A Little More on People Like Me

Rachel Swirsky, who I think is one of the best new writers in genre (and possibly outside of it as well) reheats the discussion of my “colorblind” writing or lack thereof in the context of JK Rowling’s recent relevation that Dumbledore is, like, totally gay, and focuses on the fact that both Rowling and I note information about characters not in the books themselves but outside of the books, a fact which opens us up to her criticism. The article is here (as should be the discussion of the article itself, which is already underway).

I don’t want to comment too much about the content of Swirky’s article here, but I will make note of two quick thoughts. First, Rowling’s revelation comes late in the context of the books, but it’s quite possible for the fact to be incorporated into the movies, which are still an ongoing concern for two more installments, and I think you have to look at the Potterverse in context of all of that; it’s not just confined to the books. Second, I think the headline suggests I’ve said after the fact that one of my characters is Native American; I assume the character in question is Harry Creek, from The Android’s Dream. If it is, I’ll note I haven’t laid claim to Harry being of Native American descent; it’s some of my readers who assumed that’s what he was. I haven’t specified Harry’s racial background, other than noting in passing that I really wouldn’t mind if Will Smith played him in a movie adaptation.

I do want comment on this bit in the article, however:

Scalzi himself argues that he’s not writing colorblind (because he knows what colors his characters are), but that readers are reading colorblind. He goes on to say that this doesn’t of necessity reinforce a white default. As a first step, he says that while he envisions characters is novels as being “people like me,” whiteness is not part of that profile. Honestly, I have a big problem accepting that — but, let’s accept it anyway. Scalzi’s politically aware and not, IMO, given to lying to trump himself up. Perhaps, through deliberation or coincidence (I trend toward postulating the former, even if not on a conscious level), Scalzi has trained himself not to view race as a default.

Swirsky goes on to explore my logical errors, but I’m not interested in that at the moment (follow the link to get the full effect). I do appreciate that she accepts for the purpose of argument that my conception of “people like me” is not significantly bound to whiteness, but I also suspect that, aside from her willingness to grant that statement of mine, which I appreciate, she’s still not fully convinced. If this is the case, this is fair enough; white folks find it really easy to find various ways to say that race doesn’t matter to them.

So. If folks are wondering why I say I’m able to think of “people like me” as something other (or at least, significantly more) than white, the best answer I have for them is that if they’d gone to my 20th high school class reunion, it might have gone a bit to explain that position. Webb School of California was indeed fairly homogeneous — but the homogeneity was in class and educational backgrounds, which is to say nearly everyone at school came from families that ranged from well-off to flat-out rich, and/or had parents who were educated to at least the college level. One exception to that, incidentally: me — I was the first person in my immediate family to finish high school, and my mom made less than it cost to go to the school. But I “passed”; at the 20th one of my classmates was surprised to discover that while I was at Webb, when I went home from school it was to a mobile home (this classmate and his wife, incidentally, fund a scholarship to the school for female students of color from low-income backgrounds, so don’t make any quick and snarky assumptions about class blindness there).

Racially, however, the school was pretty heterogeneous. The white/not-white split of my class was just about 50/50, and as a boarding school, we drew in kids from around the world, including from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the Middle East and southeast Asia, as well as from California, of course, which is in itself racially mixed. Our class total was 80 people, more or less; in there we had folks of most races, colors and major religions, and not a few who were from families mixed in one way or another.

The major division in our class at the time there was not about race per se but language; some of the kids from Hong Kong came in only middlin’ fluent in English, and in their free time congregated together. Aside from that, if you were to look at how the cliques fell out, one way they conspicuously didn’t fall out was by race.

I’m not going to try to sell you the idea that Webbies were or are ignorant of race and the role it plays in larger society; certainly we were not. We weren’t stupid. I’m not even going to try to sell you the idea that everyone who went to Webb — or possibly even everyone in my class — would say that my view of how race factored in socially at my high school is 100% correct. But I am going to say to you that my high school experience reinforced the idea that, for me, “people like me” was rather more significantly about factors other than race. You’d know this if you saw who my good friends were from high school; you’d also see this if you saw who I’ve considered my good friends since then.

