YA, Race & Assimilation: A Response

Posted: December 19, 2016 in Critical Hit, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

And lo, in the leadup to Christmas, because it has been A Year and 2016 is evidently not content to go quietly into that good night, there has come the requisite twitter shitshow about diversity in YA. Specifically: user @queen_of_pages (hereinafter referred to as QOP) recently took great exception to teenage YouTube reviewer Whitney Atkinson acknowledging the fact that white and straight characters are more widely represented in SFF/YA than POC and queer characters, with bonus ad hominem attacks on Atkinson herself. As far as I can make out, the brunt of QOP’s ire hinges on the fact that Atkinson discusses characters with specific reference to various aspects of their identity – calling a straight character straight or a brown character brown, for instance – while advocating for greater diversity. To quote QOP:

[Atkinson] is separating races, sexuality and showing off her white privilege… she wants diversity so ppl need to be titled by their race, disability or sexuality. I want them to be titled PEOPLE… I’m Irish. I’ve been oppressed but I don’t let it separate me from other humans.

*sighs deeply and pinches bridge of nose*

Listen. I could rant, at length, about the grossness of a thirtysomething woman, as QOP appears to be, insulting a nineteen year old girl about her appearance and lovelife for any reason, let alone because of something she said about YA books on the internet. I could point out the internalised misogyny which invariably underlies such insults – the idea that a woman’s appearance is somehow inherently tied to her value, such that calling her ugly is a reasonable way to shut down her opinions at any given time – or go into lengthy detail about the hypocrisy of using the term “white privilege” (without, evidently, understanding what it means) while complaining in the very same breath about “separating races”. I could, potentially, say a lot of things.

But what I want to focus on here – the reason I’m bothering to say anything at all – is QOP’s conflation of mentioning race with being racist, and why that particular attitude is both so harmful and so widespread.

Like QOP, I’m a thirtysomething person, which means that she and I grew up in the same period, albeit on different continents. And what I remember from my own teenage years is a genuine, quiet anxiety about ever raising the topic of race, because of the particular way my generation was taught about multiculturalism on the one hand and integration on the other. Migrant cultures were to be celebrated, we were told, because Australian culture was informed by their meaningful contributions to the character of our great nation. At the same time, we were taught to view Australian culture as a monoculture, though it was seldom expressed as baldly as that; instead, we were taught about the positive aspects of cultural assimilation. Australia might benefit from the foods and traditions migrants brought with them, this logic went, but our adoption of those things was part of a social exchange: in return for our absorption of some aspects of migrant culture, migrants were expected to give up any identity beyond Australian and integrate into a (vaguely homogeneous) populace. Multiculturalism was a drum to beat when you wanted to praise the component parts that made Australia great, but suggesting those parts were great in their own right, or in combinations reflective of more complex identities? That was how you made a country weaker.

Denying my own complicity in racism at that age would be a lie. I was surrounded by it in much the same way that I was surrounded by car fumes, a toxic thing taken into the body unquestioning without any real understanding of what it meant or was doing to me internally. At my first high school, two of my first “boyfriends” (in the tweenage sense) were POC, as were various friends, but because race was never really discussed, I had no idea of the ways in which it mattered: to them, to others, to how they were judged and treated. The first time I learned anything about Chinese languages was when one of those early boyfriends explained it in class. I remember being fascinated to learn that Chinese – not Mandarin or Cantonese: the distinction wasn’t referenced – was a tonal language, but I also recall that the boy himself didn’t volunteer this information. Instead, our white teacher had singled him out as the only Chinese Australian present and asked him to explain his heritage: she assumed he spoke Chinese, and he had to explain that he didn’t, not fluently, though he still knew enough to satisfy her question. That exchange didn’t strike me as problematic at the time, but now? Now, it bothers me.

At my second high school, I was exposed to more overt racism, not least because it was a predominantly white, Anglican private school, as opposed to the more diversely populated public school I’d come from. As an adult, I’m ashamed to think how much of it I let pass simply because I didn’t know what to say, or because I didn’t realise at the time now noxious it was. Which isn’t to say I never successfully identified racism and called it out – I was widely perceived as the token argumentative lefty in my white male, familially right-wing friend group, which meant I spent a lot of time excoriating them for their views about refugees – but it wasn’t a social dealbreaker the way it would be now. The fact that I had another friend group that was predominantly POC – and where, again, I was the only girl – meant that I also saw people discussing their own race for the first time, forcing me to examine the question more openly than before.

