Posts Tagged ‘Assimilation’

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.

 

 

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At my Long-Suffering Husband’s insistance, we rented The Invasion last night. I’d read more than one dud review and was therefore sceptical, but the end product, if not blindingly original, was at least well-executed and entertaining. Based on Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the premise is classic sci-fi horror: humans infected by an alien host become little more than emotionless copies of their former selves, spreading malaise through the populace while a few savvy protagonists fight back. Morally, the film queries the fundamental nature of humanity, asking whether our innate predeliction for violence could ever be removed without rendering us a different species. In this respect, the execution is strongly reminiscent of the main plot-arc of Angel, Season Four, which culminates, in the penultimate episode Peace Out, in an almost identical scenario: a declaration of world peace after an alien, assimilatory force takes control on a global scale, followed by the successful application of a vanquishing panacea. In both instances, our heroes are left with uncertainty as to whether restoring the human race was actually the right choice; and in both instances, this uncertainty is validated by the fact that the invading force was comparatively benign, leaving the memories and personalities of the populace intact, but removing all aggression.

It’s worth taking the comparison further. Jasmine, the assimilatory power in Angel, requires the loss of two human lives to enter the world. While manifest, she consumes approximately ten lives every few days, but these are willing victims whose deaths involve a painless, beatified moment of transcendence. In The Invasion, the only alien violence is towards those who are immune or still human; it is implied, but not demonstrated, that the former are killed, while the latter are purposefully rounded up and infected. Similarly, Jasmine’s acolytes seek to kill the few who resist; the remainder are peaceably converted.

Within the context of both narratives, the heroes are justified for several reasons: there is no freedom to reject the change; hostility is shown to outsiders; deaths are accepted as part of the process; and in each instance, the alien/assimilatory claim that those changed are still fundamentally human is challenged by the emergence of a hive-mind, not quite on par with, say, the Borg, but nonetheless profoundly different to the usual human experience. On the other hand, Jasmine and the Invaders also seek justification: any deaths they cause as part of assimilation are minimal compared to the daily injury humanity wreaks upon itself, and are in any case a one-off; human personalities remain; all religious differences are eradicated; and global violence has, effectively, ceased. Post-victory, it is these arguments which cause our protagonists to doubt the wisdom of their choice.

Objectively, it’s an interesting moral dilemma. As a species, we prize personal freedoms even when they grant individual licence to be unpleasant, vindictive and ignorant, because we struggle to find a workable moral basis from which to allow positive freedoms while disallowing their negative counterparts. This is further compounded by the fact that, particularly as regards culture and religion, we’re far from a universal definition of ‘positive’ freedoms – sexuality is a particular sticking point, both in terms of orientation and practice. Even more challenging is the fact that freedom of and from religion becomes innately problematic if sublimated to a set of universal human rights: as things stand, and as they are likely to remain standing, it is impossible that any such code not infringe on individual belief, which opens a whole new can of worms. Inevitably, our greed for personal freedom denies the idea that, as part of the bargain, we might have to change our minds; and yet, day to day, this is exactly how the world works. It’s a system we simultaneously laud and resent, finding balance in the margins and grey areas: small wonder, then, that the idea of some powerful, all-encompassing assimilatory force sweeping in and wiping the slate clean both lures and terrifies.

Historically speaking, we’re rightly mistrustful of any human agency attempting what Jasmine and the Invaders almost succeed at, Hitler, Stalin and Robespierre having demonstrated what atrocities such plans necessitate in the hands of our own kind. But when we put an alien or external agency in charge, the hypothetical becomes more serious: not only are we removing the possibility of the new order being destabilised by human malcontents, as such dissention cannot actually exist, but we’re voiding ourselves of blame. Proportionally, our main fear is a kind of technical genocide: if none of the social, cultural or behavioural hallmarks of humanity remain – or at least, if lack of violence and passion irrevocably alters their application – then has humanity been destroyed? It’s an uneasy thought, as well as discomforting: that our innate selves are fundamentally tied to our aggression. Even if this is one factor among many, to lose it would be to absent a crucial aspect of ourselves. Which begs the (much harder) question: in a world where, potentially, we can be a less-violent other species, is being human for the sake of being human actually a defensible choice?

The problem, as with all hypotheticals, is that we have no test scenario: along with violence, we don’t know what else we’d lose. Anecdotally and, to a certain extent, culturally, there’s a belief that our aggression stems from the same place as our creativity and passion: that without anger, we couldn’t love, or dream, or hope. Emotionally – and we are emotional creatures – it’s a compelling fear, and one which, on an intuitive level, is hard to combat. In an odd way, it’s a bit like the dilemma of the criminal justice system: let a guilty man walk to save innocents, or condemn innocents to be sure of incarcerating the guilty? Ultimately, I’d opt for the former: for better or worse, I’d rather keep our flaws than lose our virtues, and so – I believe – would most of us.

Narratively, however, we still need reassurance on this point: which is why both Jasmine and the Invaders are selected against by subtle, but deeply intuitive, markers. Beneath her human face, Jasmine has the appearance of a monster: only those with immunity to her powers can see it. The metaphor is one of rottenness, internal corruption; if she isn’t truly beautiful and conceals the fact, then she cannot be trusted, and so – horrifically, in one sense – we feel better about her destruction. Similarly, dogs don’t like the Invaders: they bark, whine, growl, attack and are subsequently killed for their trouble. After tens of thousands of years of co-evolution, it’s deeply ingrained in the human psyche to trust the intuition of dogs: as part of our family pack, they warn us of threats. You’d be hard-pressed to find a story in which our canine companions happily lick the hands of attacking aliens; and so, because we trust the wordless sense of dogs, we know the enemy are Bad.

In the end, we justify our species by providing a pro for each con: love for anger, passion for rage, creativity for cruelty. But that, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, is the fundamental essence of humanity: where the falling angel meets the rising ape, we are what’ve always been. 

Half angel. Half devil. All human.