Recently, I finished 2+ weeks of amazing conference experiences. It started with the XOXO Festival in Portland, OR, which I attended for the first time this year. And then a few days later I sailed off for my fourth stint on the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat Cruise. Having these back to back gave me more insights into a thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: the value of communities; how we need both large ones and micro communities; how the two types serve different but necessary purposes; and how to foster the best parts of both. Recent events also have me thinking about where communities and friend groups fall down, why that happens, and who tends to feel the impact of it the most.
Ride or Die
On the second Conference day at XOXO YouTube star and insightful film critic Lindsay Ellis delivered her talk on how she dealt with being attacked by an online mob of Nazis over a year-old, snarky tweet. The incident is summarized well over on Wired1 and I’ll embed the talk itself once it goes online. The bottom line is that hundreds or thousands of neo-Nazis and GamerGaters and similar ilk coordinated an attack on her designed to make her lose her job and fear for her safety. She did not lose her job, but the emotional impact was huge.
And the worst part was that most of her friends did not speak up for her on Twitter and other public online spaces because they knew the attackers would go after anyone who interacted with Lindsay in a positive way. There was one big exception: Hank Green. He tweeted: “This is a Lindsay Ellis appreciation post” which then brought hundreds of positive messages into her mentions. Hank also responded to some of the big names who shared the disingenuous, attacking tweets and posts about her in an attempt to make them understand the real situation. It didn’t always work, but he did that thing.
Lindsay stated that this was the first time in her life as a professional online personage that someone who was higher than her in the power structure–be it in a workplace sense or a social power sense–had stood up for her in this way.
That shocked me. Because I know Lindsay knows many, many of the high profile geeks and online celebs that run in those circles. Many of them are cis-het white dudes; i.e. people with privilege and some measure of protection from these kind of attackers. But Hank Green is, apparently, the only one who stepped up.
That’s not to say those other friends didn’t contact her privately and offer support–I’m sure they did. But Lindsay does say this episode really put a strain on her relationships with friends. And that made me deeply sad.
Then we broke for lunch. After lunch, the first speaker was Mikki Kendall. Mikki talked about part of her path in getting to where she is now and also spoke about times when mobs of right-wingers came after her hard. How over and over again there were attacks, some coordinated, and how over and over they failed to break her. I was there for all of this stuff because Mikki and I have known each other for a long time. And with each of those incidents there were two things that I know Mikki had:
- A tight-knit cadre of people, mostly women and mostly women of color, who she could talk to about what was going on and receive support from in many forms.
- Dozens of people, some from that cadre and some not, who were willing to publicly stand up for her and send a message that she was not alone and would not be isolated. They made it clear they would be at her back should she need them. Sometimes she did and there they were.
Mikki has been in that cadre for me. My detractors tend to be sad trolls hiding in caves that only pop out into their safe spaces to say shit about me, but sometimes it’s worse and bigger. The first time was when I posted something on the Angry Black Woman blog that got the attention of Stormfront. They showed up to that blog in the hundreds. Their comments went straight to moderation in most cases, but I was the one going through them and I had the pleasure of being called the N-word more times in one hour than I’d ever been called in my life. This went on for days. That kind of thing could have broken me except I had Mikki and a whole host of other women of color and white allies who not only made sure I was okay but also stood in front of the metaphorical line of fire for me when I needed a break.
We’d formed that community on LiveJournal and in our blogs and we all knew what it meant to be vocal about our lives as women, as POC, as people with multiple marginalizations beyond those. We’d all been subject to some form of these attacks2 and we all knew how necessary it was to stand up for each other in public and provide support in private.
Knowing all this, I started thinking about the difference between what happened with Mikki and what happened with Lindsay. And I kind of wondered if a major factor in the difference is communities of color. Specifically communities with large populations of women of color.
I’m not saying that Lindsay has no POC friends. I don’t know her personally and thus have no direct knowledge. My guess is that she doesn’t have a close knit community full of POC friends because many white folks don’t. From her talk, what’s clear to me is that she doesn’t have many friends with a Ride or Die attitude. The women in my communities? We Ride or Die for each other.
Rewind back to that part about how some people were afraid to speak up for Lindsay publicly because it meant that the Nazi mob would turn their attention on those people and attack them, too. That’s a legitimate fear that I understand. What I don’t understand is why there were so few people willing to push past that fear, especially those who have the privilege and social capital of a Hank Green (there is more than one in Lindsay’s circle; I know this because I know them).