Even so, it never struck me as anomalous back then that whereas the POC kids discussed their own identities in terms of race and racism, the white kids had no concept of their whiteness as an identity: that race, as a concept, informed their treatment of others, but not how they saw themselves. The same boys who joked about my biracial crush being a half-caste and who dressed up as “terrorists” in tea robes and tea towels for our final year scavenger hunt never once talked about whiteness, or about being white, unless it was in specific relation to white South African students or staff members, of which the school historically had a large number. (The fact that we had no POC South African students didn’t stop anyone from viewing “white” as a necessary qualifier: vocally, the point was always to make clear that, when you were talking about South Africans, you didn’t mean anyone black.)

Which is why, for a long time, the topic of race always felt fraught to me. I had no frame of reference for white people discussing race in a way that wasn’t saturated with racism, which made it easy to conflate the one with the other. More than that, it had the paradoxical effect of making any reference to race seem irrelevant: if race was only ever brought up by racists, why mention it at all? Why not just treat everyone equally, without mentioning what made them different? I never committed fully to that perspective, but it still tempted me – because despite all the racism I’d witnessed, I had no real understanding of how its prevalence impacted individuals or groups, either internally or in terms of their wider treatment.

My outrage about the discriminatory treatment of refugees ought to have given me some perspective on it, but I wasn’t insightful enough to make the leap on my own. At the time, detention centres and boat people were the subject of constant political discourse: it was easy to make the connection between things politicians and their supporters said about refugees and how those refugees were treated, because that particular form of cause and effect wasn’t in question. The real debate, such as it was, revolved around whether it mattered: what refugees deserved, or didn’t deserve, and whether that fact should change how we treated them. But there were no political debates about the visceral upset another boyfriend, who was Indian, felt at knowing how many classmates thought it was logical for him to date the only Indian girl in our grade, “because we both have melanin in our skins”. (I’ve never forgotten him saying that, nor have I forgotten the guilt I felt at knowing he was right. The two of them ran in completely different social circles, had wildly different personalities and barely ever interacted, and yet the expectation that they’d end up dating was still there, still discussed.) I knew it was upsetting to him, and I knew vaguely that the assumption was racist in origin, but my own privilege prevented me from understanding it as a microaggression that was neither unique to him nor the only one of its kind that he had to deal with. I didn’t see the pattern.

One day, I will sit down and write an essay about how the failure of white Australians and Americans in particular to view our post-colonial whiteness as an active cultural and racial identity unless we’re being super fucking racist about other groups is a key factor in our penchant for cultural appropriation. In viewing particular aspects of our shared experiences, not as cultural identifiers, but as normal, unspecial things that don’t really have any meaning, we fail to connect with them personally: we’re raised to view them as something that everyone does, not as something we do, and while we still construct other identities from different sources – the regions we’re from, the various flavours of Christianity we prefer – it leaves us prone to viewing other traditions as exciting, new things with no equivalent in our own milieu while simultaneously failing to see to their deeper cultural meaning. This is why so many white people get pissed off at jokes about suburban dads who can’t barbecue or soccer moms with Can I Speak To The Manager haircuts: far too many of us have never bothered to introspect on our own sociocultural peculiarities, and so get uppity the second anyone else identifies them for us. At base, we’re just not used to considering whiteness as an identity in its own right unless we’re really saying not-black or acting like white supremacists – which means, in turn, that many of us conflate any open acknowledgement of whiteness with some truly ugly shit. In that context, whiteness is either an invisible, neutral default or a racist call to arms: there is no in between.

