Ever since Worldcon, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to questions of race, not just in general terms, but with regard to the SF/F community and my place within it, as both a fan and a writer. I am white: depending on how expansive a mood I’m in and the context of the conversation, I have also been known to describe myself, cheerfully and with humorous intent, as a mongrel, being as how my immediate ancestry (parents, grandparents and great-grandparents) contains a mix of British, Scottish, Irish, German, Nordic and Mediterranean heritage. By birth, I am Australian, but I’d never consider that to be a race, because – well, it’s not, and I detest those movements which seek to define Australian nationalism and identity on the basis of a “shared” anglocentric background.

I grew up reading tales of history, myths and magic from around the world, which in turn fuelled my passion for fantasy – but though the mythology I read came from Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, South America and Africa as frequently as from Europe, the Mediterranean, Britain or the Nordic countries, that difference in culture never quite translated to a difference in the range of fantasy on offer. Or at least, in nowhere near the same quantities. For every epic fantasy featuring POC characters and a non-medieval setting, there were twenty that didn’t. But because I was white; because we are all, more or less, egocentric creatures, and especially so when we’re young; because it never occurred to me that this was, in fact, a problem, I didn’t notice. I had blonde hair, pale skin and green eyes – why was it weird that the main characters in the books I read all shared a similar colouring? I won’t try and plead ignorance on the grounds that I lived in an entirely white neighbourhood or went to an entirely white school, because neither of those things are even remotely true. That’s not to say that I lived in a vibrant cacophony of cultural diversity, either. It just means that most of the people I knew were white, my family and their extended circle of friends were white, and I didn’t make any attempt to view these facts in the context of a wider culture, or literature, or anything.

I still had thoughts about race, of course. I was – am – opposed to racism, and whenever any sort of racial/cultural argument broke out among my friends, family or classmates, I was firmly situated on the side of diversity. But that’s as far as it went. Beyond asserting that racism was bad, acknowledging that a terrible history of white domination had caused this to be so and arguing that further instances of same should not be allowed to happen, I did nothing, because nothing in my daily life suggested it was necessary. I had never personally seen anyone being discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnicity, and unless you count the offhand tactlessness of teenagers mimicking the views of talkback radio or apeing Family Guy jokes for comic effect, I had never been exposed to actual racist views in my social circle. What was there left for me to do? Everyone knew racism was a Bad Thing; the idea that it might still be going on was therefore incompatible with reality.  Sexism, though – that, I could get really mad about, because despite the advent of feminism, I still knew what it felt like to be picked on by boys who didn’t like that I could beat them at cricket. Comparing these two views and noting the discrepancies therein didn’t even register as a concept.

Here is a truth of human existence: we do not see the bias in our favour unless we look for it, and we certainly don’t question our own privilege unless told to do so, because most of the time, we don’t even notice it’s there. The danger of being white and brought up to disdain racism is that you start to believe that not being a racist is simply achieved by asserting your lack of racism. You do not inquire further into the matter: why would you, when the bulk of that narrative makes you the historical villain simply by virtue of your skin colour? Isn’t that what racism is meant to avoid? Shouldn’t racial equality apply equally to you, too? Isn’t it enough that you can walk down the street, being white and not feeling superior about it?

No.

No.

No.

I am not a perfect human being. I can acknowledge now – as I used not to be able to – that I sometimes have racist thoughts. They are lightning flashes, there and gone: the fear-whispers of the radio man, stored in memory like song lyrics and brought forth by triggers in the surrounding world. They are subconscious assumptions that I have to force myself to notice. They are subtle, and varied, and every time I catch myself in the act, I wince and think, Where did that come from? Why is it there, and how can I stamp it out? It makes me feel like a terrible person, but by acknowledging them, I force myself to realise that not being racist is more than just thinking, I am not racist, therefore I cannot possibly have racist thoughts, which is the most dangerous default of all.

A personal tipping point was  M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the racefail controversy which surrounded it. Not having seen the animated series, and being one of the minority who tends to like Shyamalan’s work, I reviewed the film in a fashion which was, overall, positive. But in doing so, I had to think about race more closely than I ever had before. What it boiled down to was this: I enjoyed watching the film, and did not like the idea that the reason I’d done so was an innate lack of racial sensitivity. Undeniably, the racefail issue was there, and a fascinating one to discuss – I’d known about it long before heading into the cinema. So what did it say about me, that I could still like something I knew was an act of whitewashing? I wrestled with that question for months after I wrote my review. I tried to find a way to reconcile my enjoyment with the film’s failings in a way that didn’t make me feel like a despicable person, and couldn’t. At the same time, I started watching the animated series, which – apart from being a million times better – showed me how the characters were meant to look. And that’s when it hit me: the real reason I hadn’t been outraged by the film was the expectation – the assumption – that characters in stories would look like me. Without having seen the series, I had no expectations for the actors, and was therefore content to fall back on a default social setting. But ever since I finished watching the series, I look at stills from the film and think, wrong.

