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?
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.