The Reading While White team is pleased to welcome Guest Blogger Sarah Hamburg today.
In Monday’s post, Allie Jane Bruce gave a close reading of Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx Talk, “Artists Mustn’t Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture,” looking at how Baskin’s talk addresses “call-out culture,” and how that presentation relates to Whiteness and power in children’s literature. Today, I’d like to go back and examine how online discussions following Baskin’s talk reflect those same dynamics. The online conversations about Baskin’s talk are an illustrative example of how White people in children’s publishing define social media culture, and its norms, in ways that both uphold our own dominance, and enact active racist aggression against BIPOC people in the field.
I want to note, especially in the wake of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, that this conversation is not meant to convey that White people can’t be marginalized along other identifies; White people, including White Jewish people, can still be subject to other oppressions. However, the focus of this post is Whiteness, and an examination of a specific incident of White aggression and dominance in order to identify larger patterns of racism in the field.
After the publication of Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx talk on May 21, 2018, there were many conversations both online and off, but I’d like to focus on one Facebook thread in particular. The thread encapsulates dynamics that occur repeatedly within the social media spaces of children’s publishing. As Allie mentioned on Monday, it’s been several months since the TEDx talk and these specific discussions took place, but a close examination of their scope and impact remains (unfortunately) relevant.
On May 24th, David Lubar wrote a public Facebook post which began, “Once again, a writer has been the subject of an over-the-top assault by Debbie Reese.” That writer was Nora Raleigh Baskin, and the “assault” was Dr. Debbie Reese’s series of tweets critiquing the content of Baskin’s TEDx talk. On May 21st, Dr. Cristina James (who organized the TEDx event at which Baskin spoke) had tagged Dr. Reese on Twitter, with a link to Baskin’s talk and an invitation to, “discuss, contest, argue if you must…” Dr. Reese responded to that invitation on May 22nd with an initial series of tweets expressing her general thoughts on the content of the talk, followed by a longer thread in which she listened to the talk again and live-tweeted her close analysis. (Dr. Reese compiled those threads in a blog post; I highly recommend that readers spend time with her actual words and reactions to the talk, as well as her own response to David Lubar’s post.) At the beginning of the second thread Dr. Reese tagged Nora Raleigh Baskin, and Baskin was then automatically tagged in each of the threaded tweets. That tagging, and Dr. Reese’s presentation of her thoughts and critique more generally, became the primary focus of online discussions about Nora Raleigh Baskin’s TEDx talk. It’s here, in this shifting of focus from the substance of critiques to the manner of their delivery, and the characterizations of responses from BIPOC people as “call-out culture,” online “bullying,” and in this case “assault,” that I’d like to spend time via this post.
The full text of David Lubar’s May 24th Facebook post is as follows:
(Note, this was a public Facebook post, which could be viewed by anyone, and several participants recorded the post and comments as they progressed. Lubar later made the decision to delete the post and the thread in their entirety. In discussing the post, I’ll be relying on screenshots made while it was still active. While the post itself is recorded intact, unfortunately many of the later comments and additions to the thread are not available. My discussion will focus on the comments to thread before people began intervening. Full disclosure: Allie Jane Bruce and I were both later participants in this Facebook discussion.)
“Once again, a writer has been the subject of an over-the-top assault by Debbie Reese. And, once again, anyone who calls her out is besieged by her defenders, who act as if she walks on water. If those of you leaping to Ms. Reese's defense haven't actually read some of her columns, I think that would be a good thing to do. Much of what she writes is quibbles, false attacks, and weak scholarship. Consider this, from her attack on Susan Cooper:
Ghost Hawk opens with two epigraphs. The first is from Roger Williams and is dated 1643. Williams tells not to be proudful because ‘thy brother Indian was made by the same God that made the English. That Indian, the epigraph says, is just as wise, fair, and strong as the English man.’
The second epigraph is a verse from Woodie Guthrie's song, This Land is Your Land.
Why, I wonder, did Cooper choose those two? It was, by the way, rather patronizing of Williams to assume that his God made Indians. How does he know it didn't happen the other way around, with the Indians’ god making the Englishmen?!
