This is first of two companion interviews. Please be sure to read the second one. Both interviews begin with the same introduction, for context.
A week ago, an editor posted an announcement in a large editors’ group online. The editor, who is white, had organized a website where professional editors and proofreaders could sign up to donate their services to people of color, as a gesture of reparation.
Editors in the group responded with enthusiasm, and nearly 200 signed up. Then a black editor brought the conversation up short. She asked if the organizer had asked any people of color for advice before launching such a project. She pointed out that it might take paying work away from black editors, and suggested that the entire project came across as white saviorism.
There was a long discussion, and the white editor ultimately announced that she was suspending the project. She thanked those who participated in the conversation for their feedback and scrutiny.
Having been a part of many frustrating and unproductive conversations about race, I was struck by how civil this exchange was, so I contacted both editors to get more clarity about how they perceived the interaction. My understanding of the issue changed considerably after I talked to both of them. Reading over the transcript, I am especially grateful to the black editor for being patient and courteous with my questions. Like many white people, I’m learning a lot of new things suddenly, and light is dawning slowly. I am also grateful to the white editor for being so candid.
Both editors have asked to remain anonymous. The black editor is a retired marketing and communications director with over twenty years of experience in editing; the white editor is in her 30’s and has been working as an editor and with publishers for several years.
What did you first think when you saw the offer?
I just wondered how familiar she was with the organizations or individuals who would become clients. It seemed to me there was an assumption that resources weren’t available to the organizations and individuals she wanted to reach out to.
From my experience working with black organizations or individuals, they approach the person they want to edit. In our organizations and our churches and our circle of people, you usually know the person who is good at that type of thing, or has that skill set. The approach is based on who we know in our community and who we know is capable of doing that kind of work. It’s not limited to people who have been professionals in the field; it can be a retired teacher or someone like that.
There are people who are just not comfortable with having their work edited or proofread, because it comes across as a critique.
So I see that it’s not appropriate to make this offer unless you already have a relationship with the writer. But how are you supposed to have relationships with people outside your circle if you don’t approach them?
It takes time to develop any type of relationship, especially relationships that may involve writing and editing. It’s not the type of thing we can just swoop down on. Everybody is sensitive about their writing and communication skills. There’s a certain rapport that has to be developed between editor and writer. It’s a relational issue.
A lot of editors will make corrections and edits in green or blue ink, as opposed to red ink, because of the emotional trigger of having a bleeding paper sent back to you. Even today, in electronic editing, you get all those flags all over your document, and that can make one’s blood pressure rise.
It’s very easy to make individuals feel uncomfortable. People make assumptions about education and ability, especially in writing. It can be a loaded issue. That’s why developing relationships would be important to that.
Writing is very personal. A lot of judgment and perceptions are made based on one’s writing. It ranks very highly in terms of sensitivity triggers and cultural assumptions.
Would there be the same problems if the service offered were not writing and editing, but something less fraught, like window repair?
I think a lot of this is individual-driven. Sadly, in the US at this point, there’s skittishness about race. In some cases, there could be a reserve or a hesitancy there. But when it comes to issues of literacy, measures of intelligence, writing definitely ranks up there. Those can be triggers. A lot of people are shamed because of the way they speak or write.
Were you shamed in your career for those things?
Because of my education level, because of the fact that I could write, I never struggled with literacy or writing, so it took a different level. It was clear I was not illiterate, and I was capable as a writer, but sometimes individuals have a need to change things. That’s part of the game.
But you know how you can feel the tone of an edit? I’ve had documented cases where people were assigned to edit or even rewrite things I had written, that were perfectly fine. And we’re talking about people who were subordinates to my position, people who had absolutely no idea of what my job functions were, but they were assigned to alter my work.
And it was just because you are black?
It was one of those things where everybody knew. Everybody knew.
Is this pro bono editing offer intrinsically flawed, or is it there a way to reframe it so that it could be a good thing?
Let me ask you, what segments of the black community are you interacting with? Who are your potential clients?
I think the impetus was that the organizer of the project knew that black people applying for jobs or scholarships tend to get judged more harshly for making the same typos and errors that everyone makes, so this was an attempt to level the playing field. So that was at least part of the intended clientele.
