Context for readers: This is a response to a conversation in the sex ed community about race and representation in books. I thought responding via the Girl Sex 101 blog would be a good venue for it, since I mention my curation process for the book below.
There’s a furor going around in the sex ed industry because of an anthology of “sex mastery” that only features white folks. I held back from speaking up at first for a few reasons:
1) I am resistant to being or feeling like a white-savior, and I’m still not 100% sure how and when it’s appropriate to speak up before a person of color does. If you have thoughts or resources about this specifically, please feel free to share.
2) My partner was one of the people in the anthology and I wanted to give him a chance to speak up first.
3) Honestly, I didn’t think the book would get much attention at all, and I saw “all publicity as good publicity” which would make this book more popular. Plenty of books in our industry are so narrow as to be infuriating. I didn’t think they needed a neon arrow directing people to their Amazon page.
4) I’m currently experiencing Outrage Fatigue. I thought that more white people shouting about how racism is bad wasn’t going to do much of anything other than drown out the voices of POC we should actually be listening to.
However, I now feel compelled to weigh in. Because this issue has gotten bigger than one book, and it involves my industry.
As for the book, I wasn’t involved at all other than offering my partner a couple of editorial scans of his essay and giving him advice about the book industry in general and what constitutes a “good deal” for an author in an anthology.
When I saw the back cover the first thing that went through my mind was “all white” followed by “of course.” This is what white supremacy in a post-Ferguson world looks like. It comes as no surprise. You hope people do better, but you don’t expect them to. This, right here, is what we need to fight against. Color blindness MUST be replaced with color consciousness if we ever hope of moving past “of course.”
Curation is a process of cultivation, interaction, and piecing together. It’s the ability to look at a composition and literally ask “What’s missing?”
When I curated an art gallery, I would look at the theme and think, “What else speaks to this theme that isn’t represented?” It could be a style, a take on the theme, a historical moment, a POV, or more. Then I would try to fill that hole. Sometimes this meant seeking out a particular artist or piece, or furiously googling to find something that will fill the space. That is how curation works.
Editing an anthology is the exact same process. You seek out what isn’t there already. You move stuff around. You ask for specific things. You say “Sorry we have too much of X already. Do you have any Y?”
Looking for missing voices is LITERALLY YOUR JOB.
When I put together my roster of experts for Girl Sex 101, I didn’t need to work very hard to find awesome POC to write for it. Why? Because my corner of the industry is filled with some bad ass sex educators of color. I knew I had some topics I wanted to cover, then thought about who would be the best person for the job. Often this was a person of color, sometimes it wasn’t. I also knew I had some people I wanted in the book, and then I asked them what aspect of “girl sex” they’d most like to write about.
Fellow white people, the best advice I can offer you is “Expand and enrich your community.” Diversity shouldn’t be a thing you have to struggle to seek out. It should be there already, because “they” are there already. If you can’t name one queer person of color you could invite to a project, you’re in the wrong corner of the community.
For my book, if I had put out a Kickstarter or Facebook message about my book that listed only white, cis folks, not only would I be actively ignoring the experts right in front of me, I’d get called out right away, for good reason.
In fact, I did get called out when I started my Girl Sex 101 Kickstarter. I had one trans woman on the roster, but that was it. I didn’t advertise her name right when the Kickstarter went live because I hadn’t gotten a firm commitment from her. And I got emails right away. People told me (both gently and aggressively) that I was going to fuck up big time if I didn’t include more trans women voices.
I want to be perfectly clear: IT SUCKED SEEING THOSE EMAILS. I felt an immediate need to defend myself. “I’m not transphobic!” I wanted to scream. Instead, I responded by saying “I’m working on it.” (but I was defensive sometimes. I didn’t always speak with grace. I’m human.) And then I did work on it. But I didn’t knock it out of the park. I could have done better. I had one trans woman just drop out well into the project. I had another that never responded to my multiple emails despite our knowing each other in real life. I had disabled woman of color pass after I got a soft commitment. Sometimes people drop out, and it looks to the world like you didn’t try hard enough. It sucks. I know. I get it.
I’m not sharing this with you because I nailed it. As I said, I definitely could have done better. And you can bet I’ll get emails and blog posts from people ready to tell me how I failed. Some of my failings are clear to me. Some I won’t notice until I read one of those emails or blog posts. And it’ll take a huge amount of strength to not knee-jerk respond. Instead, I’ll have to go have a shot of whiskey, take a walk, and shake it off. Then I’ll think about how I can do better. And then I’ll do those things.
White people, we can do better.
- We creators can look at our projects and ask ourselves, “Who isn’t represented?”
- We can show our nascent projects to our peers and ask them “Who isn’t represented?” We can endeavor to find those people and invite them to the table.
- We can think about our audience and ask, “Who does this person need to hear from?”
- We can invite many qualified POC so that if one token POC drops out, we don’t suddenly have an all-white roster.
- We can hold our peers accountable for sloppy behavior. And we can be compassionate with ourselves and our peers when we get called out or have to call someone else out.
The reason people are having this conversation at all is because we can do better. The future of our industry and our culture demands it. Let’s do better.
For all the relevant links and responses, check out Aida Manduley’s post here.