Fiction, Research, Reality, More Research

So I’ve been ranting a bit about diversity in Wonder Woman (okay a lot) & I could pretend that this was the only time. But I did the same with Agent Carter. Because canon in comics is actually more diverse than what makes it to the screen. And when it comes to comics (or any other media) with a historic setting (think Regency, Victorian, either World War or of antiquity) there is an unfortunate tendency to ignore the reality of those times. People will believe in Wonder Woman’s magic lasso or the Red Skull, but balk at major characters being darker than a paper bag. And then they will insist it isn’t racism it is about historical accuracy.

Fun fact, the #HistoricPOC & #DiversifyAgentCarter tags were me calling out Marvel’s fuckery years ago. I would have called out DC’s failures in Batman & Man of Steel but I didn’t like either and well…that pitiful Green Lantern movie happened & I am still not sure DC can be trusted with their own live action. Not after the way they squandered major characters in Suicide Squad & erased so much Wonder Woman canon. We’ll see what happens with Aquaman.

And listen this doesn’t mean Marvel is good. It’s just that Marvel had the good sense to finally stop eating its own foot at every single turn. Small steps. Small. I was so excited for Wonder Woman because I know the canon and Wonder Woman literally had the chance to show us an interracial lesbian couple in power (Hippolyta and Philippus), to give us Diana and her sister Nubia, to hint at the Bana-Mighdall. Hell Wonder Woman had the chance to make Diana’s origin story about her and the conflicts faced between Amazons on Themiscrya and off it. No need for the TV box of Chris Pine’s head or a focus on her interaction with “man’s world”. At least not for the bulk of her movie. So much amazing canon squandered to repeat the story already told in the iconic TV series. with Lynda Carter. With the added shoehorn of a WWI setting for a WWII character.

(Yes this Tyra moment is problematic as hell, it also totally applies to this moment)

Anyway, whether it is comics or YA or prose, there’s this tendency to think diversity is an almost all white cast with one or two POC who get to speak. Often the POC get to play tropes like Mammy. Magical Negro. Or Wise Indian. Or Sassy Latina. Something you can find on a list like this one. They might teach a white lead or die for them. But they don’t really have lives of their own. Because the white leads are the people who matter. Tropes are easy, tropes can be comfortable (when you’re not the target) because those tropes are familiar. They feel “right” because you’ve seen them a dozen times. Of course you’ve seen them so much on screen because they were standard fare during Jim Crow. In movies, on TV & in comics.

They have nothing to do with reality or creativity and everything to do with racism. The Comics Code Authority, and The Hays Code, have a lot to answer for in terms of visual media. Book bans…oh so many book bans and…creativehistory out of Texas also have a lot to answer for in terms of what we think of as a realistic setting for stories. Fun fact, the history you think you know is probably wrong. Seriously, there’re little or no chance you learned about Jim Crow etiquette or “Medieval” POC, or Regency POC, or rich African women in Roman society, so don’t expect to see them. But as even Doctor Who pointed out recently? History is a whitewash. British history, American history, yes even German history.

I can hear the “Yes Mikki, we get it, Black people everywhere. You tell us that a lot” And yes my examples are largely Black people because that tends to be my focus. But you can look for general terms like Asians in Britain, or specify Chinese in Limehouse, and find examples. The books are there, the websites are there and really all you have to do is spend some time with Google. Writers in those decades wrote about the people around them, hence Shakespeare’s Othello. He made up the setting and the drama but he routinely saw people who were of color because Elizabethan England was diverse.

This is where we get into my biggest pet peeve about fiction. You don’t have a good reason for an all white setting. You don’t have a good reason for erasing the people who were there. Not now. Not post Jim Crow. Not in the era of Google and easy access to information if you just plug in some terms. I’m a historian by training, I had to do all my research in undergrad in the special collections wearing gloves or peering at microfiche or tiny text in books that I had to dig for the hard way. Now? You can find anything at the tip of your fingers. You don’t have to even leave your house. So why not look at a setting, at an established character, at something in what you’re working on and weave the most complete picture, the most inclusive picture possible?

