Friday, February 27, 2015

We Need Diverse Books To Enlighten, Not To Enforce Enlightenment

On Diversity in Literature and #WNDB

By Susan L. Lipson



I wish that discussions of the need for diversity in literature (#WNDB, a.k.a. We Need Diverse Books) focused more on realistically presenting the glorious array of humanity in literature than on zealously defying stereotypes. Defiance through diversity implies a defensiveness that ironically gives power to the stereotypes and undermines the very reasons behind the need for the #WNDB movement. I equate this to the use of the word “tolerance” to promote programs of unity among people, while paradoxically suggesting that differences must be “tolerated” (i.e., endured or allowed, implying a superiority of the one who must “tolerate” another). “Respect” is a much more apt term for the encouragement of open-mindedness and social harmony. And “diversity” in literature should encourage and facilitate respect, not enforce tolerance.

Similarly, the inclusion of the term “white privilege” in discussions of diversity in literature only serves as a finger-wagging kind of term to divide—and not even accurately—readers into the following subgroups: white people who have economic, educational, and social privileges and black people who do not. What about the white people who live in poverty—are they still “privileged”? Or the black people who are doctors, lawyers, authors, teachers, scientists, artists, etc.—are they “underprivileged”? Or the white people who are privileged in some aspects, but discriminated against in others—such as religion or sexual identity? Or the black people who are considered “privileged” by the “underprivileged” within their own racial group, and disdained as being “too white”? Or the non-white, non-black people who are left out of the discussion about “privilege” as the social illness that requires the good medicine provided by “diverse books” to heal the world? How can such divisiveness have arisen from a movement designed to grow inclusiveness?

Recently, an online debate I had with another writer about a reference to “white privilege” led to my being questioned about my understanding of “white privilege,” which the other writer defined as “white readers seeing diverse media starring people-of-color as ‘not for me.’” I pointed out that the term “white” in her definition is inadequate, since I teach many Asian students, and I have seen a few hesitate to read books I’ve handed to them that feature black kids as protagonists, whereas I’ve never seen such hesitation about books that feature white kid protagonists. I distinctly remember one such student saying to me, after reading a novel by Sharon Flake, “I never would have picked this up on my own, and I’m really glad you gave it to me. It was really good.” The term “white privilege” clearly is not applicable to a non-white reader who avoids books about “people-of-color” when she herself has brown skin. Also, what is the actual “privilege”—is it a socioeconomic advantage or a na├»ve mindset about the “underprivileged”?


          One of my former students, a privileged black girl with a lawyer and a doctor for parents, who grew up in a predominantly non-black, upper-middle class neighborhood of whites and Asians, once told me that she found it offensive that she, a suburban black girl, had no black characters representing her in literature. I told her that I could relate to that because most of the Jewish kids in books I'd read were nothing like me at all; they showed up in Holocaust stories, or turn-of-the-century immigrant tales, or stories about Orthodox Jewish life, so unlike my own. The absence of people like us in literature is disappointing for us personally, but even more disappointing for the reasons that people unlike us know us only through outdated or stereotypical characters. Diversity must focus on realistic portrayals more than tokenism.

          This exploration of the admirable, yet sometimes flawed #WNDB movement leads me to conclude that diversity in literature is not just about characters representing various races, cultures, religions, sexual identities, or physically challenged lifestyles. It’s not just about publishing books by authors who are “people-of-color” or of nonmainstream lifestyles (however "mainstream" is defined by publishers). But it is about opening our minds and our media to sharing stories about memorable, realistic people from all walks of life, as a means of broadening all readers’ perspectives and making readers not just see themselves in characters, but see themselves in relation to both familiar and unfamiliar characters. Diversity is universalism.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Difference Between Knowledge and Wisdom

To find wisdom: Be still, observe, experience!
Knowledge grows from shared and augmented perceptions, a.k.a. “facts,” while wisdom grows from quiet and profound observations, a.k.a. “epiphanies.”

     In today’s world, people store the perceptions known as “facts” as an end in itself: the acquisition of intelligence. In a social setting, if we haven’t read or heard the latest news to garner a hashtag, we might be viewed as unintelligent, dismissed for offering no insights on what “everyone knows.” In previous centuries, however, before people collected “facts” via modern media, people aspired to be wise, not just smart. And the seekers among those ancient people sought guidance from proverbial “wise men,” revered because their wisdom profoundly impacted seekers’ lives. Wisdom had nothing to do with facts.

     In olden times, the wise were those who observed their surroundings and their feelings with full attention, and then faithfully applied their intuition to their observations to reach profound levels of understanding. Sages and prophets of old didn’t publish research papers or conduct scientific studies, didn’t hold academic degrees to justify their credibility, and didn’t spout facts or statistics they’d read in various media to support their heartfelt assertions; they studied life itself, by being present, being observers of beauty in unexpected places, being moved by interactions, and being aware of all connections and coincidences. This way of being resulted in the epiphanies that have, throughout human history, altered social thought, heightened collective consciousness, and started new religions and ways of living. Wisdom had nothing to do with academia.

     Ironically, epiphanies today must pass the credibility test determined by fact-checking intellectuals and the inspired person’s credentials. To espouse a view or proclaim a truth, one needs proof, not just gut instincts. If some barefooted, uncredentialed preacher, like Moses or Jesus or Buddha, posted philosophical speeches on YouTube today, they would need introductions by academic types to have any chance of “going viral,” let alone gaining a respectable number of views. Absurd, isn’t it, to think that what legions of modern people faithfully accept as Truth came to us via wise people without formal education? Wisdom had nothing to do with education.

     These words and thoughts about the differences between knowledge and wisdom arose, I now see, to wrestle the guilty feelings in my head evoked by my ignorance of some historical event that came up in a conversation with friends who obviously considered that event to be “common knowledge.” I could have dismissed my feelings of inadequacy with a quip: “I’m no commoner, obviously,” or “I only store uncommon knowledge.” But I chose to seek answers to my discomfort via intuition and meditative thought instead. So that means this blog post is either an epiphany or a rationalization. Hmm…

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Peace in Common Ground

     Other-ness is the perspective that enables hatred, fear, and war. When we redefine the Others as fellow humans, with similar needs, and feel ourselves breathe in the same air they breathe out, then we can start to build peace together--BUILD being the operative word. If we see only walls between us, walls erected by different values, then we will overlook that the walls rest upon the same ground composed of our shared basic needs. We may need to dig into that common ground and forget about struggling to climb or topple the walls. 

     I am pondering these concepts after reading news reports from around the world, and meeting people whose only friends and neighbors are people like themselves. Have you shared a meal, a word, a smile, even air, with a person outside the communal walls that surround your family? And I don't mean sharing by accident, but with intention. Do you see the walls you may have unwittingly erected by hanging out mainly with people whose values reflect your own?  We all retreat behind our walls at times, no matter how much we attempt to connect with people from outside  those values-based-walls. But those who cannot see beyond the walls, who fear getting their hands dirty by digging into the common ground of basic needs, will never become peacemakers, only politicians and patrons of Others.