My absolute favourite thing about the Internet, even above the amazing sense of community it can bring, is how much you can learn from it. No, this isn’t an invitation for patronising mansplainers to try and teach me things. This is about information being available when you look for it; it’s about stumbling across genuinely interesting and intelligent people with voices worth listening to. Recently I’ve been introduced to someone who encompasses exactly that, someone to whom I can automatically turn when I really want to understand a new issue. That person is Franchesca Ramsey, and she is part of the reason I decided to do Diverse December this month.
To recap my original post on Diverse December, this is a month I’m using to kick off my promise of more active participation in the We Need Diverse Books campaign, a movement I’ve spent far too long shirking any responsibility for. There are a multitude of reasons that diversity in literature is so important, and I’m hoping to cover a few of them over the course of this month. Last week I talked about the unfairness that BAME writers don’t see themselves represented on bookshelves and awards shortlists. This week, well, I probably shouldn’t do too much talking at all—because what Franchesca Ramsey has helped me understand is that white people seriously need to learn to sit down and listen.
I’ve watched a lot of Ramsey’s YouTube videos, and they’ve helped me understand issues from cultural appropriation to stereotype threat—but it’s actually one of her older videos that got me thinking about reading more books by BAME writers. This is the video.
In the introduction, Ramsey compares being an ally to helping someone far more experienced build a house: yeah, they might need an extra pair of hands, but if you run in there and start hammering random planks of wood together, you’re going to do more harm than good. To start with, you need to let them give you some backstory; you need to let them show you the blueprints.
Reading narratives by BAME writers is an important part of that. As Ramsey explains, we’re like horses with blinkers on; there’s a whole bunch of stuff in our blind spots that we barely even know exists. In order to be a good ally, we need first to listen to the people who actually know what they’re talking about. And if, like me, you learn best from reading fiction—then you need to read some fiction by people who haven’t had blinkers on their entire life.
Another habit of well-intentioned but misguided white people is speaking over the same minority groups that they’re trying to support. This more recent Franchesca Ramsey video sums up a situation that may look totally ridiculous on screen, but if we’re honest with ourselves, is pretty painfully accurate.
We may think we’re being super-empowering by speaking up about the injustices faced by people from minority groups, but if we never stop to listen to people from those minorities, we’ll never appreciate quite how well they can already speak for themselves.
So, to drag out Franchesca Ramsey’s house-building metaphor one more time (sorry, I just love metaphors), the best thing you can do to help your more-experienced builder friend is to hand them their tools, help with the heavy lifting, and generally follow their directions. Basically: you need to listen.
Luckily, there’s a ton of stuff to listen to. There are fantastic vloggers like Franchesca Ramsey. And there’s a whole world of powerful literature by BAME writers ready to prove to you exactly how strong their voices really are. Maybe we should shut up and read some of it.