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Captain, my Captain!

I’ve looked through the archives, and while you’ve answered similar-ish questions, this one hasn’t come up before, so I’m hoping you can help! I (she/her) work as a freelance editor and am in a fairly privileged position––I have enough clients that I can afford to be somewhat choosy; I’m white and cisgender, so while I certainly object to racist content, it doesn’t actually trigger me when I come across it in the works I’m editing.

However, I’ve been running into more and more works with racist content from new clients, whether stereotyped characters, cultural appropriation, or micro-aggressions in their prose (and I’m *sure* I’m missing problems content-wise). Often times, it’s content that’s hard for me to screen for before taking the job–there’s no easy search for racism in a manuscript, unfortunately–and furthermore, I also know with my relative privilege, I’m better-placed to give feedback that these authors may at least listen to.

What I’m struggling with is these sorts of clients are taking up more and more of my time and mental energy and space. I know I need to find a better way of “screening” clients and balancing the ones who slip through the cracks with the ones I actually enjoy working with, but in the meantime, do you have any script suggestions for telling people that their writing is terribly racist? Alternatively, any scripts for “breaking up” with clients whose works are too terrible for me to work with them in good conscious? (All my contracts have break-up clauses, so that’s not a concern––it’s the giving the criticism part I need help with!)

I don’t want to condone these authors’ works, but I don’t want to be mired down in fixing unfixable content either (especially if the author isn’t inclined to listen regardless!). Since it’s a client-freelancer relationship, I feel the boundaries are different–we can work with each other at will and there’s no HR to report to–so I’m at a loss. Any help would be much appreciated!

– No, Your Book isn’t Misunderstood; It’s Racist

Hi there Not Misunderstood:

DIRECTNESS IS KINDNESS.

Here is my suggestion which I think will cover both “Honest Feedback For Clients” and “Fix This Right Now Or We Have To Break Up” bases. I am writing a blanket script that can be adapted, please use what is useful to you however this works best with your existing process for contracting for edits, ok?

FYI, here are my goals for the proposed script:

  • Directness is kindness. These people NEED to hear this feedback from someone, today you’re the “someone.” They hired you to help them make their book the best it can be, it can’t be the best it can be until this gets fixed, sugarcoating it or avoiding it is unhelpful.
  • Be specific about the nature and scope of the problem to the extent you can. You don’t have to include every detail, find a few particularly telling ones.
  • Make it clear that you cannot work on the project until/unless substantive changes are made. “Can’t you just clean up the text like I hired you to do?” Nope!
  • Strongly disinvite the person from arguing with you about the nature of the feedback – They can fix it or don’t, you’re not touching this again until they do.
  • Direct them somewhere that might actually solve the problem.
  • For now, grant them the fig leaf of “I’m sure this is unintentional, and confidentially between you & an editor is the right time to fix these problems!” which hopefully they will take as the giant gift that it is. For the record, I do not think most or all of the people who write and say racist stuff are doing it unintentionally, but when you are trying to persuade someone to do better, it might help them rise to the occasion if you don’t immediately shame or punish them. If they double-down, argue, counter with abuse of you or try to invoke that One Black Friend Every Racist Definitely Has But Never Actually Listens To, strip that white fragility fig leaf right off and add them to your “Nope, Never Again” list.

And here’s the recommended script, which I imagine delivering as soon as you’ve completed your initial read-through. Write your prospective/new client an email that spells out your feedback about the content, including the problematic content, and the next steps for editing the book, like so:

“Dear [Author],

I’ve completed my initial read of [Your Book] and I want to share my initial feedback and outline next steps for the editing process if we’re going to continue working together.

While some elements of the draft are very strong [mention one or two], I’ve identified some content that needs serious revision before I can commit to another round of edits.

Unfortunately, there are some examples of [common stereotypes][cultural appropriation][outdated language][misuse of dialect][racist, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, ableist tropes or attitudes, and go ahead and use these words, no ‘racially charged’ euphemisms][for fuck’s sake stop redeeming slaveholders and Nazis through the power of luuuuuuurrrrrrveeee] throughout the draft, for example:

[List out some of what you found and briefly spell out what is wrong with it, i.e. “Spirit Animal” is a term that is sacred to specific indigenous religious traditions, a white woman of Swedish descent from Minnesota categorically does not have a spirit animal.]

