Log in

No account? Create an account
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-04-05 05:59
Subject: [personal] Fear, self-censorship, and facing into it
Security: Public
Tags:books, child, culture, family, gender, green, mainspring, nigeria, personal, process, race, taiwan, writing
This is a difficult post. When I found myself afraid to make it this morning, I realized I had to do so. My response to fear, once I get past whatever initial panic might be involved, is to step towards whatever scares me.

The so-called "Race Fail" last year was very troublesome for me. I found myself being vilified by total strangers based on other people's interpretations of a few words of mine in a blog post. I found myself being held up as an example of ignorant, arrogant white privilege. I found a lot of things being said about me that were flatly untrue, grossly misinterpreted, or simply assumptions based on my skin color and gender as portrayed in my blog's icons — in that last case, flatly stated as such.

I was told during the course of "Race Fail" that growing up in nonwhite countries (primarily Taiwan and Nigeria, for reference) did not give me any perspective on race. In other words, my white-ness trumps any possibility that my life experience might influence my development or perceptions.

I was told during the course of "Race Fail" that parenting a non-white daughter (the_child is adopted from China) did not give me any perspective on race. In other words, my white-ness trumps any possibility that my child's life experience might influence my development or perceptions.

Since then, I've self-censored almost completely on issues of race and gender here on my blog. Not in my fiction — go read Green if you want to see me talking about those subjects — but here in my daily musings about life, fiction, politics, cancer, parenting and whatnot. It simply hasn't been worth the trouble of defending myself every time I open my mouth, of having to laboriously re-establish my credentials and standing to even express an opinion on race or gender.

Am I complaining about being a white man? No. I am keenly aware of my privilege in society, even in the smallest ways. If I step up to a mobbed deli counter without a line numbering system, I'm often the next one called, ahead of people waiting far longer than I. I always defer to the people around me, precisely because I am aware. My paycheck every two weeks reminds me of my privilege. My occasional conversations with law enforcement remind me of my privilege. My nice house in the suburbs, my spiffy convertible, my pile of tech gear, my current standard of medical care in the face of recurring cancer — they are all privilege.

Ironically, one of the few places where white privilege isn't overwhelmingly woven into the baseline of society is fiction. I say this as someone who's edited numerous open anthologies, and submitted to something like a hundred markets. Manuscripts don't have gender or race. As an editor, I stopped looking at by-lines years ago, given how many people write psuedonymously. And speaking as someone who often writes characters who are not what I am (white, middle-aged, male, Anglo-Saxon), I long ago stopped assuming anything about the author's identity from their characters or settings.

All of which is to say, a commentor questioned why I'd linked to a recent review of Mainspring that took me to task through the lens of white privilege. My answer, likewise in comments, I have decided to repost here, because I think it's important.
I firmly believe the story belongs to the reader. Whether that reader is fan, a reviewer, or some random gal from Dubuque.

I also firmly believe the writer is not the story.

I also know that I am neither a racist nor a sexist, unless the reader subscribes to the theory that all white men are racists and sexists. In which case there's not much I can do about that reader's perception, since they're already prejudiced against me and anything I might have to say.

Finally, there's absolutely no point in arguing with reviewers, with the very narrow potential exception of errors-of-fact. Arguing with perceptions is futile. The words really do need to speak for themselves, even if the reader is hearing things I didn't put in them.

As far my personal place in this, anybody that's read more than a few words of my fiction or my commentary would know pretty damn well where I stand on issues of race, culture and gender as a strong liberal-progressive. If they haven't, then they're judging me based on their own misperceptions, and that's too bad for them.

I should have said two things differently. "Even if the reader is hearing things I didn't put in them" should not have been an "if" statement. By definition, readers find things I didn't put in the text. That's them bringing their own experience to the work. Writing is only half the job of telling a story, after all. Reading is the other half.

The other thing I should have said differently is to note that of course I am racist and sexist. I am a human being. We all distrust the other. It's hardwired into us. My responsibility as a human being, as a parent, a writer, a citizen, is to manage those impulses in such a way as to overcome them. Yes, I'm racist and sexist, every bit as much as someone who judges my words or dismisses my opinions because I am a white male is racist and sexist. As a white male at the top of the power curve, I bear additional responsibility for overcoming those tendencies.

That last is something I've been keenly aware of since about the age of 19, and worked diligently on all my life. Which you'd never know from looking at my face or my name, would you? You'd only know by listening to me, or reading my words.

So here's me, facing my fear of speaking up, and trying to end my self-censorship. Because I find the self-imposed censorship has only stoked my resentments, and that's less healthy than shutting up. Much less healthy.

