Have you heard about the…

Have you heard about the Sanders Helix sheethead thing? If not, Tobias Buckell's post is a good introduction. Gist: editor at Helix wrote a rejection letter in which he used a variety of terms that many people read as racist, including "sheethead." Newbie author posted the letter, asking for community advice on a completely different aspect of the letter, not realizing it would blow up into a big mess. Some debate occurred -- about whether Sanders was actually racist, whether he was only intending to refer to terrorists, as he claimed in a response, and about whether it's appropriate/unprofessional to post rejection letters, whether they should be considered private communications. (Apparently, it is definitely illegal to post/publish the entire letter, which I wasn't aware of. But excerpts may come under 'fair use'.)

I know a lot of the sf/f net is buzzing about this right now, and it feels important for editors in particular to take a stand on the racism issue. So here's what I think:

  • Sanders' original comments were racist. I don't think there's any other way to read his letter if you look at it closely.

  • I would speculate, based on the evidence on the letter and his response, that he honestly doesn't understand that his comments were racist, and he doesn't understand the extent to which his subconscious ideas about civilization, barbarity, good, evil, Islam, fundamentalism, etc. map onto racist assumptions.

  • That's not meant to be an excuse for what he said, but I do want to put it in context -- most of us carry around some racism. Sometimes we express it out loud, sometimes surprising ourselves.

  • The correct response to that discovery of internalized racism is to realize and understand what you've just done, accept the weight of that mistake, seriously apologize for it, and honestly try to do better in future. Over time, if we try, we can all get better.
For my take on the whole publishing letter thing -- legally, you don't have the right to do it. Courteously, I think it's good to protect your colleagues' privacy, and respect that they didn't intend for what they wrote to you to be broadcast to the world. Practically, we should all understand that anything we write and send out there may end up openly published. Professionally, I would generally ask permission before posting most such letters, and would hope for like courtesy in return. But ethically, sometimes you have to decide that there are issues that trump legality and typical rules of professionalism and courtesy -- and that you are willing to live with the potential cost of breaking those rules. Integrity requires such decisions.

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