Sunday, July 31, 2016

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Friday, March 11, 2016

Removing The Masks

Earlier today fellow author Gabrielle Luthy  asked me a question about a post showing a bunch of women at a Trump rally wearing t-shirts saying - Make America White Again. This turned out to be a bigger question than I first realized, so it’s getting a bigger answer. Sorry, but I decided to get on a soapbox for once.

First, I acknowledge that the picture was apparently doctored. But many people acknowledge that that is indeed the subtext of his Make America Great Again slogan.  Whether the picture was true or not, it does represent what far too many people think. This includes people who live and work around me.  I don’t always know who. But often enough there’s a look, a gesture, an expression. I’ve know it for years, even as I listened to people swear, “I’m not a racist, but…” because it’s the words after the but that tell what they really think. People who say they shouldn’t have to be PC. Those who think cultural appropriation isn’t real, much less that they should think before they act on someone else’s history, culture or sacred beliefs.

For a lot of people it is probably easier if that stuff stays hidden. That does make it easier to pretend it isn’t there. And when something does happen, when a person of color loses out on a position they deserved or is mistreated, when little girls are manhandled by huge cops and told they should have just been submissive, when people of color protest they get called thugs while white rioters are considered simply overenthusiastic, white people get to not notice and remain happy.

Many of us already knew the code words. We knew that all those people at gun shows to arm themselves were thinking they had to protect themselves from us. “I’m not racist, but…I have to keep my family safe, from THEM.” And people who look like me get to be them. That means I get to look at the houses up and down the block in my predominantly white neighborhood and wonder which ones have guns they might someday use on me. After thirty years, I am more afraid of my neighborhood and neighbors than I was when I moved in, and I came here during the 1980's when people of color were finding burning crosses on their laws if they dared moved into a white neighborhood..

So, you asked if there is a benefit of having this come out in the open. I do. The post-racial society thing let too many people pretend, not see, and condemn those who did try to tell them about reality. I know not everyone will agree with me, I understand that. But I would rather the truth be out there. We can’t have authentic conversations when one side is wearing blinders and refusing to look in mirrors.

I realize I am often the only black person my neighbors and customers see.  A couple of months ago my white boss was talking with me about a problem they had with a customer the day before and how angry the woman became. I laughingly said "Thank heavens I wasn't here that day or she'd have found a way to blame me." My boss agreed, noting how often people complained about me, admitting she knew it was mostly because I was the only black person there.  But she still began   trying to talk me into agreeing that life is better for black people in the United States today. And going on and on expecting me to agree with her. This continued over a period of days, my white boss cornering me to continue the discussion and let her convince me of her truth.

Several of my white “colorblind” acquaintances actually chastised me for even noticing that for the fourth year in a row we had no representatives of color among our speakers for our children's annual writing conference - in this day and age of we need diverse books and the concept that all children need windows and mirrors.  I was literally told I should be ashamed for noticing because color shouldn’t matter. I told her children aren't the only ones who could use an occasional mirror. While I don’t really think she is part of any “Make America White Again” crowd (at least I hope not), I do say she’s part of the I’m too blind to notice there’s even a problem group. And that sounds a lot like the excuses heard after World War II in Nazi Germany, we didn't know.

Maybe this particular item was false. But the guy at the Trump rally who sucker punched a black man wasn't. Not then, and not when he threatened to kill the man. Neither were the young women who used their shirt to spell out N.I.*.*.E.R in Instagram pictures. Or the men who violently pushed and shoved a black girl out of yet another Trump rally. Or the white high school kids yelling Trump, Trump, Trump at a team of Hispanic youth. For them, a great America has no room for people of color.

It's not good that the climate of my country has grown to the point where so many people feel emboldened to display their racism and hostility. But it is good that things are sparking debate and even action. Trump has cancelled his talk in Chicago because of police and University safety concerns. Maybe having bigots remove their camouflage will spark more discussion. Some the people who want to call themselves colorblind will see what’s going on around them and actually take off their white-colored glasses. If the crowd that doesn't feel the need to be PC (polite and caring) and that have no empathy see themselves in some of these newly revealed bigots, that could lead t o positive dialog and change.

And maybe, if more people do decide to talk about these issues, the talk won’t begin with whites trying to convince people of color that things are so much better for them.  Maybe it can start with a "Tell me how it feels to live your life. I really want to understand."

Maybe we can actually learn and share.

Stepping down from my soapbox now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

#ILLibrary15 Illinois Library Association conference panel on Diversity

In October 2015, I was moderated a panel of authors and illustrators of diverse books at the Illinois Library Association meeting in Peoria, Il.

B A Binns, Miranda Paul, Chris Raschka, Laura Park
This well attended panel presentation took place in a double room at the Peoria Civic Center on October 23, 2015 in front of a packed crowd of public and school librarians eager to learn and panel members eager to do our job to help.

