Reading Diversely FAQ: Part 4

It’s no secret that diversity in reading is an important value at Book Riot. We write about it so often, in fact, that we’ve noticed that the same questions come up again and again from our readers in the comment sections of those posts. I, along with Riot Contributing Editors Swapna and Preeti, are going to answer those questions in a series of posts coming out over the next few weeks, so anyone who has asked these questions (to us or just to yourselves) can get a straight answer. Just search the “readdiverseFAQ” tag on the site to find every post in the series, or click the link at the bottom of the post. Let’s get started:

1. Why does everything have to be political?

Preeti: I don’t want to start this out on a sour note, but I’m going to say this so we all understand: This-is-not-political. This is about human rights and honestly, basic human decency. This argument is offensive to everyone. Because here’s the thing: if you believe equal representation is a political belief, and not a human rights issue, you’re marginalizing everyone who doesn’t fit into the mold of the majority. You’re saying that You, who don’t look or act like everyone else, your right to be represented and your right to believe that you matter, isn’t fundamental.

But equal representation is something that we should all want to be a fundamental right. We’ve said it in past FAQs: it encourages empathy for your peers, it bolsters confidence among those who are different, it expands your world view. It has so many benefits.

We can’t hide behind this debunked idea that “good stories will rise to the top” – they won’t, unless we do something about it. Stories of other cultures and other lifestyles can be just as excellent reads as stories by straight, white men. We’re just not getting them because, for a long time, they were seen as “multicultural” stories for small, “multicultural” audiences. They were seen as isolating by white sales forces who didn’t know how to sell minority stories as human stories. Things are changing, but only because we’re talking about them. And things should change because the alternative is a small, boring world where you read the same thing over and over. And how is that an attractive political belief?

Amanda: I find it so sad that people use the word “political” as an insult to denigrate movements or people who are trying to make the world a better place. I’m happy to live in a culture where I have the option to be politically active and have a voice. Millions of people in this world don’t have that. But I agree with Preeti- reading diversely isn’t about politics as it is usually defined (we’re not voting for a candidate or stumping for legislation here), but even if it is, I don’t see why I or anyone else should take that to be a negative. Politics (real politics, not “you’re making me uncomfortable so I’m going to say this is about politics” politics) reaches into every aspect of our lives, from our drive to work to whether we pay sales taxes at the grocery store to how much internet access we have. That’s the price of living in a civilized, progressing society. If you truly want to move off the grid and exist in a world without politics, where no one will ask you to think critically or be empathetic or consider how your choices affect everyone else around you, I hate to tell you: even that is a political statement. Choosing to ignore problems because you don’t like politics is a political statement.

Swapna: I think these two ladies are completely on point. This is not about making things “political.” It’s about recognizing the consequences of our reading choices, and choosing deliberately as a result.

 

2. So what’s a “good” percentage to aim for? And isn’t that just filling a quota?

Amanda: In  2012 and 2013, I only read 3-4% POC. I wasn’t paying attention and was just reading what was buzzy or what “sounded good,” and I ended up with almost totally white-washed reading. So in 2014 I just went for “better” without a number goal and ended up at 24%. This year, I’m aiming for over 30% to reflect the population of the United States, which is about ⅓ people of color- but that’s just me, and I work in this industry and don’t necessarily expect anyone outside of it to take on those sort of goals. A good percentage to aim for is just “better,” especially if you’ve never paid attention before. Take a look at your recent reads, figure out where you stand, and read more people of color than you did last year. That number will look different for everyone.

As far as “just” filling a quota: that assumes that people of color don’t write books you would’ve been interested in naturally, and that reading books by authors who aren’t white is “just” to be done to satisfy some external goal. By diversifying your reading, you’re actively doing something to combat structural racism (especially if you’re in the U.S.), and you’re setting yourself up for a richer, more interesting reading life. I don’t need a quota to want to do either of those things. But if having a number goal helps you, do it. I’m a goal-setter and a list-maker, and I’m never going to tell you that’s wrong or an inappropriate way to handle anything.

