17 August 2009

Trained to take it personally

You know what RACEFAIL is, right?

(If you don't, I suggest these two posts from Whatever to get a grip on the issues)

There's three main reasons I'm bringing it up:


  1. It's still going on. I don't mean (just) the LJ commentary - I mean both the raised consciousness (and willingness to speak out) from it and the pain of it (on all sides). Neither of these is going away anytime soon.

  2. If you check out this comment thread on The Mammoth Book of Mind-Blowing SF, you'll not only see that race is an issue, but we're moving quickly into GENDERFAIL as well. Quick summary of this particular episode: If you imply that your anthology is all of the best in a field, it's pretty damn unlikely all of it will be produced by white males, especially when there are quite a few prominent women and women of color who write in the field. It's not enough to not be racist or not be sexist; one needs to be anti-racist and anti-sexist as well.

  3. We, as minority groups and allies, need to understand that the last sentence of #2 is not yet common knowledge for those of privilege. The difference between Archie Bunker and Paul Di Filippo (in the comment thread linked to above) is huge.



Yes, Paul made a lot of fallacious arguments. And yes, they're old arguments you can easily read about (see Racism 101 or Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, or even this LJ post that summarizes the failed arguments of RACEFAIL). But we have to remember that not everyone has got this yet. Hell, it's not even fair to assume that everyone's even heard all of these arguments, let alone their disproof.

Is that frustrating? Yes. Annoying? Yes. Even more annoying when it's the same arguments (though different people) over and over and over and over again? Fuck yes.

But it's necessary to remember that just because it's the same old canard, it's different people at different places in a journey towards being anti-sexist and anti-racist.

It is easy to forget that those with privilege have been trained to ignore structural, systemic racism and sexism. (Or all the other isms, for that matter.) All that we're used to seeing are Bunkerisms. We are trained to take it personally.

This is not an excuse. Those of us with privilege (including allies) must be taken to task when we screw up. All I'm saying is that we have to consider our audience when we do it.

Take, for example, Jim Hines taking Realms of Fantasy to task for its covers. He points out the problem, and while not softening it a whit, also acknowledges the differences between systemic and personal sexism.

I talked to several sf/f authors and aspiring authors about RACEFAIL and the issues around it, especially after sharing one of my stories that has a transgendered person as the protagonist. One put their problem simply (I'm paraphrasing here):

I had it pointed out to me that all my characters are white. I was surprised to realize that; I definitely didn't mean to. But that was also the same time RACEFAIL was going on, and an author got ripped to shreds for (badly) writing a nonwhite character. Now I'm nervous about trying to write non-white characters. What if someone thinks I didn't do a good enough job? I'm hated if I do, and hated if I don't.

It's a valid point, and one that can be easily forgotten.

I agree that authors need to be considerate and understanding when they write the Other (see Jim Hines' post about his ongoing process with this for an example of how it should be done). At the same time, if we want existing authors to not just write about white (or male) characters, we must understand that sometimes they'll screw up.

Maybe it's because I'm an ally instead of being a member of a marginalized group. I remember - and you can probably find evidence on this blog - when my understanding of priviliege was far less than it is now.

I may never have been Archie Bunker, but I know I've been where Paul Di Filippo was when he was writing in this comment thread.

I am not there now, but it's been a longish journey. I was - and am - lucky enough to grow and learn as an ally in a supportive environment, where the people are patient with my screwups and take the time to teach me. I've had good friends to whom I could say: "If I'm saying something offensive, then assume I'm clueless. And then tell me what I'm doing, so I can stop." They have, and I'm deeply indebted to them for that. I also highly recommend Privilege, Power, and Difference; it helped me to grok my privilege more than any other single text.

It's true that, as this open letter points out, Paul Di Filippo may have lost some readers. And that's his problem.

As an ally, I worry that rather than spur Paul (and others) to understand where we're coming from, we've turned him away instead.

[Edit: Mary Robinette Kowal also does great work skewering stereotypes without being meanspirited. This one in particular about the lack of GBLT characters (especially realistic ones) in fantasy is quite good. Which goes to show you that I went and only pointed out male authors. Everybody's got room to screw up. ::sigh::

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