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Reflections on the RWA Dumpster Fire December 28, 2019

Yesterday I sat down to write a specific chapter in Kagemusha. In this chapter, my half-Chinese heroine, Rachel, attends an award ceremony for a national romance novelists association transparently based on the RWA. She meets an older lady who's kind, hip, and first. Then the lady starts to drop subtle sentences that make Rachel feel uncomfortable. The lady makes fun of the previous year's award-winner by butchering the pronunciation of her "funny" African name. She implies that name is the only reason the author won, because the characters in her book are "not relateable at all." The best books are about "normal" people, like us.

I've been afraid of writing this chapter for two reasons. First, I was afraid nobody would believe a kind, hip, charming old lady would be that racist, and the scene would feel forced. Second, I was afraid people wouldn't notice she was racist at all, and they wouldn't understand why Rachel gets so upset.

Before writing the chapter, I checked Twitter for the first time after the holidays. I found it blazing to the ground.

On December 23, the RWA punished half-Chinese author Courtney Milan for tweeting passages from a '90s romance novel that was re-released in 2014. The heroine is an "exotic" beauty with blue eyes and "the black hair and bronze skin of the Chinese." Other Asian characters have yellow faces and squinty almond eyes, and they and speak in "awkward" English. The heroine is quiet and submissive because in China, no woman ever raises her eyes higher than a man's chest, and her education is strictly limited to "cooking and sewing and the graceful art of pleasing her husband." She explains to the swoony Scottish hero that, "In China shun, compliance, is the rule for women."

Milan was insulted by these passages and complained about the book's racist tropes in the typically strong language of Twitter. The author and a publisher saw these tweets and were upset by the word "racist." In scathing complaints to the RWA, they said Milan's "claims of racism are nothing short of libelous vitriol" and Milan targeted the author "simply because [she's] white." The book absolutely isn't racist because the author studied Chinese culture and is a very nice person.

In contradiction to RWA's official policies stating they won't police social media disputes or honest book discussions, the organization asked Milan to resign from her position as chair of the ethics committee. They suspended her membership for one year and banned her from holding any office for life.

The internet exploded. RWA backpedaled. The president and half of the board resigned.

I shouldn't have been shocked by the number of people who said Milan deserved punishment, and yet I was. Here's a selection of representative comments on one blog post, edited for clarity and brevity.

I think what Milan did is something we are seeing far too much of these days: cyber signalling of how "woke" and virtuous one is with respect to an ever-expanding array of victimized and oppressed groups.
I would argue the word "racism" is often used as an ad hominem attack without sufficient backing. People were *murdered* because of real racism, not the kind of petty name calling that goes on today.
The quotes Milan selected really don't seem all that bad. A bit stereotypical? Perhaps. Hateful? Hardly!

"SJWs," "triggered," "virtue signalling." All of these hot keywords I saw over and over yesterday boil down to one sentiment: racism isn't real. And if it is real, it isn't that bad. And if it is bad, you're just too sensitive.

Racism and niceness are not mutually exclusive.

In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo shares an anecdote about a conversation with a friend who objected to her use of the word "racist." That's a strong word, he says. Like his grandmother might be prejudiced against minorities, but it would be cruel to call a nice old lady a racist.

People who are afraid of the word "racist" seem to believe it's a label not for a single trait, but for a whole packaged deal. If you say their words are racist, you must be calling them an alt-right neo-Nazi with a confederate flag in the front yard. You're saying they're terrible people. But they're not terrible people, they're really nice!

The majority of people with racist views don't have swastika tattoos. They're beloved grandmothers who bake Christmas cookies while playing classic movies with "injuns" in the background. They're gregarious neighbors who offer to help you with a home renovation and assume the shoddy paint job was done by Mexican laborers. They're effervescent first-time dinner guests who see the wonton soup and exclaim, "Oh, Su Li, I was hoping you would do this!"

Nearly all of them are nice people. They would never dream of using a demeaning epithet. They're appalled by news reports of shootings at synagogues and mosques. But they are also racists.