And though I understand that fear, I also know that the women in my close communities, especially women of color, will still stand up when one of us is attacked even knowing that it makes us targets. I think this is because we have always been targets. We’ve had to do battle not just for getting on the wrong side of Nazis, but for opening our mouths at any time ever and making it known that we deserve to be in the world and listened to. For many of us, our existence is a battle, our very identities are “political”, and we have had to learn how to stay standing when wave after wave of bigoted hatred tries to shove us down and away.
Because of that, and because we have coping mechanisms and community, I think we are more willing to stand next to our friend who is being attacked, or stand in front of them if need be. And since it’s not just one or two or three of us but a whole squad, that allows space for those who need a break and who cannot deal with the onslaught right now to take a step back and let others handle it, because there are enough others for the front lines.
And it wasn’t until that moment listening to Lindsay talk that I realized that this might not be a common thing, even for people who run in progressive or feminist circles. I knew quite well that often white women who claim to be allies do not have the Ride or Die attitude toward women of color, even when they pretend they do3. It hadn’t occurred to me that they weren’t doing it for each other, either. Even just to look good and heroic and white knighty about it.
But is that really it? Lack of a Ride or Die Squad that includes women of color?
That’s a big part of it. But there’s other stuff at play, too.
This year was my fourth Writing Excuses cruise. At my first one I heard a lecture by Steven Barnes that ranged across a bunch of topics. Near the end, he started talking about the five steps toward dealing with the fear and uncertainty in the world caused by the kind of crap we’re mired in now. Four years ago some of you thought we were gonna be all right. Black people knew better. That’s another essay.
Here’s what Barnes said about step four in this process:
Find your tribe. The people who see the world the way you see who share your values. …if you’ve got five friends who you know love you, who would bring a bowl of soup if you were sick in bed, you are blessed. And if you define a circle of people who are aligned with you, who see you… a hundred people in total alignment can change the world.
About one out of every thousand people is what I call a smiling monster. There really are monsters out there4. There really are people who will actually hurt you because they like the smell of blood and they like the screams. People who enjoy the chaos. And the children need to be protected from those people. So you either avoid them or you step on their heads like snakes.
If you do not have that temperament, then include in your tribe a few warriors, because that’s what they do. But make sure to love them, because it costs them to be those people. They need to be welcomed back to the fire with love. We need to connect them back to life because they paid the price that we could not pay to step on those snakes. That is a reality.
In my various communities we have many warriors. We have people who identify and battle the smiling monsters on an almost daily basis. But in some of my communities, including and especially the Science Fiction and Fantasy writing and fandom communities (aka Geeks), we do not care for our warriors. At all.
Sure, you’ll see people cheering them on when they do battle–retweeting, sharing, whatever. Yet those same people do not then welcome the warriors back to the fire. They do not work actively to connect the warriors back to life. They might maybe acknowledge the price they pay for doing battle, but the general attitude is:
Well, she brought it on herself.
Or: She likes being angry. She enjoys fighting with those people on Twitter.
Or: She hates everyone, that’s why she does it.
Or or or any amount of dismissive bullshit that boils down to:
You don’t need to be cared for by us, the people you do battle to alert and/or protect.
Do you know the number of times I’ve had (usually white and/or male) people say to me “I could never do what you do, Tempest!” when referencing how I often spend time dealing with bigots and other smiling monsters in our community? Over a hundred. Know how many times that’s been followed up with “Are you doing okay? Is there something I can do?” A handful of times. Maybe.
And here I’m not talking about women of color. Because they don’t say to me “I could never do what you do.” They usually say, “I see the emotional labor you’re doing and acknowledge it and let me know if you need me to step in.”
And the white folks who are true allies and who prove that through their actions and words? They do that same thing.
But I have seen so many get burnt out and run down and lose their health because they did the warrior thing and engaged in battle with smiling monsters and they were not welcomed back with love and connected back to the core of the community. Too often, they’re low-key pushed to the edges of the group.
“I like some of what she has to say, but she’s so mean/negative about it that I can’t get behind her.”
How many times have you seen something like that being said about someone like me? Like Mikki?
Some of y’all don’t take care of your warriors. But you benefit from their labors.
And yes, I see you. And I remember.
More important, though? This has to change.
The Care and Feeding of Your Warriors
How? The first step is to acknowledge that not everyone has to be a warrior to be helpful or affect change. The second step is to identify ways to better care for warriors as well as everyone else.
If you’re not a warrior, what can you do? In our Writing the Other classes we often use the Dungeons & Dragons framework. Beyond warriors there many other classes: Bard, Druid, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Sorcerer, and more. We encourage our writing students to embrace being a social justice Bard, uplifting and supporting with their fiction and actions around their fiction. That’s one way. However, this is a narrow framework that doesn’t always translate well.
