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!

#Readercon: Low Point & Lessons

For those who weren’t at Readercon—or who didn’t attend the Beyond Strong Female Characters panel—Sabrina Vourvoulias’ post lays out the panel I was going to write about as my low point for the weekend. I expect a certain amount of fail at sci fi conventions, and as failures go this wasn’t one of the majors for me. (Ellen Kushner has already apologized to me on Twitter, and I will be talking to her shortly after this post goes live. I accept the apology and this post isn’t really about Ellen so much as the phenomenon she was a part of at this particular panel.)

I wasn’t originally scheduled to be on the panel, and I agreed to do it at the last minute as a favor to the programming chair, Emily. (I’ll still do favors for Emily, but she’s probably going to owe me a teensy bit for this one.) I was annoyed at the time by the way the panel was going and I did the math. In that moment, I decided against looking like the Angry Black Woman ™. It was early, I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, and—frankly—I have fought to make space for myself and voices like mine on so many panels that some days all I have is an eye roll and a plan to walk away after the panel is over. 

In the wake of news stories about Dallas, Minneapolis, and Chicago, a part of me was elsewhere, focused on my sons and other people that I love and their safety. Readercon is supposed to be fun, or at least fun adjacent, and I drew the line at spending 2 days driving to Boston from Chicago and then spending money on a hotel to be angry because a panel was tense.  

I’m sure Ellen didn’t intend to come off as “snotty and dismissive,” but that’s what happened. And while I am fine and already over it, I am also aware that seeing that panel could have been off-putting to someone who is not me. For another Black writer (or anyone of color, really) who was new to Readercon, new to con spaces, a moment like that on a panel could lead to them deciding not to volunteer for panels. As Readercon’s Program Chair already noted in comments to Sabrina’s post, Readercon isn’t exactly a bastion of racial diversity. And this panel was far from the only one this weekend to go downhill when attempts to bring up race and how it intersected with the panel discussion were met with less than adept reactions from white panelists. 

I look to the newer fans in the audience and try to draw them into the conversation every single time I panel. So many new faces (particularly of color) were at Readercon this year. For many of them the problem wasn’t, “Well, Readercon only talks about books,” so much as it was, “Readercon seems unwilling to talk about books in a way that includes people like me.” 

No one is perfect. No one can ever be perfect. But if con spaces are going to survive, if they are going to attract new attendees, then everyone involved, including panelists, has to be conscious of how they are engaging with each other and with the audience. New attendees can easily decide to spend their money and time at corporate-run media cons. It won’t be as intimate, they might not build the same friendships, but they will also be navigating spaces that are far less fraught. I go to Readercon because some dear friends run it, but for the last 4 years I have had at least one panel go sideways. At some point I will do the math in the moment, wish my friends well, and stop going if Readercon doesn’t get better for me and people like me. 

And that’s the kicker of moments like this: I’m the person who has been willing to fight the fight. I’m the person who has been willing to keep coming back.  I have a personal and professional stake in Readercon.

For a lot of newer writers, newer fans, there’s no real reason to sit through panels that aren’t diverse, to watch as panelists are disrespected, not when they could go do something else, make connections somewhere else. As a community, we have to be willing to have the harder conversations, to have the nuanced discussions, to understand that someone wanting to apply an intersectional lens to a discussion isn’t the enemy but the one trying to make things more inclusive. Are the conversations at sci fi cons changing? God, I hope so. 

If I’m on a panel that addresses craft, humans, sexuality, gender, robots that are treated like humans, or whatever else a panel description might contain, I’m going to do my best to broaden the discussion. To talk about the ways that race, class, etc. can impact the topic at hand. To want the conversation to be as nuanced as possible. Because that’s the point of going to cons. I refuse to be pushed out, to let someone else feel like they don’t have a right to be there, to be an Other in a genre that is ostensibly inclusive.

