A Racefail Memoir
From Sajia Sultana
In my twenties I was fascinated by blogging and the net-roots, all those wonderful left liberal blogs of the early 2000s – Pandagon, Alas a Blog, 3 Quarks Daily, Feministing, Obsidian Wings, Digby, Making Light.
I learned of Making Light through one of Neil Gaiman’s posts on fanfiction. Teresa Nielsen Hayden had written a lovely post on Mary Sue fanfiction and pro fiction. I started commenting there many years ago, although I was always more of a lurker. I started my own livejournal blog, and became friends with Bellatrys, londonkds, oyceter, and spiralsheep.
I never forgot the conversation Making Light had after the 2004 election on gay marriage, how conciliatory they were to conservative members of that community. A stark contrast to how they handled Racefail after the 2008 election.
I’m not sure if the pandagon archives are still there. I think Alas A Blog still exists. I remember Barry Deutsch’s comic about a Jewish girl who was a dragon-slayer. I remember Matthew Yglesias, although I had a very scratchy knowledge of economics. I remember A Tiny Revolution and Michael Berube. My god, all these white leftists and liberals hi-fiving themselves over how superior they were to the religious right and wondering why there wasn’t a big tent coalition on the internet.
The net roots were obsessed with popular culture. The Buffy debates alone took up yards of screentime. I didn’t have a TV then, although I passively and incoherently absorbed everything I read on the internet. This is why I get infuriated when people accuse the social justice warriors of trivializing social justice concerns, because the netroots had not modeled good behaviour, to put it mildly.
Before Racefail, the biggest netroots dustup I observed was with Amanda Marcotte’s plagiarization of Brownfemipower’s work around WOC reproductive rights. The signs had been there, all along. Amanda Marcotte had defended Paris Hilton as a powerful woman enjoying her money as she choosed while dismissing Beyonce as a non-feminist.She was an obsessive anti-theist and was an apologist for harmful hipster elitism. She made much mileage out of her heartbreaking tale of rape and a pregnancy scare that took place afterwards. Which is one thing to defend reproductive rights and abuse survivors, and another to defend a rapist like Hugo Schwyzer.
I wonder how much the anger of the white netroots against the social justice warriors had to do with the fear of aging.
Racefail happened in January 2009. My entry into Racefail happened by way of a blogger who referred to Deepa D.’s essay, “I didn’t dream of dragons.” This was a magnificent essay taking down everything that was Eurocentric about the western high fantasy tradition. Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s livejournals were on my friendslist, and I gaped in horror as they doubled down on racist denial. Will Shetterly started on his rampage of stalking women of color feminists and their white feminist allies. The Nielsen Haydens and Shetterly probably thought they were doing liberal damage control, but it still looks like liberal racist libel and slander of my friends Spiralsheep and Willow, and the ones that I don’t know about, from where I stand.
What made their behaviour even more unforgivable was the fact that Making Light had built its reputation as a bastion of moderacy and approachment between (white) leftists and liberals and centre-rightists. Dave Luckett had posted opposition to gay marriage after the 2004 elections, and instead of being booted out the Making Light regulars reached out and used reason on him, and succeeded. Yet when Spiralsheep and Willow had made completely reasonable attacks on white Eurocentrism in science fiction and fantasy, suddenly they were being divisive and spouting “identity politics nonsense.” Maybe if they had a couple of fiction manuscripts that could have been published at Tor.com they would have been treated better.
I loved the community building that happened post-Racefail. There was the famous POC unicorn sci-fi call-in, where POC fans of science fiction and fantasy proclaimed their love for the genre, and brilliant posts by Deepa D, yeloson, delux vivens, skywardprodigal, and many more. People of color who loved pop culture but had issues with representation realized that they were no longer alone. Racefail was the shot that was heard around the world. It may have been just a Livejournal spat, but it quickly snowballed into massive WOC and QTIPOC online organizing on a global scale.
Now one can argue that I should never have placed trust in the white left to begin with, but hey, I’m a Bangladeshi liberal by birth, breeding, and choice, not an angry black woman with justifiable skepticism of white intentions starting in the womb. And the trauma, added to the already toxic brew of body image dysphoria, bipolar disorder, paranoia, social isolation and first world poverty, made me highly suspicious and angry with my white friends in the Vancouver punk scene. What made things substantially worse was that I felt unable to talk to anyone about my severe emotional pain over seeing white leftists whom I had greatly admired doing incredibly shitty things, misrepresenting the people they had sworn to defend the western right from, and lying their asses off. I mean, Racefail was just a Livejournal dust-up, what was there to be angry about?
