Friday, December 5, 2014

Of Ferguson, the Media, and a Brown Girl Dreaming: Thoughts on Narrative in America

I've been wanting to talk about diversity for a long time. All through the initial protests in Ferguson all those months ago, all through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign on twitter (when it was a spreading of ideas) and then on Indiegogo (when it became so much more than that - when it became about driving change). All through the INSPIRE Toronto International Book Fair, where there were panels on diversity, and where even the people presenting about other issues ended up talking about diversity anyway. All through the discussion and debate and frustration and reaction to Daniel Handler's racial slurs at the National Book Awards, and all through his "apology" on twitter, and all through his Apology and pledge to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

All through all of that, I have slowly been gathering words, swirling them together in my heart and in my mind into something that resembled a cohesive whole more than a muddled soup.

And then a Grand Jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, and more protests started, and all of those words evaporated into the mist, carried away by the howling winds.

I took a break. In the meantime, I talked with friends in both my countries: around lunch tables here in Canada, and in various online spaces where my American family hang out. I read. I searched out a copy of brown girl dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award-winning novel in verse that is really part novel, part memoir. It was surprisingly hard to find a copy, which I’ll get to later.

The book is excellent, by the way.

This week, a Grand Jury in New York decided not to indict the police officer who was captured on video breaking the law in NYC when he put Eric Garner in a chokehold that killed him. And the words are swirling.

The National Book Award
The Second Amendment
The First Amendment
Celebrities singing onstage in front of a ginormous Christmas tree while protesters lie down in the street two blocks away.

All these threads.

Diversity is at once a simple thing and a complicated and difficult thing for me to talk about. Simple, because in my mind, it IS simple: we are all human; we all matter equally; we should all tell all the stories. That's it.

But it is difficult, too. Difficult because my skin is white, and I know that there are people in my life to whom my skin color matters, whether they realize it or not. Difficult because my heritage is mixed but my upbringing is less so, and even though I am American and Philippina and 4 years of Scotland and 4 years of England and 9 years of Canada and I feel like a melting pot, I look like the Privileged Majority. 

I understand that when I say, “we should all tell all the stories,” I say it from a position of privilege. I don’t like it, and I didn’t ask for it, but that’s what I inherited. America gave that to me, and it’s not exactly something that I can turn down, because even as it is tangible, it is intangible.

And I can understand why there are people saying things like "black people need to stand together", because when you look at the demographics of the prison system, and then you look at the statistics when it comes to things like arrest and conviction, and when you think about the history of access to things like education and employment opportunities and mortgages, it’s pretty clear that the deck is stacked. But at the same time, I think it’s really stupid that we are standing here, 50 years after Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, 50 years after Rosa Parks, still arguing about race.

I mean, come on. Look at us, still stuck in this place of caring what color someone’s skin is. I wish that we could all see past the color of each other’s skin, all of us. Because when you start your club as a reaction to someone else's club, you're still segregated. You're seeing each other as "other". And that is a thing that is both pathetic and heartbreaking. The fact that we even need a hashtag like #CelebrateJackie or #WeNeedDiverseBooks is pathetic and heartbreaking. But: we do need them.

We need them because when I want to go to a bookstore near my home in Canada to get a copy of brown girl dreaming, because it won a pretty huge award and I've heard amazing things about it,






And I wonder what this means, that a book so powerful that it won it's country's highest honor is not stocked in any of the major chain bookstores in a country where most of the people do not look like the person who wrote the book, even though the people of that country regard themselves as celebrating diversity. Because if we set aside the fact that the book just won the award, and maybe the stores haven't been able to stock it yet since the announcement came out - it's an amazing book that was released months ago. They should have had it in stock anyway. Why didn't they? It can’t be because it’s an “American” book; Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are everywhere, end-capped and displayed prominently on tables where everyone can find them.