Since then, I’ve come to realise – or to remember, rather – that it’s perfectly possible to like some aspects of a story, but not all, and to argue vehemently against what distresses us for the sake of making the good things even better by the future absence of suck. Just yesterday, I finished reading The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, and though I love his easy writing style and the imaginative storytelling, every piece of era-centric sexist, racist commentary made me want to hurl the book at the wall. Tonight, by contrast, I’ve been reading the blog of the wonderful N. K. Jemisin, whose brilliant novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I devoured late last week. Specifically, I’ve been reading this post on racism, and this post on comforting dystopias, and they are, in tandem, the reason I sat down to blog my own piece tonight. Because what I’m coming to realise is that being white and well-off  is like living in a bubble, and that racism – and sexism, and homophobia, and all those other terrible creeds and isms – are like a raging river on which you float, unaffected. And if none of the river’s attendant perils threaten you personally – if you are not really interested in what goes on beneath your feet – then you will never notice the un-bubbled masses dashed against the rocks; or see the snares which threaten so many others; or worry about a shifting sandbank changing the course of the river; or spare a thought for those who drown, unable to fight the current. And even if you inflate your bubble with a spirit of kinship, love and charity, without that further awareness, you will be a lesser person than might otherwise be the case.

I had so much more I wanted to say, but it’s late now, and doing all those extra thoughts justice would take more energy than I currently possess. Instead, I’ll say this: think about the stories you encounter. Think about the things you don’t question. Ask if believing a thing is the same as embracing it actively. It’s hard to change yourself, true – but less difficult than admitting that you need to change at all.

Comments
  1. Alicia Coram says:

    I’ve had to think a lot about race teaching Indigenous Studies, but I’d never thought about it much in SF. I’ve found it quite hard when you come up against your own embarrassing subconscious (although at least you can blame the media to some extent!)
    I thought you might find the following interesting if you haven’t seen them:
    Peggy Macintosh “the invisible backpack” http://www.uakron.edu/centers/conflict/docs/whitepriv.pdf
    The implicit association test from Harvard:
    https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

  2. Kristen says:

    One thing that’s often not discussed, goes beyond the white-washing, but if you look at Avatar, similar to Dances Without Wolves, what you have is co-opting of racial/ethnic narratives by white protagonists/authors. Some people find this incredibly offensive, and I think it *can* be, but I also think there is an attempt to say, why is a white/female/male/straight author writing this story,similar to the question of, “Why isn’t a trans-disabled-gay-etc., actor/actress playing that role?” I think this position is disingenuous at best. People who tell stories write all sorts of characters, and if we limit people to writing stories that are only their own, then we end up with precisely the kind of racism/misogyny, etc., that’s being railed against. The slap of,”Cultural appropriation,” starts to sound like its own brand of bigotry, at some point, regardless of context. Particularly in the SF/F genre.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I agree, Kirsten, although I think there is merit to the idea of treading carefully. If white writers are afraid to try and create POC characters for fear of upsetting someone, then that can become problematic in the dialogue; but if white writers are too lazy to try and write believable POC characters because taking the time to be culturally/racially diverse requires more effort than just writing white characters, then it’s a selfish mindset that needs to be addressed. That being said, something I’m very conscious of trying not to do in my own character creation process is, having come up with a white cast of characters and established their personalities, suddenly thinking, ‘Ooh! What if I made X black?’, as though race had no greater emphasis on the story than an altered physical aesthetic. Rather, I’m trying to make myself sit down and actively create characters for future stories who are non-white from the outset, so that who they are informs the whole novel rather than being an afterthought.

    • Here via the little bird of trackbacks; thanks, Foz, for an interesting response/discussion! If I may jump in…

      Kristen :
      I think this position is disingenuous at best. People who tell stories write all sorts of characters, and if we limit people to writing stories that are only their own, then we end up with precisely the kind of racism/misogyny, etc., that’s being railed against. The slap of,”Cultural appropriation,” starts to sound like its own brand of bigotry, at some point, regardless of context. Particularly in the SF/F genre.

