Special Guest Post: Zetta Elliott on the Myth of Meritocracy

Zetta Elliott is the author of three books of plays, the picture book Bird, a memoir, and the YA novel A Wish After Midnight. Her poetry and essays have been widely published, and her plays have been staged all over the country. Oh, and she's awesome.

I first “met” The Rejectionist when she urged me not to lower my expectations of white female authors—solidarity is possible if we “aim high”! I love optimism, yet when The Rejectionist offered me the chance to write a guest post, this is what came to mind…

“Giving Up the Myth of Meritocracy”

If you’re invested in the diversity debate, you’ve probably read Peggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies”. If you haven’t yet read this article, please do so now! McIntosh offers us one of the most accessible definitions of white privilege along with this useful metaphor:

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, code-books, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.

In order to expose the invisibility of privilege (which is what makes it so easy to deny), McIntosh compiles a list of 46 advantages she can count on as a white woman here in the US. Though she acknowledges that her list is based on personal experience and therefore is not “generalizable,” many PoC (who live without such privilege) can vouch for her assertions. I went through McIntosh’s list recently and pulled out those advantages that I feel relate specifically to the publishing industry:

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

10. I can be fairly sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

12. I can go into a book shop and count on finding the writing of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.

22. I can remain oblivious to the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

24. I can be reasonably sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.

26. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.

32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.

45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

I have a sequel that’s waiting to be written, but I’m very creative when it comes to procrastination and so I found myself thinking of other advantages white writers might experience here in the US (though I suspect this also applies to Canada).* Like McIntosh, I do not mean to suggest that these advantages are “generalizable” (experienced equally by all writers who are white).**

1. You can submit a manuscript and it will likely be judged by someone of your race—even at a multicultural press.

2. You can query a number of agents who have extensive experience selling manuscripts by authors (and to editors) who share your race.

3. You can be pretty sure that the book buyer in a large chain or indie bookstore is someone of your race.

4. You can be pretty sure that your book—if it’s lucky enough to get reviewed by the major outlets—will be assessed by someone of your race who operates with an appreciation of your culture’s particular literary tradition(s).

5. You can attend numerous children’s literature conferences with programming that reflects your interests and/or your culture, you can network with industry professionals who share your race, and otherwise feel comfortable as a member of the majority.

6. You can write about anyone who lives anywhere and be accepted by many as an extraordinarily creative person and/or an expert on topics outside of your lived experience.

7. You can participate in a literary event and trust that your invitation was based on the merits of your book, not your race.

8. You can be pretty sure that the person responsible for acquisitions and programming at most schools and public libraries shares your race.

9. You can be pretty sure that most major award committees are composed primarily of people who look like you.

10. You can trust that disappointing sales for your book will not be attributed to your race (or to members of your race being unable/unwilling to read).

11. You can expect that your book will be displayed in stores and shelved in libraries according to its genre, and not according to your race.

12. You can be pretty sure that a (white) editor will not call your (white) characters’ language “too formal,” nor will you be expected to make hardship and racial conflict the central focus of your book.

13. You can rest assured that your book will be considered “universal” and will therefore be promoted widely and not only to a “niche market.”

14. You can trust that your book will be for everyday use, and not for one particular “heritage month.”

15. You can expect to be invited to give school presentations all year round, and not only during a designated “heritage month.”

16. You can trust that your white protagonist will not be depicted as a person of color on your book’s cover.

Getting published is hard—I think all aspiring writers would agree with me on that point. And race isn’t the bottom line here, but it is a factor in one’s ability to navigate the incredibly homogeneous publishing industry. I don’t mean to suggest that whites are incapable of editing manuscripts by and about people of color; there are many wonderful books that are the product of such collaborations, including my own picture book, Bird (plus one of my closest friends is a white editor!). Really, I’m talking about cultural competence, and that can be demonstrated by anyone who has taken the time to learn about a culture not their own. But as Peggy McIntosh points out, there’s rarely any penalty for whites who choose to remain oblivious. Instead, PoC pay the price and we see that reflected in the dismal statistics compiled by the CCBC: in 2009, out of an estimated 5000 books published for children, less than 5% were authored by PoC. We could conclude that writers of color simply aren’t good enough to be published in greater numbers. Or we could reach a conclusion that’s closer to the one McIntosh reaches in her essay:

For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own. These perceptions mean also that my moral condition is not what I had been led to believe. The appearance of being a good citizen rather than a troublemaker comes in large part from having all sorts of doors open automatically because of my color.

My father used to call me a troublemaker, and initially I rejected that label because it felt like a cruel mischaracterization—sure, I asked a lot of questions, but why should I accept the status quo if it served others’ needs and not my own? I now realize that as a black feminist writer, making trouble is what I do! I likely won’t be thanked for my complaints about the lack of diversity in children’s publishing, but that’s ok. Being unpopular just might mean that I’m doing something right…*** ["Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." -Ed.]

*Many thanks to Doret and Neesha for their suggestions as I compiled this list.

**McIntosh concludes that “since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need to similarly examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.”

***I think one way of solving the inequalities in publishing is to follow the Brits by adopting a Publishing Equalities Charter here in the US.You can learn more about the UK model here.