Jeanne: Confronting My Own Racism

Butternut squashAs you’re probably aware, over the holidays the Romance Writers of America (RWA) had kind of a melt-down over the issue of racism. A prominent RWA member and former board member, Courtney Milan, received word that her membership was suspended for a year and that she could never serve on an RWA board again as punishment for posting, on her Twitter account, a criticism of a fellow author’s book which she felt to be racist.

There are lots of aspects to this issue. Milan is Chinese-American and has been instrumental in helping RWA to confront some of the bias in its policies and processes. There appear to be some irregularities in how the ethics complaint was handled and there have definitely been some inconsistencies–the punishment was retracted the next day after Milan shared her situation with her 42,000+ Twitter followers.

If you’re interested in more detail, Google “RWA Milan ” The Big G will cheerfully deliver a full day’s worth of information.

In reading through the complaint, I became painfully aware that the last book I released, The Demon’s in the Details, contained character descriptions that Ms. Milan would almost certainly find offensive.

In particular, she called out descriptions of skin tone that use food metaphors–coffee-colored, cafe-au-lait, caramel-colored, etc.

My first reaction was, “What’s wrong with food metaphors?”

Several years ago, I created an African-American character who was the Executive Director of an art museum. I ran my description by a friend, an African-American woman who worked in my college’s bookstore. She in turn shared it with her daughter. Their feeling was that I had left the woman’s skin-tone too generic.

“Say what color she is,” they recommended. “Is she coffee-colored? Coffee with cream? Caramel?”

And so I did.

In light of Ms. Milan’s criticisms, though, I realized that the language I’d used was, at best, lazy and clichéd writing. At worst, it was racist.

I do not wish or intend to be racist, but racism isn’t just about me as an individual. It’s about an entire system that privileges some people at the expense of others. Since I was born in the 1950’s, a lot of my subliminal attitudes and perceptions were formed at a time that was even more racially biased than we are today.

I can, and do, have good intentions. I strongly believe people of color should have the same employment opportunities as white people, should receive the same quality of education, the same standard of care from doctors and hospitals. I loathe the laws and inequities that incarcerated a horrifying percentage of young black men over the past fifty years. I believe Black Lives Matter and think reparations are long overdue for 200+ years of slavery followed by 150+ years of post-slavery Jim Crow laws.

Freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule following the Civil War. Had each family of former slaves received this modest award, the difference in family wealth over the next two hundred years would have been paradigm-changing. Instead, we gave that money to plantation owners, the very people who had just benefited from 200 years of unpaid labor. And that was just wrong.

Anyway, I think that at some level, because I hold fairly progressive values on issues of race, that I forgot that I’m a racist–not because I want to be, but because my attitudes and beliefs were formed at a time and in a place that don’t really allow me to be anything else–not when you drill down to the unconscious biases I hold without even realizing I have them.

After a day or two of pouting, I had an epiphany. I realized that I would never describe my own skin with a food metaphor. I wouldn’t, for example, describe myself as the color of mashed potatoes with some sweet potatoes mixed in, or as butternut squash-colored, even though those are both fairly accurate.

When I started looking for other food metaphors for white skin, they were all either hokey and dated (peaches and cream) or flat-out insulting (doughy, pasty). I decided that should be a good rule of thumb going forward: if I wouldn’t describe a white character via a certain kind of metaphor, I shouldn’t use that type of metaphor for characters of color.

So I went back through The Demon’s in the Details and corrected the character descriptions. I apologize for my original error and I’ll work to do better in the future.

Because that’s what I can do.

24 thoughts on “Jeanne: Confronting My Own Racism

  1. Thank you for telling us about how you’re evaluating your work in the light of the RWA mess and taking steps to revise the bits you see as problematic. That’s something we should all do.

    We live in a racist world, and every single person is affected by history and culture, as well as our individual prejudices and biases. Removing trigger words in our books is a tangible step we can take to build bridges with readers of color or other marginalized groups. A while ago, I too became aware of the implications of describing skin tone by food metaphor. And yet the very next book I picked up by an African-American author had skin tones described that way. These issues are hard to wrangle for everyone.

    Among my own books, some readers have described my space opera as homophobic because one of my characters uses outrageous, over-the-top behaviors to deflect tension. You can’t please every reader every time, but I’ve been second-guessing this stylistic choice of mine for a while now, wondering if I should make an effort to rewrite those sections.That book was traditionally published, so making any changes, assuming I wanted to, would be more complex, and several reviewers did clearly understand my intent. But the question gives me pause.

