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Rescued
Can someone please tell me what Racefail 2009 is really about?*

I mean, I've read some of the posts, as well as pats_quinade's wonderfully biting write-up. I saw Elizabeth Bear's original response to a critique of her work, which I think was one of the starting points to this whole thing, and I very much respect the way she tried to handle it. I've seen the discussions spread from there, but it seems like it's transformed from a discussion of writing and race into a hatefest of personalities.

I haven't followed every fractal branching of the discussion, so it's very possible my impression is distorted or wrong. But it seems like there are two different conversations going on. One is (or was) a discussion of race. The other is a discussion of my hurt feelings and what I'm going to do to punish you for hurting my feelings (because of course it's all about me). Which leads to other people calling me on my bad behavior, which leads to me escalating and shouting even louder, until the original conversation -- the one that might have had some real value -- has been drowned out.

But maybe that was the goal all along, I don't know.

That comment was probably uncalled for. I don't think most people were deliberately trying to shut down a potentially valuable conversation. But which matters more, intentions or results?

I've also seen writers talking about how they're scared to write about "the other" now, because what if they get this kind of backlash to their own work? On some level, I do understand that fear. Criticism hurts, and few people worry about hurting the author's feelings when they talk about what was wrong with a book. Heck, I'm a little scared just posting this.

With all due love and respect, get over it. You publish your work, you're going to get criticism. Some will be valid. Some won't. Most of it will sting. Don't like it? Stop trying to be a writer.

And as far as I can tell, the only people saying "White authors aren't allowed to write about non-white characters" are the white authors. And most of the time, "not allowed" seems to mean "people might say mean things".

Seriously. Get over it.

I'm struggling with a working definition of privilege, and coming up with something like, "In a discussion of racial stereotypes, appropriation of the 'shiny bits' of other cultures without real respect or understanding of those cultures, the ongoing underrepresentation/misrepresentation of large portions of the population in fiction and other media, and the need to do better, privilege is when the most important piece of the conversation is your hurt feelings."

Thoughts and discussion are very much welcome, but the last time I touched on this topic, I ended up freezing three comment threads. So I'm asking up front that we keep it respectful. Sharing your thoughts is a good thing. Listening to each other is even better. I will try to post a warning if I see threads getting out of hand, but I don't promise to do so. If warnings are ignored, or if something gets nasty faster than I'm comfortable with, I'll stop it.

-----
*Not asking for a literal roundup of posts, here. See merriehaskell's comment below, and I apologize if I wasn't clear. It's been a long week...

Comments

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cat_mcdougall
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
I've seen a lot about this, and... still don't know what's going on. I mean, the wank comms have picked up on it, and normally, I can get a gist from following links and reading and all that fun stuff, but... this time, I'm kinda lost. The best round up I've seen is here.

As for writing "the other": The best advice I ever got from someone about writing people of a separate race than I am was this: "Write people. Write human beings. Their skin colour doesn't matter." And I try to live by that.
jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:18 am (UTC)
You know, in a way, I think that's good advice. Characters have to be people, and defining the character by race or sex or whatever is going to result in a fairly flat character. But I don't think you can say skin color doesn't matter, either. It does matter, at least in our current culture. It's not the only thing that matters, and it's only one piece of who a person is, but it's not irrelevant. Does that make sense? Overall, I think you're right on the mark that characters have to be human beings first.
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difrancis
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:07 am (UTC)
This all reminds me of the business in academia where English departments want to hire only African Americans to teach African American lit. Because only they can teach it. There are a couple of problems with this. First, that pigeonholes anybody black in a department because some don't want to teach African American lit, but they aren't seriously looked at for anything else. That also makes it difficult for someone who isn't black to go into the field because it is automatically expected. I have friends who got caught on both sides.

