by Alby C. Williams
There’s a particular type of pain that comes from existing as a Black person in white spaces. It’s like a scald, where your skin is tight and stiff, but you can numb yourself to it as long as you protect yourself from being touched. After a lifetime in white schools and white jobs, I’m used to all that white supremacy can throw at a Black person, and I protect myself by being cautious around new people.
All this is to say that when I attended the Summer Spectacular, I knew what I was getting into. I’ve been in kidlit spaces before, and in my experience, they’re dominated by white women. I usually fade into the background in these situations, falling easily into the old role of “the quiet one” from my school days, even though that’s not who I am. This time, I saw that there was an LGBTQIA+ social during the Spectacular, and I knew I wanted to participate. The SCBWI leadership had shown me that they cared about inclusion through the way they filled their panels with people of color, so I threw my usual caution to the wind.
At first, the social was lovely. The energy was calm and happy. I’m nonbinary and seeing so many people with their pronouns in their names felt genuinely good, as if the people on Zoom were all in solidarity. The first breakout session was cordial, if a little awkward, and I was really looking forward to the genre-specific breakout, hoping to make a Twitter pal or two.
Unfortunately, the second breakout session was rough from the start. Almost the entire time was taken by a white person who was confused and upset by labels. This is pretty typical in my interactions with white and nonqueer people who don’t quite get it yet. They ask the questions don’t labels separate us? and aren’t we all humans? We only had so much time in the session, and most of the group hadn’t even gotten to introduce themselves yet, so I tried to cut this person off at the pass. I told them what I tell other people who struggle to understand why I have so many labels: As a Black queer, neurodivergent person, I’ve had people label me my whole life, and it’s comforting to be able to choose my own labels. I wish I could have said more than that.
I wish I’d had time to talk about my mother. I’m biracial, and my mom is my white parent. She decided when my brother and I were small that she wouldn’t label us, but not because she thinks labels are inherently bad. She would support anything we chose to call ourselves, but as a white woman it wasn’t her job to tell us who we were. She knew that racists would do that enough.
I wish I’d felt safe enough to talk about my father. He instilled a sense of Black pride in my brother and me. He prepared us for the harsh world outside our home. He made sure we were whip smart and stubborn, able to work twice as hard for half as much, lessons that have served me well during my publishing journey.
I wish I’d been strong enough to relive the cruelty of my childhood and talk about the white kids who made fun of my hair and skin, and everyone calling me crazy. Queerphobia, sanism and racism follow me through my adult life, and there is power in acknowledging my Blackness, queerness, and neurodivergence. There is comfort in giving names to the things that have made and broken and remade me when our society at large dismisses me as worthless.
As it was, my one-sentence answer wasn’t enough for this person. They kept talking, asking why we need to list our pronouns or put a capital B in Black. They wanted me to know what a good person they were for working with anyone during their career, and how much guilt for racism. What this person needed was for me to tell them that it’s okay for them to be uncomfortable with how I identify and that they’re one of the good ones. I wasn’t able or willing to give them that while they were actively hurting me.
While this white person ate up the rest of our time in the breakout session, the rest of the group remained silent, watching me over Zoom as my face contorted in discomfort and anger. I could see myself in the thumbnail at the bottom of my screen, trying to stay calm while I was disrespected and abandoned. After all, I am Black. I am mentally ill. My anger is seen as dangerous, so I try my hardest not to show it.
I left the social shaking, but I left determined. I always do. I will always swallow down oppression and crystallize it, because the kids I write books for already know the same pain. Other marginalized writers, my peers, have been in this position, poked and prodded and inspected, expected to hold space for the guilt of their oppressors and hiding their own pain. I believe that if I have a chance to help marginalized writers and readers, I have to take it.
This essay is that chance. It’s a learning opportunity for white people, for allies to the queer community, for everyone who is privileged (including me), but it is in service of the marginalized. It’s a reminder that if you are struggling to understand something, Google is free. The library is free. You have friends and family who can talk through your issues with you. You may even have a therapist who can help you work through your feelings. The person you should not talk to about it is a person who may be harmed by your guilt, and make no mistake about it, white guilt is harm when directed at a Black person. It is expecting us to fix our faces, to choke down our anger, to swaddle you in bandages and blot your tears when we are the ones who are burned and aching to heal.
Inclusive Tips from April Powers (she/her/hers), Chief Equity & Inclusion Officer, SCBWI
What Alby experienced is against our policies and values at the SCBWI and we hope is the exception and not the norm. We aspire to create safe and supportive spaces, and to correct them when they are not. Though I have spoken with Alby and read their account several times, I still experience a visceral reaction with each read. I, myself, have been the recipient of similar discomfort and intervened when I felt a conversation was going down the wrong path. Over the years, I have also not intervened, for various reasons. Those reasons have ranged from fatigue, fear, and ignorance. What do I say? Should I say anything? Do I speak for this person? Will I, too, be ostracized or labeled as other? It is fundamentally human to want to belong. Our brains are hardwired for connection. We can even feel physical pain when we are excluded. But we must also recognize that our comfort can come at the expense of someone else. If you haven’t begun to explore ideas for standing up for the marginalized and underrepresented, or even if you have, we have some ideas to get started (The link in #4 shows this in action): Assume good intent-of everyone involved, unless it’s blatant.
1. Understand that intent does not equal impact.
3. Do the research. If you want to know more about LGBTQIA+ communities, or how Black people feel, and any other group, start with google. People who have the emotional energy are answering your questions online. Please remember no community is a monolith and one website will not represent all sides or even have accurate, current data.
4. Be the one. Stand up for others so they don’t have to expend the energy. I have been on zoom socials with well-meaning people asking probing questions about identity. While I haven’t always handle it as eloquently as I would have liked, I reminded participants that we were in a social, not an interview, information gathering, opportunity to get permission to “write outside your lane,’ or a screening for an expert lived experience readers. Be welcoming to everyone, especially people who seem new to the group.
5. Treat people as individuals. Ask them how they would like to be treated, but don’t assume they represent the entire group with their feelings. Do you represent everyone from your region, religion, identity, religion, and political party?
6. Check out SCBWI Equity and Inclusion Resource Pages and EI Corner in our newsletters for future tips and topics related to equity and inclusion. If you’re wondering how to make the SCBWI more inclusive, please reach out to me AprilPowers@SCBWI.org with any questions and consider joining and supporting events by your own regional EI Teams. Your questions (like “What’s a microaggression?”) and answers may end up in our “Ask April” section of the EI Corner, anonymously, of course.