Allow me to begin with a quote by the late Kurt Vonnegut:
The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
Every once in a while, a serious news organization spews forth a truly troubling opinion. Today, NPR published ‘When a Popular List of ‘100 Best-Ever’ Teen Books Is the ‘Whitest Ever.”
That’s ‘white’ as in skin colour. As in only two books on the list have non-white protagonists, with a couple of minor caveats. This article about the skewed list is part ‘necessary conversation,’ part ‘self-rectal exam.’
I understand the controversy – the list will become a recommended reading list, & will influence purchasing. Levelling the playing field with an awareness of the advantages of colonialism is vital, so that artists rank based on merit rather than DNA.
The article goes into ‘concerned defence’ mode, explaining how its audience is racially skewed, & that acknowledgement–& knowledge–is valuable. But then it links to a white writer who ranked twice on the NPR list, who wrote:
As lovely an honor as this is, it also made me sad. And angry and frustrated.
It smacks of the minor character in Mean Girls, who wasn’t a student, but shared anyway b/c she had ‘so many feelings.’ (A moment of me-tooism: I support The Indian Act, I believe in a multicultural Canada–as contrasted against the ‘melting pot’ US–& I grow weary of peers who self-righteously demand to care nothing for the injustices perpetrated by their ancestors.)
I get the sadness; we’re aware that a greater good is suffering. But why the anger & frustration? A very small, very specific audience spoke. It wasn’t the Ku Klux Klan; enjoy it. What is there to do but remain aware, have conversations in which we speak highly of diversity, & support initiatives that enable it? White doesn’t wash off. Our culture is trying to sort itsself out, & it’s a big job (made bigger by those who revel in BS notions of supremacy).
That’s what legacy is about. Your descendants enjoy the results of your deeds… and they suffer the results of your deeds.
It would be overstating the point to suggest that it wouldn’t do any good to shoot ourselves in the face (or to simply stop creating) to make room for other voices. But, if I can be cruel, she also wasn’t angry & frustrated enough to demand her works be taken off the list. There are books to sell, after all, & it’s hard out there for a pimp.
The thing that irks me most, though, is the immense stupidity of the causation. Our media culture loves to pander to audience favourites & brand them as ‘Bests.’ NPR’s great crime? After tallying an audience survey of favourite books, NPR called their list a ‘Best Of.’
Best Of lists have peeved me since my days reading Hit Parader in high school, when craptastic bands ranked higher in reader polls than the greatest (LOL) bands that ever lived. (I wish I could make that funnier by quoting the names, but they are lost to Back Issue heaven.)
So, what happens when NPR attempts to gerrymander its audience to be ‘inclusive’? Does it increase its strength, or does it fade as it tries to be everything to everybody – an impossible task?
Here’s a better question: How does one be white, live in a predominately white community, Read in Colour, & prevent feelings/accusations of ethnic tourism & cultural appropriation?
I fear the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron‘ is on the threshold.