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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.

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.

Edited To Add: I had initially mentioned directing the person to sensitivity readers but, as several kind people correctly pointed out, sensitivity readers don’t want to read racist books, they want to read really good books and catch unintentional small stuff that slipped through other edits at the very end. Here are some resources about sensitivity readers, the first piece is a good one about the ethical choice to pull a book that couldn’t be revised.

Additionally: 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!

 

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).

Hello, Cap and friends! I have a couple of questions about boundary-setting with people who don’t believe in boundaries.

The Awkward team’s advice and scripts on setting boundaries have been so wonderfully helpful in my life, but what (if anything) can you say to people who believe that setting boundaries in a family is controlling?

For an example, there are wonderful scripts you linked from the SPLC center, on how to set boundaries with family members being bigoted:

>”Your ‘jokes’ are putting unnecessary distance between us; I worry they’ll end up doing irreparable harm. I want to make sure those ‘jokes’ don’t damage our relationship.” “You know that respect and tolerance are important values in my life, and, while I understand that you have a right to say what you want, I’m asking you to show a little more respect for me by not telling these ‘jokes’ when I’m around.” “I don’t want this rift to get worse, and I want us to have a good relationship. What should we do?””

In my family (parents + siblings, I’m 30), the responses are simply, “There wouldn’t be a problem if you just laughed” and “You’re trying to control what I do by saying that. It’s manipulative to say that I’m disrespecting you if I keep saying [awful insults about minority groups, or about me personally].” I mean, in a way they are kind of right? I am literally attempting to control discourse to a degree, but somehow that feels like they are missing the forest for the trees in a way I can’t articulate. Especially since they get offended if you don’t laugh at their ‘jokes!’

Is there any way to rationally respond to people that think that attempting to set boundaries (or tears at being insulted) is “childish and manipulative”? They see that as a truly deeply harmful thing, and it would be really wonderful if it was possible to get them to understand the idea of **mutual** respect.

Thank you so very much for ANY ideas.

– A Weary Woman

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Hello Captain Awkward!

I love your blog. I love it so much that I’ve read through your archives and found a few questions that are cousins to, but not quite the same as mine, so here goes:

I am in my mid twenties and work at a nonprofit in a large, diverse (racially/ethnically, economically, politically) city. My organization trains and places volunteers to tutor children in Title I elementary schools. All of our volunteers are hardworking people who are very generous with their time and resources. Most of our volunteers are kind and thoughtful about the challenges many of our students face, and about the differences that may exist between their backgrounds and their students’ backgrounds. Some are not.

Some people say terrible things, usually privately to staff (if volunteers say racist things to students, we ALWAYS step in. It also doesn’t happen too frequently, thank goodness. The questions is more about one-on-one interactions with staff members.)

“I like working with Joe. At least he has a brain in his head, unlike Rose.” [not their real names]

“When I went to Ethiopia I expected to feel sorry for them, but I just felt like ‘get up off ground, stop pissing in the street, and clean up your city!'” [many of our students are Ethiopian]

“So are these poor kids?”

“It’s just too bad his parents don’t really care about his education.” [not true]

“I just don’t feel comfortable in this neighborhood. You know, since I’m a white lady.” [yes, someone said this]

There are semi-frequently comments from volunteers assuming that of course our students don’t have fathers in their lives, how their parents probably don’t care about how they’re doing in school, and how their students must have a terrible home life. Of course, some of our students may be in these circumstances – the problem is jumping to these conclusions after having spent 0-5 minutes with a student.

The comments range from foot-in-mouth to super racist, and those of us on staff struggle to know how to handle them. Some complicating factors:

1. In a perfect world, we’d have so many volunteers that we could dismiss the racist ones and replace them. Unfortunately, we need every volunteer we’ve got, and usually these volunteers are at least capable of not spewing this stuff in front of students, which is really the only way to get rid of a volunteer.

2. Part of the organization’s mission is to help educate people who don’t know much about urban education so they can become better advocates for our students and their schools. Therefore, though our first priority is our students, our second priority is providing excellent “customer service” to our volunteers.

