The Motivator: Why Being an Ally Empowers All Writers

BK Loren celebrates diversity of reading, writing and living.

Last weekend the 10th Annual National Black Writers Conference took place at Medgar .... I would have attended if I could (travel costs prevented). I consider it one of the nation's most important conferences for all writers.

Yes, I'm white. So some would argue that the conference is none of my business, or "not my issue." I disagree. As a writer, and the designer of SW's online courses, I encourage all writers to step outside their comfort zones and seek out the work and community of writers different than they are. One of the most powerful notions I embrace is that of being an ally for racial and social equity. Part of the idea behind being an ally is that it can get tiring for individuals of a consistently marginalized group to always be the ones to "stand up for themselves"—always the ones to ask for equity where there is little, for validation where it is an anomaly, for recognition when it is due, but overlooked. Sometimes, this is my job. Most times, this is everyone's job.

As writers, we all have a tough row to hoe. I think being a writer is a little like being gay: it chooses you; you don't choose it. (I'm gay, so here I can speak from experience.) You'd have to be crazy to choose to be gay or to choose to be a writer. As the stand-up comic Lisa Cech put it in her routine, "Gays recruiting people? Really? What would our ad look like? Tired of the same old civil rights? Experiencing the ennui of being accepted and loved by your family? Haven't been bashed recently, or maybe you're just craving that good old put down faggot being hurled at you? Well, then come on over to our side!"

The ad for being a writer would be similar. "Tired of the same old dependable paycheck? Had it with health insurance and vacation pay? Are you up to here with being able to slack off on the job and still make a handsome living that includes bonuses for doing, well, nothing? Come on over to our side! Be a writer!"

My point here is that writing is damn hard work to begin with, and there's a reason that the word publishing and punishing are slant rhymes. The challenges a writer faces are enormous. The challenges a writer of color faces are exponentially greater. The long and still practiced act of book whitewashing is but one succinct way to illustrate this. The blog "racebender" reports that about two percent of all YA novels portray people of color on their covers. When the protagonist in the pages is a person of color, the cover often still portrays a light-skinned person with traditionally Caucasian features. Hmmm. Interesting practice in an industry (and culture) of "racial equality."

She Writes Studios faculty member, and founder of the website ringShout, Martha Southgate, said in the New York Times article that she "respects the conference for building community," but struggles with the fact that it "should be beyond our [African American] community.” Yes! And one way for me, as a writer, to enact my wholehearted agreement with Ms. Southgate, is to stand up not for her, but alongside her, as an ally, to say the conference makes a point and serves us all.

The more we all stick together in fighting for the recognition and value of writers in general, of paying for the value of writing as a vocation, and of writers as a whole, the more we must recognize, embrace and celebrate our differences. Equity means recognizing difference and celebrating it. Not pretending it does not exist. The simple beauty of literature is that it offers a window into a world we might otherwise know nothing about. I know nothing about being African American, and I can't pretend that a book makes me an expert on the topic. But I am indebted to literature for giving me a window into a world I can't experience first hand, for making me not more colorblind, but more able to see color everywhere and with, I hope, a deeper compassion.

So what the hell does this have to do with teaching writing (my charge here at She Writes) and with motivating writers as a whole? Because being good, strong allies for all forms of equity teaches us all to be better writers, better readers, and better humans. And being better humans, we circle back around to the beginning and become better writers. Part of my identity is as an ally. I welcome those who are my allies, in return. Through writing and reading, the circle of embracing all kinds of difference grows in ways it could not if I relied solely on my direct experience of life. If you ask me, that's damn good motivation to read and to write. It's damn good reason to, as Michael Franti puts it, Stay Human.

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Comment by Martha Southgate on April 5, 2010 at 12:55pm
Thanks, BK, for a great post
Comment by The Motivator on April 3, 2010 at 6:30pm
Thank you, B. Lynn, too.
Comment by B. Lynn Goodwin on April 3, 2010 at 3:45pm
Excellent information. I had not heard of this conference before. Thanks for enlightening me.

Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers
Comment by The Motivator on April 3, 2010 at 2:57am
Great! I love all these re-posts specifically because of the topic. It's everyone's turn to get involved for the equity of all. Many thanks.
Comment by Christina Brandon on April 3, 2010 at 2:33am
47 stars! Just wanted to personally say thanks for this fabulous post! Especially the bit about needing to stand up with others... I think I'll also repost this on my blog!
Comment by Julie Polk on April 1, 2010 at 8:57pm
Great, I'm so glad! Justine in particular is a friendly acquaintance of mine, so if you drop by do say hello for me.
Comment by The Motivator on April 1, 2010 at 8:50pm
Thanks so much for your post and for your links. Every one of them is great. I'd not known of them before, but I've added them to my bookmarks and will visit them regularly now. Thanks again. Great words. Great stuff!
Comment by Julie Polk on April 1, 2010 at 2:52pm
Hi BK and all -

A terrific post! A YA writer I know had a cover whitewashed recently, and her elegant response kicked off a great conversation about whitewashing and race in publishing in general on her blog.

Also, there's a teen book blogger named Ari who runs a terrific blog called Reading in Color. A couple of months ago, after another whitewashed cover, she wrote a really heartwrenching and great letter that I think is well worth reading.

A great site that has fascinating discussions on race and culture is Racialicious, which is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture: I really recommend it for intelligent, passionate, diverse conversation about race.

I’m a white writer who went to a politically active, socially progressive Quaker school and I’ve always identified as an ally. For me, part of that identification is a continuing effort to listen and learn as well as to speak out, and I’ve found all these sites invaluable, so I thought I’d pass them along.
Comment by The Motivator on March 31, 2010 at 12:43pm
Thanks, Mahogany! Post away.
Comment by Mahogany SilverRain on March 31, 2010 at 12:32pm
What an awesome call to action! Thank you so much for posting this! I'm gong to repost this on my other sites!

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