If you see something, say something

Why is it so uncomfortable to point out Whiteness?

I agonized over this newsletter. Once I put it out into the universe that I wanted to write about being brave, damn if an opportunity didn’t come up and smack me in the face. Thanks, Universe.

But let’s step back a little.

Last month, I had a thing published. Yay! What every writer strives for. The piece is a flash nonfiction essay I submitted to the San Diego Decameron Project, a pandemic-inspired literary undertaking put together by four local organizations. I am proud of what I wrote and was happy to see it find a place in the world.

But on publication day when I scrolled through the bios of the 100 authors who were published on the four member organization sites, one thing stood out to me more than anything else.

So much Whiteness. 

Even just saying that publicly makes me a little squeamish. I, like probably most White1 people in America, was not raised to think of myself as having a race. Being White was just neutral. Calling attention to Whiteness feels like breaking some invisible code, like it’s inappropriate, almost gauche, to even mention it. 

That I even noticed the Whiteness is likely due to the intention I made about four years ago to diversify my reading list. Now I no longer find a collection of mostly White writers to be neutral or baseline; I find it disappointingly homogeneous. 

But saying that publicly makes me worry about the layers of meaning that can get inferred immediately afterwards. 

So let me just say that no, of course the skin color of the author is not the only thing that matters about a piece of writing. But when I see mostly White writers in a project like this it does make me get curious about certain questions. Questions like:

Who gets to be the gatekeepers determining what is of value? What are the barriers to entry for voices that aren’t being heard? What are we missing when we don’t hear them? What are ways non-White voices can be amplified in an equitable way? And how White actually is this thing anyway?

To answer that last question, I made a non-scientific tally of the Decameron Project writers based on the photos, names, and self-identifying information in the bios. 

80 percent of them are White. Then there are 11 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 3 percent Latinx, 3 percent Black, 2 percent unknown, and 1 percent Native American.  

I was not expecting it to feel so uncomfortable to point this out, but it did. One reason for my discomfort is because I contributed to and benefitted from the project and have friends and acquaintances who also did. (The San Diego literary scene can sometimes feel like a small town where you keep running into the same people, which actually might be part of the problem.) The other reason might be that I am still developing what Robin DiAngelo calls “racial stamina,” the ability to engage in conversations about race and racism without feeling the intolerable stress that she refers to as White fragility.

So I noticed this thing I contributed to was mostly White and I wanted to say something about it publicly. That didn’t feel like enough, but I also didn’t want to call it out in a way that would just make things worse. As Black feminist Loretta Ross wrote:

Call-outs make people fearful of being targeted. People avoid meaningful conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes, feeding the cannibalistic maw of the cancel culture.

That’s when I decided to do the next scary thing and call—like literally on the phone—each of the four organizers of the San Diego Decameron Project for a conversation. It took a few weeks for me to contact everyone, but they were all happy to talk with me and we had what I felt were some really meaningful discussions about inclusion in the San Diego literary scene.

I learned about efforts that were taken behind the scenes, such as making sure the judging panel for the stories represented a diverse mix of backgrounds, and intentionally bringing in the SD Public Library to take advantage of their wider outreach network. I also learned that the organizers intentionally asked for author photos so as to be transparent about who was selected—which I guess had its intended effect, as those photos were the very thing that started my questioning.

They asked about my ideas and offered some speculations of their own as to how they might have drawn a more diverse pool of submissions, including possibly reworking the project artwork, used in advertising and outreach materials, to better reflect the San Diego population. “Representation matters,” one of them said to me2, while admitting that it’s not always easy to know in advance all the steps you could have taken to be inclusive.

I left those conversations feeling positive about the interactions and my contribution to the greater discussion about inclusivity, and I venture to say each of the people I spoke to felt the same. One of them mentioned steps her organization is taking to make ongoing programs more inclusive, and another specifically thanked me for helping to keep them accountable.

Tackling something as big and pervasive as racism seems overwhelming, and it’s easy to think there’s nothing one person can do on their own. But by looking for opportunities within our sphere of influence to be brave in small moments—and I will admit that I needed to summon more courage than I thought I would to make those phone calls and draft this newsletter—one person can make a difference. Maybe it will be you.

I hope this month’s issue of Be Your Own Hero gave you something to think about. If it did, please leave a comment and/or share it with a someone you know. All respectful discussion is welcome.

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1

There are arguments both for and against capitalizing the word White in this usage. I have opted to capitalize it following the style and reasoning of the San Diego Union-Tribune. There is also a good article about this in The Atlantic.

2

I have opted to not quote or attribute statements directly to the specific Decameron Project organizers that I spoke to, as this is not a news article and I did not approach them for discussion with that intention. I want to respect the assumed privacy of those conversations while giving you the gist of what came out of them.