Belonging and Being a Writer of Color at FFW

I lived in Central Asia for a few years, and I loved it!  But the weather was cold (think Southern Siberia); the winters were long; I never became fluent in Russian by any means; and there were aspects of the culture I never understood. In fact, I remember feeling incredibly angry and frustrated with myself because I’d written down “ground meat” in Russian but not “ground beef” and, with my limited language skills, I couldn’t communicate to the butcher what I needed. I had to resort to pointing and saying, “Moo! Moo! Moo!” Luckily, cows make the same sound in Russian, and I sauntered away with a half a kilo of ground beef…fifteen minutes after I’d arrived at the market stand.

How could a thirty-year-old woman struggle to complete simple, everyday tasks on her own? Cultural stress is real and can make you feel disoriented, exhausted, and like there’s no safe space in the world you inhabit.

But every once in a while I ran into another American in an unexpected place. I remember taking a twenty-four hour train ride to a city in the far south and serendipitously ended up sharing a train car with an American woman I had never met. Suddenly, I knew I could relax, speak English–no more struggling to communicate–and debrief with her our mutual experiences of living abroad, including all our cultural faux pas.

I felt a tremendous sense of relief. It was like seeing the sun return after a cloudy day–you didn’t even know you’d missed it but you were so happy to see it again. In short, there was a sense of belonging I experienced with her on that train–in the midst of a culture where I always felt like an oddball, or the foreigner that I was. I imagine that many people who have lived overseas can relate to what I’m saying.

Fast-Forward to the Festival of Faith and Writing

I had a similar experience last weekend when I attended my first Festival of Faith and Writing (hereafter, FFW) whenever I was with other writers of color. The FFW itself is an embarrassment of riches–informative writing workshops; inspiring presentations by writers I love and respect; gatherings for spiritual practices; and, best of all, the opportunity to meet writers I’ve admired from afar and now get to talk to (and humiliate myself by fan-girling all over them).

FFW felt like going to see Hamilton, most of the actors are people of color, but the spectators are still all white.

I greatly appreciated the intentional effort on behalf of the FFW coordinators toward diversity and inclusion in the writers, panelists, and speakers they selected and highlighted. I have never seen so much diversity…among presenters.

The truth is (and you already know this if you attended) that it’s not a terribly diverse space in terms of the actual participants. I overheard a writer of color say that there were so many white people there that it felt like a Dave Matthews concert.

I thought it felt more like Hamilton, most of the actors are people of color, but the spectators are still all white. The parallels with that analogy are surprisingly accurate since theater and FFW tickets are expensive enough that many people of color can’t afford them, and they don’t feel welcome in a space they rightfully perceive as catering to white culture. Going means spending a lot of money to assimilate into a white ethos, so we may as well keep enjoying those Hamilton tunes on youtube and following those great writers of color on Twitter and buying their books. Like I said, cultural stress is real, and none of us are looking to add more stress to our lives.

Unsafe Spaces

I had an experience at FFW that left me feeling a little rattled and unsettled. I had just finished presenting in a panel with four other people where we talked about writing about race and racism. Several people came up to me and shook my hand; some wanted to talk more. It was encouraging to know so many people care about writing on race well, especially in our current climate. 

Among these people was a white woman. She told me how much it had hurt her to hear me talk about white supremacy–that she’s not a white supremacist. She then started crying and complaining, “You don’t love my country…I mean, our country.” (Freudian slip?) This was followed by a demand that I explain where I see white supremacy in our country. When I did so, she immediately refuted every example. 

My friend Nathan Roberts came up at that time and also tried to talk to her. He’s white, so I thought she might hear things better from him, but she started crying again. At that point, we had to leave the room to make space for another workshop. I gladly walked away from the encounter. Nathan and I discussed how there’s often nothing you can say or do when faced with white fragility.

I thought about this incident long after it took place. I reflected on how immediately after that panel I was prepared to greet people and talk more about how we as Christian writers can dismantle white supremacy: the books we can read; the people whose leadership we should follow; and the words we should use. Then I was blindsided by this woman who reminded me with her white tears that this space is not safe; that sitting through my panel didn’t mean that she was there to listen or learn; that she didn’t believe my experience as a woman of color; that, in short, I didn’t belong in her country.

