I shared it on Twitter a while ago, but I participated in a discussion (hosted by Puput at Sparkling Letters) with some other Asian bloggers from different backgrounds about Asian representation in YA and books. We talked about topics like common misconceptions, things to avoid when describing Asian characters, our wish list for what we want to see more of in Asian rep, books with problematic Asian rep, and recommended books with good Asian rep. I highly recommend reading the post. You can find it here. 🙂
Note: This is a call-out and a call-in post. The point is to discuss issues and trends and critique people’s words and actions with the intention of holding people accountable for the harm they cause and pushing for people to do right by others, not to attack people’s personhood/character. If you can’t draw the distinction between the two and start feeling defensive of yourself or people you associate with or admire who are mentioned in this post, take a step back and ask yourself why you’re conflating criticism with an attack. Then come back and try again.
Hi, everyone. If you don’t know me already, my name is Shenwei (they/them pronouns), and I’m Taiwanese American. I consider myself a diversity advocate, and for this reason, I believe it is essential that I initiate and participate in discussions on issues that pertain to my communities, especially when someone who is part of my community has caused harm to people of marginalized groups.
For those who are not aware, there has been a lot of heated debate in the book community over the recent YA release, Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth (a white author known for her dystopian YA series, Divergent). Specifically, this book has been called out/criticized for being antiblack and anti-indigenous for its use of the trope of dark-skinned, kinky-haired people as “savages.”
Here are some reviews and posts that discuss the racism in Carve the Mark and/or the history of the harmful trope of the “savage” in depth:
- From Justina Ireland (she/her pronouns), who is Black: The Continent, Carve the Mark, and the Trope of the Dark-Skinned Aggressor
- From Meleika (she/her and they/them pronouns), who is Black and a Torres Strait Islander and Tongan: Dear YA, I Am Not A Savage
- From Anjulie (she/her and they/them pronouns), who is Māori: Racism, Author Accountability, and Nevernight
Carve the Mark has also been called out for ableism in its portrayal of chronic pain and use of chronic pain as a fantasy trope (note: Veronica Roth has said she lives with chronic pain, but having chronic pain doesn’t equal immunity to ableism, internalized ableism is possible and happens), but here I’m going to focus on the racial representation because that’s central to the issues I’m discussing in this post.
When these criticisms began circulating widely, I was completely unsurprised that white readers came to Roth’s defense. That’s a standard reaction as far as discussions of racism in books goes. POC/Indigenous readers call a white author out for harmful representation of their race/ethnicity, the white people go on the defensive and cry “witch hunt” and “bullying” and “career sabotage” (despite the evidence to the contrary showing that such callouts have ZERO effect on white authors’ popularity and success), and the people who dare to criticize people’s problematic faves get harassed on social media by anons and egg accounts who dedicate their time to targeting POC, especially WOC. Rinse and repeat every week.
What was far more concerning to me about the responses was the number of Asian authors (mostly Asian American authors, mind you) who showed support for Carve the Mark on its release date and/or came out in defense of the book in response to messages from their followers and other book community members regarding the racist content in the book.
This is far from being a comprehensive/exhaustive list, but here are the authors I saw Tweeting support for Carve the Mark, talking about how they did not find the book racist, or supporting (by reblogging/retweeting/boosting) authors who said they didn’t find it racist:
- Sabaa Tahir – Tumblr Post
- Renee Ahdieh – Reblog
- Jenny Han – Tweet
- Marie Lu – Tweet
- Maurene Goo – Tweet
- Rhoda Belleza – Retweet
My point here isn’t to attack these authors (I have no personal vendetta against any of them, most of them are authors whose books I’ve read and enjoyed), but rather to point out the trend of my fellow Asians, especially Asian Americans stepping out of their lane and speaking when they shouldn’t. Since Sabaa’s post got the most attention, I’d like to critically examine her response, particularly the second part.
Before I do, I’ll just say that the anon who sent her the message was out of line in asking if she knew what racism was. There is no doubt that she has experienced racism, and she shouldn’t have to talk about her painful experiences in detail to prove anything.
However, after that, she made a very big misstep.
In giving her opinion on Carve the Mark, she said, “I read Carve the Mark critically and did not find the book to be racist.” Although reading something critically typically means you are more likely to notice certain things than if you were to read it uncritically, it is not a guarantee that you will find any and all problematic content.
Which brings me to my next issue. In her elaboration, Sabaa mentions that POC are not a monolith and will have differing opinions on the same text. However, the way she frames this statement, there’s an implication that all opinions from POC on a text are therefore equally valid. It should be the opposite. Because POC are not a monolith, we must be careful about whose opinions we are centering in a discussion about racism in a text. Although POC all experience racism, we don’t all experience racism in the same ways. Our experiences differ depending on our specific race(s) and ethnicities, among other things. As a result, the issues and harmful language and tropes that we are most familiar with and sensitive to are those that impact us most directly, that target our race/ethnicity specifically.
In the case of Carve the Mark, the story was criticized for being antiblack and anti-indigenous. Those of us who are nonblack, non-indigenous POC should not be prioritizing the opinions of people who are not Black or Indigenous in a discussion about antiblack and anti-indigenous racism. We’re not the ones targeted, so it’s not surprising that we wouldn’t find the book harmful.