Ultimately, cons are supposed to be fun. They’re a chance to meet people who love the same kinds of things that you do, a chance to geek out with them about whatever it is that you love. They are also a major part of networking in the industry. You can share a table with an agent, an editor, and your potential audience. Cons are important for fans, for authors, for the publishing industry as a whole.

Dissuading new authors and fans from con spaces this way won’t keep them out of publishing. It might make it more difficult, it might make for fewer amazing stories. But mostly it will make for the end of con culture. Maybe that’s the point. If the panels aren’t welcoming, if some con spaces feel closed, then as sad as it might be to lose con culture, maybe that’s for the best because endlessly fighting for space at the table is energy that can be used to build a new table.

Virgins

“They used to send virgins. Little dainty things full of hope, innocence, and fear. Sticky sweet, mildly nauseating, but still a proper sacrifice of flesh from those who wished to appease or curry favor.” The creature purred, its eyes gleaming as it flexed one long purple claw in my direction. “But you are most definitely not a virgin. Or a sacrifice. So, why are you here?”

“Maybe they finally figured out that we like a little variety? I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.” I turned my head towards the guttural voice coming from the corner; doing my best not to look frightened as a gaunt giant reeking of decay came into view, “This one smells like she’ll actually taste good. Salty, sour, maybe just a hint of bitterness to liven things up.”

“I’m here to interview you.” I clutched my microphone holding it out in front of me like a talisman doing my best to keep breathing normally as I said, “You’re the last of your kind. Before you fade from existence I thought I, well we, really, I write for Truth magazine. I thought we could get the facts right from the source.”

“What makes you think we’re going to fade?” A thick slab of thought wedged itself into my head the pool of water behind me rippling as a heavy tentacle slithered across my foot; the tip of it wrapping around my ankle and squeezing gently before it moved away. Fortunately I’d chosen to wear steel toed combat boots instead of the sensible flats my editor recommended when he called to offer me the assignment, “We were here when your kind was still figuring out fire.”

“The end comes for all species eventually.” I shrugged, doing my best to look nonchalant “Wouldn’t you rather clear the air before extinction? The dinosaurs didn’t have that chance and we’re still trying to clear up the idea that they were little more than rampaging beasts.”

“Why should we trust a human with our stories?” The first creature leaned towards me, her face alight with some emotion I couldn’t identify, “A bargain must flow in both directions and you have nothing to trade.”
I cursed myself mentally for not thinking of payment. “What would you like?”

She stared at me contemplatively, the metallic sheen of her feathers almost hypnotic in the dim light as she spread and closed her wings repeatedly, “What do you have?”
I dug in my backpack, pulling out my lunch and the first aid kit that I’d stuffed next to my recording equipment. I didn’t need to hold up my peanut butter sandwich to know that it wouldn’t satisfy my new companions. I fumbled for my wallet, only to discover that I’d left it below in the skimmer I’d used to make my way up the mountain. Frustrated and embarrassed, I let my eyes wander only to realize that the veins of raw gold embedded in the walls were probably worth more than everything I owned.

A delighted laugh slipped past her lips when she saw the realization of my predicament cross my face, “You actually came here empty-handed? I took you for brave…not foolish.”

“I’ll do anything, well…anything within reason to make this happen. No human sacrifices or anything, but I…” I stammered, catching myself before I said anything they could twist to trap me “I can get you whatever else you would like with just a couple of phone calls. Books, valuables, whatever you want from the outside world can be delivered in a few hours.”

“We have no use for human trinkets. So, what do we do with you?” She turned her head slowly from side to side, apparently getting some sign of consensus before she added, “One hidden truth for each of our stories. Nothing easy. No sweet little childhood tales about hidden toys. We want the good bits, the juicy things that have never seen the light of day.”

“Fair enough. Secret for secret. Who wants to go first?” I held up my head, curving my lips into the closest thing I could muster as a smile, “You talk, I’ll listen and if I have any questions I’ll ask them when you’re done. Then I’ll share a secret.”