[OPTIONAL – I’ve tried to flag and highlight problematic passages in the text as I found them], which you can see in the attached draft which I am returning to you. I did not make edits in these passages since changes on this scale would constitute a rewrite of the material, and the issues go deep enough that in my opinion some authorial re-imagining and revision that falls outside my scope is the right fix].

Additionally, while I know enough to spot some potential problems, I am not the right kind of editor to get this where it needs to be, so I must bow out of working on this project further until substantial revisions are made. Many authors choose to work with sensitivity readers for just this reason, if you’re interested I can link you to a few resources.*

I know this was probably not the feedback you were hoping to hear, but I hope you will take this to heart: This has potential to be a wonderful book, you’ve got such strong [worldbuilding][characterization][sense of place][addictive plot][idk think of something you can sincerely compliment and throw it out there!] that I think it is well worth investing some more time in making sure that it finds the widest possible audience and doing due diligence to make sure it is not unintentionally causing harm and making you come across as [racist, homophobic, etc. etc.].

I wish you well with making the necessary changes and I hope you’ll get back in touch when you have a revised draft. [If you don’t actually want this, don’t worry, this is like promising to be friends the second after a breakup, time will tell].

Best wishes,

[Your Sign-off]

Attachments: 1) A document with your draft with my initial highlights and comments. [OPTIONAL, obviously] 2) My invoice for X hours for work completed so far, due [DATE]”[YES, GET PAID FOR WHAT YOU DID SO FAR]

Hopefully that does the trick. People are either going to get it or they won’t, and you’ll know VERY QUICKLY which kind you are dealing with. A person who can sit with feedback like this, realize it is A GIFT meant to HELP them avoid harmful (and reputation-destroying MISTAKES) is someone you can possibly work with in the future.

*Some places you might direct authors:

Edited To Add: You mentioned looking for a new process for screening projects as they come in. I detailed one I used to use for writing screenplay coverage here that might be adaptable. I think you absolutely should spell out, in advance, some stages of how you work and lay out expectations, and one stage can absolutely be something like:

“The right author-editor collaboration requires trust and a large investment of time and energy, so part of my process is making sure that we will be the right fit. For new clients, I do an initial read where I give some initial reactions to story, characters, setting and suggest some starting points for the next round of revisions [spell exactly out what this involves, possibly incl. a basic template & time-frame]. Since this process reflects X hours of work, I charge a non-refundable fee of $$$ [this can be pretty nominal , and it’s also ok to base it on length of submission, so you’re not agreeing to read a freaking dictionary out of hand], payable at the time you submit your manuscript. Should we sign a contract for ongoing editing services, this fee is applied toward the first X hours.”

When you’re first hanging out a shingle, you want lots of clients, right? But when you’re established, you want the right clients, and it’s possible that charging a fee will also encourage people to polish their work as much as possible before investing the $.

A kind reader suggested the following additional language: “Content that reinforces racist stereotypes and oppression may be returned unedited and may be reconsidered for acceptance after significant revisions are made, entirely at the discretion of the editor” that you could include on your website and in your materials.

No comments today I have 10,000 things to do/write/do/write. Hope this helps!

 

If it’s not obvious why from the subject line, we’re putting this post behind a cut so people can choose whether to engage further. FYI there are mentions of past assaults and predatory behavior in addition to describing sex offender registries and designations. Upsetting stuff, though the LW is doing a good job with an impossible situation.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a great younger brother who realized he was gay and came out a few years ago in his mid-twenties, which was met generally with cheerful support by family and friends. Coming out really kickstarted his interest in social justice issues, which is awesome; we both grew up in a fairly liberal region and attended the same famously liberal university, so these ideas weren’t new to him, but his new identification with a marginalized community seemed to have sparked a desire to engage more deeply. All fantastic!

But for the past year or so his interest specifically in black culture has given me and my husband a little cause for concern (my brother and I are white, and my husband is a POC, though not black). His media diet at this point is dominated by black shows, podcasts, music etc, most of it intended for audiences of other black people — which, again, cool! It’s undeniable that the most important and interesting pop culture right now is largely being produced by women and POC and I share a lot of his fandom. As a result, however, he constantly redirects conversations to show off his new insights into black culture or establish his “cred.” He’s in so many Facebook groups designed for the black community that he now just gets invited to others and shows off screencaps of the invitations as “proof” of how legit he is. He has been known to say things like “I’m basically the blackest person at work” — when there are actual black people who work there! And while he can talk a big game about Black Lives Matter, he doesn’t actually like, volunteer or do anything for the black community where he lives or even read much on the issues beyond what’s hip on Tumblr.

