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When Empowerment Becomes a Cudgel: The Life and Death of OwnVoices

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In the last decade, we saw more calls for diversity. Specifically after the riots in Ferguson, voices for racial justice were uplifted. These voices are everywhere on social media, and there are activists who touch on almost every aspect of society, from housing to policing to policies that keep Black children in the inner city from excelling in school.

Reading is tied to education, and with it, representation in books. Studies consistently show that talking animals—make-believe creatures—have more representation in children’s books than actual BIPOC characters. This bleeds over into adult publishing as well.

A young girl in a blue floral dress sits and reads a picture book at a table.
“If I see one more talking fox …” (Ian Panelo / Pexels.com)

The publishing establishment is overwhelmingly white. More troublesome, even books that feature BIPOC individuals are penned by white authors and published by companies with (mostly) white staff.

If we want more diversity, more representation, then publishing must reform. Yet the forces that have made it into a bastion of white cultural control work very hard to keep it that way. Publishers rarely invest in new authors of color, instead preferring to splash out on established white names.

Thus, post-2015 we saw the rise of the “ownvoices” hashtag. What occurred after is a good primer in how language intended to uplift and support will almost invariably be corrupted by those who want the status quo to remain in place.

What Was OwnVoices?

OwnVoices was a hashtag championing diverse books by diverse authors. Using #ownvoices was a way of signaling that the author shared the experiences of the characters.

Instead of having a white woman write the story of Latinx immigrants at the border in American Dirt, we could turn to an ownvoices story to hear from Latinx people themselves. Similarly, we could turn to an ownvoices author like Aiden Thomas to look at trans Latinx representation. And we could look to a Black author like the fantastic Ms. Bev to give us Black historical romance.

The idea behind ownvoices is a good one. It allows authors to identify when they are writing from their personal experiences. The effect of this is supposedly two-fold:

  1. We get more “authentic” stories told by someone with the marginalized experience;
  2. We can support diverse authors themselves and show publishing that people do indeed read “Black books” or “queer books” or what have you.

Thus, we can see a hashtag like ownvoices doing a fair amount of good within the book community.
So, how did it go so wrong?

A Tool to Help Becomes a Tool to Harm

If one didn’t reveal which part of their books was #ownvoices, they could look forward to the mob descending on them, brandishing the hashtag-shaped pitchfork.

In some cases, this reaction is apt. The woman who wrote American Dirt deserves to be questioned about whether she is the right person to write this story. The answer is she is not.

This woman is taking up space, removing opportunity from other writers who would be in a better position to tell this story. That is the problem #ownvoices wanted to solve. Instead of reading a white woman’s perspective on Latinx immigrants, I could have read the words of an author who shares that culture, perhaps that experience. This different framing provides different insights. That can then push me to work for real change.

Yet #ownvoices was brandished whenever a “seemingly straight” author wrote a queer book. Becky Albertalli, despite being a champion for queer people and bisexual herself, was discounted and her ability to write a gay male protagonist was questioned. Aiden Thomas recently faced backlash when a new book was pitched as “Aztec Percy Jackson.” Thomas, although Latinx, is not Indigenous. Who is he to tell such a story? That should be left to Aztec people (who, yes, still exist!).

Putting a Target on Certain Authors

Thomas and Albertalli are interesting cases. Both are marginalized in at least one way. Albertalli is a bisexual woman. Thomas is a Latinx trans man. Both certainly have degrees of privilege—Albertalli is white, Thomas is non-Indigenous—but the other factor here is both have had some degree of success.

This is not to say success mitigates one’s ability to appropriate; certainly not. It does tend to make people targets—and that’s potentially what happened with Albertalli and Thomas. Ownvoices became a cudgel as readers and publishers and “the internet mob” ran around smacking authors, demanding to see their “cred” for writing this story or that.

This is incredibly dangerous. Some authors do not share their marginalizations because they are not out. This is particularly relevant in the queer community, where it is not necessarily safe for everyone to be out.

We might think that this sort of thing did not affect authors of color terribly much; after all, race/ethnicity is much more visible than queerness. Yet race is an incredibly slippery slope. Naomi Osaka, for example, is mixed race. Most people would categorize her as “Black” upon seeing her, but many are liable to forget the other part of her heritage. Thus, if Osaka were to pen a children’s book about Japanese children, let’s say, we might imagine the #ownvoices crowd coming for her.

