Sunday, March 25, 2018

On advocating for diversity at kidlit conferences

(If you have time to read only one sentence, skip to the bolded action plan below.)

On 3/19/18, authors and other children's publishing professionals had a conversation on Twitter and Facebook about the first annual Asbury University Children's Literature Conference in Kentucky (a collaboration with the Mazza Museum of picture book art in Ohio) on 3/24/18.

The event scheduled four author speakers. All were white. All were male. One was me. (The others were Marc Brown, Peter Catalanotto, and Aaron Reynolds.)

The online conversation called out the dearth of diversity, and rightfully so. Though this is a conversation we need to have year-round, the timing was especially apt: March is Women's History Month and now also #Kidlitwomen Month.

After hearing me speak at Mazza the summer of 2017, one of the Asbury organizers invited me to speak at their 2019 conference and I accepted; I did not think to ask who else was presenting. A few weeks before the 2018 conference, one of the four authors backed out. (I later learned that the author was female.) My contact asked me if I would be able to switch to this year. Finding a comparable replacement for a conference speaker on such short notice is a challenge. I was able to rearrange my schedule so I said yes. Again, I did not think to ask or check who else was presenting. 

When the all-white, all-male lineup was announced, public reaction within our kidlit community ranged from disappointment to outrage. 

I take heart that creators of books for young readers have long embraced equality and tolerance on the page and are now empowered to identify mistreatment or lapses in judgment in real life. 

In this case, however, I was troubled by the approach that some people took in voicing disapproval. As one example, this anonymous comment:

I stand with all who are working to eliminate inequity in children's publishing (and I feel the other three gentlemen authors at the conference also do), but I do not condone doing so by casting aspersions on people you do not know. This can alienate those who already agree with you and who already speak up for others (five links). 

The goal at hand is fairness. The path to achieving it should exemplify fairness.

Unless proven otherwise, we must presume authors, illustrators, and conference chairs are human allies capable of exhibiting an oversight—and willing to fix it. We are all perpetually learning.

We must give the benefit of the doubt.

We must follow the Golden Rule.

We must Choose Kind.

Like many of our peers, I will now accept invitations only from events committed to gender and racial diversity.

In addressing the organizers and participants of events that do not represent diversity, I propose a simple course of action:

Rather than start with public shaming or snark, instead contact the event organizer and participants directly and privately to express the concern civilly. 

Takes the same amount of time as calling out on social media but is more in the spirit of our industryand of the movement itself. This good-hearted approach gives people the chance to course-correct because they want to do right, not because they were guilted. Stick to the mission: conveying the importance of maintaining a unified front on diversity at literary events. And stick to non-inflammatory language. 

I'm not saying we can't be angry. Anger fuels change. But it is most effective when it is controlled.

Nixing the negative while remaining positive is the way forward.

Case in point:

Two days after the lack of diversity was (directly, privately, civilly) called to Asbury's attention and three days before the event, the conference was able to add a female keynote, illustrator Erin Barker. (Remember that name. She's going places.)

And I have on good authority that if there is a second annual, it will be more diverse.

Thank you again to Asbury for inviting me, for listening to feedback, and for making a last-minute change. And thank you to those who discussed this issue constructively.

As we continue to insist on diversity, we must also insist on civility.

Side note of equal importance: 

I learned only after I presented that Asbury is a Christian university that has been accused of being anti-gay. As someone who has withdrawn from delivering a keynote in a state that had legislated LGBTQ intolerance, I was at first conflicted about this. 

But my perspective has shifted and now I would have ultimately participated anyway because of this. 

A story I commonly tell involves a gay man whom I mention during every talk for grades 3 and up (which the person who invited me to speak at Asbury knew firsthand). I do it even when I'm (sigh) asked in advance not to. Therefore, this would be a chance to speak about the issue plainly, as the non-controversial fact of life that it is (or should be). Marc Brown also touchingly discussed this by mentioning both his transgender son and a gay marriage in one of his upcoming stories.

We gave this community the benefit of the doubt and they did not let us down.

The way to promote tolerance is not to stay away from possible intolerance but rather to destigmatize it from within.


Jen said...

