White privilege and cleaning up our own backyards
This morning I saw a tweet and I was pretty sure that it was about a book I'd not only read, but thought was excellent. I didn't review it, because I don't, as a rule, review friends' books, and the friend is a close enough friend that if I'd thought it was inappropriate I'd absolutely have said "This is trash."
But what's interesting is that the book -- which isn't genre, wasn't positioned as genre, wasn't marketed or sold or even conceived as romance -- was being judged by those standards, even when some of those involved in the discussion noted that.
And I wondered... have I been the person who gets lured into these "HOW DARE THEY?!" mentalities without looking any further?
Any trade review of the book notes that it's a dark story, that it reflects the all-too-common reality of people outside of most people's experiences. What amused me the most is that many of those in the conversation are regular proponents of diversity in books, particularly romance.
I am the first person to tell you there is no place for some things in romance: a Nazi concentration camp setting where the hero is a Nazi, for instance. There is no writer on earth who can make that palatable. But one of the things about literary (and upmarket and non-genre and even genre) fiction is that it can be a mirror, especially to things we are unwilling to look at in our own society.
Had any of the people in question actually read the book, or talked to anyone who had, or asked anyone who had, or read trade reviews of the book, they'd have seen that it does just that. While we are able to focus on "big" news and "big" issues, things we forget:
As of 2011 data, approximately 20 percent of children in the U.S. are living in poverty. One out of five children. One. In. Five. (Data point: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/by-the-numbers-childhood-poverty-in-the-u-s/). Those aren't all black or brown children, but the rates are definitely higher for those population. Still, according to the 2010 census data, there are over a half million white children in this country who are below the poverty line.
One of the issues that I find in examining how we react to issues is coming from our own privilege. Even with the most concerned white people who are looking at things like the ongoing police issues in this country and the Black Lives Matter movement, we are Othering. "It's terrible, and thank god it could never happen to me because I'm white/middle class/cishet." Meanwhile, we are unwilling/unable to see or clean up what's in our own backyard. Not all of those single-parent households below the poverty line are non-white. A lot of those kids growing up with no options, no safety net, who'll end up at the wrong end of a police interaction or parent interaction or drug dealer interaction are just. like. us.
And I find myself wondering how many times I've done this. How many times I've made judgements based on my own privilege growing up. My kids and I are lucky in that we do have a house and a car that runs and groceries and are able to hang on by fingernails in a good school district. At the same time, all the free lunch kids know the other free lunch kids, and my kids came out of the elementary school with the highest percentage of kids under the poverty line in the district. They're the "bad influences" and the ones the other parents encourage their kids not to talk to. We often find it easier to spot the families where maybe drugs are a commonplace appearance in homes, or there's an abusive parent.
I wrote about it before -- probably on a blog that's now gone -- but one of my kid's former classmates was murdered by her non-custodial father, along with her half-sister. It brought the "Othering" home for me: These aren't kids in the news or in backwoods quasi-towns in a rural area far from me. These are kids who sat next to my kids in class, who stand in line for free breakfast, who may have been mean to my kids because their experiences weren't necessarily heavy on the kindness. My experiences growing up are not those of these kids. My experiences growing up are not even those of my kids, who struggle more than a lot of other kids do, and yet I still remind are privileged in a lot of respects.
So I'm hoping that when I look at writing that's reflecting that reality back to me, I'm trying to be a little more empathetic. A little more "When everything is the worst, what is the best case scenario for a kid/person like this?" Not all fiction is fantasy. Not all situations can be judged by the moral compass that privilege brings us.
It's been a little over five years since that little girl and her sister were killed. And having read and been moved by the book these folks on Twitter were so outraged by, I can tell you that if I were able to put that little girl into that book, to make her that character, to give her the inappropriate and morally reprehensible plot line so that her life did not end at the end of her father's gun in a tent in the woods after he'd taken her and her sister from their grandmother, I would do it in a heartbeat, without question.
There are a lot of days when I miss the blind privilege I once existed in. At the same time, I'm forced to regularly examine my own biases, my own reactions, every single time. Our country has a legacy of pretending everything is great; it's fantastic; we're the best place on earth, while distancing ourselves from the things that aren't so great. Maybe the solution for everything that's wrong is to work on that distancing, starting with how our own country is being uncomfortably being reflected back to us by authors and artists and protestors.