Romance Novels, Racism & Restorative Justice part 2: how to write about communities you’re not part of with respectPosted: March 27, 2015
Many of you may have read my previous post in which white historical romance author Stephanie Dray joked on Facebook about a 50 Shades of Grey BDSM mashup novel with Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings. Although the FB screen cap says of the book “it’s happening, people” she denies that such a book was ever planned.
What she doesn’t deny is that she also engages with the theme of slavery via her book on Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy. But here’s the challenge:
Dray describes it as “a mainstream historical fiction book about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy” and says, “It has been my ambition, from start to finish with this project, to shed light on the devastation of slavery–a devastation that became more and more evident as we researched.”
And yet, these challenges and complexities aren’t central to the book. Here’s the general description:
“America’s First Daughter is a straight historical fiction that offers a sweeping treatment of Martha ‘Patsy’ Jefferson Randolph’s life from dutiful daughter traveling at her diplomat father’s side to First Lady during her father’s presidency to mistress of the iconic Monticello.” So this is a story of a white woman coming into her own. And slavery is so far in the background that it doesn’t get a mention. Maybe it’s part of the “sweeping treatment.”
this is exactly the problem. Racism is about brown folk’s lives always being in service to white peoples’ lives. Dray really thinks she’s dealing with slavery in some meaningful way because she chose to write a story that centers on a white woman who was affected by it. But however much Patsy may have had to deal with some discomfort about slavery, mostly her life was enriched by it. Namely, the “iconic Monticello” that she became “mistress” of was built and maintained by slave labor. While Dray and her partner express outrage towards slavery, their very fascination with the wealthy white families of the time expose their simultaneous attraction towards the institution and the white wealth and power it enabled. Patsy never chose to free any enslaved Africans, she sold them to save herself financially.
There are ways for white people to combat racism by writing about white people. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a great example. However, in historical fiction that includes real historical characters, one would have to choose more wisely than this Patsy.
Here’s a question: what about the women abolitionists at the time? What are the stories of the women in abolitionist John Brown’s life or the wives and partners of those involved in the raid on Harper’s Ferry (a white man who attempted to start a slave revolt)? I will remix Audre Lorde for the occasion: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And the master’s family’s stories will never do justice to the people they “owned.”
Dray says she wants to “make clear that the scars of that devastation are still evident today in our politics and our culture.” Unfortunately, she’s made clear that the scars are still in her attitude and in her book.
I don’t want to say here that people should not write about targeted communities they aren’t part of. Neither am I advocating censorship, nor self-censorship. But if you don’t want to be accused of racism or appropriation (or worse yet, find yourself guilty of it), then check your motives and proceed with caution. Daniel Jose Older has some GREAT tips in his article “12 Fundamentals Of Writing ‘The Other’….How to respectfully write from the perspective of characters that aren’t you.”
And here’s my experience:
I write about women of color from low income backgrounds (which in some ways describes me and definitely describes much of my family). I also write about sex workers in New York, which is fully outside of my experience and of those close to me.
I chose sex work very specifically, because I wanted to write about sex and center my work in a location that was inherently political. Sex work is about class, gender, bodies, sexuality, commerce, race, nation, culture, technology, and more. Everything that matters to me. But there are all these highfalutin ideas, and then there are actual people actually doing the work and actually getting targeted with the oppression or facing the threat of dire consequences in their work every day. The book wasn’t going to be in integrity unless I developed strong reciprocal connections with people in the sex work communities.
So I have built relationships with people fighting for justice for sex workers to make sure that my book isn’t just a fantasy of what sex workers might want, but actually checking with them. Some folks were glad to talk to me for free, and in other cases, out of respect, I hired sex worker experts to consult and paid their going rate for their time. Dray will never know what Sally Hemings was thinking or feeling, but she can certainly check in with women of color writers, and consult with them in ways that compensate them fairly.
