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Tilda Swinton, race, and how white people can do better
Enuja, Inkscape
A Jezebel article recently came out that included the full text of an email exchange between Tilda Swinton and Margaret Cho. Margaret Cho had referenced this email conversation on live television, in a way that Tilda Swinton, and her press people, thought was unfair. The Jezebel article seems to be rooting for Swinton in what they seem to see as a she said /she said case; right before the text of the emails, the article says "readers can decide for themselves if Cho’s characterization was fair."

Also, I originally had the URL for this article as, but when I searched on Jezebel's site for the article, I got this URL, which strongly suggests a title change, which I cannot find mentioned.

Although I'm uncomfortable about the article's attitude, and about the fact that Swinton shared an explicitly private email exchange, I don't wanna get lost in the weeds of who is more justified for their emotional reactions. Emotions happen. What we do with them matters.

There are three really important lessons for Tilda Swinton, and other fellow white people, from this exchange.

1) Talk to your friends of the relevant group, not to strangers famous for talking about race. If you don’t have friends of the relevant group, that’s a problem.* Two workarounds are to read things about it, and to talk to “woke” white folks who might be able to answer your questions. When using white folks as resources, make sure you are both reading things written by POC. Don’t value the answers of white folks over the answers of POC, no matter how “woke” the white person is-use their labor, not their ideas. (White Nonsense Roundup is a good source of “woke” white folks volunteering their intellectual labor.)

2) Just because someone is being polite to you, does not mean that they are actually comfortable. Figure out ways to use your racial privilege to help others, and work around the blindness your privilege gives you to the likely emotional responses of other people. When you discover that you were wrong about a conversational partner's reaction to you, apologize, instead of becoming defensive.

3) If you just want to vent (“but it’s not FAIR! This was a terribly stereotypical original character, we switched up the gender, which needed to be done, and we added an amazing Asian character!”), vent to a white friend, or your therapist. Don’t make your POC friends do your emotional labor about race. And definitely don’t vent to a stranger already doing your intellectual labor.

*Please, please don’t simply go out to try to make friends of the appropriate group. Instead, make sure you live and work and socialize in diverse contexts, and when you happen to come across POC who share values and interests and feel a friendship spark, then try to make friends. Because of the mathematical realities of majorities and minorities, minorities are very likely to have more majority friends than majorities are to have minority friends. And this imbalance can create a lot of labor, of many kinds, for the minorities. As with all friendships, don't be a burden. Be a friend.

If you do not live in diverse contexts, and that is not going to change, you are not going to have diverse friends. It’s a problem. You may not be able to fix it. But it means you don’t have diverse friends to explain things to you. An analogy: you are really interested in nuclear power, as a lay person, you read some books about it, and you think they got something really wrong. You don’t have any researchers into nuclear power as friends, so you email a famous scientist. However, instead of Margaret Cho emailing you back, the famous scientist is extremely unlikely to answer your email, because scientists (particularly in technological and military-adjacent fields) have not been socialized to provide free intellectual labor. So you have to make do with things you read, and conversations with fellow lay folks. And, yes, if you're a science fiction author, and you get something really wrong about nuclear power, and a famous scientist calls you out in public about it, they still might not answer your email, or, if they do, they might feel very put upon. No, they don't know jack shit about your fictional universe, and don't care about your excuses for the scientific error, even if they are still polite in email, and are doing intellectual labor they think will help society as a whole (because hopefully you won't write any more of that crap, if they answer you). It's still annoying.
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