I spent some time this week reading some great thought pieces written by people who have taken on similar projects in the past, or are currently doing something similar. I wanted to share what some of these words, because I think they highlight so much I want to say in a more eloquent way then I ever could.
I also found myself struck by a lot of the criticism against projects like this, and I wanted to take this opportunity to define for myself a little more why it feels important to me to do this, and especially why I am driven to document it for others. What I am doing is not revolutionary, and it isn’t new, so I wanted to share some of the history with people who haven’t followed this movement.
The most public call to action comes from an author called K. T. Bradford. She published an article on xoJane with the title “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year”. In this article, she talks about her own personal decision to “only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.”
In actual fact, she does not challenge readers to stop reading “white, straight, cis male authors”. Instead, she says:
This is a much different idea then the title of her article suggests, and I find it a more interesting and subtle challenge. The two women she mentions in the quote above have both written about their own experiences with challenges of this type, and you can find their pieces here:
Highlight: “Part of the lesson for me there was that “ethnic” writers don’t just write “ethnic” books about “ethnic” things. As Ben Okri argues, black writers are often “expected to write about certain things, and if they don’t they are seen as irrelevant”.
What this means is that if diverse books are only valued because they can be categorised as being different per se, they are still othered. Even if writers from diverse backgrounds might do commercially well and be critically acclaimed, they face the risk of being stereotyped for their work. Valuing a writer only for their diversity, but not their humanity or talent – that’s tokenism.”
Highlight: “One difference that my book list made is that it ever-so-delicately altered the way I looked at the world. It was slow at first, but opening myself up to a variety of female perspectives made me more aware of the female lives around me. While reading Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (which is about a group of Japanese women who immigrated to the United States for arranged marriages to Japanese workers) on the subway, I realized I was the only person to get up and offer a pregnant woman my seat. Feminism, as bell hooks pointed out, is for everyone. And when we become more aware of the small injustices and tiny everyday tragedies around us, we become better people. Reading women’s voices helped me to hear them more loudly in my daily life. Our culture is getting better and better at encouraging women to speak, but it’s not doing enough to listen to what they say when they do.”
However, there is a lot of criticism out there about these projects, from both sides. There are women, often women of color, who feel like the people publicly talking about this is a way of bragging about how progressive and open-minded they are. An article that exemplifies this point of view is:
Highlight: “If you were a queer writer, or a woman of color writer, would you want someone to read you because they thought they were doia ng something dutiful about power structures? Or because they gravitated to you, not out of any sense that you would teach them something about diversity that they could then write about in a year-end essay—but that they just read you because you were good?”
On the other side, there are many people, most often white men, who feel threatened by this for some good reasons. For these men, it seems that these challenges feel like a direct reproach of their white, straight, cisgendered identity. Two articles that articulate this argument are:
Highlight: “Here’s an even better solution: rather than trying to exclude certain voices in order to become more diverse, why not try to include more voices? If we’re talking about becoming better readers, better writers, and better people, we can’t do it by shutting out the voices that challenge us or make us feel uncomfortable.”
Highlight: “We appear to live in an age where it’s fashionable, encouraged almost, to knock white males. Are white men becoming the last group it’s safe to knock? Is it just a timely revenge for generations of “privilege” that all white men have enjoyed, presumably even those millions killed in wars or rotting in prisons, or sleeping rough tonight.
Not to mention those young men, many of them white, who are four times as likely to commit suicide as women, nor the white, working-class boys who are now Britain’s educational underclass.
Put in that context, does any of this petty, white man-bashing matter? Like anybody who still mindlessly attacks other people for having differently coloured skin or gender, should we just put it down to where it comes from: ignorance and stupidity?
Perhaps I’d better read up about it – so long as the book isn’t written by a white man, naturally.”
If you are interested in reading some well written articles that talk more about the ins and outs of these challenges and their critics, these two do a great job:
Is it time to stop reading books by white men? by Heina Dadabhoy
Highlight: “Strongly worded headlines, structural inequality, and firm stances aside, almost everyone, regardless of gender or race, could stand to enjoy more literature from a broader range of authors. “
The Great Internet Debate Over Not Reading White Men by Saladin Ahmed
Highlight: “Unless one deliberately seeks out fiction by marginalized writers, the vast, vast majority of books that cross one’s radar via TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, and, yes, the internet, are going to be by white people — and most of those white people are going to be straight men.
Now certainly, one could spend one’s life reading only books by straight white men, and never run out of wonderful material. But this is akin to spending a lifetime’s worth of vacations visiting only Disneyland. Whether or not one agrees with ‘the SJWs’ (Social Justice Warriors) that it’s ethically contemptible, it is, in a word, boring.”