“Okay Mikki so more WOC, more POC and LGBTQIA folks, but like…what could they have done? They couldn’t fight.” So about women warriors, even in The Burnt City aka Shahr-e Sukhteh, & you can find WOC from all over the world studying medicine in America during the late 1800’s? They can do anything. Also please note that if you’re going to argue against disability representation? I’m going to point out the millions of disabled people the world over who go about their lives in all sorts of situations. Literally do some research, ask yourself why you think the past or future was white, cis, straight, able bodied, and slim. The past wasn’t that way, the present isn’t that way and despite the best work of bigots, the future is browner, rounder, and more complicated than anything you’ve been trained to expect.

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WisCon…is complicated

Early Wiscon was actually pretty traumatic for me. I almost left and never went back. But I had friends involved and I didn’t want to abandon them. Plus I hate being told what I can and cannot do by people who clearly don’t think I’m human. I’m a brawler not a fighter (there’s a difference), so I won’t say that I’ve been particularly nice or sweet about things at WisCon. To be honest that ship sailed when I left in tears that first year. When Richard Russell’s right to berate POC (especially WOC) was defended for years. When white women’s license to be racist and clueless was held up as feminism. When I learned that most of the “feminist” in that con was for white women. I still remember that it took a white woman asking for Russell to be stopped before the old concom was willing to even filter his posts. And many kept making excuses even after that for the terrible way he treated some people by pointing to how nice he was to them. And yeah people change, but I notice some overlap between people asked not to be on staff at WisCon (or in some cases to attend at all) and what went wrong at OddCon.
The anger you see coming from so many POC at WisCon now is years deep. It might be uncomfortable to hear, might be upsetting but only recently has WisCon been a place where it was safe for many of us to be angry out loud. I still remember the threats during Racefail to prevent many of us from ever being published. Those threats were empty but none of us knew that then. We thought we were giving up an aspect of our writing careers (or the whole thing) to carve out some space for others. That was why I started Verb Noire with my friends. And yes we failed at starting a company, but we succeeded at the message that we wouldn’t be driven away.
I helped with WisCon’s statement of principles, took the heat for banning someone who had been verbally abusing hotel & con staff for 10 years. I was the first Black chair of a con that claimed to be feminist while being actively hostile to WOC and so many others. I’m never going to have that shiny happy joy about WisCon that some people do. That ship sailed the first time I attended and I have accepted that some people feel differently. Your love for WisCon is less complicated than mine. That’s a-okay, but can we stop pretending that a lot of people don’t have great reasons to be angry about the years it took to get here?
I chaired Access this year & did some last minute work with Programming & there’s still a shitty gaslighting quasi racist thing happening with one of the missing stairs from the old concom that will get dealt with, but seriously if you’e talking about the anger of POC as unproductive you still aren’t paying attention to how we’re treated when we’re there. The racism & misogyny is less overt but it isn’t gone. The misogynoir in particular isn’t gone. Because white men aren’t the only culprits. Some of this is coming from “feminist” white women who can’t deal with even the tiniest shift in power dynamics. And I have to tell you that the tears of racist white women really don’t move me. Cry. Go on. But you’re going to act right or you’re going to have a rough damned day.
I’m not nice enough or kind enough or whatever other rooted in Mammy tropes/expectations some folks have of me in how I deal with the work that needs to get done at WisCon. I’m the bitch that doesn’t care about your feelings because your feelings are manipulative bullshit when it comes to race and class far too often. Other people who are willing to do that emotional labor are welcome to it, but I think that sheer entitlement will drive away even the kindest hearts sooner or later.
WisCon has been a source of great joy & also pain for me. And yeah I think about leaving it behind a lot. A lot. But that falls into my “Why should I give up the sweet because of the bitter?” range of responses. Plus every year new POC come to the con & some of them are sweet and shy & unlikely to fight back. I’d rather they keep their joy instead of going through what I did. I also find it incredibly suspect how often it is assumed that POC attendees aren’t investing time and money to help the con run in the same way as white attendees or that younger people who use newer tech are somehow doing less work because their process is different. But that’s pages and pages of mundane breakdown of how many hours of work go into making the con happen before the event & the unseen work done during the event. It’s not the WisCon it was 10 years ago or 20. It’s not even the WisCon it was 5 years ago. That’s actually a good thing. Just so you know, if it doesn’t change and grow then it dies. Survival is hard work and I am underwhelmed by the complaints of people who don’t go to WisCon or who aren’t willing to do the work about the results created by the people who do show up and show out every year.

