Thoughts On Jay Lake’s Continued Ass Showing

Late last week as I was getting settled in at WisCon couple of people brought this to my attention:

“I probably won’t ever be at WisCon again, sadly, as it used to be one of my favorite cons, but RaceFail has made it very unwelcoming and unsafe for me.” –Jay Lake

This was a comment on someone’s LiveJournal in response to their post on the panels they’d be doing at WisCon. Why Jay felt the need to express this sentiment at that time in this journal, I couldn’t tell you. But the comment had the predictable effect on me.

I made some snarky tweets at Jay on Twitter (hilariously getting his Twitter name wrong twice) and went on to spend a lovely weekend with fine people and free liquor. But then I read more of the conversation on that blog1 and saw a little of Jay’s post on the subject and then this going on in yeloson’s journal and I just…. smh.

So here’s the thing. I will say that I probably should have written an in-depth teardown of Jay’s crazypants instead of just snarking on Twitter. I just don’t like to give that dude any more time than he’s worth. But if his requirements for criticizing him must include having read the things he’s written, then obviously I’m the person for it. Because I was once Jay Lake’s friend.

I met Jay in 2003, I started following his blog shortly after, we always hung out at conventions whenever possible, we chatted and emailed and became good buds. He was at various times incredibly awesome to me. And at various times I stood up for him to people who had Things To Say just as I’m sure he may have done for me without my knowing.

But then.

Okay, the POC reading this will know what I’m talking about, and probably the allies will, too. Because we have all had that friend who is well meaning and smart, but who says problematic things about race (or gender or religion or whatever) and because they are otherwise awesome you engage with them on a good faith basis and try to get them to understand where they’re mistaken, how their problematic words are hurtful, and how they can possibly do better. When a friend tells you that you’ve got your skirt stuck up in your pantyhoes, you might be embarassed for a bit but you’re grateful a friend was there to tell you, right? Right.

But then the hits just keep on coming, and pretty soon you feel more ragey or just plain annoyed than you feel in kinship with this person. And then one day you have enough.

So this is pretty much what went on with me and Jay. He would say incredibly problematic stuff, I would attempt to untuck his skirt, and he would say thank you and profess to do better. Thing is, he didn’t. It was Lather, Rinse, Repeat every time. Finally I reached the point where I’d had enough.

The nature of the lather, rinse, repeat on issues of race, at least, was that Jay would use the same two nuggets of his existence as a shield against accusations that he was not as enlightened as he purported to be. One was that he’d been raised (partially) in foreign countries where whites where in the minority in the population (though not in terms of power, necessarily), and this gave him a better understanding of priviledge and of otherness than the average American white guy. The other nugget is that he has a Chinese daughter, and therefore he Knows, Man.

Setting aside the sketchiness for a sec, both of these elements can indeed lead someone with privilege to examine it, work against it in their sphere of influence, and come to deeper understandings of the workings of racism in our society in order to be a good ally and maybe change things. Unfortunately for Jay Lake, this doesn’t seem to have quite happened.

I’m going to go on another tangent — it’s related, so bear with me. This weekend at WisCon I was explaining to people at the Dollhouse panel that there are many levels to privilege and understanding and such. Down on the bottom level you have the folks who are just racist or sexist or whatever and haven’t ever examined anything and don’t want to for various reasons.

But then up higher is the level where people agree that racism is bad and wrong, we’re all equal, and everyone should just stop being so mean. Na’amen helpfully labeled this the Kumbaya level, because it’s that kind of surface, touchy-feely non-racism that doesn’t actively engage with people of color or any oppressed people.  Nor does it work to change things for the better because, hey, aren’t things just great now?

While the Kumbaya level is much better than just plain racism, people on this level often really frustrate us because they are resistant to acknowledge that they still have work to do. They don’t wear white hoods so they can’t ever say or do things that have a basis in racism. Not that they are racist, but they aren’t helping, which is bad enough.

