Sunday, July 18, 2010

No You're Racist, and Sexist and I'm AWESOME

You may have noticed a cute new webpage floating around the internets called "I Write Like" (not linking). It's a page with a text box where you have to copy and paste (or compose on the spot) a few paragraphs, press a button and you'll get a something you can paste on your blog or Facebook to let everyone know which famous writer you write like. (In case anyone was wondering, I got Margaret Atwood - YAY! - and Dan Brown - kill me now.)

If you've heard of the website, you may also have caught wind of the kerfuffle around the fact that when it first launched, there weren't any female writers in the database of writers you could resemble. A week or so later, there are now 3 female writers (to 37 male writers) all of whom are lily-white. Now I understand that this is just a silly-for-fun website for people to feel briefly thrilled that their name can be used in the same sentence as a famous (or infamous) author (sorta Nicholas Sparks vis-a-vis Cormac McCarthy style), but representation matters, even in trivial things.

Representation matters because our actions are shaped by our environment. Our environment primes us on levels so far below our consciousness that even if we are asked about our motivations, we come up with narratives that, while consistent with how we view ourselves, have nothing to do with reality. A website that uses only white, initially all-male writers to represent how the internet writes, well, the implicit message isn't even all that subtle there.

So people start to comment. Some people cut and paste female writers' texts into the boxes and lol-sob at the male writers they are called instead. Eventually tea berry-blue wrote to the guy who runs "I Write Like". She describes the disheartening and miss-the-point exchange well, but what I want to talk about specifically is this:

Thanks for your reply. I’ve added more writers into the database
recently. But I *absolutely* will not add people into the database due
to their race or gender. I will not search for lists of white, black,
Asian, Hispanic, or any other types of people that you _took care to
differentiate_. All people are equal to me, and equality means not
looking at skin color or different types of chromosomes.

I think the question is closed.

Dmitry Chestnykh
I Write Like
In other words, it's the I don't think people are different...and since you seem to, YOU'RE SEXIST and also racist.

Honestly, if everyone was so damn equal, why did you only have one kind of person represented? If everyone was all the same to you, then your sample should have approximated what the sampling of writers out there was really like. Include writers like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Candace Bushnell, George Eliot, A. S. Byatt, Zadie Smith, Helen Fielding, Monica Ali, Stephenie-frikking-Meyer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Miriam Toews, Tamora Pierce, Holly Black...I could go on. That's just off the top of my head and includes a nice sampling of award winning authors, classics, pop fiction, all women, some of colour. NOT THAT HARD. If gender and race were non-issues for this person, then why the glaring omissions?!

It's because it does matter. And I want to make it very clear that I'm not blaming Dmitry Chestnykh for it in the least. Like the rest of us, he grew up in the same damn world we all did. A world in which whiter is better and where men are main characters. I was talking about priming earlier yeah? Well, we've been primed our whole damn lives to not notice that despite the actual diversity of the world around us, the white male is always the assumed default (Tasha Fierce breaks down the assumed default even in activist circles here). A world in which the only people who don't notice race or gender are the only ones who are the default, and therefore are privileged enough not to. It is also, ironically, a world where we are taught that racism and sexism are bad and that you are a bad person if you're racist or sexist. So people are scared to talk about race or gender. First because any time a light is shone on privilege it does get pretty damn uncomfortable. Secondly because it's as though noticing that people are different qualifies you as some sort of reprobate.

But of course everyone notices race. It starts when we're children, mainly because our parents don't talk about it. It's the same for gender too. Noticing it and talking about it and discussing the deleterious effects of it is how we can fight this shit. It's the opposite of being racist or sexist.

Let's recap. We're not all bad people just because we've grown up drinking the Kool Aid. We're not bad people for noticing differences and diversity. It's not racist or sexist or any-other-ist to make an effort not to under-represent entire populations of people. People that exist in this amazingly diverse and challenging world of ours. The same people whose lives are made worse because we are assumed to be uninterested because we're not talking about it. And while it can be awful to get called out, particularly if you already make efforts to not be racist or sexist, listen because we all have something to learn. Don't just fling it back and start name-calling.

Update: Shakesville's SKM Biblio-vore whose blog can be found here did a quick experiment on "I Write Like", plugging authors' actual works into the engine and seeing what comes out. Interesting and insightful!


  1. This is a brilliant and wonderful post.

    One quick fact-check:

    The 40 authors: 37 men, 3 women, all white is the number the meme launched with. The meme now includes 50 authors, some more of which are women, but none of which are writers of color.

    Thanks for taking the discussion one step further.


  2. Cat in the Cream --

    Awesome post, but just a quick thing -- the experiment you attributed to SKM was actually mine, which I sent to Liss for signal-boosting purposes. Please give due credit.



  3. My apologies! I will correct that post-haste.

    My brain felt like it was climbing uphill in molasses the day I read the post on Shakesville. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  4. I curse you for prompting me to head out on a massive net exploration of "white privilege" - specifically in the context of feminism. I am now totally depressed and am reconsidering the entire F word. Damn you.


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