Writing class announcement!

I’m teaching two writing classes next month! One non-fiction and one fiction. This is my first time doing online classes solo so get in while the tickets are cheap! 15 slots available in each class. I don’t know how often I’ll be offering them in the future, but I do know this is the only time my pricing will be this low. Come and get it while you can! Also there will be one scholarship seat available for each class. I’m trying to figure out the fairest way to award them, so stay tuned for that post!

#OddCon or You get a harasser! And you get a harasser! And you!

I could write something witty & introspective about the fact that Odyssey Con is shooting itself in the foot. But a guy who spent our first interaction staring at my breasts is being defended by a racist sexist jackhole who verbally abused me & other WOC until he was forced to stop & really all I have is this big glass of wine & some popcorn. Go on, set your event on fire. Alienate a whole bunch of potential attendees and guests. You don’t want to succeed? Okay.

Tempest already laid out the backstory in detail, so I won’t bother repeating her words. I’ve already explained how to kill an event, and well the players change but the formula doesn’t. Instead we’re going to talk about what to do after something is called out.

A) It’s not enough to write a harassment policy. You have to enforce it. That might not make you popular with everybody, it will protect your attendees though, and create this wild environment where fewer people have to do the math on which known asshole to avoid.

B) The fact that someone was (maybe) not a human trash fire in 1972 does not mean that they are not fucking up every which way possible in 2017. Not only do standards change, so do people. Welcome to reality.

C) Any & all claims that you are doing the right thing by not banning anyone because they haven’t harassed anyone in front of you are the worst kind of enabling & it makes you liable for the moment the person does the thing. Because you were warned. REPEATEDLY.

So, instead of doubling down, maybe, just  once you could try listening to the dozens & dozens of people warning you that you have a problem. Don’t be like #OddCon. Watch it set itself on fire, discuss the ways it went wrong then go back to your home con & learn from the mistakes. Don’t repeat them. LEARN FROM THEM.

How To Write About Black Women

 

First, state your credentials. It’s okay to be a woman, but not a black woman. Their lived experiences are immaterial and can be dismissed as merely anecdotal. Make it clear that you are not racist or sexist, you are merely concerned about their plight. What plight? Well, pick one. Or several. Marriage, children, lack of the above, too much education, not enough education, welfare, whatever you think will sell. It only matters that you highlight their troublesome natures. Whatever it is, you must be sure to make it clear that they aren’t like other women. They are failing to perform in some way that affects the whole of society, even if you can’t quite explain how or why their personal lives are public property. Further, rely heavily on the idea of research that shows the problem is a problem. Never mention exactly when that research was done, or who were the subjects of it. Too much context may unnecessarily complicate the conversation. And those pesky facts might get in the way of your ultimate goal.

