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Mirroring Society, White Anxiety Reigns Supreme Within The Literary World
Why is it so important to so many white artists that they maintain the right to be offensive to people disempowered relative to them?
By Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Novelist and commentator Kaitlyn Greenidge made a powerful argument in the New York Times last year that we don’t have to write what we know, but we do have to accept that if we are going to write what we don’t know, rather than have a temper tantrum when we receive criticism, we need to listen and then try to write better.
Nothing reveals white anxiety more than someone complaining that they don’t feel free to upset people of color, and fearful rants against people of color in academic and literary contexts such as Francine Prose’s recent New York Review of Books anti-sensitivity screed are tiring and sad. They are a painful reminder that straight white cis voices continue to reign supreme in the literary discourse and that this dominance functions to silence marginalized people in multiple ways.
The political priorities of straight white cis people are elevated above everyone else’s and questions of style and taste are addressed almost entirely in the context of how the conversation makes straight, white cis people feel.
I know the easiest retort is that this is about freedom of speech. Yet as a staunch believer in the First Amendment (which we must constantly remind people is only about government censorship), I’m far less concerned about the imaginary legal issues here than about the very real impact of protecting writing that is racist in its mediocrity. Why is it so important to so many white artists that they maintain the right to be offensive to people disempowered relative to them? In the Trump era, what does it mean for literary leaders to worry about protecting these rights?
As a queer Black femme and Editor in Chief of a literary publication with a mostly queer/trans person of color staff, The Offing, I struggled in the days after Trump became President-elect to put forward a professional face to the staff, even though I had spent most of election day in tears. I had not been excited about Hillary Clinton, yet the first round of tears came at 6:30 AM — I had not been confident she had the election in the bag against an opponent far more terrifying yet bizarrely more savvy.
Should we close shop, I asked? Resoundingly our editors said no. Publications that fearlessly seek out the best writing by marginalized writers and established writers trying their hand in new forms were needed in that moment more than ever. It was essential that our platform not disappear but rather continue and flourish.
As QTPOC and white women editors, writers, and visual artists, we know that even as novels by writers of color have begun to flourish in publication houses, it’s still possible for a Black trans woman’s creative work to be stolen and bought by Netflix; for a white man to essentially re-write a famed Black novelist’s fiction and be celebrated for it; for it to be more likely that trans women of color will experience higher rates of criminalization and murder than be celebrated as creative workers.
As a theoretical physicist who works on apparently esoteric questions — like “what was the evolution of spacetime during the first second of the universe’s existence?” — I am used to arguing that no matter what is happening in the world, we must continue to indulge our creative impulses, which are integral to what makes us human. Making this case is a matter of survival for particle physics, but it also happens to be something I truly believe. Creativity and curiosity are who we are as a species, and when put to work in an ethical way, art can move us to be better and do better.
And I knew when Donald Trump won the election a lot of things that weren’t going to get much better under Hillary Clinton were going to get significantly worse. I knew that documented immigrant families would be under attack, that attacks on undocumented people would escalate. I knew that anti-Black and anti-Native violence would continue unchecked, now with no end in sight. I knew we would have to fight, and I worried that even though I believe in the necessity of art, the actual work of publishing a literary magazine would be a distraction for The Offing’s all volunteer editors. I knew they might be feeling the way I was, that we were about to dig into fighting for our lives in more difficult conditions than the ones we already had.
At a time when writers of color don’t just have to worry about getting published but also have to worry about getting shot in the street or kidnapped by ICE, Prose’s essay feels wildly callous. Putting aside the fact that she doesn’t seem to understand how the word “problematic” is used in pop culture, the meat of her argument is that white feelings (and artistic flailings) come first. As my (white!) grandmother would say, I’m shocked and disappointed but not surprised. Prose argues:
The accusation that “society tends to favor privileged voices” is, according to some, not only a political analysis but an economic one. “The fear,” one literary agent told me, “is that if a publisher takes on a book written by a successful white male writer about a disabled Native American lesbian, a real disabled Native American lesbian might have trouble placing a book about the same subject at the same house; the publisher already has one.” What this suggests is that books are being categorized—and judged—less on their literary merits than on the identity of their authors. This is particularly true with young adult fiction, whose readers are presumed to be more readily influenced by what they read.
