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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!

 

Hi Captain Awkward!

I came out to my parents about 3 years ago, when I was still living with them before moving abroad to start my PhD. They were horrible – and it made the next 6 months of my stay a traumatizing experience, to say the least. I think you could describe my parents as controlling, and when I came out there was a lot of ‘we HATE all the career choices you’ve made, but we had the goodness to tolerate them, and now this!’ Anyway. Moved out, moved countries, got a fuckload of therapy, and started the process of healing.

I told my mother (via a text) that I was moving in with my girlfriend and she freaked out. She is “devastated”, and my father, with whom I have not had an actual conversation since my coming out (made summer visits home real fun, if you can believe it), is “furious, and wants to disown you”. I… am not sure how to cope with this? The worst part is that I have a ticket home to visit them for nearly a month, in three weeks. Captain, I’m not sure I want to visit them (for three whole weeks!) after this terrific display of parenting. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that not visiting them will be taken as this huge display of disrespect and an indication that I *want* to be estranged from them. So the options are to either stay away for my own peace of mind and be a bad daughter, possibly irrevocably so, or to grit my teeth and spend 3 weeks at home enduring silent disapproval at best and emotionally abusive confrontations at worst.

Like I said, I don’t have a relationship with my father. My mother is the one I speak to on the phone and text with. I told her “I’m sad and disappointed that you feel this way about my moving in with my girlfriend. I don’t feel safe coming back to visit you, and I don’t think you’d feel comfortable either.” She replied and the preview contains another allusion to my disappointing career (for the record, worked at a non-profit, doing a PhD now, only a failure insofar as “not earning hundreds of thousands as a corporate lawyer” is a failure) and… I haven’t seen the rest of it because I get avoidant when I’m anxious. Do you have any scripts for like… how to respond and how to navigate what may potentially be a long, torturous process of becoming (formally) (even more) estranged from my parents?

Best,
Bad Kid

P.S. My pronouns are she/her!

P.S. Just wanted to give a heads-up that you’re almost definitely going to recommend therapy, which I know is a big part of the answer! The most recent therapist I had didn’t really work for me, and since I’m moving in 2 weeks, I might not have a huge amount of time / resources to devote to finding a new therapist.

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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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