Do you see the problem? Cooper's intent was obviously to show that Roger Williams saw all humans as equal. Making things worse is that the actual Roger Williams quote doesn't specify which god he means. Reese basically attacks Cooper for showing something positive about Roger Williams.
You can find hundreds more examples of this, along with some PETA-like campaigns. She attacked Jon Scieszka twice for calling a Mayan "Kakapoopoohead" (I might have the spelling wrong), and posted links on YALSA book, with his name in the subject. She did this first by comparing this to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (sp?), and then, seven years later by comparing this to the news hoax about the Chinese crew names on the plane that crashed.
l have writer friends who have been attacked for absurd things. One had a Native American character cross his legs to play the guitar while seated on the floor. Ms. Reese slammed this sentence for being a stereotype. If you play guitar, you know this is the comfortable way to sit. Yes -- many minorities have been badly portrayed in books. but they deserve a better defender, and Ms. Reese deserves to be called out for her tactics.”
In the ensuing comments on Lubar’s post, a group of primarily White writers wrote to affirm Lubar’s characterizations, and to add further demeaning remarks about Dr. Reese’s work and about her as a person. These comments continued uninterrupted until May 30th, when several people began posting comments pushing back. In the comments from White people adding their support for Lubar’s post, several central themes emerged. Most prominent among them was participants’ stated belief that they agreed with Dr. Reese in general terms, but opposed her “tactics” and ways of expressing herself. I’d like to look at that idea, and its relationship to Baskin’s delivered remarks about “call-out culture,” more closely.
In the very first comment on the post, Jordan Sonnenblick responded to say, “As you know, David, I have tangled with DR in the past. It is frustrating, because invariably, she attacks people who would be _on her side_, but in such vicious and passive—aggressively unfair ways that she divides our little world into venomous little camps.” Others added their agreement to this idea.
David Lubar Well said, Jordan. Your point about attacking people who would he allies is an excellent observation.
Gae Polisner Every time we try to talk about this and what is wrong with it, I am reminded of trying to talk logic with Trump supporters, and it truly, truly terrifies me. Not to mention, the defense is that she's advocating for kids. Well kids are being bullied online in droves. At times this bullying is leading to suicide and outward violence. What kind of message does it send to the kids to watch adults engage in this nature of cruel communication over and over and over again online?
Stephanie Olivieri Gae Polisner Exactly.
Susan Fabricant Hess Gae Polisner l agree and have had it out with her on Twitter. Nothing ever positive comes out of her mouth or keyboard.
Annette Kesterson I hate the toxic atmosphere she creates and Jordan Sonnenblick is exactly right--even when i agree with her assertions, she is so poisonous that I would never support her in them.
On Monday, Allie looked at the ways Nora Raleigh Baskin, in her TEDx talk on the subject, declines to define exactly what she means by “call-out culture.” The result is a conflation between very real online harassment and hate (disproportionately directed at Black and Indigenous people, and People of Color, particularly BIPOC women and nonbinary people) and anti-racist critique from BIPOC readers and scholars. Something similar is happening in this Facebook thread about online culture. In it, White participants’ stated belief that they would agree with Dr. Reese, if not for her “tactics”, fails to define exactly what “toxic,” “poisonous” behavior they mean. The one instance people reference is the fact that Dr. Reese tagged Nora Raleigh Baskin in each of her long series of live-tweets about the TEDx talk. Paul Hankins goes so far as to equate this Twitter tagging with torture, saying, “She uses social media like the walk home from school while being menaced by the bully that will not hit but taunts incessantly. When you go tweet after tweet after tweet, tagging the other person each time, the ‘what abouting’ becomes a form of 'water boarding'.” Hankins continues, “This is not conversation. This is not the way that I would bring a student to a sense of understanding or learning. Because THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD has been on my mind of late (reading with students), I go back to an idea of how Joe Starks rises to power over Eatonville. Zora Neale Hurston writes: ‘They bowed down to him because he was all of these things, but, perhaps he was all of these things because they bowed down… watch authors now take the safe road and write books with more animal characters or natural settings without characters out of fear of DR’s reach and influence.’"
Later in the Facebook discussion, and in her own blog post, Dr. Reese acknowledges that Twitter’s auto-tagging could have been overwhelming for Baskin, and offers an apology for the (inadvertent) multiple tags. But the hyperbolic allusions to violence, “menace,” and bullying do not match the act of tagging someone in a series of tweets. There is so much more to say here, too, about the comparison to Their Eyes Were Watching God, the idea that listening to Dr. Reese equates to “bowing down,” ideas about who exactly is having to take time away from their writing, and the mocking references to animal characters. (For just one crucial series on the subject of animal characters, see Edith Campbell’s posts on monkeys in children’s books.) It’s also worth noting that on other occasions, White book creators and bloggers have criticized Dr. Reese for not tagging them on Twitter, and cited this as an example of Reese talking behind their backs. (For another discussion of the focus on Twitter tagging as a derailing tactic, see this article from Bustle on reactions to Dr. Reese’s critique of The Love That Split the World.) Throughout the discussion on David Lubar’s post, it’s clear that the actual basis for White people calling Dr. Reese “toxic” is the very existence of her critiques as a Native woman, the fact that she expresses opinions that are “negative” (i.e. not praise), and the fact that White people feel discomfort when encountering her perspective. As in so many instances where we as White people point to “tone” or “delivery” as the problem, the argument becomes a circular one: “I would agree with you if not for your tone, and the problem with your tone is that you dare to be yourself and disagree with me.”
Ironically, in a discussion that’s ostensibly about the freedom to express opinions, and about writers’ work in the context of online culture and bullying, White participants in this Facebook thread come together to engage in the collective dehumanization of a Native scholar because of her writing. Dr. Debbie Reese becomes “a wonderful antagonist” and a “menacing bully.” These words disregard Debbie Reese’s humanity, and her right to express her opinions and knowledge through written scholarship (as much an artistic form as fiction writing.) White people join together here, in an online space, to describe Dr. Reese as someone lesser, who exists as a threat. Further, that collective dehumanization quickly moves from words to proposed action. Ed Sullivan says, “I am appalled that ALSC gave her the 2019 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award for ‘her strong modeling of inclusion, integrity and respect (ALSC Core Values) via the timely insights she shares on the influential blog.’ It disgusts me to sound like some kind of conservative reactionary but Reese is an example of the worst about political correctness.”
David Lubar’s Facebook post and the ensuing discussion, where White people conflate critique of a TEDx talk with bullying and harassment, echoes the content of Baskin’s talk itself. The progression of the Lubar discussion, where White people unite online to disparage a Native scholar, dehumanize her and refer to her in ways that evoke racist ideas of menace and violence (racist ideas with a long, genocidal history), and propose a boycott of her Arbuthnot Lecture, reveals the stakes of Baskin’s talk. Online bullying and harassment are real, and they have real consequences. Again, though, those harsh realities and consequences are experienced most acutely by BIPOC women and nonbinary people, including those in the field of children’s literature. Online harassment, as with most harassment, is most often a means by which those with power—like White people in children’s publishing—enforce and maintain our dominance. As Allie discussed in her post, Baskin failed to address these power dynamics and disparities in her TEDx talk, and refused to own the power that we as White people have in this field. David Lubar’s Facebook post, and the subsequent thread, are both a reflection and a result of that omission. White people aren’t the victims here, and if we as White people can’t name, take responsibility for, and work to change our positions of power, then we are active participants in maintaining our White dominance. And those whose art and personhood are most deeply impacted by these violent inequities will continue to be BIPOC creators—whether fiction writers, or critical scholars.
As is always the case, BIPOC writers have explored these issues for a long time, and in much more detail than I address here. I’m both indebted to them and their work in everything I’ve said here, and also recognize that it is their voices White people should be listening to, not mine.
Debbie Reese's Twitter Threads about Nora Raleigh Baskin's Ted Talk
#OwnVoices Controversy by Mia Wenjen (PragmaticMom)