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.