There was some shuffling and rustling and then complete silence. I had a brief flashback to my days of substitute teaching. Before I could muster up my best encouraging voice, the one that made even the shyest children stand up and share the creature in front of me flexed her wings and sighed, “I’ll do it. Sit yourself down little girl and I’ll tell you all about harpies.”

I glanced around for a comfortable spot away from the tentacles and still close enough to record her voice. Seeing nothing suitable I laid my microphone aside, pulled off my jacket, and tossed it at the largest of a pile of stones, only to see it fall short. I stepped forward, picking it up and throwing it again only to discover that my aim was off a second time. Confused, I started forward again only to hear “Stop playing silly games with her. It’s my turn.”

One of the highest stones in the pile twisted to form a set of lips, “She should at least ask before she tries to sit on my knee.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that you were…a you.” I bent to pick up my jacket and the stone slid toward me.

“Humans have completely forgotten about us. Not romantic enough or something.” A rumbling sound that could have been a laugh came from the pile, “Go ahead and sit down. I don’t bite. I don’t do much of anything now.”

“That’s okay. I can stand.” I shifted from foot to foot nervously.

“It’s not every day that you get an offer to be dandled on a stone giant’s knee.” The harpy bared her teeth, “I do not wish the pains of your feet to distract you from your work. Waste no more time on silly protests and sit down.”

“Go ahead. I’ll even shape it so that your protuberances are comfortable” True to his word, the stone’s shape altered into something like a chair complete with a place to rest my arms.

Arguing with a harpy and living rock struck me as a singularly bad idea so I said “Thank you” and took a seat. She paced back and forth in front of me, her claws clicking loudly on the rock.

Finally she spat out “You humans made up these stories painting my race as little more than screeching servants to some god’s whimsy. But we were so much more than that, so much more than you could ever imagine.”

She fell silent again and I leaned forward, debating whether I should press her for more details or simply wait her out. I had just made up my mind to take the risk of asking a question when she said quietly, “Our cities were beautiful. Homes with roofs that brushed the sky and marketplaces filled with the most beautiful art. And puzzles. That was our joy. To solve things, to use our minds to their greatest potential in all aspects of life. We’d map fake routes through the trees, dizzying paths designed to confuse any approaching enemies. Roads leading in all directions with secret shortcuts that only we knew so that we could send them into a trap and be home in time for supper.”

She stopped pacing, turning to face me as she raised her head. Her eyes burned into mine as she spoke, “When my mother was young there was a war. It culminated in a massive attack, but our science was unparalleled and our warriors were so fierce, so well prepared that the fighting amounted to little more than a series of skirmishes on our end. My mother wore the mantle of Leader for many years and she insisted that we maintain the false routes and regularly practice our fighting skills. But nothing ever happened, after a few years there weren’t even any more skirmishes. Our enemies seemed to have faded completely from the world.”

Her eyelids swept shut, and tears rolled down her cheeks to collect in the thin layer of translucent feathers that covered her body from throat to ankle “Eventually she succumbed to the peace of the ages, and I was left to govern in her stead. Our enemies hadn’t returned in so long that my people grew complacent, fat and slow, content to spend their time on puzzles and other idle amusements. Only the necessary routes for supplies and trade remained clear. Because I was content to laze around with them. Those were happy times. So happy, that my people lived like children without a care in the world.”

Rage seeped into her voice, sending a shiver down my spine. I tensed nervously when she stalked toward me, “I had a name, a place in the world, respect, and responsibility. I squandered it all. We were a people in our own right. Not monsters, spirits of the wind, or even willing servants. The ones you call gods…they knew us for tacticians who could beat them with a smile on our face and a song in our hearts. So they waited. Watched us for signs of weakness and then they pounced.”

“They came stealing among us with cages and collars, destroying those that they deemed useless and imprisoning the rest with magics that we could not hope to fight.”

