What exactly IS a marginalized voice? Glad you asked! We marginalize voices as a society when we fail to take an interest in other people’s stories. Stories of living on the edges as a person of color, ethnic minority, a religious minority, housing challenged, mentally ill, or impoverished. Anyone we look at and think, “Those people ____ (you fill in the blank)”—those are the marginalized. “Those people” contain the stories that can make us better people. People that question instead of assume. A society that reacts with curiosity and kindness instead of shock and outrage.
Self-care isn’t just about taking care of ourselves. It also involves learning how to take care of others in kind and courteous ways. When we learn to approach others with curiosity and kindness, we discover endless possibilities for self-improvement. This month’s Self-Care Sunday posts will focus on reaching out and learning more about other cultures so that we can fulfill our greatest potential by helping others. Social justice begins with me.
A Christian Bookstore Case Study
“It’s returns week next week,” the Christian book store manager told me. “I just want to make sure I can schedule you for extra time.”
“Really? Why?” I asked. A little bewildered that he wanted me, a mere part-time employee, to put in overtime.
“Because you have a knack for finding stuff in the store that no one else can find,” he explained. “The last time you worked returns you found products that no one else had located for the past two years.”
I couldn’t deny that hunting for a single copy of an obscure title and then finding it always gave me a thrill. With the holidays fast approaching, I could always use the extra cash, too.
The eight years I worked at the Christian bookstore made me realize something, though. Cultural diversity had only made it into one section of this giant national chain. While the employees wore World Vision ‘Sponsor Me’ photos of children from around the world, the store corralled artists of color into the 20X20 music section.
Sure, a few minority authors got shelved on the narrow ‘Charismatic’ section, but not a single fiction title featured an ethnically diverse main character. I read hundreds of inspirational fiction books over those eight years (Free books? You bet I read them!), and noticed that the main white characters had Lone Ranger status with a few ethnic sidekicks thrown in.
Despite my observation powers, I found not a single fiction title by a woman of color on our bookshelves the entire time I worked there.
An Erroneous Assumption
Christian Book Association (CBA) publishing houses seem to operate under the assumption that women of color have no interest in reading inspirational fiction or clean romances. Perhaps publishers also assume no white woman would pay money for a book with a main character that doesn’t look like the buyer.
These assumptions feed into a vicious cycle of institutional microaggressions that help perpetuate the dearth of knowledge we have about other cultures. The CBA lags behind secular publishers in embracing and encouraging books by marginalized voices.
For years I bought into the CBA’s assumption. In preparation for writing this piece, I posted a question in a Facebook group that has almost 12,000 Christian fiction readers as members. I wanted to know the names and genres of own voices authors in the Christian Fiction market.
The suggestions poured in. As I researched the authors, I discovered the majority of the marginalized voices authors self-publish. When traditional publishers fail to buy and publish own voices manuscripts, they send a microaggressive message to the rest of us. “Black Christian women have no interest in inspirational romance, suspense, or thrillers.”
I bought the line they sold. But, duh. What makes me assume that only white women fall in love, enjoy a suspenseful novel, or struggle with their faith? Where do I get the idea that minorities don’t read? I’ve worked to help minority students fall in love with reading for more than half of my career; I should know this.
Reading books by primarily white authors doesn’t make me a well-read reader, it makes me ethnocentric. It dulls my curiosity about the universality of human emotions and struggles.
Even though I have my favorite Inspirational Christian authors, I shouldn’t limit myself to authors I know. I need to discover and support authors from all walks of life in order to show respect for my fellow travelers.
The Surprising Effect of the Dearth of Marginalized Voices
The American Bookseller’s Association (ABA), on the other hand, has published works by marginalized voices for years. A growing number of adult ABA titles feature own voices authors. The situation for children’s literature doesn’t look the same, though. For years, only a handful of children’s titles (The Snowy Day and Corduroy come to mind) featured Black protagonists.
The dearth of racially and culturally diverse children’s literature has had unexpected effects on children and adults, though. According to Mahzarin Banaji, children as young as three exhibit cultural bias and racism. A study done with three-year-olds of different races showed that even very young children have a bias against people of color.
The subjects in the study consistently associated the darker-skinned drawings with negative emotions or characteristics and the lighter-skinned drawings with positive emotions and characteristics—regardless of the facial expression on the drawings or the race of the study participant.
When we insulate ourselves by limiting literature selections to the voice of the majority, we fail to gain empathy for differing viewpoints, perspectives, and experiences. Isolation in literature has a similar effect on the marginalized.