What made me even angrier about Racefail was that the Nielsen Haydens were Christian leftists. They talk the talk about mercy, but everybody knows that it’s way easier to forgive the people who hurt you than to forgive the people you hurt. They have never forgiven Spiralsheep and Willow for having been the targets of their abuse. And the Nielsen Haydens’ Christian hypocrisy got enabled like hell by their atheist friends and supporters in the sff community.
At this point the discerning reader will ask, “But Sajia, you hate cultural appropriation rhetoric, why aren’t you more sympathetic to the NHs?” While it’s true that cultural appropriation rhetoric has gotten out of hand, there were legitimate concerns at the heart of anti-appropriation ideology. And it did act as a seed for a massive amount of online community building. And it’s hypocritical for the white left to smear POC pop culture activists when they committed just as shitty behavior not just in the netroots blogs, but earlier on Usenet and the western alternative press. And even if Spiralsheep and Willow had been completely 100 percent wrong, that’s no excuse for the asshole behavior of the NHs and the stalking and abusive behavior of Will Shetterly.
I was pissed off at Teresa Nielsen Hayden dismissing our community building as “bullshit identity politics”, especially because Tor’s reinvention as a bastion of pluralism would not have been possible without that community building. As a bellydancer and yogini I’ve been hurt by POC in-fighting and aggression and policing of white femininity, while the Nielsen Haydens seem to have only revitalized their brand through Racefail.
I was trapped in a digital world, knowing it was unhealthy of me to be spending so much time on Livejournal and Dreamwidth, addicted to communal anger. Part of it is that because I am an empath, I over-identified with the pain and anger of the people whose blogs I was reading, and was unable to create, let alone maintain, good boundaries with my internet friends. Physical movement would prove to be my salvation, but it was years before I could forgive myself for being a Muslimah who liked yoga and a Bangladeshi who loved bellydance.
Part of it was social justice discourse’s “ooh shiny” problem. One person would write something full of heartrending emotion and brilliant insight, the blogosphere would go nuts over them, dropping all common sense and boundaries, until the next blog post full of scintillating wit and heartache came along.
But I made some good friends there. Delux vivens always thought highly of me, and at one point said she would have liked to visit South Asia with me as a traveling companion. It was through her that I met hotcoffeems, a mixed race Sufi revert who loved to bellydance, and who was my inspiration for studying Sufism in Vancouver.
I’d written a post on Boobquake that got a lot of mileage on the internet, and through the links delux vivens had posted I had discovered the LJ blog of hotcoffeemississipi. She was a wonderful writer with a wicked sense of humor. She’d studied ballet as a child and gave me a lot of harsh but necessary advice about the problems with trying to study multiple dance forms at the same time. She’d had terrible problems with her abusive ex-husband but finally managed to get some kind of stability in her life.
She had been stalked and harassed by an internet mob accusing her of ethnicity fraud. She was accused of being a white girl playing dress up with hijab and pretending to have black ancestry in her lineage. She had to change her journal name, but that wasn’t enough and she stopped blogging altogether. I was traumatized, realizing that some of the ideas I had in my head were the same ideas used by the bullies to justify their mistreatment of hotcoffeems. I just didn’t like the scapegoating of white feminine expression by social justice discourse, the obsessive cataloging of privilege, the minute dissection of cultural expression in the pursuit of some obscure purity.
There’s something fucked up about people opposing racial categories as a way of policing human behavior and then using those same racial categories to control access to culture.
I hated the Nielsen Haydens for smearing the online POC community I fell in love with and desperately wanted to be a part of. And then I ended up hating that online POC community for smearing the white bellydancers whose art I loved.
I don’t like being asked to give up things that make me happy. I don’t like people whose main occupation in life is policing other people’s pleasure; whether that pleasure be of religion, art, sexuality, movement practices or community.
I blame the Nielsen Haydens for corrupting our POC media fandom community with the lure of book contracts in a bad economy. I am angry with the POC media fandom community for attacking and even slut-shaming white bellydancers and female yoga practitioners WHO NEVER HURT THEM PERSONALLY while accepting a few pennies from white scumbags in the science fiction fandom hierarchy who had a history of hurting POC fans. No, it’s not restitution if the white people in question continue to lie about Racefail.
And the irony is, in the time of the netroots I really wanted to write for Tor.com. But even if I had a bunch of short stories or a novel ready I’ll be double damned if I lend legitimacy to people who won’t apologize for their shitty behaviour and continue to justify their shitty behaviour towards impoverished POC fans who don’t have a manuscript with which to bargain on their end.
Sajia Sultana’s song and spoken word can be found at sajiasultana.bandcamp.com and YouTube.com/sajiasultana.