She wrapped herself in her wings, hiding her face from me as she sobbed out, “My mates and I were taken. Our children held hostage to bind us to the petty whims of mad men. One by one we starved, or went mad, or were torn apart in one of their stupid wars. They didn’t fight for homes or love, they fought over land that they didn’t live on. Land they didn’t even want, and once only a few of us were left…they tossed us aside and went on playing at that war with brand new tools. What did they care about my people when they had new ones to enslave and destroy?”

“What was your name?” I cringed backwards in my seat at the awful sound she made, a grinding screech that made my hands fly up to cover my ears in self defense, “I’m sorry, I thought you were done. Please forgive me.”

She spread her wings to their full expanse, “I have no name. I lost that when I let my people be destroyed. It is your turn now. Tell me human, what is the worst thing you have ever done?”

“Don’t answer that question.” A deep voice commented dryly from somewhere above me; I looked up to see a massive reptilian head covered in black scales descending sinuously down the closest wall.

“I have to answer it.” Sitting up straight I met the harpy’s eye as I spoke, “We made a deal.”

“A human that keeps promises.” Amusement crept into his voice as the tips of what appeared to be wings came into view, “Keep it right now and she’ll kill you.”

I glanced at the harpy, seeing the truth of the dragon’s words in the tautness of her lips and her clenched fists. She flapped her wings restlessly, her gaze skidding away from my face to meet his opalescent stare as she snarled “You have no right to interfere.”

“I have every right to do as I wish in my own home.” He stared at her contemplatively, “And I know you would regret it later.”

She launched herself into the air to hover between us, “You said you wanted no part of this game.”

He yawned, baring rows of serrated black teeth “Once you asked her an impossible question I changed my mind. She cannot give you what you want, and you would deprive everyone else of their chance.”

A low angry rumble started to emanate from the creatures watching the three of us and I hunched in on myself hoping to avoid getting caught in any crossfire. She darted around the room, muttering to herself while the dragon and I watched her closely. Her erratic flight path brought her close enough to the wall that her claws sliced the air next to his face. He didn’t flinch, instead exhaling a tiny puff of fire and smoke to envelop her wings as she flitted away. The heat seemed to shock her out of her reverie, sending her to a perch high on the far wall.

Her eyes roved around the room as she said wearily, “I let old griefs overtake me. I meant no offense. My question can wait.” before she launched herself into the air again, this time winging her way toward the roof of the cavern.

I sat up straight, casting a furtive glance after her and carefully keeping an eye on the approaching dragon as I said “Thank you.”

“It is time that I’ve given you, not a guarantee that you will leave this place alive.” He settled on the stone dais where I had first seen the harpy as he added “I am exercising my prerogative as host to move to the front of the line just in case your fate is unavoidable.”

“If you think I’m going to die why do you want to tell me anything?” I reached over to set up a new recording, “That seems like an odd way to pass your time.”

“It is not as though I am certain of your death. And that bit about telling the truth before we fade was very convincing.” He twitched his left ear as he said, “If nothing else I will make sure that your equipment is returned to the humans.”

I bared my teeth in what I hoped would pass for a smile, and held up the microphone where I thought he could see it. “What would you like to tell me? What secrets have the dragons been keeping?”

“I hatched in the first volcanoes of this world and I have lived a long time. Long enough to have no regrets about the approach of my final flight.” He stretched like a cat, resting his chin on his front legs as he spoke, “Your legends tend to paint us as greedy violent creatures hoarding gold and terrorizing towns. It’s close enough to the truth for my tastes in general, but there is one thing in your lore that completely misses the mark.”

Looking inquisitive while talking to a dragon is easy, but having to smell charred carrion every time they speak is not a pleasant experience. I did my best to breathe through my mouth without looking like a blow up doll. It must have been good enough because he continued, “We are born carrying the seeds of our deaths. Our nature means that we burn from the inside starting as soon as we muster our first flame. Eventually the fire destroys our internal tissues and we perish in the resulting conflagration.”

