Okay, I am almost never confrontational on this blog, but I’m going to be today. Because I have read this dozens of times in the past year and I’m sick of seeing it.
Context. There have been a lot of posts (especially since May) about how White privilege and unconscious bias can lead to white reviewers to rate books by authors of color lower. These posts often focus on ways we write our reviews that are unfair to authors of color (and readers of color) that are almost always fair. True, reading about an unfamiliar world experience can be uncomfortable, which some reviews frame negatively and should not.
However, one point that I’ve seen time and time again is that the authors of these posts might say “Stop saying you didn’t relate to a book. The book wasn’t written for you, you weren’t supposed to relate to it.” And I just cannot express how angry this idea makes me.
Yes, it is fair to say that a book by an author-of-color was maybe not written “for” me. It is a fair statement that I might not “see myself” in the book as much as a reader of the same ethnicity/background of the author might. But that does not mean the author doesn’t intend for me to relate the novel or characters.
The entire point of literature and reading is to connect with people and experiences who are different from you. A good author can make a character who is completely different from you relatable. A big part of the reason to read books from diverse authors are so you can experience empathy for people who are different from you. OF COURSE you’re “supposed” to relate to these books!
I’m going to use one of my favorite books from 2020 as an example, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson. Here are all of the ways in which the protagonist, Liz, is someone I “shouldn’t” be able to relate with her:
- I am not Black.
- I am not one of two people at my school with my skin-tone.
- I have never lost a parent.
- A person I love has never had a chronic illness like sickle-cell anemia.
- I am not gay.
- I have never been shamed for a relationship.
- I have never been publicly “outed”.
- I have never been in a situation in which I was dependent on a scholarship in order to go to college.
- My family has never talked in fear of having to give up our house.
- I have never had to care for a younger sibling.
On paper, there’s nothing for me to “relate to” in this book. AND YET. I connected so deeply with Liz. We’re both band nerds. We’re both shy in public and outgoing with friends. Neither of us fits in with the popular crowd. We both lost our best friends to misunderstandings. We both want(ed) to find love. I was so inspired by Liz’s determination to make the world a better place and to never give up. I adored this book because I related with Liz, despite our many differences.
And that ability to relate to the character is essential. Since I related to Liz I was able to experience through the pages what it is to be a Black LGBT teen in America. It built empathy and awareness of how difficult that can be. Reading this book did not make me an expert on being Black or being gay, I understand that. But it opened the door for me to understand Black, gay teens better. Without that connection, none of that would have been possible.
I think that what these posts are trying to say is that if White reviewers are consistently enjoying posts by authors of color less than they enjoy books by White authors, that’s a problem. Those reviewers should take a hard look at their internalized biases and ask themselves why they didn’t enjoy the book.
But when those posts say the White readers aren’t “supposed” to relate to the books, that’s a problem. It sends the message that you can only connect with books and characters who are like you. It sends the message that the only characters you can find common ground with are characters with your exact same background and life experience. It send the message that the only reason to read books by AoC is to “do the work,” not because you might find a deep connection or enjoyment of the book. And, in my opinion, none of those things are or should be true.
Perhaps a better message to include in these posts would be “Stop blaming your inability to relate to a character on that character, author, or book. That’s on you.” Because I think that’s what these bloggers really mean anyway.