[repost] “why does it matter if the best books have white protagonists?”

NB: This essay is reposted from my old blog. The original post was written when Una was almost 1. Now she’s 5, and I have another baby daughter. My opinions have not budged; and the American left’s internal crisis over “identity politics” would appear to lent them fresh relevance.

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“When A Popular List Of 100 ‘Best-Ever’ Teen Books Is The ‘Whitest Ever'”

Read the article and the comments. I’ll wait.

In place of what I actually want to write next, just imagine a big guy with a red face yelling a lot.

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Let me explain myself in a more measured way.

I have this daughter. She’s real cute. I don’t hang out with her as much as I’d like, but enough that I can’t really tell whether she can pass for white. I think maybe she can’t — though she’s changing every day, so in the long term, who knows? But even if you don’t know her mama, she does, and she’ll figure the genetics out, like you do.

It’s going to be some time before she can read at all, and some more before she can read with any sophistication. So there’ll be a period in there where she doesn’t have any idea whether “race/skin color [is] important to the context of the stories being told,” or whether a story is “ABOUT being black or Indian or Asian-American and how tough it is.” But she will have some idea whether there’s anyone who looks like her, or like her mama, in the book. And if there isn’t, and there isn’t in the next book, and there isn’t in the book after that or the book after that, she’s going to notice.

Beyond that? I’ve probably spoken too much for her already. But I’m guessing she’s going to wonder why. And I’m guessing she’s going to wonder if there might not be something weird, or off, or not quite right, about being the way she is, since no one seems to want to write about those sorts of people.

I’m white. I’m not going to pretend I know how that feels. Maybe it’s not that bad. But I’m also not going to pretend that “I’m so special that no one will write about me!” is a likely outcome.

The brain is a statistical engine. Our conscious minds are shit at probability, but unconsciously, we soak it up. We automatically notice what’s amiss.

The brain is a social engine. What’s talked about — what’s in other people’s brains — is attractive and valuable. What’s ignored and hidden is shameful and worthless.

Is this difficult? Have I said anything anybody doesn’t know?

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And, by the way, what is with all this speculation that maybe a huge chunk of kid’s books contain racially ambiguous protagonists? Did you ever notice that characters have a weird way of having names? My daughter, for example, one of my own movie’s main characters. Shin-Yi and I agreed (and here, by the way, I refer not to Shin-Yi O’Shaughnessy of Cork County, Ireland, nor to Shin-Yi Kvaratskhelia of the Republic of Georgia, but to my wife, Shin-Yi Lin, whose ancestry, it may shock you to learn, is mostly Han Chinese) way before she was born that, whatever her name was, it’d be part Chinese and part Western. And we loved Una for a first name, so her last name is Lin. So, go ahead, speak to me about how Hermione Hussein Granger was really Kenyan all along. (2016 update: Obviously I got this one wrong; quite pleased to have been made a fool of.)

While we’re in Q&A time, I’d also like to understand how “Making such a big deal out of things like this keeps racism alive and well.” I’d like that explained to me in meticulous detail. Is the KKK marching in the streets outside the publishers’ offices in New York, burning crosses for greater racial diversity in YA literature? I did not receive that telegram. Perhaps there was a paper jam in my fax machine.

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I couldn’t give a shit about basketball, truly I couldn’t, but I gave a shit about Jeremy Lin. (No relation.)

Look, I don’t get to pick who my daughter is. She gets more of a say, but she, too, is not without constraints. When I hear people being too cool for school about Jeremy Lin my fucking brain-pan overheats, because it matters if my daughter has a pro athlete for a role model. Not in my ideal world, maybe not in the world that will be, but in the world of weird wobbly possibility that obtains when your little girl is 11 months old and might, just might, find herself able and hungry to do literally any given thing at all, IT MATTERS.

I would have blown off Linsanity a year ago as well. Being a dad has made me hella more political, in the “identity politics” sense. I have probably jumped at shadows once or twice. I’m not sorry. Protip: Do not get me started on sexism.

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I am actually not fussed at NPR’s response, by the way. I think the article was badly titled, the solution of flagging the popularity-contest nature of the thing with a better title is easy and obvious, and the matter can more or less rest there. No need for NPR to distort reality, as long as they call it what it is. The top sf & fantasy list was called “Your Picks.” I wasn’t happy that NPR’s audience couldn’t bring themselves to upvote a single author of color, or that NPR was too oblivious to notice that fact, but that’s what it is. NPR listeners’ picks, which elevated a piece of STAR WARS companion merch over Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, but there you go.

It’s the self-satisfied complacency of the commentariat that’s nasty. Race is done, am I right? If you didn’t hear about it before it was cool, then it’s lamestream. (That’s right, you fuckers, I just called every one of you a hipster Sarah Palin.)

I don’t like the concept of “derailing.” I don’t like sniping over “privilege.” But I am starting to get where all this anger is coming from.

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