Which is why, returning to the matter of QOP and Whitney Atkinson, pro-diversity advocates are so often forced to contend with people who think that “separating races” and like identifiers – talking specifically about white people or disabled people or queer people, instead of just people – is equivalent to racism and bigotry. Whether they recognise it or not, they’re coming from a perspective that values diverse perspectives for what they bring to the melting pot – for how they help improve the dominant culture via successful assimilation – but not in their own right, as distinct and special and non-homogenised. In that context, race isn’t something you talk about unless you’re being racist: it’s rude to point out people’s differences, because those differences shouldn’t matter to their personhood. The problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t allow for the celebration of difference: instead, it codes “difference” as inequality, because deep down, the logic of cultural assimilation is predicated on the idea of Western cultural superiority. A failure or refusal to assimilate is therefore tantamount to a declaration of inequality: I’m not the same as you is understood as I don’t want to be as good as you, and if someone doesn’t want to be the best they can be (this logic goes) then either they’re stupid, or they don’t deserve the offer of equality they’ve been so generously extended in the first place.

Talking about race isn’t the same as racism. Asking for more diversity in YA and SFF isn’t the same as saying personhood matters less than the jargon of identity, but is rather an acknowledgement of the fact that, for many people, personhood is materially informed by their experience of identity, both in terms of self-perception and in how they’re treated by others at the individual, familial and collective levels. And thanks to various studies into the social impact of colour-blindness as an ideology, we already know that claiming not to see race doesn’t undo the problem of racism; it just means adherents fail to understand what racism actually is and what it looks like, even – or perhaps especially – when they’re the ones perpetuating it.

So, no, QOP: you can’t effectively advocate for diversity without talking in specifics about issues like race and sexual orientation. Want the tl:dr reason? Because saying I want more stories with PEOPLE in them isn’t actually asking for more than what we already have, and the whole point of advocating for change is that what we have isn’t enough. You might as well try and work to decrease the overall number of accidental deaths in the population without putting any focus on the specific ways in which people are dying. Generalities are inclusive at the macro level, but it’s specificity that gets shit done at the micro – and ultimately, that’s what we’re aiming for.



  1. Alicia says:

    I am older than you, but your experiences really resonated – I don’t think Australia changed much. Although I had even less contact with PoC as a child. There was one Melanesian boy at my primary school of 300 children.

    Last time I was in Oz (2013) I heard a really interesting thing on the radio about how white lefties can actually contribute to racist attitudes in their children. Because of the assimilation/monoculture thing, well-meaning white people were *not* talking to their kids about race, and because children notice things, by telling them not to point out that their friend has darker skin or celebrates different holidays or whatever, children were internalising the message that there is something shameful and secretive about having darker skin or celebrating different holidays. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find references for that work, but it felt plausible.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I think I recall the piece you’re mentioning; certainly, I think it holds true to the problems of colourblindness.

  2. SSpjut says:

    This was very enlightening and helpful.

    I was raised in a predominately all white neighborhood and school, in a home where race wasn’t discussed unless it was in relation to ghettos (only blacks lived in them), Christianity (the only true religion- everyone else was going to hell) or Vietnam (the fight against communism, genocide and world wide domination). I didn’t encounter outright racism until my senior year in HS when I moved to a state that was blatantly anti-black (when I tried to make friends with a black girl with whom I worked, I was told by my boss that that wasn’t allowed. When I commented on how good looking a black cowboy was, my friends nearly un-friended me). At 17 I didn’t equate the discussions my parents were having and the outright prejudice I encountered at my job and with my friends, as being the same. And to be honest, until I read this article, I was never able to quantify exactly what it is I personally feel about races other than my own. And to have it suggested that not mentioning or recognizing individuals of other races (viewing all races/ethnic backgrounds a One-rather than separate) as a form of racism, challenges me ask whether, in my life this is true, and if so where and with whom?

  3. Thank you for this wonderful & thought provoking post.

    I’m a white (US) American, on the cusp of 60 years old, and have only just started coming to grips with what you’re talking about here. For many years I completely bought into the exact thing you’re saying, the idea that whiteness wasn’t really anything. Not exactly to the point of actually thinking, “it’s normal to be white and if you’re anything else you’re not normal”. I just assumed that everyone, of every race and culture – but not even just restricted to those things, of every kind of . . . *anything* – felt the same: That whatever you are, whatever your circumstance, that is “normal” to you and everything else is “different. I assumed this was natural human “delusion” of sorts.

    For example, my parents were in their late 30’s when I was born, very uncommon at the time. Yet when I first realized most of my classmates parents were much younger, I felt *that* was “weird”, while my situation was “normal”. Even at that age I understood that technically I was apparently the different, one, but the feeling persisted. And this was only one of many things I felt this way about.

