author – activist – faculty – mom
Earlier this year, romance author Stephanie Dray was outed for some comments that implied she was planning a BDSM romance between United States founding father and slaveowner Thomas Jefferson, and the enslaved African woman with whom he had a long-term sexual relationship, Sally Hemmings. Many people tweeted outrage as several authors and possible publishing houses were called to task. Dray and her writing partner apologized. She claims that the book is not about Jefferson and Hemmings, but rather Jefferson’s daughter. However, romance author Jenny Trout circulated a screenshot which exposes Dray clearly joking on twitter about “Thomas Jefferson show[ing] Sally Hemmings some shackles.” As people have pointed out over the years, “romance” is a misnomer between two people in a society that enforces the ownership of one over another.
Dray’s comments created a great deal of upset and outrage in the romance community, especially the community of women of color authors and their allies. In particular, Dray’s apology rang false to many. One reason for this is that the racism is not an isolated incident. In a previous post, I outlined the other instances of racism in her work. So, although she was apologizing for the Jefferson/Hemings BDSM comments, her language and body of work showed repeated examples of racist language and racist appropriation.
As a writer of online criticism, I am committed not only to pointing out what’s wrong in what others write, but to offer positive solutions. In this vein, I would point Dray, or anyone else who is interested in truly cleaning up a mistake, to notions of restorative or transformative justice.
It’s easy to point out what is wrong with others, let me use an example of my own shortcomings as an example.
Recently, in my teaching, I made a big mistake. I teach a class that trains student teachers. They develop lectures that they will present to a large undergraduate class with a focus in the humanities. Many of the students who will receive the lecture have very little experience with the subject matter. In particular, many students are science, business or technology majors, and are unfamiliar with humanities perspectives.
In the teaching class, one of my student teachers was developing a lecture. She was an immigrant from several other marginalized constituencies. In my feedback on her lecture, I kept telling her she needed to “break it down more” and “provide more background” because the undergraduate students wouldn’t be able to understand her. It was “too complicated.” One of the other student teachers consistently agreed with me.
She took the feedback, but then came back to class the next week really upset. She was angry and felt that we had mistreated her.
We had a very tense conversation. I listened and validated her, but internally I was defensive. After all, I was right that the students wouldn’t understand it. I was right that it needed to be easier to digest. I was a teacher of teachers. I was just doing my job. But I stayed open-minded. I listened to her extensively, and we then did some paired listening. When it was my turn in my pair, I spoke to another student teacher about my frustration. As I spoke, I began to understand how my feedback landed for her: basically, it felt like I was telling her that she needed to start from scratch in explaining herself to a group that wouldn’t understand her context, because so many aspects of her identity had been marginalized. Given the stack of her intersectional marginalized identities, my feedback was reinforcing her outsider status. I was demanding she explain herself, yet again.
After the paired listening, we returned to the full group discussion. I could see I was wrong and I apologized. I was thorough and humble about it, but things stayed tense. Then at some point, I brightened. All we needed was a transformative justice solution. I began to think out loud.
Here was the problem: there were many marginalized parts of her identity, and the undergraduate class wouldn’t understand them without a proper foundation. But she had been forced into the position of explaining herself to people all her life. It was a multiple burden to have to do so again. And then the solution came to me. She didn’t need to explain herself, she needed the support of her teaching community, so that she didn’t have to.
Suddenly everything changed in the room. The students who had felt uncomfortable, guilty or upset became inspired and committed. Four of us each took building block concepts and developed short lectures on those topics in support of her lecture. On the day of her lecture, we presented these mini-lectures before her longer lecture. So when she finally got up to the podium, her team had created the foundation so that the class could understand her perspective. In the big class, we became the allies she deserved. It was painful for her to get the difficult feedback in the first place, but it transformed the hurt when she got our support and didn’t have to go up there alone. She had hoped to be understood by her peers and supported to speak her truth to the larger class, even if no one understood her. But instead, she got others to do the heavy lifting so that she could speak her truth and not need to translate herself, and still be understood by an audience that was previously ignorant about her many identities. This turned out to be a wonderful example of transformative justice. It makes things better than before the mistake or injury took place.
In our culture, you’re either right or wrong. People either agree or disagree. If you’re wrong, you apologize. But if you don’t do anything to make it better, it doesn’t transform the hurt. If Stephanie Dray is really interested in making it right, she might think about what she can do to transform racism in the romance writing community.