Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed, Part I
You may recall that rather recently I said “we should be talking about things that are hard to talk about, and race (and the role it plays in sf/f) is one of those things.” And since I said it, it’d be nice if I followed up on that. But when talking about these things, it helps to have some useful context (trust me), and it helps to know someone who can provide you some of that context, particularly about some of the recent conversations about it online. So I asked my friend Mary Anne Mohanraj if she wouldn’t mind writing something on the topic of race and science fiction and fantasy, as I know it’s something that she thinks quite a lot about. She most excellently did, and I’m delighted to present it to you here.
Hey, folks. I’m Mary Anne Mohanraj. John’s kindly given me a space here to start a conversation about some of the useful points that came out of RaceFail ’09. Quick intro: nine years ago I started Strange Horizons, which has become one of the premiere SF/F magazines, and which once published one of John’s stories, which is how we met. I currently run the Speculative Literature Foundation, a non-profit arts organization that works to support SF/F, and I was a founding board member of the Carl Brandon Society, which works to support minorities in the field through various awards and other initiatives. In my day job, I write and publish fiction (mostly mainstream), and teach fiction writing and literature (mostly post-colonial) at the University of Illinois. Also, I was born in Sri Lanka, and have brown skin. So now you know where I’m coming from.
If you come into this discussion cold, without a long history of dealing with being a PoC (person of color) in the SF/F field, without practice in discussing race and privilege, you’re likely to find the sprawling imbroglio of RaceFail ’09 more than a little overwhelming. It can be emotionally difficult to handle, with a lot of grief and anger in the room. Also often quite off-putting, as there’s a lot of insults, threats, outings, harassment, and other nonsense flying around. I’m guessing that’s what led John to his initial response, that the discussion didn’t offer anything useful to him, that, in his assessment, it was a whole lot of noise for pathetically little signal. That was my initial reaction too.
But I kept reading, and slowly, my opinion changed. I learned (or re-learned, because sometimes this is an ongoing process and you need reminders) some things about race, privilege, writing, teaching, and about getting it wrong and being called out on it. That’s what I want to talk about now. These basic ideas about racism and privilege may all be very familiar to you, or they may be entirely new. Regardless, I think it’s helpful to think about these issues in the context of the SF/F community and its literature.
This is also not focused on:
…because I have already covered those topics elsewhere. If you haven’t read those brief pieces yet, I encourage you to go do so, and then come back. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
I offer you a few premises — feel free to disagree. I won’t tell you to shut up, or to stay out of this discussion, and neither will John — as long as you stay civil, that is. Promise. Here’s what I’m arguing:
Part I: For Everyone
- We’re all racist.
- If you’re white, you have white privilege.
- Your other oppressions don’t erase your white privilege.
- Racism does damage to the genre.
Part II: For Writers
- You get to write whatever you want, including CoC (characters of color).
- If published, you may then be criticized for your handling of race.
- PoC don’t have an obligation to teach you how to write CoC well and avoid criticism.
- Nonetheless, here are some suggestions on how to write CoC well.
- You will get it wrong. This is what you should do.
Part I: For Everyone
1. We’re all racist.
Nalo Hopkinson, a wonderful SF/F writer whose work I recommend to you, put this pithily in my blog comments when she said, “…many in the science fiction community — like many in all kinds of other communities — lack an understanding of racism as a system. It’s pretty tough to live in a system and be unaffected by it. That’s like floating in a pool of shit and claiming that you don’t smell. So whenever you have the urge to silence people by shouting, “I’m not racist!” it’s probably a good idea to take a long, hard think and ask yourself how in the world is that possible? Really, it isn’t. Not until a whole lot more about the world changes.”
That’s a starting assumption for me — the world is racist, the culture I grew up in is racist, I’ve internalized and carry around a hell of a lot of racist baggage, and on some deep level, many of my basic assumptions are racist. So are yours. That sucks. But I also don’t feel particularly guilty about it, and neither should you. It’s something you’ve inherited, living in this world. The onus now on you isn’t to wallow in guilt — it’s to be aware of these deep-buried attitudes, and consciously try to avoid letting them dictate your choices in life.
I should note that there’s an alternate and widely-used definition of racism that goes like this: We’re all prejudiced, because we grow up in a racist culture and we inherit those prejudices. But racism is a system of institutional, systemic oppression, and in order to be racist, you need both the prejudice + the power to affect people. By that definition, which a lot of progressives share, PoC (people of color) can’t be racist, because they don’t have any reinforcement from that institutionalized power. We may hold individual racist ideas and thoughts, but we only have the power to do damage with our actions in the rare, brief contexts where our other privileges temporarily override color privilege. A relative of mine may say racist things about black or white people in her own home, but when she engages with the wider world, as she must do daily, she’s just another brown girl, and is therefore at risk.
There’s a definite utility and sense to that definition, but it isn’t the one I normally use. Part of what often goes wrong in these discussions is that people are using two or three different definitions of racism, but don’t realize that they’re using different definitions. So for this piece, please understand that I generally use the definition of racism that argues that in the world we currently live in, everyone’s racist, and when I want to talk about prejudice + institutionalized power, I try to say so explicitly.