People of color often find a home with each other in spaces that feel unwelcoming to who we are.

 That’s why my heart leapt for joy when I ran into (sometimes literally) other writers of color at FFW. Suddenly, we were transported to a warm, safe space, not that the space we occupied was necessarily unsafe, but we didn’t know for sure it was safe. But together we understood this experience of being the only ones, of our unique struggles , and of feeling simultaneously tokenized and othered. No words were needed, though there were many. We belong together.

Belonging

I heard a white panelist say at FFW that in some ways she envied the camaraderie she sees among people of color. I get that from the outside it might look exclusive, but from the inside, that camaraderie is born out of a need for belonging, of finding a home with each other in spaces that feel unwelcoming to who we are.

So how do we make the FFW and spaces like it more welcoming to participants of color? Some of these ideas were discussed at a panel at FFW and some in just random conversations with other writers of color:

  • Host a gathering for writers/participants of color to meet on the first day. This could be a workshop facilitated by a writer of color where we can network with one another and talk about overcoming the obstacles unique to us.
  • Create a space for writers of color to meet agents and publishers. It doesn’t have to be at the college specifically–a meal or coffee/happy hour would work well for such a networking opportunity. Everyone knows that it’s harder to get published when you’re a writer of color, so why not put it on the table and discuss it?
  • Give each panelist or presenter two tickets with their registration and ask them to bring two writers of color in their network. I realize that this is costly, but whoever said that dismantling white systems was going to be free? As Nikole Hannah-Jones has posited: it took financial resources and intentionality to build these exclusive white systems and it will take the same to dismantle them.
  • Consider having the Festival outside of white, suburban Michigan. Let’s face it: there are no inexpensive hotels and places to eat nearby. That translates into renting a car or spending lots of money on ride share services. Together with the cost of food and lodging, the Festival can become cost prohibitive for many people of color. Honestly, it is the reason I had not attended before this year when, as a panelist, I received free registration.

I’m grateful to the writers of color who were there–all of you made me feel less alone. With you, I truly know that I belong. And you remind me that there are safe spaces to inhabit, and they are wherever you are present with me.

What are other ways we can make spaces more welcoming for people of color?


Photo by Al Hsu–an impromptu moment at FFW with writers of color. From left of right: Al Hsu, Marlena Graves, Lisa Sharon Harper, Kathy Khang, Alia Joy Hagenbach, Grace P. Cho, me, and Kaitlin Curtice

Karen González

26 thoughts on “Belonging and Being a Writer of Color at FFW

  1. I think you and I must have had a conversation with the same woman. 🙂 Also…this was the first conference I’ve been to where I didn’t have a chance to speak with all of the POC who were there (including you, sadly). It’s a good problem to have, but your suggestions for increasing attendance by POC are spot-on. So, I’ve been wondering if I would go again, as an attendee and not a speaker. I don’t know the answer, yet. Do you?

    • We might have! I want to honor the fact that according to many who’ve been there before, they made a lot of effort to diversify the presenters–and that’s not nothing; I see it and I appreciate it. But there’s more work to do, and that’s what I wanted to get at here. Honestly, as it is, I wouldn’t go again if I wasn’t a presenter in some capacity. It’s expensive and emotionally costly. I probably won’t ever be invited after writing this post, but I had to put it out there because I know other POC felt similarly.

  2. Hi Karen, a fellow Karen here! Did you have a chance to meet Brian Allain at his Writing for Your Life booth? He is beginning a Publishing in Color Conference that publishers and agents (like me) are super excited about. The first one is in June in North Carolina for Black writers, and he is working to put together new conferences for a variety of ethnicities, including another in the works for November outside of Chicago. You are so right that the need is there, and publishers are finally catching on: https://publishingincolor.com

    • Nice to “meet” you, Karen! And I did hear about it! I have actually attended one of Brian’s conferences, and I loved it–learned so much about the publishing world. I was glad to hear about the publishing in color conference. It’s important.