It always made me wonder about the notion that you couldn't teach or understand a literature if you weren't of/from that literature. Which means that of course if you want to teach Victorian literature, you must be a Victorian. Same with classical rhetoric (must be a dead white greek/roman guy). Does that mean you can't write the other (in whatever shape it takes) if you are not other?

As a writer, I try to understand the other. And I know there's a good chance I'll likely get it wrong. But it's worth the shot and better than avoiding the effort because I'm afraid of getting it wrong. *shrug*




jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:22 am (UTC)
"As a writer, I try to understand the other. And I know there's a good chance I'll likely get it wrong. But it's worth the shot and better than avoiding the effort because I'm afraid of getting it wrong."

I have an unpublished book where I got it wrong, and I'm incredibly grateful that one never saw the light of day. I think I've become a much better writer since then, and part of that means becoming more aware of my own ignorance as a person and as a writer. But I know I still make mistakes. I made some with one of the characters in Stepsister Scheme, and people have called me on it. They were right to do so. Some of those issues were a deliberate choice, and some were out of ignorance.

I'm still glad I wrote the character. I think I did a lot of things right with her, too. Either way, that book is done. All I can do now is try to do better with the next.
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a little late to the conversation.... - biomekanic - Mar. 9th, 2009 07:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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tygerversionx
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:08 am (UTC)
"Racefail 2009." HA!

...well said on the rest of it. But thank you for opening with a laugh line.

I have no idea where this all started, but the last few days have been interesting. A lot of authors have been stating their PoV, and it's all been educational and well thought out.
jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
I didn't coin the phrase, alas. I just borrowed it from other folks who have been talking about it.

I do think there are some very good posts and points being raised. I just wish we had a better signal-to-noise ratio, if that makes sense?
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autopope
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:10 am (UTC)
Jim? Delete this LJ entry right now. Or make it screened. Srsly. Or you are in for a world of hurt that you probably didn't anticipate and really don't need.
merriehaskell
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:12 am (UTC)
From whom would this world of hurt be coming, exactly?
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splash_the_cat
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)
Here are some summaries:

Timeline of many of the earlier events:
http://seeking-avalon.blogspot.com/2009/01/timeline.html

Summaries of more recent events:
http://snacky.livejournal.com/560654.html?thread=5172494#t5172494

http://rydra-wong.livejournal.com/155427.html

rydra_wong has been keeping a very extensive archive of posts at this tag, if you're looking for primary sources: http://rydra-wong.livejournal.com/tag/gcadod+09

Edited at 2009-03-08 02:14 am (UTC)
merriehaskell
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:18 am (UTC)
My take is that Jim is using a rhetorical device to point out that the actual conversation about race has been derailed, and is not really looking for a summary, having summed up quite a bit of the debate very well in the rest of the entry. But that's two comments in a row that don't seem to have the same reading as me, so maybe some clarification is in order from the man himself.
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katatomic
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:22 am (UTC)
I hate to admit I worry about it every time I write someone who isn't substantially like me. I have never had a direct comment about it, but I have seen a couple of reviews which claimed I didn't write personality, I just wrote ethnicity. Yes that hurts, but it doesn't make me stop trying to write non-white, non-middle-class characters realistically and to include them in my work. But I do find myself bracing for insults every time. So far I'm skating, but who knows?
jmeadows
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC)
Ferret icon person! Hello!
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tltrent
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC)
Jim, you're a very brave man. A very brave man indeed. :)
jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:45 am (UTC)
I hadn't blogged in three days. It was either this or more pictures of my cats.

Maybe I'll post the cat pics tomorrow :-)
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branchandroot
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:36 am (UTC)
NO NO NO DON'T LOCK IT!

*panting for breath*

No. Seriously. One of the things that has been coming up, thanks to the way some people involved have thrown their "professional" weight around, is a suspicion on the part of the fan community that the pro writer community has been largely silent because they don't actually disapprove.

(Sarcastic quotes are sarcastic, incidentally.)

I know perfectly well that silence does not always equal assent, but... seriously. Don't close this.

