Let’s get this out of the way. Hi, I’m Liz, and I have a lot of privilege. I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual woman from a middle-class family. I’ve never had to worry about where I’ll sleep tonight or where my next meal will come from. Neither I nor my siblings have ever had “the talk” with our parents — the one about how to act if we’re stopped by the police. I’ve never been targeted by TSA agents because of my looks or my faith. I can never fully understand the experiences of those who have dealt with these things.
That said, I do my best to relate to and learn from those whose experiences are different from my own. I listen. I am fascinated by others’ stories — I want to know more about those who live in different communities or have different customs that those I grew up with. I care deeply about representation — in books, movies, media, workplaces … basically everywhere. Representation matters.
So, when I first heard about e. E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce, I was excited about a book written from the perspective of an African-American teen in an African-American community. After reading starred reviews of the book in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist, I eagerly pre-ordered it for my library and added it to my to-read list.
It’s a reflection of my privilege that, despite everything I’ve heard about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, despite my involvement in conversations surrounding the We Need Diverse Books movement and calls for #ownvoices representation, I didn’t consider who was writing these reviews. I trusted the word of reviewers who are not black and have never been a part of a community like the one When We Was Fierce is meant to represent, because they are professional reviewers. Because the reviews they’ve written, and the publications they’ve written for, have guided my reading and collection development well in the past.
Then my Twitter feed, which is filled with thought-provoking conversations by people like Justina Ireland, Edi Campbell, and Zetta Elliot, exploded with concerns about this book. I read reviews by POC readers pointing out that Charlton-Trujillo’s “new vernacular” (in the author’s words) was broken and insulting, that the characters felt like stereotypes, that the book is an inaccurate and damaging representation of black communities. I haven’t read When We Was Fierce yet, but reading the excerpts in these reviews (which I realize were chosen as the most offensive examples), I was deeply concerned. Is this how the readers who gave this book starred reviews really see black communities? The language in those excerpts has no linguistic foundation, and presents black vernacular as broken and uneducated speech. I’m horrified by the thought of handing a book with this language to a black teen, as though saying, “this is how I see you.”
This is not how I see you.
I know my views are impacted by my own experiences and my own privilege, which is why it’s so important to have diverse reviewers evaluating diverse books. We need more #ownvoices books, but at the very least we need #ownvoices writers and readers consulted about books that are meant to reflect their experiences. If you haven’t read Zetta Elliott’s post, “Black Voices Matter,” or KT Horning’s post about “When Whiteness Dominates Reviews,” I highly recommend doing so. We need diverse books, yes, but we also need diverse critics who can speak to the authenticity of these books.