It's not easy being an ally.
No, no, I'm not being snarky. It's difficult to see your own privilege to start with. Also knowing how to be a good ally (rather than spraining a shoulder by patting yourself on the back) is a learning process that never ends.
But being an ally means being willing to do that learning and willing to be wrong. And if you're not, then you're no ally; you're a fauxgressive.
Those Shakers who read livejournal probably heard about RaceFail2009 back in January when it first started*. It's still going on and there are some wonderful things coming out of it, something like lilies out of horseshit or computers out of recycled plastic bottles. But for this post I want to look at the endless need fauxgressives have for cookies.
The cookie monster in this case is fantasy writer Elizabeth Bear who led off this whole sorry mess with the following post on how to write about the Other in fantasy. Now on the face of it this is not a bad idea. Fantasy writers, all fiction** writers for that matter have to think through what it means to be someone else, to imagine a life other than their own. Avalon's Willow responded with the observation that Bear didn't actually do anywhere near a good job of writing the other in her own work. And what Avalon's Willow writes is something that I've read time and time again when someone tries to let someone know their privilege is a problem.
I'm not calling you a monster. I'm not calling you a racist. But I am calling you clueless and ill worded and more than a touch thoughtless. Your ability to think about things, sometimes, does not erase my pain or lack. And only thinking of how things come across, sometimes, is not enough to make me like you. In fact, I don't think there's anything that could make me like you, other than you somehow earning my respect. And that's never going to happen if you keep checking in with me (metaphorical me, the larger culture and audience of PoC me) to see how you're going. Cause then it looks like so much brownie points, so much patting yourself on the back, so much excuses and dissembling; so much pride.Note that she's not calling Bear bad names; she's pointing out that not considering these things is a luxury for Bear and a reality for her.
But you'd never know that from the wave of white people who jumped all down Avalon's Willow's throat. (Go on and click that link to RaceFail2009; it's a marvel of condescension and cluelessness from Bear's pals and of patience and grace (mainly, though not always) from the antiracist side. Make yourself comfy, it takes days to read completely.)
Bear initially wrote that she agreed with Avalon's Willow's critique (a fact completely over looked by most of her defenders) but then after three months she turned around and wrote Cease Fire, where she says both sides were equally at fault and both sides needed to calm down and that she never did think Avalon's Willow was right in the first place, that she was only going along with it for the educational benefit.
It's my fault because I accepted criticism of my book that I knew to be untrue, that I knew to be based on a shallow and partial reading (a reading of the first chapter of a 160,000-word novel), because I felt it was important to serve as an example of how to engage dialogue on unconscious institutional racism.In short, she felt so sure of her rightness and so sure that she could lead people out of the wilderness that the critique bounced right off. As person after person wrote in all the different threads, if you're a writer, you need to pay attention to even things you regard as misreadings because somehow you’re not communicating. She thought she could lead the dialogue on unconscious institutional racism through some false persona and she wanted a cookie for it.
I wanted to be part of the solution, and make it a teaching experience, rather than responding with hurt and defensiveness. I wanted the dialogue to be about racism and how to combat it, rather than about me.
What people who struggle honestly with privilege and oppressions learn is that you can't do good work if you deal in lies. You have to be there in the present, openly and honestly. You have to be able to make the mistakes and continue the discussion.
Bear's last comment on the firestorm was the revelation that she was thinking about taking her blog offline, that she felt sad about the people she had hurt, that she was sorry.
Avalon's Willow, at about the same time, was helping with the 12th Carnival of PoC in Science Fiction.
*I got a link to it a couple of weeks ago from a friend who was getting back at me for turning him on to the time sink that is Crooked Timber. I think he won.
** Maybe non-fiction too.