And, yes, I think you hit the nail dead on; that's what it's been about, those two competing topics.
jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:41 am (UTC)
At most I think I'd screen it, and that's only if things get too nasty. I trust my readers, and we'll see what happens when and if some newcomers show up. (Given the sheer mass of posts on this topic, I don't know how likely it is anyone will find this particular post...)

Part of the reason I hadn't said anything is these past few months have been horrifyingly busy, to the point where I'd really like to just quit the damn day job and sleep. I know I haven't caught up on the whole thing, and I haven't taken the time to read everything deeply enough to participate in as informed a fashion as I'd like.

But then again, the ability to remain silent on this sort of thing because it doesn't really hurt you personally is another working definition of privilege, yes?

Also, DW Rainbow? Nifty icon, but I'm curious about the symbol.
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wolfsilveroak
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:46 am (UTC)
I first heard about it over on IJ and I still cannot stop going WTF, over?!?
livia_llewellyn
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:00 am (UTC)
IMO, I don't think there are separate conversations - I think there are multiple threads within a single, extremely complex conversation about the representation of PoC in both sf/f fiction and the sf/f community. It still IS a valuable conversation, despite the numerous derailments (usually that's where issues of "tone" and hurt feelings have been brought in to try to stifle/end the conversation). However, those derailments have also led to other threads about white privilege, and passive and aggressive treatment and attempted control of sf/f fans and writers of color by white fans/writers - threads which have been very informative for me in realizing how much white privilege infuses and informs (and, frankly, corrupts) what I do and say, in all areas of my life. And all of these threads have lead to threads such as creating greater awareness of writers of color (50books_poc) and creating new opportunities for publishing PoC (verb_noire), just to name two. And yes, everything I just said is a simplification of what's taking place. No wonder it might seem overwhelming at first glance.

FYI, I don't think there's any reason for you to delete or lock this post. I think if people object to anything, it's your asking to be informed about something that many will believe you simply need to inform yourself on (rydra_wong is the best place to start). A number of posters are a bit weary of being treated like PoC encyclopedias, and I can't blame them. However, I know that's not what you're doing, and I know you're not the type to to stir up shit. You asked a question, so this is my answer. I'm sure someone may have a better answer, but I think the best answer would be, when you have the time, to go through the links, and figure out what this all means to you. In other words, the answer is whatever makes you a better writer and a better human being.
jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
I've also been seeing new branches of the conversation pop up which I think have made for very good reading. sartorias joined in recently, and I always love her insights and thoughts on things.

You're probably right that it's all one big, messy conversation. But in my brain, I keep trying to separate out the crap from the part that seems very valuable, and the kind of conversation we *should* be having.
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comrade_cat
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:03 am (UTC)
My impression is that Racefail 09 has now split into 2 threads across lj - very angry conversations following the initial arguments, & a bunch of people (I think mostly fen??) having discussions about race which are pleasant to all involved. I don't think it's about anything anymore. I think it started out to be about cultural appropriation & well, failed. It did prompt some people to write & discuss calmly about race, so there is something good that came out of it. This last part isn't fail.
jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:06 am (UTC)
It's also moved well beyond LJ. I saw it come up on Facebook this evening, and I'm told it's over on IJ, not to mention other blogs all over the place.

I definitely agree that there have been some good discussions that came about from all this. I hope we can get more of that.
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spiziks
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:06 am (UTC)
I wrote four novels with a black man as the protagonist. I never got anything but praise for those works.

I don't worry about the race, gender, or sexual orientation of my protagonists. I've written 'em all, as they occurred to me, and I'll continue doing so.

Edited at 2009-03-08 03:07 am (UTC)
jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:15 am (UTC)
Silent Empire series?
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bondo_ba
Mar. 8th, 2009 04:03 am (UTC)
Thanks for saying this. I agree completely. I've been ignoring the whole thing from the get-go, since it seemed more about very narrow personal definitions than anything constructive.