As one who attended the conference at Asbury yesterday and enjoyed all the presentations given, I am very sorry to hear that the speakers are receiving such criticism. I did also note the lack of diversity, and addressed it on the attendee evaluation with suggested names for a more diverse panel for next year. However, due to all the negative publicity, I can imagine they will have a hard time booking anybody in the future, which is unfortunate, because I agree with you that the best way to fight intolerance is from the inside.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks Jen. The conference took positive steps this week and I hope they are recognized for that. I am confident they will do even better for the next conference.

Kelly Milner Halls said...

Well done, Marc. Change from within is a smart and legitimate strategy. And kindness is always a tactic of strength. You did good.

Melanie Conklin said...

Hey Marc,

Thanks for sharing. You should know that I take absolute exception to the idea that we should presume that other people are allies. This is an impossible and quite frankly dangerous expectation for marginalized individuals. Asking for such a presumption comes from a place of privilege. I also don’t condone tone policing, which centers cis white feelings over the oppression of marginalized people. Freedom of speech is our most invaluable right and Criticism is the voice of change. It should be cherished.

Melanie Conklin

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks Kelly and Melanie. Melanie, I 100% support freedom of speech and I listen to criticism, both of which I feel are clear in this post and in my actions. I'm simply asking for civility in our discussions.

Meghan McCarthy said...

Thanks for posting this Marc! You know I agree with you 100%. Change is needed but there's no need to create hostility. We can do this with respect and kindness. Also, I am a huge proponent of free speech but I fear that oftentimes "free speech" according to some, only applies to THEM and THEIR social justice causes. Free speech that counterbalances this is considered something to censor. Food for thought. And on a personal note, when you have arranged panels in the past you have always made them inclusive. As a nonfiction author I research before I write. I recommend that everyone try their best to do this before making prejudiced assumptions about others. I was severely bullied in my younger years. What some people do on twitter is bullying, plain and simple.

B McMolo said...

Well put, sir.

I sincerely hope the path forward is more inclusion, more civility, more common ground growing from these things. Too many allies are alienated by some of the tactics and rhetoric you describe, or discouraged from a lack of such commentary you provide in the face of it. For these reasons especially, your remarks are very appreciated.

Jennifer Ziegler said...

Oh, Mark, no. You know I adore you, but please no. This should not be the conversation right now. The real focus and the loudest conversation needs to be on the inequities in our industry – not on how those inequities are being pointed out. I know it was not your overriding intention, but this post seems to be wanting to center things right back on white cis male authors and how you all are being treated. It seems to imply that you will stand for us only if everyone plays nice. Please remember that any anger and frustration are the results of being passed over and not listened to for decades and decades. The real hurt being done is to the underrepresented groups, who are continually ignored, silenced, and criticized if they speak out. You should see the awful things being tweeted at outspoken women and people of color. Any incivility you felt with this incident pales mightily in comparison. I was heartened to see you take action when this imbalanced panel was originally pointed out on Twitter and further heartened to see you sign the No All-Male Panels pledge. Please continue to be an ally. Rather than policing the tone of the dialogue, we need people to pay attention to what’s being said rather than how it’s being said – we need people to listen, learn, and do better.

Sarah Darer Littman said...

Ditto what Jennifer Ziegler said, both re/adoring you and that this should not be the conversation right now - as you say, *especially* during Women's History Month. Marc, I'd be happy to show you some of the things that were tweeted and written to me over the course of my career as a political columnist, including obscene pictures, rape threats and warnings that I would be a "real victim." Marc, have you ever had someone write an online porn story using your real name? Because I have. And what I've received is no doubt only a fraction of what women of color have to deal with. Honestly, if you're upset with online snark and criticism, all I can say is toughen up, my dear. I certainly wish, like you, that everyone conducted themselves with good manners and kindness online, but to tone police at this juncture is to miss the point in a very big way. You probably aren't aware, but I gave up regular columnist writing for now, because the mental health consequences started affecting my ability to write novels, which are what pay the bills. So it is absolutely infuriating to be told to "choose kind" and "be nice." Marc, women are told to "be nice" over expressing our true feelings and opinions from the moment we're born - especially us older women. We end up having to learn how to advocate for ourselves and fight merely for the right to be safe in our own bodies while we go about our jobs, heck, our LIVES.

