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.

Paths: a YA comic about online harassment




Paths is free to download, written by me Mikki Kendall, drawn by my husband Patrick, and colored by kid #1 who also did the lettering and some QC on dialogue (I write like a mom!), with the help of kid #2 who weighed in on with the 4th grade perspective. This is a project almost a year in the making, done in partnership with the Center For Solutions to Online Violence. It’s not intended to be a be all response to all possible forms, just a way to help parents, teachers, and kids think about why this issue matters and its potential impact. Some other resources for information and support include the following:

Crash Override


Cyber Civil Rights Initiative

Please download, share, and discuss this with the kids and adults in your life. Content warning: references suicide

On Bad Cons & How You Kill An Event in Advance

So, I wasn’t going to bother with a formal response about the events at ConQuesT. I’ve never been, I probably won’t be going either. Not just because of the most recent hot mess, but because overwhelmingly con culture is a hot mess. And yeah, some people are trying to fix it. But as I watch people attempt to defend white women sexually harassing men of color…I feel like we’ve hit a point that demands an honest conversation about what’s really happening to cons. It’s not the aging of fandom (young fans are created every day, and I promise you they love to get together), it’s not political correctness run amok (hi, taking off your pants and rubbing against people without consent isn’t okay, neither is referring to Black people as sexy chocolate and licking your lips), it’s a fundamental belief that marginalized people don’t have a right to be treated like people.

It’s not an accident that these stories keep happening. Or that people who attempt to correct bad behavior are lambasted for doing wild things like banning people who harass other attendees. There’s some bizarre assumption that just because someone has been going to a con for a long time and behaving badly, newcomers should adjust to that bad behavior, not call it out. Well…that’s not how this works, that’s not how anything works. Cons aren’t gifts to new fans. They are a commercial venture, a party that new attendees pay for in cash and often in unpaid work. Like explaining to the people who have let a missing stair (or a whole flight of missing stairs) run amok that no, fans don’t have to pay for the dubious privilege of being harassed, demeaned or fetishized. Cons seems to think that marginalized people need them & the truth is cons need access to those communities to maintain their attendee rate.

I get invited to a lot of cons that have a diversity problem. I also get a lot of requests from cons that claim to want to create anti harassment policies. Aside from my feelings on an expectation that I donate hours of work to strangers for events I have no interest in attending, there’s the sad reality that many small cons are so entrenched on reinventing the wheel they’ve missed the window to do better. Younger fans, fans of color, disabled fans…they don’t have to keep going to cons that aren’t welcoming to be able to connect with other fans. They can go to the big commercial cons, to the smaller cons that do get it & to social media for their community needs. So no, they won’t keep giving cons with bad reps chance after chance. They won’t be patient with serial offenders or the places that enable them. Why should they donate that time & energy to some place that doesn’t want them, that thinks they deserve to be hazed, deserve to be mistreated in order to prove something to bigots?

Bluntly? Most small cons will age out of existence because of bad behavior, because of a focus on the past that prioritizes the social mores of the dead over the actual experiences of the living. Yeah, in 1974 maybe So and So was really progressive compared to the KKK. That’s nice. So and So is still a bigot in 2016. A loud bigot who is prioritized over younger fans. Fans who will take their money and their energy somewhere else. To major cons run by corporations, to create their own cons that won’t look anything like the ones that made them feel unsafe, unwanted & uninterested. Small cons are cutting their own throats when they decide that rather than listen to new paying guests, they should cater to the bad actors they already know.

Your con is going under and you can’t figure out why the kids today won’t attend, won’t volunteer, won’t put up with the bullshit? The answer isn’t that they are lazy, oversensitive or whatever other excuses you might be making. The answer is that your con sucks, it’s full of adults who skipped all those kindergarten lessons about not touching strangers, not calling people names, not expecting people to be your friend when you’re not a friend to them. And now, as you con runners sit around trying to figure out what went wrong, you’re seeing other cons…cons where young people might have staged coups or created new cons entirely prosper. The secret, the big amazing secret to their success is that they did all those things you’re complaining are too hard. They made their spaces accessible, set explicit standards for behavior, and they didn’t invite you. That’s not disrespect, that’s not forgetting history, that’s solving a problem in advance by not perpetuating it. Try that & maybe your con won’t go under.