      I don’t think that’s quite what’s meant by the slap of cultural appropriation, Kristen; it’s more nuanced than just “appropriation is bad”. (Though it’s important to note that not all readers feel the same way about this — you’re right in that some do seem to feel that only a person of the respective culture/identity should ever tackle that subject matter. I think this is problematic too, though, for the simple reason that it contributes to marginalization, but that’s a different argument.) In my opinion, cultural appropriation is not the problem; inappropriate appropriation is. That is, I agree that people should indeed reach outside their own experiences for the material to write stories, but they need to do it well or be prepared for criticism. This is no different from what readers expect of SF/F writers in any other respect — a hard SF writer who fails to do the research on space travel or some concept of theoretical physics will surely hear from hard-SF readers about it, for example. But doing it well with respect to people requires not just research, but a certain sensitivity to the power dynamics involved.

      And one of those power dynamics that cannot be forgotten is discrimination. With respect to actors, the problem is that when white actors are given roles more appropriate for actors of color (AoC), AoCs lose an opportunity. It’s not like leading roles are thick on the ground, and already the bulk of them are effectively reserved for white actors. For the handful that might fit an AoC to be given to white actors too — as was the case with The Last Airbender — pretty much solidifies the glass ceiling for AoCs in Hollywood. The fact that Shyamalan then filled the background of the film with AoCs — nameless extras who played thugs or victims — really just exacerbated the problem.

      Discrimination is also an issue for writers in the SF/F genre. It’s not as overt as in the film industry, but it is there. Samuel Delany has recounted how Joseph Campbell refused to publish a story of his with a black main character (Campbell was equally discriminatory about women characters, yay). I suspect Campbell was far from the only editor to hold such sentiments in those days, and that sort of thing very likely cut the number of writers of color who might’ve entered the field during its Golden/Silver-Age years. And nowadays, writers of color must deal with racism of a more latent/systemic, though still harmful, sort. We’ve all heard about the whitewashing debates, re cover art; that has a chilling effect on how many writers of color want to enter the field, let alone readers of color. On top of that, there’s the expectation that even writers of color will write with the “white gaze” in mind, on the assumption that what white readers expect to see in fiction is the only thing that matters. In theory this makes sense, given that white readers make up the bulk of SF/F… but it’s problematic because a) it serves to keep white readers as the bulk of SF/F, by sending a subtle message of unwelcome to everybody else, and b) it assumes that white readers are incapable of adapting to different viewpoints. Or rather, that they shouldn’t have to adapt to different viewpoints… an attitude also known as white privilege.

      An example of this cropped up a couple of years ago when reviewer Matthew Cheney first negatively reviewed Nisi Shawl’s Filter House and then walked back that review after it got pointed out to him (by Delany, actually) that maybe there was something going on in the text that he could not, or would not, see. Basically, what seems to have happened is that he went into it with White Male Gaze, and found a book written with Black Female Gaze, and reacted badly. But I admire him for recognizing this, however long it took; not many reviewers would be so introspective. My books have received only a few negative reviews, for which I’m grateful, but there’s an interesting dynamic going on with them. Some of them rightly point out flaws in my storytelling… but some of them either subtly or blatantly show that the reader is reacting badly to my protagonist’s Woman Of Color Gaze (might be the woman part, might be the racial part, might be both). Now imagine how a slew of reviews like that could impact a writer of color’s career, and you have an idea of the tide that writers of color are working against.

      So it’s not bigotry to demand more opportunities for writers of color to tell their own stories. There’s an imbalance that needs redressing, and that’s why that demand keeps appearing. But personally speaking, I don’t perceive literature as a zero-sum game (unlike Hollywood). Despite a few stories of outrageously huge advances, the bar for profit in this industry is generally low enough that we can have both white writers attempting PoC and PoC writing PoC, without one or the other losing out.

      Anyway, speaking of Nisi Shawl, she wrote a great article on this a few years back that’s still relevant: Appropriate Cultural Appropriation. (Apologies if someone else has posted this already.)

      • fozmeadows says:

        By all means, jump in! All excellent points, and some fascinating links, too.

        It’s funny – I was reading through TV Tropes earlier and one of the pages I stumbled across was the People Of Hair Colour page, which seemed to nail down a lot of the race problems in fantasy, at least in one sense. I also have a private theory – totally unproven – that simply by virtue of the fact that white people can have blonde OR brown OR black OR red hair, and green OR blue OR grey OR brown eyes, that a lot of writers are duped into subconsciously thinking that they’re being racially diverse by creating a cast that features every possible spectrum of white people, with maybe one non-white person thrown in as the black-haired component, when IN FACT they’re just being aesthetically diverse, which is an entirely different thing. Sort of like the Disney princess range, or all those teen girl pulp book series in the nineties, where you’d have a blonde, a redhead, a brunette and a non-white girl who were all friends, and they’d each get one book in the series with their own cover, and you just KNEW some marketing department had dreamed up the whole thing out of some messed up idea of colour balance, as though it were not only impossible but utterly undesirable that any group of friends contain more than one person with the same hair colour, unless one of them was the nemesis of the other. GAH.

