DiversifYA: Jenn Baker

JennToday, Jenn Baker is here at DiversifYA! Jennifer Baker is a writer of fiction & nonfiction, creator of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and one of the wonderful Sr. VPs for We Need Diverse Books, where she’s getting some really exciting stuff done. Her writing appeared in Newtown Literary, Boston Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, and Poets & Writers magazine, and a story forthcoming in The Female Complaint.

1. How do you identify yourself?

I identify as an African-American hetero female. Some use Black and some have used American but I feel like African-American best reflects the history of my family’s culture and my ties to America as my birthplace and home.

2. What did it feel like growing up African-American?

I was born & raised in NYC and still reside here. In terms of my upbringing I was raised by my mom, aunts, and grandparents in a 2-story house. I was pretty shielded from racism because of my community being friendly and in a diverse suburban area of Long Island. It was more when I went to the outer boroughs, Queens specifically where I grew up, and other states/countries that I took more notice of the differences in how Black kids, well people of color (PoC) in general, were treated and how sometimes being intelligent, articulate, literate were seen as a surprise for those in marginalized groups. As I got older my ignorance decreased and I began to see firsthand how prevalent stereotypes and assumptions are in society. Not necessarily in my everyday but it definitely comes up often.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

As a woman of color I think one of my biggest challenges has been to be taken seriously or feeling like I have to prove myself (in the workplace) or that my work (essays, fiction, stories) always have to discuss race to be of interest to those outside of my culture. I’ve gotten comments/questions from agents of “how does race play into this story” when really the story was about kids of color with superhuman abilities or about friendship or about family not necessarily about the “hardships” of being a PoC. If my characters were saving the world they may not necessarily be worrying whether or not someone didn’t like them because of their heritage!

I think one of the best things I’ve experienced, especially in doing my podcast and working with WNDB, is meeting more people of color but also more people who believe in the universality of stories. Thanks to social media I’ve connected with the Black Girl Nerd community (Blergs) and also when with those of my background there’s an understanding and safety in being able to say how you feel and know others have experienced much of the same or won’t look at you in a pitying way or think “Why are you complaining so much?”

4. What do you wish people knew about being African-American?

In speaking to some of my friends I found that their American-ness was questioned in a way mine never is. I get the question “Where are you from?” and when I say “New York City” that ends the conversation. But my friends who have heritage tied to the Dominican Republic or Ecuador or India or Bangladesh get prodded over and over. “No, but where are you really from?” suggesting they aren’t citizens or aren’t allowed to share in America’s history. So I wish people knew that not every person of color who isn’t Black or Native American is not American by birth or right.

From my peers I often got a kind of surprise of what I was and wasn’t knowledgeable about. Especially in high school. How could I know Alanis Morissette lyrics but not Notorious B.I.G? Why did I find school so interesting? Thanks to social media there’s more recognition of the Black community of self-proclaimed “nerds” but it’s interesting, and sad, that a quest for knowledge isn’t seen as inherently human but rather inherently not Black.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

I find the eccentric & “sassy” older Black woman who curses and threatens people offensive and not so much funny or entertaining. I’m happy for shows by Shonda Rhimes that reflect Black women, especially dark-skinned Black women, as being attractive and not just being a side character or a mistress to be thrown aside. I dislike seeing the buffoonery of Black culture displayed on screen with no context as someone being smart yet silly, or being well-rounded yet flawed and having their moments. This can also be seen in books where the Black female is “exotic” or “tough talking” or the Black male is “hard” and “angry” and always struggling. I had said once it’d be nice to not feel as though being Black in America is a daily struggle for everyone/everywhere and there’s nothing else to us than the color of our skin. Characters being very one-note, which is highly problematic to me of all characters, but is especially so when it comes to representation of a culture that doesn’t have much (positive) representation on screen or in books period. I’d love it to be plausible and not questioned that a Black teen has two parents and there’s no disparity within their relationship. Or that drugs don’t have to be represented in a story with Black lead characters or that poverty isn’t the cross-the-board economic situation for African Americans.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

My main advice is to think of that character as a person first and not just your “diverse character,” and to also really consider what story you’re trying to tell. In reading work by friends/critique partners writing outside of their “comfort zone” it seemed they had a kernel of an idea but saw the diverse character (often someone of color) being confronted with race, yet the sensitivity and complexity of this issue was not understood so it came off as very patronizing and fake. By looking at your character as “the Black woman who can’t get ahead” it feels like the author may be pigeon-holing them and setting them up to fail or live up to a stereotype that’s been seen before. If you’re not seeing your character as a person they become a symbol for what you may not understand. And if you just want to tell a “diverse story” for the sake of diversity without considering what’s been written, what’s been said, what representations are out there already, and what you as author are bringing to this piece that is different and insightful then you’re not necessarily adding value to the diversity discussion. And last bit of advice is, of course, Do your research!

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