“It is a long death; one that can start centuries before we lose all sense of self and try to outrun it. Some of us opt for another way out when the pain starts to mount. We find some creature capable of puncturing our flesh for us and thus our end is quickened.”

He lashed his tail restlessly against the wall, sending several chunks crashing to the ground behind him as he said, “Years ago, after all of the other options had been exhausted one of us chose a human to speed the process along. Presumably whatever fool was selected managed to survive, and was rewarded with whatever trinkets had been accumulated over the ages. Instead of counting his lucky stars and going about his life in quiet gratitude, he told the story in a way that made him seem a hero.”

His voice hardened, sending a chill down my spine as he said “Suddenly dragon slaying was a sport for stupid humans in metal clothes. Do you know how many of you we have had to kill? How many crying virgins we had dumped on our doorsteps?”

I shook my head ruefully, my mind filling with memories of fairy tales and cartoon movies as he stared past me into the distance and spoke mournfully, “I just wanted a peaceful life, but you humans…you can romanticize any crime. So, you break into the homes of the elderly, the dying, and you force them to fight. To defend their treasures and then have to live with the rotting remains. There is no honor in killing creatures so small and weak.”

He sighed heavily, forcing a cloud of smoke to slide over me, “And those poor little crying girls they kept dragging up to our homes. Some of them drugged out of their minds and halfway to death while others were such bright little sparks with no hope left in them. Killing them wasn’t an option, but they couldn’t go back to their villages. Even when we gave them what they needed to start over elsewhere the mores of human society often meant that we might as well have killed them.”

“So, we learned to live in remote places and never gather where you could see us. Eventually we became myths instead of familiar monsters. It was a lonely life. But some of us did not mind it, and the rest were willing to make the trade off if it meant no more pointless deaths.” He laughed then, this raspy pained sound as he ground out the words “We only died when we were ready, and before that you made us murderers. Killing sentient beings has never been our way, but it was forced upon us. So that you could justify stealing from us. Romanticize that one.”

Like the story? Consider leaving a tip. And don’t feel bad if you can’t! Either way, please feel free to pass the link around!

https://www.paypal.me/karnythia

WisCon 40 Highs, Lows, & What The Actual F*ck?

I had really grand plans to be lazy at WiscCon this year. I totally failed on that front. I planned to do 2 panels and a party. I actually taught a Writers Workshop, did 4 panels, a party, and helped cook 50 lbs of beef for Saturday’s lunch, as well as help with logistics for Friday night’s dinner in the Con Suite. Oh & I recorded some things for two Kickstarters that are happening. Most of that list was great fun. Actually, even the prepping of the beef was okay (albeit a lot of work) because I was doing it with some of my favorite people. As always I enjoyed most of WisCon. I have some great friends, the Guests of Honor are all wonderful people, and over the last several years I have volunteered enough to know how the proverbial sausage gets made. The highs are pretty high which is why I keep going back to WisCon.

The lows…well, nothing is perfect. There was a minor hiccup with the hotel & billing (resolved easily enough), some mundane annoyance with my key card (which might just be a me thing, I killed two of them this weekend), and we got mild food poisoning from a place just off the square on Thursday. Also someone’s cigarette indoors habit made my allergies act up a bit one day. All minor, all normal. I mention the imperfections that can happen to anyone on any trip for a reason. You’ll see why in a second.

That brings me to the “WTAF?” part of this post. We’re going to start with the Con Suite. Because I made the actual beef for it, and because it is an exceptionally glaring example of an overarching problem. Time & time again I saw people come in, take umbrage that a place staffed by volunteers serving free food had imperfect service. Not dangerous service, not unhealthy (AFAIK no one got food poisoning which I did from a place where I actually paid for the food), just imperfect. Because a delivery didn’t show up on time the menus had to be shifted around. Because two of the aging fridges went out food was in shorter supply than expected. Because there weren’t enough volunteers actually willing to show up & work when scheduled some things took longer than expected. You know..normal things that can go wrong at any event.

