The Practice of Apology

It happens often in the book world–sometimes it seems every other week these days. An author, usually a white woman, releases a book relying on the misguided use of a racial trope. The writing community of color calls her on it. She issues an apology which, knowingly or not, glosses over the real issues, and the community of color responds with more ire. And people look at the apology, and shake their heads, and ask, “How hard can it be to say you’re sorry?”

How hard can it be?

Yesterday I wrote a preface for my book, The Parting Glass:

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(In 2010, when I wrote the first draft of The Parting Glass, I was a good deal less aware of issues of race and cultural appropriation than I am today. Considering myself a fairly decent and enlightened person, I thought drawing on my own experience of life was enough. Consequently, I made some choices for the book that make me cringe when I read it today. The character of John Stonefeather relying heavily on the trope of “alcoholic Indian” is one, as is Timber’s practice of something I refer to as “Native American shamanism,” and even Sage’s role as the sassy Black girlfriend. It isn’t enough to say I didn’t intend to be disrespectful in any way, or that I did draw from and embellish people and situations from my real life. I made bad choices I would not make today, and I’m sorry for that.

I can’t rewrite the book at this late date, and I’m not going to pull it from publication because despite the flaws I’m still proud of it and I like the story of how Caitlin and Timber first met, which is central to the book and unfortunately relies on the more problematic elements. But I have tried to do better since writing this book, and I will continue to do so. It’s important to me that marginalized voices be heard, and that bad stereotypes not be perpetuated.

Thank you for reading this.)

I added it to every edition, and most of them are already available. I did it, not because anyone called me out on the book’s problematic elements–no one has; the book hasn’t a far enough reach to cause a stir of any proportion at all. I did it because as I gained awareness of the issues involved, the fact that I unthinkingly used bad tropes bothered me more and more, until I couldn’t let it go any longer without doing something.

How hard could it be? I’ll tell you: It was hard.

When I wrote the book, from 2010 – 2012, I considered myself fairly enlightened. It was only as I got more involved in social media, and concurrently social justice, that I began to see how very problematic some of the basic premises were. This was after I’d already published the book, and I didn’t want to let it go.

Again, I wasn’t involved in any confrontation; all of the relevant conversations happened in the “what if?” space of my head. What if someone called me out? What if I got attacked? What if? What would I say?

My first instincts were not the best. At least I didn’t dismiss the inner challenge out of hand, but that’s the best I can say of myself. I got defensive. I justified. I told myself, “Yes, but I based this character on a real person and I based this experience on a real experience! I only embellished and made it bigger, so it would be story-worthy.” I told myself since I knew a Native person with substance abuse issues in my past, putting one in my book was okay. Likewise with white people who had studied with Native teachers, likewise with every other problematic thing in the book. I also told myself since the core of the story isn’t about those problematic tropes, it was okay. (Spoiler: It kind of is and it kind of isn’t, and it’s not okay.) I told myself the Native people I know personally assure me I’m a good person, so I couldn’t be doing something really out of line.

After I told myself all these things, I ignored the problem. I said I’d address it if it ever became an issue. And I tried to forget. For four years, I tried to forget. In the meantime, I turned out three more books, each getting a little more aware, and a little more diverse, and a little better regarding the kind of world I want to portray and the kind of world I want to see manifest. It’s been a bit of a challenge, considering the realities of the geographical setting of my book series (rural Colorado, which I know well since I live there). But gradually I’ve added more People of Color, more LGBTQ+ representation, more diverse viewpoints. I hope I haven’t done it too badly.

Currently, I’m rereading my own books to refresh myself on the world and the overall series arc before plunging ahead into book eight. Saturday night, I started The Parting Glass. It’s always been a joy for me to read that particular volume, as it’s one of my favourites. This time, however, I hadn’t got through the first chapter before I started cringing. Could I really have used those tropes in that way? Yes, yes, I did. Wow. I wouldn’t do that now.

A book is a moment in an author’s life; it shows how they thought, what they considered important, and perhaps how they felt at a particular time and place of life. People learn, and grow, and change, and I did all three more than I had thought. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone picking up the book with its problematic elements without my making a public apology. So yesterday I wrote the short preface above.

How hard could it be? It was hard. It took me four years of growth before I did it, and even when I sat down to work I wasn’t sure I could say I was sorry and mean it. I think I managed. And one last time, I came to this without people riding me and demanding I grow all in an instant, while supportive friends of color told me I wasn’t a bad person. I like to think if I’d been confronted earlier I would have stepped up to the plate, but I know myself too well for that. Probably I’d have dug in and become even more defensive, reached for more justification.

This isn’t to say people should let authors alone and not challenge problematic elements in books; they absolutely should do so, because if people stay silent, others never learn at all. When I acknowledge how hard it was for me to come to the point of apology, it’s to say to other authors that I get that it’s hard. AND because it’s hard, we have to practice. Practice listening. Practice saying, “I did a wrong thing, and I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry if I offended anyone…” or “I’m sorry, but this is what I really meant…” Just, “I’m sorry. I will do better in the future. I will do my best.”

