in the mountains. And I really felt like Denver and outlying areas, it's just, there are a lot of people of Native American heritage that are there that are just ignored. I mean, there are so many folks from Oklahoma, so many Navajo folks, Lakota folks living in Denver and outlying areas, and Colorado sees itself as this very white, hikey-bikey, now marijuana rights haven. And it just sort of bleaches itself out, and it's always irritated me. So I really felt like where I grew up needed, deserved to have some kind of voice.
SARAH: So the stories that you saw or the lived experienced that you had wasn't necessarily reflected in fiction and in novels about Colorado and in Colorado's sense of self.
ERIKA: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, there's a lot of great Native American lit, but the sort of conflict of Rez life–reservation life–versus not-reservation life, I'm not saying that isn't a huge issue, and there are all kinds of ways to go about it. But I got really tired of it because over 70% of us live off the reservation, and so many reviews of my novel tried to imagine that people in my novel–the whole novel is about loss of culture–and I think that's so American, and it has nothing to do with what I was writing about. The folks in my novel speak a combination of Spanish, English, Lakota, and Navajo, they go to Pow Wow, their Native American church, they know what tribes they are, they know what families they are, they have a sense of who they are. And I think that's just something that's superimposed that really irritates me. But what can you do?
SARAH: So Erika, I saw you on a panel on diversity in fiction last year at a conference called BinderCon in Los Angeles, which is a conference for women writers. And I was really struck by what you said on a panel. I'll just read it back to you. You were talking about your second novel, which is about a teenager who's in a gang, who's also Native American. And in that panel you said, “If you're a white guy, your book is called 'Coming of Age.' If you're a woman of color, it's called 'YA'.” So can you just speak to that disconnect between how the work of white male authors is more likely to be seen as grand, coming of age, whereas your work can be pigeonholed, and the role that race and gender plays in that?
ERIKA: Even men of color, a lot of times, their novels where their protagonists are teenagers, it's art.
SARAH: Mmhmm. Well, can you talk a little bit more about how you think race and gender colored the reception of your book within the publishing industry? Do you feel like you had a harder time getting people interested in the book because of the race and gender of the protagonists? Or were people supportive of it because they wanted to see more books like this and were like, this is a story that hasn't been told?
ERIKA: With both of my books, I've had immense problems. The first to say look, I'm not necessarily a genius. Certainly, there's lots that I can learn; I'm always trying to be a better writer. But I see people who I think are equal to me having an easier time. I think there's just a lot of confusion. There wasn't a lot about spirituality. There wasn't a lot about, “Gee, I'm so conflicted because I'm not from a reservation. I'm losing my culture.” And so I ended up going with Curbside Splendor, and they're a great press. They do very different, interesting stuff. And then the reception of the first novel was, it was vulgar, and it was YA. It was all these kinds of things that were interesting to see. And then the second novel, my current agent is having hell on earth placing. All the rejections from the big presses are, “It's too dark. It's too unrelentingly dark.” People who publish Donald Pollock found my work to dark, which I find absurd. And then occasionally, they want it to be more plot-driven. I do feel like if I were a white male, I would be lauded for having more internal dialogue, more internal conflict, more investment in language, less investment in bombastic plot. I just, again, I think that's really unfair. I think sometimes if you're Native American, and in an artistic way you can still speak somehow, I guess–and this feels like I'm dissing other Native writers, and I don't want to do that cuz many of them are my friends. I love them. I love their work. But it's somehow you're kind of seen anyway to be covering territory that seems familiar when it comes to a non-Native audience in terms of what they think Native life is like, people will just jump up and down and love it. I don't do that. The next novel, Matthew, is about Native American gangs, and they keep saying, “Oh we want to”–and they said this with my first novel too–“Oh, we so want to publish more Native Americans, but this. This is too dark, or it isn't plot-driven enough.” What they want, right, is something simple and palatable so that it's an exhibition of Native American culture that's easily digestible for a white audience. And I don't think that's art.