For my part, I will continue to write the other, and continue to sell my writing. And if someone doesn't like what I have to say... Well, I can live with that (and I truly won't care, unless said person is an editor I wish to sell to).
mallory_blog
Mar. 8th, 2009 04:16 am (UTC)
Hi Jim,

Here's my experience - I've been 'asked' to leave two of the more prominent and divisive blogs perpetuating this 'topic' when I began to question whether their position was about working toward ending racism or using the topic to punish other people. I inquired where the posts were about healing and resolution.

Apparently my focus on healing was construed as INFLAMMATORY and an example of WHITE PRIVILEGE (they were using caps a lot)

One of the 'arguments' I was linked with had to do with a writer depicting a white woman enslaving a black man and putting a leash on him. I said, ...and? Apparently the position was that creating such a scene was insensitive and racist. Yet, it is perfectly admissable for a black writer to create this same scene. ? In my opinion both black and white writers write from the position they are personally working on inside themselves and since both black and white people participated in slavery, it seems reasonable that both will include perspectives in their writing - as process.

I too was struggling with the 'other' issue until about 9 months ago when I re-read Tom Sawyer and I realized that what I must do is describe my experience (through my characters) with as much candor as I can stand. What I shouldn't do is write from an artificial position or in some vain attempt to satisfy the ever-moving racism target.

That's my take on it.

I hope they eventually think about the path toward healing and personal empowerment. I have to for me.
tenor_gabriel
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC)
The problem is that image is incredibly hurtful and fraught with peril in a historical context. Especially when written by a white woman. By saying "...and?" you're being very hurtful and dismissive of the PoC who found the situation painful. SF/F has enough problems putting any representation of non-white characters in without bringing in tired old racist tropes like this.

And yes, this is a ton of white privilege. A black writer has more right to explore the trope because it's *their* stuff. When we step into this, we step into their history, their day-to-day lives, the stuff they have to deal with every day. They can't just walk away from the discussion because it's all about them. And because it's their living, breathing story, dismissing their pain at seeing this trope acted out again is very privileged and painful.

As for the comments about slavery... oi. Not going to even touch it.
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raisinfish
Mar. 8th, 2009 04:51 am (UTC)
This is not about race, but it comes around to a point eventually.

I once wrote a character who had a problem with which I had close personal experience.

When I workshopped that piece in several different arenas, here was the feedback:

You can't write about this unless you know what you're talking about. (Implication: Which you obviously don't.) This is actually a serious problem. (Implication: You obviously don't take it seriously, since you're writing *fiction* about it.) I know people with this problem, so you shouldn't write about it this way. (Implication: My personal experience makes me more qualified than you to make that judgment.) I've never dealt with this, but I think you got it wrong. (Implication: You don't know what you're talking about.) You need to do your research. (See above.)

If people don't see you as an expert on whatever you're writing about, they're going to criticize you for it. If it's a sensitive subject, they're going to tell you you're irresponsible as well as wrong. This is not just a race issue. It's everything.

I left the problems in, because I have a right to write about such things when I see fit, regardless of what other people think about my expertise (or the lack thereof). I would have done so even if I didn't have the personal experience to back it up, because I don't believe you have to live something in order to write it. (In this case, it just happens that I did.)

And other people have a right to criticize me for it. I don't imagine I've heard the last of the criticism on that issue.

Bring it on, I say.

raisinfish
Mar. 8th, 2009 06:17 am (UTC)
Having looked at that history of discussion, I'm saddened by the ugliness. Sometimes I fear the internet is not a place for productive discussion. And that makes me sad.
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lenora_rose
Mar. 8th, 2009 05:46 am (UTC)
Nicely said, Jim.
mevennen
Mar. 8th, 2009 08:54 am (UTC)
(to you via merriehaskell.