Then, there’s the claim of silencing. While it’s true that WOC are often silenced in conversations about race, here we need to consider the particular power dynamic of the situation. Non-black, non-indigenous POC have privilege over Black and Indigenous people. White supremacy thrives on antiblackness and encourages nonblack POC, especially Asian Americans, to engage in antiblackness as a tactic to thwart solidarity between POC groups and maintain the subjugation of Black people. This is not just an individual issue, it is a trend with a history dating back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And like other non-indigenous POC, Asians in the U.S. and Australia and New Zealand are settler colonists, living on land stolen from Indigenous peoples, thereby benefiting (unwittingly or not) from Indigenous erasure, displacement, and genocide.
For these reasons, Asians, specifically Asian Americans, need to be conscientious about when they’re speaking up and whose voices they are boosting in conversations about racial representation, so as not to continue these trends. When Asians give their opinions saying something doesn’t constitute antiblack and anti-indigenous racism, even though Black and Indigenous folks are saying otherwise, and someone tells us to take a seat, that’s not silencing. That’s a request for us to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.
POC is a term with great power for non-indigenous (though some Indigenous people do identify as POC; many do not because of the settler colonialism issue), nonwhite people. We rally around it in acknowledging our common fight against white supremacy. However, it can also be misused in ways that harm the cause of anti-racism. If you are speaking in the hypothetical, using POC is usually okay, but if you are talking about a specific issue, it’s important to name who exactly is impacted. Police brutality does not affect all POC equally. It disproportionately impacts Black folks. Surveillance for suspected terrorism doesn’t affect all POC. It is a result/manifestation of Islamophobia and prejudice against anyone who “looks” Muslim (basically people from West and South Asia). And so on. If you are not a part of the specific subgroup of POC who are affected by an issue, don’t go around co-opting it through the misuse of POC as an umbrella term or talking over the people who are targeted. That is erasure. That is silencing.
To be fair, there were a few Asian authors who spoke up in defense of and trusted the word of the Black and Indigenous critics. Here are the few I know of:
- C.T. Callahan
- Heidi Heilig
- Elsie Chapman
And to be fair, Sabaa Tahir did make a follow-up post addressing her mistake in response to an anon who brought up their hurt. I’m assuming someone talked her through the issue somewhere behind the scenes. Here’s the post.
However, apology or none, the damage was done. The moment an extremely popular author of color stepped forward to say, “I didn’t find this book racist,” a huge mob of people seized upon those words as a pass to dismiss the concerns of those who criticized Carve the Mark. Though nobody can control the way other people respond to their words, it’s still important to be aware of the probable consequences of potential words and actions. Despite the attempts to frame the debate as “every POC’s opinion is equally valid,” the numbers tell a different story about people’s preferences and priorities .
I checked the notes on Sabaa’s original post several days ago.
When I first started writing this post, this was the status of Sabaa’s posts:
Notes on Post 1: 1924
Notes on Post 2: 47
The math: 41 times the number of notes. More than 4000% the stats.
As of February 11th, this is the new count:
Notes on Post 1: 1991
Notes on Post 2: 54
The math: 37 times the number of notes.
Think about that. That difference speaks volumes on what kinds of opinions from POC people are interested in listening to and boosting.
One of the most disappointing things about what went down is that so many of the authors who overstepped are authors who are on the front-lines of the diversity movement. Just last year, several of them featured in a video from We Need Diverse Books with a message of “We Write For You.” However, the way things played out over Carve the Mark, I have to wonder, do they really write for all of us marginalized folks, especially teens? Because if they excuse or overlook antiblack and anti-indigenous racism in others’ writing, what’s to stop them from perpetuating that same harm in their own books? Moreover, their words and actions outside of their published writing matter as well. Marginalized kids and teens are following them on social media and looking up to them as role models. Imagine how much it must hurt to see your favorite authors, the one who said they write for you, ignore and minimize your pain. That’s what is at stake. That’s why uplifting the voices of those who are harmed by a book is so essential.
To me, what happened with Carve the Mark is a sign that authors who consider themselves diversity advocates, especially my fellow non-black, non-indigenous POC, need to be more proactive in listening to and participating in discussions about effective allyship because even as they are marginalized, they are also privileged in other ways, and ignorance about that privilege can cause harm to groups outside of their own, to teens who are among their readership.
I’m guessing for some of y’all who are readers and bloggers, the realization that certain authors have caused harm may change how you feel about reading and supporting their work. There are a variety of ways to deal with such a situation, and while I’m not going to police how people respond or tell people they can’t read books by certain authors, I do encourage everyone to engage critically with their favorites, make informed decisions about who and what you’re supporting, and use their problematic words, actions, or writing as an opportunity to promote constructive discourse about how best to ensure that marginalized folks, especially teens, aren’t harmed.
Now, for some practical tips on options for what to do when your favorite author does/says something problematic:
The most extreme action is straight up boycott, i.e. not reading their book(s). However, I understand that some of these authors do have important #ownvoices books coming out that people are really hoping to read, so here are some other things you can do to decrease your support.
- Don’t buy their book and borrow it from the library or from a friend or read it at the bookstore.
- Buy their book, but buy it secondhand so they don’t make money from your purchase.
- Don’t review their book and just keep it to yourself.
- Review their book, but mention in your review somewhere how they fucked up so that other people can make a decision regarding whether they want to support the author in light of their actions.
If you’re looking for resources on how to deal with a book that is problematic, I highly recommend reading Jen (BookAvid)’s posts: