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Talking About (And To) David Levine

tempest with fan
To start off completely off topic, I find it interesting which posts I have chosen lately for LJ-only and which posts go up on the main blog and then are crossposted. I guess since this particular part of the fight seems to be very LJ-centric, I'll stick to posting it just here.

I did read davidlevine's post the other day and even wrote him a long email about it. I have not received a response to that email, which makes me sad. But I was pretty blunt.

One of the things I said in that email is that my reaction to his words -- or rather, the way I expressed my reaction -- is different because I know him. I've felt this way a lot, recently, particularly as regards a still unfinished response to Ken Woods (I swear I am getting to that).

My reaction had I not been David's friend would have resembled much of what coffeeandink said here. Though perhaps less calm. My knowledge that David is, in general, a person with a clue, an intelligent person, and someone whom I would bother to spend time talking these issues over with kept me from getting as angry about his post as I would have.

But I was still angry.

One of the reasons was this paragraph at the beginning:

This statement is addressed to those on the "anti-racist" side of the debate who have vehemently accused certain white writers and editors of racism or cultural insensitivity.

The quotes are what got to me at first. Posting "anti-racist" like that is running the risk of making it sound like you're being a sarcastic ass and questioning the validity of that label. Why put it in quotes? It's not some new, foreign concept.

Your reactions to the written works and Internet posts of my friends who are also trying to [include cultures and races not their own and then get it right or do better in the future] have made me question even the attempt.

This right here betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the real kernal of this debate and is, I think, the reason why people might react badly and just start to see red from this point forward. I have seen this faulty version of events repeated so often I'm starting to fear that it will be entered into record as fact. It is not.

Others have corrected this misconception. I will do so again.

The problem was not that white writers were including races and cultures not their own and being beaten down for it. The problem was that white writers were trying to tell others How To Non-Cluelessly Include Races and Cultures Not Your Own but were challenged because it was pointed out that they had, indeed, engaged in cluelessness in published works. The problem was that white writers began to dismiss POC readers' and writers' reactions to and interpretations of this cluelessness as invalid for various reasons, including "you didn't read the book all the way through" and "academic readings are more valid than emotional readings" and "that writer is such a good writer and you are such a bad/stupid reader that you're unable to see how brilliant she is and that it's not at all racist."

I wish I didn't have to point out how sketchy and problematic it is for white people to invalidate POC based on such notions as being "too emotional" and "stupid", but apparently it needs to be said. Over and over. And over.

Nasty things were said all around, yes. And it's hard when nasty things are said about friends of yours. But these things were not said in a vacuum, not without cause, and not without validity. Certain participants in this discussion acted and spoke in racist ways. No matter how much that hurts or offends your sensibilities, it does not mitigate my saying so. I count on my friends to tell me when my pants are down. I hope they can attest that, when they do, I listen.

Finally, David ends his post by saying:

I may or may not continue work on this story [that includes black characters]. Haven't decided yet. Maybe I'll write something safer, something where all the characters are white, or aliens or cartoon characters or disembodied spirits, and I don't have to deal with issues of race and culture. I'll spend my writing time and energy on other issues instead.

This statement is addressed to those on the "anti-racist" side of the debate who have vehemently accused certain white writers and editors of racism or cultural insensitivity:

Is this what you wanted?


As others have pointed out, it is the height of bathing in white privilege to say that only writing about white people means you don't have to deal with race or culture. But I'll leave that for now. What I want to address is this notion that, by pointing out racism and cultural sensitivity, my side of the debate risks scaring off white people from writing about races and cultures not their own. If David weren't a friend, I would just say "Good. Yes, stop it now. You're obviously not mature enough when it comes to this topic to act in a way that is beneficial to anyone."

But David is a friend, and I happen to know he IS mature enough. And I also know that pain causes people to react in less than useful ways. (I just did that, like, 3 days ago!) So I will say to him, and to all of you out there reading:

It's not trying that will get you in trouble. It's not even trying and failing and failing badly that will get you in trouble. It is how you handle it when someone says to you: UR DOIN' IT WRONG, SON. A lot of the people in the current debate did not handle it well, and that is where problems began.

The thing that gets me about David's reaction is that he knows this. he knows full well. He knows the proper steps one must take to lessen cluelessness. So this silly "See what you've done, 'anti-racists'?" post makes it seem like he's a less intelligent and less aware person than I know he is. THAT is not what I wanted. But it's not on me.