From where I stand, it’s pretty clear that my brother sees his recent addition to the queer community as entitling him to be a part of any and all marginalized communities that interest him, and that it allows him to be “one of the good ones” as a white guy. I am sympathetic to that desire, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how institutionalized racism works. When he brings it up, my general tendency is to respond mildly — maybe ask questions about the show he’s interested in while not giving much attention to his preening about how cool he is, or some gentle teasing and a change of subject.

On top of all this my brother has put an “indefinite moratorium” on dating white guys with a strong preference for black dudes. The very few black friends my brother has seem charmed by him, but I am worried he is on a crash course to do or say something really bizarre that will have serious professional or personal consequences for him and I am having grim visions of Quentin Tarantino’s dashiki phase. On the one hand, he’s an adult and maybe the best thing to do is stand back and let this play out however it’s going to. On the other, it might kind of be my duty as his sister and fellow white person to try and check him before he offends someone? I am struggling to envision a version of that conversation that would go well, because these are issues that cause people to get defensive, and he can be a little (a lot) defensive to criticism from his older sister in general. I’m pretty sure whatever I say would be met with a variation of “You don’t get it, sis, because you’re too white.”

Is this worth addressing or should I mind my own beeswax?

Thanks!

– There’s no “I” in Ally

She/her pronouns

Dear There’s No “I” in Ally:

Hi, it’s Lenée, subbing in for Captain Awkward this week.

As lovely as it is that your brother wants to be a not-awful-gay-white guy, he’s being exactly that. Consumption of Black cultural production — television, movies, and even BLM — does not make him a good person or an ally of any kind. In fact, as you so properly called it, he’s a fetishist. His screenshots and social capital as A Distinguished White Guest means absolutely nothing, as it’s pretty damn clear that Black people are theoretical people to him. He’s trading in Black cultural markers and identifying himself as “the blackest person” at his job because he thinks he can opt into Blackness the same way he chose to be out. I, as a Black queer woman, could not be more exhausted by this behavior. Sadly, it’s pretty standard in my experience with white queers, men especially. Wanting to be a “good white person,” as you so wonderfully observe, doesn’t work like this. Tumblr isn’t political education, though it’s a tool some folks have used to reach people. Facebook groups are not in any way a substitute for working to dismantle white supremacy and/ or using his privilege as a white man to protect and aid Black folks. That entitlement to structurally oppressed people, our culture, et cetera is so damn white.  Seriously. It’s so white, it just demanded to speak to my manager. It’s so white it has on Tevas and wool socks in a snowstorm.

So, here’s my take on it:

Don’t be so polite to him anymore. Push back firmly and tell him flat out that he’s wrong. You’re more than welcome to point him to any number of essays or tweet threads on how anti-racism actually works. Introduce him to misogynoir, performative allyship, or the histories (and labor!) of anti-racism. Your brother is latching onto Black people because of the way America exploits our experiences and makes us consumable, which has its roots in settler colonialism and chattel slavery. He’s following the script lain out for the entire world via antiblackness — Black people are flattened in a specific way when antiblackness is unchecked.

Your brother’s dating moratorium should be a general one until he figures himself out — being fetishized by a “good” white person is traumatic and nobody deserves that, even if they’re confused about the value of white validation. There is no way for this conversation to go smoothly. Not a single way. It is your duty, as a white person and as someone close to him to check him. Even if he isn’t receptive, you are doing something about his bullshit. It’s gross of him to continue in this way. I know you can’t control a grown ass person. I know you want him to be his best possible self. He may only learn once someone checks him — someone who’s Black, or someone who’s a non-black person of color. It’s hard to say how this’ll go. I do want you to know that holding your tongue, even though he’s clearly determined to be that guy, sends a message to him that he’s right/ okay. If he pushes back, that’s fine. Encourage him to do some reading and learning that doesn’t involve his online or IRL accessorized Black friends.