When learning an instrument, you don’t practice scales because you’re ever going to perform scales for the public. You practice scales because they teach your body the way your instrument works and the combinations of notes you’re likely to find in a piece, so when you are performing you can do the right thing without thinking about it. In a similar way, authors need to practice apology. If and when someone confronts you, don’t react at once. Don’t take it personally if and when someone calls you on a problematic element. Take a breath. Refuse the urge to justify and dig in. If you can, ask for clarification, but realize this may not be possible. When you do respond, just say, “I’m sorry.” Ask how you can make it better, and offer to do so, if that’s possible. If you can’t make it better in the moment or in the near future, promise to do better. That’s it. Marginalized people don’t want our justifications; they’ve heard way too many already. If you have privilege in an area–if you’re white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical–it’s incumbent upon you to listen and do better.

How hard can it be? Hard, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is refusing to learn.

 

 

 

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Two Weeks Later

Two weeks and two days ago, I woke up, along with the rest of the United States, knowing that Donald Trump had, contrary to all polls and predictions, and an increasing amount of the popular vote, won the election. This is what I’ve witnessed, read, and experienced since then, in no particular order and presented as much as possible without judgment (though there are definitely items on the list I find personally repugnant).

  • People texting or messaging me, to whom I’ve rarely spoken before, to express their dismay and terror. People who, knowing 70% of the county in which we live voted Trump, wonder which of our neighbors did, and whether it’s safe to trust them.
  • Within a day, 200 reports of hate crimes against People of Color, Muslims, and LGBTQ+ folks, even in areas of our state that swing fairly liberal. Within two days, double that number. In almost all cases, the perpetrator referenced Trump’s win as the force empowering them.
  • The report that 53% of white women, most of them middle class and above, voted for Trump. Numerous think pieces attributing this development to women “placing race above gender in importance.”
  • A friend experiencing so much harassment after the election that before two days had passed she and her family decided to move to another state.
  • Intense arguments between the conservative half of my extended family and the liberal half.
  • People of color feeling (justifiably) betrayed and saying they will “never trust a white person again.”
  • Think pieces blaming white women in particular for being too complacent.
  • A rally of the “alt-right,” a white supremacist group, at a hotel near the White House, complete with Nazi salutes and slogans in the original German.
  • Think pieces blaming the election results on third party voters.
  • Think pieces blaming the election results on “identity politics,” and calling on the Left to empathize more with white working class voters.
  • Arguments about what kind of show of solidarity is “right” or “enough” and what kind of action allies need to take, and who gets to define all those things.
  • A definite absence of acknowledgment from the able community of how much danger Trump’s election and Republican control of (potentially) all three branches of government poses to people with disabilities.
  • Lots of people with activated trauma of various kinds lashing out at each other. Calls for solidarity being met with recriminations.
  • Large peaceful protests of the election results in nearly every major city in the country.
  • A friend frightened and in tears because the protest in her city turned violent.
  • Conservative claims that all the protests are “riots.”
  • People conflicted between maintaining the outrage that motivates them and the urge, as well as politicians’ encouragement, to treat this election as “business as usual.”
  • A huge popular movement to audit the vote in three states where the tallies were incredibly close. Jill Stein’s unprecedented campaign to do just that, which raised $2.5 million in under two days.
  • An acquaintance whose cause celèbre is Universal Basic Income insisting it’s not just “white working class;” it’s working class in general.
  • Lots of advice from various quarters on how to be as safe as possible under an authoritarian regime.

The election stressed me out more than any before, but the two weeks since have aged me in a way I never imagined possible. I’ve always looked and acted (by societal standards) younger than my age, and I haven’t felt much different in my body from the person I was twenty years ago. But lately I’ve wondered if the various passing aches I’ve attributed to other causes aren’t really a sign of my age. If the lapses in memory, which are more frequent, are a sign of encroaching senility. If I’m just as fat old woman sitting on a couch, cursing the kids and dreaming of better times. I have become my father, though still stronger than he was, I think. My husband says if my father were still around, this election would have killed him. He’s right, too.

Except for checking in on particular groups, I’ve stayed off social media. Especially Twitter, which can be a pit of adders if you don’t tread carefully. People of all persuasions are willing to speak in harsher terms there than they might elsewhere, I’ve noticed. Snark is rampant. So are claims of tone policing and “marginalized people can’t be bullies,” which is patently untrue. Anyone can be a bully. People who carry grave hurt are often particularly good ones.

I cried for a week after the election, and I’ve cried many days since. So have most of the women I know. (Yesterday my husband said he wanted to curl up in a fetal position and cry. I told him that was okay, he should cry if he needed to. He said he couldn’t remember how.) On social media, my tears of often dismissed, either indirectly or when the speaker refers to a group of which I’m part in general terms: “The fact that this outcome shocks you proves how privileged you are. My marginalized group knew all along how bad it is; you just didn’t listen.”

It’s not shock that moves me to tears. I have my own marginalizations: sexual assault survivor, disabled, mentally ill, unemployed, financially insecure. Living in a rural, white area where the main two employers closed their doors in the last year and the message boards are full of screeds about “Obummer’s war on coal,” and the persecution of Christians, and the liberal elites with their need to control everything, I never took it for granted Hillary Clinton would sweep to victory. To me the election boiled down to an obvious truth: If Hillary Clinton won, though she might not be perfect, we’d be okay for the next four years. To quote Rebecca Solnit, “Voting is a chess move, not a valentine.” If Donald Trump won we definitely would NOT be okay. None of us. Not women, white or otherwise. Not my family and friends of color. Not the disabled, or the LGBTQ+ community. Not even the people who voted for him. And yes, I ran across more than a handful who voted him because they’d rather the world burn to ash than try to fix it. I always had to wonder if these people saw themselves burn, or if they imagined watching from the top of the heap, unaffected by what they’d put into motion. I suspect the latter. A certain kind of white male never bears the brunt of what they put into motion. It’s the rest of us who do.