If you were to ask me which prejudice I’ve had to work the hardest on over the years to recognize and correct for you, I would tell you that it doesn’t have to do with race but with sexuality. I don’t think I was ever actively homophobic, but when I was 14 years old (or thereabouts) I certainly had my brain filled with the general set of myths and prejudices against gay people that floated about at the time, and certainly Webb, for all its other qualities, was not a place — in the mid-80s, anyway — where one would find a lot of sympathy or acceptance of gays. People certainly were rumored to be gay, but they weren’t particularly nice rumors.

I would say that it wasn’t until I was in college that I mostly pulled my head out on that particular subject, although I am glad to say I did. One of my still proudest moments in terms of social conscience was when, as the student ombudsman for the University of Chicago, I went on record saying that the University should extend health and other benefits to partners of gay and lesbian faculty and staff. This was in 1991, when only one other university had done so. The University eventually did, although I don’t flatter myself I had a direct influence on that (it happened a year or so after I graduated). Nevertheless, I’m glad I planted that seed of conscience. Certainly anyone who has read here over time knows how that seed has grown.

What happened there, I suspect, is simply that in college I began to know people who were openly gay and lesbian (many years later I found out that people I knew at Webb were gay or lesbian, but — see above — it was not something I knew at the time) and knowing people made the difference in my thinking; I was able to see them as people like me. I didn’t have to make this adjustment (or at least, not that much of an adjustment) on issues of race, however, because of my Webb experience. Consequently, now as an adult it’s not something I think about when I think about people like me.

Now: This doesn’t mean I don’t get unearned advantages or credit when people who are white see me as people like them; I certainly do, and I’d be a fool to suggest I don’t. I don’t get stopped for driving while white; I don’t get followed by store security no matter how badly I dress; people don’t assume I have a crappy education or don’t speak English. I have to say that I do find no little irony in the fact that some people I’d prefer not to give the time of day to think of me like them simply because of skin tone and presumed cultural commonality. Likewise I know that there are some people, some of whom I like and admire, who believe that fundamentally I can’t see myself like them because of skin and culture differences. In both cases, I respond by being me: I try not to pretend to commonality that I don’t feel; I try not to imply commonality I don’t have.

None of that, however, changes how I feel about these things, which is that on the list of things that qualify people for being what I see as “like me,” race is really pretty damn far down the list. What I would like to believe about myself — and what I strive for — is that I discover what makes you like me when you open your mouth and talk to me (or any other of the communicative cognates of this action), and we discover our minds and our characters and how they play with and off of each other.

Is this hard to believe about me? I think only to the extent you don’t actually know me.

42 thoughts on “A Little More on People Like Me

  1. Well, I am white, and I have no known ancestors who were not. But more than once I have been followed quite obviously by store employees who apparently thought I was there to steal something. I don’t know why. It wasn’t a racial thing; each time the store person was also white.

    When I think of people like me, I think of gay, male and educated. Color does not enter into it.

  2. Gosh, this is the 3rd or 4th “color blind” blog entry by John in the last 90 days. Not that I mind at all, in fact I really enjoyed the Tobias Buckell entry the most (and the cross pollinated links ) – and the comments that followed.

    Ok, now it’s simply time to get this all out of our systems once and for all! And the only way to do that is with a Sarah Silverman song:

    Super NSFW, children, pets, or the politically correct.

    I Love You More

    .

  3. People like me breathe oxygen
    People like me are (mostly) bipedal
    People like me (mostly)reside on the Earth
    People like me are optimistic
    People like me are living*
    People like me have read Harry Potter….

    *I’ll cop to a prejudice against vampires and zombies, but I’m open minded. Maybe they don’t ALL want to eat me, but I still think it is rational to view them in the same way as scuba diving with sharks — knife your friend so they devour him while you escape.

  4. I was going to echo Patrick M @ #5 with a list of “People like me are…” but filling in that blank is a lot more complicated than I thought.

    So I won’t.

