For the benefit of white people only just discovering “Racefail ‘09“, or what was originally called “Writing The Other/Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM ‘09″, I am going to attempt to break it down into small bits for you. First, you need to understand these things are true:
- A lot of it isn’t about cultural appropriation directly
- A lot of it isn’t about racism directly
- There is a lot of it
And these things are not true:
- It’s about telling white people not to write characters of colour
- the bad behaviour is evenly split between both ’sides’
- the whole thing is a screaming match
In the interest of keeping this tight, I am ignoring an awful lot of interesting commentary. There is nothing to stop anyone reading every single post on this subject if they want to. This post is for those trying to make sense of it. (Also note, some of the points are slightly out of time order – I’m trying to keep it thematic as well as linear.)
On track: In the beginning, it was about writing about people who are not like you.
At the beginning of January 2009, Elizabeth Bear made a post about how to write the Other, including characters of colour.
Avalon’s Willow said Bear had ignored her own advice in a book called Blood and Iron. Willow found the book problematic, and explained why. Deepad agreed with her assessment of the book. So did Bear, apparently, though two months later she repudiated that acceptance.
Derail the First: It quickly became about who has the right to offer criticism
(Because so much of the evidence is now either in deleted posts, deleted journals, deleted comments, or screened or locked posts, journals and comments, I rely heavily on Avalon’s Willow’s timeline here)
Commenters on Bear’s post and later ones began to attack Avalon’s Willow and anyone agreeing with her assessment (as she has closed comments, these can no longer be seen but they were widely quoted and discussed at the time.) Sarah Monette made a post about AW’s review, and comments were offered by Emma Bull, Monette, Lisa Spangenberg and Macallister Stone that the problem wasn’t with the book but an insufficiency in those criticising it or their methods, basically agreeing that ‘Bear is a better writer than AW is a reader.’
Why is this about race? Because People of Colour have been historically excluded from many education institutions and academic career paths, and saying black people aren’t smart enough or educated enough to engage in a discussion is a common racist tactic. It is also a racist tactic to pretend that white people are the only ones who should decide who talks about what and when.
Derail the Second: It gets nasty and personal and starts to be all about white people’s hurt feelings.
Lisa Spangenberg calls AW an ‘orc’ and dismisses her.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (editor, Tor) commiserates with his friend Lisa Spangenberg, saying “Some people are smarter than others, to put it as baldly as possible.” (Comment now deleted, reproduced here)
Mac Stone compares her critics to her real-life abusers. (LJ account now deleted)
David Levine claims that he won’t be able to write characters of colour any more because he will be attacked.
A lawyer, Luke Jackson, using two separate sockpuppets, runs around spamming journals, threatening a transgender blogger and generally being a racist shithead.
Why is this about race? Because calling People of Colour stupid, ignoring their opinions and badmouthing them is a common racist tactic in discussions on race. So is comparing them to non-humans (‘orcs’). So is trolling and attacking PoC and their supporters. So is making it all about white people’s feelings.
Derail the Third: The spouses jump in and make it so much worse
Will Shetterly defends his wife Emma Bull from ‘racist’ People of Colour and promotes his well-worn theme of ‘there is no such thing as racism, only classism’. (LJ now deleted and comments apparently lost.)
Teresa Nielsen Hayden (consultant, Tor) leaps to the defence of her husband, Patrick (who had deleted his journal at this point), calling his critics trolls, ‘nithings’, sockpuppets and threatening to maintain a blacklist of all those involved, here and here. She also continues the theme of claiming that there is a useful discussion to be had on race but this isn’t it, and that because the people discussing it are using pseudonyms, their views have no value. Note – this was several weeks after the discussion started.
Why is this about race? Because calling People of Colour stupid, ignoring their opinions and badmouthing them is a common racist tactic in discussions on race. So is making it all about white people’s feelings. And so is telling PoC their own continuing discussions on race have no value. White authors and editors using their own names in blogs for advertisement purposes are not at the same risk as women and People of Colour engaged in discussions which become charged and threatening – so it’s racist to ignore their real and serious reasons for requiring pseudonyms.
Okay, are you with me still? Maybe now is a good time to take a short break, catch up with some good books. This new press looks like it could be terrific too.
Welcome Back! Notice that the people keeping this boiling are not those originally involved, are not People of Colour, and are not affected by race issues directly. They are all, without exception white authors and editors. This continues to be the case through the rest of Racefail ‘09 to the present time.
Derail the Fourth: It gets even uglier
In March 2009 (two months after the discussion started) Kathryn Cramer and Will Shetterly both outed the real life identity of one white commenter who had been a Tor employee many years ago, and persisted in doing so even when challenged. Shetterly’s reasons seem to be revenge (and now admits it was malicious). Cramer has had a long-standing problem with pseudonyms and online anonymity, and felt coffeeandink was hiding her past behind her LJ handle (although Cramer failed to mention she is married to a Tor editor.)
Three days later, Elizabeth Bear attempts to shut the entire conversation down until she’s ready to deal with it. She also repudiates her earlier agreement with Avalon’s Willow’s original assessment of her book.
Kathryn Cramer threatens legal action against those publicising her outing of coffeeandink.
John Scalzi deletes an attempt to out coffeeandink from his blog, but also takes a swipe at the entire Racefail discussion and LJ in general. He joins a list of prominent SF identities (many linked to Tor) behaving either badly or being dismissive of the matter. (Scalzi later apologises.)
Why is this about race? White authors and editors using their own names in blogs for advertisement purposes are not at the same risk as women and People of Colour engaged in discussions which become charged and threatening – so it’s racist (and sexist) to ignore their real and serious reasons for requiring pseudonyms. It is a racist tactic to pretend that white people are the only ones who should decide who talks about what and when.
And that’s it, essentially. There are dozens and dozens of posts commenting on these events and other related incidents, offering support (or criticism), people giving their own experiences and perspective, offering analysis and suggestions for constructive ways forward. Almost none of it is incoherent or screechy, actually, and the truly appalling behaviour has come from white professional authors and editors.* None of this is hard to understand, though there’s a lot of repetition as people, strangely enough, are largely in agreement over the substantive issues.
Now, was that so bad, really?
*I should point out that Lisa Spangenberg received some nasty real life harassment in the form of anonymous emails and calls to her employer. In the absence of any evidence as to the perpetrator, it is suggested here that it’s Luke Jackson, repeating behaviour already seen from and proved to be by him.