The high potential for failure is what stressed me out so much in the weeks and days before the election. It’s what caused me to dip into my husband’s Valium prescription at times and turn to the Scotch bottle at others. It’s why I cracked dark jokes about the Apocalypse, which I was terrified would come to pass. And when they did come to pass, it wasn’t shock that I felt. It was despair. I had hoped so hard that we were better than this. Smarter than this. More compassionate. I had prayed to whatever gods happened to be around that the crowds at the Trump rallies represented a small minority. The election results dashed that hope to pieces, and I take little comfort in Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. A 51%-49% split is far too narrow to suit me. With such deep differences, how will we ever find a place to meet?

My conservative brother-in-law asked my husband the same question the other day. He voted for Trump. He said it was the hardest decision he’s ever had to make, but he knew only two candidates stood a chance of winning and, in the end, Hillary Clinton represented “everything he was against.” He wondered why people who disagree with liberals as to policy are now being characterized as racists and bigots. If I still spoke to him (I blocked him on social media during the 2012 election cycle), I’d like to scream at him that policy has nothing to do with it; that Donald Trump never made any coherent statement of policy at all, but riled his supporters up against immigrants and people of color and demonized his main rival. How is this policy? But Clinton reached out to marginalized people and supported women’s bodily autonomy. That, my brother-in-law says, was his main sticking point; he’s against abortion in any form. He has three daughters. I keep wondering, if one of them were expecting a much wanted child and found out in the twenty-sixth week of pregnancy that her child wouldn’t live, would probably not survive gestation, wouldn’t he want her to have a choice of what to do? Or would he doom her to walk around for sixteen weeks, a whole four months, knowing her child was dead inside her? Having lost both my children early, I can say for a certainty such a situation would have driven me out of my mind with grief.

Two of his daughters, by the way, are married to Black men and have mixed race sons. And he voted for a man who wants to institute racial profiling and stop and frisk laws. How could he do that? How would he feel if it were one of his sons-in-law, one of his grandsons, who got pulled over by a cop for “fitting the profile,” and shot for no cause? Is he so secure in the notion that bad things don’t happen to good people? If the cop claimed later he “felt threatened,” would my brother-in-law think that was enough?

A lot of our differences are of religious origin; BIL is an Evangelical Christian and we are farthest thing from it. 83% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump. I cannot fathom why, and neither can most other Christians of my acquaintance, Evangelicals among them. How can people who claim to honor Jesus Christ choose a man who lies, who preaches hatred, who sows division, who admits to being a serial rapist? It seems to boil down to the belief that Christians are being persecuted under the current administration. Even though I know the reasoning, it boggles my mind. It seems obvious to me that if you want to teach your children that the Earth was literally created in seven days and is only 4,000 years old, that dinosaurs were on the ark with Noah and co-existed with humankind, you are free to do that. But not on the public dime because it’s faith, not science. It’s clear to me that if you run a business that’s open to the public, you are required by law to serve all the public whether or not your religion agrees with the way they live their lives. Nowhere in the Bible does it say “Thou shalt not bake wedding cakes for, or rent your venue to, or arrange flowers for, or photograph gay people, nay, not at their weddings or celebrations, or in any other place, for such is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.” Kosher delis aren’t allowed to refuse service to goyim because we don’t wear yarmulkes. If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t get one. If you don’t believe in birth control, don’t use it. Evangelicals seem unable to see that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom to force your religious views on others,” and when you point it out they cry persecution. It’s baffling to me, as much as the claims that “America was founded as a Christian nation” when one can cite document after document disproving such a statement, and Freedom of Religion was written into our Constitution. And it really doesn’t matter that at the time of the founding, Christianity of one form or another was the religion of most of the West, and it was probably inconceivable to many that other religions would become so prominent. At the time of the founding, only white, male land owners were allowed to vote or hold citizenship. Do we want to return to those strictures as well? At times, I think some do. Or they conveniently forget the parts of the original Constitution that don’t fit into their world view.

But to return to the original question: With a population roughly divided in half as to the way to proceed, and those halves near as makes no difference to polar opposites in stance, how do we ever find a meeting place? Some say it’s incumbent on the Left to reach out to and persuade those on the Right, which has quite a lot of the Left justifiably angry. It always seems to fall to the Left to be reasonable, though I know those on the Right would disagree with me there. Compromising with mule-headed Conservatives has dragged the Left more and more toward the center, until most of our politicians are on a level with Nixon and Reagan. Some would disagree with that, too (my BIL says the Republican party has swayed too far Left for him; what he means by this, I have no idea whatsoever), but you can look up and compare the policies. How loud does the Left have yell that we’re all humans and all deserve the same civil rights before the Right agrees? I’m sure many individuals agree–even my BIL claims to be against mass deportation and instituting a Muslim registry. There seems, however, to be a cosmic disconnect between the individuals and the philosophy, between claiming an idea and putting it into practice.