    It’s only recently occurred to me: Perhaps this isn’t common to *all* people, but only common to people of privilege? I don’t actually know!

    Later I was bullied about things others found different enough that it singled me out in negative ways. And on *those* things, I still feel acutely and painfully *not* normal. But with everything else, as long as I’ve never been overtly attacked for it, my knee-jerk reaction is still to basically normalize whatever is “me”. I consciously resist allowing this to influence my behavior, but it’s there, so I’m sure it does.

    Getting back to whiteness as a cultural identity, I was so struck by what you said here:

    “One day, I will sit down and write an essay about how the failure of white Australians and Americans in particular to view our post-colonial whiteness as an active cultural and racial identity unless we’re being super fucking racist about other groups is a key factor in our penchant for cultural appropriation. In viewing particular aspects of our shared experiences, not as cultural identifiers, but as normal, unspecial things that don’t really have any meaning, we fail to connect with them personally: we’re raised to view them as something that everyone does, not as something we do, and while we still construct other identities from different sources – the regions we’re from, the various flavours of Christianity we prefer – it leaves us prone to viewing other traditions as exciting, new things with no equivalent in our own milieu while simultaneously failing to see to their deeper cultural meaning.”

    Wow! First of all, I’d love to read that essay, whenever you write it 🙂 But also, I’ve never actually thought of, or heard anyone express this, in these exact terms, but it absolutely rings true. There is *so* much to think about there. *commences thinking* 🙂

    • fozmeadows says:

      Thank you! 🙂

      To elaborate on the paragraph you’ve quoted here: I’ve specified Australians and Americans because, while both our countries are predominantly white, it’s a whiteness that came from a number of different sources, blending into a sort of homogeneity which, while distinct along religious/geographic lines, moved steadily further and further away from its varied European points of origin. While I won’t pretend that various European countries don’t have their own complex dialogues on and problems with race in the modern period, I do think there’s a much stronger sense of (say) Swedish traditions, or French traditions, culturally speaking, than there are American or Australian. For instance: it’s notable to me that when we talk about what it means to “be” Australian or American, we usually talk about generalised ideals or behavioural touchstones – mateship, a fair go and the Anzac spirit for Australians, a belief in the American Dream and the potential of every individual to succeed for Americans – rather than adhering to specific cultural practices. We have a national character, but less so a cohesive national heritage, because in both cases, the defining thing that taught us what the dominant culture (i.e. whiteness) meant – the thing that helped fuse all those earlier waves of disparate European/British migration into a single entity – was less about positive things held in commonshare, and more about a racist rejection and demonisation of other groups (Chinese workers, Aboriginal and First Nations people, anyone from Africa). Which isn’t to say we *have* no defining cultural practices or heritage; just that we don’t always identify them as such in their own right util or unless we’re comparing ourselves to another group.

      I still need to think a lot more deeply on this, so these are still largely nebulous thoughts, but yeah. And at any rate, I’m glad you found it helpful 🙂

      • Lenora Rose says:

        Canada, too.

        There’s also a thing that happens when you do acknowledge any European (White) cultural heritage; in the diaspora it gets up-played and strongly stressed, because of the feeling that the European culture is the only “real” cultural touchstone, because there’s no “real” white (American/Australian/Canadian) culture, while the home country … just do waht they will. A dessert that is now iconic of Icelandic culture here is not that popular in Iceland. Irish cultural aspects are exaggerated until Irish people can hardly recognize them, Ukrainians in Canada are all about being Ukrainian, because to talk about the Canadian aspect … is to try and define white Canadian Culture. Complete with its Colonial history.

  4. I can’t help but laugh at her statement that because she’s “Irish” she’s been oppressed. Unless she was born in the 1840’s, she’s full of it. The Irish haven’t been oppressed here for over a century.

  5. […] (11) THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MENTIONING RACE. Foz Meadows engages a recent controversy involving YA commentators — “YA, Race & Assimilation: A Response”. […]

  6. […] Meadows looks at the assumption talking about race and representation in YA is, itself, racist. After all, you’re talking about how many black or women or gay characters are in fiction, so […]

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