Post A Comment | 50 Comments | | Flag | Link

Page 1 of 2
<<[1] [2] >>
Laura Anne Gilman: dandelion break
User: suricattus
Date: 2010-04-05 13:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:dandelion break
I had a discussion with my mom, yesterday, about religion (and the talking about thereof) where she thought I was wrong to speak about a religion not my own, no matter what I said or how I phrased it, because people would take offense (just as she took offense when someone who was not Jewish spoke about "Jewish matters.")

I tried to explain to her why I thought it was incredibly important to talk about things, to ask hard questions and engage in respectful dialogue (otherwise we all remain not only Separate Other but Frightened/Dubious Other) but I don't think she quite understood. I think I'll be sending her this link, too. Thanks.

Reply | Thread | Link

Rose Fox
User: rosefox
Date: 2010-04-05 13:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ironically, one of the few places where white privilege isn't overwhelmingly woven into the baseline of society is fiction.

There are two non-white authors whose work appears in this year's Hugo shortlist, to give a current example. Two. A third is up for the Campbell. And I've seen posts from people who are thrilled by this leap forward.

Go into a bookstore that's big enough to have an "African-American fiction" section and you'll find it full of a jumble of mystery, romance, and classics that could all be filed under "mystery", "romance", and "classics" if they didn't have black characters.

Of course white privilege is overwhelmingly woven into the ways that writers choose who and what to write about (you choosing to write about people not of your race is not the same as nonwhite people choosing to write about white people), that editors make purchasing decisions, that readers make decisions on what to read.
Reply | Thread | Link

Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-05 13:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Understood. And that's an argument I'll never win, and don't particularly care to try, because you're right. But my experience, on my editorial desk, is that manuscripts are all pretty much the same until I read the story. Do I bring my embedded acculturation as white male to that? Of course. Do I bring my awareness of my embedded acculturation? As best I can. (And for what little this is worth, my embedded acculturation is extremely not mainstream.)

One of my frustrations, in trying to do the right thing, is (to grossly oversimplify the arguments) being told that when I don't write the Other I'm being lazy or normative; while being told that when I do write the Other, I'm appropriating. So I write what I write, and be as respectful (or not, depending on the context) of the material as I can be.

A question for you, since you're probably a lot more aware of this than I am. There are two non-white authors on the Hugo shortlist out of, what, about 35 authors? What's the overall percentage of non-white authors active in the field?
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
Amy Sisson
User: amysisson
Date: 2010-04-05 13:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great post -- thank you!
Reply | Thread | Link

ubiquitous_a: obama-rawrz
User: ubiquitous_a
Date: 2010-04-05 14:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think there's different kinds of self-censorship. There's censoring yourself for the kinds of things that are just downright offensive in general (ETA: such as nasty jokes or comments that are designed to hurt people for no reason), and then there's censoring of things that are really *important* or have significant value.

When it comes to racial issues, I have to admit I have a pretty sensitive trigger as to what I find offensive. Which might be seen as pretty odd, considering that I'm a caucasian woman, but I was raised with the idea that the color of your skin shouldn't dictate how you are treated. Or rather, you should treat everyone with respect, and race was just never an issue.

Granted, perhaps it is because I am white, but I don't think that just being white means that one's opinions on race are somehow automatically invalid. We're all, no matter what our ethnic background, members of the *human* race (hence we all have a "race), and therefore entitled to have an opinion. While that opinion may not be popularly received by everyone, it doesn't mean that there isn't value to it. In fact, self-censoring on something that really does have some meaning for you certainly doesn't seem like the healthiest thing to me either. If someone doesn't like what you have to say, they can either object to it, or they can stop reading. This is *your* journal, and you should be able to write about the things that are important to you.....including race, if you choose to do so.

Edited at 2010-04-05 02:15 pm (UTC)
Reply | Thread | Link

Clint Harris: Hawk
User: wendigomountain
Date: 2010-04-05 14:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This world is a car accident, and we are all spectators with our own perspective on what "really" happened. One of the things that has bothered me the most about racefail, and other fails, is the complete disregard of other people's perspectives. As a "white" male, I can honestly say that my experience in this world has been anything but privilege. Is my experience a-typical? I don't think so. It's far from stereotypical though. Just as I don't believe their should be a typical perception of "people of color". Both views are racist, especially when you prejudge how well or badly someone has things based only on their appearance.

Nice post, Jay. This is your corner of the interwebz, say what you want.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: cyborgsuzy
Date: 2010-04-06 21:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As a mere spectator to Racefail, (anyone correct me if I'm wrong) I saw one theme that came up a lot: a misunderstanding of the term privilege.

