On Speaking Truth From…

On Speaking Truth From Power

I've been saddened by the behavior of people I know, on both sides of the RaceFail '09 imbroglio. I think, as a professional writer/editor of color, I may be unusual in knowing quite a few of the major players on both sides. None of them are close friends. But I've had coffee with Will Shetterly (as we discussed the possibility of creating a writers' retreat in the Arizona desert), and I've had more than a few drinks and maybe a dance or two with Tempest (I can't quite remember, blame the alcohol), and I've defended Kathryn Cramer's right to childcare at conventions publically, and I've run the foundation that awarded a travel grant to Nora Jemison, and I've participated for quite a while on the Nielsen Hayden's Making Light board, and learned a lot from the information they've shared there, even if, in the end, I decided that the general atmosphere among the comments there was too toxic for my tastes, and so I walked away. On the other side of things, I helped found the Carl Brandon Society and served on its board and helped develop the Kindred and Parallax Awards, and I serve as Executive Director for DesiLit, so clearly I have a pretty strong general commitment to minority voices in literature.

I'm sure knowing so many of the players in this mess personally has influenced my responses to events. When Will starts ranting about class issues, oblivious to all other forms of oppression and inequity and violence, I sigh and go talk to someone else who isn't quite so single-minded. When Patrick outed one of his critics, my instinct was not to think that he was evil, but rather, "Oh, god, Patrick, that was a stupid and thoughtless move. Fix it!" [EDIT to correct facts: The outing was actually Will Shetterly and Kathryn Cramer; sorry, my confusion.] When Teresa rushed to Patrick's defense, and said a few intemperate things that could easily have been interpreted as actual threats -- well, I could see that interpretation writ bright in the words she said, but I was also quite sure she hadn't actually meant to be threatening. We give more leeway to the people we have relationships with (relationships in person or online, serious or casual). Maybe sometimes we give too much leeway.

Because the thing is, of course you can't expect an average online reader of such words to know how to take them. They don't have the context you do. This is no longer the editor getting drunk at a convention bar and saying something stupid to a few friends -- this is the editor saying something stupid to the internet, which means hundreds or thousands or millions of people who do not know him, and who have no reason to be particularly charitable in their interpretations of his words.

Which means, fairly or unfairly, that the words have to stand on their own. And that in turn means that those of us in positions of power -- as established writers, as editors, as publishers -- must acknowledge the added weight of our words. We have a responsibility to use great care with them. Which is at times hard to remember, especially when you were once a fan yourself, and when you are feeling attacked because someone has called you a racist (as someone once called me, in a writing workshop many years ago, and god that stung). Or when you are defensive because someone is attacking someone you know and/or love. But the responsibility is still there, to remember your position. Remember that your words carry ten times (or a hundred times, or a thousand times) the weight of the words of an average reader/writer/fan -- because you are respected, because your work is valued, because you have power. (You may not have money, but that's a separate issue altogether.)

If you are in a position of power, it is not enough to stay silent, although I wonder whether silence may sometimes be a necessary step in learning how to speak truth from power. In the end, you have a responsibility to speak when you see injustice. You can use your words for good or evil. So think carefully before you speak, and then try to speak for good.

You'll get it wrong, sometimes. That's part of living in a racist, sexist, deeply imperfect, human, world, that has shaped each and every one of us, for both good and ill. And when someone tells you you've gotten it terribly wrong, take a deep breath, step away. Consider what they're saying, and honestly evaluate whether they might be right. If they are, admit your mistake. Then go on and try to do better next time. That's all any of us can do in the end.

12 thoughts on “On Speaking Truth From…”

  1. One of the things that’s occurred to me about all this is that many in science fiction community — like many in all kinds of other communities — lack an understanding of racism as a system. It’s pretty tough to live in a system and be unaffected by it. That’s like floating in a pool of shit and claiming that you don’t smell. So whenever you have the urge to silence people by shouting, “I’m not racist!” it’s probably a good idea to take a long, hard think and ask yourself how in the world is that possible? Really, it isn’t. Not until a whole lot more about the world changes. The other thing is this; so you’re racist. Or you said or did something racist. Look around you. The world hasn’t ended because of it. So instead of a knee-jerk high dudgeon, you might try taking a deep breath, saying, “I’m sorry,” and trying to figure out how not to make that blunder again. And don’t retreat into guilt, either. Of course, if you’re a decent human being and you’ve just discovered that you did something nasty, you’re going to feel horrible. But from the bitter experience I’ve had myself of trying to use my guilt to paper over something I wish I hadn’t done, I’ve learned that when righteous anger doesn’t work, guilt is the emotion one offers as a substitute for doing anything to change.

    I haven’t much participated in Race Fail ’09 (though I’d like to shake the hand of the people or persons who came up with that moniker!). It became an unmoderated flashmob early on; impossible for me to sift the few nuggets of wisdom and compassion from that fast- and still-growing morass. For myself, I’m going to keep doing the anti-racist work I do in ways and in forums that I think are effective. This one wasn’t it.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Yes — I agree totally on the ‘lack of understanding of racism as a system’. Most folks don’t have that (I blame the universities and the teachers therein :-). And even if they do, on an intellectual level, it’s a long, slow process to internalize that understanding to the point that you can calmly take someone pointing out your own specific racisms. (I still need to walk away for a bit, take some deep breaths, etc.)

    I didn’t, by the way, mean to imply that you or anyone else needed to participate in this particular debate. Just that, in general, retreating into silence on difficult but important topics isn’t a good long-term strategy if you want things to improve. “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

    But absolutely, pick your battles, and conserve your energy and resources as needed.

