On WisCon, and Who Is Allowed To Feel Welcome

Before WisCon I was having a conversation with a person who used to come to the con but does not, anymore. I asked why and they said, “WisCon isn’t fun, anymore,” and I thought about that for a while.

This person is not the only person to have expressed such a sentiment to me before that moment. I’ve heard from others over the years, usually people who have stopped coming since MoonFail[1] but a few are people who stopped coming in the last couple of years during the major shakeup that started with FrenkelFail and that the con is still emerging from.

  • WisCon isn’t that fun.
  • I’m not comfortable there.
  • I feel unwelcome.
  • I don’t like the vibe, anymore.

I’ve listened to these people and, in some cases, internalized these complaints and thought about whether or not there is something that needs to be done.

That’s what happened right before the con got started. I internalized that person’s issues.

And then the POC Dinner happened.

Okay, I say happened like Woop, it appeared! No. I organized it this year, as I have done in many previous years, and several wonderful and amazing volunteers helped me out at con.

The room was packed. I think we had 80 people all told. It was loud. There was so much joyous conversation and laughter. It was a room full of People of Color and Native folk having a good time and I loved it.

Loved it even though I stress myself out a bit every year trying to pull it together. Because each year since it went from being an informal lunch to a coordinated dinner in 2009, more and more and more POC have come to the con. We’ve had to switch locations and food plans and even how we collect the money many times to accommodate all the people who come. I can’t really complain about that.

Because there is this beautiful space, this wonderful moment, right before the con gets underway where we can all be together and see each other and know that the people in the room have our backs at the con.

Every year someone or two someones or half a dozen someones comes up to me to say:

  • Thank you.
  • This was amazing.
  • I’ve never experienced anything like this at an SF convention before.
  • I never felt so welcomed and like I belong.
  • When I first heard about this I thought it was gonna be 20 people but it was so many!
  • I didn’t think a con could be like this for a person like me.
  • This meant the world to me.

Almost as long as we’ve been having a POC Dinner, we’ve had the POC Safer Space at the con. It’s a place where POC and Native people can go to just be around each other and have discussions about our own stuff. A place where we acknowledge that we come from many different backgrounds, even as we all huddle under this one umbrella, and that it’s important to be able to talk and have community and decompress away from the white gaze. That doesn’t mean we’re all only ever going to be in that room—we came to WisCon, after all, and want to participate in all of it. It does mean that there are still people at the con giving us reason to want to talk amongst ourselves.

Every year I hear from people:

  • Thank you for that space.
  • Thank you for fighting for that space.
  • It was important for me to be able to process what happened on that panel.
  • It was crucial that I have somewhere to go besides my room so I could be calm and safe but not alone.

When I first started coming to WisCon in 2003 there were a handful of non-white people in attendance. I don’t think I counted that year. I did the next year. Still a handful. Other folks remember when it was a literal handful—five people out of 800-1000.

This is still the case at a lot of other SF cons right now. Small, midsized, local, regional, large, allegedly global…

People who go to them can often count the POC because they stand out. They recognize (or think they recognize) those people the next time and the time after because they are so few. That was WisCon. Until we changed it.

I think it started in earnest around 2009 after that horrendous winter of RaceFail and a bunch of white folks showing their asses on the Internet. Some of those white folks were WisCon regulars. And some of us were determined they weren’t going to chase us away.

The first time I came to WisCon I knew I wanted to come every year, again and again, for the rest of my life. Yes, there were few brown people. I was used to that. Yes, there were incidents around me and my brown-ness. I was used to that. It was much less terrible than WorldCon. And the wonderful experiences far, far outweighed the unpleasant ones. The panels were amazing, the speeches were amazing, the people I met were amazing.

I wasn’t gonna give that up over Faily McFailerson and her cronies.

I wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

More people of color started to come because they wanted to meet this one person, because they had a friend going, because high profile brown folks told other brown folks to come and see how a con could be.

They came and saw that WisCon wasn’t a perfect con but that it had potential. That there were some panels about POC-specific issues. That there was a group of us who tried to make it our business to be welcoming. And when those moments of the con going south happened, some of us made it our business to fight to make change to that WisCon could be a better space for everyone. Everyone.

I say again: Everyone.

Unless.

Unless you’re a person who makes a space worse for certain people. People you know you can step on because they’re stepped on everywhere. People who are marginalized even in spaces that are supposed to be a refuge for marginalized people. But you know, like I know, that there are hierarchies, and intersections, and even in a feminist space some feminists are “less important” than others. Or, at least, that’s how things were for some for a long while. Until we changed it. And that right there is what’s making some people mad. And the people mad about that? Are not going to see WisCon as a better space for them.

Kanye Shrug

Oh well.

Because here’s the thing: 99% of the people I have seen or heard complaining about how WisCon isn’t comfortable for them and WisCon isn’t fun are white people. Not 100%. But 99%. It’s a bunch.

You know what else I’ve noticed about the people making these complaints? A lot of them are cisgender, a lot of them are men, a lot of them are people with privilege along multiple axes. Funny that.

And while it makes me sad at any time for folks to feel excluded, or like a space has been taken away from them, I have to say:

Where were you when this was other people feeling this way?

Where were you when people who are marginalized in nearly every other fandom space and came to WisCon thinking it would be different said they felt uncomfortable, unwelcome, threatened, unsafe?

I don’t remember seeing some of your faces when the fight for the Safer Space happened[2]. I don’t remember you chiming in when a guy on the concom[3] was abusing members of the concom (those who weren’t his friends…) and then people at the convention. I don’t recall you having any kind of problem when volunteers were leaving left and right because they were treated horribly by the “Old Guard” runners of the con[4]. I don’t remember you standing up to the woman the co-chairs had to ban last year[5] because she verbally abused everyone from hotel staff to volunteers at the reg desk every single year[6].

