Alright, bear with me folks, because I dove deep into critical race theory during my undergrad and I have a Lot to say.
I’m sure that almost 100% of the time, white bloggers look to support books by marginalized authors with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, due to the undeniable, incontestable truth that they are white, they wade into unknown waters, often without equipping themselves with basic knowledge through a little research. At first glance, this might seem harmless – after all, I truly don’t expect anyone to know everything there is to know about every diverse culture in the world – but how hard is it to put in a little effort? Or, even better, when you aren’t educated about something, why not defer to someone who does know what they’re talking about and share what they have to say instead?
And yet, despite the fact that white bloggers lack the range (truly no shade intended – this is just a matter of life experience) to fairly and accurately review and promote diverse books, they are praised for doing the bare minimum in advocating for marginalized voices. This is a pervasive problem that extends far beyond the book community, in which people insist on speaking up on behalf of marginalized voices, and end up speaking over them instead. This redirects the focus of the audience to white people instead of the people of color they claim they are trying to help, and as a result, we see the platforms of white bloggers grow rapidly while the platforms of people of color remain more or less stagnant.
White Privilege and Getting to Speak Your Mind
It’s no secret that book influencers of color have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition that white bloggers/booktubers/bookstagrammers do (although it is a fact that people are all too willing to overlook), and a lot of that has to do with the fact that people of color are put under a specific kind of strict scrutiny that white people get to escape.
Let me elaborate. A subtle but sinister aspect of white privilege is being able to exist as an individual, meaning that white individuals are not expected to represent white people everywhere. People of color do not get this luxury. But wait Lauren, surely people don’t think that people of color are a monolith and that one individual can represent an entire race that consists of many diverse cultures? Hahaha, you would think, right? RIGHT??? Sadly, no. There is a very common trend of white folks taking one person of color’s experience or opinions about a book by an author of color (this can be any form of media, but for the purpose of this post I’ll focus on books), and using it as an excuse to avoid the book altogether. As a result, many bloggers of color feel the need to word their reviews of books by marginalized authors extremely carefully so that their reviews cannot be used to harm the book’s rating. This is a huge responsibility that is thrown onto the shoulders of BIPOC, where they know that a negative review by them can make or break a book for other potential readers, and they still try their absolute hardest to give these books their best chance.
At the same time, white reviewers show little to no qualms about not finishing books by authors of color and leaving a 1-2 star rating, with their only justification being that they simply couldn’t relate to the world-building/characters. (I personally find it funny that these same people who can relate to faeries and dragons and mermaids so well can’t relate to worlds based off of real cultures…but I digress.) Time and time again, reviews by white readers are prioritized over the voices of people who actually share the identities represented in these books, and these books suffer as a result.
We Value You(r ability to educate us)!
Additionally, when the voices of readers of color are prioritized and listened to, it still comes at a cost to those individuals because now, their value is directly tied to how white people benefit from their emotional labor. Shealea @ Shut Up, Shealea recently shared her personal experience with this in her post, 7 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Book Blogging. In the post, Shealea discusses how she noticed her engagement skyrocket once she began to champion diverse books and raise awareness about issues pertaining to communities of color. As a newer blogger, I’ve definitely noticed this trend as well – I’ve had people tell me they’re sorry about racism but they’re glad it prompted me to curate a list of book recommendations in the same paragraph. I know they mean well, but in the end, what I really get from their comments is: “Sorry you have to deal with racism, but I’m happy it still benefits me!”
White people are all too ready to come into the comments or DMs of people of color and say something along the lines of “hey, I would love to talk about/be educated on this issue!” Seriously, y’all are way too comfortable doing this for my liking. It is not the responsibility of people of color to educate you and act as your primary source for All Things Race. People of color don’t exist for the sole reason of correcting your mistakes and making you feel like a good person for trying to educate yourself. Did you know that diversity consultants charge $400-$600 for an hour of their work? So, unless you’re tipping creators of color on ko-fi or buying them things from their wishlists, Google is free – use it.