But looking back, I'm afraid we failed on one particular question. One librarian asked if any of us had ever been asked to change a character's race or ethnicity. We all gave quick, and technically correct answers: No, nothing like that had never happened to any us. Then we went on to the next audience question.

It was only after the presentation ended that I realized the answer was too quick and too literal. No, none of my editors has ever asked me to change a character's race. But they have done other, sometimes more sinister things.

Before I was published I had someone explain that my black male character did not talk like a real black man. That person gave me a list of books featuring black characters to read as examples of how African-American males talk, books written by white authors that featured stereotypical black characters. My brother and I had a laugh when I told the man I used as a model that he did not talk like a black man. I had one editor who looked at my first published novel, Pull, claim the heroine was too smart. I still get the "I just can't feel this character" kinds of comments from editors looking over my books; something that I never hear from readers. And right now, one of the editors looking at my most recent manuscript said the dialog "needs a lot of work."

No, they didn't exactly ask for a change in the race of the character, but I do get comments that would never happen if the character were white. Like the suggestion that I was wrong having the mother of a boy recently released from juvenile detention feel ashamed because that kind of behaviour is normal in neighbourhoods like that. Or that it was unrealistic that a ghetto school would have a thriving music program.  When I mentioned that I never said the place was a "ghetto" just that the student body was predominantly black and latino, the response was to tell me that if it was not a ghetto area I needed to say that in so many words.

So no, I've never been asked to change a character's race in so many words.  I just get the push backs because of their race.

It's not just me. Some authors censor themselves first. I know one black author who writes white characters because that's the way she can get published. CCBC statistics show that many Asian authors do not create Asian characters. ( See the numbers on books by and about different races as compiled by the CCBC - the Cooperative Children's Book Center - At the same time I have seem a middle grade book whose publishers decided to "shade in" (and that's a direct quote) one of the characters and call it diverse.

This is the real answer to the question.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Class on incorporating diversity in your writing

Authors, are you interesting in using more diversity on your writing?

Beginning August 31, I will be teaching the Adding The Spice Of Diversity to your writing class in conjunction with the RWA Online chapter.  
Course objectives:
1. Gain a better understanding about what is meant by diversity
2. Learn why diversity is important to writers, publishers, and especially readers
3. Learn about problem tropes and caricatures to avoid
4. Understand the importance of cultural research and provide  some new sources for research
5. Find new ideas for characters, settings, building tension, and conflict that can both spice up your plots and attract new readers
6. Help you build the confidence to use these new ideas

Take a look at for more information and to register.
This is a four week online course and the cost is only $15. 
Hope to see you in class! 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Adding the Spice of Diversity class

Some of you know that I give workshops and teach classes for authors and readers.  One of those classes is Adding The Spice of Diversity.  Originally given as a Workshop at the 2014 Chicago North RWA Spring Fling conference, the material is now a four week course allowing attendees time to delve deep in to the issues and find solutions that match their needs.

Comments from previous students:
Thanks you so much for the great workshop. In the car on the way home, I figured out how to solve a major problem with one of my short stories, thanks to some of the things you said. - Mary Driver-Thiel

The online class is being offered in February 2015 in association with the Young Adult RWA chapter. Find out more about the class and register at YARWA Workshop site

Course description:

Many authors fear inserting diverse characters and settings into their work for fear of creating a stereotype of not getting it right. This course will explore both the reader’s need for something different, and ways an author can put those different characters on the page free of stereotype. This includes characters from different races, ethnic backgrounds, and with disabilities.

Course outline:

Week 1 What is diversity/multiculturalism? (It may not be what you think) Why is it important to writers/readers
Write what you know - good advice that may not mean what you think it does
Week 2 Taking ourselves out of the story, putting the character in
Introducing your characters and settings to your readers. Sometimes the hardest work happens at the start.
Week 3 Backstory - Getting to the heart and soul of a character
Week 4 Final touches & Resources Keeping it together, revision and editing and keeping things real
This is a four week class and will include homework assignments. The target Audience is beginner and intermediate writers and anyone interested in about adding diversity and multicultural elements to their writing.

Interested in taking the journey? Register at  YARWA Workshop site 

PS: The winner of the free spot in the class was Patricia M. Congrats and I can't wait to work with you in February.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Holiday

My holiday gift to you is a short story (OK, flash fiction) I wrote featuring characters from my second book, Being God. Malik Kaplan's mother is Catholic and his father Jewish, so when the relatives get together to celebrate the holidays, festive is not always the right word.

If you read to the end I hope you enter the contest for a chance to get a free seat in my writing class on crafting diverse characters and situations - Adding the Spice of Diversity to your writing.   The class begins in February, winners will be announced the second week in January.