I don’t even remember some of you ever saying “Hey, I’ll do some work to make WisCon run smoothly for all attendees.[7]

Meanwhile, the people who I and others have worked hard to make feel welcome and relatively safe and empowered to report incidents of microagression or just plain old aggression have said:

  • Thank you.
  • This was so important to me.
  • How can I help?
  • You do so much and you look exhausted, can I get you something?
  • Can I be part of making this all work next time?

As N K Jemisin said in her speech at WisCon 38: “If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you?[8]

I ride or die for the people who have felt uncomfortable and pushed out and marginalized historically in this community, and at this con. I ride or die for the people who have come to me, sometimes with tears in their eyes, to tell me they’ve never felt more welcome and wanted and embraced by a con before this one[9].

I am not unwilling to ride or die for all y’all. I’ll say it again: I want WisCon to be a better space for everyone. I want you to surf this wave of change with us. But only if you’re willing to make the con better for both you and yours as well as me and mine, she and hers, they and theirs, Jackie an’ ’em, and all the other folks who want it to be great for all of us together.

If you’re uncomfortable now, but weren’t before, then think about that. Really think about it. Consider if you were making people uncomfortable before, even without thought or intention. Consider that you’re feeling left out because, in the course of our claiming a space for ourselves, we made clear to you just how much you or people like you contributed to our pain, our lack of fun, our lack of safety. Ponder the puzzle of how a con dedicated to feminism, populated by many amazing people, somehow ended up being a place where people who weren’t the right color, the right class, the right age, the right level of ability, the right gender presentation felt like they didn’t fully belong. And delve deep into the mystery of how fixing that problem is the thing that’s made you run away[10].

Footnotes

  1. For context, please read my post and Jim C. Hines’ follow up post.[]
  2. Yes, this is something that we had to fight for. And the person talked about in the footnote below this? Was the main person fighting against it. I believe the spectre of a lawsuit against the con if the Safer Space happened was brought up in public to other concom members.[]
  3. There’s an entire other post in the footnotes to follow. I felt it was important to give actual names here. If you say “I feel uncomfortable/unwelcome at WisCon because of what you did to Richard Russell”? Then what you’re saying is you feel unwelcome because Richard violated the Statement of Principles, which we explicitly made apply to the concom and not just the convention itself. You’re saying you side with a person who routinely abused concom members who were younger, who were not white, who were essentially not the friend group/local community he was a part of. And while you may have heard all kinds of stories from Richard about what we did and why, the bottom line is that he was told, repeatedly, over years, to stop. He did not stop. He was told, repeatedly, over years, why his words and actions were harmful and harmful mostly to People of Color on the concom. He did not stop. He was told, repeatedly, that his abusive behavior drove volunteers away from the concom and attendees away from WisCon. He did not stop. And let’s be clear on one point: We didn’t ban him from WisCon, we removed him from the concom because he was abusive. So if you feel unwelcome because of what we did to Richard Russell, then you are okay with Richard making others feel unwelcome and unsafe. And to that I say: Fuck you.[]
  4. Once again, I am gonna name names. In my post, Sometimes Allies Are Bad Actors, I quote Mikki Kendall pointing out that just because a person has done work, good work, for the con, for fandom, for the people they love, doesn’t mean they can’t be problematic and doesn’t mean they have treated everyone equally. Jeanne Gomoll started WisCon and has been a friend to many people and has done much good work. Jeanne also sometimes shit all over the work and contributions of WisCon volunteers and concom members who were not in her friend group/local community (do you see a theme emerging?). There were people who tried to volunteer and felt disrespected and dismissed by Jeanne and then left because of that. There were people who left upset because of Jeanne’s unwavering support of Richard Russell, who, as I have mentioned, was verbally abusive to members of the concom. But not to her. But not to her friends. And so we were terrible people for deciding that members of the concom had to be held to the same standards of conduct that we hold our attendees to. And so Jeanne decided to leave the concom over this. No one tossed her out. Another long time WisCon runner? Hope of ConSuite fame. Another person saying far and wide how horrendously the new WisCon runners have treated her. Hope harassed the person who took over running the ConSuite (a position Hope vacated officially a month before the con last year) several times during WisCon 39 and had to be restricted to food access only so she had less opportunity to harass folks there. She then repeated this behavior at this year’s con. And, beyond that, my understanding is that there were volunteers that felt some kind of way about how Hope treated them for years and years. Not a new problem. So if you’re feeling unwelcome because your good friend Jeanne or your good friend Hope were drummed out of WisCon and made to feel unwelcome, then what you’re saying is that the people they harassed or made to feel unwelcome don’t matter. That it only matters how they feel, because they’re your friends. And to that I say: Fuck you.[]
  5. The woman’s name is Alyson L. Abramowitz. She was banned last year for screaming at the hotel staff before she even got to WisCon. This was not out of character for her, since she’s been yelling and screaming at hotel folks, Reg folks, and plenty of other folks—volunteers and attendees—for all the many years she’d been coming to the con. This is why she was banned. And, when it happened, so many people went: phew! Glad she’s not coming. She made my con experience terrible when I was around her. One of those people was me. If you feel unwelcome because your good friend Alyson was so cruelly banned from the con for making other people feel unwelcome, then you’re saying that her behavior towards others doesn’t matter because she’s your friend. And to that I say: Fuck you.[]
  6. We had a panel at WisCon 39 in which a lot of the stuff from the above footnotes was discussed. Here’s a Storify of the live tweets from it.[]
  7. Anyone wanna place bets on how many people will respond to this by saying: “But I did do yadda yadda!” and ignore the qualifiers there and everywhere in this post?[]
  8. Just want to point out here that Nora publicly left the concom because of MoonFail, and that her experience and reaction was emblematic of the way many people felt. Those volunteers I mentioned in footnotes above? The ones who left because of the Bad Actors? Listen to what Nora has to say and then multiply by many.[]
  9. There’s an entire side conversation to be had about how, years ago, this was the experience of many of the (now) long-time attendees. A con the centers feminism? Where we talk about women and science fiction and writing? There’s nothing like this anywhere else! How many of you experienced that back then? Why then do you not understand why this is important for the people experiencing it now?[]
  10. There are a ton of links I want you to read in relation to this post:

Expect More From Your Regional ConCom

There are so many conversations going on right now sparked by Mark Oshiro’s report[1] detailing what happened to him at last year’s ConQuesT convention that it’s hard to just focus in on one aspect to talk about[2]. There is one thing I want to jump in and speak about right away, which is what should be expected of con staff and ConComs. I decided to write this post after reading Rachael Caine’s post on the situation, in which she says:

But you know what? It’s not necessarily the fault of the volunteers throwing conventions. Audiences and panelists must hold each other accountable if fandom is going to continue as it began. ConComs are not gods. They can’t vet moderators, they can’t interview panelists about every panel topic to see if they’re qualified. They are organizers of a show for which they don’t get paid, and while they do shoulder the burden for responding to bad behavior, WE are responsible for responding immediately to the bad behavior in the first place.

I agree with the overall point of Rachel’s post: that fans and panel participants and pros all need to look out for each other. Many of us already do that because we long ago figured out the importance. It’s the bolded bits that I take issue with. ConComs are not gods, but they sure as hell can vet moderators and can put systems in place to up the chances that panelists are qualified to be on the panels they’re assigned to. I speak from experience as a programming volunteer myself.

I work on the programming committee for WisCon and am most familiar with our system and workflow. I also know a bit about how ReaderCon does things. Both of these cons are relatively small, just as ConQuesT is, both have a volunteer staff, and both have very involved programming.

WisCon programming is a highly collaborative process. We solicit panel ideas from WisCongoers and allow the members to vote on which panels they want to see based on the list of all qualified panels submitted[3]. You can read an overview of the process on the WisCon blog, if you want more details. After we figure out which panels will happen, we have to decide who gets to be on them. Again, this is a collaborative process. Folks volunteer to be on, to moderate, and the Program team uses a combination of database wizardry and hand selection to get all the panels staffed.

In past years, there have been big mistakes made in this department, such as having a panel about [insert marginalized identity] with only one person of that identity on it (or none), or panels with problematic descriptions, or panels with moderators that just made everything terrible and harmful and triggering. One of my goals in joining the Program staff was to help this not happen–and I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that all of us on staff have that as a major goal. To that end, we’ve asked for, and received, changes to the programming database that help us identify which volunteers would be best for a panel or, hopefully, which people should not be on certain panels. Some of it is still a function of knowing the folks at WisCon since we’re all long-time attendees as well.

Though our system is very useful, it is not perfect. It’s still evolving, too. We still make mistakes. We try hard not to make the same ones, to be aware of problems that could crop up and nip them in the bud–such as by making sure we mark panels to hand staff so the database’s random assignments don’t put a cis person on a panel about trans people talking about trans issues, for example. We strive to be proactive because we want our attendees and guests to have as great a time as possible.

conventions

This is what it looks like when people are having an awesome time on a panel

This is a lot of work, yes. This is necessary work. It’s work that fan cons should do–yes, even if the staff is all volunteers. Because this is important.

Just look at what happened at last year’s GenCon Writer’s Symposium. A dude who is well known for being a problem, especially about women’s issues, was allowed to moderate a panel on women in comics even after The Mary Sue pointed out that the original panel was made up of All Men. ALL MEN. Even after that bit was addressed–hurriedly–Bill Willingham was still allowed to moderate. Marc Tassin, the Writer’s Symposium Track Director, should have known better. Willingham’s viewpoint and attitude are not a secret. And yet.

I expect GenCon to do better, and that con is far, far bigger than ConQuesT. Kansas City fans have pointed out that it is the very essence of a local con. Most folks running it and putting people on panels know each other well and know the panelists. Robin Wayne Bailey[4]  is a local and, from what I can gather, a regular at that con. Selina Rosen, who pulled down her pants, is apparently a serial pants taker off-er at that very con. Yes, this is a small local con. That means it’s probably even easier for programming volunteers to know that they’ve staffed a panel about diversity and erasure with one person of color and a bunch of problematic white folks who are prone to undressing at the slightest provocation.

It is certainly not possible to predict the behavior of every person, to know the specific background and identity details of every guest and panelist. And there is always room for error. I really need us to not pretend that there aren’t ways to be better, that we shouldn’t demand better while also saying “I will be an advocate and activist about this, too.”

ConComs and programming staff have to be proactive. They have to know what the potential problems are, where the common pitfalls lie, and pay attention to what has happened at other cons so they can avoid making the very same exact mistakes. Nothing that happened at ConQuesT regarding those panels Mark talked about hasn’t happened elsewhere many times[5]. All of it was avoidable.

Large con or small, the ConComs and program volunteers absolutely must be proactive and address these issues. When they do, it helps to empower the kind of personal response Rachel talks about. And I’ll reiterate: I agree that this is important, too. We, all of us, con staff and guest and attendee, have to look out for each other, speak up, create the kind of spaces we want at our fun community gatherings.

 

Footnotes

  1. Mark posted about his experience as a Fan Guest of Honor at ConQuesT in which he was treated so horrendously by staff, other guests, panelists, and attendees he was triggered into an anxiety attack, among other things.[]
  2. To wit: here’s one of my Twitter rants about the cost of publicizing bias in the community. That’s just a small smidge of what we talked about there and on Facebook today.[]
  3. By the way, the program survey is now live. Go tell us which panels you want to attend and be on![]
  4. Did you see his comment on Mark’s Facebook post? Here it is.[]
  5. Maybe not the thing with the undressing. What is wrong with people??[]

KidLit Authors and Illustrators: Time To Step Up

This past week author Daniel José Older laid down some hard truth about the illustrations for the children’s book A Fine Dessert[1]. In the video below he points out that slavery is an “open wound” that America as a whole has been lying about to itself “forever” and that illustrations showing black children as slaves smiling, happy to work hard making fancy food for massa are a problem. Please watch the whole thing, because Daniel really lays it out and what he says is important.

He followed up his panel appearance with a piece in The Guardian that highlights the severe lack of children’s books with African-American people in them.

In 2014, only 5% of the 3,500 children’s books published were about black characters; Christopher Myers has called it “the apartheid of children’s literature”.

This doesn’t even take into account other groups of POC. I suspect that there are very few Latin@, Asian, and Native American characters in kid’s books as well, and that’s just naming three groups.

The article points out that the publishing industry still suffers from the Highlander problem: There Can Be Only One. This has to be addressed, no doubt. At the same time, we should also address the other side of the equation: Authors.

On the panel, Daniel acknowledged that “a book is a creation of a village, just like people are,” and he’s so very right. That means no single entity within the village–editors, publishers, authors, marketers, reviewers, readers–is solely responsible for fixing these systemic problems. However, each entity within the village should do whatever is in their power to effect change[2].

We need more authors from diverse backgrounds writing books with characters like them, and we need more of them to get published. We also need more authors from all backgrounds writing books with characters that aren’t like them, characters that come from minority, marginalized, or oppressed groups, characters that aren’t often found in children’s literature. We need those characters drawn in ways that reflect the vast divversity even within said groups. We need authors and illustrators to create books that reflect the truth of people from these groups, even if that truth is uncomfortable. We also need authors to create books that reflect how the world should be and could be for kids from these groups. Because it’s just as important to look forward and to speculate with hope as it is to look back with clear eyes and reveal hard truths about the way things were and how that impacts the way things are.

We need all of these things. Right now.

Now we get to the part where some authors say: I agree with you, but just look at what happened to Sophie Blackall (the illustrator) or even Emily Jenkins, the author. They tried and they got it wrong and they got attacked!

Yes well, that’s art[3].

Less flippant answer: It’s always worth it to try, to fail, to try again and be better, to learn from your missteps, to grow and keep trying.

Others will rightly point out that this growth that comes out of failure has an impact on people beyond the author, and that is true. It’s imperative to then do your best to learn from others’ mistakes and to put in the work so you can avoid the obvious pitfalls.

How?

This is the part where what I say sounds like a pitch, but it’s honestly not.

Here’s how: You learn how to write the Other sensitively and convincingly. It can be done. You start by reading the book Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Or, you start by taking Nisi and Cynthia’s workshop in person or online. Or, you start by taking a another workshop or class about writing and the Other online or at a university or at a convention or conference.

And yes, Nisi and I are teaching a class on this topic next month. (You can register here if it fits in your schedule, and you can get announcements of new classes here if not.) And we’ll keep teaching it whenever we can throughout next year and hopefully beyond. Because this issue is important to us, as it’s also important to Cynthia Ward and Daniel José Older and many, many, many other authors and editors and teachers.

Look for these opportunities. Read the book, read articles and blog posts and talk to people and listen. Because we need more authors, especially authors who already have relationships and contracts with publishers, to say: children’s books should be for all children, not just some. Also to say: children’s books that include Black and Latin@ and Japanese and Native American and Nigerian and other characters from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are for all children, no matter their background, because we are all people and all of us deserve to be reflected in books and all of us deserve to be seen by the Other (relative to yourself) as people worth knowing and understanding.

We need this now. Let’s get it done.

By whatever means necessary.

 

Footnotes

  1. If you haven’t yet heard about the controversy, there are summaries, illustrations, and reactions from various folks, including the author–the illustrator is in the video–at Bossip and VH1[]
  2. For an example of what publishers and editors can do, see this blog post by the LEE&LOW staff.[]
  3. Also, I wouldn’t characterize the criticism as an “attack” though I know some will[]

I Challenge You To Support and Signal-Boost Marginalized Voices

Rise Together

If you’re not a person who follows news about gaming or gamers, you might have missed a thing that happened. Tauriq Moosa, a media critic, left social media due to sustained harassment over something he wrote on the Internet. Yesterday, Moosa wrote something else that I want you to read. I’m quoting extensively. Still, read the whole thing.

Lots of folks are trying to show me support. I really appreciate it, but what I would appreciate it more if you took your energy in fighting battles with people who don’t care about me to raise the voices of minority folk. Maybe use this time to try get more people employed who aren’t straight white men.

Instead of the collective being one that shouts down marginalised folk, let the default collective be one that raises us up and doesn’t let us be drowned out by bizarrely angry and dismissive others. The status quo is broken and solidarity for marginalised voices should be a constant for progress, for looking and moving forward; solidarity shouldn’t only exist for when things dissolve. Things are already broken and supporting one another is how we continue.

As you might imagine, I know Moosa’s feel on this one. And I agree 100% that the status quo should be about raising up voices and not focusing on whatever asshole flavor of the month comes along to push us down. I’m not saying don’t argue with them and don’t challenge them–you can’t change their minds. I have proof. You might convince someone watching, though–I’m saying don’t let that be the whole of your work.

There are some defenders (not just of me, in general) that I can count on to ride out of the darkness and skewer obvious bigots on their lance. It’s not hard. And it makes everyone feel better. But then how much work do these defenders do when there’s no prejudice monster to slay? How much public work? How much energy do they expend on taunting the enemy vs touting marginalized artists?

The SFF community has quite a few popular people with giant platforms, and the majority of these people are generous with their platforms. Because the majority are great people! However, I wish that those big platform people would take a minute to look through their last 40 promotion/signal-boosting posts, their last 40 shares on Facebook, their last 100 tweets, and count up how many times marginalized voices get the boost vs people from the dominant culture.

You might be surprised by what you find[1].

Don’t cry about it, though. Seriously, I do not want to hear you crying about how you tried and you do sometimes and you didn’t mean to and and and. What I want from you is to commit yourself to doing better in the future.

Make conscious choices to promote more marginalized voices. Seek out more books, short stories, music, art and the artists and writers who create them. More guest posts, more cover reveals, more vlog embeds, more links, more GIFs. Write thoughtful responses and companion pieces to media criticism that focuses on the issues marginalized people face, and always link back prominently. Give credit to other people’s ideas loudly, in boldface, so that it’s harder for people to say only you and others like you are the expert voices on this stuff. Don’t feel like you know enough or know enough people to do more? Ask your friends, ask the Carl Brandon Society, ask Twitter. Go for balance, or go for imbalance in favor of folks not from the dominant culture. Keep a literal tally so you know for sure.

Take all that anger you feel when someone like Tauriq Moosa is hounded off of social media or when someone like me gets dozens of hate-filled tweets and turn it into a cavalcade of attention for artists and writers who need it (that includes the artists and writers under attack).

Side benefit: it really pisses off bigoted haters when the person they’re trying to tear down gets built up by people with more social and cultural juice than they have.

Main benefit: it gives marginalized voices a better chance at recognition, which could lead to more opportunities for them to get paid for what they do and thus do more of it.

Footnotes

  1. Or, you may find that you’re already building up more marginalized voices than not. Awesome! I appreciate the heck out of you. Do me a favor, though? Nudge your high profile friends, please. Thanks.[]

Sometimes Allies Are Bad Actors

How to be black

“Stop attacking your allies!” –White Proverb

Okay, it’s not really a white proverb. This is the favorite rallying cry of a certain kind of ally[1] — the kind that assumes their self-proclaimed ally status means that any disagreement with them is an attack. And those in need of allies should be careful of attacking, else they will have none.

There’s a lot of bullshit wrapped up in this.

The main problem being that just because you’re an ally doesn’t mean you magically always act in the best interests of the group you’re allied with, and nor should you assume you are. An ally is not some glittery state of being in which you can do no wrong, in which your presence is always wanted or helpful, in which the loss of you represents a great loss to the cause. Sometimes allies are more here for themselves than they are for others.

“Sometimes allies are bad actors.”

That last is a quote from the panel “What Happened With WisCon Last Summer?” Mikki Kendall was the one who said it. She said it in response to Pat Murphy, who expressed sadness that the actions of some people on the WisCon ConCom caused longtime volunteers of the same to drop out of the organization. The people who left are those who have done a ton of work for the convention and for the fan community. This is not in dispute. They are people who have worked to build a feminist space within SF fandom, and are committed to their feminist values. This is not in dispute.

They are also people who, at some time or another over the past two years, have failed to be good allies to people in their feminist space who are not from their same generation, their same race or ethnicity, their same class.

That doesn’t mean they’ve done no good work, or that all their good work is moot. Plus, no one is perfect. Even the most hardcore social justice warrior (or paladin, cleric, rogue…) can fail to be a good ally to someone from a different group or identity at some point. What matters, what always matters, is how you deal with your fail. Did you apologize? Did you sit with yourself and examine what happened and why? Did you think about what being a good ally really means? Did you recommit yourself to being a better ally in the future?

Or did you double down with the idea that you’re an ally, not one of those bigots out there, and you marched with King, and you supported some feminists in 1973, and you’ve done all this work, and therefore you didn’t do anything wrong, you find nothing objectionable in what you did (or failed to do), and so the problem must be with the people you’re allied to, and not with yourself. In other words: did you center yourself?

The kind of people who say Stop Attacking Your Allies are the kind who tie their allyship to specific behaviors from the group they’re supposedly interested in helping. They, the ally, want to dictate the terms of the relationship and want to be the one to say “Now it’s the time to address this thing,” instead of allowing the marginalized and oppressed folks to make that determination. The ally wants to set the rules for what is appropriate discourse, to determine the parameters for politeness, and the conditions under which they will use or set aside their privilege. Do I need to explain the problems with that?[2]

Are we really “driving away” our allies, or are we making it clear that we won’t accept an ally relationship that is about the needs and comfort of the allies above everyone else? Yes, we might be making that clear with harsh language. And yes, in making that clear we might hurt some feelings. That happens when allies don’t listen to the polite, patient words that come before the yelling.

We are far more patient with our allies because they are allies. Because we know, on some level, that they do get it. And we want them to understand. We need our allies.

But we don’t need them so much that we’re willing to be treated like they know what’s best better than we do. Nor so much that we will tolerate them not listening or being dismissive when we say “this is wrong, hurtful, damaging, dangerous, and deadly.” Allies that do? We don’t need.

Sometimes allies are bad actors.

Do you want to be a good actor? To be the real ally you consider yourself to be? Then I suggest you read this guide to allyship & interracial friendships on The Feminist Griote, as it breaks allyship down extremely well. The article focuses on white allies to POC, particularly women of color, but the kinds of questions raised–Do you, white person, have any POC friends? Do you allow your closeness to POC to give you an excuse to not police your whiteness?–apply to many an ally relationship.

Read that article, sit with it, and consider whether you have been a bad actor in the past. If you have, then the best way to make up for that is to do better going forward.

Footnotes

  1. I have an acquaintance who just loves to whip this out when someone confronts her on her less than sterling attitudes about progress and diversity.[]
  2. Nevermind, I’ll let Dr. King do so: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”[]

Your Microaggressions Aren’t Welcome Here

microagressions

Two years ago I proposed, then moderated a panel at WisCon called “Speak To Me In Your Native Language!” And Other Things You Should Never Say To Anyone (clicky for description). The panel title comes directly from something a WisCon-goer said to a friend of mine; and that’s just one of the othering experiences she’s had at the con and why she hasn’t been back in a while. I brought up other examples on the panel having to do with inappropriate touching/moving–of hair, of assistive devices such as wheelchairs–inappropriate interrogation–“You’re not blind, so why do you need a service dog?”–and similar instances of Othering[1]. I created this panel because I wanted to try and figure out how WisCon and the community of people in it should address the problem and maybe even strive toward fixing it.

The panel didn’t go completely to plan because we got derailed several times by one of the panelists[2]. I also don’t remember us coming up with any actionable solutions.

The most obvious one for me is to be that person that calls folks out when I witness such situations and encourage others to do so as well. That’s only workable so long as there are people willing and around. You can’t be everywhere. And while that could eventually grow and grow into awareness for everyone, that could take time. And while that’s happening some people still won’t feel welcome at the con.

What didn’t occur to me is that WisCon the organization could do something to address this behavior[3]. As of this year, we are.

The Safety chairs made it clear that con goers should, if they felt comfortable doing so, report such behavior (labeled microaggressions[4] ) to Safety, and that the on duty staff as well as appropriate department or con chairs would take steps to address the problem with the involved parties. That could mean having a discussion with someone about their inappropriate words/behavior and giving them guidelines around further contact with the person who filed the complaint (such as: do not approach them again), as happened this year. That’s not the only recourse. The idea is to make WisCon a safer space for everyone, not just some certain kinds of people. To make WisCon the type of con where you are not required to let things roll off your back and ignore or laugh off microaggressions and othering so you don’t disrupt everyone else’s good time[5].

I never realized until recently that there could be an official response to these kinds of actions. Or even what that response would look like.

I know that going forward I’m going to have to fight my own impulses to shrug off such behavior and only share and get understanding over how much it sucks from friends and fellow POC. For so long that was the only recourse I had–well, that and talking about it on the Internet. I got used to that being the status quo. I’m grateful others shattered the status quo.

I’m also glad that as a community we’re more and more giving the signal that addressing Othering and Microagressions is a community effort, not just an individual one. At WisCon, Debbie Notkin noted that when she was young, individuals (mostly girls and women) were expected to deal with sexual harassment on their own. That it was your job to remove yourself from that person, your job to find friends who could help you, your job to be on the lookout and not get in their sights again. Now folks take the stance that it’s the responsibility of the community as a whole to deal with harassers. By actively removing harassers from our community spaces, by identifying harassing behavior and making it clear it won’t be tolerated, by ensuring that people can safely report harassers and feel supported when they do.

As a community, can we make it clear that othering is not okay? That microagressions are not appropriate? Can we make it our problem to address as a community and not only a burden individuals have to deal with? Can we agree that allowing this crap to drive people away (and it does) is untenable?

Can we, community?

Footnotes

  1. Othering is viewing or treating a person as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself. Doing so allows you to say or ask completely inappropriate stuff that you would never if you saw that person as fully human as yourself. Here’s a deeper breakdown.[]
  2. He kept saying things like: “You just need to let things like that roll off your back.” and “I don’t see how getting angry does anyone any good.” These can be valid strategies for getting along in the wider world, but were counterproductive in the context of the panel and the con itself.[]
  3. It should have. That it didn’t has a lot to do with the organization’s reluctance to move on certain things in the past.[]
  4. the top image is from this vid on microaggressions.[]
  5. I should also note that the Safety folks at Arisia are doing something similar and have been proactive in addressing this problem at their con.[]

Good Writers, Coasting, and How You Can Avoid Joss Whedon’s Mistakes

Joss Whedon sad

There are a ton of great articles examining Joss Whedon in the wake of Age of Ultron and plenty of crunchy debates to dive into because of them. In this piece, Sady Doyle illuminates something about Whedon that I’ve understood on a subconscious level but not been able to crystalize until now. To wit:

My ultimate take on Joss Whedon’s “feminist” screenwriting is that it’s a byproduct of good writing, period. The writer he most reminds me of is Charlie Kaufman: They’re both deeply personal writers, who clearly have a wide variety of sexual hang-ups, and to the extent that these hang-ups center on women, they probably do affect their perceptions of real-life women in many ways. Plenty of women have noted that Whedon’s fixation on emotionally vulnerable, eighty-pound teenage girls is disturbing and off-putting, and I would tend to agree. Charlie Kaufman’s apparent belief that a sexually awakened, self-realized woman wouldn’t need him, and would therefore abandon him to a hostile universe, is also kind of weird and upsetting, or (at least) a good reason not to ask Charlie Kaufman out on a date. However, because Kaufman and Whedon are good writers, who understand why stories work, when they sit down to write a story, they feel the obligation to make all of the characters identifiably human, including the women. This is, sadly, so rare that their female characters are often more well-rounded and interesting than almost any other characters out there, including a lot of characters written by people with better sexual politics.

When I read that a light shone down from heaven because YES. This is not just a Joss Whedon issue, it’s an issue with a lot of writers who hail from the land of privilege.

I (and others) have said many times that when you write stereotypical or downright offensive minority/marginalized characters, it’s almost always due to bad writing. If you’re a good writer, you don’t reach for the easy stereotypes, you don’t pull from the box of overused ideas, you aren’t a lazy thinker making lazy choices. And that often results in passable minority characters that might even be considered amazing and revolutionary[1]. Especially when compared to a sea of characters that are nothing but two dimensional offenses to all good taste.

Sometimes that’s even enough.

When you’re thirsty in a desert, even cloudy, contaminated water looks great.

However, it will not always be enough. That situation is a place to start from, not a place to kick back in and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Yet that is what many, many writers do. Whedon certainly seems to have done. As Ashly Nagrant points out, we’ve now had 20 years of Whedon doing the same thing over and over, coasting on his talent instead of building on it.

Joss Whedon has failed to evolve as a writer and a director. People who are longtime Buffy fans saw Age of Ultron and complained about how quippy the dialog was. That quality has always been part and parcel of a Joss Whedon project — it has long been one of his trademarks. When the question was how could people who loved Buffy be surprised by this, I could only venture a guess:

We are suddenly, sadly realizing Joss Whedon is a one-trick pony.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy those tricks and there is nothing wrong with that! I am in no way saying that I haven’t enjoyed Joss’s work and won’t continue to in the future. But it does hit a point where it is almost 20 years since the debut of Buffy and you suddenly realize Whedon is just writing the same thing over and over again. No matter how much you like garlic bread, you can’t eat it all the time or you’ll get sick of it.

What’s the solution? Continuously work on becoming a better writer.

Pay attention to evolutions of thought on representation and be aware of the kinds of tropes that most media properties–be they TV, movies, or lit–engage in. Listen when your readers critique your minority/marginalized characters, particularly if they are the same identity as said characters. Accept people’s lived experiences as valid and learn from them.

Read books and articles on this subject. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach is an excellent place to start. Invisible and Invisible 2 are also excellent resources for delving deeper into representation.

Take classes and workshops that address this specific skill. Yes, I teach them, and so do others. Both in person and online. (If you want to find one, I can help with that!)

Read fiction by authors who have a reputation for writing amazing, deep characters. Examine how they do it, absorb it, learn.

Basically all the things you’re supposed to do to become a better writer, anyway. All the things truly great writers do, even after they’re hailed as being great.

Footnotes

  1. This accounts for a lot of Steven Moffat’s success as well. He’s clearly a good writer when he’s on his game. And that good writing can distract you from some underlying problems. And because the writing is good you want to ignore the underlying problems. There comes a point for many of us when that’s impossible. Like Whedon, that point arrived when his popularity meant a large body of work to examine.[]

Further Discussions of Rape in Fiction and Media

Sansa wedding

Once again, the showrunners for Game of Thrones added a rape to the TV show that isn’t in the books[1] and, in doing so, managed to piss off a vocal slice of the fanbase. The reactions I saw on Twitter were vehement, with some even offering their condolences to George R.R. Martin for how the show has destroyed his creation[2]. The scene has re-ignited the neverending debate over the use of rape in fiction and media and specifically why Game of Thrones returns to it over and over.

One friend on Facebook[3] posited that Sansa’s rape is justified by the plot and characters and filmed in such a way that it’s not titillating. They asked: “If that’s not an appropriate way to handle a scene of sexual assault, what is?” My answer is: Not having it there at all, in this case.

I’m not convinced that the rape was justified by the story and character arcs, especially since the showrunners put Sansa in this situation where rape is now the only way to upset her so much that she allows Brienne to come rescue. The writers could have avoided it instead of making it seem necessary.

That’s really the crux of this: writers don’t always have to make rape necessary to the plot.

Writers can choose to do things differently. A few days ago I came across this post on Seanan McGuire’s Tumblr about her “No Rape” rule:

wordsandstrangeways asked:

I just wanted to say to you how grateful I am for your ‘no rapes’ clause on writing. My mum and I have very similar taste in literature and I found you about the same time she found Ilona Andrews so we’ve been swapping books to try them out and I’d never realised before how much the fear of assault hangs over me when reading fantasy. It’s shockingly common both in reference and in act and when dealing with anxiety it’s wonderful to have a safe book space to retreat into. Thank you.

seananmcguire answered:

That’s pretty much why it’s there.  I’m not saying “no one gets to write about this, ever,” but it’s not a tool I need when there are so many others for me to use.  Giving people a little peace is a joy. (If you wonder what this is in reference to, here: http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/470626.html)

That reader’s reaction is key. It’s important to have fiction you can count on not to include rape because that element is so prevalent in other books and media. That’s a thing some people need.

All writers don’t need a No Rape rule. And I would never say that no one should ever include or talk about rape in their fiction. If you choose to do so, it should always be a considered choice. And even then it’s not going to work for every reader.

That tweet inspired this post by Kelly Robson, the author of the story in question. She explains why she included rape in her story and lists all of the ways in which the story does not engage in the problematic aspects I point out in this post. And she’s absolutely right in that. Her inclusion and depiction of rape is not about quick and cheap character motivation, is not there to titillate, and is a considered choice. I also understand her reasons for needing to write that story.

I didn’t have a problem with her story on those grounds.

Though she interpreted my tweet to mean her story wasn’t worth reading, I meant what I literally said: it wasn’t worth that rape scene. It triggered me, and I didn’t feel that the story offered enough to make how much it triggered me worth it. It almost got there–Robson is a good writer, which helps–and for someone not as triggered as I was or not triggered at all, that story likely works just fine. For someone who would be triggered, maybe not. From the responses I got to my tweet at the time it seemed as though folks who also have issues with being triggered were glad to know this.

Any writer who decides to include rape in their fiction has to take that into consideration. You can do everything right in terms of how and why you include and depict rape and still some readers are not going to want it. As long as you’re aware of and fine with that, just keep doing the best you can. Some writers, like McGuire, make the choice to just not include rape at all, which is just as valid.

Right now I would settle for a lack of rape that’s included due to bad and lazy writing. If we can just eliminate or minimize that, I think we could have a productive and meaningful dialogue about the rest.

Footnotes

  1. As some have pointed out, what Ramsey did to Sansa on the show he did to Jeyne Poole in the books so technically it’s not an extra rape it’s just the rape of a different character than expected. Not that it makes any of this better.[]
  2. I have some quibbles with this reaction, but that’s another post.[]
  3. No link because the status is locked to friends. You’re free to out yourself here if you wish![]

In Which I Engage In Multiple Multimedia Projects

Keen eyes on social media may have noticed that I quietly began a new vlog called The Tempest Challenge in which I recommend books to read if you’re interested in taking up my reading challenge. The first two episodes are up and subsequent ones go live on Saturdays.

I created a landing page here on the site with info on the challenge, including the official hashtag for recommending books: #KTBookChallenge. Once I get a few more episodes going I’ll probably create a Tumblr for the vids and reblogs of book recs.

I don’t mind telling you that Alethea Kontis is to blame for all of this. She has an ongoing web series where she rants about fairy tales (because she writes amazing books that weave fairy tales together). And, since I’ve been hanging out with her for the past six weeks, she’s had me on as her special guest a few times. Here’s the latest one:

And my favorite one in which I sing the first song to ever be banned from the radio:

And the one where I try to mimic Wagnerian opera…

And a playlist of them all:

As you can see, we had a fabulous time. And it inspired me! Thus my own vids.

Depending on how things go, I may start another web series in which I rant about TV shows or something. But first I need to get the hang of editing and possibly find some better software for Windows. (iMovie is the only thing I miss about having a Mac.)

Video is not the only form of media I’m indulging in lately. As I pointed out the other day, I was also on the radio. And after that I was interviewed by the esteemed Minister Faust for his podcast–I’ll drop the link once it’s live–and after that I lucked into being in the first episode of the JEMcast! That was a lot of fun to do and I shall return as a guest host any time they ask. Because I never get tired of talking about Jem.

I suspect there are more things coming up in the near future. In the meantime, if you want me to be on your podcast or radio show or whathaveyou, please use the handy contact links on the sidebar :)

Let’s Talk About “Comfort Zones”

Danger Zone

Of the reactions to the piece on challenging yourself to read non-white, cis-het male authors for one year, I find one to be very telling about people’s assumptions of reading experience. Paraphrased, it goes something like:

But in her piece Tempest said that she only read fiction within her comfort zone!

What I’m understanding is that these decriers think that when I made the choice to not read fiction that bored me, made me mad because it wasn’t good, or offended me, I was looking to only be comforted.

I think the fault lies in the conception of what “offended me” means. Because people who are steeped in some kind of unexamined privilege often see Being Offended as Being Made Angry or Being Made To Feel Mildly Uncomfortable. That’s what I see as being behind all those “You’re just looking to be offended!” cries when a woman or person of color or any number of people from a marginalized or oppressed group points out offensive stuff.

The assumption is that I can choose not to be offended[1].

A white man might read stories written by other white men that have offensive to black people stuff in them and not even notice. At all. Or care. At all. Or, if they notice, the experience may be one of, “Oh hey, that’s not all right.” But it doesn’t hurt that white male reader.

Offensive stereotypes of black or brown people as ignorant savages hurts me. Fiction wherein women are only in the story to be sexual slaves without agency or even names hurts me. Even casual, offhand, not blatantly racist/sexist/whathaveyou offensive crap bourne out of a writer’s ignorance hurts me. Literary microagressions.

When I read fiction–especially for pleasure, but even for the purpose of analyzing it so that I can grow as a writer–I don’t want a majority of my experience to be about getting hurt. And a lot of the time the white, cis-het male writer behind those stories has not given two thoughts to privilege or stereotypes or that social justice warrior glittery hoo-ha crap[2]. So I stopped reading them.

However, in sticking to women, people of color, LGBT, and other authors from marginalized identities, I was not reading in a “comfort zone.” I was not more comfortable, I was just less likely to run across fiction that hurt me. But the stories were certainly not universally comfortable to read. Not at all.

I’ve never sought out comfort when looking for new things to read. A thing may become a comfort read once I finish it. In fact, much great fiction makes me uncomfortable, which is a big plus.

The first time I experienced this was in high school. I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred[3] and it made me profoundly uncomfortable. I still remember the almost panic feeling I got when I imagined for a moment if what happened to Dana happened to me. I was sure I would not have made it at all. The thought that it might happen was terrifying.

This was the first time I understood how fiction can affect a reader. No book, even books I loved, had ever made me that uncomfortable. And I had never identified with any protagonist so deeply.

Same thing happened with Derrick Bell’s The Space Traders. Oh man, that story jacked me up for years. Because everything Bell wrote in that story was so true. 100 percent truth.

Truth is rarely comfortable.

So no, I did not escape into my comfort zone when reading non-white, cis-het male authors. In fact, I put myself more and more out of it as I went. Because not all of the fiction I read catered to the mainstream gaze. And the gaze it catered to wasn’t necessarily mine, either. There were stories that challenged my notions of how stories are supposed to go, how plots are meant to unfold, how characters must be constructed and revealed and relate[4]. This is what happens when you step out of mainstream culture’s comfort zone.

That’s probably why so many people are scared.

Footnotes

  1. Which is… no. I can choose not to tell you I’m offended. I can choose to hide that I’m offended. I can also take the offense to heart, consciously or unconsciously, and feel like I’m worthless. I’m not going to do that just so you don’t have to hear me talk about offensive shit.[]
  2. This is not true for every single one of these writers. Noting is true for every single one of any kind of people. But these days I am less willing to give a new author from this group a try unless I see some evidence that they have thought about these issues. That’s not a hard thing for me. Thus I end up reading some of the best white, cis-het male SF/F authors publishing today. WIN.[]
  3. This was assigned reading, too! Yeah, I don’t know how that happened.[]
  4. If this all sounds like some awesomepants to you, then I suggest you go through my Favorite Fiction archive here on the blog and check out my column at io9.[]