    These are difficult times. I guess all we can do is our best and listen to those who tell us how they’re impacted by our words. My goal is to help create joy, and I’m sure I have a lot to learn yet about how to do that.

    • ETA: For those who want to take a deep dive into the RWA mess, check out Claire Ryan’s blog at ClaireRyanauthor.com. She’s done a very comprehensive timeline with links.

    • Implicit bias is rooted so deeply in our sub-conscious there’s no way we can avoid it when we react at the gut level, but I want to believe that with self-reflection we are more likely to see it and grow to be our better selves.

      • I know you’re probably tired of hearing from me, but consider that there was a legal test based on implicit bias. That if you passed or failed the test, it determined your sentence. Imagine how unfair that would be.

        Now consider cultural stigmas attached to it. It’s a slippery slope that doesn’t need wetted. If my opinion means anything, I think you should just stick to your original wording. I DON’T think you’re racist.

        I say this so emphatically because I can just foresee a world where we backtrack on everything, hoping not to offend. It would be Bradbury’s vision come true. Words are important.

  2. Thank you for sharing all of this. In light of the recent RWA issues, and any time really, reassessing one’s outlook and lens through which one views the world is a good idea. My sister (a media specialist in a high school) recommended Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates as one view into another’s world. As I’m about to embark on a 14-hr plane flight, I may dash by the bookstore for that.

  3. The only time I think about my skin tone is when I’m buying makeup. The beauty industry defines my skin tone as “cream,” “vanilla,” or “ivory” – two food items and one illegal substance tied to animal cruelty. If we want to change the words we use for skin tone, that’s where we should start. Where else must a woman choose a specific word to define her skin color?

    • Oh . . . this triggered a different line of thought for me. Why not check out the cosmetics for women of color? Again, a writer may want to think really hard about skin color names (but I do think it must be important — there’s a world of hurt in a shade), but it might be a good place to start.

      I really would prefer to delay any skin color adjectives until it’s important for the story that it be mentioned; but Jeanne once pointed out to me that it’s jarring to discover half way through a story that someone is not the way you envisioned them. I think that’s true, too.

      Anyway, I’ve been following Iman of Iman Cosmetics on Instagram for a few years (well, I’m not on IG; I’ve been googling her each morning). She uses variations of sand, clay and earth, which is really nice — I think original cosmetics were often derived from the earth. It would depend on the story if this mineral-based comparison would work or not.

  4. Racism was just a part of human behavior for the past several generations. It’s finally going away, but censoring all reference to race in literature is only going to create a backlash. It should, at this stage in the game, be a none issue. Racism is dead. But if we pretend like race doesn’t exist, racism is just going to rear its ugly head again.

    So you wouldn’t say you have peach skin? Isn’t that a little bit of an overreach?

    • A ripe peach has burgundy skin and orangey flesh, so I’m going to go with, “No.” 🙂

      Of course, most Caucasian people consider a comparison to a peach to be a compliment, but now that I’ve been told, quite clearly, that there’s at least a subset of people of color who are offended by food metaphors for skin color, I’m going to avoid it.

      A harder question I’m wrestling with is what to do about characters of color in future books. The part of me that loathes making public mistakes says, “Don’t write characters of color anymore,” but I know that’s cowardly. To your point, racism will flourish in darkness.

      The book I’m currently working on in my Touched by a Demon series features a pair of guardian angels who manifest as African Americans. (Angels usually exist as energy, and take human form only when Satan’s machinations create a serious threat.) So I’m going to look at how Alyssa Cole and Beverly Jenkins and Farrah Rochon and other black authors describe their characters.

      • Well, I agree that racism flourishes in darkness. It’s hard to say what I mean, but it’s dangerous to avoid something because a small group of people object. If people are really going to object to having their skin called “Cocoa”, I had a Guyanese friend who gloried in her “Cocoa” skin. I just think, when you write something, you’re going to end up offending lots of people these days. If we catered to everyone who threw a temper tantrum, we’d basically have nothing to write about.

        Huxley and Orwell wrote some pretty controversial stuff. Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” was cutting edge, but remember he invented Newspeak.

        It’s your artistic decision. But, sometimes you got to rock boats, especially when they need rocked.

        Saying “Cocoa skin” is not insulting. Not to normal black people. It’s insulting to a small group of individuals who also tear down statues because they were slave owners, and riot on college campuses. It’s just radicals who object to those things.

