10 Seemingly Polite (But Actually Racist As F*ck) Things You Need To Stop Saying To People You’ve Just Met

  1. Where are you from? Unless you’re prepared to respond to “I’m from Cleveland” with “You must be happy the Cavs got LeBron back”, do not ask this question of people you’ve just met. Why not? Because in America, the people who get asked that question are almost always people of color, and answering with the name of a US city usually gets “Ok, but where were you born?” as a response. The implication is that if you’re not white, you’re automatically not from here, you must be from somewhere else. The one exception to this is black people, who are usually assumed to be African-American (even if they’re not) because of course we know where they came from, right?
  2. Do you have an American name? If the person you are talking to was born in America or later became a citizen of the United States, their name is their American name. They are American. Even if they’re not, no one is issued an “American name” when they get their passport stamped at the airport on their way into the country. What you’re really saying here is “Do you have a more white-sounding name because I’m not going to bother to learn how to pronounce yours.”
  3. What ethnicity are you? Unless you’re taking a census poll, you do not need to know this when you meet someone. (As a white person, I have never, not once, in my life, been asked what my ethnicity is, even though pale-skinned people are not from the same hegemonious group somewhere in Europe.) If it’s relevant to the conversation, they’ll probably volunteer it. If they don’t, it’s either not relevant, or they may not want you to know.
  4. [greeting them in a foreign language] Unless you know for a fact the person’s ethnicity, place of birth, country they grew up in, and that they speak the language you’re attempting to use on them, AND THEY’VE TOLD YOU THEY ARE FINE WITH YOU SPEAKING TO THEM IN THIS WAY, do not do this. You’re most likely going to be wrong about either the language their ancestors spoke or that person’s ability to speak it, so you’re going to look like an idiot; worse, you’re starting off the conversation with proof you’ve both racially profiled and stereotyped that person, all at once.
  5. Who’s baby is this? when the infant in question is not the exact same skin tone as the adult you’re asking. Really want to be a jackass? Follow up them telling you, “Oh, she’s mine” with “Aww, is she adopted?”
  6. Your jacket/jewelry/outfit is so interesting/pretty/cool, is that from your home country? You know who rarely gets asked something they’re wearing is from their “home country”? White people. But, white people wear “ethnic looking” stuff all of the time. Mexican embroidery on peasant tops, Native American imagery on jewelry, Asiatic dragons on practically everything, and yet, few people ask about it with the idea that it’s somehow representing something specific to that white person. People of color get asked because they’re the other, they’re different, they’re foreign… even when they’re not. (Or do you just not ask white people about the origin of their clothes because you already know it’s appropriation?)
  7. Your hair is so complex/interesting/unusual — it must take a long time to do. Translation: you don’t have white people hair, your life must be hard. I’m so glad I have easy hair.
  8. Your hair is really pretty like that (when the person has a Western/American hairstyle that they don’t always wear). Translation: you made your hair look like white people hair, good job! You’re more acceptable to me now.
  9. What do your parents think of you being/working/living here? If you’re at a strip club, perhaps asking a dancer that question is reasonable — there’s a common misconception that erotic dancers are doing something immoral, and so, maybe their parents wouldn’t like their job. But it’s probably still the wrong thing to ask. When you’re asking it of a person of color, you’re signaling to them that you think it’s weird they’re there. You’re saying that you wouldn’t expect someone like them to have that job, or be in that place, and by phrasing it as a question about their parents, you’re trying to put a polite veneer on excluding them from what you think is “normal” for that place.
  10. Oh, do you know Bob Chu? He’s my neighbor/coworker/employee of a place that I go to. Pro tip: people of the same ethnicity do not automatically all know each other. Even people of the same ethnicity who are all in the same town, or all attending the same convention, do not know each other. By asking this, you’re letting the person know you aren’t going to remember anything about them except their ethnicity, and to you, all of those people are interchangeable and connected. Good job, jackass!

 

Dear (Jackass) Just because I’m a woman, don’t assume I’m talking about women all the damn time.

Dear Jackass,

When I talk about increasing diversity, or problematic tropes, or the state of publishing today, you always assume I’m talking about women.

If I say, “using alien space hookers in your story is a tired old trope that came out of a time when SF writers hid their racism by attributing negative stereotypes to aliens instead of non-whites”, you assume I’m upset that you portrayed women as prostitutes.

If I say publishing should use blind submissions, because it’s been proven to increase the diversity of authors, you assume I want quotas for women.

If I say your space opera movie about a platoon of soldiers fighting alien bugs isn’t diverse enough considering the source material, you point out the two white women who play supporting roles.

