What exactly IS a ‘marginalized voice?’ We marginalize voices as a society when we fail to take an interest in other people’s stories. People contain the stories to make us better people. Let's work toward becoming a society that reacts with curiosity and kindness instead of shock and outrage. #ownvoice #selfcare #marginalizedvoices #amreading #culture #homeschool #teacher

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.

What exactly IS a ‘marginalized voice?’ We marginalize voices as a society when we fail to take an interest in other people’s stories. People contain the stories to make us better people. Let's work toward becoming a society that reacts with curiosity and kindness instead of shock and outrage. #ownvoice #selfcare

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.

What exactly IS a ‘marginalized voice?’ We marginalize voices as a society when we fail to take an interest in other people’s stories. People contain the stories to make us better people. Let's work toward becoming a society that reacts with curiosity and kindness instead of shock and ouWhat exactly IS a ‘marginalized voice?’ We marginalize voices as a society when we fail to take an interest in other people’s stories. People contain the stories to make us better people. Let's work toward becoming a society that reacts with curiosity and kindness instead of shock and outrage. #ownvoice #selfcare #marginalizedvoices #amreading #culture #homeschool #teacher

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 Millennials

We 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.

What exactly IS a ‘marginalized voice?’ We marginalize voices as a society when we fail to take an interest in other people’s stories. People contain the stories to make us better people. Let's work toward becoming a society that reacts with curiosity and kindness instead of shock and outrage. #ownvoice #selfcare

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 grounds. 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

Children’s Books:

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.

Middle-Grade Books:

I’ve read and reviewed the following middle-grade novels: Red Dove, Listen to the Wind, The Case of Windy Lake, and For Black Girls Like Me.

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.

Christian Fiction

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

Toni Shilo

Alexis Goring

Chloe Flanagan

Rhonda McKnight

Tyora Moody

Cynthia Marcano

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.

Movies:

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:

Firooza Dumas

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Celeste Ng

Khaled Hosseini

Aisha Saeed

Ibi Zoboi (writes fiction for children, young adults, and adults)

Tayari Jones

Ernestine Hayes, Alaska Native

Velma Wallis

Nadia Murad (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize)

Tommy Orange

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.

Inspire Me Monday

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39 Comments

  1. Thank you for this poignant post Anita! I love your statement, “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.”
    I totally agree! 😀 And there are some intriguing titles here for further exploration. Thank you!
    Blessings,
    Jennifer
    Tea With Jennifer recently posted…Freedom…My Profile

  2. Anita, thank you for sharing, Basketball or Nothing. The trailer moved me to pieces. My son coaches college basketball and this was most inspiring. I am looking forward to watching the entire movie. I also shared the link with him.

  3. Anita, thank you for the persepctive–and corresponding resources! I’d love to add two titles: I just read White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo (so much of what you wrote–and how you wrote it–reminded me of W.F.). And my son highly recommends The Boy at the Back of the Class, by Onjali Q. Raúf, a refugee story for middle school readers.

  4. This is such a great post and you’ve opened my eyes ever so wide to the issue. The titles you’ve shared look amazing and are sure to broaden our scope of really being well-read. Thank you!

  5. I’ve read one Christian fiction book by Kim Cash Tate (Faithful) and have another in my Kindle app. I have a book by Trillia Newbell about Fear and Faith on my shelves, hoping to get to it soon. I’ve read several books about the Waorani (formerly known as Auca) Indians in Ecuador, the tribe Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and three other men were trying to reach when they were speared to death. I was glad to see one told by one of the Waorani, Mencaye, who became a grandfather figure to Nate Saint’s son and grandsons: Gentle Savage Still Seeking the End of the Spear: The Autobiography of a Killer and the Oral History of the Waorani.

    Uncle Tom or New Negro?: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and UP FROM SLAVERY 100 Years Later contained Washington’s Up From Slavery as well as quotes and essays from a number of African-American people about him, his book, thoughts on racism in the time since Washington, and a number of other related topics.

    Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass were riveting and eye-opening. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by a white women, but written to shed light on the plight of slaves.

    I’ve reviewed all of these on my blog (except the ones I mentioned I hadn’t read yet). I have probably read books from other cultures as well, but can’t think of them just now.

    I appreciate your drawing attention to this topic.
    Barbara Harper recently posted…God’s DeadlinesMy Profile

  6. Dear Anita, thank you so much for this post! God has been so good to me by forcing me out of my comfort zone and into a bigger world, broader perspectives and much greater appreciation. And what a blessing when our son went to a reservation in the Dakotas where his heart was broken. A couple of years later our daughter went on a vision trip to Kenya. It’s like we’d been only half awake and now our eyes have been opened wider.

    Our hearts are so in tune, Dear Woman of God. My current manuscript has a white protagonist, Jubilee, but he is also pushed out of his comfort zone into poverty and diversity. My prayer is that the agents and publishers it is being pitched to will see the great need for bridging the fellowship gap. You can take a peek into Jubilee’s heart and world at his very own website: https://www.jubileeandthestinkyfish.net/ Thank you again for promoting and facilitating cultural awareness.

    Two of my all-time favorites that I shared with students each year are: MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE (Bradby), and SALT IN HIS SHOES (Jordan). Rich in conversation and illustrations, in addition to their powerful stories.

  7. Thanks for helping us see why we need to read books by authors of all races. We learn a different perspective and way of living, doing, and thinking. That was one of the best things I loved about my son’s school curriculum; he read books by authors from around the world and read about children in both fiction and non-fiction books from around the world. Two of my favorite books listed here are Kite Runner and Two Old Women. Little Pear by Eleanor Frances Lattimore is a wonderful chapter book for kids. If you like the book, she has written a number of Little Pear books.
    Theresa Boedeker recently posted…Sometimes It’s Better to Listen, Than TalkMy Profile

  8. Thank you. What an eye-opening post. When I purchase books for my one-year-old granddaughter, I’ll find some with diverse characters and authors.

  9. Oh, I love this post so much, Anita. I’ll be sharing! We have SO many options to read from white men, which is fine, but it doesn’t need to be exclusively that. The more we hear from everyone, the more we’re able to love everyone. Thanks for putting this list together. It’s important stuff. Looking forward to your series all month.

  10. An Important challenge. Many of us haven’t even thought about how most everything is catered to the white race. It’s important to read and understand. I’m going to try to watch these movies most certainly. I hope I can get hold of some of the books as well. I especially like reading biographies. I did read some with my children during our homeschool years.

  11. Anita, I LOVE this post. There’s too much to comment on, but I’ve been thinking about marginalized voices more and more, and I am thankful for your book selections and the names of authors you shared.

    I just finished reading Katie Ganshert’s No One Ever Asked, which is a story about a school district that served minority students losing its accreditation, and how those students were bussed to a nearby middle-to-upper class caucasian district. It’s a fictionalized account of something similar that actually happened in the midwest. The story was about so much more than this, though, and the main POV characters were a caucasian woman and a black woman. I learned so much and found the story thought-provoking.

    Great post, friend.

  12. Wow, this is a great post! I love especially your approach to bring the topic out of the theory cloud and suggest practical actions to involve oneself and assume responsibility! Thank you also for this great list of books!

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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