Unfortunately that does exist. That’s part of systemic racism. Black people get judged more harshly for the same errors white people make. That’s part of the way we tend to be perceived. With black people, it becomes who we are. With other groups, it’s a mistake, and there are gentler ways of handling it. But I have been in a situation where the expectation is that there will be no mistakes.
If the organizer had made it more clear that she saw this problem and was trying to level the playing field, would that have been less problematic?
I would have appreciated the fact that she was aware of the disparities she was observing. I would respect the reaction to it if it came across as something new, a new bit of information. To be able to recognize that disparity is out there is very important to creating the next steps. First you have to recognize that things are not the same for everyone. Things are not the same for everyone based on the color of one’s skin.
When a white person does become aware of a disparity like this, then what is the next step?
Is she acquainted with the person doing the writing? Is this someone she’s acquainted with?
I can’t speak for her, but for me, I live in NH, where the population is over 90% white. I’m not going to meet many black people unless I make a conscious effort to do so. I’m assuming this was her attempt to become acquainted with the person doing the writing.
I’m not sure writing is the right tool to become acquainted with someone. The relationship between writer and editor is built. It’s not something formed by a first impression or an initial meeting.
I will admit that, not too long ago, I didn’t really see white privilege. I grew up poor, so I didn’t think I had privilege. But I do see it now. White people like me are often exhorted to acknowledge and use their white privilege. How can we do this in a way that doesn’t end up being offensive?
Where things seem “off” to me is the fact that it’s being stated you have to use your white privilege. Maybe it should lie dormant until there is a real need that arises, or you’re asked to do something that would involve implementing your white privilege.
Can you give me an example of what that would look like?
When you develop an acquaintance, and get to know a person as an individual, then everything evolves from there. What you will find is there are a lot of black people who don’t necessarily need the kind of help that whites perceive they need.
I say that being fully aware of the disparities between us. But at the same time, there is a likelihood that a white person could encounter a black person who really does not need anything from them.
Or it may be the other way around. I really don’t know, not being white, what that would look like. But just to see people as they are, as individuals. Individuals will show you who they are.
I recently became aware of a group for reparations, that offers a platform where black people can make specific requests for things they need, and white people can make offers of things they can give, and they are matched up. And white people are exhorted to make sure they’re offering things that people would actually want. It has about 20,000 members. Any thoughts on this kind of project?
My immediate reaction is the success or failure of a venture is going to depend on the experiences of people from both sides. We’re talking about 20,000 human beings; anything can happen! 20,000 human beings defined by the histories that surround each of them.
This [reparations group] is quite an interesting concept. It sounds like something I’d like to sit back and watch. Whenever people can get together for the common good and no one is hurt by it, it’s a good thing. It speaks of alliances. Alliances are important to me. But whenever human beings get together, anything could happen.
You mentioned people not getting hurt. I now understand better what a misstep it was to present the offer the way it was, but I know that some people who volunteered did feel hurt by the somewhat harsh response.
It’s important not to be thin-skinned. To me it sound like that response could have come from any human being, depending on where their heart was at that time. The fact that it came from someone of another race, given our history and our current circumstances — it’s fraught with conflict.
I think people are going to be people. Just chalk it up to humanity, and all the variations thereof — all the output you can expect from humanity. Sometimes it’s just because they had a headache or a bad day.
But I don’t think it’s a good idea to go into an interaction with expectations. We can’t read people’s hearts and minds. It really causes some pain when you have expectations. We have to examine why we have that expectation.
Is there anything you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?
Being part of the Editors of Color has been very helpful to me over the years. I was still working when I joined, because I needed that other voice. I was working in a very difficult job environment, and yes, it was fraught with racism. Racism will meet a person of color at whatever station of life they find themselves in. It will reach the highest level, as low-level as that behavior is. During the Obama administration, we all witnessed some vile behaviors. It was America being America.
Racism is in effect at every level. So the question is to be able to navigate it all; but not only that, but to navigate it in a way where it doesn’t destroy oneself of the people we love. That’s where it really becomes challenging.