Yes, having women in a book or film that is otherwise populated by men is slightly more diverse than one where there are only men. And yes, because I am a woman, I would like to see myself in some of the characters portrayed in my fiction. But you do know that “diversity” means more than slapping breasts on a white guy and thinking you’ve satasified me, right? Why should science fiction, of all genres–the one where we talk about the future and human potential and evolution of both man and machine–be struggling so hard to find acceptance for anyone who doesn’t look like Casper Van Dien*?

You want to use prostitution in your SF as a way to talk about the problematic roles forced on women by the men in their lives? Sure, go ahead. I’ve done it myself. But make the hookers human and let the aliens have some positive characteristics for once.

You want to write a novel about an army of clones serving their God-Emperor as he fights to expand the Empire? Okay, fine. But do they need to be clones of Jason Statham? Base your soldiers off the best fighters and athletes on the planet right now, since that’s what anyone actually building a clone army would do. Chances are your future scientists are going to pick people like Michael Jordan, Haile Gebrselassie, Paula Radcliffe, Jet Li, Christiane Justino, Ji-Hyun Park…

And diversity in publishing means picking the best writing regardless of who submits it, which is what blind submissions gives you. It’s not about setting a quota for how many of what kind of people you “must” let in. It’s about making sure the door is wide open for everyone in the first place.

I don’t want to less women in SF. More would be better, since twice as many strong female characters who aren’t there just to serve as a romantic interest for the main character would be, let’s see, carry the 4… About 1% of the fictional people in SF. I think we can handle a few more without the universe collapsing. But that’s not the whole of the problem, so increasing the number of white women in your book isn’t the whole of the solution.

Do me a favor. If you could, from now on, pick one character in your otherwise-white story and make them a person of color, that would be a great start. Just make sure that every time you write a story, at least one person is something other than the straight/white/male default. If you have 10 or more characters in your story, make another one of them QUILTBAG, too. Two people out of ten. That’s all I’m asking. Even if your story is only 20% more diverse than it was before, IT’S BETTER THAN IT WAS BEFORE, because it more accurately reflects the world we live in and the future we’re going to live in.

If everyone writing SF got 20% more accurate than they are right now, you couldn’t say we’re ruining SF with our calls for diversity, could you?

* I swear, if they make another Starship Troopers movie where Johnny Rico isn’t a Filipino or at least an Asian living in Brazil, I will set something on fire.

Dear Jackass, Why Did You Quit Your Day Job?

Dear Jackass,

Do we really have this conversation again? Every other day I hear about some who’s “ready” to stop working for the MAN and start working for ART. That’s how it’s always presented; one person, tired of their day job, trying to convince themselves that they’re ready to take all that time they’re wasting on earning a paycheck and instead spend it on writing their novel/screenplay/collection of short stories. Convinced that the only reason they haven’t finished it yet is the 30 or 40 hours a week they’re sitting in an office, as if all of the time they sit at home watching tv isn’t the problem. Having to be responsible, pay their bills, take care of themselves, and, you know, be a productive member of society, well all of that is just too stressful. They deserve to be full-time writers, don’t they?

No. They don’t. And neither do you. No one actually deserves to be a full-time writer, except those people who work their way up to actually being full-time writers on top of their day job, and have gotten themselves to a place where they’d actually earn more money if they focused solely on their writing. That’s the progression, folks. You do not quit your job to have more time to write. You write until you write so much that you a) get paid a living wage for it, b) have savings to fall back on, c) can afford your own health care, and d) have spent so much time on writing that you’re literally doing nothing else but going to your day job and putting words on the page.

When you get there, you can quit the 40-hour week to focus solely on the 50/60/70-hour week that being a full-time writer requires. You do know that being a professional writer means more than just fans want your autograph, right? You have to churn out work, consistently. If it takes you more than a year to write a novel, you are not ready to be a full-time writer. If you’re not creating several short stories a month, all of which are getting published in pro-rate markets, you are not ready to be a full-time writer. If you don’t have the level of fame which makes publishers take another look simply because your name is at the top of the submission, you are not ready to be a full-time writer. Simply put, you will not make enough money and your rent will not be paid and you will starve.

God forbid you have a spouse or children or anyone else depending on you, because you will drag all of them down with you. And don’t tell me that your wife wants to support you so you can follow your bliss. You think she’s not worried about having to take care of you? You think she doesn’t have a bliss she’d rather be following instead of being your ATM machine? She wants you to be happy, sure, because it’s the only way to get you to stop being a whiny jackass.

There is nothing more selfish or more pathetic than someone who’d risk their family’s happiness and security because they want to be something they haven’t actually put the work into being.