Swapna: I, too, think a good percentage is subjective. I think it’s a good idea to take a look at your current numbers and aim to do better. My personal goal for the year is 50%, but that’s not something I think others should do unless they specifically want to.

When you set a goal for yourself, there’s always the chance that it feels like just fulfilling a quota, but like Amanda said, it depends on what you want to do with it. I personally want to read more books by PoC authors, and I’m a stats nerd, so setting a goal works for me. It also helps me keep myself accountable to it. If there’s another, easier way for you to tackle this goal, you definitely should do that.

Preeti: I’m not a stats nerd, but I do like to track my reading so I can look back and remember the things I read. And when I look back, I like to see that I’ve read pretty widely. I don’t start out with a quota, but I do check in on my reading every few weeks to see what trends I can spot. And if I notice I’m reading a lot of a certain type (whether it’s genre or author), I’ll choose something else to shake it up a bit. I don’t think you need to have a quota, but I do think it’s a good idea to be aware of your reading habits once you’ve decided to start expanding your reading horizons.

 

3. Am I a racist if I just don’t care?

Swapna: Look, we didn’t get into this to call anyone names or brand anyone as racist. Part of the reason people are so afraid of talking openly about issues of diversity is because they’re afraid of being labeled as such if they say the “wrong” thing. We don’t want to do that. We started this discussion and this FAQ to answer the questions we’ve seen over and over again when we talk about diversity. We want to raise the level of discussion and to make people aware that their reading choices have consequences, and that reading deliberately is a very good thing. It’s not racist to take race into account when picking your next book; we think it’s necessary.

If this series has made you take a good, hard look at your numbers and what you’re reading, well good! However, if you’ve taken a look at what you’ve read, found the authors to be overwhelmingly white, and you just don’t care? Well, we can’t help you. That’s your own issue, and we don’t agree with it or stand by it. And we’d encourage you to think long and hard about that.

Amanda: I think when a lot of people say they don’t care about the issue, what they mean is that they don’t care enough or don’t have the brain space enough to do anything active about it right now. And that’s ok- I have that with a lot of things in my own life. I know cheap garment manufacturing done overseas is often dangerous and doesn’t pay workers nearly enough, but I still shop at Target because I don’t have space in my brain to start worrying about where I get my clothes right now, and the store is right down the street. But that will change someday. I find factory farming disgusting, but sometimes I forget how disgusting I find it when I’m at the store and just want to buy some darn chicken breasts. Look, we can’t all be activists about everything all the time, and if you just don’t have it in you to diversify your reading life right now but you recognize that it’s an issue and will consider it in the future, that doesn’t make you racist.

On the other hand, if you’ve looked at your reading, seen that you read all white authors, seen the effect that has on books and publishing in aggregate with other readers and you really, truly, do not care about that? That’s certainly an indication that you’re reveling in your privilege, if nothing else. You get to decide to not care about race; meanwhile, people of color will never get to make that decision because it affects their lives every single day. I’d recommend reading more diversely not to improve the world of books, but just to open your own eyes to other people’s lives.

Preeti: I agree with Amanda and Swapna. I think your reasons for not caring are important. If you don’t care because as Amanda said, you don’t have the brain capacity to work on it right now, then fine. But if you don’t care because you honestly don’t see the problem, then I think you’re being deliberately obtuse and undermining the plight of PoC and non-majority people everywhere. It is a problem, and one that we deal with every day, and we are relying on you to help. And if you don’t care, really, truly don’t care, because you, personally, are not affected by this issue, then no, that doesn’t automatically make you racist. But it does mean that you’re missing out on the opportunity to know a better version of the world, on a chance to empathize and understand your fellow man.

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That’s it for installment 4! Click here for all the Reading Diversely FAQ posts so far, and stay tuned for the final post where we’ll be answering these questions:

  1. Why are diverse books specifically important in children’s literature?
  2. Isn’t it enough to have at least one PoC character?
  3. Why is it important to have PoC characters in stories that are about more than just their racial background?

Have a question not on this list? Leave it in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer it for you!

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