Comments

( 65 comments — Leave a comment )
rm
Jan. 28th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
What has become significantly and tangentally disturbing to me about the whole situation is that so many people I know, SO MANY, feel they cannot discuss the issue, regardless of where they stand on it, because the SF/F community is small and god forbid one doesn't choose the correct "side" (wtf, how are there sides? wasn't the idea to have a discussion about how we can all suck less?) one runs the risk of damaging future attempts to be published.

Edited at 2009-01-28 05:41 pm (UTC)
moondancerdrake
Jan. 28th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this. I've been grumbling for a day or so on how to word a response to David and other white writers who said similar things, and it was impossible through this long term migrane I've been fighting. What you've said here sums it up very well.
jamiam
Jan. 28th, 2009 06:32 pm (UTC)
I think the scare quotes around "anti-racist" are there because calling the critical side anti-racist implies that the defending side is, in fact, racist.

(Not that the defenders aren't doing/saying racist things. But they don't want to be racist.)
miep
Jan. 28th, 2009 07:14 pm (UTC)
this.

and also, David post seems to point to what ratatosk said in reply to vito_excalibur's post ( http://vito-excalibur.livejournal.com/206374.html?thread=4969766#t4969766). If the image one holds of racist behavior is limited to the most visible and egregious examples, being called on racist behavior, words, etc, is tantamount to being equated with being Peter Botha or David Duke.

It took a long time for me to realize that recognizing the privilege I'm accorded by my race is part of fighting racism, and that it's my own responsibility to educate myself and to take my lumps, as David puts it, and to keep trying.

Yeah, it still hurts when someone reacts to my ignorance or unintentional hurtfulness with anger and hurt -- no one likes to be yelled at-- but I'm trying to learn to see it as anger and hurt at the words or action, not at me as a person, and at the pervasive prejudice in which I am an unwitting participant by dint of being a white woman in this society. That fear of getting called on the prejudice in my words or actions sometimes keeps me from speaking up, and it shouldn't.
badgerbag
Jan. 28th, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)
I thought the scare quotes were saying that anti-racist folks are in fact racist. ie. that he was accusing a good part of this discussion of "reverse racism", a term which totally deserves its quotes.
(no subject) - jamiam - Jan. 28th, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - icecreamempress - Jan. 28th, 2009 11:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
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mallory_blog
Jan. 28th, 2009 09:20 pm (UTC)
I seldom comment on your blogs but I often read them. I would argue here that people aren't doing it wrong. People are engaging with race based on their personal experience. What is produced is curren(cy) or a snapshot of the writer at that precise moment in time. One of the issues that is often ignored is the potential of a reader's hyper sensitivity being imposed as arbiter of universal judgment. Color makes no one an expert on racism. Racism is not privileged to black people and it should be quite clear here that non-black writers struggle equally hard to find their way on this unmarked path. No one has walked this way before. Each of us has the opportunity to shine a light or to throw snags on the path.
ktempest
Jan. 28th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
I don't often say this out loud, but it's a truth that I think a lot of white people miss: being a member of a minority or oppressed race does not make them an expert on racism, but it certainly makes them more of an authority on it than those who belong to a privileged group, such as most white people. Every black person in America has experienced racism in their lives to some extent. No white person has. White people may be the targets of race-based prejudice, but in terms of systemic, institutionalized, socially/culturally-backed up and condoned racism? No.

If it doesn't affect you, then your opinions on it are less authoritative than ones from people it DOES affect.
pats_quinade
Jan. 29th, 2009 12:08 am (UTC)
"Every black person in America has experienced racism in their lives to some extent. No white person has."

I don't believe that that is an accurate statement. I understand and agree with the point you are trying to make in your overall post, and in the comment here, but this particular statement is either poorly worded or poorly considered.

I have not experienced it every day. I have not experienced it the way that you have. It has certainly not hit me the way that it has hit most or all people of color. But you do not know me, and your blanket statement makes some of the same sloppy assumptions you deride so correctly elsewhere.

ETA: Bolded text above.

Edited at 2009-01-29 12:08 am (UTC)
(no subject) - cofax7 - Jan. 29th, 2009 12:38 am (UTC) - Expand
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mallory_blog
Jan. 29th, 2009 01:16 am (UTC)
Racism is: Prejudice or discrimination based on an individual's race; it can be expressed individually OR institutionally.

Your statement was a classic racist statement - it also infers a superior 'race knowledge' position due to black privilege. It affects everyone but in different ways. All white people experience a form of racism too - it often manifests in statements re-languaged as privilege or appropriation while the underlying structure is inherently violent and designed to disempower which is a form of oppression.

