Mea Culpa

As human beings, all of us make mistakes. Today’s post–my first in a long while and possibly my most important ever–is about some errors I’ve made and how I’m going to do my best to fix them.

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Let’s rewind to 11 months ago. Along with BLM protests, many communities started reckoning with our past and present racist thoughts and actions. Among those communities was the writing community.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog and elsewhere, racism is something I abhor. One of the goals of my writing career has been to reflect a more diverse Orthodox Jewish world, one which is not exclusively filled with White Ashkenazim who function independently of non-Jews. Unfortunately, that’s the mistaken impression a reader might get by reading many Jewish books. This problem leaves non-White and non-Ashkenazi Jews feeling cut out of the community. Moreover, a literary landscape in which every character is either Jewish or wants to be suggests that isolation and insularity are positive attributes, which is–in my opinion–far from the case. Even Haredi Jews interact with secular and non-Jewish people, and we all need each other.

I have been far from alone on this mission. Several Jewish publishers have moved towards more inclusive illustrations (notably Apples & Honey and Koren), some have published books by Jews of Color, and a few of these titles have received book awards in the past few years. When a Black Jewish author self-published a picture book with a Black Jewish protagonist about a year and a half ago, the book was embraced by librarians, teachers, and readers; ditto regarding a novel by a Black Jewish author the previous year.

In last spring and summer’s tumult, I decided I wanted to contribute more. I offered my editing and writing coaching advice free for Jews of Color. And I started investigating what types of latent racism penetrates books.

This is where my apology comes in: In one of my books, not long into my reading and listening, I stumbled onto a realization: I had employed a racist stereotype in Adina at Her Best.

The stereotype is “the White Savior,” although it’s a bit complicated by the fact that the “White” person in this case–Adina herself–is a functionally White Mizrachi Jew. Nonetheless, readers witness a White girl rescuing a Black character (I’m not going to tell more in order to avoid spoilers) on page. There are a few other issues with the text, but this is my main offense.

I have to take responsibility. *I* wrote that book, I and no other. I did it with good intentions. I wrote it at least a year before I had heard of anyone employing a sensitivity reader for any character who wasn’t the main one (for example, I’d heard of it in the case where a non-deaf person wrote a story centering on a deaf protagonist…but not for a book in which one character is deaf and it’s not part of the primary plot). I wrote the book with the best information I had at the time I wrote the book. However, that doesn’t mean that the material won’t offend some readers or reinforce a racist stereotype for others (that Black people require rescuing by White ones).

People are still reading Adina at Her Best, and now that the book’s out there, there’s little I can do other than feel ashamed and to do better next time (pay a sensitivity reader! promote books about People of Color which are about People of Color!). At least, that’s how I felt till recently.

There’s a chance that the book may be included in a program which involves a reprint of the book. If it goes through, the organization asked me if I was willing to implement the suggestions of a sensitivity reader while preparing the new edition. To this I responded, “Yes!” with enthusiasm. If the deal is finalized, there will be a new edition of Adina, one which will include all the valuable content…and none of the rubbish.

Do I think Adina at Her Best is a bad book? No. Do I think it’s current edition has been influenced by my own latent racism? Yes. I’m praying (literally, praying) that the opportunity I’m alluding to comes to fruition and that it will allow me to rectify those errors to better serve my readers and the community as a whole.

What should people who have read Adina at Her Best or who own copies of it do?

  1. Be cognizant of its shortcomings. It’s by me, a functionally White person, and like anyone else who grew up in the U.S., I have biases I’m not even aware of regarding race.
  2. Read other Jewish books with People of Color as characters, whether those characters are Jewish or non-Jewish.
  3. Demand that Jewish publishers print more such books.
  4. Better yet, read and promote books by People of Color, from their perspectives–this goes for Jewish books and secular ones.

What if you were considering buying and reading Adina at Her Best with a loved one? I think you should read the above and if you still want to read the book, make the mishandling of race part of the conversation with your young reader. Discuss how Black people and White people interact in the book, and feel free to tell them that I (the author) think I got this particular detail wrong.

I’d love to hear from other White (or functionally White) people, especially authors, how have you changed your perspective on race in the last year or so? In what ways have you changed your behavior going forward to be more sensitive to the needs of non-White members of our society? And if you are a Person of Color, in what ways would you like to see White authors improve?

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