April 25, 2016

Don't Make Us Wear Stars: On Forcing Diverse Writers to Publicly Self-Identify

#DVPit took place last week. If you aren't familiar, this was a twitter pitch event specifically for diverse authors and/or diverse projects. I want to be very clear that I support the idea behind things like #DVPit, and some other attempts, namely to increase diversity & representation in publishing as an industry and in the literature that is published.

What I struggle with is how this being done. Specifically, forcing people to publicly label themselves. It's as if now, if you don't proclaim which diverse group(s) you may fit into, you can't possibly be diverse. This ignores the many reasons someone may choose not to identify, to "pass" if they can. And online? Most of us can, if we so choose.

Imagine, for instance, someone living in San Francisco who has no problem identifying along the LGBTQA+ spectrum—e.g. in a public Twitter pitch event. Now compare that person with someone from a homophobic, "conservative" small town, who may have many reasons for not coming out so publicly (or at all). The person who has the opportunity to safely label themselves now has the (comparative, in this specific sense) advantage of standing out due to their diversity, even though the two people are in reality equally diverse. The one who isn't "out" now has to choose: pass up this and related opportunities in the writing world, or endanger many other opportunities in their real life. Like it or not, plenty of hateful, discriminating people are still in positions of power.

There are more visceral reasons for my hesitation as well. Remember the last time* Jews were required to wear yellow stars? Forced to publicly identify with a specific group, making them easy to spot and then easy to target. Easy to label as "other" and then easy to hate. Remember what happened then? (It's called the Holocaust, in case I'm not being clear.)
    *The practice of requiring Jews and sometimes other groups to publicly distinguish themselves from the "mainstream" is hundreds of years old.

Of course, the goal is different—but is the result? Participating in something like #DVPit, or having to brand yourself with your type of diversity once published to help with sales, means publicly labeling yourself in a way not so different from those yellow stars. And did you catch the part where brand could mean marketing but also burning an identifying symbol into the flesh?

Maybe we're starting with the idea of being proud of identity, but ultimately, we're still providing lists of labels that are publicly accessible. Labels that will be impossible to remove. Lists of members of groups that are still targeted, all over the world. In attempting to support diverse people, specifically in this case writers, we're forcing them to put themselves in danger (or miss out), because it isn't only the people who support diversity who will have access to these lists, these labels. These now multicolored stars.

The internet being what it is, anyone will be able to see these people self-identifying, branding themselves. Far too many of those people will only care in terms of being able to target those who do. It's unfair and privileged of those who aren't in danger—whether themselves diverse but in more accepting local communities, or simply not diverse—to pressure or even require others to label themselves, or else feel stripped of their identity. And it's terrifying.

Many writers won't even admit to writing romance in their real lives—because people still get fired from their day jobs for doing so. How about the potential fallout of identifying as disabled? Or trans in a non-accepting community? Etc. Those brands will definitely be great for helping them do things like earn a living, even if we discount being targeted for hate crimes.

Yes, there's the option of using pseudonyms, but nowadays those are a thin shield at best. There is, however, a perceived gap between writing about diverse characters and being diverse yourself. That's why people attempting to improve representation want writers to identify as "own voices." It's also a level of protection for those who, for many reasons including their safety, need to "pass" in their day-to-day lives—protection that endeavors like #DVPit are, albeit unintentionally, stripping away.

It took me years to even casually mention being Jewish online. I still don't mention it often, as many of you know. I also qualify as "diverse" in at least 3 more ways, according to DVPit's guidelines, but I won't say what those are right now. Partially because I am more than any one aspect of my identity, but partially because I don't feel safe slapping labels like that one on myself. Of opening myself up to all the malice that might come my way if the wrong person were to come across that information. Imagine a hateful person coming across a list of gay people, of Muslim people, of immigrants, of disabled people (etc.)—knowing exactly where to find them, exactly how to target them. How to eradicate them in the name of "righteousness" or whatever other horrifying agenda.

Maybe this hasn't been brought up with the people championing events such as #DVPit. So here I am, pointing it out. Forcing people to self-identify is no different than telling them to proudly wear those yellow stars. The goal may be knowing where to offer the carrot, but it will almost inevitably mean those same people being beaten with sticks. 

So please. Don't make us wear stars, whatever color they may be.


  1. Can you make any suggestions for the organizers of such events about what they can do to invite "invisible" diversity without simply opening the event up to everyone? Or is the idea that these events should be open to everyone and the "diversity" label would act as enough of a gatekeeper to ensure a focus on people with non-majority backgrounds?

    1. It's a good and difficult question. Do I have the answer? No, or I would have included it in the post.

      Possibly, closing the events—holding them in a forum that isn't accessible to the general public (unlike Twitter), with moderators able to remove anyone who behaves in a threatening or otherwise inappropriate way. That doesn't address every problem, but it could help.

    2. Wouldn't closing the events only address in-the-moment aggression? What about the panelists' vulnerability down the line like what you describe in your post? And wouldn't panelists still need to self-identify in order to participate even if the event were closed?

      I guess I'm just confused about how to apply the "don't make us wear stars" idea to real events.

    3. In my opinion, one of the problems is making sure this information is only available to those people who are well-intentioned, and in this case within the publishing industry. So closing the group would also prevent aggression from random other sources having access to these lists of labels. It would still pressure participants into self-identifying, but in a safer and controlled space rather than the mass of the internet. It would be like saying "I'm Jewish" at Brandeis University vs at UC Santa Cruz. Perfect solution? No, but possibly a step in the right direction.

      More generally, I do think it's an inevitably problematic issue. For example, are agents going to start vetting their lists for specific diversity in terms of authors like they do book genres? How many representatives of the LGBTQA+ spectrum is enough, before they "close" (subconsciously, likely) to those authors in favor of disabled ones (etc.)? And in such circumstances, what happens to writers who don't feel comfortable stating their identity even in a query, but maybe would in a phone call down the line? Or perhaps they never want it to be part of their public brand. Do they still count as diverse, say when they're out on submission, if no one but the writer & agent know that? It feels like an endless slippery slope that raises the barrier to entry if you don't feel comfortable being publicly labeled XYZ, even though the intent is to lower that barrier based on your actual identity, not public one.

      One possible solution could be not splitting up types of diversity. It feels easier to me to say "I'm a diverse writer" than to say "I'm a ___ writer." The problem there is a desire to weed out the people who'll take advantage, and I understand that, but letting a few scumbags get away with taking advantage of the broader label seems worth it to ensure the safety of those who aren't comfortable self-identifying. Writers who are comfortable or become comfortable always have the option of publicly owning those pieces of their identity, but it should be their choice, not industry pressure.