Many classify the divide as between Urban and Rural, and if you look at a county-by-county map of votes cast, this seems to bear out. It reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s Hugo-nominated book, The World Inside. I read it long ago, but essentially America’s population is divided between City dwellers who lead rather decadent lives in skyscrapers, and the farmland communities in between, where the inhabitants practice rather bizarre rituals. I hate to think this prophetic, although I, along with many of my circle, don’t see a way we can bring such disparate views of the country into a unified whole. We’ve begun to voice the once-unthinkable: Maybe this country doesn’t work. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge there need to be two, or many. I don’t see how this could be possible. Given the lack of clear geographic lines along which to form borders any division would force people out of their homes. And Urban and Rural areas have a symbiotic relationship; one can’t survive without the goods and services of the other. Negotiating trade agreements would be a nightmare.

Living in a Rural area, I can sympathize with some of the sentiment. We don’t have many of the advantages of an Urban environment. Jobs are low-paying and hard to come by even if you have a good education, which many lack. If the main employer of blue-collar labor shuts down, everyone suffers. I don’t blame scared people for wishing for a return to the “good old days;” however, I know that those good old days, when a person could make a good living and support a family with a high school education, were only attainable for a brief period in the middle of the twentieth century. I think when people rally to the cry of “Make America Great Again,” that’s what they want: The dream they’ve been denied. Giving up on a dream is hard. It’s easier to cast blame on one group or another and reach for simple (though not easy) solutions than it is to change an ingrained system of thought. Though Horatio Alger “rags to riches” stories are part of the American mythos, most of the populace are not innovators or entrepreneurs. They’re more secure in the assurance that everyone knows their place. Now everything is topsy-turvy, and it frightens them.

A little while ago, my husband came back from a gig with his Blues band and told me about a conversation he’d had with his buddy, the guitarist. His friend had mentioned reading of a college professor who said “Any white person living in this society is racist,” and how it had put him off. My husband took the opportunity to clarify, explaining how when a certain group of people has power, they tend to construct their society around themselves, paying attention only to the things that matter to them, which pushes people who don’t fit the model further and further to the margins. So, in this case, whether or not a white person actively holds racist views, they benefit from a racist society in ways people of other races don’t. And that, my husband went on, is what’s meant by privilege. He managed to get intersectionality in there, too. His friend understood; in fact, he said it was the first time any of that stuff made sense.

We need more conversations like that and fewer recriminations. But as long as people hold fear and pain close to their hearts and come to the table with minds unwilling to stretch and ears unwilling to hear, I doubt they’ll ever take place.

 

A Problem of Ethics

I have a problem.

Next month, my husband is officiating at the wedding of a friend and co-worker. This friend is fond of the movie The Big Lebowski (which I have never seen), and asked my husband to be ordained as A Dude-ist Priest, which my husband happily did as we believe recently-created paths have just as much validity as any other. Yesterday, we met with the couple to discuss the shape of the ceremony. During our meeting, the subject of the vows came up.

“We’re going to do this cool thing with the vows,” said my husband’s friend, the groom.

“You were the one who decided we were going to do that. I think it’s a bad idea,” said the bride.

“No, it’s a great idea. It’ll be fine!” the groom insisted.

Uh-Oh.

Well. I asked what the idea was. The bride explained, the groom intermittently punctuating her answer with more declarations of, “It’ll be fine! It’s a great idea!” And it turned out what the groom had in mind was a REALLY BAD IDEA both ceremonially and magically. Everyone at the table thought so…except for the groom. We got him to see the light and change his mind eventually, but it took a while. It also took having my husband–the only other male present–explain to him exactly what was wrong with his original idea.

Now personally, I consider it a bad sign that the groom didn’t immediately give up on his “really great idea” the second the bride expressed her distaste for it. But we did talk him around in the end, so okay. The vow thing isn’t the problem. My problem doesn’t involve the wedding at all, except in an almost tangential way.

My problem is with a thing I’m going to call “The Spotted Salamander Tribe.”

See, my husband’s friend teaches social studies. I do not know all the details, but apparently a few years ago he did a unit on Native American culture and practice with his students, and as often happens, my husband’s friend became enamored with what he learned. To the point that he decided–or he and the bride decided together; they’ve been partners for years and I’m unclear about this–that it would be a really great idea to adopt some of the philosophy and tradition from First Nations Peoples and create their own tribe with its own hierarchy and ceremonies based on Native American culture. This is “The Spotted Salamander Tribe.” They have a big gathering every July where they pass a pipe and induct new members and such.

My husband and I have been invited to this year’s gathering, with the prospect of being inducted as members, and I have A REAL PROBLEM WITH THIS. I had a problem with it when I first heard about it at Christmas. And I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make a huge stink with my husband’s friends and co-workers. I had never met these people before they invited us for Christmas dinner. But my problem with it keeps getting bigger and bigger. It grows when my husband’s friend refers to himself as the “Chief” and talks about wearing the “Chief’s Headdress.” It grows when the bride mentions using a Navajo rug as part of their wedding ceremony. It grows when they casually toss around the word “squaw,” and say “It’s okay because it’s just a joke between us and we don’t mean it in a sexist way,” and don’t see that it isn’t just sexist. IT’S RACIST. It’s Cultural Imperialism. It’s a bunch of White People pretending to be Indians. They’ve built the “Spotted Salamander Tribe” on the practices of living traditions of which they are not a part, and passed it off as, “It’s no big deal; it’s just a fun thing we do.” Which is demeaning to the traditions involved. I’m not sure any actual First Peoples were ever consulted, even in the original school project. I’m certain none are involved now.