And I have trouble parsing out these thoughts - the feelings of frustration at reading someone's opinion that only black people should tell black people's stories, the feelings that my skin color does not actually say anything about me (even though it says a lot about how people treat me), the feelings of anger at the people who justify police brutality without realizing the position of privilege that police officers hold over all of us, the understanding that I have been an unwitting beneficiary of White Privilege and all that it offers. The voices around me that insist that Canada's narrative is different from America's, that as a nation whose history is that of the place to which oppressed people escaped, they don't have this "race problem", and the voice within me that asks if that is the case, why, in a nation that is so diverse, do over 90% of the books have white faces on them?

All those narratives.

All those threads.

All those threads weaving together, in and out, over and under. Creating a whole.

When I hear people - in Canada, mostly White, but including people of all colors; in America, people who are White - say that maybe if Mike Brown and Eric Garner hadn’t done anything wrong (sassed the police officer, sold untaxed cigarettes) they would still be here, I am reminded of Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay grazing fees for years and who didn’t get shot for it, even though he and his supporters aimed their rifles at Federal Agents sniper-style when the agents came to round up the cattle and remove them from a protected nature preserve. Not only is Bundy still here to tell the tale, his cattle are still grazing on Federal protected (but not-really) land. Faced with the rifles of an angry militia - which takes “sassing” to a whole new level - the Feds gave up.

It shouldn’t be about race, but it is.

I am reminded of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by Cleveland Police when they saw him holding a toy gun that looked like a real one. And then they dilly-dallied before providing him with first-aid. A 12-year-old child.

Contrast this with the case of heavily armed James Holmes, who admits to opening fire in a crowded Colorado movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring over 70 people in 2012, but who is still here to talk about it.

It shouldn’t be about race, but it is.

There are hundreds of cases like Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Michael Brown every year in America. There are studies that show that when confronted with a stereotype - a Black person with a gun, a White person without one - people react more quickly and more accurately than when confronted with images that break the stereotype. Racial bias and racial profiling are a real thing in America.

And this is where we are all responsible. Because when we create media that show Black people as only the sidekicks or criminals, we plant the seeds that grow into racial bias. When the only movies that center around a Black character are movies in which all the characters are Black characters, we sow the seeds of racial bias. When we publish whole bookstores full of books with only white people on the covers, we deliver a message to our children and to ourselves that White people’s stories matter, that White people’s stories are important, and that people whose skin is a different color are not and cannot be the heroes, and we sow the seeds of racial bias.

When we publish photo captions like this:

we not only sow the seeds of racial bias: we water them and pile on the fertilizer.

This issue, like all major issues, is complicated. In addition to race, there are considerations like poverty and access to education. There is the issue of what it means when a child is born into a squat with drugs in her system, compounded by the lack of community resources to help those children grow up to be anything other than reflections of their parents.


Arching over all of this, there is the issue of narrative: the narrative that we tell ourselves and our children, that swirls through our minds and runs through our veins. The narrative that says: America is what it is because we fought the Redcoats for it. The narrative that says: America’s economic roots, those prosperous Southern plantations that the North fought so hard to hold on to, depended initially upon the enslavement of colored people. The narrative that says: history has shown that we can't trust Them. The narrative that says: we didn't trust you to begin with. The narrative that says: the Individual is King, and if those people can’t solve those people’s problems, then it’s nothing to do with Me.

All those threads. 

The increasing militarization of police in America, the increasing number of firearm deaths in America, the gulf between the wealthy and the poor growing wider, ever wider in America. 

The segregation of the media while we pretend to integrate our lives, going to mixed schools and mixed workplaces and then returning home to our monochromatic neighbourhoods. 

The replacement of the soapbox, where anyone passing by could hear anyone’s opinion, by the echo chamber of the social media bubble, where we only hear the people who say the things that reinforce our preconceived notions.

All those threads.

I wish we could change our narrative. We need to change our narrative. It is time to change our narrative. If not now, then when?

I don’t know everything, but I do know this:

It would be so nice if this weren’t about race. But it is. In America, it always has been.