It’s Not About You: White Authors, Systemic Racism, and American Dirt


Image: book on wood table. Title text overlaid.

Except…there’s one facet of this tale that my own writing career intersects with. So, I’m going to speak.

For context I recommended these articles:

  1. From Julissa Arce: “American Dirt” Tries To Pretend That Immigration Isn’t Political

  2. From David Bowles: American Greed: Who Enabled Cummins? 

  3. From Myriam Gurba: Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature

  4. And again from David Bowles: American Dirt: Dignity and Equity

Next, if you haven’t already, go order a bunch of books from your favorite bookseller or request them at the library. Here are some recommendations of Latinx books.

***

What do I, a white writer living in the US, have to say regarding racism, publishing, and American Dirt?

Point A: White people, please stop thinking about yourself as an individual “good” or “bad” actor vis a vis racism. Start looking at all the brutal, crippling racist systems that skew everything from publishing, to education, to prisons and policing, to jobs, to housing, to environmental protection, to health care, to immigration, to generational wealth. Then examine the ways in which—despite all of your hardship or hard work—you might benefit from these skewed systems.

The trouble at the root of the whole “American Dirt” conversation is the racist inequity of the publishing industry. The same issues have recently rocked the Romance Writers of America and previously, the Science Fiction Writers Association. Racism in publishing and writing reflects the racist inequity of most of our societal systems. Let’s keep that in mind.

Point B: Stop blaming others for the results of your narrow worldview. We all too often hear this complaint: “But now I can’t write anything! You said you wanted diversity but when I write it, you complain!”

Plenty of people have spoken up to counter this, including folks like K Tempest Bradford, Nisi Shawl, Daniel José Older, and Brandon Taylor who offer resources to those of us who want to deepen our education about writing, you know, other human beings, while not looking like total prats.

One person on Twitter wrote about failing at writing Latinx characters. He realized his main characters may as well have been white, changed them to reflect that, and published the novel.

And here’s where my story comes in.

I had the opposite experience:

For years, I had asked myself the question, “What would have happened if Fred Hampton had not been assassinated?” and my answer was always, “US history would have changed.”

That question and answer became the kernel of a short story written in a blazing heat during a fantasy craft workshop. The teacher told me it wasn’t long enough—which I knew—and that it was actually a novel, or more likely a series of novels.

I was mortified. No way did I have the writing chops for this, I thought. And also: it wasn’t my story to tell.

Surely, someone else should write an alternate history series whose core premise is that Fred Hampton lives because he kills the cops with his own bare panther claws, the FBI has sorcerers, and the radical opposition does, too.

Yeah. Except that wasn’t going to happen. These characters were coming through me. And while I do hope someone writes another “Black Panthers are actual shapeshifters” series, I know that series will be different from mine. Because every story that comes through every writer is different.

And this is getting long. Sorry.

What did I do?  I researched, and studied, and practiced my fingers off, and finally wrote the novels. That teacher was correct. The story had a four-book arc.

I enlisted two Black first readers and a Chicano consultant (a Brown Beret) who agreed to look at the series. More than once, I said to those first readers, “Should I not publish these books?” Every time, they encouraged me to keep telling the story, because they wanted to read how it ended. I did, too.

The books got edited. Then published.

What happened? Not much. One Black blogger wrote a glowing review. Another Black author asked to put Book One in a Story Bundle with some favorite authors I was proud to appear among. I faced a few critical questions from white people, asking how the “Black community” felt about the books. The series got great reviews on Amazon.

The readers who find the books seem to like them a lot. There has been no seven figures made. The books have broken even. Made a tiny profit so far.

What didn’t happen? I was not pilloried in public. I was not called out or “cancelled” by anyone. The series was simply published quietly—like most books are—and is trying to find its way. I’ve since written a second, more straightforward urban fantasy series that frankly sells better.* Now I’m working on an epic fantasy trilogy. Life—including writing and publishing—goes on.

So, white authors? Take a deep breath.

Read widely. Listen. Educate yourselves to the best of your abilities. Then listen some more. Make space for—champion, and spread the word about—writers whose skin color and/or background and/or culture is different from your own.

Most importantly: Work to eradicate systemic racism in as many different ways as possible. I really mean this last one. Because the anger and hurt over American Dirt isn’t about you—or me—personally, in the end. It’s about injustice and oppression. And don’t we want to build a world without those things?

Isn’t that a better use of our fertile imaginations than fearing all the ways we might be chastised if we try?

—–

*On its own, Book One of my second UF series—The Witches of Portland—has sold four times over what the entire Panther Chronicles series has sold thus far. Why? Who knows? Could be that most books just don’t sell much. Or that Book One of the Witches of Portland has a white woman on the cover instead of a Black woman. Could be that the Panther books are too weird (sorcerers battling the FBI on the astral plane?). People might not want urban fantasy about shapeshifting Black Panthers from a white author. Or the series may have simply not found its audience yet. I hope that last is the one that turns out to be most true.

 

This is reader funded writing. I thank all of my Patreon supporters for making it possible for me to provide one free essay and short story or poem every month. Most of this writing would not exist without these people. They all rock.

Want to join my Patreon crew? You get advance copies of essays and stories before they hit the web, plus a chance for free books once or so a year. 

One thousand blessings to patrons past and present: 

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