THIS IS NOT OKAY. I’m not looking for any pats on the back here for declaring it’s not okay on my blog, because I haven’t done JACK SHIT about it. I meant to bring it up yesterday, and I chickened out. I meant, after we had finished discussing the wedding, to ask, “So what’s the deal with this Spotted Salamander Tribe, anyway?” and to hear them out, and to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t participate because you’re using First Nations Culture for your fun thing and no First Nations People are part of it.” And I didn’t, because hearing them talk about it in this dismissive way was too hard for me to challenge. And because, to my complete and utter horror, when they said, “It’s no big deal, it’s this just this fun thing we do,” part of me thought, “Well, maybe it’s harmless. Maybe there’s something going on here I don’t understand. Maybe it could be okay.” And because I was asked to attend, and it felt good to be asked, to be included.

But when I got home, I knew it was not okay. Not okay at all.

I’ve already pretty much decided I can’t participate in this “tribal gathering,” but as long as I’m being completely open, I’m going to admit that I still go back and forth. Because I haven’t been included in much in my life, and being included is sweet. I honestly like my husband’s friend and his partner, and I like all the other people I met at the Christmas dinner, most of whom are part of the “tribe.” And, mea maxima culpa, I don’t want to be the one to rain on their parade. I don’t want to do it. I’m always the killjoy, the one who brings up uncomfortable truths and explodes treasured icons. Good Gods, I DO NOT want to be that person in this situation. And I keep hearing the groom declare that the issue with the vows was “No big deal,” and “Fine,” when it wasn’t, and I don’t want to have to fight that fight. Not by myself. Not alone.

But then I imagine sitting there at this gathering, and seeing my husband’s friend in his “Chief’s Headdress,” and watching them “pass the pipe,” and I know I can’t do that, either. I can’t condone it. I couldn’t be silent. Even imagining it makes me sick at my stomach.

Please, if there are any Native People reading this post, please tell me what’s enough for me to do? Is it enough for me not to participate? How much do I need to confront this? Should I go to the gathering and see it for myself before I confront it? I don’t want to cause a problem between my husband and his friend, and I don’t want it to carry over to my husband’s work. I honestly feel bad putting something about it on the Internet when I didn’t speak up yesterday, because it seems cowardly. On the other hand, I need to address it. I’m just not sure how, or how much.

So there’s my problem. I’d appreciate other viewpoints than my own.

ADDENDUM, 2014 June 25

In a rather unsettling turn of events, the couple involved stumbled across this post on Facebook. It’s a risk I took, although I hoped it wouldn’t happen. Anyway, I have been un-invited to the wedding because they “felt judged.” About what I expected, and probably just as well.

 

White Girl Writing

This post has been fermenting in my brain for about a month now. Maybe longer. Then I read this article from Buzz Feed, and I started thinking about it more. So I’m going to try to get it out of my brain and onto the (virtual) page.

Diversity in writing. Diversity in books. I see the plea for it everywhere. I see agents and editors describe themselves as “open to LGBTQ and characters of color.” I see writers tweet about their LGBTQ books and their Black/Hispanic/Indigenous protagonists. I worry about it in my own writing. And I also can’t help but notice how many of these writers and agents and editors are white, heterosexual, and cisgendered (at least on the surface–I realize I may be making assumpti0ns here about people I know mainly from their Internet profiles). Now, I’m not saying that white, cis, het people can’t write about characters who are different from themselves. Part of our work as writers is to go outside our own experience and into the hearts and minds of people who are different than we are. But I ask myself all the time how effective we are at this, and how can we truly convey the experience of people who are different. And where are the voices of people who have different color skins, different backgrounds, different sexuality. It’s not to say they aren’t out there. I follow a number of gender-queer writers and writers of color. It seems to me, however, that the number of these voices are far fewer than the ostensible demand for diversity. It’s as if diversity has become a buzzword, but the industry may not be doing all it can to foster truly diverse points of view.

And I wonder if begging for diversity while at the same time possibly dismissing diverse protagonists and situations as “not relatable” creates an industry where the diversity we see is confined to stereotypes and two-dimensional situations, because a white, cis, het writer is never going to KNOW the experience of others and will have difficulty portraying the day-to-day struggles others face.

Getting back to the personal: I’m aware of differences. I kind of always have been. I grew up one of the few white kids in a mainly black neighborhood in Detroit. I played with Donna and Darnell, the black twins down the street. I remember one time Darnell needed to use the bathroom and I told him my parents didn’t want me to have friends in the house. He told me we were racist. I think about that now, and I’m pretty sure I said what I did because he was a boy and the thought of foreign boy parts alarmed me–not because of his skin color at all. But I was seven. I don’t know. Anyway, it got me thinking. Not long after, I got some personal experience of my own difference when I had my mom give me a pixie cut and the kids at my new school wouldn’t let me hear the end of it (which is one of the reasons I won’t wear a short haircut to this day).