I think you make some great points. I have a similar take on all this (I did a post a couple of days ago), and so far the discussion on mine has been nothing but civil. I've followed the wider debate more or less from the start and there has been some fairly appalling behaviour, but it's not inevitable and on many of the WOC/POC blogs there has been some very interesting discussion - some good reading lists, too.
mevennen
Mar. 8th, 2009 08:58 am (UTC)
(Jim, sorry, I'm spamming you this morning) - I have noticed that the level of contention one garners in this debate is directly proportionate to the degree of defensiveness that one exhibits (as a white writer). Which is perhaps a bit of a clue....
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spiralsheep
Mar. 8th, 2009 12:10 pm (UTC)
Hi, I'm a newcomer to your journal and I appreciated your post. :-)
sueo2
Mar. 8th, 2009 01:23 pm (UTC)
The sad thing about all of this is that the topic "writing the other" is a great topic for writers, especially those writing SF/F. Can there be debate here? Of course, from rational, well-thought out musings come profound insight and understanding.

jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)
I do think there are some very good conversations going on as well, and some good things coming out of this. I just wish the signal-to-noise ratio was better, if that makes sense?
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cathshaffer
Mar. 8th, 2009 01:24 pm (UTC)
This discussion went off the rails from the very beginning. In literary criticism, the reader has access to the text, not the writer. This would have been a good and worthwhile conversation if it had stayed connected to the text, and might even have been widely praised and appreciated by pros in the field. I have not read the text in question, so I can't comment on that. I suspect 95% of the people responding also have not read the text. In the absence of a textual anchor, people can interpret things literally any way they want to. And they have. References or examples can be literally anything from a book written in 1985 to the 110th comment made on an obscure livejournal. Attempts to corral the information into one place fail, because everyone is thinking and writing in their own universe.

To me, this discussion really parallels the big discussion about GRRM's tardiness and fan entitlement. In both cases, you are seeing fan anger directed at an author. In both cases, it is agreed that the core criticism is basically valid (although not having seen Ebear's text, I am reserving judgment on that). So can it be true that in one case the fans are out of line in attacking the author, and in the other case they are within their rights? Does access to an author on the internet include the right to carpet them at your leisure? I don't think so.

I also want to say that I dislike the increasing conceit that the small groups of people involved in this debate somehow represent larger groups within the community. I personally know quite a lot of minority race fans, pros, and neopros in the sff community, and exactly *none* of them have taken an interest in this thing yet.
ktempest
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:04 pm (UTC)
One key point you're missing is that this whole conversation was not all specifically about the text in question. It began with a wider discussion about cultural appropriation and one of the branches of that discussion was about a specific text, and the real explosion came in the discussion about certain people's reaction to the REACTION, not the text itself. The text itself has never been the main thing, it was more about how the conversation around the text was handled. And people had access to that conversation and didn't need to know anything about the text to talk about the conversation.
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Jumping in here... - dharma_slut - Mar. 9th, 2009 12:37 am (UTC) - Expand
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tangledwood
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you for talking about this. : )

I don't know if you still want an explanation of what it's all "about": the way I've read it is, someone critiqued EB's work for its use of racial stereotypes, EB apologized but her fans were up in arms that anyone would suggest that, at which POC and allies were (naturally) incensed. A significant amount of people began to have a thoughtful and intelligent discussion about race while an equally significant amount of people attempted to derail said discussion, or stop it altogether. (Unfortunately, the latter group of people appears to be spearheaded by pros in the industry. Which has been quite disheartening.)

The thing I've taken most to heart is that there are people, heaps of them, having a real, intelligent conversation about race in SF/F, or what it means to be a POC reading SF/F, and what makes them uncomfortable in discussions about race and why that's not cool, and so forth. It's been very enlightening. : )

If you want links, I'm happy to provide.
pickledherring
Mar. 8th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
Jim,

So glad to see you posting about this.

