“Cut a good story anywhere, and it will bleed.”
Anton Chekhov

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

no. it won't be enough. do it anyway.
Thu 2020-06-18 01:31:52 (in context)

OK, so, political thoughts I've been having. It starts with an anecdote about my Mom. And it's not a particularly positive anecdote, so I should probably start with the acknowledgement that in many ways, she was a wonderful person. But people are complicated, and there's a thing she did that wasn't so great.

When I was a teenager, I levied my share of teenager complaints against Mom. As teenagers do. And, because I was a teenager, some of those complaints were bullshit, reflecting nothing more than the muddled mess of heightened emotion and solipsism that teenagers can be prone to. But, because I was also an intelligent young adult who was rapidly acquiring tools for critical thinking and was very aware of the world around me, some of those complaints were spot on.

My Mom had the same stock reaction to all complaints. "Yes, you're right. I'm a horrible mother." These words would be followed by a smug grin as she turned her back on me. Sometimes, if I protested, she'd repeat those words louder (to drown me out) and smile even more widely and twice as smugly. The main implication was clear: any complaints I had were by definition illegitimate, because I was the one making them, because I was making them about her. The only appropriate reaction, she thought, was to ridicule my complaints as absurd on their face using this kind of hyperbolic reductio ad absurdum. "Yes, you're right. I'm a terrible parent. There's the phone; go ahead and call Child Protective Services."

But there was another implication behind this response. "The fact that you are complaining about me means you think I'm a horrible parent. And you will always think I'm a horrible parent, no matter what I do. Therefore I am not going to bother trying to convince you otherwise."

I suspect Mom was always anxious about whether she was being a good mother, so this knee-jerk dismissal of any criticism from me was in some part misguided self-defense. Misguided, because I wasn't the one calling her a horrible parent. The fact that I had a criticism or complaint didn't mean I thought she was a terrible person or a bad mother. It just meant I thought she'd done or said something fucked up and please don't, OK? (Or it meant that I thought it was terribly unfair that she wouldn't let me borrow the car to drive myself to the French Quarter, or that she'd forbidden me to take a job as a pizza delivery driver. Like I said, I was a teenager.)

(To be clear, I know she was anxious about whether she was a good mother. In those months after she'd lost a lot of her vocabulary and cognitive function but was still living at home and able to hold conversations, that's one of the last questions she asked me: "Was I a good mother?" The part I can only suspect, but can't ever know for sure, is that her habit of dismissing my complaints with ridicule stemmed from that anxiety.)

So keep that anecdote in mind while I seemingly change the subject.

Not long ago, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America issued a statement in response to George Floyd's murder, in solidarity with the protests, and in support of #BlackLivesMatter. In that statement, signed unanimously by SFWA's Board of Directors, the organization acknowledged the need to act, admitted their responsibility for having been part of the problem, and outlined a list of first step actions they were committing to immediately.

Now, those first step actions were primarily financial in nature. To me, that scanned. A similar conversation had been going on in the roller derby community, wherein skaters of color were pointing out that the sport's cost of entry was a disproportionately greater barrier to them than to white skaters simply because poverty and race are so inextricably linked. So roller derby leagues began talking about things they could do to address this.

And these were just first steps. Meanwhile, SFWA's statement included a list of educational resources for those looking for ways to help and a list of organizations to support with one's time, money, energy, and signal-boosting power. They ended with a further call to action, and with a link to the organization's email address so readers could share further how-to-help suggestions.

As a SFWA member, I was feeling kinda proud. My organization was being proactive and trying to help! They were fighting the good fight! And I, with my drop-in-the-bucket membership fees, was a small part of that! Yay!

Not long after, I read this response on twitter:

Jennifer Marie Brissett @jennbrissett Jun 4 How about dealing with the fact that several of SWFA approved magazines STILL have 0% black writers in them -- an issue brought to your attention YEARS ago by myself and others and the #BlackSpecFic Reports? Black ppl don't want your charity. We want equal and fair treatment.

And this is why I wanted you to keep that anecdote about Mom in the back of your mind. Because this is where I have personally witnessed a bunch of white people doing kind of the same thing she did.

