When your book gets called out for being problematic, Part I
First, a caveat: I’m not an expert. I’m a newbie to the writing community, and I’ve spent the last year making mistakes and trying to learn from them. I’ve been doing a lot of listening and digging, and much of what I say here has been said by others, elsewhere. I’m focusing on race here, but this applies to all marginalizations. So with that in mind, ahem:
A while back, I wrote a guest post on the Publishing Crawl blog about things you can do when you write about people and cultures beyond your personal experience. But I’ve been finding over the past few months that many people seem not to know what to do after they’ve written the thing. That is, what to do When (not if, I guarantee you) Your Book Gets Called Out for Being Problematic. (read: racist.) So here’s my take.
Step 1: Vent. Then Calm. Down. Cry, tear your hair, curse, throw something—do whatever you need to do. Then take a beat. Pet your dog. Breathe and wait for your heart to slow down. Contact a loved one–maybe outside the book industry–and vent about how the person who critiqued your book misunderstood it, is hypersensitive, quoting out of context, spoiling for a fight, and/or mean. Let them tell you that you did your very best to be respectful, that you’re a good person, that of course you’re not racist. Because most likely (from my perspective, anyway) you’re not, at least not intentionally. Most people don’t go out and purposely write a racist book. Duh.
(In the meantime, consider posting a quick note to the public, something very simple, like, “I am listening and taking everything in.” This will buy you calming-down time and also let people know that you’re not ignoring the issue.)
Your feelings are totally understandable and totally allowed. No matter how gentle the criticism, it can sting to be called out, especially when you had good intentions. And let’s be honest—sometimes the calling out isn’t so gentle. Sometimes it’s downright nuclear. Sometimes—despite what folks say about criticizing the work and not criticizing the author—it does get personal. So, yes. It makes sense that you feel wounded, and I’ll even grant you the possibility that you and your book have been misunderstood and unjustly crucified. But you need to express your hurt and anger in private because a) you could be wrong and b) wrong or right, going public with your hurt and angry reaction is unprofessional and counterproductive, especially if c) you don’t understand where the criticism came from. Which brings me to the next step.
Step 2: Try for empathy. I am chronically conflict-avoidant, so no matter how rage-inducing I find something, I rarely get more confrontational in public than “This makes me uncomfortable.” Others, however, will have no problem saying, “This is fucked up. You need to fix this shit.”
So, yeah. If someone said that to me about my book, I would take it as a personal attack. My heart would start racing, I’d feel sick to my stomach, and I’d curl up under my covers with my cats, my family, and my Netflix queue, and ask my friends to bring me soup and ice cream sundaes. Because in my mind, swear words are fighting words. They’re vicious weapons when used in a public forum. I get why people might see those words as bullying.
But here’s the thing.
People of color don’t call out racism for kicks. As difficult as it may be for you to do, try to get past the words and look at the feeling underneath. For a lot of people of color, anger about racist portrayals comes from pain. It comes from years of being misrepresented or underrepresented, of being excluded, ridiculed, demonized, caricatured—and being ignored and dismissed whenever they stick their necks out to say something about it. Perhaps “This is fucked up” is not an attack, but a cry of frustration and outrage that reflect years (not to mention cultural histories that span centuries) of pain and oppression.
It’s quite possible that you’ve heard all of this before (I know I’ve seen it plenty of times), and you’re still perplexed. So here’s a different way. Try this thought experiment:
If you’re white, imagine growing up in a country full of, and run by, people of color. Whites comprise only three to fifteen percent of the population. How does that feel?
Now imagine that whites have a history of being invaded, enslaved, and brutally, systemically discriminated against by these people of color. Imagine that growing up, literally every child of color you know sings songs that make fun of your whiteness; that even as an adult your European features are the subject of daily scrutiny and ridicule; that nearly all of the white people you’ve ever seen on television, in books, and in movies are caricatures, villains, sexpots, exotic foreigners, criminals, or some combination thereof; that you are often the only white person in a crowd of people of color, and if one of them says something that disparages whites and you say, “Uh, that’s not so cool,” you are told to calm down because no one meant any harm. This is part of the fabric of your life.
How do you feel now?
Now imagine reading a book by a POC author whose characters look, act, and sound like ugly POC stereotypes of white people; they remind you of all the times you and white people you know have been ridiculed, demonized, exotified, sexualized, excluded, and dismissed. What do you do? How do you feel?
Is that anger starting to make a little sense?
A caveat: If you’re Asian, you may feel (rightly) that you understand what it feels like to be oppressed, exotified, othered, sexualized, demonized, and dismissed. But please remember that many of us (especially East Asians) come from positions of privilege, and our own cultures of origin are often highly racist and colorist. We may understand what it feels like to be the object of racist attitudes, but we are often perpetrators of racism as well, however unintentional.
I’ll admit—I’m on the fence about things like using profanity in a public excoriation of a book. I’m definitely a tone police officer. You catch more flies with sugar, and all of that. But just because I’ve never expressed my anger loudly doesn’t mean that I don’t feel it. And just because someone else expresses it bluntly doesn’t mean that they’re exaggerating, or not thoughtful, or bullies. It’s foolish and willfully obtuse to dismiss fierce critiques of racism as mere bullying and posturing. That ferocity comes from somewhere real, and it’s worth listening to.
3) This post is already too long, so I’ll be back tomorrow with Part II: Actions to Take After Venting and Empathizing (hint: it’s not what you want to do). And Part III after that: How to Support a Friend Whose Book Has Been Called Out, etc. Don’t do anything rash while you’re waiting. Breathe. Stretch. Empathize. Then check back here tomorrow.
Not to equate the difficulties POCs experience in publishing with the oppression of the Black community in American society, but Tupac has a great take on the evolving attitudes of long-oppressed communities: