Monday, July 24, 2023

When Words Collide, Calgary Delta South, August 4-6, 2023

I'm looking forward to attending When Words Collide in Calgary August 4-6. I'm currently slotted on the following events:

Friday 1 PM - Practice Pitch: People hoping to pitch to acquisiton editors/agents later in the conference get to practice and get feedback from me first.

Friday 3 PM Working with an Editor panel

Friday 4 PM -Writer/Editor Speed Mingle: like speed dating, editors/writers meet each other for 5 minutes each
Atrium commons

Saturday 2 PM - Why Are Zombies Essential to a Writer’s Group? panel session

Saturday 4 PM - What are SFF Editors Looking For? panel

Sunday 10 AM - Blue Pencil Cafe: quick feedback on opening pages -requires sign up

Sunday 4 PM B- - Multiculturalism in 2023

I will also be hanging out the rest of the con to meet people etc.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Developmental Editing to Address (Inadvertent) Racism

The photo instantly recognizable as Jerry Potts by any Canadian school kid—the one Indigenous character featured in every Canadian social studies textbook at every grade level

Going through some of my old writing, I came across my November 30, 2018 post from an editing forum and thought I would repost it here with an update to how things ended(?) in Alberta. (Note that "First Nations" was still the favoured term in the era of the Decore Report, but has now shifted to the more inclusive "Indigenous".)

I was one of the graduate research assistants on the Decore Report (, way back at the beginning of my career (1980). The Decore Report looked at native content in the social studies curriculum...and that was eye-opening, let me tell you.

The three most serious problems were not the blatant racism—there was some, but most of the Alberta materials were already past that stage and it was easy enough to identify it and get it off the shelves where it still showed up—but the more subtle stuff which is, I fear, still problematic all these years later:

  1. The Dancing Minorities Trick: I can't remember if that was my phrase or coined by one of the team members, but the problem is that the portrayal of any minority is a photo of them in costumes from 1850 or before, dancing. So not just First Nations Hoop Dancing, but Ukrainians portrayed as Chunka dancers and etc. Because when you're writing about First Nations or Ukrainians or whomever, you need a picture, so the publisher goes to a stock photo company and asks for a photo and the stock photo company sends you a picture of natives in native costume rather than some guy in a suit. Because that's the most imaginative a publisher can get in terms of photos, and dancing is what the author writes about when describing other's culture because talking about First Nation notions of time takes you down a rabbit hole of racism and talking about First Nation spirituality will offend the fundamentalists etc etc, so dancing in their costumes from 1700 is colorful and interesting and superficial as hell. So every kid grows up thinking First Nations means guys who are old fashion, dancing, and irrelevant.
  2. This book isn't about that: This one has pretty much corrected in Alberta since 1985 as a result of the government responding to the Decore report, but worth checking elsewhere. The idea that First Nations are historical, not current. So the chapter on First Nations came after dinosaurs and before settlers. And we would ask, where is the native content after 1901 and the answer was always, "What?" I remember one pair of authors who had done the textbook for WWI and WWII and their reaction when I asked them for the Native Content. "But that doesn't apply to us! Our book is about the World Wars." They were completely incredulous that I thought there should be native content included. But my (by then) boss in the government told them, no native content, no sale. So they went away and came back a year later with a new draft and a chagrined expression saying, "well know that you mention it, did you know there was this First Nations regiment...." No I hadn't, and no kid in Alberta would have known that either, if we hadn't forced you to go do the research. So that kind of worked...except for:
  3. Repetition is boring: So in the Decore report, our complaint wasn't just that every time a text talked about native content, there was picture of a tipi, it was that it was the same damn photo—because all the publishers were going to the same stock photo company and buying the same one stock photo. There were fewer than maybe 20 photos total, maybe five individuals, recycled endlessly. Every mention of native people would have the same sidebar insert with a photo of Jerry Potts and the spiel about what a great guide he was. Leaving aside for the moment the dubious matter of promoting a collaborator as the most notable native of his time, the question is, how many times can you read about Jerry Potts without wanting to shoot yourself? And it was all like that. The first round of insisting that native content was included in textbooks was the exact same content every time at every grade level, over and over again, until what every Alberta kid really learnt was that native content is boring. Because they're read/heard it over and over again and till sick of it; and because if every time you encounter First Nations content, it's the same content it's not unreasonable that many kids conclude that's all there is to native culture. If you only ever hear 20 things over and over you think you know it all now, and that there's not much to it. Boring, limited, and irrelevant.

Well, duh! But writers and publishers are lazy, so when told to put in native content, they all think, "well, I've heard of this Jerry Potts guy (I live two blocks from Jerry Potts Road) so here's a half page about Jerry Potts, done."

I worry that this phenomenon is still at play in Alberta today [edit: 2018]. Although the provincial government has gone to great lengths to not just increase the amount of First Nations content, but the variety (working it into practically every subject at every grade level—actual policy to do that) the cumulative effect might be that what they are actually teaching a lot of Albertans is that First Nation culture is boring. Of course, that's fed by an ocean of racism ("why do we have to focus on First Nations all the time? Why not my Lithuanian background" or whatever—just like the males in my class keep telling me we're devoting too much class time to gender issues :-) but it is perhaps remotely possible that we have over-corrected the previous absence with a disproportionate concentration without sufficient depth to provide the necessary context, concentration and integration to allow it to be actually interesting. Presenting three facts in social, one story in English, and two math questions is not the same as actually teaching about First Nations.

Anyway, none of that really makes sense until you see it done correctly. And in the early 1980s, Alberta came out with the Kanata Kits which were and remain the greatest social studies resources ever made. You see them, and you suddenly realize how bloody racist everything that isn't them really is. To take just one quick example: the grade 3 curriculum was about 'family' so the Kanata Kits showed a dozen different families...and showed them by showing actual families who were neighbours or etc to the authors. So we get the Chinese family and the First Nations family and the Italian family and the Jewish family and the Jones or whatever, but then the stories of the families would follow a questionnaire that would say, "what is your special holiday" or "what is your favourite special meal" etc, and the families surveyed answered with their actual answers, not the racial stereotypes portrayed in every other textbook. So the First Nations family said when they wanted a special meal, they went out for Chinese food. The Chinese family ordered pizza. (Or whatever—I forget which family took what, but you get the idea.) The First Nations dad worked in IT. Nobody danced. Nobody portrayed the superficial stuff we usually focus on when we talk about this or that culture. What came across was the great melting pot of a common Canadian multicultural identity, every family is the same even though completely different. Real culture portrayed so Grade 3 kids could understand it. But of course, the curriculum changed and those kits have been long gone...

UpdateThe above commentary was written in 2018, just before the new Social Studies curriculum was due to be implemented. The 2018 iteration was based on the advances in inclusiveness initiated by two successive Progressive Conservative governments—that must get a great deal of the credit for forward-looking thinking backed by significant funding to make a more inclusive and thoughtful curriculum—and designed by committees of classroom teachers, subject area experts, and community representatives. The NDP government that inherited the process made a few tweaks, and then...lost the election to the UCP—Who immediately denounced that carefully and transparently developed curriculum as hateful communist propaganda, and threw it (and millions in development costs) out the window. Instead of teachers and subject experts they hired a handful of UCP hacks/Residential School denier's to plagiarize an American private Christian-school social studies curriculum and eliminate almost all of the Indigenous content, restricting it in the ways identified above on what not to do, and white-washed all of grades k-6. The UCP curriculum became an immediate embarrassment. The other Canadian jurisdictions (Yukon, NWT that had used Alberta curriculum dropped it as too awful, whatever the cost to replace it. Besides the racist element's reintrodution, the elimination of any sign of inclusiveness, the curriculum is just appalling bad in every detail—irrelevant factoids that students have to memorize, never going higher than rote memorization on Bloom's Taxonomy. Only a single American, right-wing professor could be found to say he thought that UCP social studies curriculum was okay—every other curriculum expert in Canada and abroad denounced it as going against the previous 60 years of education research.


Notwithstanding the abrupt reversal of public education in Alberta through the removal of relevance, critical thinking, and inclusion—i.e., anything one might consider 'education' as opposed to 'schooling' focused only on compliance—I believe my three points stand for any writer or editor who wishes to make their books less racist. It's not enough to avoid blatant racist stereotypes and language, one has to consider the cumulative effects of what is being put forward and whether it plays into a larger context of inadvertent racism: is the focus on some irrelevant aspects of the group identified and/or is the focus insufficient to provide meaningful context? Is the content of this book unintentionally repeating the exact same stereotypes/content of what has gone before, thus reinforcing stereotypes and irrelevance? Is the content repetition rendering the work boring.

As writers, "boring" and "repetitious" should be enough to kill any hesitation in ripping out our subtle racism. As editors, it's our duty to point out the subtle dynamics of racism to even the best intended authors. Like my WWII example, some authors will pushback saying inclusion as not relevant to their topic. (We heard that argument again from math and science teachers, for example, who presumed all Indigenous knowledge was unscientific and unrelated to math—which is, you know, pretty racist!) But making authors do the work to make the book better is our job. In my experience, once they've done the necessary research rewriting, they are grateful to see their book so improved.

While on the topic of racism, I should note another issue that comes up (came up in Alberta under the Lougheed government when Lougheed poured millions of dollars from the Heritage Trust Fund into creating Alberta-based textbooks) which is 'authentic historical accounts". Alberta Education in the 1970s wanted to switch from Ontario-centric history texts to Alberta relevant materials, including primary recourses like diraries, memoir and so on. Unfortunately, as historians turned up with this or that archival material, it turned out to be really, really racist. The problem is, if you cut the racist bits out, then it looks like Albertans in 1906 weren't racist, which is obviously white washing history. But leaving the racism intact risks perpetuating racism by suggesting that yes, Indengous in 1890 were dirty, untrustworty criminals, or whatever. So some folks said, "We can't use this" while other folks argued, "We can't bury it either!"

The solution (obvious,once one hears it) is to print the unabridged authentic work, but then provide an preface that says, "Hey, as you're reading this, watch out for the blantant racism. See if you can identify ten of the 57 examples of where the diarist makes racist assumptions. Which of his racist comments is the most damaging. Why was it in the interests of this settler to believe those things." And so on. You get the idea, though of course the prefaces were actually a lot better written and more genuinely thought-provoking. And then the book also had an afterword where the same author of the preface answers the questions raised in the preface. "What did you think of his saying Indigenous were untrustworthy on page 43?" etc.

Facing our historical racism, helping kids identify racism when they hear and see it, making them think about why these particular stereotypes and not some other...those are all important parts of social studies.

That's the solution Peter Lougheed's cabinet came to in the late 1970s&emdash;I'm pretty sure Lougheed would be spinning in his grave if he were able to see what the UCP have done to his attempt to move the province out of the 1950s....