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America's Problem With Writers of Color

Attempts to increase diversity must be coupled with an actual effort to realize how people of color crucially influence a society barreling toward change.
(Photo: Miguel Tejada-Flores/Flickr)

(Photo: Miguel Tejada-Flores/Flickr)

The writing world has a race problem.

In a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine, much-lauded editor Chris Jackson shone a light on the myriad hoops black writers must jump through to reach a mass audience.

''I want to protect the writer, of any race, from the dishonesty of racism, and how it can inflect any kind of work," Jackson said.

"And, for writers who are trying to challenge the pandering of the white gaze, if you have to go through a series of gatekeepers who are uniformly white, you're going to end up with something that's—it's going to be tough to preserve the integrity in the end."

Jackson, one of a handful of black editors in publishing, has spent years bringing center stage the voices of writers on the fringes, including MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom Jackson first met when Coates worked for the Village Voice in the early 2000s. But while there may be more black writers in the business, and while the odds of running up against jaw-dropping racism may have fallen, here, Jackson stresses how even without obvious puppetry, there are still strings attached, depending on your skin tone.

On a basic level, there's still the dizzying problem of entry for black writers. The number of minorities—Asian American, black, Latino, Native American, and multiracial populations—employed at daily newspapers increased from 3.95 percent in 1978 to 12.76 percent in 2015, according to data collected by the American Society of News Editors. This may seem good on the surface, but, as Alex T. Williams, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, points out, these figures are actually pretty dismal given that minority Americans make up 37.4 percent of the total population. The results of Lee & Low Books' Diversity Baseline Survey, released in January, paint a similarly grim picture for publishing staff: Whether we're talking about executive board members or book reviewers, it's still essentially a "whites only" game.

This disparity, propped up by economic barriers and minority writers' galling absence from hiring networks, disrupts the very ambition of writing, namely, presenting a wide variety of experience, insight, and truth telling, by eliding the voices of an ample portion of Americans in shaping the national narrative.

These labels, they flatten a writer's experiences. They shrink someone to just a sliver of his or her identity.

Yet blacks encounter outsized burdens even after getting through the door. Perhaps one of the biggest frustrations for black writers is feeling pigeonholed, that our merit doesn't stretch very far beyond being a scribe for some monolithic black community.

Case in point: Recently, a white friend of mine wanted to know why, in all of my writing about systems of racial discrimination, I don't point a critical finger of blame at blacks. Though this question smacks of the equally wrongheaded logic as "black-on-black" crime—as a construct, it makes it seem as if criminality is magically fueled by blackness as opposed to social conditions—it gets to the straightjacket that America straps black writers into. More broadly, it also speaks to how race and power typically operate in the media: Blacks have an obligation to articulate our position in society, as if minority status is a result of failings within our communities instead of a history of structural discrimination.

Black African writers have been saying this for years. As the popularity of writers such as Chimamanda Adichie continues to grow in the West, members of Africa's diaspora have warned against "essentializing" African subjects, because no rational person should expect an individual writer to fill in for more than a billion people from more than 50 countries, each with its own incredibly complex, multifaceted, and sometimes barbed history.

There's nothing inherently wrong with writing about race. Especially at a time when black lives continue to be so provisional, race is a topic that deserves a not insignificant amount of attention and mindfulness. Plus, being thought of as a black writer is hardly a bad thing. As Toni Morrison put it in an interview with the New Yorker in 2003: "I'm already discredited. I'm already politicized, before I get out of the gate. I can accept the labels because being a black woman writer"—how her work is often filed—"is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn't limit my imagination, it expands it. It's richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I've experienced more."

The problem, however, lies in the fact that, whenever these labels are internalized by those in positions of power, they flatten a writer's experiences. They shrink someone to just a sliver of his or her identity. The fact that all black writers share some challenges shouldn't diminish what we have to offer on individual issues that are just as important.

This tendency to box in really all writers of color isn't some sort of occasional gaffe exhibited by national media; it's symptomatic of misguided, and prejudiced, expectations. Even for someone like New Yorker staff writer Alexis Okeowo, there were significant hurdles to keep in mind as a woman of color—including the tendency of people to make snap judgements based solely on race and gender—particularly when she was just starting out. On an early office stint, Okeowo was brought on board by someone who did what most of his peers in the business didn't do: "He took a chance on someone who didn't look like or have a similar upbringing to a lot of the magazine's staff," she says.

I can relate. I landed my first editorial internship at a Washington, D.C.-based think tank despite having zero journalism experience, at least in part because I grew up thinking that turning a buck from writing wasn't an option for someone who looks like me. But the editors were cognizant of the importance of having a team that looks like their city, and they cared more about discovering and cultivating (and paying for) potential, even if the pedigree was missing.

So how do we make moves toward rooting out some of these problems? Will ramping up the number of writers of color, for instance, do the trick?

Yes and no. While including more minority writers on staff—by expanding editor circles, reaching out to non-white writing groups, and considering applicants only after a thorough advertising process—is critical for tackling a lack of diversity on a purely quantitative level, it doesn't do all that much for quelling the qualitative headaches tethered to being "the only one in the room." As University of Michigan political science professor Scott Page told NPR in 2015, the question is, "How many people of color have to be in a room for them to speak?" It isn't enough, in other words, to hire more diverse writers if the industry's environment is such that fresh, different perspectives won't be taken seriously.

Attempts to increase numerical diversity must be coupled with an actual effort by (white) people to realize how people of color crucially influence a society barreling toward change, and how if more narratives are included in the bigger picture, everyone is better off.

Okeowo says that, though writers of color ought to stay vigilant—especially when writing about non-white people for a mostly white audience that doesn't have familiarity with the kinds of experiences being written about—action needs to be taken on other fronts too.

"Editors have to take initiative and get out of their comfort zones," she says. "This is 2016."