The corollary to ‘everyone’s racist’ is that you needn’t get too upset when someone notices and calls out your racism. Let’s say you make a stupid racist comment. A friend might say, “Damn, John, that was kind of racist.” It’d be really easy for John to get incredibly upset at that point, because for a lot of folks, ‘racist’ = the kind of extreme racist who burns crosses on people’s lawns and wants to lynch black people. But most of the time when I use the word ‘racist’ these days, I’m not talking about that kind of extreme action. I’m talking about the often subtle thoughts and words that emerge out of a culturally-conditioned subconscious. That’s the kind of racism I have to deal with on a regular basis (racism in others or myself), and that’s what I’m generally working to eliminate in my life.
So when John gets called out on his racism, the best response I can think of is for him to take a step back. To think about whether he actually said something stupid and racist. If he did, he should apologize and then move on — because pointing out he’s been racist is not a scathing attack on his character — it’s just someone pointing out that’s he’s messed up, like a friend pointing out that you’ve got snot hanging off your nose. Wipe up the snot, get on with your life. Or, if you think the person who called you out got it wrong (after fair and careful consideration of the subject, and keeping in mind that if you’re white and they’re a PoC, there’s a good chance that they have a hell of a lot more experience on this subject that you do), then that’s fine too. Maybe they misread your actions, or misunderstood you. It happens. Clarify, if you think it would be helpful. And then, again, move on.
I do think there are phrasings that help with calling people out. People are more likely to respond calmly to “Dude, wasn’t that kind of a racist thing to say?” than to “You’re so fucking racist!” (Jay Smooth has a great and funny video on the subject: How To Tell People They Sound Racist.) But when you’ve said something stupid and racist and in the process badly hurt somebody else, they’re not always going to be calm enough (or care enough) to choose the kindest phrasing to point out your mistake. Since you screwed up first, the onus is on you to handle the fallout and then try to fix the problem.
For a first step in practicing this, check out Ampersand’s How Not to be Insane When Accused of Racism.
2. If you’re white, you have white privilege.
John has talked eloquently about class privilege on this site. Privilege is not a bad word. When someone tells you that you’re privileged, it’s not an insult or an attack on your character. It’s just a fact, a set of traits that you may have inherited by virtue of your gender, your class background, your body type, your sexual orientation. Your race.
Privilege is a smooth road. When you have privilege, you still have to travel from point A to point B to get what you want. It may tire you out. But the road you walk is smooth. It’s paved. The sun is shining and birds are chirping and there’s a cool breeze helping you along. You don’t even notice that your road is smooth; you expect it to be, and it is, so you walk it. Whereas the less privileged person beside you, also trying to get from point A to point B? There are potholes in his road. There are man-made barriers that he has to climb over. There may be a pit of snakes. Oh, and it’s raining, and he can’t afford a coat or umbrella. Sucks to be him.
This is not to say that your road is always and entirely smooth. Just the portion of it affected by race, in the case of white privilege. Or the portion of it affected by gender, in the case of male privilege. And so on. This doesn’t invalidate the individual and specific pain you may feel as you walk your road, because you have chronic arthritis, and your son has cancer, your boss is a sociopath, and your marriage is falling apart. We all have our individual pain. Privilege is the absence of pain in areas you can’t even see.
White privilege is a way of saying that in a racist society (and whether you’re living in America or elsewhere, I’d argue that they’re all racist societies), being white gets you privilege. Sometimes less, sometimes more. There are small exceptions here and there, pockets of time and place where maybe being white is going to screw you over. Yes. But overwhelmingly, it goes the other way, and if you are one of the handful of white people who have experienced real racial discrimination, you should ask yourself whether bringing that up in the middle of a discussion about the overwhelming institutionalized racism against people of color is actually going to be helpful. And remember that because privilege is a smooth and invisible road, the vast majority of the time, you can’t even see how privileged your road is, compared to the brown people standing next to you. That’s not your fault; it’s just the way it is.
The classic essay on this subject, that I highly recommend, is Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. And this is a great and moving piece on white privilege in white minority contexts, from a contemporary SF/F writer.
3. Your other oppressions don’t erase your white privilege.
This is an error I see so damn often in these discussions. Someone comes into a room and says, “Hey, we’re all racist, and based on that thing you just said, so are you.” Sometimes they skip saying the first part, probably because for them it’s been a baseline assumption for so long that they don’t even realize it still needs saying, that it might be totally new to you. Maybe they follow that up by saying, “You don’t think that was racist? You don’t understand, because you’re white. You don’t understand my pain. You can never understand what it’s like to be a PoC in this country.”
And people get defensive, because hey, no one likes being called racist (not even me). They think — hey, my life has totally sucked. I’m female, or poor, or oppressed because of my religion or lack thereof. I’m child-free, or a geek, or queer, or fat. I’m living with disability every damn day. My father raped me. My mother was an alcoholic. I have suffered, dammit, so don’t tell me that I don’t know what suffering is.