White Feminism & The School To Prison Pipeline

Sometimes, feminism needs a reminder of what it means to be a movement for the advancement of all women. This is particularly true when we talk about issues that only impact some women because of their race and socioeconomic status. The criminalization of black female bodies starts almost as early as the hypersexualization of them, with black girls facing a disproportionately high risk of landing in the school to prison pipeline. This has held true for girls like Georgia preteen Mikia Hutchings, who is facing criminal charges for participating in a childish prank (her white accomplice isn’t facing criminal trespassing charges or juvenile probation) that fact is brought home early. Much like honor student Kiera Wilmot—the 16 year-old in Florida whose science experiment initially led to her being expelled and hit with felony charges for possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device—Mikia is looking at the possibility of one bad decision ruining the rest of her life.

These aren’t isolated cases. Black girls are suspended from school at six to ten times the rate of white girls, for the same offenses. They face much harsher levels of discipline with a greater risk of police involvement. Expelled students are three times as likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Recent events in Missouri, Ohio, New York, California, and Utah mean more people are talking about police brutality. Unfortunately it is often framed solely as a racial issue, one that disproportionately impacts black men, erasing the impact on young black women. We know far fewer names of black women who have been victims of police brutality. There is little discussion about their risk of sexual assaults, arrest, and even death. The fact that fewer black women die from police brutality supports the erroneous idea that to be a black woman is to be safer from oppression than a black man. Different risk factors aren’t the same as no risk factors. We don’t talk about over policing or police brutality as feminist issues, yet for women of color, policing can be a major source of structural oppression.

So why aren’t we talking about policing as a feminist issue? The awkward reality of the school-to-prison pipeline is that black youth are most at risk from the conscious and unconscious biases playing into the decision of involving police in school discipline. Teaching is a profession that is predominantly white and female. According to a study published in 2011 by C. Emily Feistritzer for the National Center for Education Information approximately 84% of teachers in public schools are white. 84% of teachers in public schools are female.  Although those numbers do not directly correspond, there is a significant overlap between those two groups. How do you discuss over-policing and discrimination as a feminist issue, when women who fit the mainstream idea of feminism are most likely to be complicit in a particular form of oppression?

The answer, of course, is to confront the problem; for feminism to examine the biases that contribute to school administrators seeing a white girl’s vandalism as a prank resolved with restitution, and a black girl’s vandalism as a crime requiring judicial intervention. Just as we can all be oppressed, we can all act as oppressors to someone. The sooner we confront that, the sooner feminism actually becomes a movement that embraces all women. Racism inside feminist circles has been a problem since the Seneca Falls Convention that many erroneously think of as the beginning of feminism. And yes, it is important for women to work together against gendered oppression. But what women? What forms of gendered oppression? After all, cis women can and do oppress trans women, white women have the institutional and social power to oppress women of color, able bodied women can oppress people with disabilities, and so on. Oppression of women isn’t just an external force, it happens between groups of women as well. While the oppressed can and do fight oppression, what happens when the people are who are supposed to be your allies on one axis are your oppressors on another?

If you are a school-aged black girl, and unexamined internalized racism makes your teacher perceive you as a threat when you act out in the same way as a white classmate, what is your recourse? What happens when your empowerment is a threat to the status quo? If you don’t fit in as one of the “good girls” because of your skin color and your hair texture, how do you become a part of the community? None of these questions have easy answers, but it is not up to the kids to come up with the answers. Nor, to be honest, is it the duty of adult black women to convince white feminists of their humanity or the right of their children to exist and have access to the same opportunities as anyone else.

In order to tackle over-policing and police brutality, mainstream white feminists will have to start talking about the racism of white women and the harm that it does. Whether it is the way that white women in schools can wield institutional power against youths of color, or the message sent in New York when teachers in Staten Island wear shirts to support the police officer that killed Eric Garner, the conversation is long overdue. Calls for solidarity or sisterhood have to begin with the idea that all women matter, that all of their issues are feminist issues. If the idea that a black girl could be innocent enough to do the wrong thing and still deserve a future is anathema to you, then you don’t belong in a classroom, and you don’t belong in the feminist movement, either. Not until you can look at little black girls and envision the same possibilities you do for little white girls.

"printed with the permission of Milkfed Criminal Masterminds"

That time I really wrote a comic book and other tales of being a freelance writer

So this is my official cover for my one shot in the Swords of Sorrow universe. And it’s a little surreal to be here after years of thinking of writing professionally as a goal. You spend so long tilting at the windmills of getting published that when it happens you get knocked back a bit. And if you’re me you wait for pinch that wakes you up. But there’s no pinch. When I decided to give up my good government job to pursue writing full time I was hoping for a year or two to heal, and maybe to get a book out. Instead I’m working on multiple projects. You’ll be able to pre-order the comic book next month from your local comic shop or online at Dynamite.com or on Comixology. It comes out in September. And just like that I’m on to the next project, because that’s part of this life.

