This is the second of two companion interviews. Please be sure to read the first 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.
Is this the first time you’ve gotten involved in a project involving racial justice?
In terms of practical action, I’ve been reading, researching, donating, signing petitions, that sort of thing. This is the first time I’ve tried to do something with my time and skills.
What prompted this project?
I was an idea I had a long time ago. It came from reading about white supremacy and anti-racism and trying to think what I could do in my own sphere of influence. So I did at that time raise it in my workplace, and we changed some aspects of our internship to make it more welcoming to black and minority people. But out of that same line of thinking, I had this thought that I could provide my own proofreading skills on a pro bono basis. I didn’t do anything with it at the time. I wasn’t sure if it would work. And I have a baby now, so I don’t really have time to do a lot of volunteer work.
With everything that’s been happening in the last few weeks, it got me thinking what more I can do, and this old idea came back to me. I don’t have much time to volunteer myself, but I can coordinate a large group of volunteers. I felt certain there must be other people feeling the same way.
How many people did sign up to volunteer?
Last I checked it was 195 people. So I was definitely not alone in wanting to do something. But as you saw in the discussions, it became clear there were some nuances I wasn’t appreciating as a white person.
How long did it take to organize and put together the graphics?
It took a few days. I spent a couple of evenings setting everything up. To be honest, that was probably one of my mistakes, rushing into it. I was so conscious there were so many people who were really waking up to these injustices. There was this real energy of wanting to do something, I felt like if i didn’t get this going as soon as possible, people would lose interest. So that did drive me to rush too much in setting out, before getting enough feedback. But I was glad I got that feedback very early in the project.
About the people signing up, were they all white?
I didn’t ask, so I don’t know. Looking at that Facebook discussion, you can see most people’s faces, and it did seem like a lot of the enthusiastic comments were from white people, but I don’t have any data.
What did you think when you saw the first negative responses to the launch?
To be honest, it wasn’t entirely a surprise. When deciding whether to go ahead, I was aware it could potentially come across as white saviorism. I did talk to friends who are people of color, and so it was something I had already thought could come up as an issue. But I think I thought I could mitigate that if I present it in the right way. But what became clear to me is that it’s not something you can mitigate, because of the fundamental power dynamic.
Did you see their point when they made objections?
I initially started trying to put my counter point of view across, and counter those arguments, but it became clear to me there was strong feeling, and I needed to back off. I was very disappointed, obviously, and I had the best of intentions. I had been very hopeful it could be a really great project and could really help people.
I felt I had to listen to those people. It would be ridiculous to ignore the offense I was causing to the same people I was trying to help.
I have seen other reparations groups where white people do make offers of help and money and services, and black people make requests, and they are matched up. It even includes some editing services. Do you have thoughts on what the difference is between what they’re doing and your project?
I’m part of a Facebook mutual aid group, and people do exactly what you describe, and I’ve participated in individual financial transactions. It’s hard to see the difference. I put it down to the fact that I’m a white person and by definition blind to the nuances of these race dynamics, because I haven’t spent my lifetime having to be aware of those things. So I could find it difficult to define the difference, but if someone who is black defines it for me, I have to listen to that. If they are telling me I’ve crossed a line, I have to stop, whether I see the line or not.
One of the things that was raised was the difference between doing something out of a desire to help, as opposed to someone asking for help. That plays into it. Maybe my project could have done some good, but if that’s not what’s being asked for, maybe that energy could be spent in a different way.
Also, because it’s editing related, it plays into the implications of levels of education, and that makes it more sensitive. Again, it’s not my place to define where that line is.
Have you been exhorted to use your white privilege, and was this an example of trying to do that?
What I hear more is slightly different: The idea that [we’re] not necessarily using white privilege for good, but using your white privilege to mitigate the fact that other people don’t have that privilege. So, trying to level the playing field.
But there is also the concept of reparations. I wasn’t thinking this would be something that’s means tested, or just for people who couldn’t afford it, but this is like a freebie, a donation — is “compensation” the right word? — for the imbalance that I’m complicit in.
One thing the black editor mentioned is that sometimes white people go into these situations with certain expectations, and they need to examine what they are and why they have them.
I was genuinely hoping to do some good in the world, and to provide a service that would benefit people. For example, we could proofread university or job applications. I was thinking along the lines of: If you don’t have white privilege, you have to do everything twice as perfectly to get half as far. I was thinking along the lines of removing any excuse that a white employer could have for not interviewing a black candidate; that kind of thing.
I’m sure there was an expectation I would feel good. That’s a part of any form of volunteerism or philanthropy. That’s part of it.
To be honest, part of it was I am currently home with a baby all day, and it was nice to have some project to do where I could use my skills and brain a little bit. And that was probably a factor of why I got caught up with this idea.
Do you feel discouraged by this incident? Or how would you characterize what you are taking away from it?
I feel humbled by what happened. I have been thinking and reading about racism and white supremacy for quite a long time, and I thought of myself as someone who understood those principles and knew what to do. This was a wake up call that I don’t know as much as I thought I did. I’m still vulnerable to making those kind of classic mistakes, and I have more learning to do. It was definitely humbling.
Is it discouraging? I’m discouraged that it didn’t work out how I wanted it to. It’s such a minefield, and as I white person who doesn’t have the same ultrasensitivities, it’s discouraging that it’s so difficult to find what’s right to do. But I don’t think that’s a reason to give up and do nothing; that’s a reason to learn more read more, get to a place where you can become better at judging these things. That’s what I’m trying to do at the moment.
Do you have any plans to try to salvage this project?
I’m letting it sit for now. I’m thinking about it. I’ve had a few suggestions from the volunteers. I’m hoping to bring it back with a broader focus, one that doesn’t focus on race specifically, but I’m not sure what that could be. I’ve had suggestions of working with schools in underprivileged areas, or with adults with learning disabilities, or refugees. There are lots of different ways editorial skills can be helpful to people; it’s just about finding what could actually work. I’m resolved to take my time. That was one of my biggest mistakes.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?
I did have the best intentions. It didn’t work out, but it was a good learning experience, and I’m grateful people took the time to explain it to me in a way that was mostly kind and patient, because I imagine they must have spent a lot of time explaining things like that to white people. I definitely benefitted from it, and I know other people did as well. Hopefully, good will come of it.
What caught my eye about this situation was that everyone was unusually civil, which helped me to learn from it. I’ve seen similar conflicts where everyone gets angry and insulting, and it tends to drive people to more extreme points of view. In this case was struck by how patient and gracious the black editors were, and how humbly you responded.
I think what enabled me to respond in the way I did was my knowledge of white fragility. I’m as susceptible to that as everyone else. If any of my readers are planning to get involved or having discussions [about racial injustice], I recommend they take time to understand that concept. It’s so easy to become defensive and shut down the conversation or take it to an unhelpful place. If you know about these tendencies, you can prevent yourself from doing that.