If you're white, you have white privilege. Period: http://wiki.feministsf.net/index.php?title=Privilege

A lot of people get defensive about it (heck, I did. I learned a lot from Racefail, that's for sure). Acknowledging that it exists doesn't negate your perspective, or any other struggles you've had in your life.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand

Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2010-04-05 14:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"I also firmly believe the writer is not the story."

Reply | Thread | Link

Twilight: Daria
User: twilight2000
Date: 2010-04-05 15:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Speaking up has it's price - so does *not* speaking one's mind. You've discovered some of that second price since last year - and the 1st during race fail.

The truth is your voice is every bit as unique as anyone's - and your experiences will inform your writing just as everyone's will. The old Catch 22 that says "Don't write The Other and you're lazy or racist, Do write The Other and you're misappropriating their culture" simply isn't something one can live by. Both cannot always be true (tho I can envision cases where both are true occasionally) - and you are certainly not a lazy man, whatever anyone else can say.

I remember starting grad school - taking an anthropological course - and being told by a young woman in that class that I was, By Definition, racist Because I'm [apparently] White and anglo-saxon. That my family is Jewish and many died at Treblinka was not visually apparent to her. That her statement was either assumptive bullcrap (everyone who's white is racist - and her implication that she wasn't) or a defense mechanism (not a lot of black women in academia - less in Indiana where I met her), doesn't make her statement any less wrong - or any more isolative. When I suggested that I was no more racist than she - each of having to live inside the skin we grew up in - and whatever attendant cultures - she opined that statement simply proved her point - that I could think she, a member of the underprivileged class, could be racist, only proved my lack of understanding. Needless to say, we didn't have a lot of dialogue after that. Anything I said, she wrote off as "racist" - making any dialogue impossible. That she didn't also recognize her own racism would have made it hard anyway - but that I could say nothing of value to her made conversation impossible. Which is sad - because we both missed out on The Other in that lack of exchange.

I sometimes wonder if one can be so sensitive to one's own foibles that one simply never speaks - one never argues passionately for what one knows to be true of fair or valid - because one is so afraid of insulting The Other.

When I tell folks (any folks) that my mom was an early member of SNCK -that many (and in some towns most or all) of the early members were members of that elite "white liberal intellignesia" that populated so much of Acadamia - that they felt it was their *duty* to stand up for The Other in the face of knowing The Other wouldn't be heard in the Halls OF Power without their voices, I tend to get one of two reactions. When i say "and by the mid-to-late-60's, she'd worked herself out of a job, just as she had intended, because by that time, a black man's or woman's voice could be heard" - I tend to get those same two reactions. One is "wow - how cool" - the other is "why did she think she had to/had the right to speak for the The Other?" - interestingly, the reactions aren't nearly as race based as one might assume :>. She lived her life helping others - sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly - as all of us do - but she never once stopped trying to give someone a hand up - and that's worth remembering - and honoring.

I've never seen you not try to open a door, offer a hand up, show the path - to anyone who asked - regardless of race or sex - it's central to who you are. Whether you learned that from living in other places, from your parents, from the kids you grew up with, from what you read - from somewhere else or from all of those together - you clearly internalized that approach to life somewhere at some point. Don't lose it (or hide it) because someone accuses you of crimes Just Because You Look Like One. That's every bit as racist as any other stereotyping.

EDIT: And ya know what? I didn't do something I should have done here - congratulate you on taking a step into scary - I expect nothing less of you and it surprises me not one whit (which is why I didn't comment on it earlier) - but it's worth noting that sometimes it's hardest for those who *appear* to have no fear to go where they have fear - it's such an unusual place to be, and no one expects you to have those places.

Good on you for facing this one head on. And for letting others of us discover we may have some fear in that place as well :>.

Edited at 2010-04-05 06:53 pm (UTC)
Reply | Thread | Link

User: scarlettina
Date: 2010-04-05 15:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Jay said, Manuscripts don't have gender or race. As an editor, I stopped looking at by-lines years ago, given how many people write psuedonymously.

Having been--and being--an editor, that's been my experience as well. Though I can't say with certainty that it's true for all editors, I'd bet real money that it's true for many (or at least that many try to practice it as much as they consciously can), at least in our field. What counts is the words on the page. That said, one can't scrape the content from the individual words and content+enculturated experience does make a difference.

I understand your fear and applaud your stepping forward to address and clarify your thoughts here. On the other hand, I'd expect no less from you because You're Like That and am glad you've done so.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: gvdub
Date: 2010-04-05 15:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I continue to believe that, as Ashley Montagu put it so succinctly, the fallacy of race is mankind's greatest threat. This is of course, a Utopian view, but one worth living to the extent which one can. Most distinctions seen as racial are really class-based, when you come down to it, but the interests of the powerful are best served by framing them as racial to maintain division between those who, clearly seeing their common interests, might join together to try and better their lot (hence the 'Southern Strategy' and other such distractions).