  5. I have to say that I understand your school experience, John – not because I had it myself, but because my children did, in the 80s, when they went to a European UN International school. They simply ignored colour and nationality and religion as if they didn’t exist. When they brought home their friends, kids they had talked about for ages but whom I had not previously met, I never knew what skin colour or nationality they would have until they walked in the door. If I ever asked “Where does so and so come from?”, I was often answered with a shrug and a “I don’t know”, and in the end learned to stop asking. To them, it simply wasn’t relevant and I didn’t want to change that.

    They’ve joined the real world since, and I am glad to say still choose their friends using criteria other than race, nationality or religion. They are truly colour blind. Mind you, their default was never white. They are themselves of mixed parentage.

    One of the advantages of that kind of school was that they themselves have had very little problems with the racial divide in their adult life. When you don’t recognise the divide yourself, it tends to throw people who do…

  6. Hi John,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. Sorry for getting confused about which book/character was where.

    I also went to high school with a racially diverse group of people — mostly hispanic and asian, rather than black. I definitely think that affects my setting for what a “normal” group composition is supposed to look like. It’s weird being in the midwest, when I’m used to a bay area level of color and diversity.

    You’re right, I don’t actually know you, of course.

    Unless you grew up in a vacuum from the social messages that are flooded at us through media, television, books, the way that people write and think and talk about things, it’s hard to see how you could have missed white-default; it’s one of the organizing and hegemonic principles of American society. An awful lot of the operation of racism is happening way, way, way, way, way back in the backbrain where we can’t control it, or even really observe it.

    I’m really talking about bias, not racism as most non-sociologists mean it — frex, these tests which you’ve probably seen before: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/takeatest.html (I don’t think these tests are the be all and end all, and certainly not in informal internet form, but they exemplify the concept)

    I absolutely do believe what you’re saying about your actions and your conscious thoughts. I’ve always found your writing to be cogent and aware of yourself and others, including those of us who are othered. And the decision of who is “like me” probably isn’t in that annoying, early-programmed, back-brain place, as you point out.

  7. Rachel:

    “It’s weird being in the midwest, when I’m used to a bay area level of color and diversity.”

    Amen to that. The overwhelming whiteness of where I live in Ohio was one of the first things that struck me when we moved here, moving as we did from the Washington DC area and previously having lived in California.

    “Unless you grew up in a vacuum from the social messages that are flooded at us through media, television, books, the way that people write and think and talk about things, it’s hard to see how you could have missed white-default; it’s one of the organizing and hegemonic principles of American society.”

    Heh. Now, as it happened, when I was at Webb I watched almost no TV at all; TVs weren’t allowed in dorm rooms. It largely broke me of the TV watching habit; I still watch very little TV relative to other people. This doesn’t invalidate your comment; I’m just noting it anecdotally.

  8. I actually really enjoy it when an author provides information outside the books he or she authored. Does Dumbledore’s homosexuality make any difference to the plot? Not really. Does homosexuality belong in a kid’s book? I would say yes, depending on certain factors, but others would say absolutely not. I know writers create far more backstory and material than could fit in a (sellable) product. Why keep that information secret?

    On a more serious note, I don’t know what John intended to happen when he excluded explicit racial descriptors from the Old Man’s War series. I do know that it’s gotten a lot of people talking about race, and how we see other people. And in the end, isn’t opening a dialog about difficult subjects the greatest responsibility an author has?

  9. There’s an underlying precept in Ms. Swirsky’s article that bothers me. It seems to me she’s saying you’re either A: Failing to include minorities in your works, B: Including minorities, but not pointing them out to your readers, or C: Not including enough minorities, period. And that somehow this is, if not a crime against humanity, at least an affront to our dignity.

    Are we now establishing quotas for fiction? And if a book is deemed “too white”, what then? Do we bus in characters from “Beloved”, “Mambo Kings” and “The Front Runner”?

    I read to be entertained. If I’m also educated while being entertained, so much the better. I’ll even agree in principle that writers (and musicians, actors, etc.) have a responsibility to be positive influences. But when people start saying “You’re not doing enough to promote X, Y, and Z”, that’s where I have a problem.