This is where Jay Lake is right now. And he’s a walking cliche of Kumbayaness. He uses those two nuggests about himself not as a way to grow, but as a sheild against accusations of problematic behavior or speech. Literally. You can’t have a conversation with him about this stuff without him bringing up “but I have a Chinese daughter” as if that gives him special cred or insight. I can point to the words of many transracial adoptees to show that just because a white person adopts a child not of their race, they do not automatically have some special insight or are any less prone to fail. This situation most certainly can produce this result, but it is not a given. So no, no one is going to give him a pass for that.

Having spent many years reading Jay’s blog and talking to him personally on these issues, I feel I am qualified to say that he is a Kumbaya, not an ally. That his views and words are deeply problematic for many reasons. And that he constantly weilds his privilege like a bat instead of examining it deeply. He may know what privilege is and understand how it works, but that does not mean he isn’t guilty of still being mindlessly mired in it. After all, take the statment that started all of this. How he feels “unsafe” at WisCon because people there might make him uncomfortable. The privilege dripping from that whole mindset is staggering.

I meantioned that I used to be Jay’s friend and that one day I couldn’t take all of this any more. Here’s how we became unfriends: After years of being one of the people untucking his skirt from his pantyhose only to find it stuck there again the very next day or week or whatever, I finally said to Jay that in further discussions of racism, he could no longer use those nuggets I mentioned as sheilds, because that was problematic and unhelpful. If he needed me to explain why that was, I would do so.

His response? Silence. He unfriended me on all social networks where we were connected and hasn’t spoken to me since. I wasn’t too surprised at this. I’d avoided saying these things to him so bluntly before because even though Jay says that he wants his friends to be truthful and honest with him about his own behavior, he didn’t model that mindset, ever (or, at least, in the scope of my hearing/seeing/reading). People who criticized him professionally were “jealous of his success” and so forth. But there comes a time in every POC’s life where they have to lay it all out for that Kumbaya-level white friend. It either means that you and the friend come to a better understanding of stuff, or you lose that friend2. You already know how this story ends.

The bottom line is this: I have read Jay’s words, his fiction, and have enjoyed a friendship with him for a time. So I feel I’m qualified to say that, yes, Jay Lake’s ass is showing, and in a big way, and more often than not when it comes to issues of race. He is not a racist, but he sometimes says racist things and holds some sketchy ideas in his head about race that he then articulates and wonders why people find it a problem. He does not model good ally behavior, he seems unable to truly examine his own privilege as a man and as a white person, and because of this he takes up the “Everyone is mean to me just because I’m white and male!” cross at every opportunity. The people who buy this act? Other Kumbayas.

The only thing Jay isn’t safe from at WisCon or any other SF event is people who don’t agree with him3. Does feeling uncomfortable = unsafe? I’m going to go with: No. But you see, Jay has the privilege of sailing through life without ever having to purposefully encounter those that bring up uncomfortable thoughts around these issues. And if he chances upon them, he runs back to the comfort of those who are so very willing to prop up his privileged notions. If these are the only notions he has of safe and unsafe, he’s a lucky guy. A lot of us have to deal with real unsafeness.

And that’s what pissed me off the most about his bullshit. That he would use the language of safe space/not safe space in the context of a feminist event to justify his unwillingness to not be beloved by all. Yes, I know he said “Oh, I misspoke” and claimed “chemo brain” for the slip. And I would totally be willing to give him a pass on that if not for two things. One: that statement is of a piece with how he’s been since before he had cancer. Two: his comments on yeloson’s blog were long after he claimed to have misspoken.

Someone needs to pull his skirt down. Thank goodness it doesn’t have to be me, anymore.