        All I’m saying is that my Guyanese friend loved her skin color. I loved it, too. But like I said, it’s your artistic decision.

  5. One step at a time. Congratulations for making that breakthrough in the programming we’ve had, being part of the “white” class structure. Kudos for diving in and making the changes to the manuscript. We’re all going to make mistakes. What defines us is how we pick ourselves up. How we step out of the way of others we’ve accidentally blocked, shut down, degraded. In this journey I realized I needed to take, my copy of Robin DiAngelo’s *White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism* arrived last night, and I’ve started reading. I’m following an author on Twitter who’s discussing as she reads, and 50+ of us are reading, chiming in. I’ll be “behind” the pace, but as she encouraged us, state the things that call out to us. Repetition is good. The novel will be a lot to unpack.

  6. Pingback: Elizabeth: Goodbye 2019 and RWA? – Eight Ladies Writing

  7. Thank you for opening up this discussion here.

    I sort of wonder if the problem is just so hard to define that some people grasp onto the words or stereotypes.

    Or maybe it’s a problem of allergies — if you run into a honeybee and get stung once or twice in your life, it’s not a big deal. But if you get stung over and over and over again, there’s trauma, memories are triggered at the sound of a buzz, and then there’s the physical allergies that can build up and become deadly.

    I can think of so many ways an author can go wrong with race in a book. If the character is just cardboard-thin with a slapdash of café au lait and some hokey cornpone added for interest, that’s bad writing (and probably racism). Or if the character is simply in the book meant to be consumed, it’s in bad taste to cover her with chocolate and caramel. A character should be well-rounded and have at least a few dimensions. If she’s just a maid who is on the page for three paragraphs to remove some evidence, is it important to make her a black or a Hispanic or a white maid? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s OK to let the reader build their own image of the maid.

    I have barely touched on these concerns; I haven’t really thought them out myself.

    But here’s one final concern: it’s pretty easy as an editor (a reviewer?) (to your own work) to say, X should be written this way, or Y is better. Well, no, it’s not easy. But my point is that it’s much harder to direct your subconscious. Sometimes characters just show up the way they are, or they suddenly morph into something. I don’t know why this happens; instinctively (at least in the first draft), I think it’s best to “trust in the girls in the basement” and just go with it. In theory, it can be changed or the shaky foundations can be reinforced during the editing and rewriting stages.

    Well, anyway, this whole brou-ha-ha did get me to thinking. One thing I took to heart is that just because a person writes a mistake, that doesn’t mean the person is a racist. If the writer continues to write mistakes, or doubles-down on a racist (or ableist or weightist or neurotypical or other-ist) stance, then they might be a racist. However, a good think and an apology goes a long way.

    The other thing is that if you re-publish your books at a later date, take a few extra minutes to think about what you’ve written, and if it needs changed. You did that, Jeanne — you didn’t leave things stand when they niggled at you. You were pre-emptive. People make mistakes, and people make not-really-mistakes-but-I-can-see-why-it-grates, too. I think you did the right thing.

    • Thanks, Michaeline. I don’t mean to say that I’m consciously and intentionally and unapologetically racist, just that I know that my gut reactions sometimes hearken back to the attitudes I learned growing up, which are not reflective of my current beliefs.

      Glad to see that this has sparked some real discussion!

      • Oh, I didn’t mean to imply at all that you were intentionally racist. I have a lot of racist ideas; I think we all do, no matter what color of human beings we are. I’m a minority white, and a lot of people assume stuff about me because of the color of my skin. Sometimes it’s useful (some people will stop and help me out if I look confused), but sometimes it’s not useful (some people will assume helping me will be a whole lot of hassle — even when I actively ask for help IN JAPANESE). I think most non-East Asian minorities in Japan face this plus/minus situation in varying ways.

        And I assume a lot of things when I see an East-Asian face. I try to hold back judgement because I hope I’ve learned from mistakes in the past. But it’s difficult and complicated.

        FWIW, I think Milan has not been racist in this controversy. She was very careful to say “this book” is a racist fucking mess, not “this author” (at least in the original thread). And I see in the Guardian that Davis has said she’s going to make changes to her ebook. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/04/kathryn-lynn-romance-novelist-interview-racism-complaint

        I don’t know if that’s because it’s in her economic interests, or because she’s had a change of heart over the past 21 years and wants her books to reflect that, now that’s she’s over the hurt of the critique. Does it matter as long as it changes? I don’t know. But I think it’s good that she’s going to make some changes.

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