Born in Brighton to Caribbean parents, living in London, I have been writing since I could. I’ve run the gamut of painful rhyming couplets, existentialist teenage diaries and – er – true romance.
I’ve published some serious stuff, about equality and rights, as well as adult and children’s short stories through Hamish Hamilton, A and C Black and Pearsons, amongst others. I’m good at running workshops, talking to lots of people and training. I’m not good at seeing departure boards (or people I know) without my glasses or whistling. I’m represented by the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency.
Understand. Support. Challenge.
by Patrice Lawrence
Ten years ago or so, I was at a conference about educational inequality. In 1985, the Swann Report tried to unpick why certain children, often those of Caribbean heritage, were not attaining the same results as their white peers. It is a conversation that has never ceased. At this event, a black Ofsted inspector described a recent experience at a secondary school. He was eating lunch with the senior management team and noticed a young man make a lewd gesture at a departing canteen supervisor. The senior management staff did nothing so the inspector took the student aside and made it very clear that his behaviour was unacceptable.
The headteacher’s response? ‘Of course, you can do that. You’re black.’ As indeed was the young man.
Our response was to gasp. Sometimes it is easier than articulating our emotions. Was it that the teacher believed that sexualised behaviour was a black thing and was frightened of being called a racist if he challenged it? Were lower standards of behaviour expected of black boys? Was it that the Ofsted inspector was being criticised for intervening? Or was it that many of us could dredge up so many similar stories?
Fast forward to this week. My daughter is in Year 12 at a school in Camden. The school prides itself on the guest speakers at its weekly assemblies. So far, these have included the politician, Hilary Benn, Jude Kelly, the artistic director of Southbank Centre and a young man who invented spray on clothing. This week the talk was from a young woman, a previous student and community activist, talking about the Black Lives Movement. She described the differences in her experiences and her white peers. She asked why so few black girls made it through the school to sixth form. She argued that black people should be able to talk about their experiences without apology.
My daughter returned glowing with admiration and enthusiasm. She has been accused by ‘friends’ of ‘bringing race into everything’, but now a young woman like herself had stood on stage and publicly articulated so many of her feelings.
So how did the other students take this? With good grace, it seems. One young white woman asked, ‘what can we do?’
This is a good question.
It is often noted that the publishing industry is not ethnically diverse. The Writing the Future report by the London writer development agency, Spread the Word, noted that the industry itself recognised its lack of diversity.
A survey of publishers and literary agents indicates that of the respondents over 74 percent of those employed by large publishing houses, and an alarming 97 per cent of agents, believe that the industry is only “a little diverse” or “not diverse at all.”
This means that that those of us who through accident of birth are labelled ‘diverse’, have limited power. It is the white people in a predominantly white industry who must catalyse and promote change.
Understand. Support. Challenge.
Although, from personal experience, I am referring primarily to ethnicity, these principles can be used when any of us are in a majority culture at risk of ignoring marginalised voices. For instance, as a straight woman in a straight relationship I must continually remind myself of how society and its institutions are set up to support me.
A friend of mine told me an anecdote and I must owe her money by now, because I have used it so many times. When the film The Incredibles came out, her son was awed to see Frozone, a black superhero. So of course he wanted a Frozone suit. Except… even though Samuel L Jackson who voiced the character was probably the highest paid in that film… Even though you could even get Syndrome, the villain’s costume… She had to send off to America for Frozone. Somewhere someone had made the decision that no child, black or white, male or female, would want to dress as a black superhero in England. The black character had no value.
Understand that our experiences as children, and consequently as parents are different. The parents that don’t talk to their children about racism because ‘it’s horrible’ and they want ‘to protect them’ – rarely are they brown. I know that racism is horrible. I’ve experienced it first-hand. Parents like me talk to our children to protect them.
Gender-stereotyping is insidious and constant, starting before a baby is born. Likewise judgements around skin colour. Don’t believe me? These pre-school children in America already see the doll the same colour as them as less worthy. The subject was explored in Professor Winston’s ‘Child of Our Time’ series. As the Independent rather sensationally reports:
When four-year-olds were asked to pick a troublemaker from a set of pictures, guess who they chose?
Did you guess? Then read on about Tyrese Blake-Hakeem.
This is why representation is so damn important. This is why the Frozone suit needs to be hanging in the Disney Store. Nikesh Shukla talks about his daughter’s love of books stemming from him and his partner curating a library of books filled with brown children. As a baby, my daughter used to kiss the picture in this book because she thought it was me.
This gorgeous article from the New York Times Sunday Review describes an apartheid in children’s literature. Books are maps; they show children the places that they can go, the people they can be. But ‘children of colour remain outside the boundaries of imagination.’
In ‘Orangeboy’, I deliberately wrote a strong mother character – a librarian – who can see her son plotting a path that will lead to disaster.