    I’m reminded of a scene from a movie about the early 60′s, though for the life of me I can’t remember its title (Little help?). A young woman comes into a music store and begins haranguing the shopkeeper, complaining that he doesn’t carry any Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. His response was that if more people asked, he would carry them. He didn’t care what records he sold, just as long as they sold. But that was a non-issue for the woman. The shopkeeper wasn’t socially aware, in her opinion, and that itself was somehow a crime.

    When people start judging artistic endeavors solely on the basis of whether or not it raises public consciousness on any topic to an “acceptable” level, it’s art that suffers.

  10. Let’s say you’re writing a story about people living on another planet in a distant future. The characters are descendants of humans who have migrated so many times and altered their DNA so much that it’s impossible to tell what “race” they are…

    … and still, readers who live today are probably still going to ask “What race are these characters?” Or they will assume, more or less consciously, that “the characters are of course White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.”

    The problem isn’t in the story, it’s in us. “Race” is a paradigm, an idea system. And it’s getting seriously out of date.

  11. There are contexts in which colour-blindness leads to institutionalized discrimination. I’m thinking here primarily of France, where details of the citizens’ race are not officially captured by the government or employers. The rationale is that everyone is simply “French” regardless of where you were born or which department you reside in

    However, a checkbox for “Race” on a job-application or housing form isn’t the sole clue to where one came from. An accompanying photograph, or an Arabic/Asian name may be all that is enough for a racist selector to discriminate against them. When statistics are compiled, the lack of the “race” checkbox or other marker disguises the rampant racism that denies decent employment or housing to certain demographics.

    On a different matter, some of you may be aware. that additional race markers were integrated into the text for the US editions of the Harry Potter books. (This may have been pointed out in one of the other blog posts, but I’ve been an unemployable homeless slacker in neglecting these.)

  12. Additional race markers were added to US Harry Potter books? Which ones? The only thing I can remember that might be a race marker was the last name Patel, which I believe is either Indian or Pakistani. The “races” seemed to be muggles, wizards, werewolves, etc.

    I think that ignoring race of characters (and real people) is the right way to go. If you keep track of everything by race (the first hispanic mayor of a major midwest city!) that just keeps it in everyone’s mind. When race is completely ignored is when it will cease to matter.

  13. I’m not sure the problem Ms. Swirsky has is with “quotas.” I think the problem she has is with the after-the-fact nature of the announcement.

    My own reaction to Rowling’s announcement was that it seemed… I don’t know… like she was trying to score points somewhere.

    I mean, Dumbledore’s sexual orientation (something that never crossed my mind when I was reading the series, one way or another), was either important or it wasn’t. If it is important, as an explanation of Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald, then it needed to be in the text somehow (even if it was in code). Rowling certainly spent far more than enough time on Snape’s yearning for Lily Potter to explain that part of the story.

    If it’s not vital, it’s fluff, and mentioning it at a reading or whatever is ephemera. Okay, it’s cool; it’s also irrelevant.

    I haven’t had a chance to read Android’s Dream yet (I will, I will, it’s on the list), so I don’t know if Harry Creek’s ethnicity is vital to anything or not. If it is, then not dealing with it in the story strikes me as a potential problem. If it’s not vital, then mentioning it on the website is (again) cool and irrelevant ephemera.

    Part of the issue (as “Doug S.” and “Madeline” note on Ms. Swirsky’s blog) is that a creator no longer “owns” his or her work once it’s released into the wild. When I get around to reading Android’s Dream, Harry Creek will be “my” Harry Creek, not John’s, just as Dumbledore is “my” Dumbledore (or Han Solo, who shot Greedo first, is “my” Han Solo). The work may exist in Scalzi or Rowling’s consciousness somewhere, but so what? All I have is what is inside my own brain.

    This is just my opinion, as someone who is himself trying to write: if an author wants the reader’s reality to reflect his own, he should give an accurate projection in the first place instead of offering annotations afterwards. Offering those annotations, I think, only raises questions about why they’re being offered.

    No offense meant to anyone, it’s just something I’m sort of grappling with as an amateur, myself.

  14. If readers do, in fact, have a default, why would it be *white*? Think about about readers in China, Tanzania, or New Guinea. All defaulting to white? Seems unlikely.

    I agree with JJS @20. I think ignoring race is best, provided, of course, it’s not germane to the plot.