“If characters of color are missing or distorted in children’s literature, then children of color do not have an opportunity to see themselves reflected in a variety of contexts, and white children do not have an opportunity to imagine and emotionally invest in the subjective experiences of persons of color.”Brynn F. Welch, The Pervasive Whiteness of Children’s Literature, p. 373
Even worse, one study shows that adults in leadership positions (teachers, daycare workers, law-enforcement, etc.) stereotype children with disastrous results. How can a teacher effective teach if she has already subconsciously labeled a minority student as ‘lazy?’ She can’t.
A Hat Tip to MillennialsWe do ourselves a disservice when we limit our consumption of books and media to things written and produced by people just like us. #marginalizedvoices #ownvoices #prejudice Click To Tweet
I worked in the Christian bookstore before independent publishing became a thing. In the intervening years, indie ebook titles now claim a lion’s share of book sales. While I can’t speak to whether or not marginalized authors can support themselves through independent publishing, I do know that the CBA can do better.
Offering book deals to talented authors should never depend on the protagonist’s (or author’s) skin color. If young children show bias against people of color (whether Black, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic), think how those ingrained biases will manifest themselves in adults. Hate crimes, shaming the marginalized, police brutality, bullying, legislation that hurts minorities and marginalized people, the list could go on.
Although Millennials get a bad rap, a Millennial pointed out the issue of marginalized voices to me. On a trip to the library, our daughter talked about how she tries to select books for her son that have ethnically diverse main characters. She’d read about the study done with three-year-olds, and didn’t want her son growing up with that prejudice.
What You Can Do Today
- Send a letter or an email to your favorite Christian fiction publisher and request titles written by marginalized authors.
- Buy some books by marginalized authors who indie publish (if you like any of these authors suggest their names to traditional Christian publishers).
- Leave honest book reviews on Amazon to show your support and interest in learning about other cultures.
- When you purchase books for your children or grandchildren, look for main characters who aren’t white. Don’t just purchase the same stories you loved as a child (we know more, we can do better).
- Watch movies and television shows produced and written by marginalized talent.
- Flip the tables. When you read a passage about a minority (in a book written by a majority author), ask yourself how you would feel if the passage were about YOU. Does it sound patronizing? Demeaning?
- Search Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for the #ownvoices hashtag.
- When you find an #ownvoices author you love, get the word out. Let people know why you loved the book/movie/program.
We Know More, We Can do Better
The Christian bookstore I used to work for has gone out of business, and I find most of my reading material from traditional publishers through Net Galley. But now that I know about marginalized authors in Christian fiction, I can do better. I purchased a boxed mystery set by Tyora Moody. And my TBR (to be read) list has dozens of new titles waiting for my next paycheck.
While I wait for the CBA market to catch up with the rest of the world, I’ll continue to look for and find new authors. After all, If we don’t learn to appreciate each other’s differences here on earth, how in the world do we think we’ll get along in heaven?Earth is heaven's proving ground. Get along with everyone. Ask questions and don't make assumptions. #marginalizedvoices #CBA #ownvoices #microaggressions Click To Tweet
A Very Brief Sample of Own Voices Works
This resource for children’s books on race has excellent annotations for the books listed.
Yamile Saied Méndez, my daughter’s classmate in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, has written one of my grandson’s favorite books.
Yuyi Morales wrote another of my grandson’s favorite books.
Ibtihaj Muhammad has a beautiful book about the hajib.
Rashad Jennings has a series published by Zonderkids that your middle-grade student might enjoy.
Books by Kekla Magoon, a professor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, has numerous titles for middle-grade and young adult readers.
This book by Stacey Lee sounded so good I ordered it on the spot.
Books by Louise Erdich, a Native American author, have won numerous awards.
YA (Young Adult)
S.K. Ali writes about the clash of cultures and upbringings.
Every time I read Sherman Alexie’s book out loud to my high school students, they laugh and giggle and totally get it. I tend to sob quietly during parts of it (difficult to do while reading out loud, I know), but this book captures life on and off the Rez and the duality of a Native kid’s existence.
I have yet to read any of these books, but the authors come highly recommended by members of the Christian fiction group on Facebook.
Books by Joy Massenburge
Children’s TV Series:
Molly of Denali—Main character is an Alaska Native (from the Athabascan people) and the show has dozens of Alaska Native advisors and consultants. Target audience—4-8 year olds.
Smoke Signals—my students (all Native Americans) adore this movie. It’s similar to Napoleon Dynamite, but with a Native American voice.
Reel Injun (Documentary)
Basketball or Nothing (Documentary)
When They See Us (based on a true story)
Books For Adults:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ibi Zoboi (writes fiction for children, young adults, and adults)
Ernestine Hayes, Alaska Native
Nadia Murad (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize)
If you know of an own voice or marginalized voices author, please comment with their name, a title you’ve read or watched, and what you learned about a different culture from reading the book or watching the movie.