REPRESENTATION: In Education, in the World and on the Page

Inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I recently got me some hoops.

At a recent Town Hall meeting, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke of her dad’s education at Brooklyn Tech, a selective NYC public high school that made a different kind of life possible for him – and I related. As a teenager, I traveled 90 minutes each way to attend Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan because I, too, wanted a different kind of life. But attending this “elite” school (and the “elite” schools that followed) came at a cost.

In high school, I was the only Latina I knew. Because I didn’t fit the stereotype of a Puerto Rican girl from The Bronx, I made the decision that not only did I not count as a “real” Latina, but that I should also avoid anything that could make people think I was one. Hoop earrings were, therefore, out of the question, as was gold bamboo jewelry, nameplate necklaces and tight, sexy outfits. I also did everything I could to erase any signs of a Bronx accent, including speech classes at 16 to cultivate a generic Mid-Atlantic cadence.

I did, however, always wear bright red lipstick and nail polish — because it looked so damn good. Then one day, a friend asked “Why do you do that? It makes you look like a Puerto Rican girl.” In a rare moment of pride, I responded, “Because I am a Puerto Rican girl.” But my pride didn’t go much further than that.

From personal experience, I know that the lack of black/brown representation in NYC’s selective high schools (as well as in highly selective colleges and universities) is an injustice not only to deserving kids who don’t get in, but also to ones that do. Just this week, out of a total of 897 kids, Stuyvesant admitted only seven black students to its class of 2023. For all the opportunity Stuyvesant offers those kids, how can it possibly compensate for the culture shock they’re about to experience?

When, as People of Color, we change ourselves to accommodate an inherently racist status quo, we lose the best of what we have to offer our families, our communities and our ancestors. And because true power and fulfillment come from owning who we really are, an educational system in which extraordinary kids from disadvantaged communities are pressured to dis-identify with their authentic selves cannot be considered “just” or even successful.

The same goes for publishing and media. Human beings cannot become what we do not see; this is not mere philosophy, it’s neuro-science.* And this is why I speak, write and teach, again and again, about REPRESENTATION.

Because I am not in favor of a culture dominated by a Whiteness which insists on denying the value of other peoples, of their languages, their histories and their ancestry. And I am not in favor of a culture in which the cost of “success” is participation in the further eradication of one’s own people and culture.

Representation Matters. And it changes the world.

If you’re in the PNW, join me on March 30 for my one day writing workshop called “REPRESENT!” And express yourself as you really are, not who the White culture wants you to be so you can “succeed.”

*For a scholarly perspective on mirror neurons and literature, see Literary Biomimesis: Mirror Neurons and the Ontological Priority of Representation by Deborah Jenon and Marco Iacobini

Wanna make a room of white people feel awkward…?

Books by writers of color are more likely to be banned. That’s right. In the above Bitch Media interview with Kristen Pekoll from The Office of Intellectual Freedom with The American Library’s Association, she states that more than three quarters of the books banned by school libraries in 2017 were by, or about, people of color.  “What does it say about our culture that people don’t want these books on the shelf?” she asks.

Even though offended parents, teachers and administrators claim that they object to these books due to religious, political, sexual, or other “controversial,” content,  what they all have in common is that they explicitly and honestly address the experiences of non-white Americans, or protagonists from other cultures.

And that can make a lot of people uncomfortable. As she says “Wanna make a room of white people feel awkward? Talk about race.”  

It’s not only difficult for most white Americans to face up to the racist history of our country, it’s even more difficult for them to understand what racism is, and how it functions on a structural and institutional basis. Unfortunately, however, because 89% of publishing industry professionals are white, the odds are against writers of color getting the attention and support they need to effectively explore the intersections of race, poverty, gender and class in ways that will awaken readers and challenge the status quo. 

Nevertheless, I have hope. And right now that hope lies in my commitment to creating spaces for writers of color to discover and develop stories that not only convey infrequently-heard truths, and possibly inspire a more just and fulfilling world, but where they also never have to hear the question, “Why does everything have to be about race?”

Register for my upcoming Circle for Writers of Color, launching in February 2019, or sign up for a free group coaching session for Writers of Color.

5 Things Writers-of-Color Should Look For In Their Book Editor

I recently attended a Northwest Editor’s Guild event called “Authors on Editing,” during which three writers spoke about their experiences working with editors. I gleaned a lot of useful information from the panel discussion, and it’s always great to meet other editors. But as great as the event was, I couldn’t help noticing what was not said, and the editors and writers who were not there.

If you’re a writer of color, you know what I mean.

That’s right. This room was almost entirely white — except for me and, even though I’m a Latina, I look white — and there was not a single mention of race, class, diversity or inclusion the whole time.

This doesn’t mean that the editors and writers present weren’t compassionate or skilled, or that they didn’t have contributions to make. It just means that some very important things were not addressed during the panel discussion and Q&A.

Namely — how much of a difference it makes to have an editor who not only gets your writing, but gets YOU. And one thing white people consistently miss is that race and ethnicity — i.e. not being white — do make a difference in who we are and what we have to say. As writers, they give us our histories, our perspectives, and our voices, and editors can miss certain nuances in our work when they don’t share those things with us.

Now, as you already know, publishing IS so white, and it can be hard to find an editor who exactly matches you in terms of racial/ethnic profile. But the first tip I’d give for seeking out an editor is to try to find an editor of color. There’s not many of us, but we are out there.

As for the other things your editor should provide, here are five you should seek out to make your partnership the best it can be:

  1. Face to face communication – Emails and notes are just the beginning. Telephone calls are OK. But eyeball to eyeball is best, whether you’re lucky enough to meet in person, or can jump on Skype or Zoom.  Writers and editors are on the same team, and face to face conversations can make your relationship feel much more like a partnership.
  2. Generosity –  Make sure your editor cares. The editing process is intensely personal, for both the writer and the editor, and if your editor doesn’t care about your project from the start, their feedback is going to reflect their indifference and you’re not going to feel the love you need.
  3. Egolessness – It’s not your editor’s book, it’s yours. When an editor can’t separate themselves and their opinions from YOUR work, it’s going to be a battle of wills. But, that said, an editor should be able to take a stand for the reader, and choose their battles wisely. So you want them to be generous, but also strong.
  4. Inquisitiveness – Editors have a reputation for being didactic. But rather than constantly telling you what to do, an editor who asks the right questions can open you up to ideas and inspirations you never imagined. The ability to ask the right questions can distinguish a good editor from a great one who helps the work evolve from good to great.
  5. A spirit of collaboration – Make sure your editor takes time to agree on a set of goals with you. What is this project about? Who are its readers? Where and how will it be published? What is this round of editing about? As simple as it may seem, getting clear on what you will accomplish, and by when, will prevent unnecessary confusion and disappointment.

If you’ve got further suggestions for what makes a great editor, add it in the comments. And if you’d like to have a conversation about an upcoming project or completed manuscript, I offer an initial 30-minute consultation, free of charge.