Utilize stereotypes whenever possible, preferably ones that tie into the Mammy, Jezebel, or Sapphire tropes. Describe black women in ways that play up their sexuality and remove their humanity. After all they are Other, so their skin is a food stuff, the space between their thighs is mysterious, and they have never ever been innocent. No need to mention virginity or purity, even when speaking of black female infants, your focus must be on their sexuality. If you are speaking of black mothers make it clear that they need guidance, financial support, or salvation. What salvation? Well that all depends on whether they work too little and thus are on welfare, or work too much and thus are neglecting their children. There is no point at which they can balance work and family, because again they are Other and that is not possible for them. They are emasculating and thus unworthy of relationships, or the key to being masculine with their all knowing sexuality that is present from birth. Unrapeable, they can be trusted to raise any children but their own, and are sexually available until they become sexless.

They exist to be support systems, whether for men of all colors or women of every color but black. No need to mention their needs, hopes, dreams, or concerns. They have none, even if they do occasionally speak of themselves as real people with feelings. Their voices are too loud, too uneducated, or simply too aggressive. They are always angry about something, but their feelings aren’t real so they don’t matter. Be sure to specify how reasonable you are in the face of their unreasonable behavior. Write of how you studied them at a safe distance, while proclaiming that some of your closest friends are black women. No need to know anything about those close friends, but their names since all that matters is that you have them as proof that you know your subject, and are not racist or sexist.

Contrast them with women of other races, always making sure to highlight that other women are real women, while black women are simply black. Feel free to make blanket statements about their religious beliefs, educational levels, income levels, and family dynamics. All of it is true because you say it is, and you are the expert in black women, not any actual black women. If they are offended by your words, remind them of your credentials and refuse to engage in a conversation with them until they can be less emotional. Point to their tone as a reason to doubt the veracity of their experiences. After all they are only black women and thus they know nothing, own nothing, and are worth nothing but what you say they are.

This is the talk I gave at Nerdcon 2016. I first wrote a version of it in 2012 after a series of unfortunate thinkpieces about Black women written by people who clearly had no clue. Sadly it is still true today.

Listening 101 or What Happens When Your Sensitivity Reader Tells You The Book is Hot Garbage

This was inspired in part  by Justine’s post on writing protagonists of color when you’re white. I’m going to frame this all from the perspective of a Black American sensitivity reader because well…that’s what I am. Speaking for myself and all of that jazz. Most of the projects I see suffer from the relatively minor problem of Black characters being less developed than white characters (I say minor because that is at least fixable) but occasionally I get a project where the Black characters are a pastiche of racist stereotypes.

Take a little Mammy, throw in some Jezebel, and add self loathing then call them complex! No. Nope. That’s not complex, that’s a hot mess. Often a hot mess that reflects the writer’s discomfort with the community they have decided to include that ends up no longer being a private problem. Whether it’s a peculiar fetish for writing white leads that are so irresistible to characters of color that they give up friends, family, and safety, or for only writing characters of color that end up sacrificed to save a white lead’s comfort, writers unconsciously tell on themselves. Their idea of diversity isn’t inclusive, it’s just plain offensive.

Not Everyone Can Write The Other

There’s often a hesitance to tell white writers that they shouldn’t include characters of color. After all better representation for marginalized communities hinges on people with privilege using it for the greater good. I understand that logic, once upon a time I espoused it myself. But, I’ve seen too many writers hop on the so called diversity train without bothering to do even the most basic research. They will pick a majority POC city like Chicago, choose an area that’s racially mixed but largely Black and Latino, then center the story on white characters. If they do incorporate a character of color that character knows no other people of color, has no relatives or friends, no actual community other than the white leads. That’s not a character, that’s a prop.

If you do not know that Black people in Chicago (or anywhere) have family, friends, coworkers that look like them then you’re not writing people. If you don’t think of  Black people as having a community that they speak with (and of) regularly then frankly you have no business writing a Black character. If your idea of a “complex” Black female character is one that wants to be white, or one that is so enamored with white people that she ignores their racism then you don’t want diversity. You want a conveniently placed token that will shield you from any criticism.