But as a person of privilege, if you “believe strongly” in a particular cause where you are not part of the group being targeted, the Ally 101 role is to listen to the people from that group and accept the expertise of people who are leaders in that movement.
I started by reading $pread Magazine, a sex worker industry publication that has since folded. Then I had a friend read it who is a sex worker. She enjoyed it, but she didn’t have a perspective on the larger industry beyond her type of work. So I reached out to a sex worker activist who offered to read my book. She didn’t want to be paid, as she considered it part of her activism. We had several lunches where I picked up the tab, and then she read my 3rd draft. And she ripped it to shreds in several places where I’d gotten things wrong.
There were little things: she told me I needed to change some of the character names. I had stripper names for some of the women who were selling sex; in that part of the industry the names were different. My sex worker characters were also underchanrging for various services. These were easy to change, but some of the things were not. For example, she objected to the fact that, in an earlier draft, the sex workers were robbing their clients. She said this is a terrible stereotype that all sex workers are thieves and that they hate their clients and want to take advantage of them. Bam! Right there, she eviscerated my entire plot. But guess what? I came up with something better, something that not only supported her request, but also managed to reinforce another important issue in the sex work community. Currently, there are a lot of campaigns against selling sex, based on situations where people (mostly women and girls) are being trafficked against their will. Trafficking is a huge problem, but most of these approaches that conflate commercial sex, sex work, and trafficking, are less effective with trafficking and also directly harm sex workers.
When I wasn’t able to have the sex workers robbing their clients, I developed the idea that they came across a group of crooked CEOs who were involved in a sex trafficking scandal. I changed the plot so that my protagonist’s team robs these CEOs to keep their clinic open, and sending some of the money to organizations that work directly with the women who’ve been trafficked. So now the book is on message with what sex worker activists are saying consistently as part of their real-world fights: sex workers care about trafficking and don’t want sex work and trafficking to be conflated. As a work of fiction, it’s able to go a step further and have sex workers who are part of solutions to trafficking, by redistributing wealth earned by traffickers, getting money back to women trafficked, and the story also exposes some of the hypocrisy in the anti-trafficking movement. When a person builds deep alliances with folks from the community they’re writing about, they deepen the work and can further align the work with the movements of folks from that community that are fighting for the human rights they need and deserve.
Back to Dray, if she really does care about racial justice, then she probably needs a new approach. Attention all writers: writing about a social justice topic (like race or gender or sexuality or sex work or class) doesn’t automatically make you part of the solution. And it’s particularly dicey when what you’re creating is a product to be sold. I have written a bunch of books that didn’t include sex workers. But I had trouble selling them. So when I realized I would need to write something sexier, I decided to write about sex work, because it’s so political. And I hope my book does well. And I hope to get paid, for the thousands of hours I put into it. However, I have worked hard to align the impact and message of my book with the needs of the sex worker’s community. And if I just included sex worker characters without aligning the book with the movement goals of real sex workers, it would be appropriation. As Audre Lorde put it, use without the consent of the person being used is abuse. Now, not every sex worker is going to agree with me, and some will say I’m exploiting or appropriating anyway. And when those criticisms come, I get to take another look at myself, and see where I can do better. But going in, I know that built real relationships, and put in lots of time to educate myself, and am in community and communication with a number of badass sex worker activists who will kick my ass if my work is potentially hurting their movement. And beyond that, I can see that it’s not some charity work to help sex workers–the targeting of sex workers is part of the targeting of women in general, and women of color and low income women in particular. So human rights for sex workers moved all of humanity forward. And the biggest green light I’ve gotten is all the sex workers who are telling me yes, write and sell this book, we want these stories out there!
To that end, I feel good about the range of experiences in sex work that I’ve portrayed, from horrible and coercive to the best choice a trauma survivor could make in a terrible situation, to having fun and making great money. And I feel good knowing that whatever the response to my work, I have shaped my vision in contrast to the tired and damaging tropes of sex worker victim and sex worker villain. My protagonist is a sex worker hero. Flawed and imperfect and a total badass. Her lives and her struggles are in the center of the book.