Now, there are a lot of theories about the entitled attitudes on display from some con attendees. Some of it was definitely about race & gender (funnily enough all the Black women serving in the con suite that I know have similar stories about rudeness despite being there on different days, I didn’t get a chance to check in with other POC, but I have some guesses based off stories relayed to me), some of it was about bizarre expectations and a total lack of home training (possibly related to reason #1) but at base none of it was okay. Here is where I remind you that Julia, the con suite chair pays for a flight & hotel from Boston to Madison to spend an entire weekend volunteering. To feed hundreds of strangers three meals and unlimited snacks every day. Here is where I remind you that con suite staff are all volunteers. Here is where I ask you why a con that prides itself on being at a union hotel can’t remember to treat volunteers like people.

Mind you, I’m not totally surprised. The Concourse staff is heavily POC (particularly in housekeeping) and every year there are some…issues with the way they are treated. And people frequently lose the knowledge that housekeeping staff work very hard for relatively low wages and should be treated with respect, courtesy, and frankly they should be tipped. Just like the wait staff, the bartenders, etc. WisCon has a lot of panels on class & race (there was one this year that I was on with Nisi Shawl & Na’amen Tilahun that discussed the intersection of the two) so you would think most attendees at an explicitly feminist science fiction would have figure out appropriate behavior by now. Apparently not, so let’s get really clear because while the official con post will probably say this kindly, I want it to be said directly. You’re not less racist because you only treat Black people in lower income communities poorly. Your class politics aren’t great because you are only disrespectful to volunteers.

And while I’m at it, let me hit one more note about some of the aggression that was aimed at the POC Safer Space & at the DDP Yoga/Dance Party that I ran this weekend with some other WOC. There seems to be some idea that if the POC attendees and volunteers at WisCon don’t go out  of their way to make white people feel comfortable then they are being hostile. Someone lied to you when they told you that paying attendees are required to bend over backwards to coddle your unexamined internalized racism. That’s a personal problem. Do non white communities engage with each other in ways that might not center whiteness? Yes. Often. Pretty much always. And here’s the funny thing, plenty of white people at WisCon do understand that. They came to the DDP Yoga Party, they supported the POC Safer Space in word & deed, and they spoke up in support of the volunteers of color in the Con Suite. This is not about them.

This is about the people who were offended that the Floomp wasn’t the only dance party, that the music in the party hosted by WOC was largely music made by, and about POC. Yes you heard hip hop that wasn’t filtered through Clear Channel. Yes, you saw Black women dancing with each other, yes you saw interracial couples that didn’t include a single white person dancing with each other, yes it was not about you or your comfort. That’s life. Toughen up buttercup. WisCon is changing, and the mothers of children of color who don’t bring their kids to the con (hello, many of us have Black & Brown kids that would not be viewed as harmless if they were roaming the hotel unsupervised) are busy carving out a space via our money and our labor that celebrates the kind of feminism that we need for survival. We are working in concert with people who have chosen not to be parents ever, who may not be parents right now, who may be on undecided journeys to build a better future, in this genre that is all about the future. We cover a wide range of experiences and backgrounds, and the thing we have in common is that we want to make WisCon better. Not perfect, just…better. For all of the attendees. Not just a select few.

You might not like what WisCon is becoming now that the people working so hard to make it happen are different from you. You might not like knowing that their first concern isn’t the comfort of people who can’t see them as human or equals. That’s a hard road. It’s your road though, so you walk it. But don’t complain that it “feels unwelcoming” because it is becoming inclusive, and less concerned with the comfort of bigots. With the comfort of people who have been happy to not only excuse abusive behavior, but also to be abusers when it suited them. This isn’t “your” WisCon anymore? Okay. That’s fine, that’s your decision. It’s definitely ours now. We work hard for it every year. You can adapt, evolve and enjoy or you can move the hell on. We probably won’t miss you.