  1. The comments have now been erased or screened so you won’t see anything at the link. There is a screencap here — thanks gem225! — so his words are preserved forever and ever, amen. []
  2. Though the latter is more often the result in my experience, I can say that since RaceFail I have had more conversations that ended up with a happier ending. []
  3. Just like in life! []

40 thoughts on “Thoughts On Jay Lake’s Continued Ass Showing

  1. Hi,

    Forgive me, I don’t think we’ve ever really interacted before (not that I remember, anyway, which isn’t definitive since sometimes my memory for personal interactions sucks). And I have only been reading your posts for a short while. So I’m not sure if I’m about to bring up something that has already been Discussed To Death and will result in everyone groaning oh dear lord not THAT again, and I apologise in advance if this is the case. But while reading about all this I was very strongly reminded of the privilege discussed in Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Is this on track, is this the problem that Jay Lake keeps tripping over? –And if so, have people given him this essay to read, yet?

    1. You wouldn’t believe the resistance I encounter when I try to use Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack in teaching college classes. I’ve basically given up using it without some accompanying discussion and context prep, simply due to the amount of armor many white undergraduates have to ward off her observations. It’s actually rather depressing.

    2. I totally believe the resistance Victor sees with respect to the essay.

      When I’ve recommended it, the responses I get are usually “That doesn’t apply to me, you don’t know me well enough to recommend something like that to me, or else you’d know it doesn’t apply to me.”

      Whether the person is a stranger, an internet friend, or an actual IRL friend, it doesn’t seem to matter. Whether they think I’m white or know I’m Asian, it also doesn’t seem to matter.

      So I’ve stopped. I figure it will only get read if the lightbulb starts to go on over their heads, and nothing I do will convince them otherwise. Jay seems kind of resistant, so it’s probably still not time for him yet.

      1. Yep.

        This statement was so comforting to read, “But then up higher is the level where people agree that racism is bad and wrong, we’re all equal, and everyone should just stop being so mean. Na’amen helpfully labeled this the Kumbaya level, because it’s that kind of surface, touchy-feely non-racism that doesn’t actively engage with people of color or any oppressed people. Nor does it work to change things for the better because, hey, aren’t things just great now?”

        This is the “new” norm in business, and if you point out there is any kind of systemic sexism or racism, you are either dismissed with “life is unfair to everyone” or are accused of causing the problem by bringing attention to it. *Ahem*.

        There are all too many emperors whose assess are showing. But as long as they claim their ass is only showing because we pointed to it, there’s not much we can do for them. it’s a wise woman who decides they’re not worth it.

  2. It’s perfectly possible for Jay to mean that he simply doesn’t find WisCon to have sufficient attraction to enjoy it anymore. WisCon has grown and evolved, and it certainly doesn’t fit everyone who has attended it anymore; Jim Hudson made that point to me when I talked with him about this issue.

    What makes Jay’s statement somewhat problematic is the conflation of RaceFail with WisCon. If he truly feels unwelcome, despite the efforts of so many people, then there’s little that can be done about it. But such a thing is more about Jay’s preferences than it is about how the “Orc Horde” is somehow ruining his convention.

  3. I’m coming in waaay later than everybody else. But I have a unique perspective on Jay’s original comment.

    See, I’m the head of Safety for WisCon. Well, once again – and next year, too.

    So when somebody says they have a problem, because they don’t feel safe at the convention, it makes me pause. What do they mean, “unwelcoming and unsafe for me”?

    I’m not trying to be dense, or defend privilege. What I am trying to do is analyze the statement to make better sense of it.

    When I went over the Safety log this year, there was very little, if any, trouble or difficulty to report. No potential domestics, no norovirus, no troll. Hotel security did not report any problems, either, nor did the hotel staff. So from the perspective of “safety” as defined by people working as first responders and peace officers, WisCon was quiet. To be sure, I can’t comment on things I didn’t see. I know there are people who won’t talk to each other at the convention, or who have standing arguments, but I didn’t see any of it rise past clipped sentences and snark. Nobody seemed to be out to hurt or threaten anybody – and believe me, I would’ve heard about it if it happened.

