Approaching Problematic Books As A White Reader

I don’t know a single person who enjoys being told they are wrong about something.  I don’t know anyone who feels a frisson of excitement every time they hear, “That’s wrong.”  We crave acceptance from others … except when the “others” are pointing out our own racism, intolerance, bigotry, and microaggressions.  Suddenly, those who dare to challenge us are cast as trolls, haters, stalkers, and my personal favorite, “just overly sensitive.”


As information professionals, book lovers, and advocates for our patrons, it is in our responsibility to question and challenge materials that reinforce white superiority, solidify the concept that the white cishet gaze is the only one that matters, and that minimize in any way the suffering of marginalized groups.  Equally important is our willingness to listen when people from said marginalized groups critique a book that is hurtful or ignorant.  Even if we, personally, liked the book.  Even if a fancypants review source gave it a coveted star.  


Because guess what?  It’s not all about you.




Let’s take the recent criticism of e.E. Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce as an example.  This author thought that it was okay to write a book that ignored the rules of AAVE.  I guess inventing your own slang is more authentic than what the teens reading this book actually say?  Oh well!  What do they know?  They’re just … a part of the culture that you are purporting to represent but are, in fact, offending.  


Then, an agent and an editor and many, many reviewers looked at the text and said, “Oh wow.  This person is so brave for addressing problems in the Black community.”  However, when this book was brought up at ALA, many librarians were completely shocked that it was even slated to be published.  I remember a group of us looking at each other and just going, “Noooooooo.”  


Jenn Baker and Edi Campbell then published excellent, in-depth reviews of the title and pointed out why it was so problematic.  And the reaction from white Twitter was, predictably, shock.  People kept saying, “Well I  don’t see anything wrong with it.”  “I really enjoyed it.”  Bully for you.  When a POC says “This is hurtful.  This is racist.  This is appropriation” then we, as white librarians, need to listen.  Specifically, we need to shut our mouths and listen.


This is no place for excuses.  This is no place for raising your hand and saying “But I…”.  Because this isn’t for you to judge.  You sit down and you listen and you learn.  And then you turn around and read critically.  You call out problematic terminology or lack of representation in teen literature.  


Let’s look at it this way: telling a POC critic, author, scholar, or reviewer that their opinion of a book about POC doesn’t matter is like a plumber coming in off the street and telling you that you have no idea how to properly conduct a reference interview, manage teen programming, or help people find information.  That he, the plumber (nothing against plumbers here–it’s what popped into my head!) could do a better job.  That you’re not qualified to do the job for which you attended school.  This plumber has an amazing skillset that you don’t have, but that’s not relevant to the critique.


Would you feel angry?  You’d probably exclaim, “He has no right to tell me that!”  That is correct.  And white readers and librarians have no right to question the anger, disappointment, and hurt that POC feel when an author steps out of her lane and causes a cultural pileup of truly epic proportions.  


More recently, Faythe Arredondo wrote a post here on TSU about the appropriation and inaccurate portrayal of Dia de los Muertos in Raina Telgemeier’s new graphic novel Ghosts.  While some responses considered Faythe’s thorough breakdown of the issues in this book, others dismissed her opinion by saying, “Well, the author did research.”  Research does not an accurate, compassionate, inclusive book make.  Why would you take the word of someone who is not a part of Mexican-American culture over someone who is?  


Is it because it makes you feel uncomfortable?  Good!  Feeling uncomfortable, as white readers and librarians, when books we may have enjoyed are called out for being problematic is indicative of the fact that we need to change how we see the world.  Even if we didn’t grow up in a family that was overtly racist–even if we think we are “good allies”–we have been indoctrinated by society to rely on  our privilege as white people.  That funny feeling in your stomach when you hear an author say “A character in book X says racist things” or “Author A doesn’t write diverse casts of characters” is like a compass, pointing to the subtly racist things that we’ve internalized over the years.  Follow that compass and root out those feelings.  Burn them.  And then replace them with openness and tolerance and advocacy.


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