Long story short: I’m a weirdo. I dress weird, and I have weird friends, and I practice a weird religion, and I eat weird food. I’m a woman, I’m fat, and I have a mental illness. So I get difference. But I still don’t feel qualified to write about a protagonist of color, or the life of a trans person. My writing is grounded in my own weirdness, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

But my experience is my experience, and as a white, cis, het woman I have a certain experience that is NOT that of a trans, gay, Native, physically disabled or otherwise different (or any combination thereof) character. Even though I’m also a fat Geeky witch. I do include characters of different backgrounds. I went back and rewrote my last book, The Cruel Mother, to change a secondary character’s race, and I made a point of putting more diversity in my next book, Demon Lover, than in any book before. However, I make choices that later seem terrible to me. My white, male protagonist is a practitioner of Native American Shamanism. I made him one because I’m rather intimate with a person who has studied the Red Road, but maybe it was a bad choice, smacking of cultural imperialism. I justify it to myself by saying I’m not making any claims and not trying to teach it to anyone–very few things annoy me more than those New Age books you see where some white person purports to pass down secrets he or she learned from some mysterious Indigenous mentor (because obviously only a white person is qualified to pass on the wisdom of brown people). Sage Randall, a friend of my female protagonist who appears in several books, is very much the “sassy black girlfriend” trope.  And John Stonefeather from The Parting Glass: What was I thinking??? A Native person with a drinking problem who has to be rescued from the consequences of his mistakes by white people? How problematic can you get? Again, that character was based on a real life person, a real Indigenous person of my acquaintance with real substance abuse problems. So I didn’t just go for the Drunk Indian cliché. But readers don’t know that. And I worry that it’s racist and offensive. When I brought it up to a friend, she assured me the thought has never crossed her mind…but she’s white. And when I sent a copy to an acquaintance who’s married to a Native man and who has lived on the Rez, I never heard from her again. Of course, she’s not the most reliable correspondent. I still wonder.

On the other hand, there’s the fact that men of both colors have always written characters, even POV characters, who are women and we don’t seem to have a problem with that. Sure, sometimes, especially these days and especially in genre fiction, we hear about male authors who have relied on social stereotypes and looked no farther. I don’t really feel qualified to comment on this, because I don’t tend to read those books. Or if I do, I don’t get farther than the first chapter or so. Looking back on older literature I’ve read, especially “The Classics,” I see one of two things: Either women don’t exist as POV characters, or the men who write them have succeeded pretty well for their times (disclaimer: I have not, in fact, read every book in the world). I haven’t read much critical analysis of say, Anna Karenina, that claims she’s an unrealistic stereotype. I didn’t like her or sympathize with her, but that’s my problem. This is not to say there is not a huge issue with sexism in literature. I’m remembering the guy who took issue with a fantasy novel featuring a female pirate of color because “female pirates didn’t exist in the real world.” (Like dragons do.) Which is demonstrably historically untrue. So, yeah: there are always the resistant asshats. But I can balance that against men who do a fine job, like Joss Whedon, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Gaiman et al. And the scales tip even.

I guess my point (Oh look: She’s coming to a point!) is: Diversity in fiction is in a hard place and it’s hard to achieve. I don’t think it’s realistic to proclaim that only people from a certain segment of humanity have the right to write about the experiences of that segment. And I laud writers who are trying to expand their horizons–and those of their readers–by writing about characters who are unlike them. But sometimes we will FUCK IT UP, I would hope inadvertently. And there are some aspects of life as experienced by those dissimilar to us that we will never be able to describe. The rise of self- and hybrid publishing has given rise to many new avenues through which different voices can come to light, and that’s a good thing. Still, in the traditional arena, the bulk of the responsibility for making available the diversity that is so important lies on publishers, agents, editors, and the like. And, because traditional publishing follows the money, on readers to demand it.

Edit to add: My friend, Stef, reminds me: This is an excellent book on avoiding some of the pitfalls of writing about characters unlike yourself: http://www.writingtheother.com/

 

 

A Brief Digression About Linguistic Imperialism. Or Something.

A person I follow on Twitter posted today that she was unfollowing Wil Wheaton everywhere because he had “used his position as a celebrity to bully an innocent young girl.” I don’t follow Wheaton myself, but from everything I’ve seen/heard from him, this didn’t sound like him. Of course, I have personal experience in the fact that even the most personable and…socially enlightened of celebrities can make serious blunders regarding things they’re just not educated about or haven’t experienced. Anyway, I was curious. Fortunately for me, the person I follow reblogged the original post, which you can see here.

This exchange triggers me on many levels. In fact, it has been enough to get me up off the couch, where I’ve been recovering–not very graciously or patiently–from reconstructive surgery on my sinuses and drive me to write down some of my process. I’m kind of sure my thoughts on the matter will open me to reaming from various quarters, but, well, there it is.

In case you have decided, for one reason or another, not to follow my handy link, here are the basics of the exchange: Someone, apparently a woman of color (I deduce this from comments late in the exchange) addressed Wil Wheaton’s use of the the term “Spirit Animal.” As I said, I don’t follow Wheaton so I have no clue when, where, or how he used the term. I get the impression (also from things mentioned later) that he uses it often and sometimes as kind of a toss-off, not talking about an actual Spirit Animal, but applying the concept to a person or persons he would like to emulate. The woman posing the question pointed out that he was practicing a kind of cultural appropriation by using a term from Native cultures in this way and suggested he use a different word. Wheaton replied, in effect, that he doesn’t think he’s taking anything from Native Peoples by using the term. Which, yeah, is problematic. But that’s not what triggered me.

What triggered me was someone else’s response to Wheaton’s response, and this is why: It was obvious to me that she had already decided what kind of response she expected to the original question. Several times she reiterated, “Wheaton should have said THIS.” And then she proceeded to tear apart his “apology” for not being what she thought it should be. In fact, it wasn’t an apology at all, and that’s one of the things with which she seems to take exception. Here’s another white guy practicing cultural imperialism through his thoughtless choice of words and not taking responsibility when someone is kind enough to point it out to him.