  3. No worries, I didn’t feel especially called out. My apparent silence in this particular debate has been on my mind. Your post helped me to figure out what I felt I could usefully say, hopefully without it becoming just more noise.

  4. Mary Anne, Patrick didn’t out anybody. That was Will Shetterly and Kathryn Cramer. Patrick, well, I would say that he took a statement that he was participating in systemic racism as an accusation of personal prejudice. But you can judge for yourself. Some of the conversation is here.

    Nalo, Vito Excalibur RaceFail. It … kind of made me flinch at the time. But has come to seem unfortunately appropriate.

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Oops — that’s what happens when you catch up on two months of action in two days, especially when some elements of the discussion have gone missing. Sorry for my error as to the specifics, and thank you for clarifying!! I think my general point re: power and speech still stands, though.

    And in case this wasn’t clear from my post, I think the outing itself was very wrong, regardless of who committed it, and I’m so very sorry for the pain and trouble you’ve been through.

  6. Eleanor Arnason

    I can’t figure out an approach to this discussion. I am against racism and in favor of an open, welcoming, diverse SF community. Having said that, I don’t know what else to say.

    The discussion seems oddly opaque, if that is the right word.

    This is not an argument against the discussion. It’s simply a sense that I have nothing to contribute.

    It is a lot easier to talk about cabbage mallung, chana masala and scallion scrambled eggs. They are all wonderful, though — wimp that I am — I have to cut the pepper in the chana masala. .

  7. Here via your comment at Scalzi’s blog. I just wanted to thank you for saying a lot of things that I think needed saying, here, and at the other posts you linked.

    You’ve said something that I have tried to say, but think I phrased ineffectively, wrt public space and people’s different conceptions of it. I said something at tnh’s LJ about it as well — that different people, even those in positions of power or authority, sometimes see some of their online interactions as more private than others. I know I see my LJ as being more private than my blog, but then the majority of my posts are f-locked for that reason. But sometimes I forget to lock when I am switching from a public voice to a private voice.

    Actually, I think that’s tangential to what you have said more eloquently, but connected nonetheless.

  8. I’ve only read enough of the summaries to try and figure out what you were talking about, so I know I’m missing a lot of the substance here. I’m also not a writer, so I’ve had the questionable luxury of not being forced into thinking too hard about this in the past.

    I have to admit, the primary effect of the little I read wasn’t to improve my understanding of the issues or my ability to address them effectively. It was to increase my desire to crawl back into my little foxhole and refrain from ever commenting on issues related to race, or from putting myself into situations in which I might be publicly questioned about my viewpoints and decisions. Which I don’t think was anyone’s goal here, and which makes me a little sad.

  9. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I know. It’s tough — and I could wish that some of the folks on the anti-racism side could have been a little…kinder in their responses. I know they’re exhausted and frustrated and hurt, so I get why some of them lashed out. But still.

    If it’s any comfort, I find myself hesitant to post on these topics too — and I’m female PoC queer poly unmarried. I think the only majority categories I fit into are able-bodied, not too old or too young, and breeder. 🙂

    Sometimes it’s worth fighting through the fear, if you think you have something worth saying. But only you can make that call.

  10. On this topic I know I have nothing worth saying, which makes it that much easier to keep quiet. But that’s part of the problem, I think – the ability to ignore the issue is a privilege of the majority.

    About the ‘kindness’ of the responses, it was pretty clear to me even in the little I read that the anger was based in frustration and hurt. I’m Jewish, and I’ve seen people take a similar tone when commenting on Germany/Germans, Israeli politics, Christianity in the US, etc. I tend to think that you have more of an impact when you speak calmly and kindly, but I know that’s hard to do when you’re feeling defensive and marginalized.

  11. I really know next to nothing about Racefail, despite having recently blathered about it on an online mailing list, which I almost immediately regretted doing. So nothing I say here is specifically related to what happened with Racefail.

    I completely agree with the observations above about racism as a system, rather than a failing peculiar to certain people.

    The problem is that a lot of people do use the word “racism” as a synonym for personal bigotry, a individual moral failing rather than a pervasive problem that we all grapple with. And some people do employ the word as a weapon in conversations, a way of gaining the moral high ground or even shutting off all further discussion. (The same is true of other systems of inequality, e.g. sexism.) So while I agree that it’s often a good idea to take being told you’re being racist as constructive criticism, in my experience that’s probably (you should excuse the expression) the minority of situations. And of course you can start out meaning racist in the systemic sense and end up using the word as an epithet, but since you’re still using the same word, the waters get very muddy indeed. I don’t have a solution for this, but I think it’s an important part of understanding why people react so angrily to being accused of racism. It’s not just that they don’t understand racism as a system; it’s that this is not the way the word is used by most people in most conversations.

    There was a critical discussion a year or more ago on the Feminist SF blog about race in Joss Whedon’s shows, and some Whedon fans who entered the discussion clearly had the idea that Whedon was being accused of personal bigotry and were very angry about it. And while they were wrong, I completely understand why they thought so, since the discussion assumed, but never stated, that the underlying idea was “Joss Whedon, as do we all, has unconscious racist attitudes, and they are reflected in his work in the following ways,” not “Joss Whedon is a racial bigot and thus a very bad person.”

    I separate the concepts in my own writing as “racism” vs. “personal (racial) bigotry,” but I don’t expect anybody else to use this vocabulary; like it or not, we’re stuck with the easily-misconstrued “racism.”

  12. Thanks for your summaries and discussions of the mess. Coming in after the fact, I’m repeatedly seeing complaints about people I know (online) and respect, and having the reaction “they said WHAT?” A lot of normally nice (and smart) folks seem to have really “lost it” over the course of this discussion. 🙁

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