Ellen Oh’s Words on Restriction

Banned Books Week

Ellen Oh

By Ellen Oh Ellen Oh on Twitter

For Banned Books Week, I want to focus on censorship and marginalized communities, specifically the POC (people of color) and LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) communities. So let’s start with a discussion on what censorship really is. The ALA defines it as

“the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons—individuals, groups or government officials—find objectionable or dangerous. Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like  libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it.” 

The ALA states that the four major reasons a book is challenged are:

  1. Family values
  2. Religion
  3. Political views
  4. Minority rights – racial and LGBTQIA issues

If you look at the first three reasons for book banning, you can see that they all are based on some kind of moral code  — some belief that these books contain material that is morally wrong or offensive. The fact that books about race and LGBTQIA issues are banned for these reasons is problematic and hurtful.

Of the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2015, four were about LGBTQIA issues and two were about POC. In the 2014 list, four were about POC and two were about LGBTQIA content. So more than 50% of the top ten books banned in recent years were attacked for falling under category number 4. These books included I Am Jazz, Beyond Magenta, Two Boys Kissing, Habibi, Nasreen’s Secret School, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Persepolis, And Tango Makes Three, The Bluest Eye, The Kite Runner, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fun Home.

Most attempts to censor books come from parents who wish to protect their children. Think about that. They believe that they need to protect their children from stories about POC and LGBTQIA people. This type of moral judgment continues to ostracize these communities as somehow being unacceptable, immoral, “other.” This kind of thinking embraces intolerance and teaches a lack of empathy for those who are different.

Perhaps the worst part of it all is that there are so few books about POC and LGBTQIA published in the first place. The latest statistics pulled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) for the year 2015, puts the number of books about POC at less than 15%, while YA author Malinda Lo’s 2011 research indicated that only 1% of all YA books have LGBT characters. 
Diversity in Children's Books 2015

When so few books about POC and LGBTQIA kids are published every year, to have any of them banned is even more impactful. School districts that ban books based on the campaigns of groups like PABBIS (Parents Against Bad Books in Schools) are committing censorship for reasons as subjective as a book not being in “good taste.” There is no greater danger than allowing censorship to occur based on such a standard because it can then lead to censorship of classroom curriculum and the banning of multicultural studies – as seen by the challenges that led to the discriminatory Arizona law banning Mexican American studies. The effect of censorship is the suppression of marginalized voices.

But it doesn’t stop there. Recently, a growing number of white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied writers are conflating criticism with censorship. For example, the now infamous Brisbane keynote speech by Lionel Shriver deriding cultural appropriation run amok is, at its heart, all about the self-righteous anger she felt over a New York Times review of her new book that categorized her portrayal of an African American character as racist. She says “if hurting someone else’s feelings even inadvertently is sufficient justification for muzzling, there will always be someone out there who is miffed by what you say, and freedom of speech is dead.”

What Lionel Shriver doesn’t understand is that her words and actions are not condemning censorship — what she is doing is condemning criticism by marginalized communities.

And this is where you can see how two very different factions — the moral censors and the freedom of speech writers — intersect. Both are trying to suppress the voices of the marginalized.

Before social media came into prominence, there were very few opportunities for people from marginalized communities to speak up against the inequities they faced on a daily basis. But social media has become one of the most effective tools for amplifying marginalized voices, using campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite, #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WhitewashedOUT, to name a few.

Social media has also provided a platform for the continuing fight for justice under #BlackLivesMatter and recently against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Especially for POC, social media has become an effective communication tool that connects, informs and empowers people worldwide.

With this empowerment, marginalized voices have been able to publicly critique poor or discriminatory representation in our media. And this has in turn brought on angry accusations of censorship and silencing. Because to many, their fear of being held accountable or called racist is far more important than the harm that such work does to marginalized communities. But here’s the thing, there is a big difference between critiquing someone and trying to use the power of the state and its institutions to silence them.

And so we come back to the root of the problem. It is a privilege to believe you have the right to decide for all children whether they should read a book or not. It is a privilege to believe you have the right to write whatever you want, no matter how poorly done, without consequence. The problem is that while actual censorship occurs every year in the U.S. that leads to the banning of books, the claim by white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied writers of censorship by marginalized communities isn’t a real thing. There is no “diversity police” that bans writers from writing what they want. However, there is and will always be criticism when such writing is harmful and discriminatory.

The truth is marginalized people do not have the same privileges. There are so few books for kids of color and LGBTQIA youth to begin with, and banning them implies that their existence is somehow wrong and denies them their humanity.

Because there are not enough books representative of their experience, books with problematic representation are damaging. They continue harmful stereotypes that are negative, reductive, unrealistic or are used for comic purposes. Study after study has shown how damaging these portrayals are on the self-esteem of our youth, especially when coupled with the fact that there are few positive portrayals to counter them. And so marginalized communities have no choice but to speak up in hopes that writers and publishers will do better in the future. That is not censorship; that is our duty to raise up our voices loudly when inequities continue.

Banning books and conflating criticism with censorship have the same end result: suppressing the rights and the voices of marginalized communities. That is the real censorship problem.

Originally from NYC, Ellen Oh is Co-founder, President and CEO of WeNeedDiverseBooks, an adjunct college instructor, and a former entertainment lawyer with an insatiable curiosity for ancient Asian history. She also loves martial arts films, K-pop, K-dramas, cooking shows, and is a rabid fan of “The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra” series. She is the author of the YA fantasy trilogy “The Prophecy Series,” and the upcoming MG novel, “The Spirit Hunters,” to be published in fall 2017. Ellen lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband and three daughters. She has yet to satisfy her quest for a decent bagel.

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