    But if it is a statement about worrying about the discourse and debate surrounding one’s actions and behavior, it may be very honest, without accounting for why one might feel “unwelcome and unsafe.” Perhaps it is my background in forensic debate from high school and college (got my NFL ruby right here), but if one makes an argument publicly, one might be expected to defend that argument. It’s reasonable to expect that the arena of debate be a safe one, absolutely. But “safe” in the sense of “allowing for debate on a reasonable basis” and “safe” in the sense of “I am afraid for my personal bodily safety” are two different things. It’s my job to take care of the latter; it is up to everyone to ensure the former.

    So simply saying WisCon is “unwelcoming and unsafe for me” is at best unclear, and at worst, something of a canard or red herring. I can’t do anything about Jay feeling like he would be so unwelcome that he cannot get a fair hearing – though it pains me greatly to hear it. In fact, what it suggests, connotes, is that despite the presence of people such as Mary Robinette Kowal or Debbie Notkin or Kate Schaefer or Jim Hudson or Jed Hartman or any of a long list of people, WisCon as a whole is simply too intolerant, too unwelcoming for someone with a different opinion to attend “safely.”

    Which is ludicrous.

    Since we may reasonably conclude that it isn’t physical safety (if it was, I’d do everything in my power to ensure the issue was addressed) it must be about some kind of inability to get a fair hearing, which I find unfortunate and perhaps risible. So I’m left wondering just exactly what Jay Lake means by “unwelcoming and unsafe for me” since it isn’t clear from context what he’s objecting to.

    Perhaps I am just dense.

    1. It’s a very privileged mindset that can see the possibility of verbal confrontation over a subject disagreed upon as a serious “unsafety” factor, when for so many the feeling of being unsafe is a far more physically tangible thing. I don’t live Mr. Lake’s life so I can’t speck for certain about the meanings behind his concerns, but from reading his comments overall it seem this kind of confrontation was the core of his fears.

      I can say I have supported many friends and family through cancer treatments and other serious illness, and even when they got verbally abusive from the pain, or said problematic things under the treatment drugs or chemo they would not have normally said, they took responsibility for these mistakes when called to their attention. It certainly doesn’t sound as if Mr. Lake is taking such heartfelt responsibility for his words, he is simply remaining behind his own privilege and his shield of supporters.

  4. This discussion is bringing to the surface some embryonic thoughts of mine (thanks, Debbie, for your comment). I belong to a number of smaller and/or embattled communities; black people, queer people, feminists to name a few. And in the activist subsets of those communities there can be a lot of bitter disagreements. But I’d say that in general, people don’t cut each other off when that happens. They can’t afford to. The community’s so small that in order to get the work of fighting for equity done, they (we?) have to find a way to keep working together. Hell, in order to have someone who might let you sleep on their couch for a few days when your landlord kicks you out, you can’t afford to ostracize anyone. You know what else is a small community? SF/F. Not beleaguered in anything like the same dire ways, but I happen to think that SF and fantasy are important literatures when it comes to trying to change the world for better. And I know that very few of us are getting rich off this work, and many of us are sickening as we continue do it in poverty and often obscurity. So what I’d really love to see is that when those of us who are even more marginalized within SF/F community point it out, the response from the larger group is not to threaten to cut us off, not to stop listening to us, not to try to discredit us, but to recognise that we are them. We are you. We are part of the group, and what we say and experience has value, and dissension, even anger, only means you try to find ways to keep working together. That, to me, is part of real community-building.

    1. You’re totally right. And I really like this:

      We are you. We are part of the group

      I think this is why so many of us cling to things like WisCon so hard. because there we do feel that way, or we want to.

  5. The time difference we have makes me miss your tweets, but now I can say: Thank you for this post. Had I seen the original “unsafe” comment I would have been tempted to break something, and for someone–a big-sized white guy–to say that about an _SF con,_ in _Madison, WI_… seriously, I should just stop there. I follow Jay Lake’s posts and wish him the best of health, and yes cancer sucks, but that comment just boggles. Not only is he standing by it, but has gone further by claiming the criticism of that comment just proves his point. I can’t begin to describe the fail there.