There’s a fundamental slippage here. Because the thing is, you don’t know. You know other suffering, yes. But it’s not a contest. It’s not a ‘my pain is bigger than your pain’ debate. The question is whether you have experienced a particular thing — whether, in a culture of institutionalized racism, you have walked down the street in a brown or yellow or red or black skin, and dealt with the consequences therein. That’s all. Because while there’s a damn good chance that you’ve suffered more than me (I’ve led a relatively sheltered life for a PoC, insulated by being part of the model minority, and by my family’s upper-middle-class status), that’s still not the point. The point has to do with specific experience.
One small example: On September 11, 2001, I got on a bus leaving the campus where I taught in Salt Lake City. I was still shaken by what I’d seen on the news, still worried about a friend of mine who worked in the Twin Towers, whom I hadn’t yet been able to reach. I got on that bus, and the bus driver, the passengers, everyone else on that bus, all of those overwhelmingly white faces, turned to me and there was this look on their faces. A look that said — ‘oh no, a scary brown person — maybe she’s one of them’. Based solely on the color of my skin. It shocked and scared me, and for the next ten minutes, I tried to sit very quietly and be as non-threatening as I knew how. Was this terrible suffering on my part? No. But it is race-specific, and if you were a white person in that time and place, you could not have known how I felt. You may have had other experiences of getting a bus and facing hostile stares for other reasons — your clothes, your disability, your fatness. But it’s not the same experience.
4. Racism does damage to the genre.
Maybe you never actually say or even think anything racist. (If so, you’re doing better than I am.) I hope you still choose to engage with these issues, because this shit is hurting us. Institutionalized racism is a massive structural system that leads to whole groups of people getting passed over for jobs because their names sound too ‘ethnic’ or too ‘black’. Whole communities get sidelined into reservations, with all the social ills that causes, and then have it blamed on themselves. It’s not single acts of hatred or fear that make those things possible; it’s a system that the dominant culture creates that gives permission to and often encourages those acts in the aggregate.
For literature, such racism leads to writers of color not getting their work published. Or only published if it falls into certain narrow ‘exotic’ categories. (Sometime soon I’ll get my analysis of South Asian book covers up on the web, and talk about why S. Asian women’s book covers do such damage to the writers’ books and careers.) In fifteen years of involvement in SF/F, I’ve met fewer than 30 writers of color — compared to literally several hundred white writers. The lack of writers of color, and of white writers writing characters of color, leads to a lack of literature featuring such characters — which leads to fans of color deciding that SF/F isn’t meant for them, because there’s no one in the stories who looks like them. Or if there is, they’re always the villain, or the emasculated sidekick, or the whore.
Too often, when people of color start pointing out the racism inherent in such representations, white writers and their fans become defensive about work they love. They fall right back into #1 above — too upset that they think they’ve been tarred with the brush of racism to engage in a real discussion of what they might have actually done that was racist, that caused damage. That’s how this whole RaceFail discussion started. That’s the kind of reaction we need to learn how to move past.
This is all basically Racism 101. If you’re looking for a friendly place where anyone is welcome to come and learn more about bingo cards, spoons, cookies, white privilege, how not to be insane when accused of racism, etc. and so on, please let me direct you to the newly formed Livejournal community Racism 101, where all of your questions will be answered, without mockery, by people more patient than I. This is the short version.
I was going to go on to talk about what writers can do to combat this in their fiction, but this is already long, so I’m going to save that for a separate post. Writers, stay tuned for Part II, coming on Friday.
For readers, if you love literature, what you can do to help support writers of color and combat institutionalized racism is simple — read their books. There’s a challenge going on right now — read 50 books this year by people of color. Any genre, and no need for them to be serious, heavy books. Comics count. Cookbooks count. For more details on the challenge, and book recommendations, visit the 50 Books_POC Livejournal Community. The Carl Brandon Society also offers some reading lists that can help you get started if you’re interested in genre fiction. (They also take donations and love volunteers, of any color.) And I encourage you to start discussions of your favorite films, tv shows, and literature — where are they racist? Where do they go horribly, horribly wrong? And on the other end, because this is valuable too — which novels, shows, movies are getting it right? Talk about the best and the worst, so that we can all learn how to make better art together.
Finally, for everyone, if you want to combat racism in our society, the best suggestion I can make is that you call it out when you see it (with a focus on what racist thing has been said or done, rather than on what people are), and try to handle accusations with grace when people call you out on your own racism.
I know a lot of white folks who have been following this are now very scared of getting it wrong, of being called out on their internalized, unsuspected racism by the scary PoC. And all I can say to you is — this stuff is hard, and with the best of intentions, you will get it wrong sometimes. I do too. That sucks, but racism is a huge, painful, intractable problem deeply embedded in our society, so it’s not surprising that the fix isn’t going to be easy. But the answer is never going to come from white folks or people of color sitting back on their hands and refusing to participate in the discussion. Come on in and talk about it. We’ll figure this out together.
Okay. Any questions?
Edited to Add: Part II of this essay is here.