White Fragility and Disability in SFF
When a beloved SFF author disappoints us by using harmful language or doing something else harmful, I wish we, as a community, would focus our conversations on what they did and why it's harmful....
When a beloved SFF author disappoints us by using harmful language or doing something else harmful, I wish we, as a community, would focus our conversations on what they did and why it's harmful, on community impact and how we can do better, on convention codes of conduct and how they work, on what a real apology looks like, on the impact of white tears, on so many valid and important and relevant topics.
I don't like seeing people taking this as permission to say her work was terrible, her fans wrong to love her work, that she was never good enough, and especially to openly mock her because people only think teenage girls love her work, because that means you think teenage girls are not cool. Especially coming from men, I find this painful.
Teenage girls are awesome! Ridiculing what they enjoy is a particularly ugly form of misogyny.
Writers who write YA are awesome! Writers exist who have lots of fans who love them, and those fans are real SFF fans with (gasp) good taste, even if they write and read things you personally don't enjoy!
Saying she didn't deserve an award because her work was tripe is not only a derail from the important matter at hand, it's misogynistic. Furthermore, it's insulting all of her fans who were thrilled to see her honored and devastated to hear her use a racial slur and then not apologize. On top of that, you're telling other writers that if they write similar things, they might be tripe, too.
I'm not defending her actions here, and I'm not saying folx shouldn't critique problematic aspects of her work or behavior. We should, and must!
I'm saying it's a harmful derail to call her a bad writer and mock her readers for loving her books.
A lot of excellent writers today write in similar genres, to similar audiences. When I hear people mocking her work on the grounds that it sucks, saying she doesn't deserve an award because she's not a real SFF writer, I'm feeling more anxiety about submitting my YA fiction.
These comments further marginalize women and femme YA writers, especially young ones, and any writers who look up to her, and it's really not cool.
Also not cool, ableism. Seriously.
We should talk about the intersection of disability and white fragility here, that's a very relevant topic, and it's kind of my wheelhouse now. But we don't need to do so by crapping on disabled people.
Please please continue critiquing the important stuff, but there's no need to excoriate an entire genre and group of fans in order to do so.
Disabled people and elderly people are capable of learning and growing and changing, these things are not excuses for failing keep up with what language is currently considered a slur.
That said, I've said things I later learned were slurs, including a joke I told at WisCon without knowing it came from a derogatory word for Romani people.
If this truly was an honest mistake, you know how one should handle that? Sincere apologies, accountability, making amends where possible, learning do better, and then doing better. Educating others not to make the same mistake.
I understand that her partner is saying mental health issues and poor health are making this particularly devastating for her, but you know what? I have those same problems, plus literal brain damage. I know that I'll mess up sometimes, so I actively work to prevent that, and to prepare to handle it as best as possible when I do discover a new area of ignorance in myself. I put in extra work, every day, to listen to and learn from current social justice activists and writers, so I can be more aware of harmful things that multiply marginalized and differently marginalized people deal with all the time.
And I still make mistakes. And yes, it's devastating to make a mistake and realize you've hurt people in a real way. It's devastating to realize you have a critical area of ignorance. Especially if you have rejection sensitive dysphoria or a history of trauma. But it's more devastating to be constantly dehumanized in a white supremacist society, then gaslit for feeling bad.
I hope I never make such a mistake in such a public way, but let's say someday, I do.
I would try to do the following:
- Apologize sincerely. No DARVO. No white fragility (It takes active practice to not do this. I still make mistakes. It's gut level instinct.)
- Thank them for letting me know, because calling me out (or in) is an act of extreme courage, and an invaluable learning opportunity for me.
- Take my emotional response somewhere private, and process those feelings with trusted, consenting loved ones. (If I can't hide my response, I leave to go melt down privately. Self-accommodation.) It's ok to cry! It's not ok to weaponize those tears and double down, amplifying the harm done.