  6. Wow, so much to engage with.

    I find myself wanting to defend (almost) everyone. I feel very protective of Jay (whom I barely know) and I want to stand around his bed with my arms folded and my best glare on, keeping intruders at bay.

    At the same time, I want to link arms with you and stand with you against … against the things you stand against so powerfully, and so eloquently. And, of course, you’re right. Whether or not you’re right about Jay, which I can’t judge (though I find you very convincing), you’re still right.

    And I want to take the words “safe space” and drop them down a hole somewhere and cover them with shit and never have anyone dig them up.

    Thank you for being Tempest!

  7. Well said. The thing is, once he opened his mouth in public, it wasn’t about him and his own circumstances anymore. Who he stepped on with those words matter.

  8. It’s unpredictable how the chemo therapies will affect someone.

    In my mother’s case, she who was pretty intolerant of anyone not like her — when she thought of such people that is, which wasn’t often — it made her turn entirely around. “The gays, you know, when you think about it, they aren’t bad. They don’t hurt anybody.” This said in a wondering manner. Even so, I don’t think she ever twigged that the very nice middle-aged fellow, who did her ever-thinning hair so carefully during those days, was a gay man.

    Her treatments were discontinued after an agonizing 8 months as doing her no good. She was dead less than three weeks later.

    Love, C.

  9. The last straw for me? Bemoaning that he would have to “prove his credentials over and over” [paraphrased]. I…just…ugh.

  10. Been there with the friend-who-can’t-see-you business. I remember a comment along the lines of, “No offense, but I think of you as our little brown servant” which, looking back over the years, was, um. Yeah. I live in denial land a lot (for other reasons, mainly, but it flows into this area too).

    I’m not mentally a well-off person. Really not. I could kind of see it leading someone to say racist things if they don’t have the foresight to recheck their words. In a way, a lot of mental illnesses are like being drunk; they remove inhibitions, they usually (except in severe cases) don’t add any… I don’t know, hostility? base thoughts/attitudes? something base anyways… that wasn’t already there.

    And whether someone said such things when they were off or not, and whether such things were hurtful to other people, are separate issues.

  11. Hell, I’ve been that friend who couldn’t see their friend. Said some dumb things about gender and trans identity to a trans friend once, refused to own it, and I lost a friend. And he was right to pull away. The things he’d said kept nagging at me, making me feel all sulky and hard done by in that way that I can sometimes now recognise as my super-ego telling me I’m full of shit about something or other. I relayed the argument to another friend a few weeks later, and he, trying to be supportive, replied, “Oh, who cares what he thinks? He’s in the minority.” And the lightbulb bomb went off in my brain and showed me that I had been an idiot. Too late to rebuild the trust in that relationship, but I often have cause to thank him for caring enough, even on the way out of the friendship, to tell me where I was messing up.

  12. I don’t know Jay Lake, so I definitely have nothing to say about him. (Although I have been following his tweets about his condition and I really, really wish him well.) What I just wanted to comment on was how wonderfully you, Tempest, expressed what I and so many other PoC experience sometimes in friendships across racial lines. Many times they are beautiful and life long, then there are the ones that fall apart once it finally settles into your head that your “friend” doesn’t really see you. That there are lingering “things” that just can’t be fixed. I don’t know about you, but I find it sooooo painful. I still think about those friends who said things that they thought was kind like “at least you don’t have a nigger nose” and I can’t believe that I was good friends with someone who could say something like that. I try to forgive myself and tell myself that I was not a fool. There are many other people in my life who are true wonderful friends that “see” me. And that if I say something wrong they will correct and vise versa. It’s just one of those things in life that we have to go through. Just one of those things. Great post.

  13. You know, I have to say, I have never heard anyone say “hey, Caoimhe shouldn’t be held accountable for her statements on the web because she’s undergoing treatment for serious depression and has gender dysmorphia.”

    A huge number of my friends online have major health struggles, and yet inexplicably, it doesn’t make them say racist things.