Ultimately, you don’t get him because he’s too white. And that shouldn’t be the burden of any Black person who crosses his path. (And tell him to stop calling you “sis,” as the iteration he uses is AAVE and neither of you is Black.)

About the Author: Lenée is a fat, Black, queer femme who lives in Philadelphia. She’s a lover of Black music, Steven Universe, true crime, and doing the electric slide whenever possible. A new plant mom, Lenée writes on occasion and usually tweets as @dopegirlfresh.

P.S. Quick Note From The Captain: Welcome Lenée and thanks for taking on The Case Of The World’s Wokest Man!

For readers who are thinking “I want to be more informed and learn how to push back on racism without doing more harm than good but I’m extremely afraid of messing up,” may I recommend So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Written by a Black writer and anti-racism educator, this book is the best recent one-stop shop I can think of for giving context to important political and cultural discussions while also getting specific about how to do this necessary, urgent work, how to screw up less, and how to handle it when you inevitably do so (that you don’t make it all about yourself instead of correcting injustice in the word).

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve met somebody lovely and we’re getting married in the summer. (My pronouns: she/her, my fiancee’s: they/them) I’m thrilled to celebrate with all my family and friends…except one person.

My uncle has mainlined Fox News for longer than I’ve been alive and has selected me, his queer, liberal niece, as a prime audience for his rants. He’s also an aggressive alcoholic who has sent me crude conservative memes on Facebook.

If it were just me involved, I’d probably invite him and assign somebody to make sure he couldn’t make trouble (or have too many drinks). But I’m marrying a Latinx immigrant, exactly the sort of person he spent my entire childhood ranting about. Our wedding is going to be catered by a taco truck. I don’t want him to say something horrible to my fiancee’s family.

I can’t invite him. My father is lecturing me on forgiveness. My mother is brokenhearted and fears this will cause a rift in the family which can never be repaired. My uncle is a proud man and will quite probably never forgive me. But the whole point of a wedding is that I’m starting my own family – and I refuse to have our first day as family marred by somebody who hates the very idea of my future in-laws.

I’m not always a forgiving person but I think this is a very reasonable boundary. Am I wrong? Is there compromise to be had? And how do I stand it throughout the months until the wedding, fighting this invitation fight over and over again with everyone my mother recruits to talk to me about it?

-Wish We’d Eloped

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Hi Captain Awkward,

My partner [26M] and I have been together for about 6 months. We both genuinely love each other, and have been telling each other that we love each other for the last few months; but some recent events have led me to reconsider how seriously committed he is to the relationship, and how much I can trust him.

All of this started about two months into our relationship, when he invited me to his roommate’s brunch at his apartment. He introduced me to a friend of his at the brunch, let’s call her Sophie. It was immediately obvious to me that they shared some sort of a romantic history, for the following reasons: 1) Sophie felt comfortable flirting with him in front of me, 2) she wouldn’t make eye contact with me when we were all engaged in a conversation together, and 3) she made a rude joke about me during this three-way conversation that was frankly quite demeaning (accusing me of being afflicted by a psychological syndrome). I didn’t say anything to my partner at the time because we just started dating two months prior (and I didn’t want to come off as jealous/possessive/controlling), and we hadn’t officially talked about being boyfriend-girlfriend yet (although other events at the brunch sparked the wonderful conversation which resulted in us making it official, two days later). So I decided to brush it off.

Fast-forward about two months later. My boyfriend kept inviting me to parties/get-togethers that Sophie was throwing, and I kept declining. (I gave excuses, but I should’ve been forthright about the fact that I didn’t want to go to an event with someone who I suspected he shared a past with, and who felt comfortable flirting with him in front of me). He ended up going to her birthday party one night. When he came to my apartment later that night, I finally built up the nerve to confront him about whether or not they shared a past. He said yes. Here are the many red flags that popped up during my partner’s recounting of said party:

At this party, her and her friends filmed a movie reenactment, including a scene where my partner kneels down on one knee, grabs Sophie’s hand and kisses it tenderly. My partner showed me this video with pride and laughter once he arrived at my apartment later that night. Important note: Although there were many parts to this video (approx. 7), which all appeared on Sophie’s Insta story that same night, the only part of that story that she *permanently posted to her public Instagram profile* was the video of my partner kissing her hand.

