I recently read an article by Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalkers Guide to Dancing. In this article, which she originally prepared as a speech for a Publisher’s Weekly event honouring young publishing stars, Jacob tells a story about preparing an excerpt of her novel for a radio program. She recalls the radio host requesting edits. While this is a normal requirement given the difference between the print and audio mediums, Jacobs soon became uncomfortable and frustrated with what was being asked of her. The host requested she cut down the number of names in the excerpt especially if she was “going to stick to the unfamiliar names” and suggested that the term “East Indian” be (inaccurately) replaced with “Asian Indian” because “Americans aren’t familiar with the term East Asian.”
Stories like these are not uncommon and it is an issue. Jacob does an excellent job of explaining some of the reasons why use of “the audience won’t relate” as an excuse to edit the stories of people of colour is problematic. I will, however, reiterate these issues because they are important to understand.
The first is that when publishers (or film studios, or journalists, or any other content creators) make this claim, they are essentially denying the existence of audiences of colour. Last I checked, over 72 million people in the United States (I’m using American data because we’re talking about books mostly and most of the big publishing houses have headquarters there) identified as belonging to a minority group (Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, or two or more races). That’s a good chunk of the population and it’s foolish to discount their existence, their tastes, and their desires for stories about people of colour.
Second, it assumes that stories written by people of colour or that feature people of colour are about race or cultural identity, which isn’t always the case. Think about this: are there many stories with white characters that are about being white? Not that I can think of. While it is true that people of colour and white people often have different experiences because of historical and current societal issues, that doesn’t mean that all writers of colour want to write about is race.
This brings us to the point about relating. Regardless of race, everyone deals with the ups and downs of life and experiences a multitude of emotions. To assume that people of colour never do or feel anything that a white person would is an act of dehumanization that no one, regardless of race, should permit. And if you consider empathy a human characteristic, then assuming that white people are unable to relate is also dehumanizing. The truth of the matter is that people can relate to stories about human experiences even if the characters within these stories are different. They just need to be given the opportunity. Jacob illustrates this when she talks about people coming up to her to talk about The Sleepwalkers Guide to Dancing. Even though the people she talked to weren’t all Indian, they found within her writing something to relate to, something that made them feel like Jacob’s novel was about them on some level. And that’s the sign of a good book.
While the issues Jacob brings up in her article are of great importance, I wanted to expand on her arguments by adding that by using the claim “the audience won’t relate” one assumes that white readers don’t want to read about the experiences of people who are not white. It assumes that we cannot be entertained by the stories of people different from ourselves and that we have no desire to learn about different cultures or ways of life. I know I’m not alone in believing that this is not the case.
Recently, I had to do a project in which I worked with a group to come up with a magazine brand to launch. My group was assigned fashion and beauty, and after looking through a bunch of magazines, we determined that many of them appeared to focus on thin, white women. We decided (and full disclosure here, nine of the eleven people in our group were white), that it would be great to have a magazine that was more inclusive, a magazine that celebrated diversity not only in skin colour, but in all aspects of appearance and life. We knew this might be challenging, but we thought it was important so we went with it. However, when we made our pitch the judges were hesitant. They weren’t sure if “the audience” would be comfortable with the people we wanted to showcase. We were a group of millennials coming up with a concept we wanted to see for an audience like ourselves, yet the judges questioned that. It was like being told we didn’t know what we wanted.
If I felt frustration at that one instance, I can only imagine how writers of colour must feel when “the audience won’t relate” is repeatedly used as an argument against telling their stories the way they want to. It’s not fair to writers of colour that aspects of their lives are subject to editing because they “aren’t familiar” to a white audience (especially given that a great deal of fiction – sci-fi and fantasy especially – trade in the unfamiliar and do fine). Worse still is the fact that this probably happens more than I’m aware of, especially since white writers still dominate the North American publishing world.
So, to my fellow readers: we have work to do.
We need to stop creative industries from using “the audience” as an excuse to hide discrimination. We need to stop contributing to market statistics that end up enforcing the belief that audiences don’t want books and stories by or about people of colour and demonstrate what we do want. We need to be aware of our reading choices and we need to choose to make our bookshelves more diverse.
We need to read diverse and we need to talk about it!
So, the next time you head to the bookstore, consider something by a writer of colour (I know I plan on it). Also, if you’ve got a book recommendation, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about it.