In many ways, it comes down to the extent to which one has experienced being the other. Admittedly, in the U.S.A. this can be a difficult thing if you're a WASP, as 'otherness' can be more difficult to find. I've managed to spend most of my life being 'other' - fat guy in a thin world, hippie peacenik in redneck rural New York, white soul/R&B guitar player working the chitlin' circuit, sober/straight guy hanging out with drunks, stoners, and junkies, half of an interracial marriage, lots of other ways. If you've never been the other, it's harder to understand the other. If you've never looked for your own 'otherness' you may never understand. If you have looked for, found, and experienced it, it can be hard to convey that because you're judged based on your appearance rather than your experience, which is actually the same type of otherness you're being accused of not understanding.

I believe that 'otherness' is mankind's natural state. We are all the other, which is what unites us and brings us a commonality of human experience. We have but to seek and understand the otherness in ourselves to recognize and appreciate the otherness in, uh, others.

The sermon still needs a little work, but it's getting there. I do go on, don't I?
Reply | Thread | Link

Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-05 15:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I do go on, don't I?

But you do it so well. Happy to see it.

If you have looked for, found, and experienced it, it can be hard to convey that because you're judged based on your appearance rather than your experience, which is actually the same type of otherness you're being accused of not understanding.

Pretty much everything I was saying, summed in one sentence.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: fledgist
Date: 2010-04-05 15:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It takes a lot of courage and honesty to say all this, Jay. This is definitely worthy of praise.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: ullikummis
Date: 2010-04-05 16:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Agreed, Jay has "Backbone Privilege" as well!
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand

Grant Kruger
User: thirdworld
Date: 2010-04-05 16:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As a South African who lived through the end of Apartheid, I've seen how this social stigma changes with time and social standing. As I grew up I was accused of being a Communist and named a kaffir-boetie (n*gger-lover) to later on being told I was only a "pretend" African and inevitably a racist who, as a white, could not help but be a racist... all while having the same values. Neither party making those accusations ever listened to my opinions, let alone understood them. Those making sweeping judgments rarely do.

You can't win. You can be honest. And fuck the judgmental bastards.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: fledgist
Date: 2010-04-05 17:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think that honesty and deceny count as victory.

If you're a South African, I'd say you were African. I get annoyed at people who insist on telling me who I am, myself.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand

Chris McKitterick: just Chris
User: mckitterick
Date: 2010-04-05 17:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:just Chris
Good on you, Jay, for ending the self-censorship. You of all people would suffer under such a yoke.

And I think a person's experience is more important than their gender-by-birth or skin color (sez another white-male guy raised around the world, acutely aware of his privilege and who writes about people, not specifically white males).
Reply | Thread | Link

Rachel Swirsky
User: rachel_swirsky
Date: 2010-04-05 18:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When you say there is no privilege in fiction, are you arguing that there are no additional barriers faced by women writers, brown writers, queer writers, and so on?

You do not look at the byline, but you are presumably aware of the research showing that, with scientific papers at least, people who do are likely to assign the same work less value if it has a female name attached--whether or not they are sexist in other ways? (And presumably they aren't aware of this phenomenon, since it's subconscious?)
Reply | Thread | Link

Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-05 18:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, what I said was:

"white privilege isn't overwhelmingly woven into the baseline of society is fiction."

"not overwhelmingly woven into the baseline" isn't the same as "no privilege." It's a far more qualified statement, based explicitly on my experiences at both sides of the editorial desk.

This is exactly how I caught so much shit during RaceFail, because of reinterpretations like this that became subjects of extensive critique without actually referencing what I really said, or allowing me the credit of any nuance.

As for my observation that manuscripts don't have gender (to specifically address your point), when I was co-editing Polyphony with Deborah Layne, we made some pretty serious efforts to track gender on submissions, because we really wanted a gender balance in the ToC. As I recall (I'd have to go dig up the spreadsheet), a good third of the subs were gender neutral due to use of initials or bigendered names, and we were quite aware that many of the others subs were pseudonymous.

So, erm, the assumptions were being tilted towards female writers where possible, to compensate for the subconscious phenomenon, with an acknowledgment that at best we were maybe half-right about the gender in the first place.

Edited at 2010-04-05 07:33 pm (UTC)
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand

User: yourbob
Date: 2010-04-05 19:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
No picture, but Pinion in the wild today at Barnes & Noble, Crossroads Mall, 77nd & Dodge in Omaha, NE.

Reply | Thread | Link

Page 1 of 2
<<[1] [2] >>
my journal
January 2014
2012 appearances