I also ask a question - in a war a man shoots another man. Which man is more likely to suffer PTSD the shooter or the man hit with the bullet?
(no subject) - marydell - Jan. 29th, 2009 03:42 am (UTC) - Expand
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boxofdelights
Jan. 29th, 2009 01:51 am (UTC)
One of the issues that is often ignored is the potential of a reader's hyper sensitivity being imposed as arbiter of universal judgment.

I have to wonder who you think is doing. . . whatever it is that is being done. You've got this ARBITER OF UNIVERSAL JUDGMENT, who sounds pretty powerful, tucked inside a passive verb phrase, which is tucked inside another passive verb phrase.

I don't think this issue is often ignored. I think this issue is often hallucinated where it doesn't exist. For example, let's say Reader A writes about how she reacts to reading about a fantasy character, who appears in human form as a black man, who is enslaved and bridled by a white woman. Then Readers B through K have the fantods because Reader A is not qualified to be the ARBITER OF UNIVERSAL JUDGMENT. But who said she was? Does she have to be the ARBITER OF UNIVERSAL JUDGMENT in order to write about her response?
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(Anonymous)
Jan. 28th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
I just want to point out one thing:

"I wish I didn't have to point out how sketchy and problematic it is for white people to invalidate POC based on such notions as being "too emotional" and "stupid", but apparently it needs to be said. Over and over. And over."

"So this silly "See what you've done, 'anti-racists'?" post makes it seem like he's a less intelligent and less aware person than I know he is. THAT is not what I wanted. But it's not on me."

David posted an emotional post, backed by emotional reasons. He is being invalidated (as a writer?) for that. Perhaps people should read his post as what it is, an emotional outcry. And as such, is it not legitimate?

If you wish for me to email you who I am, I will be happy to do so. I posted anonymously due to personal reasons I will divulge if you will see the need.
icecreamempress
Jan. 28th, 2009 09:39 pm (UTC)
David posted an emotional post, backed by emotional reasons. He is being invalidated (as a writer?) for that. Perhaps people should read his post as what it is, an emotional outcry. And as such, is it not legitimate?

And are other people's responses to it and critiques of it not equally legitimate?

See, that's how language works: when you say something in public, other people respond to it.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 28th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
They are equally legitimate.

What I'm trying to point out is, people accuse him of being emotional (implying, and usually outright saying, that there's something wrong with being emotional), and then they are being emotional over it (as if when they are doing it it is ok*).

* It is perfectly ok. The incongruity is what strikes me.
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Usenet circa 1995~ - bellatrys - Feb. 1st, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Usenet circa 1995~ - sparkymonster - Feb. 1st, 2009 11:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Usenet circa 1995~ - icecreamempress - Feb. 2nd, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
but... - bellatrys - Feb. 4th, 2009 12:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oh, wow. - bellatrys - Feb. 4th, 2009 12:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
ladyjax
Jan. 28th, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC)
David posted an emotional post, backed by emotional reasons. He is being invalidated (as a writer?) for that. Perhaps people should read his post as what it is, an emotional outcry. And as such, is it not legitimate?


I get that it was emotional. You couldn't miss it. What bothered me is that somehow I as a reader - someone who might potentially read the story that Mr. Levine referred to, was immediately going to rip him apart for not getting something 'right'.

I'm looking for people I read to be as honest as they can and if they do mess up somewhere, to be able to hear the criticism and do better. It's up to me as a reader and consumer to decide to give them another chance - that's my responsibility.

I will say that reading Mr. Levine's story description gave me pause and not in a good way. He's asking me, as a Black woman, to trust that he as a white author can have his Black female character make certain decisions based on her "blackness". I have a way in which I think about such things as does ever other Black person on the planet. All those perspectives are different.

Her blackness is an important part of her character and helps to determine why she does what she does within the story.

But I don't know, based on the description he gave (admittedly it is not well written), I'd proceed with a high amount of caution.

Everyone's nerves are raw right now and having yet another white author weigh in about how their being silenced or being made to fear just about pisses me off. Because we're back to a familiar place - taking care of white people's feelings. That's the backlash Mr. Levine is catching.
ktempest
Jan. 28th, 2009 10:40 pm (UTC)
yes, email me.
silviamg
Jan. 28th, 2009 10:19 pm (UTC)
You know, I had someone criticize one of my stories and say there was something wrong in the way race was handled. I really get puzzled when people say "I will not write a minority character anymore because minorities might get angry". I don't know why people think that I have carte blanche and anyone who is not the same ethnicity as I am does not (and is being muzzled therefore). We can all get criticized.