The OwnVoices Conundrum Is Understandable

While this is highly problematic, it’s understandable, to an extent. We have inhabited a world where white people appropriate willy-nilly. The system rewards white people for this. We have an easier time getting published; we often land bigger contracts. White folks take up space at the table, and especially when we tell these stories. More often than not, we tell them badly; to rectify that, we’d have to do a lot of work. Even if we were to do it, the question remains: wouldn’t it be better to let someone from that culture, that group, that experience tell the story?

Yet we don’t. And so it makes sense that readers are leery about almost any author. This is especially true in the queer sphere, where marginalizations are more difficult to discern. Recently, we saw an author turned down for writing a bisexual character. The potential publisher told this author to consult with the community—they had assumed she was straight, because she was in an opposite-sex relationship.

The author is proudly bisexual.

And this is where our suspicion, the violence that has been done to us, is also our undoing. We have put up with this violence—the appropriation of these stories by non-marginalized authors—for so long that we feel we can’t trust anyone. We stop giving the benefit of the doubt. And ownvoices thus became a weapon to bludgeon any author into submission.

There Is No One-Size-Fits-All Experience

We can see the harm this has done in the publisher’s response to the bisexual author. They suggested she go consult the bisexual community to ensure she was presenting her characters “the right way,” because “the LGBTQ+ community would be upset about incorrect representation.”

A man wearing an elaborate black dress waves a rainbow fan with streamers attached.
But are we sure this person is queer? (Rosemary Ketchum / Pexels.com)

As though there’s one single correct way to be bisexual or there’s a handbook on being queer. As though human experience isn’t real and raw and messy.

We can see this publisher running scared. “We must handle this correctly,” we must put “correct” representation on the page, and we must hire authors who either are ownvoices or who have done extensive consultation and research with ownvoices people.

In this case, they were very, very wrong. They’d assumed the person they were talking to was not queer herself. And here again we see #ownvoices becoming weaponized. The author had to “out” herself, to the publisher and on social media. (In this case, the author was already out, but the point stands.)

This is a dangerous line to walk. What other industry demands to know if you’re queer before they’ll hire you? Here in Canada, asking that kind of stuff is kind of illegal, because it leads to bias and discrimination.

Retiring OwnVoices

By this point, ownvoices was doing more harm than good. Authors felt the need to “come out” on their social media whenever a book was announced. They had to claim their marginalizations to “prove” why they were “allowed” to tell this story or that. Readers demanded this of them, as though they have some kind of claim on authors’ private lives. And publishers were beginning to demand it as well.

ownvoices had turned from something meant to be uplifting, a tool to use to push forward diversity, to a cudgel we were using to punish people for not being out and loud. We even saw it used to accuse people of not being, say, “Indigenous” enough or “trans” enough. It became divisive, useless.

And so, the hashtag has been retired. We Need Diverse Books made a formal announcement that they would no longer be using it. Other authors have drifted away from it.

Those Who Would Keep the Status Quo

A young Black person gives the camera the middle finger, their hand obscuring their face.
This sums up my thoughts on the subject. (Kebs Visuals / Pexels.com)

Make no mistake: this is intentional. It is the work of bad faith actors within the community: lesbians who draw lines around who is and isn’t a lesbian. Those who push trans people out of the queer community. Gatekeepers who argue ace isn’t queer. Those who claim bisexuals in “straight-passing” relationships are not full members of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s bad faith actors calling into question who is Black enough, who is Chinese enough, who is Indigenous enough to tell particular stories.

When these bad faith actors latched onto ownvoices, it became a way to divide and conquer. It instilled fear in authors and publishers. It led to arguments about who was “X enough” to tell this story or that. And while this is absolutely rooted in a rightful condemnation of appropriation, it’s telling that the people who suffered consequences were usually those who were most marginalized to start.

In short, the bad faith actors picked it up and used it to sow seeds of disunity. They used it to silence marginalized authors. And they used it to stall out any kind of progress.

The Issue Is Not the Language We’re Using

The retirement of the #ownvoices hashtag comes as a relief to some. Others have mixed feelings about its retirement. We are now hunting for another, “better” term, because we’ve decided that “ownvoices” itself was the problem. There is something inherently wrong with the words we picked that allowed them to be corrupted like this. If we just find a better term, then all will be well.