My boyfriend revealed to me that they spoke at the party about their (almost) romantic past (they went on a date and almost hooked up once on a separate occasion, but they never pursued anything because Sophie was “interested in something casual” and he was “interested in something more.”).

Sophie asked him if he “made me his girlfriend yet”, to which he said yes; which was followed by “are you two exclusive?”. When my partner said that we were indeed exclusive, he explicitly reported that Sophie reacted in a “disappointed way”.

Just before my partner left the party, Sophie grabbed his phone and sent me a selfie of the two of them together (despite my not knowing her? It was strange.).

Breach of trust #1: Not telling me about his romantic past with this “friend” of his before inviting me to multiple events that she was throwing

After this all happened, my partner and I had a long conversation about boundaries. I explained to him that it makes me uncomfortable to be around people he shares a romantic history with; and that, because I’m the kind of person that prefers to remove myself from situations where I feel uncomfortable, I *need* to know this information before making a fully-informed decision about whether or not I want to show up to a social event with said person. (I can’t very well tell him who and who not to be friends with; all I can do is decide where I want to go and who I feel comfortable surrounding myself with). I also explained that Sophie’s behaviour was especially problematic, because she feels comfortable actively flirting with someone who she knows is in a relationship (not to mention– flirting with someone who is in a relationship [my bf] *in front of* the person they’re dating [me]).

At the time I thought the conversation went really well. My boyfriend was receptive to what I was feeling and saying, acknowledged that Sophie was indeed flirting with him, and promised to tell me in the future when invited to a social event if someone he shares a romantic history with would also be there. Everything seemed to be going well until the last couple of weeks, especially until last Sunday…

Some context is in order here: my grandmother passed away two weeks ago, and her funeral was last Saturday. I also found out that I was pregnant the morning of last Sunday (I’m getting an abortion). I was out of town for the last two weeks to help with the funeral and such, and during this time my boyfriend fell into radio silence. We did speak every now and again, but he was far from supportive during this time. Even worse, when the test came out positive, he waited three hours before contacting me; and when he did, he didn’t even acknowledge that the test was positive.

Okay, back to the main narrative: on Sunday afternoon, I received a notification that I was invited to my boyfriend’s birthday party. I checked the invite list, only to find that Sophie had already clicked “going” on the event.

Breach of trust #2: Invited Sophie to his birthday party (which indirectly uninvited me) *despite* me telling him that being around Sophie makes me feel really uncomfortable [context adding insult to injury here as well].

I was pretty devastated to say the least (and especially, in the context of grieving the loss of my grandmother and having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy). I called him that night to explain to him why I felt hurt, disrespected, and disappointed. I explained that I would not be attending his birthday party, because his inviting Sophie indirectly uninvited me. I explained that this shouldn’t be a surprise to him, because we had a conversation explicitly about this and explicitly about her. I explained to him that I was hurt because he was prioritizing his relationship with Sophie over his relationship with me. (I can go into more detail about the conversation we had in the comments section if need be).

Anyways he apologized, and went so far as to cancel his birthday party (which I thought was a bit drastic, but OK it’s his decision). He’s since seemed to *actually* realize how inappropriate Sophie’s behaviour was, and has admitted that “he didn’t want to see the bad side of her behaviour when I first brought it up because he likes to see the best in people.”

Breach of trust #3: Less than a week after the birthday party fiasco, after I explicitly asked him not to tell his two male friends about the pregnancy, he told them anyways. He (again!) apologized after the fact, but this is another installment in a set of trust breaches that has sounded two many alarm bells in my mind.

Part of me thinks that my boyfriend is actually interested in Sophie, and that’s why he’s been enabling her flirtatious behaviour all of this time (despite saying multiple times that he isn’t interested). But part of me also knows that I’m thinking these thoughts because I have lost trust in him, and I don’t know how to rebuild that trust. I’ve had a conversation with him about open communication, teamwork, and honesty in relationships since BOT #3. A huge part of me, the “pessimistic” side I guess, still doesn’t believe that he’s going to put in the effort to change his behaviour and to become more trustworthy a boyfriend. That’s why I’m here… for advice on how to think and how to act going forward in this situation. I’ll provide more details in the comment section if need be, don’t feel shy! Thanks all in advance.

Sincerely,

A Confused 23yr old she/her

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