SARAH: You want to write something that represents your experiences and the stories that you want to have told, but then then pushback you're getting is, “No, it has to be Native in this way. We want to see this kind of Native story.”
ERIKA: And I just kind of feel like if I were Jonathan Franzen or Bret Easton Ellis writing–I'm kind of dating myself by making those names–it's just the pressure would be different. I'm not saying it's not difficult to be published and to be recognized. So I don't want to come off as whiney in that sense, but when I see what the rejections actually state–And again, I have to say, even men of color, I don't think, quite have it as bad somehow, because I think they get to be sort of an American masculine writer in some sense, and I don't get that. And I think my female characters really scare and horrify [laughs] acquisitions editors and presses.
SARAH: And why is that? Why are they scary?
ERIKA: I think they're very independent, they're loud-mouthed, they're violent sometimes, they're complicated, they're human, if they're not the main character, they're one of the main characters, they're not spiritual, they're not conflicted about being Native American. They're just living their lives, and their lives are very gritty, and they're real, and they're dark. I think people just want–especially Native American women–to be sort of fetishized in this very particular way that I'm not familiar with that; I did not grow up that way. None of the Native women I know are like that, even if they're spiritual in some sense or another. I just think my characters upset folks, which I always thought that was the purpose of art, was to upset and disrupt–or at least one of the purposes. I also find a lot of times very mysterious and funny and weird what white people think about Native Americans: They want us to look a certain way, they want us to validate the fact that they might be part Cherokee, they think we're really spiritual, they think we're all on a Rez, and if we're not, we're inauthentic, they think we're all dead, they think we're from 500 years ago. And I just find that stuff incredibly strange. It's so strange to be this mythical unicorn pony race of people, when actually, we're often walking right past you and around you, and there's a real kind of “I refuse to see this. I refuse to see this population as another minority group.” And I think what happens is my work kind of wrecks that, and it just says, “Nope. We're human beings, and here we are.” That's just how I work. It's how I'm built to write.
SARAH: That was writer and teacher Erika T. Wurth. Hopefully you’ll be able to read her second novel soon, but for now, you can pick up her book Crazyhorse’s Girlfriend.
SARAH: The role of writers is often to observe what people are like and then capture that reality in a way that says something new. But what if you’re observing a community that’s very different from your own?
The discussion around a hit sociology book has brought this question into sharp focus recently. Sociologist Alice Goffman, who is white and in grad school at Princeton, spent six years living in West Philadelphia and documenting the lives of mostly African American men. She took copious, meticulous notes about the fraught and racialized policing of the neighborhood. Her fieldwork turned into a book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in An American City, that has been met with much more mainstream success than a lot of sociology texts.
It’s also led to contentious discussion and pushback, most recently captured in a lengthy New York Times article called The Trials of Alice Goffman. The article, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, goes in-depth on the debates over her work. As Gideon writes: “Above all, what frustrated her critics was the fact that she was a well-off, expensively educated white woman who wrote about the lives of poor black men without expending a lot of time or energy on what the field refers to as ‘‘positionality’’ — in this case, on an accounting of her own privilege. Goffman identifies strongly and explicitly with the confident social scientists of previous generations, and if none of those figures felt as though they had to apologize for doing straightforward, readable work on marginalized or discredited populations, she didn’t see why she should have to.”
The discussion over On the Run centers on this really interesting question, which Gideon sums up: When the politics of representation have become so fraught, who gets to write about whom?
I was curious about how this issue of how to write responsibly about communities you’re not a part of is playing out in classrooms, specially, journalism classrooms. It turns out this issue—of On the Run and the response to it—had actually just come up in a journalism class at Northwestern.
DEBORAH: I'm Deborah Douglas, and I am an adjunct lecturer at the Medill School at Northwestern University.
SARAH: Deborah, who is African American, thinks about this issue all the time as she trains the next generation of journalists. Her class at Northwestern is a working newsroom, where students write and publish articles. And a lot of her students are interested in social justice and covering marginalized communities. Deborah had just read the New York Times article about On the Run, when one of her students, Rebekah Frumkin, brought it up.