  14. I think you’ve put your finger on an incredibly useful distinction here, in terms of how an environment like the one Jay grew up in or his experiences as a parent provide an opportunity for reflection and growth, not proof of it. These things are ready-made starting points, but they often get treated as a reason to stop.

  15. I don’t see any attack against Jay here. I repeatedly see Tempest being fair, honest, and generous. And then I see other people bridling at her honesty and using their anger to blind themselves to the other two qualities.

  16. I heard you saying these things about Jay at the con but didn’t call you on it because I wanted to avoid a confrontation and what you say at the con doesn’t go past there.

    So why am I saying anything now? Tempest, attacking someone in the middle of chemotherapy is pretty low.

    I can understand the desire to explain yourself fully, but I really can’t see how it is helpful for anyone and the timing is sucktastic.

    Maybe you’ve never had a serious illness, I don’t know. What I do know is that it seriously screws with your head and that’s normal levels of illness. Chemo is a whole different ballpark. Everything I’ve read about it talks about the depression that goes hand in hand with taking poison for months. Everyone I know whose gone through it talks about how emotionally fragile they are and how little energy they have for anything

    So, I don’t care about whether or not you have points. All I can see right now is that you’re hitting a man who is down.

    1. First, read the second to last paragraph of this post.

      Second, I’ve had serious illnesses before, including cancer. I well understand. But if he’s well enough to continually argue this point on multiple blogs across multiple days, then he’s well enough to stand up to criticism of his words.

      Basically what you’re saying is that, because he’s sick, no one should have anything to say about what he says, no matter how terrible. Um, no.

      Having been through cancer myself and having been through the cancer of my mother and other close family members, I well know how a chronic, nasty illness can affect you mentally. But plenty of people manage to make it through these times without saying problematic stuff about race. And, like I said, none of this is out of line with anything he said BEFORE he had cancer.

      1. I’m sorry, I should have emailed you privately. I reacted in anger to what I saw as an attack on one friend while discounting the feelings of another.

        Since my words are here, I want to clarify for others what I emailed Tempest. My anger was over the timing and I’m sorry that I implied that your feelings are invalid. They are not.

  17. I wish he could distinguish between “Some people are taking exception to specific things I said” and “Everyone is being mean to me because I’m a tall white man.”

    The two things are not the same.

  18. Ah! Is this what Shetterly was on about when I re-tweeted your tweet? I kept telling him that I didn’t know, he kept responding as though I did. After two baffling exchanges, I stopped trying. I’ve been keeping track of Jay’s battle with cancer and making the occasional supportive comment. I expect that you wish him good health as strongly as I do. I’ll say this for him; unlike a couple of other prominent white people in this community who have made repeated racefails, he didn’t suddenly and inexplicably start trying to cultivate me with friendly overtures. I’m tired of people trying to use me as a shield against my own community.

    1. I’m tired of people trying to use me as a shield against my own community.

      TRUE FAX.

      And I have not observed Jay trying to collect special black friends or anything like that. I certainly never felt that way, I always felt we were genuine friends. And yes, I do wish him healthy.

    2. Also, you know Will Shetterly thinks all black people are part of the conspiracy to kick puppies. You’re implicated!

  19. I laugh every time I see the derail of “But you have to do XYZ before you can speak” when XYZ isn’t related to the topic at hand.

    Under that logic, has he read all the works of all the POC & ally authors at WisCon before he made his comment?

    More importantly is the issue of perpetuating the “POC ARE DANGEROUS” dogwhistle. By writers. At GEEK conventions.

    In an era where we can still see daily, in the news, people being tased, beaten or shot (now deported!) for the color of their skin, perpetuating that lie is the opposite of what an ally should be doing.

  20. I’m sorry it came to that. I like Jay for a lot of the reasons you do, but seeing him ram his head repeatedly into a wall of his own making is saddening and annoying at the same time.

    I’m also amused that you get painted (by folks I won’t name) as the bad meanie for this, when it was Jay who stopped talking to you.

    I get worried that a large number of my friends are a lot like Jay. I have no idea how to deal with it.

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