Here’s another: If you’re a person with less privilege in your society or culture, there is always value in behind-the-scenes work. Reaching out privately or physically showing up. Making a meal or taking someone out to one; semi-kidnapping a friend and taking them to do things away from the space where they’re doing battle and giving them permission to take a break; reassuring them that they are valued outside of the warrior role and are allowed to take joy in other things.
The week after the Tempest Challenge post went up I felt buried under all the attacking comments, tweets, statuses, and articles. There were many people who were amazingly positive about the piece. But I hyper-focused on the negative stuff. At the time I was staying long term with my friend Alethea Kontis who was also hosting another friend, Leanna Renee Hieber. One day in the midst of this they planned a beach trip. I stayed behind, claiming I had too much work to do. Did I work while they were gone? Nope.
When they discovered this they removed the phone from my hand, closed my computer, and made me go have a meal away from the Internet. They engaged in forceful care because they knew I needed it and I submitted to it because I trust and love them. They helped bring me out of the dark place I was digging myself in to. I’ll always be grateful.
Neither Alethea nor Leanna do battle the way I sometimes do. They still support the things they know are right and good. They always support me and other friends, warriors or not. That is their contribution and they engage in it consciously. And that’s just one example of the kind of friends I have.
There are hundreds of ways to do this, in person and online. List the ones you can think of and then do them.
If you’re a person at or near the top of the privilege hierarchy, use that to help. Hank Green’s example is not a bad one to follow. He didn’t fight Lindsay’s battle and white knight all over her, he stood up and announced his support.
You can also do the thing where you say the same thing the person under attack has said, which often means the thing gets listened to and taken seriously. This can lead to problems unless you take the next, crucial step: aggressive acknowledgment of the source of the ideas. Don’t allow people to attribute the things you repeated to you. Whenever you see someone doing so, correct them (gently or not), point them toward the person you’re supporting, and tell people to support them in kind. If you see someone saying something like: “I listened to you because you said it better/nicer/with the right tone,” shut that shit down immediately.
Most importantly, check in with the person to see what support they would most appreciate or need. Do what they ask and always take your cues from them.
Most of that is about what individuals can do, which is important. More important is community. Especially the ones you create yourself.
As Steven Barnes said, it’s crucial to find your tribe. That may begin with large groups of people who share your values and passions. Not only big picture ones like political or social values, but also the people who love what you love — books, SFF TV shows, knitting, tiny dog breeds, whatever. Find those people and ways to connect with them online and in real life.
After you find the larger group, look for people to form micro communities with. Groups of four, five, ten people you can trust. Find ways to gather. I’ve been using Google Hangouts, Slack, and Discord for this, and there are many other tools. As Mikki said in her XOXO talk: Get a group chat going. Make sure the people in your phone are your actual friends and not just Internet acquaintances. Those people have value, too, of course. You still need people you can really trust5.
Cultivate multiple micro communities. If you find one group not working out, you can find emotional support in the others. Plus, having multiple micro communities can be a breakfront against abuse. If you have one tight knit group and a person in it ends up being not as trustworthy as you thought, you can end up feeling trapped when it’s your only space. And it can be easy for a person to gaslight you into thinking you are wrong and worthless. If you have other friend groups to rely on, you can ask them: “Is it just me or is that person toxic?”
Whatever community you find yourself in, the key is to get support as much as you give it, in whatever capacity works for you.
And if you are one of the warriors or community organizers in your group, please remember this: Take care of yourself as fervently as you care for others. If you don’t, you’ll get burnt out. Don’t get trapped in the mindset that if you don’t do the things that need doing — be they battling the smiling monsters or organizing people or making sure things run well — that they won’t get done. If you have a good community, they will! It’s important to know when to step back, or step away, or take a break. It’s important to know that you can and should to keep yourself healthy.
This last lesson is one I was slow to learn. I eventually did, and it’s informed much of what I’ve been doing in the past year. That’s another essay.
- About halfway down the article. You can search for ‘white genocide’ to find it. [↩]
- Though I will note that we started out over a decade ago, which was before Facebook, before Twitter, and before it was easy to generate the same kind of coordinated public attacks folks have had to deal with since that time. [↩]
- This is what #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was all about, and if you missed that I suggest you read the piece Mikki wrote about it at The Guardian. [↩]
- Earlier in the lecture Barnes made a distinction between smiling monsters and trolls, which is important to note here. There are hundreds, thousands of trolls, and even if you beat one down another pops up. They’re not usually worth battling because they’re minions, peons. Not that they can’t be dangerous–they can. In my experience they’re usually doing the bidding of the smiling monsters, the very dangerous ones. That’s why they need dealing with. [↩]
- If you want an example of this, check out episode 28 of ORIGINALity, a conversation between the women in one of my micro communities–aka my coven. [↩]