My WisCon Schedule & Other Con Stuff

 

Writers’ Workshop: Comics Writing  Fri, 9:00 am–12:00 pm 

Princesses and Ladies Within a WOC Framework  Sat, 10:00–11:15 am Capitol B
Some feminists decry the term “ladies” and have blanket disdain for Princess Culture. But how are these and other terms and aspects of culture seen from outside of typical white middle class feminism? They carry different weight and meaning for women of color and their daughters.
Intersectionality & Other Words Taken from Women of Color  Sat, 1:00–2:15 pm Capitol A
In conversations about intersectional feminism, we often forget that the term itself was created by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a black woman, for the express purpose of addressing the ways in which sexism and racism work together — specifically against black women in the US legal system. Mainstream (largely white) feminism has a history of minimizing or erasing the contributions of women of color, particularly black women. Flavia Dzodan, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker are just a few examples. Intersectionality has become an important part of WisCon’s feminist identity, but how can we claim to be intersectional if we don’t make a point to continually lift up the voices of the feminists and womanists of color who have contributed, and continue to contribute, so much to the movement?
Saturday Night DDP Yoga Party Sat, 9:00 pm–Sun, 3:00 am Conference 2

We know that yoga can be appropriated but can it also be gendered? Join us as we plumb the mysteries of DDP (Diamond Dallas Page) Yoga, as well as other sources. There may also be dancing at the end. This is a very casual activity. Come ready to laugh and sweat.
Women Can Be Evil Too  Sun, 10:00–11:15 am Wisconsin

Mikki Kendall and Justine Larbalestier discuss their research on women serial killers and psychopaths long thought to not exist.
You Got Race On My Class! You Got Class On My Race!   Sun, 1:00–2:15 pm University B

Race and class are two identities that exist in tandem, one never really trumping the other. What are the ways they intersect, diverge, conflict? What happens when our internal race/class state differs from an external race/class assignment — and what factors go into forming internal/external states in the first place? This panel will look at the realities of how we exist within and negotiate race and class without privileging either concept.

So…my schedule is pretty full. This is normal for me at WisCon. I always say that I’m not going to do many panels & technically I did fewer panels this year. Only 5. I…also added teaching a workshop to the list. Whoops! Anyway, I’m generally pretty relaxed at WisCon, I have a huge bubble of friends there & people who know me already know what not to do. But, it’s been a couple of years since I did one of these posts, so here’s the quick and dirty primer to a pleasant interaction with me. Don’t touch me without asking (no seriously, don’t do it), say hi, and if I step back a little don’t be offended. I have personal space issues that I manage by adjusting my position in a group. Other than that I’m generally pretty laid back. Happy WisCon!

Diversity, Political Correctness and The Power of Language

As some of you know I do diversity consulting for fiction (also known as sensitivity reading), and one of the things that comes up often when someone has chosen to write the proverbial Other is how that Other might speak about themselves. About their community, their culture, and yes their concerns with race or racism. Mostly the work I do is mundane, I help authors flesh out characters, I point out when their attempts at AAVE are wrong, and occasionally I have to tell them that the thing they wrote is a hot mess. That last conversation is awkward, fraught with a lot of emotions and generally not something I enjoy at all. My criticisms are of course somewhat subjective, based on my lived experience and my education. I like to think that what I do has value, and really some of the works that have passed through my hands have gone on to do well. This post isn’t about the ones where the author listened. It’s not even about the ones where the author didn’t listen. This post is about the idea that not wanting bigoted tropes to be replicated in fiction is about political correctness, censorship, or some unfathomable agenda.

You want to write a character with a different race, sexual orientation, religion, gender ID than yours? Okay. But before you set that character loose into the world, do some basic research. Do some basic work in understanding what obstacles that community faces, what narratives are most offensive to them? Are you replicating tropes that are used to dehumanize and erase members of that community? It’s easy to justify shoddy writing by proclaiming it is art. Well, okay your art is your art. Your art can also be offensive, your art can be harmful, your art can be wrong as wrong can be. You have a right to create it, you don’t have a right to never see it challenged. You don’t have a right to never have your biases questioned, or to never be told that you fucked up. The friends who might knee jerk defend you because they know you and love you, and really really believe that you’re a good person are doing you no favors when they convince you that your intent matters more than your impact.