Part of the problem for Stephanie Dray in writing about slavery in the context of a white woman’s heartwarming journey of coming into her own is this: slavery wasn’t heartwarming. Decidedly not for the enslaved Africans. So you can’t really fit a story of a black woman in that era into the women’s fiction formula, because there is no happy ending, no coming into her own. Slavery was all about being owned, and the ripping apart of human bonds between black people. Between romantic partners, between parents and children. Everyone. And if you tell a touching story about white people with slavery as a backdrop, that’s working at a sort of cross-purposes, because on the one hand, you say you want racial equality, but your book puts white people in the center and black people as the backdrop. Perhaps the fight for racial equality won’t be fought or won on the pages of antebellum historical novels written by white women about a white woman. Perhaps if Dray really cares about racial equality, she can act powerfully in the present and support the voices of black women and women of color in her genre.
Please note, I am having trouble pulling up all the past tweets about it from earlier this month. If I missed you, please forgive me. If you wrote or spoke about the situation at the time, or would like to now, get at me on twitter @ayadeleon & I will include in future posts in the series. Thanks!
My Fusion post links SFPD racist texting scandal to the KKK via the Richmond “Cowboys”….and a salute to Women JournalistsPosted: March 25, 2015
When I read about the San Francisco PD racist texting scandal, it brought to mind the landmark police abuse case in Richmond, CA that my mother had worked on in the 1980s. I interviewed my mom and was able to connect the dots between my memories, her memories and online research to show how the current racism in Bay Area police departments is directly connected to white attitudes in the pre-Civil Rights era Deep South. Now, I’ve written for a lot of online outlets, but this was the first time I was writing for a news outlet. And it nearly killed me. The level of research and fact checking was so overwhelming that I was relieved to go back to the relatively cushy job of writing fiction.
In fact, on Twitter on Monday I declared it #SaluteWomenJournalists Day. I sent shoutouts to my favorite feminists in the journalism field. Wow. I never realized just how hard their work is. And I was working with the editor Latoya Peterson, founder of Racialicious, a totally sympathetic African American woman. I have no idea how women journalists do it.
So I was really deep in my fiction and forgot to promote when the story came out on Monday. So here it is. My first (and probably last) foray into real news journalism. Enjoy!
Earlier this week, I heard about Starbucks’ absurd “Race Together” so-called campaign to try to address race relations. According to the Huffington Post:
Employees behind the counter were…given the option of writing “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups to help initiate dialog amid simmering racial tensions in the United States….The campaign, however, has been met with snark and skepticism on social media, with many complaining the company was overstepping it boundaries with a campaign on sensitive cultural topics that had no place in the coffee shop’s lines….[and] they questioned how workers such as baristas, many of them young adults who are not trained to navigate such difficult conversations, would manage…
According to one twitter critic, April Reign who goes by @ReignOfApril, “Not sure what @Starbucks was thinking. I don’t have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train. #RaceTogether.”
The whole campaign was particularly surreal for me because earlier this year, I worked with one of my African American student teachers, Alana Banks, to edit a poem about working at Starbucks and being targeted with racist verbal abuse by one of her white customers:
It’s 7am, a barista’s worst nightmare
I was…on the register
keep[ing] the line moving
From a tall latte to a complicated order
I made sure everyone was satisfied…
[A blonde white woman] steps to the silver counter
I need a triple soy vanilla latte
I ask what size?
I said can I have a triple soy vanilla latte
you know if you people don’t understand English maybe you should go back to wherever you came from
Starbucks’ campaign idea is as absurd as thinking we could solve global warming by having oil changers put a “climate together” sticker on our rear windshield, and offer to talk to us about climate change. Racism isn’t about people “understanding” each other or “having dialogue,” it’s about the institutionalized organization of wealth, land, labor, financial and natural resources, political and social power, and the military and police forces that enforce a social order of white supremacy. These institutions have roots in slavery and genocide.
