How to make sense of her ostracism

Sonia Sodha on the triumph of the karenphobes:

Last week, it was announced that [Kate Clanchy] and her publisher, Pan Macmillan, had parted company “by mutual consent” and that it will “revert the rights” and cease distribution of all her work.

The book that prompted this is Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, her memoir of a 30-year teaching career. Rave reviews and an Orwell prize gave way to mixed reactions from readers: some adored it, others thought she used racial and ableist stereotypes to describe her diverse students. Among the readers of colour I know, reactions were just as mixed: some found her descriptors offensive, others thought they were OK, especially in the context of her honesty about her own naivety and prejudices.

She and Pan Macmillan apologized, she intended to rewrite the book, but it wasn’t enough.

Clanchy appears to have been cast beyond the pale, where there is no room for nuance. But it is evident from the testimony of those who know her that she has done a huge amount of good, championing young people whom society too often ignores. Her students have gone on to address the UN, been commissioned to write poetry for the BBC and had their poetry set to music by acclaimed composers.

All very well but she’s a Karen.

How to make sense of her ostracism? Some people are desperate to see the world cast in black and white. Clanchy’s worst crime is not to fit this mould. Of course she doesn’t: none of us can rise above the imperfectly human. Look at her in the round and it’s obvious she’s done more good than most. This is why the strand of anti-racist thinking that is obsessed with the blame and shame all white people should bear for structural discrimination is so corrosive to common cause and understanding. White people who do nothing to challenge racism are terrible, but white people who trip up when trying to do something about it are even worse. The societal misogyny that infects this movement means it sees older white women as the very worst of all. Any expression of distress is the weaponisation of “white women’s tears”. The witch is not permitted to have feelings; they distract from her role as lightning rod for anger at all of society’s ills.

She’s permitted to have them, in fact it’s good that she has them, so that we can gloat, but she’s not permitted to object to having them. She just has to take it.

Pan Macmillan’s overreaction has caused huge collateral damage – it will no longer publish a new anthology of poems by Clanchy’s students – and is no substitute for working at becoming more diverse. “Sensitivity readers”, people who comb manuscripts looking for the potentially offensive, are a crass development: it outsources responsibility and plays on the idea that if a book has the potential to offend, it shouldn’t be published.

Especially in a world where “the potential to offend” can be something as commonplace as saying that a man is not a woman.

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