People of color can be guilty of this too, and I think it’s important for people to admit their ignorance and actively work to educate themselves. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn and grow, but you need to lay the groundwork for yourself instead of asking people of color to do all of the labor for you.
Performative Allyship – It’s Easier to Spot Than You Think
Another one of the glaring issues here is when white bloggers use popular books by authors of color for diversity points, but quickly show that they do not actually care about the marginalized identities of the author and/or characters as they would like people to believe. They out themselves by mispronouncing the author’s last name, whitewashing characters in fancasts, and altogether exhibiting a complete lack of respect for people of color. Of course, this includes but is not limited to disabled rep and LGBTQ rep as well, but I’ve generally found that white readers in particular are more likely to focus on the forms of marginalized representation that they can identify with, and will erase the ethnicities of characters of color in favor of the identities that they hold themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, people of color can also be guilty of whitewashing or misrepresenting characters’ ethnicities! Generally speaking, though, people of color tend to be held accountable for this way more than their white counterparts.
It’s also extremely telling when white bloggers proudly declare that they boost marginalized voices, but then turn around and sign up for blog tours or other opportunities that are supposed to prioritize own-voices readers. Now, the term own-voices is a little tricky because of how people (mis)use it, but it was originally intended to refer to authors with marginalized identities writing about their own experiences (i.e. a trans Latinx author writing a trans Latinx character). Based on this original definition, own-voices readers would align with the identities represented in the book in a similar way. Basically, this means that if a book is by an author of color and is told from the perspective of a character of color, white people are not own-voices readers.* In my opinion, this is a pretty simple concept that should be easy to grasp, and yet I consistently see white people on tours promoting books by authors of color. I understand that signing up for these tours seems like the most obvious way to boost diverse books, but by signing up as a white person, you are actively signing up to take a spot that could have gone to a blogger of color.
Instead of signing up for these tours yourself, consider boosting the posts made by bloggers of color. Use your platform to actually uplift underrepresented voices instead of trying to do it yourself. You don’t get to make a name for yourself by saying you advocate for diverse books if you’re simultaneously taking opportunities away from the people those books represent.
* And yes, this extends to queer rep as well – a queer white person and a queer person of color have vastly different lived experiences because of intersectionality, meaning that while people can share certain identities, it is important to note how a single person’s multiple identities intersect to shape their individual lived experience. Queerness does not erase whiteness. For further reading on the boundaries that queer white folks need to be mindful of when interacting with works by queer people of color, I highly recommending checking out Nina Varela’s guest post on The Quiet Pond.
Being a “Good White Person”
Hoo, boy. This is where it gets a little dicey for me, because I never want to discourage people from making an effort and trying their best, but some folks are a little too willing to display their white guilt for everyone to see. The term white guilt is pretty self-explanatory: white people feel guilty for what white people have historically done – and still do – to people of color. I genuinely don’t think people make a conscious effort to exude white guilt, but the fact remains that white guilt is a blocking mechanism that prevents actual progress from being made.
Similarly to asking people of color to educate you, expressing your guilt or regret about being a white person places the responsibility of others to comfort you and make you feel better about yourself. It also displays a certain level of ignorance, especially when you’re saying something as seemingly innocent as, “I can’t believe anyone would do this!” Trust me, people of color don’t have the privilege of not believing or even expecting harmful behavior from others. Your surprise is directly tied to your white privilege – so please, think before you speak.
This brings me to my next point. Stop apologizing to people of color on behalf of “your people.” Not only is this really weird, it’s a performative way for you to try and absolve yourself of your white guilt while placing the emotional responsibility on the person of color you’re apologizing to. (Also, like, what do you think a simple apology is going to do for centuries of violence? Are you thinking??)
At the end of the day, being a good ally isn’t about you, and this goes for any kind of allyship. It shouldn’t be about your platform, your reading progress, your opportunities, you. It is one thing to say that you support diverse books and marginalized creators, but when your platform grows directly because of it and you aren’t actively boosting people of color, you aren’t the ally you think you are.
Maybe this makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t. But either way, if you’re a white person reading this, I hope it gave you something to think about.