Anonymous said...

"We must give the benefit of the doubt. We must follow the Golden Rule. We must Choose Kind."
Who are you including with these "we" statements? Because if you are including me, you are overstepping and showing that you continue to NOT see your own privilege.
This all reads as if you want to be excused for your own inability to ask a straightforward and simple question, "who else will be in the panel" in 2018. As if, during the back and forth you mention - you know, while you are re-arranging your schedule - you COULD NOT HAVE BEEN EXPECTED TO ASK "who else will be in the panel". Why would you? Why would you ever need to consider "who else will be in the panel" in 2018?
If you have no idea then I'll be happy to tell you ... because sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia are alive and well in 2018 and White men like you are clueless and would prefer we - and by we I mean people of color, Native American and Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, disabled people, just be nice.
When has being nice ever gotten us - and by US I mean people of color, Native American and Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, disabled people - anywhere?
How about instead of "We must give the benefit of the doubt. We must follow the Golden Rule. We must Choose Kind." you reflect on this ...
You need to be humble. You need to listen more and talk less. You need to be brave.

Debbie Reese said...

Civil is a loaded word. Did you know that the US government and various religious denominations who wanted Native land created schools to "Civilize" and "Christianize" Native peoples? As if we weren't "civil" or "civilized" from the start?

Most people are not aware of that history because they believe the bullshit (oh dear, I'm being uncivil) they were given in textbooks, movies, and children's books that shows Native people as bloodthirsty, primitive, etc. etc.

Who was the aggressor?! Who was protecting their homelands. Their moms. Their dads. Their children?

This conference was held in Kentucky. Hmmm. Off the top of your head, who did that land belong to? Where are those people, today? Do you know? Should you know?

If we were to take a look at the Whiteness of the books by the men, what would we find? We can start with Marc Brown's "Monkey" series. My guess is that most people didn't notice how racist it is... See this blog post for details:

Looking at the cover for Chicks and Salsa.... hmmm. What's up with that sombrero and that item the rooster is wearing?!

There are, quite obviously, issues of racism to consider, in addition to gender.

Cate said...

Marc, While I am seeking to understand where you are coming from and certainly wish for kind, civil, polite dialogue on all sides, I respectfully disagree with your centring your own feelings / the feelings of the white men and organizers involved. In particular, I was confused and hurt by your "afterward" in red in this post where you discuss the organizers being from an anti-gay/not LGBTQ affirming university and that you would have still chosen to participate. You you justify this by saying you "tell a story" about a gay man? There is little to no personal risk for you in that. As an LGBTQ identified person that is about as offensive as when someone justifies homophobic behavior by naming they have a "gay friend." You write: "The way to promote tolerance is not to stay away from possible intolerance but rather to destigmatize it from within." Remember that some of us are NOT ALLOWED IN to promote tolerance FOR OURSELVES and that is what we want, not cis straight men thinking they can promote tolerance for us.. I don't need white cis straight authors "telling a story about a gay man." I need conference organizers to invite people like me and invite us to share our own stories. And yes, I need the white cis men, instead of assuming they can do a good job by telling a story, to say "I'm sorry, I cannot participate in a conference in a non LGBTQ affirming space" so that organizers feel the consequences of not being fully and utterly inclusive.

Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hi Marc. I'm writing as another cis white male kidlit author to add my voice to those strongly disagreeing with this post. The main issue that caught my attention is encapsulated in the bold section, which is tellingly presented as the heart of the argument, and the lines immediately after.

"Rather than start with public shaming or snark, instead contact the event organizer and participants directly and privately to express the concern civilly.
Takes the same amount of time as calling out on social media but is more in the spirit of our industry—and of the movement itself. This good-hearted approach gives people the chance to course-correct because they want to do right, not because they were guilted. Stick to the mission: conveying the importance of maintaining a unified front on diversity at literary events. And stick to non-inflammatory language.
I'm not saying we can't be angry. Anger fuels change. But it is most effective when it is controlled."