Like a lot of full time writers I don’t just do one thing (seriously, never expect a single project to be what pays the bills), I do a lot of things. I write content for e-learning programs, I do the thinkpiece hustle (most recently in the Washington Post), write book reviews, I’ll be editing Hidden Youth, I do a fair bit of public speaking (next up is BlogHer 15), and generally I hustle all month. Every month. Clearly this is my vocation, but I’m not above the allure of a steady paycheck. In fact for years I was writing on the side while working full time (and in college at one point, though I don’t recommend that schedule because OMFG exhaustion), because I’m married with kids and I have responsibilities beyond pursuing my dreams. That doesn’t mean I stopped pursuing them, I’m just allergic to being a starving artist.

It doesn’t hurt that I have a particular skill set and background that makes it easy for me to get work in your average office regardless of industry. People talk a lot of shit about administrative assistants, but if you’re a writer it is in many ways the dream day job. You push papers around mostly, do some tech support (Printer needs a new motherboard? You can install that. Seriously I’ve done it.), and often have whole days with nothing major to do. If you’re efficient, you can make your boss think you’re working hard and hardly be working. I used to come in early, do all of my major tasks for the day by 10 or 11, and have the rest of the day to write or edit or pitch. At least two of my earlier bosses knew the deal and they just didn’t care because I always had their stuff done first. The downside is that office work is often boring, and coworkers can make things 100% more stressful than they need to be, especially if you’re someone who writes best when the rest of your life is quiet.

I work much harder now than I ever did in any office gig. And of course what I do now is easier in some ways than retail or food service (actually everything is easier than food service, I like cooking but I hate serving food for some reason), but the income flow is less stable and I have to push myself. Some months I make enough to pay all of our bills, most months I make enough to pay about half of them (this is where the aforementioned husband comes in), and any extra expense can throw a wrench in the works like you would not believe. I have that dental fundraiser going, not because we can’t cover some of it, but because that much extra cash in one year is more than I wrangle up while freelancing. Actually I’m not sure I’d be able to pull it off with a regular day job either. At least not with what I was making as an admin. And when I was working for VA, the stress levels meant I wasn’t writing, and the work was far too much for the pay.

So I cobble together what I need and keep my stress levels down so I can create. And it is risky financially. I’m so aware of that fact. But mostly we get by okay, and I can see the results of taking that risk as being worth it. I can always go back to having a day job. In fact I keep an eye out for day jobs that I think might be worth giving up my current flexibility for (so far I’ve only found one, and while I applied I didn’t get it) because I do like having that option. But when I stepped out on this proverbial ledge, my day job was giving me ocular migraines 3 or 4 times a week, and writing was the only way I could see to support myself while my body healed. I’m stronger now, the migraines have mostly stopped, and my name is on a comic book cover. Is freelancing easy? Nope. But I think it is totally worth taking the risk if you have some safety nets in place (a low cost of living helps a lot, I couldn’t do this in NYC or San Francisco I suspect), and a back up plan. Also, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Opportunities will come your way that might not look like anything you planned, and they can still be the best thing that ever happened to you. I made Gail Simone cupcakes, talked about writing, and somehow, some unbelievable way, I found myself here. With a comic book with my name on it.

Saving WisCon and Other Myths (my post con chair report)

WisCon 39 happened this weekend. I co chaired with Levi & we made a bunch of changes with the help of an amazing team of people. And I heard that we saved WisCon. I have a hard time with that idea because I don’t think WisCon was ever in danger of ending. I think it was in danger of drastic changes in one of two directions. Do I like the direction it went? Yes. My goal when I agreed to co chair was that we would make WisCon a safer space for the most marginalized members of the community. I think we accomplished the first steps of reaching that goal.

I am 100% certain it was imperfect & that we could have done many things better. This year was always (in my mind anyway) going to be the transition year where we had to learn old processes, improve some processes, and in some cases come up with new processes. Some people left, and new people came aboard. That is the nature of any long running annual event. Personally, I hope to make every position on the convention committee accessible to anyone who wants to do the work. We are all replaceable or should be when it comes to these kinds of events. No community event should hinge on the participation of one person, or one set of people. That way lies burnout.

We made some decisions that aren’t going to be popular. But you know, that’s life. You can’t please all of the people any of the time. Some people will likely not return to WisCon, and that’s their right. Some new people will be coming to WisCon, others who had left are now announcing their plans to return. That too is life. WisCon is changing. WisCon will always be changing. That’s not about destruction, that is just growth. Sometimes painful, often messy, and thoroughly inconvenient.