REBEKAH: My name is Rebekah Frumkin, and I'm a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
SARAH: Rebekah is a white, liberal arts-educated aspiring journalist who’s written for a couple outlets, including McSweeney’s. She’s hoping to be a very conscientious journalist, which is why she was especially interested in the issues the debate about On the Run brings up.
What I wanted to talk to Deborah and Rebekah about is not whether On the Run is right or wrong or “good” or “bad,” but the core issue here of how writers can take on the task of writing about communities that aren’t their own and the role race plays in that.
DEBORAH: So Rebekah sat down, and she just looked at me and said something to the effect of “Do you believe white people can tell black stories?” or something like that. And I'm like, “You read the Alice Goffman story this morning, didn't you?”
DEBORAH and REBEKAH: [laugh]
DEBORAH: I said, “I feel where you're coming from.” But I said, “Well, what do you think?” Before I started off, I wanted to know what Rebekah thought, and I felt like what she had to offer was really useful.
SARAH: So Deborah, when people come to you because of your role in the op-ed project and also as a professor, when people come to you with stories that they want to tell that are about communities that aren't their own–so let's say young, white people telling stories about older, black communities–what sort of questions do you ask, and what do you try to evaluate in that process to decide whether this is an article that should go forward?
DEBORAH: It's funny because I just read an email from a colleague of mine who talked about the just-hatched syndrome where because you've just discovered something, you think it's brand new, and you have to write it on terrible world.
SARAH: Ah yeah, I'm very familiar with that [laughs].
DEBORAH: [laughs] OK! And that you need to do basic research and interrogate that. And so I do have a lot of white students that come to me who want to go to marginalized communities because they do have a heart for social justice, and that is something I want to help them to be able to explore that in a journalistic way. I do ask them questions about what they think is brand new here [giggles], just from a basic research perspective. I am concerned about this sort of Columbusing of certain types of stories. Like, “Oh! I just discovered Roseland.” Well, I grew up in Roseland. So what? What can you tell me, as someone who actually grew up in this community? What can you tell me about the nuance?
SARAH: So Deborah, you used that term “Columbusing.” I'm sure some people aren't familiar with it. Can you explain what that means?
DEBORAH: It's a tendency of people, namely white people, to happen on a new phenomenon, or something that's new to them–could be a word, some lingo, it could be some clothing, a clothing trend, it could just be a lifestyle habit that marginalized people have engaged in for eons–and all of a sudden, because it's been “discovered” by a white observer, it becomes a discussion topic and worthy of cataloging via all sorts of forms of media. And there are things that maybe marginalized writers thought were worthy of writing about, but they were never given the opportunity to write about or talk about or pontificate about. But the idea that our way of life and just the way that we have composed ourselves in society is not really worthy of inspection or celebration until someone, some outsider validates us.
SARAH: Rebekah, in reading about On the Run, which is the book by sociologist Alice Goffman, it brings up a lot of these issues about how people write about other communities. In this case, Alice Goffman is a white sociologist, and she was writing about this black neighborhood. And there's been a lot of criticism around that. In some ways, this is in the tradition of what anthropologists do: They go into a community that's not their own, they spend some time there, and then they write a big book or a big article about what that community is like. So why do you think On the Run is getting so much scrutiny? Why now?
REBEKAH: That's a great question. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. I guess anthropology and sociology, by their very nature, are kind of othering. The establishment that Alice Goffman's a part of is a primarily white, academic establishment, and the idea that this community is working class to low-income, predominantly black community is something to be studied, to be investigated is something that hasn't necessarily been incorporated into the discourse of that institution suggests to me that there's an element of distancing to begin with. Like we need a sociologist to sort of go in here and examine this. We are currently experiencing what I think is this incredible shift in the cultural conversation about marginalized people and marginalized communities whereby more people from those communities are speaking for themselves.
