There’s been a lot of uproar in the bookish Twittersphere of late about people (usually white) stepping in piles of their own privilege and, instead of giving that rank shoe a good scrub (or tossing it in the trash all together), they are pasting a diversity sticker over the filth and carrying on with their lives. As a white woman writer trying to carve my own slice of the publishing kingdom, I find the behavior of my fellow authors rather upsetting most of the time, so with this little space I’ve been afforded, I’d like to announce that I am coming for my fellows. It is time to collect your bags and get that shit organized, and a first of many steps to this is knowing how to behave when you get things wrong.
Because you will. You have already. If you’re old enough to be reading this, you have gotten many things wrong. Since this is a writing column, we will be discussing things like problematic representation and outright racism (unintended, most likely, as the defense usually goes) in your words. We white people, no matter our circumstances, have been steeping in a potent tea of privilege since birth, a concoction so concentrated that we are often unable to distinguish it from reality. This is how books like The Continent, American Heart, and The Black Witch come to not only exist, but be championed by various facets of the industry. This is how publishing con men like Dan Mallory not only skirt around the edges of consequence, but thrive in their mediocrity and deception. Sometimes it is an intentional act of ignorance and hatred, and sometimes the author has no idea what they’re doing it until it blows up in their face.
There are many times when I do see how a prejudiced act was unintentional. Perhaps I see it as a mistake I myself have at one time made, or something I never considered outside the sphere of my own whiteness. But here’s when things get hairy—because while I understand how it happens, it does not excuse the happening. It’s usually at this point where white authors scrawl long, pleading half-apologies about their intentions or long, rage-laced defense testimonies bemoaning political correctness and artistic censorship. The main connective tissue between both screeds is a total mystification on the author’s part that they were not categorically accepted despite their faults. We white people, white women as much as men, are so used to being excused for our bad behavior that it absolutely astounds us when other people demand we confront and atone for our biases.
A reckoning is coming, and many of us are desperately under-trained in the arts of humility, grace, and self-betterment. And we are all the worse for it.
There might not be one singular right way to confront such heavy topics, and this is not meant to serve as some “Four Easy Steps to Assuage White Guilt” kind of article, but I felt it prudent to discuss considering the simmering tensions between authors and readers alike, and because of the outright attacks made against many people of color daring to speak out. The burden of education and growth should not always be on the shoulders of the victims of such bad representation. We white people need to be accountable for our own growth, and so here we are.
So, say you find your words on the receiving end of criticism. How should you proceed? Here are my recommendations, for whatever they are worth.
- Shut your word hole for a minute. Too many bad takes and lazy “apologies” have come on the heels of defensiveness and shock. Trust me, you are not helping yourself or the community at large by lashing out in the hot seconds following sincere critique. With this in mind, see step two.
- Check your emotions. Anger and defensiveness are masks for other, deeper feelings, such as embarrassment, disappointment, and fear. Start at the top and drill down. You will not learn, and you will not grow if you continually refuse to uproot the rot. So do it. It might mean coming to a conclusion about yourself that you do not like, but that is the point, isn’t it?
- Educate yourself. Read. Do not go screaming to the internet demanding to be taught. Teach yourself. There is an infinite amount of resources at your fingertips able to help you process your own failings and teach you how to correct them. Do the work. (I have included a few links at the bottom of this article as good starting points)
- Take action. This is where your mileage may vary. Taking action could mean making a sincere apology. It could mean major revisions to your work. It could mean pulling the work from publication all together. And before you say it, NO, THIS IS NOT CENSORSHIP. This is called accountability, and just because you may not see the issues in your work does not mean you get to blithely shoot harmful words at the world like fabric out of a t-shirt cannon. There are consequences to free speech, my friends, and when white people start baring teeth over things like “censorship”, what they’re really saying is that the consequences should not apply to them. They never have before, and they resent it happening now. If you’re still hung up on this, please repeat step two before moving on.
We writers are all on a journey. We all have a story, and we all want to share it with the world. Why not do it spectacularly?
Do the work. Learn. Your craft will thank you for it.
Links to get you started:
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo