Late last week as I was getting settled in at WisCon couple of people brought this to my attention:
“I probably won’t ever be at WisCon again, sadly, as it used to be one of my favorite cons, but RaceFail has made it very unwelcoming and unsafe for me.” –Jay Lake
This was a comment on someone’s LiveJournal in response to their post on the panels they’d be doing at WisCon. Why Jay felt the need to express this sentiment at that time in this journal, I couldn’t tell you. But the comment had the predictable effect on me.
I made some snarky tweets at Jay on Twitter (hilariously getting his Twitter name wrong twice) and went on to spend a lovely weekend with fine people and free liquor. But then I read more of the conversation on that blog1 and saw a little of Jay’s post on the subject and then this going on in yeloson’s journal and I just…. smh.
So here’s the thing. I will say that I probably should have written an in-depth teardown of Jay’s crazypants instead of just snarking on Twitter. I just don’t like to give that dude any more time than he’s worth. But if his requirements for criticizing him must include having read the things he’s written, then obviously I’m the person for it. Because I was once Jay Lake’s friend.
I met Jay in 2003, I started following his blog shortly after, we always hung out at conventions whenever possible, we chatted and emailed and became good buds. He was at various times incredibly awesome to me. And at various times I stood up for him to people who had Things To Say just as I’m sure he may have done for me without my knowing.
Okay, the POC reading this will know what I’m talking about, and probably the allies will, too. Because we have all had that friend who is well meaning and smart, but who says problematic things about race (or gender or religion or whatever) and because they are otherwise awesome you engage with them on a good faith basis and try to get them to understand where they’re mistaken, how their problematic words are hurtful, and how they can possibly do better. When a friend tells you that you’ve got your skirt stuck up in your pantyhoes, you might be embarassed for a bit but you’re grateful a friend was there to tell you, right? Right.
But then the hits just keep on coming, and pretty soon you feel more ragey or just plain annoyed than you feel in kinship with this person. And then one day you have enough.
So this is pretty much what went on with me and Jay. He would say incredibly problematic stuff, I would attempt to untuck his skirt, and he would say thank you and profess to do better. Thing is, he didn’t. It was Lather, Rinse, Repeat every time. Finally I reached the point where I’d had enough.
The nature of the lather, rinse, repeat on issues of race, at least, was that Jay would use the same two nuggets of his existence as a shield against accusations that he was not as enlightened as he purported to be. One was that he’d been raised (partially) in foreign countries where whites where in the minority in the population (though not in terms of power, necessarily), and this gave him a better understanding of priviledge and of otherness than the average American white guy. The other nugget is that he has a Chinese daughter, and therefore he Knows, Man.
Setting aside the sketchiness for a sec, both of these elements can indeed lead someone with privilege to examine it, work against it in their sphere of influence, and come to deeper understandings of the workings of racism in our society in order to be a good ally and maybe change things. Unfortunately for Jay Lake, this doesn’t seem to have quite happened.
I’m going to go on another tangent — it’s related, so bear with me. This weekend at WisCon I was explaining to people at the Dollhouse panel that there are many levels to privilege and understanding and such. Down on the bottom level you have the folks who are just racist or sexist or whatever and haven’t ever examined anything and don’t want to for various reasons.
But then up higher is the level where people agree that racism is bad and wrong, we’re all equal, and everyone should just stop being so mean. Na’amen helpfully labeled this the Kumbaya level, because it’s that kind of surface, touchy-feely non-racism that doesn’t actively engage with people of color or any oppressed people. Nor does it work to change things for the better because, hey, aren’t things just great now?
While the Kumbaya level is much better than just plain racism, people on this level often really frustrate us because they are resistant to acknowledge that they still have work to do. They don’t wear white hoods so they can’t ever say or do things that have a basis in racism. Not that they are racist, but they aren’t helping, which is bad enough.
This is where Jay Lake is right now. And he’s a walking cliche of Kumbayaness. He uses those two nuggests about himself not as a way to grow, but as a sheild against accusations of problematic behavior or speech. Literally. You can’t have a conversation with him about this stuff without him bringing up “but I have a Chinese daughter” as if that gives him special cred or insight. I can point to the words of many transracial adoptees to show that just because a white person adopts a child not of their race, they do not automatically have some special insight or are any less prone to fail. This situation most certainly can produce this result, but it is not a given. So no, no one is going to give him a pass for that.
Having spent many years reading Jay’s blog and talking to him personally on these issues, I feel I am qualified to say that he is a Kumbaya, not an ally. That his views and words are deeply problematic for many reasons. And that he constantly weilds his privilege like a bat instead of examining it deeply. He may know what privilege is and understand how it works, but that does not mean he isn’t guilty of still being mindlessly mired in it. After all, take the statment that started all of this. How he feels “unsafe” at WisCon because people there might make him uncomfortable. The privilege dripping from that whole mindset is staggering.
I meantioned that I used to be Jay’s friend and that one day I couldn’t take all of this any more. Here’s how we became unfriends: After years of being one of the people untucking his skirt from his pantyhose only to find it stuck there again the very next day or week or whatever, I finally said to Jay that in further discussions of racism, he could no longer use those nuggets I mentioned as sheilds, because that was problematic and unhelpful. If he needed me to explain why that was, I would do so.
His response? Silence. He unfriended me on all social networks where we were connected and hasn’t spoken to me since. I wasn’t too surprised at this. I’d avoided saying these things to him so bluntly before because even though Jay says that he wants his friends to be truthful and honest with him about his own behavior, he didn’t model that mindset, ever (or, at least, in the scope of my hearing/seeing/reading). People who criticized him professionally were “jealous of his success” and so forth. But there comes a time in every POC’s life where they have to lay it all out for that Kumbaya-level white friend. It either means that you and the friend come to a better understanding of stuff, or you lose that friend2. You already know how this story ends.
The bottom line is this: I have read Jay’s words, his fiction, and have enjoyed a friendship with him for a time. So I feel I’m qualified to say that, yes, Jay Lake’s ass is showing, and in a big way, and more often than not when it comes to issues of race. He is not a racist, but he sometimes says racist things and holds some sketchy ideas in his head about race that he then articulates and wonders why people find it a problem. He does not model good ally behavior, he seems unable to truly examine his own privilege as a man and as a white person, and because of this he takes up the “Everyone is mean to me just because I’m white and male!” cross at every opportunity. The people who buy this act? Other Kumbayas.
The only thing Jay isn’t safe from at WisCon or any other SF event is people who don’t agree with him3. Does feeling uncomfortable = unsafe? I’m going to go with: No. But you see, Jay has the privilege of sailing through life without ever having to purposefully encounter those that bring up uncomfortable thoughts around these issues. And if he chances upon them, he runs back to the comfort of those who are so very willing to prop up his privileged notions. If these are the only notions he has of safe and unsafe, he’s a lucky guy. A lot of us have to deal with real unsafeness.
And that’s what pissed me off the most about his bullshit. That he would use the language of safe space/not safe space in the context of a feminist event to justify his unwillingness to not be beloved by all. Yes, I know he said “Oh, I misspoke” and claimed “chemo brain” for the slip. And I would totally be willing to give him a pass on that if not for two things. One: that statement is of a piece with how he’s been since before he had cancer. Two: his comments on yeloson’s blog were long after he claimed to have misspoken.
Someone needs to pull his skirt down. Thank goodness it doesn’t have to be me, anymore.
- The comments have now been erased or screened so you won’t see anything at the link. There is a screencap here — thanks gem225! — so his words are preserved forever and ever, amen. [↩]
- Though the latter is more often the result in my experience, I can say that since RaceFail I have had more conversations that ended up with a happier ending. [↩]
- Just like in life! [↩]