And frankly, the person most likely to give you a pass on a slur, on using a bigoted trope instead of creating a full fledged character is probably not going to be someone that will face the impact of your art. They will, much like you, assume that good intent trumps harmful impact because they have no idea what it is to face that pain. They will project their image of you as a good person, as a person they like, over your work and they will rush to defend it without stopping to examine the reasons for the criticism. They will forget that other people, the vast majority of people reading don’t know you, and have no reason to assign good intent to such a harmful act. Heck, they may even have their own issues with the Other that your work has pandered to even if they won’t admit it. They will help you frame potential readers as being from whatever identity the two of you share, and will rapidly help you decide that the Other is a an unlikely consumer and thus not representative of the larger population. Because a huge part of the problem is the assumption that the Other does not read. Does not consume art. Does not have a right to a voice in how they are represented. Because your bigoted depiction of them is a key component of the kind of gatekeeping that locks marginalized communities out.

I’m a cis Black woman born and raised in Chicago. And while I can speak with some authority on what tropes are offensive for my community, I cannot hand out a pass for what might be offensive to a Black trans woman. Because I’m not trans. So if I write a trans character and someone from that community tells me I fucked up? I need to shut up, listen, and do my best to make amends. This is part and parcel of being a writer. I will never write anything that everyone likes, but there’s a wide gulf between “I don’t like the way your story ended” and “Your story contributes to this narrative that hurts my community.” I’m certain you can find someone to equate the two, and convince yourself that the criticism is invalid. I am equally certain the person who helps you do that is a not a true friend. Because people who love you, who really want you to succeed, they help you improve. Even when it hurts. Even when it might damage the friendship. Because true friends are honest about the good and the bad. No one who loves you, should hand you a free pass to hurt people. You shouldn’t be seeking that pass either.

And here’s the thing, there’s a million and one resources on how to not to be harmful. You can use TVTropes.org for a quick and dirty check of your character design so that you know when your bare bones character is problematic. You can ask someone you know in that community. Though if you don’t know anyone from that community, you’re not part of that community, and you’re unwilling to connect with that community? You probably shouldn’t be writing that character. Because not only are you not adding to diversity by creating a poor representation of someone else’s community, chances are excellent that your own internalized biases are about to be splattered all over the page. And while we all like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our personal stories, often we are the villains of other people’s stories. Because we hurt people even when we don’t intend to do so. There’s this weird myth that bigotry only looks like physical violence, and yes that’s awful, but deep down the physical violence is only a symptom. Bigotry, real harmful sustained across generations bigotry is much more covert. It lends itself to creating fictional characters that paint Black people as violent thugs, it lends itself to Black motherhood being depicted as loveless, it lends itself to trans characters that are villains, to killing lesbians off for loving, to disability as a burden on families, to a million and one seemingly individual stories that paint a comprehensive picture of anyone who is not cis, white, straight, and able bodied as unworthy of existence, much less of equality.

If your intent, your real and honest intent is to write a good story and depict diversity in fiction then shouldn’t you be willing to do the research? Shouldn’t you be willing to listen to criticisms? Shouldn’t you be willing to buck the system so that you’re not furthering the agenda of bigots? Writers have the power to create brand new worlds, so we should always stop and ask ourselves why we are so hung on replicating everything wrong in the old one? Yes, you have a the power to create, the power to sway your readers in one direction or another, but if you’re going to embrace that power fully, then you need to do so responsibly. Otherwise you’re not furthering the cause of improving diversity, you’re just making sure the gates stay closed and the Other remains an object for you to project onto, instead of people with agency.