The Burden of Being an Author of Color

Controversy is nothing new to publishing. In fact, it seems like every week there’s something new to rile up the masses. And more often than not authors of color are the ones who take the brunt of the criticisms. Why? Because we are the ones expected to hold up the mirror to an industry laden with hypocrisy, steeped in white supremacy. We’re also in charge of keeping the angry masses in line, and if one person crosses that line, we’re liable for the aftermath. It’s a lose-lose situation.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m not even here to discuss American Dirt, lots of really important things have already been said about the issues revolving around that book. I’m here to discuss what it’s like to be an author of color in this industry, and the pressures we often feel when telling our stories. And I don’t just mean writing about our own experiences with sensitivity, love, and care, I’m talking about something much heavier, much less discernible.

It’s that indescribable weight of responsibility we bear for each other.

When an author of color achieves greatness in this industry, so do the rest of us, and when one of us falls short, we do as well. We carry each other’s successes and failures. Our accomplishments are so interconnected with one another, it’s hard not to take it personally when we see a white author receive accolades for writing a book about our communities, because publishing decides a white author’s words are worth more than an author of color. And don’t try to deny it. We see it everywhere.

It’s a bright neon sign on your forehead, blinking on when a white author, with a fraction of the advance that an author of color might receive, gets twice the marketing. It’s the painful slash that crests along our hearts when authors of color from the same communities are constantly compared to one another when their writing and the topics they tackle can be vastly different. It’s the burden of knowing that publishing is setting us up for failure.

And it makes me wonder, when a white author receives a gazillion dollar book deal, and not even one for writing a book outside their lane, I mean stories about white, cishet, able bodied characters, do they the feel the same way? That if they don’t succeed it will have a ripple effect on other white authors? Or is it just us?

White authors are given chance after chance after chance to prove themselves, and if they fail it’s on them, no one else. When a marginalized author fails, the likelihood of them being published again is slim to none, and the probability that publishing will use their failures to gatekeep more marginalized authors is almost one hundred percent.
That’s why so many authors of color were upset when a white woman was given millions of dollars to write a story about a community she didn’t know anything about. Because she had nothing to lose. Meanwhile we have everything to lose. Not just one of us. All of us.

Day after day we see the same controversies take place. Day after day authors of color are put on the frontlines. We have to constantly defend ourselves. And we’re never allowed to show how upset we are. We have to be kind, understanding, polite. But we’re tired. And playing nice hasn’t gotten us anywhere.

Is it any wonder that we’re angry?

My blood pressure rises when authors and readers continue to defend painful and problematic representation by saying things like “It’s giving voice to the voiceless” when we’re just standing here waiting for them to shut up so that we can FINALLY have a moment to speak for ourselves. My anger boils, because when we do decide enough is enough and say something, no one listens, but as soon as a white person says the same exact thing, they’re idolized.  The anger overruns when I think about the authors of color who are afraid to speak out, because they know it might jeopardize their careers, or when our white author friends disappear if we do decide to say something. I am livid, tears brimming my eyes, because at times that’s the only way for the anger to show itself, when an author of color gets an actual death threat and is forced to go into lockdown, but when claims are made that a white woman received them, it becomes a national headline. My anger snuffs and exhaustion sweeps in when we’re told our stories are too heavy, too light, too unrealistic, too real, never enough. At times it’s as if publishing is trying to force us out, like it doesn’t want us here in the first place.

There are so many emotions brimming inside of me that at times it leaves me paralyzed.

I don’t want another author of color to suffer from my failures. I want to succeed so other authors from my community can succeed. I want to hold that open door for them, not have it slammed in their faces. I don’t want to be afraid to speak up. I don’t want to worry that I might lose out on a publishing contract if I do decide to say something. I don’t want to be angry or tired or sad or frustrated. None of us do. But until there are real solutions, these issues, these feelings, are going to continue to rise. We’re not going to bury them anymore. Good things are happening, yes, there is a movement taking place within the industry to lift marginalized voices, and we need to keep that momentum going. Publishing, you need to back up your words with actions. Stop telling us you’re going to change and actually do it. Stop doing the bare minimum. Stop stalling. Because WE aren’t going to stop any time soon. We’re not going anywhere.

Meanwhile I’ll be over here supporting authors of color and other marginalized voices because it’s the only thing I can control at this point. I hope you will, too.