“Hey there, rocket man.” Mom’s eldest brother, Willie (I would have been a priest, but…) tries to rub my head, like I’m seven instead of seventeen. His new girlfriend giggles.
I nearly barf.
Our house is the spot marked X for the last day of Chanukah, which comes on Christmas Eve this year. The whole Chanukah/Christmas thing used to confuse me. I mean, Catholic mother, Jewish father. Neither all that heavy into religion, what did they expect? I was almost six before I understood there was a difference between Mom lighting a tree and singing hymns, and Dad lighting candles and chanting prayers. The dual season gives me more of everything, including a mountain of Chanukah gelt, chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper to make them special.
I also get more relatives.
I’m surrounded by family; Catholics, Jews, and a few uninterested in the idea of a deity but wanting their own version of gelt: free food. Mom takes her role as the wife of a black Jew seriously, fixing latkes from a non-traditional recipe that includes jalapeƱo’s because Dad likes them. She put up mistletoe as part of her yearly impossible mission of turning us into an old-fashioned Christmas card family, shiny black and brown faces and cheezy smiles.
“Where’s your husband?” Tyrese, Mom’s younger brother, clutches a crucifix like he’s begging God’s forgiveness for even entering this house. “It’s dinnertime.”
The door opens, bringing a blast of winter air and Dad. I catch a whiff of motor oil as he passes me and leans in to kiss Mom’s cheek.
“About time, Dwayne.” Willie sounds like an unforgiving parent. “We’re starving.”
“Sorry, I had a last minute customer snafu,” Dad says.
“You’re the owner; don’t you have people to handle Christmas Eve snafus?”
“This was a special customer,” Dad says gently.
Tell him to stuff it, Dad.
He never does. His brothers-in-law aren’t hot stuff. They talk smack about Dad, as if running an auto shop makes him dirty. Dad knows all about engines; they can’t even change the oil in their cars. Uncle Willie asked me once if a hemi was a disease. I know Dad hears how they rip into him. Yet every year he smiles and invites them back.
“I’ll shower and be right down.” Dad runs upstairs.
Mom herds the guests into the dining room. Instead of following, her brothers move to a corner.
“She abandoned her religion for that jerk and he ignores her over some ‘special customer.’” Willie makes air quotes, just like the girls at school.
“Don’t disrespect my dad,” I say angrily.
“He disrespected my sister first,” Willie says.
“You just hate on him because he makes more money than you.”
“Anyone could make money if they’re willing to get their hands dirty.”
“Not in front of the boy.” Tyrese tries to cut his brother off.
“You’ve said worse,” Willie insists. “This kid’s the mistake that forced Sis to marry Dwayne.”
“Mistake?” I can’t be a mistake. My head spins.
“You’re the best thing Dwayne ever did,” Tyrese says. “No one blames you.”
“Take your blame and shove it.” Dad steps to my side. His hair is moist around the red kipah on his head; his eyes spit fire. “Neither my son nor my marriage was a mistake.”
“Maybe we should go.” Tyrese fingers his crucifix.
“No.” Dad’s lips tighten, hands clench at his side. “My wife wants you here. You’ll stay to make her happy.”
Dad and I enter the dining room together. “Would you perform the mitzvah berakhah?” The familiar scent of motor oil still clings to him.
“But…you always do that.”
“Not today.” He smiles. “You are the best thing I’ve ever made. You say the blessings.”
My hand shakes when I take the shamesh, the server candle, and chant the words I learned at Beth Shalom in Chicago; the blessings thanking God for miracles performed for our ancestors.
Baruch atah Adonai Elo-heinu Melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah
As I light the other eight candles of the chanukiah, I give silent thanks for my personal miracle, standing beside Mom.
There are no mistakes in our family.

Click here to enter contest for a free spot in Adding The Spice Of Diversity To Your Writing class

Saturday, November 15, 2014

SCBWI Prarie Writers and Illustrators Day Diversity session

Today I am off at Harper college in Palatine, Illinois for SCBWI's annual Prairie Writer's and Illustrators day, a conference for filled with authors, illustrators, editors and agents. There are contests, workshop sessions, portfolio reviews, and general information sharing and networking. This year they are featuring something new. Lunch and Learn sessions, where people will meet and discuss different issues. I will have a table where people will come to discuss diversity and multicultural issues in children's books (which is just about my favorite topic).  I've got handouts discussing
  1. Why we need diverse books
  2. What these authors and Illustrators can do
The discussion will include the #WNDB movement, some of the historical issues in getting diversity and multiculturalism into children's books, how diversity is more than most people thing, the need for authentic voices, along with ways attendees can be more mindful of stereotypes and caricatures while still including diversity in all its facets (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical and mental disabilities and much more) in their writing.

God, I'm on my soapbox already.

I'll also be giving a shout-out to a new group forming, the Association of Children's Authors and Illustrators of Color.  We are authors and illustrators out to meet the need for children's books featuring characters of color. Our website, ACAIC.ORG will be launching later this year.