That’s naive. I had this conversation with a friend about Pride recently. She’d heard arguments that the word pride itself was the root of the issue. It makes straight people feel bad, attacks their self-esteem, and suggests that they could not be proud.

My friend, I’ll clarify, was repeating some arguments she had seen previously. She identified that straight people can and do feel pride. “Gay pride” does not actually stop them from feeling that. They just don’t really recognize that they do until “gay pride” is thrown in their face.

“Pride” Was a Riot

We discussed that a history lesson is in order: gay people have been shamed for the past two centuries. Until the 1970s, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness—a disease—in the DSM, much like gender dysphoria is today. Gay pride is necessary because society has, for so long, said it is shameful. There are some quarters that still say it is shameful. “Straight pride” is just the default setting of our society.

Yet the point stands: she pinned part of the issue on linguistics around Pride. “It makes straight people feel bad” seems like a pretty good argument to revise our language. Perhaps we can find something less offensive, less upsetting, more innocuous.

It’s not the language that’s actually at issue here. What is actually happening is straight people want us to shut up and go away. So we’ll switch our terms to appease them. Then they’ll find something wrong with that term.

The Linguistic Trick of Hiding Queer Anger

I suggested, jokingly, to consider what would happen if we switched from “gay pride” to “gay wrath” (as the joke goes). And queer people could easily be wrathful. Stonewall was a riot, after all, and there’s a good deal to be angry about.

A woman with rainbow hair yells at the camera during a Pride event.
Really, queer people have every right to be angry. (FransA / Pexels.com)

Can you imagine the backlash against “Gay Wrath Month” and “Gay Wrath” demonstrations though? My goodness, the queer community would be painted as a menace to society in a second. The good straights would be frightened in their homes, terrified by the rainbow mob running amok in the streets.

Clearly, we can’t have Gay Wrath. Perhaps the queer organizers of the 1970s realized that when they picked “gay pride” instead. Gay Wrath would be quite fitting, as I said, but “gay pride” sounds more … acceptable. Queer people are not dangerous or violent or angry. We’re not a mob or rioters. We’re just celebrating our queerness, pushing back against the social narrative we should be ashamed.

And yet, here we are in 2021 arguing about how “gay pride” hurts straight people’s self-esteem and makes them feel bad and perhaps we ought to change the language again, to accommodate those feelings.

The Slow March Back to Silence and Shadows

If we capitulate, we are being walked back. “Pride” is already less of a problem than “wrath.” What next? “Visibility”? “Rainbow Celebration”? We’ve already been accused of taking the rainbow from straights too. We have to make space for non-queer allies, to accommodate non-queer sensibilities. It gets to a point where, frustrated, we say, “Fine, we’ll shut up and go away.”

“Shut up and go away” is precisely the aim. By walking us back and walking us back, asking us if we can’t please just change the language to make everyone feel a little more welcome, we eventually walk ourselves back into the shadows. We silence ourselves once more.

And make no mistake—that is the ultimate goal of this kind of rhetoric. While I have doubts any individual “average Joe” actor recognizes that—see my friend accepting, to some degree, “pride hurts straight self-esteem”—these sentiments originate somewhere. The rhetoric originates in conservative think-tanks and Fox News, on the lips of Alex Jones-type actors; the notions are then repeated over and over until they percolate down into the bedrock of society.

The Innocuous Repetition of an Idea

That sounds dangerously close to conspiracy theory, I know, but this is somewhat how ideas proliferate. I’m not saying there’s some sort of secret society making up these responses and then feeding them to “bad faith actors”; it is not so formalized. What I am saying is that by the time it reaches someone like my friend, it’s not an “independent thought”—it’s something that someone else heard/said and accepted, and we can follow it back up the chain to some status quo philosopher who mused on it somewhere.

That, again, is not to say the philosopher meant to do this or got paid big bucks to do it or whatever. It’s just that their ideas were articulated, and then filtered through the larger society—down to people who are, without realizing it, invested in the status quo to some extent.