I wonder if Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz would be shocked by how my student teacher Alana was treated? Alana certainly was not. Racism wasn’t new to her, and whatever her personal feelings, she did what African heritage people have learned since we were first brought to this country: shrug it off and keep working.
I chuckled and said [to the other customers] hello I can help the next person here
White blonde looking confused
Wait you didn’t take my order yet
[I wanted to say] No YOU didn’t take MY order yet
I ordered a triple shot of justice unsweetened cause my people don’t sugar coat the truth
It’s morning rush and the line is out the door so no I don’t have any time to
read you a fucking history book
white blonde threw a pretentious fit
You black bitch, you’re ruining my morning
What should Alana have written on the coffee cup? How does a meaningless slogan transform this type of microaggression in the life of a young African American woman? It isn’t slogans but actual solidarity that matters.
[the abusive white woman] calls for my manager who luckily was standing right behind me
a little taller than me
skin like Godiva chocolate
hair in a mini fro…
Ashley stuck straight to the script
Sorry you had a bad experience but you have to leave now or else I will call the police and they will help you leave
White blonde exits my life with a standing ovation by people who understand you can’t just say shit like that
she probably just went to the Starbucks right down the street
barastias can better attend to her needs
but where do I go to solve my problem…?
Alana’s right. The deeply entrenched problems of racism won’t be solved by slogans, so-called racial justice campaigns that are all about creating social media buzz to enrich corporations. This is especially outrageous when, according to the Daily Kos “top executive team of Starbucks…is just 16% people of color.” This is in the context of the restaurant industry workforce, which has a majority of women and people of color, but the majority of those with living wage jobs are white men. Let’s talk about that, Starbucks.
But even setting aside the hypocrisy, we still have the presumptuousness and minimization. Only someone utterly out of touch with the pain and outrage of racism would propose that people of color wanted someone to write “race together” on our coffee cup. But listen Schultz, Mr. Starbucks chief, when you’re ready to give the baristas the option of writing #BlackLivesMatter on my coffee cup? I’d line up outside Starbucks for that. And I don’t even drink coffee.
Alana Banks is a junior at UC Berkeley concentrating on African American Studies, Public Health, City Planning, and Public Policy. She is also a Student Teacher Poet in Poetry for the People and an organizer in #BlackLivesMatter on campus with the Black Student Union. She still lives in North Oakland where she grew up. She is a former member of UC Berkeley’s Women’s Rugby team. She studies health disparities in low income communities. Find her on twitter at @
Sony Pictures’ All-Male Ghostbusters Reboot to Accompany All-Female Ghostbusters a Glowing Sign of Increasing Gender Equity in HollywoodPosted: March 13, 2015
It’s about time! Sony Pictures finally responds to demands for gender equity in Hollywood. They have unveiled plans to do an all-male reboot of Ghostbusters to accompany the all-female reboot. For any skeptics who think these are not the droids I was looking for, this is just one of Sony’s many gender equity plans, which they will be unveiling soon. 2015, which Sony has declared “The Year of the Man” will continue with all-male remakes of many traditionally female movies. They begin with a Sex and The City reboot with Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington and George Clooney drinking cosmos and talking love and sex. While waiting for more casting details, fans will have a great time tyring to you guess which actor will play the male equivalent of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda! And speaking of smart and sexy types, Sony will also be doing a Legally Blonde reboot with Chris Hemsworth. We can’t wait to see Pierce Brosnan teach him the attention-getting practice of showing his body to the best advantage with “bend & snap!”
After the failed TV show, Sony thinks that what Charlie’s Angels needs is a gender change! The reboot will star Leonardo DiCaprio, Hugh Jackman, and Aston Kutcher. Which will be the brainy one and which one will wear the bikini? Of course, all will be in love with the mystery woman Charlie, played by Anjelica Houston. Also angelic will be their remake of Bridget Jones’ Diary, starring Robert Pattinson. It’s still unclear if it’ll be set in the US or England!