Despite the hype, decisions at WisCon remain community decisions. It’s just a question of the demographics of the community changing. Is fandom still the last refuge for outsiders from the mainstream? Well to be honest…no. Because fandom is mainstream. When we power whole industries, and are a demographic that is often courted as a financial and social force we have to let go of the myth that enjoying speculative fiction makes us outsiders. We have to stop pretending that being fen means we can’t set any boundaries with anyone in our community. Our community is global, and in order for it to be inclusive we have to learn to navigate that space, not the one of yesteryear that came about during and after Jim Crow laws in America. Part of having an integrated inclusive community is recognizing there is no hierarchy of who gets to be treated as human.

Yes, fandom spaces are not courthouses or governments. Conventions are essentially private parties with really large flexible guest lists, and many many things cannot be regulated in house. But…many things can be, and in order to make conventions like WisCon sustainable over time, one of the ways to regulate behavior is to set up clearly written community guidelines, create mechanisms to enforce them, and then for the community to hold members accountable. That too is messy, awkward, and often emotionally fraught. Because community health (like any relationship) requires a lot of work.

WisCon bills itself as a feminist sci fi con. And feminism keeps evolving. So too does sci fi. And so WisCon itself must evolve. It may not go in a direction everyone likes, but then that was always the case. The key to being a part of WisCon’s future isn’t towing some imaginary unknowable line, it is treating everyone with a basic modicum of respect, displaying some form of common sense about behavior in public spaces, and knowing that other people have a right to say no, to set a boundary, or to consent as it suits them. That’s a far cry from the draconian reputation being given to anti abuse/harassment policies. It’s not that you can’t talk to people, it’s that you can’t treat them like they aren’t human and expect that to be accepted.

We are a community that is learning to work together in new, and sometimes exciting ways. This is hard work, it will be hard work, but the potential results are worth it. WisCon is getting some much needed shaking up, and in twenty years as whoever is chairing gears up for WisCon 60, I hope they can look back as I do, and be grateful to their predecessors as well as aware of all the work that lies ahead. Thank you WisCon community for giving us something to fight for, for supporting us when times were hard, and for partying with us when times are good. We made it. Now we just have to keep moving forward. I am honored to have apparently been your first chair who is a Black woman. We’ve come a long way in 40 years.

Mary Shelley Didn’t Invent Sci Fi and other semi controversial things

So, yesterday I was finally able to announce that I’ll be writing my first ever comic in the Swords of Sorrow series. And I am so excited. But I keep seeing this claim roll around that Frankenstein is the first entry into sci fi. And it’s good, don’t get me wrong, and ground breaking for white women in fiction. But I keep thinking about the writers who weren’t nobles, the women who told stories to the children they were employed to watch and to their own children. I keep thinking about the superstitions, the beliefs, the very real reasons to be afraid of the dark, and of the people who couldn’t afford candles, much less the time, ink, and paper needed to write stories by that flickering light. And how those stories were still passed down in oral traditions that persist to this day. Mary Shelley might have entered a story of the dead being brought back to life into the European lexicon, made Frankenstein & his monster more real to the wealthy. But raising the dead and the turning on you was an old old concept 200 years before her birth. The fairytales that we think of as Grimm’s were told around fires in Africa, China, and so many other places by traders, bards, and griots. Their bones are dust, but their words live on and still carry so much weight today.

We stand on the shoulders on those who came before us. And so many of the tales we tell come from stories whispered late at night by people who couldn’t or wouldn’t write them down. I am a writer. I can claim that now. But long before I had the ability to write down a single coherent word I was making up stories. And like so much of what I write today, those stories were heavily influenced by the ones I’d already heard, the books I snuck in and read, and the tales I wasn’t supposed to know. We cheapen the craft of storytelling when we try to limit it to the first time someone wrote down an idea instead of remembering that writing it down is the last step. The first step is making up the story in the first place, and even if the story teller never writes down a word some of the best stories every told will be heard by children at bed time, adults over drinks, and in foxholes with walls that hold all manner of secrets.

My grandfather told great stories. He never (as far as I know) wrote down a single one. My grandmother could spin a tale or two as well. And she read so much, gave me so many things to read. When I write fiction, I hear the way they told stories bleeding into my work. I won’t dishonor them or the people who came before them by pretending I’m the first storyteller in the family. I’m not even the first writer. I might be the first one to write comics, but I wouldn’t even be able to do that without them making stories so accessible to me. When we rush to name a first, we should remember that the first writer of a story doesn’t make them the first to tell a story.