December 29, 2015
Open Letter to the Literary Community & the Whole Wide World,
First, I’d thank everyone who has supported the letter I wrote in response to a dismissive, racist act by the former social media editor of the Columbia Journal. Since Sunday morning, it has been shared over 1,000 times on Facebook, received nearly 1,500 notes on Tumblr, and has been viewed on this website nearly 9,000 times. I’ve received many messages from people of color across the United States who have also faced blatant racism and sexism in the literary community, and I so admire their strength, resilience, and passion for their craft. I’ve also received a lot of angry, hateful messages. I’ve taken the liberty of screenshotting and posting a few here.
The people who are angry with me dislike the fact that I believe that the voices of white men are not needed. They find this racist. They find this horrible. They find this terrifying. They think of me as someone who “fantasizes about enacting genocide.” They think of me as “a complete lunatic.” They think of me as “deluded and outright r*******.” They think of me as an “entitled cunt.” I am entitled-- to my anger, to my dissent, to my need to be viewed and treated as a human being. The hatred I’ve received in just one day goes to show -- privilege is powerful and yet, it is also incredibly fragile. What is it about a brown girl speaking out that these people find so threatening? What is it about an angry brown girl that these people feel they must tear down swiftly, and with force? Glass towers always shatter, especially when they are as transparent as this one.
There are many incredible straight cis white men writing today. Their voices are not needed. Their voices are not necessary. Their voices are not imperative. I choose my words very carefully. The literary canon is made up almost entirely of the experiences and stories of white men. From childhood, our curriculums are full of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, William Golding, James Joyce, George Orwell, Samuel Beckett, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Norman Mailer, Edward Albee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the list goes on and on and on and on. From poetry to plays to novels to short stories, white men have been published and read more than any other group of people in the history of humankind.
The literary magazines we adore and reach for were created by white men. Three minutes and Google showed me that the Paris Review, the Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The New Yorker were all founded by white men. The founder of Poetry Magazine, a white woman named Harriet Monroe, even cites white men as her early inspirations: "I started in early with Shakespeare, Byron…with Dickens and Thackeray.” The presses and publishing companies where best-sellers are born from were created by white men. The 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, and 20th century featured almost exclusively the written words of white men. White men have undeniably shaped what we consider to be worthy writing. The literary landscape was molded and curated, from birth, by white men, for white men.
I am not calling for white men around the world to burn their notebooks. I am not saying that white men have never written anything worth reading. What I am saying is that there are brown and black writers worth reading too. What I am saying is that there are women and trans people and non binary people and everyone in between and beyond who have work worth reading too. All of the stories of everyone who is not an able-bodied, cisgendered, straight white man deserve to be heard too.
The intersections in our lives matter. Yesterday, a man commented on my letter by telling me that “Thuggish racism is not attractive.” If I wasn’t a woman, would he have used the word “attractive”? If I wasn’t a person of color, would he have used the word “thug” (which is mostly used as a slur to demonize black people and justify the police murders of black men)? There is a privilege in believing that a woman must always keep her attractiveness in mind. There is a privilege in believing that a brown person must be polite and kind and quiet. I do not exist to fulfill the sexual and romantic desires of men. I do not exist to be silenced.
Better writers have written better articles about these issues. The VIDA Count exists. Google exists. The facts are out there. It is not up to people of color or women or women of color to educate you. You are not entitled to my time or my energy or my work. I write today because I am exhausted of being treated as less than. I write today because I have been asked to apologize for my oppression. And yes, oppression is a big word. And yes, I chose it carefully.
Last night, the police officer who murdered Tamir Rice was not indicted; yet another white man will walk free after shooting a black child dead. I must be painfully aware of how my actions will be interpreted by the men I come across in my daily life. I must be painfully aware of how much I drink, how much I flirt, how loudly I say no. Writing, for me, serves as an escape from the horrors of this world. And yet, even in this world, so fantastical, filled with such creativity and passion, it is seemingly impossible to imagine a panel of women of color judging a competition. This is an issue much, much, much larger than Columbia Journal. They wrote an apology and fired the social media editor in question. This is one step. As a community, we need to try harder. I need to try harder. We are all implicit in the ugliness of our lives. Our internalized biases are as much a part of us as our legs and mouths and hands. Put those hands to work. Let’s do better.