11 August 2010

Voice lessons from a hybrid ambassador

HYBRID AMBASSADORSa blog-ring project of Dialogue2010
You met our multinational cultural innovators this spring in a roundtable discussion of hybrid life at expat+HAREM. Now in these interconnected blog posts they share reactions to a recent polarizing book promotion at SheWrites. Join the discussion on Twitter using #HybridAmbassadors or #Dialogue2010

Every day, from my Twitter stream to my blog reader, there’s a controversial topic that captures my attention. Poised on the edge of typing in a heated response or writing a blog post in reaction, my surety wavers. I’m at a precipice, knowing that if I chose to go further, I commit publicly to an idea or a belief that is part of a larger mosaic of my online identity.

I acknowledge that my words could leave a trail of anger and resentment or a digital footprint of critical thinking, empathy, and support.

Can I admit that sometimes I don't know when to jump in or when to watch from the sidelines? That insecurity surfaces when I feel my voice isn't loud enough? Or would be silenced before it is given a chance to be heard?

Case in point a Countdown to Publication post on SheWrites by author Lori L. Tharps. The platform gives Lori, and other selected writers, an audience of 10,000 plus women with whom to share their progress marketing and publishing their books. In Wanted: White Ambassadors to Help Me Cross Over, Lori appeals to white women to promote her book because of the publishing industry's failure to market their writers of color to white audiences. Segregated bookshelves are a reality. SheWrites Advisory Board member and author Tayari Jones writes about 'The Colored Section' in a guest post on Maud Newton, part of a reader-led discussion.

The problem was the how, not why, though there are so many resources for authors promoting their work through platform building that I was surprised by the entreaty. Like 
this on artistic revolution, this on writers of the future, and this on interactions being personal, not business. Not surprising is that people read Lori's post and reacted personally. 

When some people spoke up about the awkward, jocular tone of the post, their reaction was interpreted as being an attempt to humiliate the author, an unwillingness to support her, and a reluctance to engage in a discussion on race. Others pointed out they wanted to help Lori, but were critical of her casual conclusion that 'if you're white and you like these authors, you might like my book, and if you do, your other white friends might like it, too.' Those critics were seen as infringing on Lori's right to free speech. Only those who heartily agreed to tell their white friends about the book were applauded. Anyone who brought up alternative ways to spread the word about her work was called a 'detractor' and told to keep their thoughts to themselves. The comment section was rife with disquiet. 

Featured homepage content, like Countdown to Publication, is considered proprietary to SheWrites. "White Ambassadors" is on its Facebook Wall and was included in its newsletter. Lori's post is endorsed by SheWrites at the same time that their second credo is "community has the power to nurture and sustain creativity."

What if what is perceived as a negative comment is actually a call to action by people who want to support you? Why the slap on the wrist by other commenters to the people who wanted to bring in a perspective they felt was missing from the post?


Lori L. Tharps's forthcoming novel Substitute Me is about two women with lives that are in contrast - in other words, rich/poor, black/white, though it's claimed neither to be a 'black' or 'white' story, but a story about women. She describes it as a tale of "modern-day motherhood" that "all women can relate to." 

There's no way all mothers everywhere get along and have the same ideas of motherhoodAnd if the book's about womanhood, why the outdated idea that women and babies always go together in the same sentenceFor a writer who's steeped in the nuances of being outside the dominant majority, has traveled the world, married a Spaniard, is raising biracial kids, wrote the acclaimed Kinky Gazpacho and co-authored Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, the generalizations about who her readers might be are surprising. As Chimamanda Adichie says, the problem with stereotypes is not that they aren't true, but that they are "half the story," and the single story "emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar."

I didn't comment. Fear of being lambasted by other SheWrites members stopped me. One contrarian was called "uncivil" for objecting to the breezy, cheeky feel of the post. It could have been an enlightening dialogue on publishing and 'culture collide,' like on Lori's interesting and contemplative blog, but instead it was on upholding polarity as a life and work model.  The publishing industry has changed and it means more authors can take matters into their own hands instead of relying on traditional publishing models. Being resigned to "the way things are" is a sign of not believing in your own power.  If you want word of mouth promotion, you need your readers to love your voice and not feel alienated by it.

Hybrids know what it is like to not fit in anywhere, or to have a delicate sense of fitting in at any one time.

Maybe that's why the White Ambassadors post stings so much - it makes the worn out conjecture that everyone subscribes to a binary way of life. 
It is a bleak reminder that assumption about inclusion in a group based on the color of one's skin is still the elephant in the room

At the Women and Work conference held in March in Turin, Italy, on the anniversary of the first women's conference in 1910, I joined more than twenty women bloggers from emerging nations to talk about ways to bridge our differences through social media. Rather than deepen divisions, we mapped new territory with excitement and first-hand experience that unifying can lead to change and growth. 
Which is why I'm speaking up. This is in my own neighborhood, after all. I'm using my voice to draw attention to what I think was a missed opportunity to garner wide-ranging perspectives and to forge one's own path instead of doing the expected. 

I'm sorry, Lori, I didn't do what you asked. I went out and told all of my friends about your book. 

More thoughts on this subject from fellow HYBRID AMBASSADORS:
Catherine Yiğit's Special-ism
Anastasia Ashman's Great White People Book Club
Sezin Koehler's Whites Only?
Tara Lutman Ağaçayak's Circles

Catherine Bayar's Thicker Skin
Judith van Praag's We Write History Today
Elmira Bayraslı's The Color of Writing
Jocelyn Eikenburg's The Problem with "Chinese Food"

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