  15. HP differences, for example in book 1:

    UK: three people left to be sorted. ‘Turpin, Lisa’ became

    US: three people left to be sorted. “Thomas, Dean,” a Black boy even taller than Ron, joined Harry at the Gryffindor table. “Turpin, Lisa” became

  16. Why are people making such a big deal over a fantasy character being a queer. it’s apparent some people have little to do in their small lives that they have to worry about queers. I have never read a harry potter book, and have no intention of doing so. a good fishing trip, watching a football game and drinking a few beers with friends is a much better way to spend time than reading about some fantasy queer. don’t we have enough of those clowns roaming the streets, do more have to be invented in a book? I am not concerned about how many queers are in a book or on the street, just so they stay the hell away from me.

  17. A hearty agreement with A.R.Yngve @ 18. The preoccupation we have with what we call “race” in the U.S. is a very idiosyncratic thing. Class, language and religion have historically been much more important factors in human relations. IMO a character’s race in a story needs to be treated with the sensibilities of the story’s milieu, not the author’s– unless the author wants to firmly set a far-future space opera or epic fantasy in the mid-to-late 20th Century U.S.

  18. Interesting discussion. I consider myself a person like Scalzi in a lot of ways–loving husband and father, big pop-culture geek, political moderate/pragmatist (of a sort that many would call quite liberal), gainfully employed in the word-shuffling business, etc. I’m also black. Yet I must say, whenever race isn’t specified or signaled in a work of fiction, I’m pretty sure I default to assuming the person is white. I suppose that stems from having been the only black person in far too many rooms. I wish it weren’t so, but in the circles through which I move, there hasn’t been a lot of percentage in assuming I’ll run into a lot of people who are like me in the racial particular.

  19. That’s the great thing about living in AMERICA, even a federal law cannot make you like queers, or any other rainbow oriented people. Political correctness seems to be the in thing today, but because the crowd runs to the left, dosen’t mean I must. Dislikeing queers is not a phobia as most think, it’s a choice, you people have the same “choice” to like or dislike anyone or anything you choose, yet when someone disagrees with you, you close ranks and claim that person is out of touch with today’s world. How many want to bet the average age in this room is above35?
    Most are men who are barely old enough to shave, who look like they combed their hair with a rat, and have never served in the armed forces. My family have served in the armed services since the revolutionary war, and yes by gawd, we served in the Confedracy too, that should get you yoyos going.

  20. Jeez… Why are people making such a big deal over a fantasy character Whatever commenter being a queer closeminded, loudmouthed bigot. it’s apparent some people have little to do in their small lives that they have to worry about queers closeminded, loudmouthed bigots. I have never read a harry potter book an Ann Coulter book, and have no intention of doing so. a good fishing trip, watching a football game and drinking a few beers with friends is a much better way to spend time than reading about some fantasy queer political closeminded, loudmouthed bigot. don’t we have enough of those clowns roaming the streets, do more have to be invented instructed on how to act in a book? I am not concerned about how many queers closeminded, loudmouthed bigots are in a book or on the street, just so they stay the hell away from me.

  21. Beaucage:

    “Dislikeing queers is not a phobia as most think, it’s a choice”

    Indeed, it’s your choice to be a bigot, Beaucage.

    That said, I don’t suspect it’s a choice that’s going to get you much traction here, and inasmuch as you’ve indicated that you choose not to consort with teh ghez, since there are quite a few of them who comment here (not to mention the bisexual and the folks who just generally classify themselves as flexible), you might be better off moving along. Because they’re queer, they’re here and they’re unlikely to go away, and your staying here will require a level of tolerance you’ve already indicated you don’t have. So, off with you.

  22. A bit off the topic of the comments but you’re comment about the student’s with poor English skills at Webb reminded me of my high school and graduate program.

    In high school the Korean students tended to hang out together because, I guess, they could speak Korean and help the ones who didn’t speak much English. (We must not have had another single nationality in large numbers, because I don’t remember any other similar group) My high school in Fairfax county, Va was about 60/40 to 70/30 “white”/”non-white.” My Tuscaloosa Co. Alabama high school was about 50/50 white/black and there was a lot of racially divided cliques.