The Average Person Supports Their Own Oppression

The same is true of gatekeepers in the queer community. I doubt that the people arguing that ace people are not part of the queer community realize that they are essentially arguing to keep the oppressive status quo. Rather, they see themselves as defending the community. They defend those boundaries vigorously because they see them as necessary; those boundaries give us special status. They also pin us in, sequester us from society at large, and allow oppression to operate. That last part is the bit they very rarely realize, and they often disagree with it because they’re invested in the “special status” afforded by the status quo. Thus, they are devoted to maintenance of the status quo.

The same is true of allocishet individuals who are upset by “gay pride,” feeling that they can no longer be proud of being straight or allo or cis. They are afraid “gay pride” encroaches on their “special status” in society. They are afraid of what that means for them; will they then become oppressed, just the same as they’ve oppressed queer people? This is the running fear that keeps us from achieving reintegration. Those in charge know, at some level, the violence perpetrated on marginalized peoples is horrific, and they fear that they will end up in the oppressed position.

Unconscious Fear Drives Us All

Again, this is not a conscious process for most people; they do not sit there no think, “My God, if gay people are allowed to be proud, then straight people like me will end up being oppressed like the queer community was, so I must fight to keep them oppressed and myself in power.” Absolutely not! But on a deeper level, at the unconscious level, this is what is happening. We are driven by fear that we will be oppressed as we once oppressed others.
Thus we come back to the point: the language itself is never the problem.

So, sure, we could find a different term than “gay pride” to appease those who feel the idea of gay pride erodes straight pride and oppresses them. We can retire #ownvoices and seek out a new, different term—but until we address the actual root of the issue, we will continue to follow the same pattern.

We will find a new term, bad faith actors will infiltrate it and corrupt it into a weapon, and we will abandon it in favor of a “new” term that “better” represents what we desire. In turn, we will be walked back into less and less radical positions; the movement will be fractured, divided, and thus we will be conquered.

Stop Worrying about Semantics

By and large, the answer here is to stop worrying about semantics—the language itself—and look to the roots of the issue. #ownvoices itself is not the problem. The problem is the fear of changing the status quo.

Ownvoices threatened allocishet white publishing, leading to fears that it would invert the power dynamics and create “reverse oppression.” Indeed, that’s what we see every time we see white authors argue for “their right” to write whatever they want. “Why can’t I tell this story?” they whine. “I feel I should be allowed to!” And to not be “allowed” to becomes, somehow, the same structural violence that has been perpetrated on BIPOC individuals.

As we see time and again, no one is actually stopping or punishing these authors for appropriating these stories. In fact, more often than not, they’re rewarded. Yet the fear drives them to rebuke anything that looks remotely like change, for fear of losing privilege and power. In turn, they begin to demand everyone be subject to the same test, making it increasingly more rigorous so that none can pass it. #ownvoices exemplifies this trajectory. If you didn’t perform queerness a particular way, if you didn’t look Black enough or talk Black enough or write experiences that lined up with a reader’s own expectations, you were scared back into silence. And thus the status quo remains intact.

Capitalism Lies to Keep You Afraid

Money, like the dollar bills this woman holds in front of her face, is often used to argue for fewer ownvoices book contracts.
“We can only sign so many ownvoices authors.” – Publishing, probably (Karolina Grabowska / Pexels.com)

We have to look past the linguistics and address that fear. Unfortunately, because of the society we live in, that fear is pervasive. Publishing is a business, and businesses look to make profit. They won’t hand out fifteen book contracts valued at $100,000 each because profit. Thus, they convince us that space at the table is limited and scarce, and we must fight each other for it. That leads to jockeying for power, and the group that is in power fears relinquishing it lest they be treated as poorly as the groups they’ve mistreated.

Publishing is just a microcosm of capitalist society at large, so this is replicated everywhere. That makes it very difficult to address the root fears—how do you tell everyone there is, actually, room enough at the table and, if there is not, we will simply build a bigger table? Publishing and capitalism have convinced us there is not enough room at the table and, in fact, no way to build a bigger table.

That is a bald-faced lie. But convincing people of that is very difficult, especially when capitalist structures prove it correct at every turn.

Thus, we aren’t merely talking about reforming publishing. We’re talking about changing the very structure of our society. That, in some ways, is even more terrifying. No wonder people argue so hard for the status quo, even when it oppresses them.

But that is truly the only way forward. Otherwise, we’ll continue to inhabit the same patterns we saw with #ownvoices, ultimately ending up silenced once more.

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