Is there really anything "safer"?

veejane
Jan. 28th, 2009 11:22 pm (UTC)
I imagine that anybody who actually knows Levine must feel badly to watch somebody they care about act like such a dunce in public. I have to admit, though, as somebody who doesn't know him except to know he's in SFF, that the response he's inspired in me is laughter. Not the laughing-with kind.

I mean, poor fellow, to have so thoroughly lost his internet-pants at so embarrassing a moment, but mostly: laughter.
browngirl
Jan. 29th, 2009 01:12 am (UTC)
I'm impressed by how well you've balanced being kind to a friend and discussing the logical problem with a statement that friend haas publicly made.
kaigou
Jan. 29th, 2009 03:46 am (UTC)
Seconded!
logovore
Jan. 29th, 2009 01:35 am (UTC)
I wish there was a way to convince authors once and for all that griping about race in their work was not a veiled way of calling them evil skanky Nazis.

Because, darn it, fans should be able to gripe about anything they want to, especially things they care about personally.
pats_quinade
Jan. 29th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
David takes his fiction very personally and can sometimes have difficulty separating a critique of his work from a critique of him. (I attended Clarion West the same year he did.)

I say that as though I don't have the same problem, which is garbage. Most writers do, to some extent, but David wears it on his sleeve, which occasionally leads to unfortunate cases like this.

I don't think it's a betrayal of confidence to add that he comes from a minority background that can make him very defensive about being perceived as prejudiced or insensitive to oppression.
(no subject) - icecreamempress - Jan. 29th, 2009 04:38 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pats_quinade - Jan. 29th, 2009 05:08 am (UTC) - Expand
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vito_excalibur
Jan. 29th, 2009 04:35 am (UTC)
It deserves to be said again:

No one got jumped on for what they wrote in their books.

People got jumped on for the dumbass stuff they wrote on LJ.

If Mr. Levine is so worried about being criticized by PoC, he might do best by concentrating on his books and leaving blogs alone!
vanaofthevalar
Jan. 29th, 2009 04:53 am (UTC)
Everything you wrote here:

Yes. Yes. Yes. YES!! For the love of corn.
dicedork
Jan. 31st, 2009 01:43 am (UTC)
Big time point here!
mevennen
Jan. 29th, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
(I'm here via rydra_wong.

I get very uneasy about regarding criticism of one's work as a personal attack. I don't know whether this is just a personal issue, or a result of not having gone through the academic mill (I don't think it's the latter - I don't know David, but I do know writers who haven't gone through that route and who are capable of taking criticism objectively, and some academics who take things very personally indeed, so...). I can't remember who wrote that most people need to consider their own situation with a greater degree of objectivity and other people's situation with a greater degree of subjectivity, rather than the other way round (I think it's Keirkegaard, but never mind).

Someone said about my first novel that it was on a level of interest comparable to watching paint dry, and once you've heard that, you're pretty much inured to anything anyone else might say about you. I've said elsewhere that the allegation of racism can provoke a knee-jerk from me, because of my age, but I've always thought it was perfectly legit for anyone to criticise my stuff on the basis of race, given that I am a white writer. To deny my own privilege just seems laughable. Once the knee has jerked, and I've finished hopping about and swearing because it's hit something hard and unyielding, I then need to go and find a mirror, and take a long hard look.

Just to clarify, I do get that it's not about my pain and quite frankly, I'm not in pain: I'm not going to hop about indefinitely wailing about My Middle Class White Angst, which strikes me as particularly self-indulgent given some people's problems. I try and take criticism on board if I think it's justified (sometimes I don't think it is, in which case, you do what you do with any argument: try to go back to first principles - both your own and other people's - examine it on its merits and demerits as far as you can, and take it from there). I quite often don't succeed until some moment of dire realisation several years later once it's percolated through.

The allegation of racism is such a hot potato that one's first instinct is to hurl it as far away as possible and probably hope it hits someone else, whereas calling someone's attention to their slight mishap with plotting on page 4 isn't nearly so heated. I'm not saying that these criticisms are analogous - clearly, they are not - but I just think that if you are to try to be a professional writer, you need to look at all criticisms as objectively as you can and try and sort your shit out.

(And sure, there are issues with the concept of objectivity. I'm coming from a UK-based philosophical perspective, not one of critical theory, and the former regard the latter with deep suspicion, feeling that they are probably French and not to be trusted).



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