One of the best features will be Sony’s historical retrospectives: One will be a reboot of A League of Their Own where men briefly had a national baseball league during World War II when women went to war. Channing Tatum stars, and rumor has it they may actually employ professional baseball players from the National and American leagues! Also, speaking of athletics, Sony pictures announces a new original film: Title IX: The Fight for Men’s Equality, starring Nick Jonas as a frustrated co-ed, whose small town football dreams are threatened when his college that doesn’t have a men’s team. When he tries to join the women’s team, they have the nerve to suggest that he’s cute, so he should become a cheerleader. Imagine their surprise when, in June 1972, summer after his freshman year, President Nixon signs the Education Amendments, including Title IX. But there’s still an intrepid battle for our hero to winning equal rights for men in college sports. And who wants to miss a chance to see Nick Jonas with long hair, a vest over his naked chest, and tight, bell-bottom pants?
Thanks, Sony. So good to know this Ghostbusters remake is only the beginning of your gender equity initiative…fight the power!
I used to blog on Fridays, but lately there’s so much to say. I’m gonna try for a Maybe Monday blog post in addition to the ForSure Fridays.
This week, white romance author Stephanie Dray had to apologize when her racism was publicly exposed. She was joking on facebook about a BDSM romance between founding father Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings. In particular, another white romance author Jenny Trout, called her out and circulated the screencap of Dray’s facebook page. The screen shot had been shared with Trout by one or more women of color authors who were upset. Trout asked permission to share it, and kept the authors anonymous.
Dray used her words. She apologized on her blog and individually to everyone who tweeted her that they were upset.
And this is where we have the same split as in my daughter’s two schools. Some are saying: “hey, she apologized. What more do you want?” Others are dissatisfied with the apology for several reasons. First, the apology itself contained additional racist language. Second, scrutiny of Dray’s work finds further instances of racism. Finally—and this is much bigger than Dray—the whole incident opens up the larger issue of racism in the romance genre and publishing in general.
I would argue that Dray is like the kids at my daughter’s previous school. They don’t have the tools to actually repair a situation. They can only offer an apology. Dray doesn’t seem to want to be racist, but she’s so steeped in it, and so unconscious of it that her attempts at cleaning up only make it worse. What is needed here is restorative or transformative justice.
First of all, let’s look at what happened.
Here is the facebook page where Dray posts that a BDSM romance between Jefferson/Hemings would be “hilarious.” Rape is not funny. The systematic rape of African women in the US with no human rights, AKA “slaves,” is particularly not funny.
Dray apologized for joking and insists she is not writing such a BDSM romance, but rather a historical novel about Jefferson’s daughter.
In Dray’s apology, and it seems as if she tried really hard to be humble and thorough. She avoids classic passive aggressive apology wording, such as, I’m sorry you that upset you or I’m sorry you felt that way. She uses clear and unequivocal language: “I hurt people…I’m bitterly disappointed in myself….I would like to extend my heartfelt apology. And I thank those of you who made me take a hard look at this…I was wrong….It will not happen again.” Her co-writer Kaye uses the same tone in her apology, adding: “I am a rape survivor, so I am disappointed in myself for doing something that trivializes or makes light of rape…”
On the surface, they seem deeply remorseful, but others take issue. @fangirlJeanne, a a media critic, blogger, and writer wrote a scathing post on “Love in the Margins,” a blog that focuses on diversity in romance and erotica. fangirlJeanne says, “While many authors, white and people of color alike, have accepted the apologies, to others it seems Dray and Kaye only care about getting back in other white women’s good graces, and selling their book.”