    The graduate program I was in had (and still has) a lot of foreign students. After American, Chinese is probably the most common nationality. Many of the Chinese student didn’t socialize much with the American or other students and this, I believe, was because of poor English. Only one or two joined the department softball team while I was there and one student, who was very outgoing to begin with, made an effort to speak to the American students to improve his English. I don’t blame them, I would hang out with other English speakers if I was in a non-English speaking country.

  23. That’s the great thing about living in AMERICA, even a federal law cannot make you like queers, or any other rainbow oriented people.

    Although I’m a pretty big Radiohead fan, I have to admit that the new album is slightly underwhelming. It’s an extremely solid record, don’t get me wrong. But it doesn’t exactly tread new ground the way O.K. Computer or the Amnesiac/Kid A pair of records did. Rather, the new album treads much of the same ground as Hail To The Thief, albeit in a more natural and less-forced sounding way.

    Of course, since the band is allowing you to “name your own price” for the music download, and since you apparently can enter “0″ for a price, why not grab a copy for free? (I paid “too much” for the album simply because I wanted to support the band’s efforts in finding new distribution channels. While Radiohead’s efforts to subvert the normal channels isn’t innovative–a number of bands have been doing this for a while now, e.g. Harvey Danger, Radiohead certainly has a higher profile than most.)

    People who aren’t rainbow oriented but want to give Radiohead a try might start with their second album, The Bends. The aforementioned O.K. Computer is also a modern classic, and well worth your time.

  24. There was that one time I listened to Radiohead, with a friend of mine. It just sort of happened. I think we were pretty drunk at the time. Doesn’t make me a Radiohead fan, though. You have to do it at least twice to be one of those.

  25. Why are there so many songs about rainbows
    And what’s on the other side?
    Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
    And rainbows have nothing to hide.
    So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it
    I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
    Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
    The lovers, the dreamers and me.

    All of us under its spell,
    We know that it’s probably magic…

  26. Hmmm… Meant to change my name back… This whole ‘Tentacle Porn’ thing is so four threads ago…. Oh well.

  27. Once I went so far as to actually buy a Radiohead album, but I was just experimenting. I went back to Jonatha Brooke and Pearl Jam soon afterwards. I have to say, though, I’m not sorry I experimented.

  28. John, please, I beg you…Don’t start putting racial markers in your fiction for the sake of social activism.

    I like your books. If putting racial markers in serves your story, I’m all for it. But please don’t bow down to the thought police who would like to dictate how I picture YOUR characters in order to bring ME more in line with THEIR ideal world-view.

  29. I have only read OMW and GB, so whatever ethnic diversity exists in TLC is unknown to me.

    But I must say that I saw the vanilla names and backgrounds of the people in the first two books a glaring flaw in the novels, which were otherwise, in my opinion, very well done and not right wing at all, ala John Ringo.

    I actually was pleasantly surprised and amused last night when I read Boudin’s little critique in GB of how everyone in the SF has really European names, not just the last names but the first ones, too.

    I thought it might have been a moment of ironic self-critique by the author. Was I right?

    Because it doesn’t make much sense to me that nearly all the characters we meet in the first two books have very common names of European origin. Extrapolating current ethnic diversity into the future, and assuming (perhpas wrongly) a greater share of power for non-Westerners in human society.

    I’m afraid the current economic and cultural power of the “Western” world, i.e. Europe and the US, in media and movies of all kinds, has indeed made the “default” perception of characters “white”. With the names John Scalzi has given his characters in the first two books, no one would have any reason to believe that his characters are anything other than Caucasian.

    By not including the markers Skar begs to be spared of, JS gives most readers a picture of the world that is very white by default. He may not have meant it, and there are ways to rationalize it and blame the readers, but I think Boudin’s critique is, in this instance, a fair one.

  30. Oops. I wish I could edit my post. I meant to say:

    “Extrapolating current ethnic diversity into the future, and assuming (perhaps wrongly) a greater share of power for non-Westerners in human society, I would expect to run into more, not fewer, names and people of obviously non-Western heritage than I do living in modern-day America in Scalzi’s work.

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