We could unpack the problems here for hours, but here are a few things that jumped out at me that I hope you'll consider:
-When a book event is announced publicly, it becomes an example of what the industry considers valid. Saying that criticisms of the event should only happen off-screen--while advertisements/endorsements of it remain in circulation, thereby solidifying the idea that it is unchallenged and okay--is a bad take. If the event is promoted in public, it can and should be responded to in the same sphere.
-Others commenting here have already addressed your use of "civil" and other problematic tone-policing. Please listen to them. People in the demographic group you and I share have used language like that to disenfranchise and suppress other voices for centuries, and a post ostensibly about improving the call for adequate representation in kidlit is no place for more of it.
-People in our demographic group do not get to decide what the "spirit of the movement itself" is, or how it should be expressed. We just don't. We are not the ones who have been doing the work, and asking to be celebrated or even acknowledged for belatedly meeting the barest of minimums is flatly innapropriate.
-Touching on that last line, do you really think the people speaking out against the relentless bias in the kidlit industry aren't controlling their anger?? That they aren't absolute experts at it? Do you see why asking for more "civility" when so much anger and frustration is already going unheard and disregarded is insulting to say the least?

I see and accept that you are putting effort into using your platform to address issues of equity and representation in some areas of kidlit. Perhaps that goal would be better served by listening to and amplifying the voices of those doing the hard work of changing this industry, rather than elevating your comfort over their methods.

Perhaps in future you would consider not using your platform to criticize the voices of those with more to lose asking people like you and me to do more than the minimum.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thank you all. I appreciate everyone's comments and learn from them.

As I wrote in the post, I am the ally of anyone advocating for diversity/fairness/tolerance and always have been. For some, my words here have not succeeded in conveying that, but hopefully my actions over the years have, especially those of you who know me, my work, and what I do when I am not working. The post is not addressed to women or only about women; it is to all of us about all of us. I will continue to listen to you and continue to do all I can to help others to the best of my ability, following the path that has produced positive results in my experience. We don't have to have the same philosophy but I am optimistic because we have the same goal.

Thanks again.

Teresa said...

Well said, Melanie! Assumption of allyship should not be expected. In fact, being an ally is not a title we can give ourselves as white folks. The privilege of being seen as an ally comes when our colleagues and friends from marginalized groups identify see us as such. And the opportunity to wear the title of ally only comes after the hard work. Making excuses as to why a panel of all white males should not be called out as an issue doesn't qualify you to be an ally. Putting together a panel which is comprised of white males does not qualify you to be an ally. We should always be careful not to assume.

Tenisha McCloud said...

This is why I never consider myself to be an ally. No matter what you say or do, Debbie Reese and her cabal of SJWs will soon be knocking at your door demanding an apology or banishment or worse. Do not fall victim to her threats. It is a zero-sum game. This week you are in her cross-hairs; tomorrow who knows who else?

I highly recommend that you sign the petition that has circulated asking ALSC to pull the Arbuthnot Lecture from her until she stops her threats and insulting language.

Unknown said...

The petition is nothing more than an generalized, cowardly smear campaign targeting a Native woman who's saying things that some people don't want to hear. And I will use every bit of my considerable privilege to be as loud as possible for as long as possible that this attack is bullshit, plain and simple.

Debbie Reese is a forthright, tireless advocate for accurate representation of people who are routinely misrepresented or erased in our culture, both current and past, and whose concerns about racist depictions (sports mascots, thoughtless or ignorant cultural appropriation in literary texts, whitewashing of history) are dismissed as angry or overly sensitive. That so many of us don't see these erasures or appropriations until they're pointed out is a testament to how marginalized Native American history and culture is in this country.

I challenge any of you commenting here -- especially those of you who have signed the petition or are considering doing so -- to do the decades of work that Debbie has done, to endure the decades of insults and ridicule from people who don't want their privilege questioned, and to impact the field in such an undeniable way.

There are some genuinely kind and well-intentioned people in the CL & YAL community, but a lot of us are operating from privilege that we have not acknowledged or begun to leverage on behalf of other people. Telling people who are excluded to "be nice" is not helpful; instead, it's a reminder that you're not willing to leverage your considerable privilege unless you get something in return. Attacking Debbie Reese because she doesn't center Native-erasing language or beliefs -- because she's not "nice" -- doesn't make progress towards diversity and equity, and it's sure as hell not kind. It's not allyship. It's White supremacy doing its thing.