Maybe it's because they're genuinely anxious about whether they're being good allies, and people are hardly at their best when they act out of their insecurities. Or maybe it's because they never really were allies in good faith anyway, and they're pouncing on an opportunity to let themselves off the hook. For whatever reason, this is where they throw up their hands and say things like, "See? It doesn't matter what we do! It's never good enough! Why should we even try?"

In many cases, what's going on is, these white people are looking for that One Neat Trick to end racism, so that they can perform that trick, pat themselves on the back, cash in their ally chips, and go back to Not Thinking About It. (You will recall that Not Thinking About It is one of the privileges of being white.) So they are asking Black people to all get together and make up their minds about what that One Neat Trick is. And then, when different Black people have different answers, these would-be allies want to know which Black people to listen to. Who's right? Who's wrong? Who's got the One Right Trick and who can be safely ignored?

That's no way to be an ally.

Brisset isn't wrong. If SFWA sponsors Nebula Convention registrations for Black writers and donates to the Carl Brandon Society, but doesn't leverage their influence in the industry hard for greater Black inclusion in SFF publishing (not to mention equal payment!), then they're ignoring a huge part of the good that's in their power to do.

On the other hand, SFWA isn't wrong to take those financial first steps. Racial economic disparity is a very real problem. And the Black writers who are pointing out that very real problem--along with skaters of color in the roller derby version of this conversation--aren't wrong either.

But it would be wrong to mistake the economic symptoms for the whole of the disease. It would be wrong to think that once you've thrown money at the problem, the problem's solved. And it would be wrong to stop with monetary solutions when you have it in your power to do so much more.

Here's the thing: People of color are not a monolith. No one color demographic is a monolith, either. At any given time, different individuals will each face a different subset of that hydra-headed beast that is systemic racism. So they won't all have the same answer to "How can I help?"

And that beast is old. It's older than the U.S. and it's got its paws all over the nation's history and it's still got a hand in writing the nation's future. It came over with the smallpox blankets, and it came over with the slave traders. It staffed desks at Ellis Island, where it sliced people's hair off, made them throw away precious possessions, and fucked up their names. It "reeducated" Native kids. It wielded whips and firehoses and attack dogs and nooses. It's doing it still. It's throwing children into cages without benefit of soap, toothbrush, or face mask, and it's deporting those children's parents. It's shooting Black men for such heinous crimes as carrying a bag of Skittles or being found sleeping in a car.

It's been doing all these things and more for centuries. It's still at it. Where do white people get off thinking they can stop it cold with One Neat Trick, preferably performed in fifteen minutes or less?

Look. Y'all. You're partly right. Whatever you do, it won't be enough. That is because the problem is bigger and older than you. No one individual will slay the beast alone; no one entity can subdue it over the course of a single lifetime. And that's no reason to throw up your hands and storm off in a huff--that's precisely why doing whatever you can matters. What's important is not being the hero that single-handedly slays the beast (my, how we white folks love to center ourselves in the narrative! How angry we get when the story's not about us!) but contributing whatever you've got to the fight that eventually takes the beast down. And you contribute not, pace me several paragraphs ago, to puff yourself up with pride over having fought, but to hasten the day the beast goes down, because that is the priority.

Let's bring science fiction back into it with one more metaphor. You know about generation ships? A large community takes off on an interstellar journey of hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Space is big, and we don't go so fast. The people who board the ship on Earth will be many generations dead by the time the journey ends. But do any of them throw a fit for that reason and declare the journey not worth making? They do not. They celebrate the future arrival of their descendants, and they do whatever's in their power to make sure it happens. While they live and work as members of both a community and a starship's crew, they do their part to keep that ship on course.

Unless I am very much surprised, none of us, not me writing this post in June 2020 nor you reading it, will get to live in a post-racist society. There's light-years still to go. But while we crew this ship of Earth, we can contribute the level best we've got to keep its vector of travel bending toward justice, so that some generation to follow ours can reach that destination.

So, yeah. Do what you can to help. Listen to the people you're trying to help, because they're the authorities on whether you're actually helping. Realize different people will be focused on different parts of the problem, and none of them are necessarily wrong. Accept criticism with good grace. Accept that even if you do everything "right," it won't be "enough." Do it anyway.

...And that's what I've been thinking about these past couple weeks.