There are some things you need to understand about yourself and about how community works, before you approach a reader and truly, before you even start the project in which you plan to represent a marginalized community. It’s good, and important, to want to represent people who are outside your experience, but it’s hard work.
- You have to be willing to kill the project. If you aren’t, then you’re just asking for a stamp of approval or someone to blame. It is neither easy, nor pleasant to kill a project. I’ve done it. I’m still upset about it, but that means only one person is upset. Being willing to kill the project doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it. But… if you are going to prioritize your own feelings on a subject, as someone outside a community, over the feelings of people inside the community, then maybe that’s not something you should be writing in the first place.
- Culture is not a monolith. You need a variety of people from within that community. One person alone won’t do it. This is like asking me to be a sensitivity reader for white culture. If it’s set in the South, sure. But a book that is set in North Dakota? Not a chance. I’ve driven through the state.
- Internalized oppression is very real. People in positions of privilege tend to not understand how someone who is demographically part of a group, might have views that are consistent with the dominant group. Let me give you an example that is not emotionally loaded. England used to be a colony of the Roman Empire. There’s Latin on our money. Greco-Roman inspired architecture is still highly valued. Roman numerals are still taught in school. The classics. And you don’t notice any of it because it is such an ingrained part of society now. That’s the lingering touch of colonialism. That’s how firmly embedded internalized oppression can be that it can last for generations. So when you’re asking your sensitivity readers to look at your work, it’s important to choose people who are conversant with controversies in their community.
- Kindness is deadly. If you’re in a good mood, you’re more likely to enjoy something, right? So friends who like you might give you a pass for something, that they’d call out someone else on. Try to get readers who don’t know you, in addition to ones who do.
- It is exhausting. If I’m asking someone to just beta-read, that’s one thing. But if I’m asking them to work with me to understand a culture that I don’t belong to, what I’m asking for is tutoring. I pay $3 per page when I hire someone. So if someone turns me down, that’s because $3 a page isn’t worth it the headache that I’m going to bring. That’s on me, not on them. I may not like it, but it’s still not their responsibility. ETA: I use a ton of beta-readers before I sell it. After it’s sold, part of my advance goes to hiring someone to do a deep-focus read.
- You are in a position of power. I know it doesn’t feel like that, but see line item 7 again. Everyone exists on multiple axes of power. On the race axis, I’m white and at the dominant end. On the gender axis, I’m on the feminine end, which is towards the subordinate end, but not as far along the axis as if I were a trans woman. As a writer, you shape the world. This is a position of power. For your reader to tell you that you’ve screwed up, is not easy, particularly if they occupy the subordinate end of multiple axes. A single voice that is telling you “no” probably represents a larger number of voices who just weren’t didn’t have the energy to spend reading in the first place.
- Own your mistakes. When you screw up, and you will, you have to own the mistake. It’s on you. It’s no one else’s fault for not catching it, or not having the energy to educate you. Apologize. Correct. Make amends.
- The controversy won’t hit just you. This was the one that was hardest for me to grasp. It’s easy to worry about “What if I get it wrong?!?!” and “What if people get angry at me!?!” What is harder goes back to bullet point #2. Culture is not a monolith. If you are writing about something that is outside your community and controversial, that controversy and the conversation surrounding it will hit all the people in that community. Worse than that, the things you got wrong are probably things that you inherited from a systemic system of oppression, which means that you are reinforcing that oppression in the public consciousness. And that doesn’t hit you. That hits only the community you’re writing about.
- It’s not fair. No. It’s not. That’s what systemic oppression is. The tiny little piece that you have to deal with, by putting in extra work, or money? Compare that to living in a marginalized community for your entire life. It’s not fair, but you aren’t the one being marginalized or oppressed.
- You have to be willing to kill the project. You’ve done all that. You’ve done everything “right” and then you still get someone who says that the project is a problem. I’ve had this happen. I had 20+ readers on a project and one of the last four, in the final pass, said that the project was problematic. I pulled it. I was not, by any measure, happy about this. I was angry and bitter and grieving. Truly, I still am. But I still pulled it, because ultimately it’s not my community and any damage that occurs is going to hurt more people than just me.
All of this is hard. It is work. It is tempting to look at that giant list and think that it’s not worth it to even try. If you take that lesson from this, you’ve learned the wrong thing. It is better to try, to fail, and to pull the project, than to continue on in ignorance. I learned a ton writing the project that I pulled and that, honestly, is worth it. I may be upset, but the time and money was not wasted. What you need to know about yourself is if you can handle it. Can you handle the work? Can you handle deciding not to publish something? And if you’re willing to do the research for spaceships, why not for people? If you’re willing to not publish something because there’s a structural flaw, why not for people?
It’s hard. It’s worth it. Regardless of the outcome. You’re a writer. Writers have power. Use your power for good.
- Writing in the Margins
- Writing the Other classes
- Writing the Other – book
- Cultural Appropriation blog post by Aliette de Bodard
Commenting ground rules.
- NO ONE TELL ME THAT I SHOULDN’T HAVE PULLED THE PROJECT.
- I will not discuss the project, so don’t ask or speculate.
- If you have resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.