SARAH: So this all doesn't mean that people can't write about or report on communities that they're not part of. But it does make it clear that there are some considerations to think about and more things we should have on our radar as writers and as reporters and as journalists when we're covering communities that we're not familiar with or aren't from. So I think Rebekah, since you're a student, right now, of journalism, if you're going into a community that you're not a part of–let's say you're assigned to travel to Ferguson to report on a protest–what kind of questions would you want to be keeping in mind, and what kind of issues would you want to be keeping on your radar as a reporter to make sure that you're doing a good job and representing people in a way that's not offensive or alienating?
REBEKAH: I think positionality is a big part of my answer to that question, and by positionality I mean understanding my place in the world and knowing what features of that could potentially impose a handicap when I'm trying to explore different parts of the world and report on them. So I would be asking myself, OK, you know, what have I experienced in my life? What do I know? What have my friends told me about this issue? Who of my friends are involved in this issue? And how can I remain, I guess, open and vulnerable? And then, I'd be asking myself how can I amplify the voices of people who are involved in this? How many people can I talk to?
SARAH: So Deborah, as a journalism professor, what's your response there? What advice do you give to students like Rebekah and other journalists in general who are covering communities that they're not a part of? What do you tell them to keep in mind when they're reporting on this?
DEBORAH: I don't really speak to them from the standpoint of oh, you're going to this community that you're not a part of. I don't speak to them in that way. But I just ask them to drill down and not just accept what they hear on the surface. They still need to be thoughtful and skeptical of situations that they go in because that's the bias you can bring into a community too, that oh, I know you're marginalized. So I'm gonna open my big, white heart to you [chuckles] and let you say whatever it is you want to say. But that's not our role as journalists. We're drilling down for the truth, whatever the truth is, even if the truth is not pretty, even if the truth hurts. And so you might have to go into a so-called marginalized community and ask some really tough questions, but you need to give yourself permission to actually do that, and just go beyond skimming the surface. Go beyond accepting the echo of something that you've already read that sort of fits the idea or picture of what the story really is, and just be open to nuance.
SARAH: What do you think that this discussion around Alice Goffman's work, On the Run, is illuminating about how we report on and write about race? What can we take away from this controversy around this book and this discussion about it?
REBEKAH: You really, really, really have to leverage whatever privilege you have to amplify marginalized voices. So you have to recognize that as a white person, or as a college-educated person, or as a man, or whatever, as a cisgender person, there are people on the other end of the spectrum who are not getting the opportunities you're getting because of their identity. So you have to find a way to bring those voices to the fore however you can.
SARAH: Deborah, what's your take-away from this? What do you think we can learn about the discussions around On the Run?
DEBORAH: Well, the first thing is that among the discussions around my various, very serious writerly friends, is that this work is a phenomenal work. Like Rebekah, I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I will. But my critique goes beyond Alice herself to the gate keeper. My critique is about providing an on-ramp for other voices of people who actually come from those communities and who can see a finer nuance just walking in the front door and giving them the opportunity to be able to tell those stories.
SARAH: That was professor Deborah Douglas and journalism student Rebekah Frumkin. You can follow their work on twitter at @deadlinedd and @JeansValJeans, respectively.
So what’s our takeaway from these complicated discussions? I think it’s important for us to think about, as readers and writers, what we’re not seeing. If you’re white, our culture reinforces the idea that your experience is not only “normal” but often the only experience worth talking about. That leads people, over and over and over, to think of writing from other perspectives as being “offensive”; it should be taken out of school libraries. It leads white people, over and over and over, to be dismissive of writers of color who are telling the stories of their communities. And it leads publishers, over and over and over, to overlook and diminish authors who are writing books that doesn’t fit what the industry’s assumptions about what a racial or ethnic group is actually like. And it can lead white journalists, and that includes me, to burst into a community and think they discovered it or are suddenly an expert and should write the definitive story on it. A lot of times, writing about race means taking a moment to think about what’s not being written and who’s not getting the chance to write it.
Thank you so much to everyone who was part of today's show, including Kristin from the ALA, the author Lisa Lee for letting us share her essay, writer Ari Laurel, author Erika Wurth, and journalism professor Deborah Douglas, and writer Rebekah Frumkin. Thank you so much.