When political commentator Sally Kohn sent Aminatou Sow, host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, a passage from her forthcoming book The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity in which she is quoted, Sow was confused.
The quote harkened back to a night in July 2017, when Sow and Kohn split a car back to Park Slope—the Brooklyn neighborhood where they both reside, and therefore knew each other casually—and started talking about Kohn’s new book. Sow’s quote appears at the end of a chapter on learning to deal with Internet trolls by interacting with them peacefully. It read, originally, as such:
My friend writer Aminatou Sow has cautioned that there’s a compounding unfairness, even oppression, in expecting the most marginalized among us to take the high road. “Why is it black women are always asked to do the work,” Aminatou chides one day as we’re in a cab and I’m telling her about my book. “Once you’re provoked, the rules of engagement change,” she adds, “and I can fucking kill you and I’m justified in doing that”—metaphorically speaking.
The problem is, according to a series of tweets Sow published Thursday morning, she doesn’t remember saying this quote. And given the violence of the quote, the possibility that Kohn used the alleged Sow quote without double-checking it has more dangerous implications than a simple attribution mistake.
“I remember that uber ride and I have some concerns,” Sow sent to Kohn in an email on March 18, the correspondence of which was provided to Jezebel. “The nature of this quote is something you should have run by me to make sure it isn’t misrepresented or taken out of context. Knowing your audience, I am now afraid it will be.”
“First let me say I am 1000% sorry and then some and truly apologize for any hurt, anger and frustration I’ve caused. Period. Full stop. Completely,” Kohn replied via email that same day. “I also apologize for the fact that I’m clearly new at this book writing thing and quoting people thing in general and so when we talked in the cab and I asked if you were okay with me quoting you, I assumed that was the case. I honestly didn’t recheck any of the many many quotes from people in the book and I guess maybe that’s the right protocol...”
“I will say that I think your quote is one of the most profound in the book and provides an important moral anchor throughout the book...” Kohn added. To which Sow then replied that she wanted her name removed from the book, adding: “I’m also generally dismayed that you say you didn’t check many of the other quotes. That is really dicey for so many reasons.”
But the next day Kohn said that it was too late to make changes and doubled down on the fact that checking quotes is simply not standard procedure. “I do want to clarify that if it had remotely dawned on me to ask you again if I could quote you, I would have, but I didn’t do that for anyone I quoted nor has anyone ever done that when quoting me in their book nor is that, to my understanding, standard procedure in general,” she wrote. (At the time of publication Kohn did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.)
“Every Times story you read, every Washington Post story you read, they’re not going back and checking with people who went on record and saying are you okay with your quotes,” Kohn said on the Buzzfeed Twitter show AM2DM, adding that the book was fact-checked by “verifying the notes match up with what people said.” “I still wish thinking about the context and the explosiveness of the quote I wish I had gone back and double-checked it because I care about her.”
While there is no standard protocol in publishing when it comes to fact-checking non-fiction books, the responsibility to get facts straight often falls on the writers themselves. They can either do the work on their own or hire fact-checkers, as publishers often deem fact-checking books too expensive. And as readers have seen with books like A Million Little Pieces, a lot can go wrong in a publishing process that doesn’t fully verify a book’s content. Hypothetically, Kohn could record a private conversation without Sow knowing and then use that material later for journalistic purposes—it’s completely legal given New York’s one-party consent laws, which allows a conversation to be recorded as long as one party to the conversation agrees. (Kohn did not record this particular conversation, but she did say she took notes.)
But there’s something deeply ironic, and perhaps more troubling, about Kohn using Sow’s quote this way in a passage about how people can’t expect marginalized people to do the work for those who further marginalize them. Sow’s alleged quote is literally doing the work for Kohn, especially since it supposedly “provides an important moral anchor throughout the book.” The fact that Kohn describes Sow, a very public-facing, successful black woman, as a friend—despite the fact that Sow tells Jezebel they’ve only been alone once: in that car in July 2017—also came off as “phony” to Sow.
“You see this a lot, a lot of white women who use adjacency to black women and to black feminism specifically to get street cred,” Sow told Jezebel in a phone call. “That’s something I’m really aware of and hearing her talk about herself like she’s the victim in this has been really shocking to me.”
“I do not remember saying it,” Sow told Jezebel regarding the quote. “And honestly I am a fairly transparent person and I would own up to that. The thing I’m mad about is having words ascribed to me that I didn’t say.” To then put a quote like “Once you’re provoked, the rules of engagement change, and I can fucking kill you and I’m justified in doing that” in the chapter with barely any context is especially dangerous given that Kohn, a former left-wing Fox News pundit, has so many online trolls, which could literally open up Sow to online abuse. When WNYC editor Rebecca Carroll announced on Twitter that she was withdrawing her participation in a Kohn book event due to Sow’s comments, she highlighted the danger of the quote. “It’s not merely the breach of attribution, but that a white woman with an enormous public platform and celebrity backing would falsify an aggressively violent quote and attach it to a black woman in current racially and politically divisive climate is, quite frankly, stunning,” she wrote.