I wish I could say it’s been awhile since I’ve seen something so disingenuous, but the truth is that someone publishes a complaint about scary, sensitive minorities “ruining everything” at least once a month if not a week (day). It is wildly unreasonable to complain that in a society structurally designed to favor white people (and therefore, yes, white writers!) that we shouldn’t actively track the standpoint and identity of the writers we publish. This is not only a matter of established academic thinking (standpoint theory is real, y’all), it’s also just common sense. The unasked question here is: why publish a white man writing about a disabled Native American lesbian instead of just publishing a disabled Native American lesbian writing what she knows?
I smell a scam. Of course I didn’t need a Francine Prose essay or the role of Editor in Chief at a respected literary publication to understand what’s going on. I grew up Black in America, and this scam is a tradition older than this country: white is right, whether it wants your land for free or your free labor or both. The dehumanizing conversion of disabled Native lesbians into an extreme diversity example should be embarrassing yet in a community tasked with choosing its words carefully, it is normative.
At The Offing, we occasionally get angry hate mail from white men that we turn down — really, it never comes from anyone else. We won’t capitulate to the pressure to shift our mission away from publishing writers who are moving beyond the boundaries of a stale literary establishment that clearly needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Why refer to the people promoting disabled and/or Native American and/or lesbian writers as bullies, when you can recognize them as visionaries committed to restorative justice and an equitable future?
I believe many people share this view, that the editors actively working to include previously disregarded voices are doing critical work. Yet, one way that we have struggled since the election is that as Trump’s daily horror show has taken over the news and newsfeeds, I see less online literary work being circulated, not just from us, but from any outlets. The personal essays like this one are there, but the poetry and fiction aren’t. In tandem, while our financial supporters have stuck with us, it’s been harder to get new ones since we are now competing for resources with civil rights organizations doing really important work.
When you start to censor, it’s a slippery slope. Creativity is stifled when you don’t let your mind wander. And indeed, you should let your mind wander over your drafts. You should allow yourself to write a bad first draft, with all of the racist misogyny that lives in your heart. And then, so the dictum goes: edit edit edit. Should offensive content survive the editorial process? I can’t think of a time when I thought that offensive content was substantively good. Usually it is wrong and in the process of being wrong, it is also poorly written. There’s often a writer of color or a white trans person who could have written someone like themselves better — but they are the voices least likely to pierce the cis white MFA-infused publishing veil.
Places like The Offing were created to challenge this status quo, but we have to say “no” more than we would like to because we simply don’t have the resources to say “yes” to all the people who deserve an affirming answer. We aren’t the only venue, nor should we be. But perhaps it’s time to worry less about whether the creators that we publish are getting in the way of the Old Boys Club and worry more about ensuring that our creators have all of the platforms that they need.
My hope as someone who only thrives as a scientist because of the arts is that people who see themselves as being in struggle with the political currents will recognize that arts organizations are complementary to organizations that fight for civil rights in the courtroom. If you’ve got $4 or $5 to spare one time or every month, donate it to literary organizations like The Offing, As/Us, The Shade Journal, Anthropoid, Winter Tangerine, Wear Your Voice, and Cave Canem.
As holiday subscription season kicks off, consider giving the gift of making the writing of QTPOC and white queer/trans women and men more visible, through a donation, by sharing a link, or even better, both. Politically astute commercial venues like Teen Vogue are scaling down or shutting down entirely, and the future for small non-profits like us seems scary. But the work we do is necessary, so I hope you’ll join us in continuing to make it possible.
Author Bio: Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist at the University of Washington and Editor in Chief of The Offing, which particularly welcomes experiments with form and writing from the margins.
Featured Image: Sam Greenhalgh, Creative Commons