3. Most of the offending volunteers are white, wealthy, and middle-aged/seniors who have raised children. The staff is in their 20-30s, mostly not white, definitely not wealthy, mostly childless.

Most of your scripts for dealing with racist behavior tends toward the more confrontational side. Though often wish I could employ them, I’m not in a position where I can straight up tell people that they are being racist. Do you have some scripts to help us make it clear to volunteers that certain comments are not acceptable, while still maintaining a good working relationship? Or do we have to pick between standing up to racist comments and making sure volunteers stick around?

Thank you for your help! I know this is a little long, so feel free to edit as needed.

Please Don’t Volunteer Like That

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Hello Captain!

I have a question about racist strangers who think I am their friend.

Occasionally, I’ll be out in public waiting in line, reading at the
library or just waiting for the bus and a stranger will approach me
and feel compelled to make a racist observation about someone else who
is present. I am a white person, and I think these strangers assume
that because of that, I will totally agree with whatever racist slur
comes out of their mouth.

Usually I just give them a look of disgust and horror and try to move
away as quickly as humanly possible, but I would love some clever
scripts to have on hand to let them know that:

1. I do not agree. At all.
2. That they are horrible and racist.
3. To get away from me.

This doesn’t happen often, but when it happens, it often takes me by
complete surprise. I realize this is a problem of privilege, but I am
concerned that my silence (even with the face of disgusted horror)
could be interpreted as agreement, and I never want to give that
impression.

Sincerely,
Not Your Friend, Racist Stranger

Keep it simple! “Wow, that’s really racist.”

Maybe throw in a “Not cool” or “Do you seriously believe that?” or “I beg your pardon?” depending on how much you want to engage.

The person will likely insist that they aren’t being racist, to which you say “Sure, whatever. Howabout: Don’t talk to me anymore.Chatty Racist, like Rape Joke Telling Bro, is looking for people who will be a willing audience for their crap, and if they can’t find that, they’ll settle for a silent-but-unwilling one and get off on making you uncomfortable but too scared or polite to speak up.

If you feel safe and able to do so, defeat them with total bluntness. It won’t change hearts and minds, but it will remove the sheen of plausible deniability or silent assent from what they do, and it will show the people the comments are meant to intimidate and marginalize that you have their backs.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a dilemma that I suspect is quite common, but I’m still running into mental roadblocks as to how to properly approach it. Background: I’m a lesbian and a big-eff Feminist working in a male-dominated field, in a male-dominated company. I’ve worked marketing, event planning and PR for rape crisis centres, and volunteer on rape crisis support lines. I know a lot about anti-oppression and actively work on acknowledging my privilege and on calling people out when they’re being oppressive asshats. Except that’s not what I want to do at work. At work, I wanna focus on my interesting tech stuff and not feel I have to educate my boss and coworkers on racism and why and how they’re being fucking offensive.

My boss is a young-ish, laid-back, former hippy who’s travelled all over the world and loves to talk and thinks he knows everything about everything. A nice enough guy, but these topics he brings up at work are raising my blood pressure. And it doesn’t help I have 3 male coworkers who fall easily into the conservative end of the spectrum, so I’ve got no backup there. The lot of them could talk until they run out of breath, not really caring if they have a lick of knowledge about the subject. I mostly keep my mouth shut when he brings up touchy subjects, because I cannot be bothered to try to get into convos with people who won’t change their minds, have no investment in the topic, and will keep talking until I give up bc I’ve got other shit to do and my face is red and I just want them to STFU.

So, the question in all this, is how do I draft a nice, calm email to my boss about work-appropriate conversations and how his oft-racist verbal meanderings are contributing to a hostile workplace for me? I don’t wanna quit my job, I don’t want to go over his head to HR if I don’t have to, and I don’t want to be “the one who caused a scene” b.c., oh yeah, he’s also a huge gossip. Help?

Sincerely,

Damsel in de tech

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