- Ask my loved ones not to white knight for me online, or berate those who are hurt or angry.
- Go educate myself on why the thing I said or did was harmful, and really focus on listening to voices from the group I've upset most. I don't ask those I hurt to educate me, I ask consenting folx.
- Remind myself that it's not about me or my good intentions. It's about the harm I did. Chant into the mirror if necessary. It's not about me. Impact over intent. I can learn from this. I will be ok. I can and will do better.
- If my disabilities complicate things, I can and sometimes should acknowledge that, but not in a way that seeks to avoid accountability for the impact of my actions, not in a way that blames the person I hurt, no DARVO. No "I'm not racist, you're ableist and ageist, therefore I'm the real victim here!"
- If I need accommodations to understand what even happened, I can still apologize, thank them for telling me, and then go seek learning accommodations elsewhere. There are so many free resources! I can go find some rather than demanding emotional labor from the person or people I just hurt.
- This is a chance to be an ally, even when it's really hard, when I have personal things at stake. To show integrity by doing the right thing even when it's hard, knowing no one owes me forgiveness or trust.
- If I'm disabled in ways that make this particularly devastating or dangerous for me, that is NOT the fault of the person I hurt. I can and should seek help and support! I shouldn't do that in ways that attack, undermine, or make demands on the people I hurt, however. I can be kind to myself without being unkind to others.
- I can join an ally support group and learn from others trying learn the same things! I can follow people online who talk about how to do better! I can decide to read 15 minutes a day from own voices sources speaking this particular issue. Or 5 minutes!
- I can't always make amends or repair harm done, nor does any of this mean someone owes me a touching redemption arc with a forgiveness climax. But I can put in the work to do better.
- There will always be people who think I didn't do anything that bad, that I shouldn't feel guilty or change my behavior, that this wasn't my fault, that the person I hurt is overreacting. Including people from the community I hurt! I can choose not to let those voices be the cherry-picked reason I choose not to apologize or change. I can acknowledge that no community is a monolith, listen to what different groups in that community are saying, and then focus on finding trusted, own voices sources to learn more about the core issues at hand.
- But what if the hurt people are wrong this time? What if this time, it really wasn't racism? Well, I can trust that I'm not a subject matter expert on what is and isn't racism. I can trust that in the vast majority of situations like this, intentionally done or not, racism is a factor, and that Americans of color are subject matter experts on American racism.
- If I'm really struggling with any or all of this, I can go read Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility. Again. And again. It's not an own voices text, and it has flaws, but it offers a sociological framing that can get through to white people from an "insider who also had to learn these things" perspective. It's useful because the framing helps us hear it despite extremely upsetting emotions. I can use that text to defuse enough of my white fragility that I can then get through more challenging and useful subject matter expert texts without getting defensive and shutting down. When one of my students can read through White Fragility without getting angry and defensive, they are generally ready to use the tools from that book and dive into the many excellent texts out there written by BIPOC on this topic.
- I can avoid cognitive distortions. I can go find out what those are, then journal about my feelings and look for cognitive distortions to challenge and re-frame.
- I can ask for time and space to learn.
- I can write about what I've learned, and potentially make a real difference. Others like me who might make similar mistakes might read what I write, might change before they make a similar mistake. My essay or book about learning to be a better ally might prevent future harm done, and that's a valid and worthwhile redemption arc, if one is needful.
- I can accept that harming others, intentionally or not, has consequences. This might be hard and sad and uncomfortable, but it does get better when people see you really are sincere, you really are willing to put in the work.
- If I marched with MLK, that's wonderful, but that was a long time ago and the fight for civil rights is not over. What have I done lately to fight systemic racism? What am I doing right now? Maybe I don't have money or the capacity to march or the clout to start a publishing label for marginalized writers, but am I not a writer? Can't my words still change the world for the better, one person at a time?
If 20 steps is too overwhelming, can I start with just the first few and pace out the rest?