Books Exploring Privilege Are Part of the Diversity Discussion

Recent titles address various privileges among young people. Ultimately, a lot of folks realize it doesn’t feel good to cause harm.

I’ll never forget when, in our junior year of high school, my best friend called me “ignorant.” To this day we’re still close, yet at the time, I’d made an assumption about her religion based on what my family—most of them practicing Baptists—said, and the jokes I’d heard on TV. Her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness is incredibly important to my friend and her family. But I had regurgitated inaccuracies for the sake of comedy, and in that moment, my best friend called me out on it.

“You sound really ignorant right now,” were her exact words. She was right. As much as she and I connect on the issues of racism as dark-skinned Black women, there are areas of my life that allow me my own level of privilege.

Looking back, I wish that talk about privilege and inclusion had been part of the daily conversations in educational spaces, in our homes, our circles, the books I read, the movies and TV I gorged on growing up. The “special episodes” of TV shows I watched usually focused on inherent dangers from predators, those with power. Their analysis of power was key, whether it involved depictions discouraging drug or alcohol use or promoting awareness of the dangers of getting in cars with strangers. Those representations were, pardon the pun, black and white. Good guys were good; bad guys bad. End of story, literally.

But what about the folks who aren’t wholly “bad,” who are mainly unaware of their privilege—or ignorant, as my friend said of me 20 years ago? What kinds of conversations are we having in general, let alone with younger and older readers, about the need for more marginalized representation, as well as the recognition of power and what it means? How do we navigate those conversations, especially with those close to us?

Books depicting the inner and varied lives of marginalized folks are increasingly necessary. Always have been, always will be. Alongside books providing insight into marginalized lives, we need works that help unpack privilege.

More books are broaching those difficult conversations, including two published this year by white authors. Tradition, a YA novel by Brendan Kiely, and You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P!, a middle grade novel by Alex Gino center on white, cisgender, able-bodied protagonists’ burgeoning self-awareness as they experience a world that has allowed them to thrive, thanks to their identities.

White protagonists, such as Bax and Jules in Tradition and Jilly and her family in Jilly P!, learn from those who are their opposites in some ways. The main characters gain insight into what it means to recognize their privilege, the inherent pitfalls of trying to be more aware as allies, and the honesty of how one’s actions affect the people we interact with and care about.

What goes into writing about these topics by a person with privilege in order to understand the pain they may have caused? How do folks, specifically writers, begin to broach this discussion in a way that can really explore these issues?

Gino “had to become aware of the privilege I have. Then I had to work through how it complicated my understanding of myself as a marginalized, queer, and trans person. And also [work through] my guilt and wanting to fix the lack of representation myself.”

Gino adds, “with lots of conversations and mulling and missteps, I got to the place where I realized that one of my goals as a writer is to model for young readers what examining privilege can look like and why it’s important to do so.”

This kind of recognition was also key for Kiely. “To write stories that reflect the reality of the world we live in, we have to be honest about power and privilege, what they look like, and how they affect all aspects of our lives,” he says. “In order to [portray] the full, rich lives of people, I have to be honest about what I know from my own life and be accountable and listen to the wisdom of people whose experiences are different from my own.”

Their books didn’t encapsulate simply an intent to do better, but an actual interrogation of the continuous work it takes to be better, meaning mistakes will continually be made. Jilly asks questions—sometimes the wrong ones. Jules makes assumptions about Bax, and Bax makes assumptions right back. The silence of students speaks volumes in Kiely’s Tradition, which takes place at Fullbrook Academy, an elite boarding school where one of the main characters experiences sexual assault and another is a witness to this assault.

Scenes between Jilly and her family or the students at Fullbrook Academy allows readers to be in the moment as witnesses, to feel the pain inflicted, and to truly confront it by listening. Ultimately, a lot of folks realize it doesn’t feel good to cause harm.

Kiely acknowledges that authors “can talk about what's going on with Jilly and Jules and Bax publicly, so that we can wrestle with the lived experiences of our own lives in the privacy of our own hearts.”

Authors of color and other marginalized backgrounds have often depicted privilege, empathy, and the tough conversations that abound around these issues. Recent titles that come to mind include Renée Watson’s YA novels Piecing Me Together and This Side of Home , and Mike Jung’s middle grade novel Unidentified Suburban Object.

Like me, Watson maintains that “the conversations about the intersections of race and class in Piecing Me Together and This Side of Home are ones I wish I had been able to have as a teen.” In my own home and hers, discussing our race wasn’t awkward; it was a natural part of our lives.

“Talking about Blackness, about the history of Black bodies in the United States, is something most Black families discuss at the dinner table, in our churches, on our porches,” Watson says. “It was very strange for me to interact with white friends who were so uncomfortable having explicit conversations about race and class.”

The dynamics of friendships—and how rough they can be, especially when someone just “doesn’t understand”—is something we all can relate to. The aim of these authors is not to be overly preachy, but to hold up a mirror to not only see where we matter, but where we falter and flourish.

In Unidentified Suburban Object, Chloe Cho discovers something, well, odd about her family. The Chos are already one of the few, if not the only, families of color in their neighborhood—and with an added plot twist, Chloe’s life becomes more topsy-turvy. Still, Chloe’s best friend, Shelley, doesn’t understand why she’s going through an existential crisis.

Jung says the novel’s “core idea was always about a child of immigrants who feels deeply alienated from their own ancestry.” In his rendering of Chloe’s life as a perpetual “outsider,” he found that, from a storytelling practice, her “alienation from her family history needed to be grounded in both her internal states and her external experiences, so having a white best friend felt like a necessary choice.”

In Piecing Me Together, Jade and her new friend Sam, a white girl, learn that recognizing the difference between what’s perceived as being “earned” and “deserved,” especially in the context of race and social class, takes communication. At one point, Sam divulges, passive aggressively, that she feels like she doesn’t have the benefits Jade, a Black girl, receives through her mentorship program. During this discussion, Watson describes explicitly what Jade experiences and feels. Readers, especially white ones, can understand that while we all have our crosses to bear, deflecting what others are also experiencing is more hurtful than helpful.

Watson reflects, “I wish the adults in my life [had been] more intentional about leading discussions on race and identity—not just for students of color, but for white students as well.” With Piecing Me Together, she takes control to do so, providing viewpoints that contain their own struggles but also recognize how each struggle varies.

At their core, these books encourage empathy as one of the most powerful aspects of community. Empathy helps bridge gaps and provide better understanding of differences. It propels the diversity discussion forward, so readers can also take ownership and see what others are going through. And they provide a pathway to navigate these conversations a bit more openly.

Jennifer Baker (jennifernbaker.com) is a publishing professional, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, a contributing editor to Electric Literature, a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Fellow in nonfiction, and the editor of Everyday People: The Color of Life—A Short Story Anthology (Atria Books, 2018).

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