And, for what it's worth, I think you did a marvelous job handling the critique of T.
jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 04:47 pm (UTC)
Hell, I'm grateful for it. In a lot of ways, the critique has helped me as I'm writing more of her character and backstory in book three, which is very much her book.
(no subject) - pickledherring - Mar. 8th, 2009 05:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
tenor_gabriel
Mar. 8th, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
You pretty much have it in a nutshell, Jim. I've been "lucky" enough to be watching this one from the beginning, and it's been pretty eye-opening.

Ebear posted a "How to Write the Other" topic, about how to write CoC in SF/F. I believe this was what prompted Avalon's Willow to post her open letter, saying, basically, you have some serious racial representation issues of your own, maybe you'd best not set yourself up as an expert.

Ebear responded in a gracious manner, saying that yes, she could see the problem that Willow was pointing out. She posted in her own blog that she had stuff to learn and fix. All through the imbroglio, I have heard people say that Ebear's initial response was pretty much what it should have been.

The problem was that her post became a breeding ground for ugliness, which she did nothing to stop. PoC were villified and called some shocking names, were told they were too stupid to be allowed to analyze the text, that they weren't properly educated, that their tone was wrong, etc. Many people were banned/frozen in the conversation, but they were the PoC and allies who were responding to this incredible outpouring of vitriol. The people who were saying the ugly things, including several well-known published authors and editors, were not frozen or scolded. The discussion bounced back to the blogs of the PoC involved, and their friends and allies, since Ebear's apology was only as good as it didn't require her to check her fans' behavior.

From the beginning, it's been made about the hurt feelings of the (white) authors and publishers who are spitting mad someone dared to call them a racist. Of course, saying something racist doesn't make you a racist. When someone points out you're standing on their foot and it hurts, your reaction shouldn't be to flip out they've accused you of deliberate foot-standing, say you don't like their tone, and then punch them in the face.

There have been a lot of us just watching this unfold, some with a sizeable amount of trepidation, as some of the silencing techniques employed by that "side" of the arguement have included threatening a publishing blacklist, threatening lawsuits, forced outings of one's real names, and a lot along those lines. The conversation has been repeatedly derailed and silenced.

I think the worst thing to come out of this was Ebear recanting the one gracious thing she did: her initial post accepting the critique. Instead, she's now said she "took one for the team" in accepting unfair criticism to show people how to talk to PoC. The condescension is staggering.

Personally, I'm glad to see the strength that's come out of this. There are a lot of people banding together to try and make things better, at least in the publishing world.

And I'd like to add my $.02 that you handled the critique of T. very very well.
jimhines
Mar. 8th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
"When someone points out you're standing on their foot and it hurts, your reaction shouldn't be to flip out they've accused you of deliberate foot-standing, say you don't like their tone, and then punch them in the face."

Bwa ha ha ha ha! I do think there's a lot more fear and baggage that go with being accused of racism, but I still love this.

I'm struggling a lot with Bear's follow-up post. (It's the other tab I've got open right now.) In part because I consider her, along with many of the folks in this thing, to be a a friend. But I also see where that follow-up undermined some of what she was trying to do, in ways that were very painful.

Back when I was doing Listening Ear work and then with Safe Place, one of the areas where I spent the most energy was in trying to go out and talk to men about rape. Because sometimes men were more willing to listen to me than they would a woman. Likewise, I think it's men's responsibility to talk to each other about this stuff, as opposed to making it the women's job to fix men. But then of course, there are aspects that as a man I'm simply not in a position to truly understand, either.

And once again I'm losing track of where I'm going with this.
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skywardprodigal
Mar. 8th, 2009 04:41 pm (UTC)
This is a good post. Thanks for making it.
chopchica
Mar. 8th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
I, personally, am so glad you made this post. In the last few days, a whole lot of authors I like have been stepping forward and showing that they are truly classy people. It's been wonderful to make a list of authors I am *proud* to read, instead of authors I will never read again. Just as I said to Sherwood Smith, I am very happy to have your books on my shelves.
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