I am a racist. I work hard to be the best person I can, but I've been absorbing racist comments and fictional portrayals for thirty-one years. Sometimes I'll read a book with marginalized characters and realize with shame that I have unconscious beliefs about that group. For example, when I read Persepolis I was surprised to see young Iranian girls acting just like young American girls. They're humans just like us—shock of shocks!

It's not my fault; I wasn't born a racist. The world taught me those beliefs. But it would be my fault if I refused to examine my biases and change. Good people are horrified to learn they have flaws, and they strive to fix them. If you refuse to even consider the possibility you have unconscious prejudices because you're "a nice person," well, you just proved you're not nice at all.

Stereotyping and name-calling are real racism.

The most common accusation I see leveled at Milan is that she deliberately raised a stink over nothing. The passages that offended her "aren't that bad." They're "a bit stereotypical," that's all. They're not hateful, and therefore they're not racist.

The same people who believe nice people can't be racist also tend to believe anything less than literal genocide isn't "real racism." They don't see any corpses swinging from trees, so racism isn't a problem anymore. The N-word is just a rude insult. An exotic, submissive Chinese heroine is just a tired cliche, not something to ruin an author's career over.

To a person who is not Chinese, those passages might not seem bad. That person's classmates never made squinty almond eyes in her direction and laughed. Her employers never passed her over for a leadership position because Asians are too unassertive and compliant. A stranger has never backtracked to define a word he used in conversation because he assumes she has a limited English vocabulary.

Like Courtney Milan, the heroine in that novel, and the heroine in my novel, I am half Chinese. Reading those sample passages made me feel belittled and threatened. To someone else the dumb China doll is a mere cliche, but to me it's a slideshow of upsetting memories.

Stereotypes can do more lasting damage than "real racism." People know lynching is bad. Duh. But as evidenced by the many defensive comments in the RWA discussions, they're blind to the harm done by stereotypes. They don't realize how unseen racial biases can chip away at a child's self-esteem, snuff out a "problem" teen's future, cap the career prospects of a person of color no matter how hard they work. They think a statement like "no woman in China is taught much more than cooking and sewing" is a well-known fact. Anyone who gets offended by well-known facts must be an internet bully on the hunt for a vulnerable target. Those virtue-signalling SJWs are trying to shame people with different opinions into silence.

Examining your own racism takes courage.

"That book was boring" is an opinion. "I don't like the author's style" is an opinion. "These words hurt me" is not an opinion.

If you find yourself questioning the motives of a Chinese woman who tweets about reductive Chinese stereotypes in a book, consider turning that question inwards. Why do you assume people who say they were hurt are whining for attention? Or accuse them of having too many "triggers" and feeling hurt for no real reason? What's your motive for dismissing their concerns as "virtue signalling"?

The answer is probably to protect your ego. Maybe you thought that fictional portrayal of East Asians was accurate, or that joke about Mexicans was funny. Maybe you've told jokes like it before and thought it was harmless fun. Now people are saying that joke isn't harmless, which means you're a bad person. They're lumping you in with those confederate flag-waving neo-Nazis. They're attacking you, and it's not fair.

For you to be a good person, that joke can't be offensive. So it isn't. SJWs on Twitter are pretending it's offensive to bully you. Their concerns aren't real. You've never harmed anyone. And so you decide the "woke" agitators are the true villains, and you feel better. You can safely continue believing you're a nice person, without asking any distressing questions.

Asking distressing questions and answering them honestly requires courage. I hope the people mindlessly attacking Courtney Milan for speaking up can find that courage.

As for me, the whole RWA kerfuffle had two effects. First, it showed me my fears were correct: many people will violently resist opening their eyes to the fact that nice old ladies can be racists. But second, it showed me how much that scene of this novel needs to be written. Many people wrote vicious comments about Milan, but many more wrote supportive ones. They've been in my heroine's shoes. They've heard "nice" people say ugly things and get away with it. The only way to stop the behavior from repeating in the future is to put it under a harsh spotlight.


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