After Kohn said nothing could be done to remove her name from the book, Sow then got Kohn’s book editors involved, forwarding the entire chain to Amy Gash, the Executive Editor of Algonquin Books. “The long and short of it is that I did not authorize this quote and it makes me very uncomfortable to have my name attached to it. I would like my name taken out of the book,” Sow wrote. Gash replied that she would look at the material, talk to Sally and the publisher, and get back to her.
A couple days after that correspondence, Kohn reached back out to Sow and confirmed her name would be removed from future print and digital editions, while adding that Sow had agreed to be quoted. The passage now begins “At one point, a friend cautions me.” Sow replied via email, again, that Kohn had never authorized the quote, and pointed out that she had already asked the author for the alleged notes she had taken in the car twice already which Kohn had yet to actually produce.
On March 27, Sow, Gash, the Algonquin publisher Elisabeth Scharlatt, and a representative for Sally Kohn named Emily Lavelle, had a tense 30-minute conference call to discuss how to move forward. In the call, a recording of which was provided to Jezebel, it became clear that the fact-checking process at Algonquin for Kohn’s book was not particularly in-depth. “The fact checking on a Buzzfeed community post is more rigorous than writing a book about a very sensitive topic,” Sow said at one point on the call.
Sow: I really want to reframe this conversation a little bit more...I have never written a book, like if I’m asking questions that are really dumb please forgive me. I don’t understand, the discrepancy here is that Sally is saying she got her quote on the record, I am disputing that. And so I just don’t understand how she can quote anybody in her book, not just me, and not circle back and check with them. Is that standard procedure at Algonquin?
Scharlatt: I don’t know if it’s standard procedure everywhere or anywhere, but the fact is that we depend on our authors to provide backup and I think that from what I understand this might have been a misunderstanding or a mishearing...
Sow: What do you think was a mishearing?
Scharlatt: Since we at Algonquin can’t re-enact the conversation you had with Sally we just want to make things right going forward rather than revisiting how this unfortunate thing happened…
Gash: I guess I need to say that Amina yes this is standard procedure, I’ve been an editor for 30 years and an editor here for 20 years. This is fairly standard procedure. It is pretty common to, we do ask our authors if they have notes if they tell us yes, we move on. If an author went back to check every single quote in every single book, I mean we don’t have the staff to do that and they don’t have the staff to do that.
As for the notes, Gash told Sow on the call that she has seen them. “She does have notes. I don’t know that it is journalistic practice to show everybody notes,” Gash said. “Is it? I have never heard that.”
In a statement to Jezebel, a representative for Algonquin writes that they have nothing more to add to the statement they tweeted yesterday:
“Algonquin Books is aware of the controversy surrounding Sally Kohn’s new book, The Opposite of Hate. Sally has apologized both privately and publicly to Aminatou Sow. We stand behind Sally and her reporting in this book.”
It seemed difficult from the call for Sow to convey to Kohn’s publishers the implications of the allegedly false, aggressive quote in a book that will undoubtedly be read and torn apart by the same right-wing trolls Kohn identifies in her book. And given the fact that black women face significantly more online abuse than white women, Sow’s imperative to remove her name from the book’s copies is a serious means of protection.
“I think there’s a larger conversation to here to be had about race and there is a larger conversation to be had about exploitation. This is making me very upset for many reasons because I really wish I didn’t have to deal with it all,” Sow told the Algonquin staffers on the phone. “It behooves you to understand that I am a target in a different way that Sally will be a target, and that you will be a target in this conversation, and if you don’t understand that I hope you have women of color in your life who can explain that to you because I’m certainly not going to do that work anymore.”
On Thursday night Sally Kohn released an official statement and shared her notes from that night, to which Sow responded on Twitter with “FAKE NEWS.”
Kohn’s handling of the situation, Sow believes, was shockingly sloppy.
“She says my quote is a moral anchor of her book, [but] she never comes back to it again in the book,” Sow told Jezebel. (Kohn references Sow again, in one line, on page 183.) “She says I’m her friend—[I] never got the galley, [she] didn’t try to protect me, [she] didn’t invite me to her insane book party... there was something really phony at work here.”
Update, 4/20/17: On April 13, writer Ijeoma Oluo also commented on the inclusion of her tweets in Kohn’s book in a Facebook post. Oluo is quoted in the book responding to a troll on Twitter with only Martin Luther King Jr. quotes on MLK day. Oluo writes: “To use this one exchange as an example of my work, and an example of my philosophy in dealing with racist hate is wrong and incredibly irresponsible.”
Correction: A previous version of this post implied that Kohn did not reference Sow again in her book aside from the initial attribution. She in fact did reference Sow again, in one line, on page 183.