When privacy settings and bigotry collide

Privacy settings have hidden the dangerously dismissive comment made about the plight of writers of colour in this country.

Last week was LIT, fam.

For anyone who has been following the conversation, I’ve been having a series of uncomfortable encounters with the publishing industry and have been penning down my thoughts and feelings about the blatant and uncomfortable exclusion that is expressed towards speculative fiction writers.

Part of that engagement was receiving a bit of feedback from Helen Moffett. It was a distressing comment from her, one that exemplified all the qualities of the publishing and literary world I mentioned, dismissed the very real racial, gender and patriarchal bias that exists in the publishing industry and slathered on a layer of the densest, most concentrated privilege it has been my (unfortunate, perhaps) honour to witness this year. In a follow-up piece, I typed her comment, word for word and responded to it with the numerous questions it brought about.

And that’s when things came crumbling down.

This morning I received a communication that expressed how blind-sided and taken aback Helen was that I had copied her private comments, from a closed Facebook group, and responded to them on a public forum, and in a specific way (which I am still trying to identify). Because I respect people’s right to have their comments published as and when they want, I have conceded to her calls for consent and privacy and deleted the piece that addresses her comment directly. It’s a necessary move and one that, while disheartening, only furthers my agenda — because Facebook is, in its own way, a publisher. But before I go into that, I want to make some things very clear.

The level of dismissive rejection in Helen’s comment (which I shall not make accessible again, but nevertheless speak to, as is my right) hit me on a fundamental, visceral level. In her response, she oh so casually brushes off the systemic oppression and racism that I spent an entire two thousand words painstakingly highlighting (in a way, I’m afraid, that only white people can). She referred to the differences I identified as ‘so-called’ and produced the broad-strokes argument that seemed to suggest because it’s the kind of marginalisation that happens in every industry, it is not worth commenting on and it would be far better to just infer that I am misguided, misconstrued and misunderstood the following images screengrabbed from the submissions pages of RHS and Penguin Books, because that’s actually not how the publishing industry works.

Penguin Books submission page screencap.
RHS (Umuzi imprint) submission page screencap.

Alright. Fine. The piece is down. The attendant social media has been deleted. I am told Helen is working on a public response, which could be ready any moment between now and the next few weeks. I eagerly await an opportunity to read that.

Cool. I want to address three things though.

One: I am only talking about publishing relative to speculative fiction. I am well aware that other genres flourish in the SA publishing industry. Congratulations.

The second thing concerns my bitter, bitter disappointment. Initially, it was at the lack of response from the publishing industry, editors and writers alike (there has been some feedback, but no serious critique or engagement of the issue at hand, bar a few emails I received and a plan to change this kak structure with a friend of mine). To be honest, I leapt at the chance to check out what people thought about this exclusionary industry, and what could be done to combat it. I think the feeling described when reading Helen Moffett’s feedback can only be described as resplendent shock horror. This is what I get? To be ‘nope’d five times? To have the lived experiences of writers of colour dismissed? To be asked to shelve my manuscript and write short stories till I’ve made my name? If I hadn’t spent the week prior to that comment in tears, I think it might have reduced me to a puddle of heartbreak, seeing an industry figure like Helen Moffett refuse to acknowledge how hard this game is for anyone who isn’t privileged and swimming in resources. On some level, I was surprised at my own distress about it, since this is a stock response given whenever you highlight systemic difference and oppression in an industry. But for some reason, even after last year’s big blowup at the Franschoek Literary Festival, I still held out hope for my industry. I have been, quite cruelly, disabused of that notion.

This disappointment is confounded by what, I feel, was an avoidance tactic. Rather insist for privacy settings on an issue that is hardly a one-on-one problem than engage with the topic at hand, with the bits where you were called out specifically, acknowledge that we have a problem in publishing, and put forward some sort of solution. Thus, the piece is gone and Helen gets to construct something better, that probably doesn’t refer to racism, misogyny, transphobia and inherent bias as ‘so-called’. I think it will be a long time before I forget that happened.

Finally, I want to talk about public versus private spaces.

When I was first made aware of the need to take my piece down, and that a response would be following in the next little while, I did have some horrendous misgivings. I suspect Helen’s follow-up piece will be diplomatic, engaging and tolerant — everything her initial comment wasn’t. It raises an interesting question: are privacy settings there for us to be lazy? Would that comment have been made in that way if the post was public? Is wokeness a curated, appeasing affair for those who watch? When the lights go off at the end of the day, do people regress into their previously conditioned state? The group in question, where the conversation went down, is one I left some two years ago because of the flagrant lack of intersectionality and pandering to certain types of conversation only. That this comment existed, unchallenged, and was sent to me under the guise of ‘helpful feedback’ is indicative of how little that space has changed since my departure.

Privacy settings, I believe, are there for the protection of the user and are most necessary in an internet that is violent, aggressive and awash with rape threats. They are a necessary function of healthy discourse that has little time for snivelling sycophants who are down to uphold the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy we live in — these settings protect all of us fighting for a better world from the harm of those who would hold onto their power, however ill-gained. Privacy settings are important for the health and well-being of activists.

What they should not do is protect problematic folk. I think this is something we all understand well, given how often we invade someone’s private life, their Facebook, their Twitter (even their private email at times), their comments and their work places to make them aware of the racist kak they spew and how it will not be tolerated. We tell privacy settings to go fuck themselves on the regular — when we call out the ones who liken POC to animals, when we unearth personal information for our own agenda, when we drag a real person through the online mud. And it’s right that we do it. Right and fair. Privacy settings should not be allowed to foster a hidden sub-culture of bigotry and oppression. It should not be the tool by which folk sit back and stop being woke every single second of the day. It should not be the grace on which you complacently fall when you don’t feel like recognising the marginalisation that happens in every. Single. Context. That is not how privacy settings work.

Privacy settings have hidden the dangerously dismissive comment made about the plight of writers of colour in this country. Privacy settings meant that the comment could be made in the first place, instead of the nuanced, 3000 word treatise I suspect will be forthcoming. Privacy settings meant to keep us safe are instead allowing those who will not commit full time to monitoring their speech, to understanding the context and unpacking it in an empathic and nuanced way, to flourish with their half-baked commitment to real structural change.

Maybe I also want to talk about how none of my woke white homies called Helen out on her apologia. I suspect it’s because she’s popular (and anyone with half a thought in their head knows how that vibe works).

But that’s none of my business.

I’m going to go write the shit out of a story about the zombie apocalypse genesis in Durban central for you guys, instead.

*sips tea*

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