For me, that’s tied up to listening. Real, proper non-defensive listening. I learnt from an early age that talking about experiences of racism or trying to articulate your perspective as a person of colour is wrong. So don’t do it. It offends people. If I ever want to write about stony silence and suspicious side eye, I have a well of experience to plunder.
If you drop the R-bomb, you are not A Good Immigrant.
Emma, my editor at Hodder Children’s is wonderful. She originally identified ‘Orangeboy’ as a family drama with a mystery. That was exactly what I was trying to write. I’ve been a little surprised how the majority of reviews have identified it as being about gangs. Marlon is a music and science nerd whose favourite film is The Matrix. Stringer Bell he is not. Emma and I have talked openly and honestly about positive ways to market a book about a black boy written by a black writer to ensure that it doesn’t get sidelined and branded niche. The wonderful cover, designed to appeal to any gender, certainly helped!
One of the most sensitive and thoughtful reviews of ‘Orangeboy’ was written by book blogger Charlieinabook here. She articulated the themes of the book way better than I could myself. I still genuinely feel teary with gratitude.
Talking about prejudice and stereotyping is exhausting, even with people who get it. Trying to make your case to people who dismiss or trivialise your experience is frustrating and humiliating. The last World Book Night, the Booker, World Book Day… all have been questioned about their lack of diversity. Reading the responses made me wish I was a Firey in Labyrinth. Except I would hide my eyeballs forever.
The Writing the Future report was launched at the London Book Fair a couple of years ago. I attended a workshop later that day about organising festivals . The report had calculated that in 2014, 100 authors (4%) at the Cheltenham, Edinburgh and Hay festivals were of Caribbean, African and Asian heritage. Fifty five of those were not traditional authors – professors, footballers, journalists, etc. Twenty two of the fiction writers were from overseas. And adult fiction by UK black and Asian writers? They constituted a mere 1% of participants.
I took the plunge and asked the programmer of a large arts and music festival the question. And yes, I was met with the awkward silence and deeply unsatisfactory stuttering answer. The one about ‘not noticing ethnicity’. Or, indeed, the lack of it.
But… her reply made the audience groan. The man next to me – the manager of a well-known writers’ centre – turned to me, smiling in sympathy. People came up to talk to me afterwards, people who I’ve met and stayed in touch with ever since.
That is support.
This is about not accepting the status quo. This is about using our own privilege and power to create change.
One of the many threads that Lionel Shriver’s recent talk triggered was whether or not writers are ‘allowed’ to create characters culturally different from them. For me, this seemed a non-discussion. Writers always have. I grew up when ‘Little Black Sambo’ was still on the shelves and Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle books featured Prince Bumpo who wanted his skin bleached so he could marry a European fairy tale princess. And then there were the proliferation of golliwog books… Shiver was speaking in a land that had made a systematic attack on the culture of its first people. She could have used her platform to challenge and debate notions of cultural appropriation. She could have given space to marginalised voices. It seems that she didn’t.
So back to the original question – what can white people do?
Every day challenges
I’ve seen a few Facebook conversations about ethnic representation started by white people. They are sympathetic and questioning the status quo. But they often elicit the ‘yes, but what about…’ replies. (‘Let’s ignore ‘race’ and talk about something I’m interested in.’) Or the ‘it’s not about ‘race’’ replies. The respondents are nearly always white because… well, see the earlier comments about exhaustion.
But when white people get in there and challenge – it’s magnificent!
Although I’ve been writing for ages, my major step up came via a diversity initiative run by the Arts Council in partnership with Hamish Hamilton. Through a short story published in an anthology, I met my agent. Like all initiatives to promote diversity, it was slammed for ‘being racist against white people’ and ‘political correctness gone…’ well, you know, don’t you. Why blame inequalities in society when you can slate the people who benefit? See Jon Holmes for a recent example.
But when white people get in there and challenge – it’s magnificent!
White writers – write, draw, promote diverse characters. Do it with sensitivity and humour. I love Ben Aaranovitch’s Peter Grant, Simon Mason’s Garvie Smith and for a masterclass in writing well-defined authentic black characters, read William Sutcliff’s ‘Concentr8’. The more the merrier and it takes the pressure of me. I’ll be able to write non-black characters without feeling that I’ve lost an opportunity to extend the pool of black protagonists.
Black writers write white characters too – and they can be magnificent!
Do it for you
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I ran the gauntlet of the ‘go back where you belong’ chants. My well-meaning friends used to respond ‘but she was born here!’. Yup. I was. But my mum, my dad, my stepdad and nearly everyone I knew whose work held together the local psychiatric hospital wasn’t. Challenge because of your own fundamental believes. Challenge because you understand that the world remains unequal. Challenge because even if it undermines your own position, you believe in and want change.
And if you can do it like this – well, that’s cool too.