    • Hi Karen. Thanks for your mention of Brian Allain’s Publishing in Color Conference. The June event is actually in New Jersey at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary–not in North Carolina. No harm, no foul. Just a quick correction! Thanks again for your comments here.

  3. Karen, Thank You for sharing your experience. I truly want to listen and learn from my friends of color. There is such a need to include you all more.

  4. Karen, I can’t pretend to know the answers to this but I do have a desire to see these issues addressed, not just because there are POCs in my family, but also because for writing to change the world we need to hear what the world has to say. I’m sorry about the white tears; abrasive as this may sound, I think that there are some things that just need to be left at the conference and you just go on.. you have so much to say and it’s worth us hearing. Emmanuel.

    • Thank you, Bev. I know that solutions are not easy. And I do see and appreciate everything the coordinators did to diversify the presenters. I’m not angry or bitter at that woman at all–I just wanted to illustrate how unsafe spaces can sometimes feel when someone denies your experience of the world. It’s certainly not something I’m thinking about all the time. But thanks for your engagement. Come, Lord Jesus!

      • Amen. Come Lord Jesus. I could see you clearly enough to know that you are not one who holds grudges, and I think my last sentence may have implied the opposite to that, but no, I know why you wrote it and I would have too but I also know you are one who is able to shake it off and move on and for that (and many other things) I applaud you.

  5. Karen, thank you for taking the time to give thoughtful action steps. I think these could be applied to so many areas and situations and as someone who is learning and listening (and who is not an organizer of anything!) I thank you.

    • Hi Annie, I agree! Some of these steps are so easy and don’t cost anything. I have learned so much about including people with disabilities from my friend Shannon–I realized that it was a blind spot I had because I’m not disabled. And I have been listening and learning from her. And I’m deeply grateful and encouraged when those in the white community listen to me and other POC.

  6. You are always such a wealth of information. I’m grateful for you and your approach to dismantling oppressive systems. I’m also so glad to have gotten a chance to speak with you alone over dinner (over yummy food). Amiga, siguale en la lucha. <3

    • Thanks, Traci. If I was offering critique, I wanted to offer practical solutions.

  7. Your thoughtful comments hit home, Karen. I didn’t attend FFW this year, but I appreciate your suggestions–especially regarding a meeting on Day 1 for writers of color who want to connect. In fact, I’m in another writing group that met virtually one morning during the Festival to allow those who couldn’t attend FFW to connect with our members and feel involved. Lots of extra steps. But the effort was worth it. Meantime, please keep writing about the challenge of finding safe spaces. Your reflections are beautiful and important.

    • Thank you, Patricia. That means so much coming from you. The festival coordinators have reached out to me, and I hope to be able to share with them how they can make the space more welcoming and inclusive.

  8. Karen, this is so profound! I am pretty sure we were informally introduced at Kate’s book reception, or somewhere there. FFW opened my eyes to some things I had not been exposed to really. I appreciate you sharing with us part of your story so we can learn and grow together!

    • Thank you, Meghan. I never made it to Kate’s book reception, which is really sad because I really wanted her to sign my book! But we may have met around. I appreciate how receptive people have been to my story. I’m learning, too.

  9. Hello Karen. So interesting to hear your comments. This was my first time at FFW, and even though I heard some amazing speakers, I quietly made the same observations throughout the weekend. I love your idea to have a gathering where we can meet the first day, to encourage each other and share throughout the weekend. Thank you for voicing my silent perceptions.

    • Thank you for reading it and sharing your thoughts, Vina. I’m very encouraged by the response from FFW to listen to POC and make it a more welcoming place for us. Let’s pray and hope for change and an inclusive space for all.

  10. I am glad I came across your dispatch from the FFW…I have been actively looking for something to read about the experience and yours here touched on the nuances of location, networking, and the sensibilities we experience as WOC. I appreciate your specific examples for how to take the conversation into action. I hope coordinators don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk now that so much has been said about this discrepancy in the publishing industry. This is great, Karen, and I hope that the future can become more kingdom focused, for the love of Christ.

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