Put Those Pearls Down Instead of Clutching Them

The “Well I tried and no one like it, so I’m scared to try again!” defense is complete and total bullshit. It’s the kind of manipulative horseshit that we wouldn’t, (and shouldn’t) accept from a male writer who claimed he can’t write women. Just like you would respond to any other writing critique by trying to do better, the solution to being told your character is a racist trope isn’t tears and pearl clutching. It’s an apology and an attempt to do better. Except that doing better isn’t a matter of making one or two changes and putting the same sad sack of a character on the pages of the next book.

Being Inclusive is Work

Doing better looks more like practice, in that imperfect unpublished first draft way. It means taking Writing The Other workshops, reading the works of writers from the community you want to write about, talking to people from that community, and going to those areas in cities that might not have a lot of people that look like you. It means not only hiring a sensitivity reader, it also means listening to that reader even when they tell you that the book sucks.

Think of it like getting grades in school.  When your 9th grade English teacher broke the news that a 3-5 paragraph essay wasn’t the same as a quality research paper did you fight with them and insist that they were wrong? Or did you have to learn how to write a good research paper?

Listening is Fundamental

You have to be willing to listen to your sensitivity reader/s or you’re going to be churning out the same terrible characters over and over again. And no one needs that, no community is helped by that, in fact instead of promoting diversity you’re part of the problem you claim to be fighting.

Racism doesn’t have to be overt to be real.

It’s hard to hear that your work is offensive, there’s a tendency to assume that real racism is only the kind that plays out with slurs and violence. But the sad reality is that the passive racism that makes those events possible is far more common, and much more harmful on a societal scale. No one who thought crack was worse than cocaine in the 80’s would have come out and said it was about race. After all, crack was a problem in violent inner city communities, cocaine was just something foolish rich people dabbled in. Harmlessly. Same drug, but the difference in association led to the War On Drugs completely with sentencing guidelines that meant someone with crack went to jail, while cocaine meant rehab. Structural racism at its finest, and with no need to admit it.

Your book sucks, now what?

You can try to fix it, but sometimes what you wrote is beyond repair. Maybe your plot replicates racist narratives, maybe you are telling a story about a sensitive topic that simply isn’t your story to tell. Sometimes all you can do is take the loss, dump the manuscript (or take out your attempt at diversity) and move on. This is no different than shelving a book that you can’t sell because there are too many vampire novels out for it to do well. There are enough books that feed racist stereotypes. No genre needs more of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flash Fiction: Show

She stood at the window, watching the dragons dive into the lake below while the wind from their passage rattled the glass panes in front of her. Hearing a rustling behind her, she turned to see office gnomes scuttling across her desk, their nimble hands quickly turning the mess into a few neat piles arranged by importance. She smiled at their leader and reached into the basket of gifts she kept for their visits. Pulling out several small packets of dried fruit and tiny clothes, she laid them at the edge of the desk and turned back to finish watching the dragons on their sunset flight. As the sunlight faded, she lingered to watch the first of the fairies ascending to meet the dusk, before turning back to her desk to finish her work.

She worked quickly, careful to keep her mind focused only on the numbers in case the wizard had inadvertently coded a spell into his financial disclosure. When the last bit of data was processed, and her recommendations were entered into the system she placed the paper work in a spell proof binder and laid it aside for final review. Glancing at the digital hourglass on her desk she sighed wistfully, the Pegasus would be leaving in a few minutes and she still needed to lock up and set the wards. Her movements as she sketched out the runes were precise though her mind was already on the after work drink she planned to enjoy while she waited for the next Pegasus. The brisk sound of her heels clicking on the slate floors echoed through the hall as she made way out of the building.

Just a little worldbuilding sketch for something I’m working on! I started wondering what the end of the work day would look like in this world. And well with a few changes, it would probably look a lot like ours. I’ve decided to set up a Patreon account so here’s another sample of the kinds of things subscribers would see. Tip jar if you like, but either way I really hope you enjoy!