When the book came out in early March, few seemed to notice anything wrong. The first dozen reader reviews on its Amazon page were uniformly glowing, with many mentioning how they'd long admired the author's blog. It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments is Amanda Marcotte's first book, but the author is a seasoned blogger. A 30ish white woman from Texas, Marcotte wields a freewheeling I-don't-care-who-I-piss-off voice as she attacks sexism, homophobia and other patriarchal behaviors on her blog, Pandagon. Your typical third-wave feminist, she has also railed against racism and other ills because hey, you don't have to personally experience a social wrong to want to right it, right?
You can see where this is going, can't you? Turns out Marcotte's book, whatever sharp wit and political insight it conveyed, painted a thousand more with its illustrations: vintage comic-book images of a blonde chick rampaging through a tropical forest, battling seemingly endless variations of an undifferentiated brown horde.
In retrospect, it's surprising it took all of two weeks for the black blogosphere to rally against the thing. By the end of March and for the first two weeks in April, women of color from BlackAmazonto Angry Black Woman had attacked the book's publisher, Seal Press, a small San Francisco-based house that advertises itself as being "by women, for women."
For these women, the controversy was yet another outrage in the long and discouraging history of white feminists discounting, misunderstanding and disrespecting women of color. It turned out that this wasn't the first time Seal Press had shown what many saw as racial insensitivity—back in 2007 they had to scuttle an original cover for Marcotte's book that featured a King Kong-like ape-ravishing-white-woman image. And, some pointed out, where were the women of color among their author list?
By mid-April, word had spread, and the first cries of protest appeared on the book's Amazon page. Serious talk of a "girlcott" had the publisher worried, and on April 25 the publisher posted an apology on its Web site and announced they would change the illustrations in any subsequent print runs of the book. Marcotte apologized as well, on Pandagon.
In the online world, offense and apology can become entwined in interesting ways. And when race is involved, it's all the more fraught. The more Seal Press and Marcotte tried to make amends, the more voices rose telling them just what was missing from their apologies; each renewed charge would spark new, and newly misbegotten, explanations or apologies.
When Seal's editors said that the cover, from a 1950s Marvel comic, "is not an accurate reflection of our beauty standards, our beliefs regarding one's right to bear arms, nor our perspectives on race relations, foreign policy or environmental policy," bloggers were quick to point out that lumping a specific charge of racism in with a laundry list of potential offenses tends to trivialize the complaint, and on it went. The Seal team made some guest appearances on the blogs, with predictably disastrous results (at one point saying that they don't publish more women of color because they don't get many proposals from that demographic, a complaint that may prove to be self-fulfilling now).
As someone once said, on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog. And nobody knows, unless you take pains to tell them, that you're white, black or anything else. It soon became clear that the majority of posts on the boards of both Seal Press and Pandagon, the majority of women agonizing over this issue, were white (as, I should point out here, am I). As one poster said:
"…it's a little absurd to hear a bunch of white men and women moaning about how horrible white men and women are. And to have person after person talk as if they represent all people of color, then sheepishly admit they are white themselves."
Which seems to me to point out one of the obvious lessons from this controversy: There are very few truly diverse corners of the online world. Black women were having one discussion about the book, Seal Press and the ignorance of the mainstream publishing world in one set of sites, while white women were self-flagellating over on another set. And when large numbers of (mostly) white liberals get together online to talk about race, they typically fall all over themselves trying to prove how non-racist they are—unless, of course, they fall all over themselves trying to prove how totally down they are. Which is when the stupidity tends to happen.
As one of the posters pointed out, on the Seal Press apology site, "you don't get to joke around about oppression or try to 'reclaim'—when you're the oppressor."
This hits at the crux of the matter, it seems to me. When I was the one white editor at the late great Africana.com, I batted around story ideas with black colleagues and friends all the time, but when it came to writing a piece that was "post-black," I knew I wasn't the woman to do it. You can't be post-black if you aren't black. But it's a lesson frequently lost on white Web writers of all kinds—even those who would never cop to their own racism, love to tease the line a bit and declare it "daring" or "edgy."
But there's another lesson here, too, one that needs to be repeated in those white offline corners where mainstream publishing happens: The book industry needs to seek out diversity among its staff —or, to put it another way, black people need to storm the industry and impose diversity upon it. Only when there's some chance that an editor will know racism when she sees it will we stop seeing covers like Marcotte's (or magazine covers like Vogue's Lebron James-as-King Kong photo). And only when a publisher employs editors with real-life experience in racially polyglot America will we stop seeing such credulous acceptance of fake memoirs like Love and Consequences (and A Million Little Pieces, for that matter).
I'm not saying all white editors—or all white feminists—are ignorant. Some of us are much better than others. But what helps is both knowing your limits and trying to expand them. If you're not in a position to be personally affected by racism, you'll never understand it the same way as someone who is. But that doesn't let you off the hook for trying to be mindful, conscious and aware. And if nothing else, when someone tells you you've offended them, it's not only your moral duty but it's frankly in your best interests to listen to them.
What might have seemed like it was going to be the blogger's version of hitting the big leagues— publishing a real, tangible book, maybe ending up as a talking head on Bill Maher, maybe even making a little money off your words and opinions—turned into something else for Amanda Marcotte and her publisher. It seems like Marcotte will land on her feet. As for Seal Press, I'd be interested to see what's on their list the next few years. There's a girlcott just waiting for the next mistake.