I kind of get it, as much as I can being a white woman. That is, being part of the dominant culture of the United States. I’m generally not subject to “Whitesplaining,” but I have been and am subject to “Mansplaining,” which in my experience is every bit as crazy-making. And I live most days with “Mental-Health-Splaining.” It sucks big time to have someone not of your culture/background/experience, from whose social progressiveness in other areas you might expect to have a clue, not fall in with your attempts at education. It’s HARD to address this shit, to put yourself out there instead of keeping your mouth shut. And it hurts when someone to whom you look up just doesn’t seem to get it, or even WANT to get it. Honestly, I have been there.

On the other hand, getting defensive and ripping someone a new one when s/he doesn’t give the response you want and/or think you deserve isn’t productive. That’s no longer about education. It’s about you venting your feelings of frustration. And it isn’t conducive to good communication. Okay, yeah, you’re angry at having to explain the same things OVER AND OVER AGAIN. I’m sorry to say this, but SUCK IT UP. Working for change takes saying the same things over and over again. It takes being civil when you want to break things. The message isn’t magic. You have to repeat it more than once. And the more condescending you get, the less people are apt to listen to you. Because when you say shit like “Why am I always the one who has to be civil? The Oppressors never have to worry about being civil to me!” you sound like a kid throwing a tantrum. IT’S NOT FAIR!!! Yeah, life ain’t fair, and the people dealing with oppression and abuse have more on them than the people dishing it out. That’s something I learned my first time in  a mental hospital. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now, but it’s what is.

The respondent’s tone isn’t the only thing that triggers me about the whole exchange, though, and this is where I think I may be accused of being white. I think about this a lot, too, in case you assume that I don’t, but am just writing out of being triggered. I think about it because as a novelist I write about peoples and cultures I am not a part of. I have black characters and Native characters and Latino characters and gay characters–quite a few in my work in progress–and I worry that I can’t do anything to get it right. My male protagonist is a man of Scottish heritage who was the student of a Native American shaman and practices a particular form of shamanism. He has a Spirit Animal. Is it not okay for me to have made this decision because I’m not of Native descent? Or should I have made him Native because of his spiritual system, even though that’s not how I saw the character? I’m not a Native Scot, either. Maybe I should have just stuck with everyone being white American, because that way I wouldn’t run the risk of getting something wrong or being unintentionally offensive. Except then I’d be open to accusations of not being inclusive enough.

I don’t mean any of this as snarky. These are really questions I ask myself. I do my best to be respectful and honest. I do my research. But I sometimes feel that there is nothing I can do to “get it right.” And I get tired of having to keep my self-censor active all the time because I’m white. There. I said it. I’ll say it again.

I’m tired of having to censor myself so much because I’m white and I’m afraid of getting reamed by someone who thinks my skin color equals my thought process.

A while back I read a blog written by a Pagan man who had participated in a conference with people from varying spiritual and religious backgrounds, including Native American. He recounted how he led an opening ritual which included invoking the directions and casting a circle, as we Pagans do. Later, a Native man confronted him about the practice, accusing him of stealing a Native system for his worship. The blogger tried to engage the man in conversation and explain that many religions share similar methods of setting sacred space, and that doesn’t mean that anyone stole from anyone else. He wasn’t sure the Native man accepted his explanation.

It’s really easy to look at anyone who bears the outward appearance of the dominant cultural mode and think they’re the enemy. At the risk of sounding like I’m making excuses for us poor white folks, even those of us who are trying hard have a lot to keep track of and we can’t always get it right. Sometimes we have to choose our battles, and sometimes our choices are not going to satisfy every single person who can find fault. Rudeness doesn’t win any allies.

I see this tendency toward being reactive all over the place, not just in matters of race. Last spring I read where members of a sorority at a college back east posted sticky notes on the mirrors in the women’s bathrooms. The notes read, “You’re beautiful as you are!” and other variations on this theme. It was the sorority’s attempt to do something positive and affirm women’s rights to come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. The next day, the internet was full of op-eds descrying this gesture because “We don’t have to be beautiful. Beauty for women is a construction of the patriarchy. We need to affirm our right to be ugly if we want!” And you know, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. But whom does it serve to shame a group trying to do something body-positive because it doesn’t fit your idea of what they should have done?

I don’t think I have anything else to say about this right now. I don’t have any answers. I guess I would just ask all activists, please, the next time someone makes you angry, I don’t care what about or where they’re from, just stop. Take a breath. Show a little more compassion and be a little less ready to blame. Anger is a good place to start change, but a poor work horse.

Shame is Shame

In the week since The Militant Baker announced Smash the Scale, I’ve seen a lot of reaction to it here and there around the web. Most has been positive, but a noticeable amount has been negative. Most of the negative is about what you’d expect: some variation on “look at these fat, lazy bitches trying to make their lack of dedication to my concept of beauty into something powerful, instead of feeling properly ashamed of themselves.” Or “Fat is NEVER healthy, because I know better than your doctor and I have totally bought into the diet industry.”

But one particular negative reaction has really stuck with me, through meditation and acupuncture sessions and, well, other important things like sleep. I got angry when I read it, and despite attempts to say “Yo, Haters gonna Hate,” I can’t seem to let go of it. I have to respond.