        Also, the magic of trackbacks is awesome. Also also: fansquee! I always sort of think of this blog as like a backwater swamp shanty part of the internets where I talk about stuff and five people notice, and then I use ‘sex’ as an article tag and my hits go up but only because Google is a hotbed of perversion and I’m guessing most of the people who got here that way weren’t actually looking for politics or, you know. Text. So, thanks for dropping by and making me feel slightly less rural🙂

      • Kristen says:

        Oh, I completely agree. I actually loathe beyond words, the erasure that occurs at both extremes. The lack of diversity in publishing authors of SF/F is troubling. It’s getting better, but it’s still a very white, very male genre.

        I think that anything that narrows our view of the world, or expectation of it, is absurd. Which is what the seemingly well-meant exhortations that only members of a group should produce content about it. As you say, that leads to marginalization, and in my opinion, is a politically correct path to segregation. A world in which we are all only citizens of our own group, rather than members of the human race? This is a solution?
        The idea of appropriate appropriation is sound, as it includes room for intent and effort, vs labeling all use of cultural markers as invasion/theft.

  3. Rob O. says:

    I’m frequently disturbed by the mis-use of white actors in roles that should so obviously be, well, some other, more appropriate race. For example, I’ll step way out on a limb here and say that, the classic “Doobie Brothers” -looking portrayal of Jesus is always a quite-jarring issue for me. I love Willem Dafoe and James Caviezel as much as the next movie fan, but Jesus was not from Wisconsin or Washington State. And why the heck was Jake Gyllenhaal cast as a Persian? I like to think that my issue with these sorts of casting choices is authenticity or accuracy…

    • fozmeadows says:

      I’m totally with you on that one. It’s like the white Sokka/Katara issue in the Airbender movie. Yes, those actors might have done a decent job, but are we honestly contending that of the whole available pool of actors who auditioned or were sought out for that role, NOBODY of colour could have acted those parts with skill? Trying to make the argument that the best people for the job of a non-white role just happened to be white is bullshit. Either you’re not auditioning widely enough, or you’ve already decided not to care about race.

  4. Kristen :
    I think that anything that narrows our view of the world, or expectation of it, is absurd. Which is what the seemingly well-meant exhortations that only members of a group should produce content about it. As you say, that leads to marginalization, and in my opinion, is a politically correct path to segregation. A world in which we are all only citizens of our own group, rather than members of the human race? This is a solution?
    The idea of appropriate appropriation is sound, as it includes room for intent and effort, vs labeling all use of cultural markers as invasion/theft.

    To clarify — all use of cultural markers aside from your own is appropriation. What we’re talking about here isn’t a binary distinction — either everything is available to everyone or any use beyond a culture is invasion/theft. Rather, we need to consider the appropriation of cultural property as a continuum. On one end of this continuum is “beneficial for the origin culture/detrimental to the borrowing culture”, and at the other end is “detrimental to the origin culture/beneficial to the borrowing culture”. In most cases of appropriation where there’s a power differential — that is, the borrower is of a “dominant” culture, and the originator is of a colonized culture — appropriation is almost always somewhere near the “detrimental to the origin culture” end of the continuum. Only when the two cultures are at approximate parity does appropriation drift closer to the middle, where both cultures share the benefit and the bane.

    So I guess what I’m just trying to emphasize is that it’s not as simple as you’re making it. When you say things like “anything that narrows our view of the world,” you need to consider who “our” is. Most colonized cultures know more than they want to know of the dominant culture; they gain nothing (and indeed, lose something) from sharing anything more of themselves. So when a substantial number of members of a culture insist that only they should control their “cultural/intellectual property”? There’s a good reason for that. They should not be disregarded or dismissed. But yes, as Nisi suggested, there are ways for people outside that culture to respectfully, apologetically, sensitively appropriate — and hopefully give something back, so as to edge things closer to the center of that continuum.

  5. Monex says:

    Women of color have been at feminist conferences ..meetings and festivals and speaking up pointing out that..their needs and interests are not being taken into account nor..answered and that much that white feminists do and say is..racist. But it has interested me that I and other white feminists..have heard the objections and demands for I think it is an..aspect of race privilege to have a choice–a choice between..the options of hearing and not hearing.

  6. […] I had something of an epiphany with regard to racism, viz: declaring myself to be anti-racist, no matter how deeply I adhere to […]

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