Sure enough, when I took a second look, I realized I had missed the shameless self-promotion in Laura Kaye’s apology. She includes what sounds like jacket copy to arouse curiosity about the novel. In her “clarification” description of the book they wrote: the novel “offers a sweeping treatment of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph’s life from dutiful daughter traveling at her diplomat father’s side to First Lady during her father’s presidency to mistress of the iconic Monticello.” Note to authors: when apologizing for being insensitive, please do not include the pitch for your book. Also note, “the iconic Monticello” refers to Jefferson’s plantation which his daughter ostensibly inherits. Here is a photo of the child size shackles Jefferson kept:
Dray also makes a crucial mistake in her own apology. She says, “Racial justice is something that I feel deeply about. Something that I think deeply about….But apparently not deeply enough,” and her unconscious/unaware racism is evident from first paragraph of the apology itself.
Dray says that “Thomas Jefferson initiated sex with his slave, Sally Hemings, most probably when she was fifteen.” Many on twitter took her to task for the euphemism of “initiated sex” as opposed to rape, which is the legal definition of such a sex act with an underage girl. This is not to mention that she was his legal property, so it’s not as if he could “initiate sex” and she could refuse.
A closer investigation of Dray reveals a persistent, exploitative relationship with all things African in her Cleopatra’s Daughters series, including the blonde white “Princess of Egypt” cover.
Having literally just had a conversation about book covers with my own commercial publisher, no one knows better than me that an author doesn’t always have control of her cover images. But apparently, the novel with the blonde on the cover is self-published, which means Dray was in full control of that racist decision. In fact, all of the “Egyptians” on her covers are white-looking.
I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know what racism or anti-racism lurks within. But she’s clearly participating in the time-honored racist tradition of whitening and appropriating the glories of Egypt and disconnecting them from Africa.
Dray says that “It has been my ambition…with this project, to shed light on the devastation of slavery…And to make clear that the scars of that devastation are still evident today in our politics and our culture.” But she doesn’t see that the white entitlement of racism is still evident today in her own relationship to writing about African/African American themes. Her fascination with Africa (Egypt), with African Americans, slavery, and the sexual violence of slavery are all about taking these subjects and exploiting them for her own financial gain. Do white people have the right to write about race and racism? Of course. But if they do it in a racist way, many of us are going to call it out. Is that censorship? No. It’s principled criticism. We are calling out the hypocrisy in Dray’s work, and the disconnect between what she states as her intentions and the results/impacts.
Finally, both she and her co-writer Kaye insist that there is no BDSM Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings book. And this is suspect, because Dray speaks in her post of the “50 Shades of Grey/Jefferson Mashup we’ve got in mind. Oh yes…imagine the possibilities…” As author Tasha L. Harrison and others have noted on twitter, Dray lays out clear plans for a book. Harrison tweeted a strong accusation to Dray that she and her “coauthor talked to your editor about it.” Harrison goes on to quote Dray’s facebook page directly, “‘Which means it’s happening, people.’” Given this information, it seems to many as if Dray apologizes for the joke (in which she was caught red-handed) and denies the book they had pitched and in which their editor was interested (which she can easily conceal).
Whether or not every detail of the allegation is true or not, it points to the troubling idea that this is bigger than one or two women’s racism. The idea that she, her co-writer, and their editor had all greenlighted such a book, and that several other authors and/or fans on facebook were excited about it, is part of what really upsets women of color writers and our allies in fighting racism. That not one of the various white people would say THIS IS A HORRIBLE, RACIST, AND OFFENSIVE IDEA points to a bigger problem. Woman of color romance author Suleikha Snyder notes how the racism of the situation has been “swept under the rug until the next time it happens…And make no mistake, it WILL happen again. Because the default narrative and status quo have not changed.”
Next up in this series (in no particular order):
- the larger systematic issues of racism in romance genre and publishing in general.
- what does it mean to write about a marginalized community you’re not part of
- ideas for restorative/transformative justice solutions.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Dray has put herself on a twitter and blog time out. Whether she’s using the time to really reflect on her actions, or just brooding in the corner while the other kids are playing, we have no way of knowing. Kaye, however, started back up to her usual social media life the very next day.
If you would like to submit your thoughts to possibly be quoted in future posts on this topic, get at me on twitter @ayadeleon