Boundaries have been an integral part of society, allowing us to navigate the intricacies of our interactions with each other without going too far. When in person, with people we know or even strangers, the rules of boundaries tends to be clear. What is and is not acceptable to say or do is easily understood, or otherwise communicated.
Online, boundaries are harder to define, mainly because the intricacies that bind in-person interactions while similar to those online, are vastly different than how we communicate with each other and convey information to each other over the internet. There is an inherent level of comfort that comes with online interactions; certain boundaries aren’t even there by nature of how we speak with each other online, making connecting with others sometimes easier than in person.
The downside is, it also makes people comfortable engaging in activities or discussions that would otherwise be in poor form in person.
With (objectively good) efforts to read more diversely and support marginalized authors, the book community has created an unintentional but inevitable problem to an otherwise important goal, and that is sacrificing author privacy and autonomy under the guise of wanting to find diverse literature.
This particular Tweet, on its own, is fairly innocuous. However, the responses reveal a larger problem when opening up this kind of dialogue.
The desire to know if Neal Schusterman is a black author for a Black History Month readathon is not a problem. The readiness with which people are comfortable in speculating his ethnicity or even lay out the idea that the lack of appropriate information is ‘probably not malicious,’ is. It is the same kind of invasive speculation that happens when the internet questions a celebrity’s sexuality. ‘Are they gay? I heard such and such about them, but it’s not really confirmed.’ ‘Aw, too bad, I was hoping.’
It’s human nature to be curious. Curiosity is the precursor to discovery, and we love to discover. But why should the dehumanization of an author via the digging into and speculation of their identities be excused for that curiosity?
The kinds of conversations like the one above is nothing new to me; I live the experience of my identity being scrutinized to my face. Being biracial, I have the privilege of being ‘racially ambiguous’ to many people. ‘What are you?’ ‘Let me guess, Puerto Rican?’ ‘I would have clocked you for mixed Dominican.’ Curiosity drives all these questions, but much like the curiosity backing the public speculation of Neal Schusterman’s ethnicity, it is painfully debasing to witness, let alone to experience.
Do I believe the intent behind these speculations to be malicious? No. I can accept the lack of malicious intent while asserting that the impact on people, as a whole, is not a net positive. We seek out information that is not ours to have. We speculate, theorize, about living, breathing people, as though they are a character in a story we hope and pray is just like us. The problem is, authors are not abstract beings onto which we need to project ourselves, or through which we need to find validation in how we read and who we read.
Frankly: if you can’t find this information about an author through a Google search, in their author bio, their websites, their Wikipedia—consider that there is a reason and that the simple answer is that information is not for you.
The above selection is a set of Tweets responding to the initial Neal Schusterman question. These Tweets highlight an additional issue within this concept of speculating on author identities: the demand that this information is a default that the author provides for use of the general public.
The original poster of this thread has apologized, and has stated that their intent was not to insinuate authors are obligated to list their race and/or ethnicity to make it easier for readers. I would like to focus, however, on what is present here, in the raw and original thread, with the original wording, and the impact of what is a clear, overt call for this information to be out there.
When we start making demands of strangers’ personal identities to satisfy our own need to know regardless of the why, we have overstepped a boundary where we stop seeing authors as people. We see them first as a label. A vehicle through which we’re able to drive our collective wokeness because we can trace back every ethnicity we have read, every gender, every sexuality.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with reading diversely. There is nothing wrong with wanting to read more diversely. There is something wrong when this desire takes precedence over the humanization of authors, reducing them and their lived experiences to items you need to check off like a grocery list. This extends past just wanting authors to disclose their race; a response that I saw to this thread was a statement regarding the use of putting pronouns into bios—if we already do that, why not with race?
Putting pronouns into bios is currently a movement to normalize the giving of and establishing of pronouns, to make it safer for transgender and non-binary folks to do so, particularly in online spaces. It is something I do in my Twitter bio, because as a cisgender woman, I’ve seen trans and non-binary people assert it makes them feel more comfortable, safe, and welcome online, and less like it’s outing themselves and opening themselves up for scrutiny.
That said, cisgender people are under no obligation to provide their pronouns, any more than trans or non-binary people are obligated to disclose their pronouns, or even the fact that they are trans or non-binary. Most would agree that expecting a transgender person to disclose they are trans for the benefit of strangers, at a stranger’s demand, is not merely distasteful, but offensive. There is a stark difference in the offering up of one’s pronouns voluntarily and the expectation that you must.
In a time where identity comes so heavily into play in most facets of our lives, the idea of an author actively avoiding making their identity part of their brand is an alien concept to people who are used to seeing an author’s labels accompany their name more often than not. Race, sexuality, gender—even certain experiences, such as people who openly disclose their mental illnesses or that they are survivors of sexual assault. Personal experiences and identities are no longer seen as such, but rather as credentials to present for the use of public consideration, scrutiny, or judgment.
In my Twitter bio, and even in the about section on my blog, I state my pronouns, and the fact that I am biracial and queer. ‘Queer Biracial Disaster,’ in fact. I have grappled many times with including my race and sexuality here; on one hand, it makes finding and being found by others in the communities I belong to easier. On the other, the main reason I included that information to begin with was the pressure that often comes from the expectation of self-identifying on the internet: if you do not readily declare it, your identity and experiences do not exist. You are only what you state online for strangers, and that is the information that strangers take to make their opinions of you.
There are other aspects of my identity and experiences that I do not list. There are things about my life and my identity that I will speak about on social media, but have chosen not to state in my bio because they are personal, and when I speak about them, it is my choice to do so but to give out that information in a Twitter bio simply to give others the comfort and the ease of knowing, feels so debasing and dehumanizing, I have to wonder if people don’t realize that the call to disclose intimate aspects of one’s identity feels less like giving insight to a piece of oneself and more like it being forcibly ripped from your chest and being told that it’s necessary. Some people chose to put the things I have decided to keep to myself in their bios, because they’ve experienced the same things; this isn’t bad. I do question when we’re going to start asking authors to tell us their mental illnesses, or to disclose if they’re survivors of assault for the sake of supporting authors with mental illnesses or raising awareness for victims while ignoring the autonomy of the very people we are claiming to want to support. This is the problem with the lack of respecting personal boundaries of authors.
I did not include Twitter handles or icons in my example screen shots. I want this conversation to be constructive; it is not a take down of individuals but a call to reflect, as a community on the way we view authors’ identities and experiences as public domain. We can all do better, can all sit back and consider how not only our reading habits, but our words impact others in our community, in tandem or in spite of, our intent. Authors are people, and they are strangers to us. We are not owed access to their lives simply for the act of accessing their works.