I know it’s tempting. Who wouldn’t want to spend their days “researching” on the Internet, or having coffee in a cute cafe with your laptop open in front of you? Being able to have lunch at 3 pm at your favorite Indian restaurant because you don’t actually have to be anywhere at any particular time. Taking long strolls in the park or on the beach, soaking up the sun, letting your brain wander. You know, for “inspiration”. It all sounds lovely, but the only people who can afford to actually do these things, to live a life of ease, are people who have someone else footing the bill. Working writers do not have this life, because they are too busy WORKING. They are not playing tourist in scenic old Downtown on a Thursday. They are not catching the latest blockbuster at the multiplex. They are in their offices, writing words down, chasing submissions, promoting their work, adding up their sales figures, and trying to figure out how to cover the electric bill.

There is a way to work as a writer instead of working at anything else. It’s the same path you take when you want to be a CEO of a major company, or a college professor or a professional dancer. You don’t just wake up one day and decide you want to be that thing. You start at the bottom, you put in your time, you educate yourself, you work your way up, and you take every single step on the ladder. It isn’t easy and it isn’t quick and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be any good, but it’s the only way to be sure that you’re not wasting anyone else’s time or money.

But don’t take my word for it. Let Georgia McBride point out, “you’re either high, stupid, extremely romantic, disillusioned, brave or have a tremendous amount of faith in yourself. Or–all of the above,” if you think you can make a living wage from writing YA novels. Let Carol Pinchefsky tell you that, “A writer of speculative fiction can earn awards, the respect of peers, and the admiration of fans. However, what the writer frequently does not earn is a living wage solely off of spec-fic writing.” Briane Keene will tell you that you’ll need, “The clarity to separate art from profession and business from pleasure, because we are not having fun with a hobby—we are paying the fucking bills on time.”

Chuck Wendig cautions that you need 25 things before you can be a full time writer. “Ahh. The old day-job. When you could, conceivably, rise to the level of your own incompetence and sit around watching funny cat videos all day long and still get paid for it. Ha ha! Sucker. Those days are gone. You’ve now entered into a more pure relationship between effort and compensation, as in, the more effort you put into something, the more work you put out, which means the more money you earn. Fail to work? Fail to create? Then you fail to get paid.”

The only good thing about being the kind of person who thinks they “deserve” to be a writer is that generally, you won’t be a very successful one. You don’t understand how to make that work, and you spend too much energy trying to get other people to support you, to fix your problems for you. You’ll fail, you’ll quit, you’ll move on to something else, and we won’t have to deal with you any more. So you know what? You want to be a jackass, you go right ahead.

I’ll be over here, writing.

PS. A few of the people quoted above talk about the need to have a spouse who works full-time to support you, but let me remind you that if you’re depending on someone else to pay the bills, you’re not working as a writer. You’re playing at being a writer like some people build model trains or walk the mall every Saturday morning. It’s a hobby, not a profession. How can you be proud of that?

Dear (Jackass) Writer, No I Will Not Do Your “Friend’s” Research/Writing For You

Dear Jackass,

Wow, isn’t the Internet awesome? Because of the Internet, we now have social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, where we can gather, tell campfire stories, and post LOLcats. Apparently, we can also spam these sites with multiple requests to have actual working authors do your work for you. After all, when you write a steam punk story with a giant machine in it, why bother going through all of the trouble of actually figuring out how to make the machine work? Isn’t it better to just have a friend ask the Internet for a list of movies with giant steam punk machines in them, so you can watch one and write down the sounds their machine makes? We all know machines don’t actually have to do things, they just have to sound like they do things.

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Dear (Jackass) Convention Attendee, or, Things Not To Do In Public

Dear Jackass,

As you’re aware, I recently attended Readercon 22, and had a fantabulous time. There were readings and meals with friends and books bought and conversations had and panels attended and it was all lovely. Well, nearly all, because of course, there was you. What could you have done, you wonder? At a convention for the literate and the literati, what could any attendee have done which was so terrible as to end up in this open letter to asshats everywhere? Perhaps you think it was nothing, but these moments spring to mind:

  • In a panel about print vs ebooks, you, sitting in the audience, told the panel that you’d written a novel (as had many in attendance) but that you’d also illustrated it yourself, and tried to sell it to publishers with the insistence that your illustrations be used. All right, that’s a bit short-sighted, but I could have ignored that. Your foolishness isn’t anyone’s problem but your own. However, when a panelist suggested you look into indie presses, your response was, “Which one, specifically, will publish my book?” No one can tell you that, dear. You need to query like the rest of us.
  • You left your cellphone on during panels. Loudly. With a cute custom ringtone so we were well aware that you let your phone ring more than once. Continue reading