See, this negative reaction said this:

“…all these women still have privilege, whether it be white privilege, education privilege, or the privilege to be able to choose what they eat, much less eat at all. First world privilege. Is there a way to feel good about yourself without being a self-important victim? Yes. It’s like they pick the one thing they can rightly feel bad about and make their entire life revolve around it. It’s kind of pathetic because it’s all for attention, and to salve the self esteem of women who think boldly going against some grain makes them mavericks and martyrs.
Self esteem is a private and inside job. Publicly smashing scales as some type of ceremonial is certainly cool, but is worthless in the long run.”

This annoys me on SO MANY levels.

First off, okay, let’s talk about privilege. Privilege seems to be a new buzz word for people who want to continue being angry at anyone they disagree with. And okay, you know, I get that. I get being angry. I get wanting people to recognize their privilege and own their advantages in life. But there’s a fallacy at work in the mindset of those who go around pointing out privilege, and that is this: One kind of privilege DOES NOT cancel out subjective experience of pain in another area.

Back in the eighties, I had some friends who were born in Communist Czechoslovakia, a brother and a sister. Their father was a scientist, and the government wouldn’t let the family leave. Eventually, they came into contact with someone who smuggled the family out of the country in disguise and separated. The brother, at six, was disguised as a girl. The sister, at two, was smuggled out in a suitcase. The brother remembered having to go past the armed guards at the border and being frightened his disguise would fail and he’d be killed.

I consider that a pretty damn traumatic experience. But neither of them ever thought it gave them leave to tell other people they had no right to be dissatisfied with life and the way the world works. And it would never occur to me to dismiss their experience because they happened to be white and educated.

I can give myself as another example. Here’s a brief list of my personal privilege: I’m white. I have a roof over my head. I’m educated (BA in Dance Therapy, in case you care). I have a high IQ. I read. Actually, I LIKE to read might be more accurate. I have mad math skills. I’m cisgendered and heterosexual. I’m married. Married to an educated, fairly enlightened man, in fact. I have numerous talents, which include cooking and sewing. I have understanding in-laws. I live in a country that operates on fairly Democratic principles. I don’t have to worry about secret police dragging me from my bed because of something I said to someone (at least as far as I know). I have access to the internet. I have clothes and shoes to wear, and some of them aren’t even purely serviceable. I am physically able: not in a wheelchair or on crutches.

I think I could go on, but you get the picture.

Here’s a list of the way I am not privileged. I’m a woman. I’m fat. (Oh, but I’m pear-shaped fat, not apple-shaped fat, so even within this grade of non-privilege, I have privilege.) I have three mental illnesses (or four, depending who’s doing the diagnosing): I’m bipolar, I have PTSD, I have chronic depressive disorder, and I have general anxiety disorder. I suffer from migraines, which are a real, neurological disorder, in case you didn’t know. And all those disorders are invisible illnesses, which means I often get dissed by strangers who have no idea. I am financially poor, and I mean POOR; my husband and I, despite education and other kinds of privilege, subsist on a poverty-level income.

Again, I could probably go on if I felt like stretching my brain. But I don’t.

The thing is, everyone has privilege and everyone lacks it. Yes, even those despicable one-percenters lack some kinds of privilege. There is absolutely NO call to dismiss another person’s personal struggle on the grounds of privilege. You know, I read a lot of articles written by people of color that talk about having large, supportive families who push them. I didn’t have that, but it would NEVER occur to me to tell someone that their experience of racism didn’t count because they had “Large Family Privilege.” It’s simply daft. AND, it’s another kind of shaming. I’m not a big fan of shame, which is essentially telling anybody they should feel bad about something because you don’t agree with them. Yeah, there may be some rich white bastards out there who need to get a clue. That’s no excuse to use the privilege line as another reason to put shame on people whose activism you don’t like.

And in case you don’t see how pointing out privilege in this case is just more shaming, re-read that quote. Especially this line: “It’s kind of pathetic because it’s all for attention, and to salve the self esteem of women who think boldly going against some grain makes them mavericks and martyrs.” Just let that roll around in your mind for a minute. And then tell me it isn’t making a judgment against people the author does not know, whose experiences she has not experienced. Why in the world does she think she has ANY idea of these women’s reasons for doing what they’re doing?

And another thing: Can I tell you how very much I HATE the whole, “just doing it for attention” dogma?? Please explain to me in what reality asking for attention is a bad thing, because I don’t want to live there. Also, please reference any kind of activism that isn’t about drawing attention to something? If we’re going to dismiss the smashing of scales as a statement that is “worthless in the long run,” how do we reconcile that with other demonstrations, like women in the Temperance movement smashing liquor bottles, or strikers picketing for fair labor conditions, or human rights activists sitting in restricted areas of restaurants and busses? Or anything? I think probably this question is going to let me in for a lot of censure, but I would really like to know.

This is my take-away from the comment I have referenced:

“I’m uncomfortable with what you’re doing! Shut up and stop making me uncomfortable! And if you won’t, I’m going to do my best to make you feel bad about what you’re doing!”

Which makes me think THIS:

6908043-woman-with-tape-across-her-mouth--voiceless

Activism is speaking out. Activism is doing things that may not make immediate sense to the people not participating. That may make the people not participating uncomfortable, so that they try to dismiss the activism in any way they can. By that standard, I think Smash the Scale is working.

But I wish, someday, for a world where people can support others’ activism instead of myriad little interest groups all looking for ways to dismiss causes they’ve judged trivial as “Not Good Enough.”