Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Racism, Cultural Appropriation, and Completely Missing the Point

A white writer who's apparently been watching the fall-out from the Cultural Appropriation Discussion of Doom* which has been sweeping across the internets and somehow managed to miss the most important parts, posts here.

I love how he states up front that there are Two Sides To The Issue (look, Ma! I'm being fair!) but then only snarks at one side. Smooth.

Aside from that, though, what I see as a white writer who in all honestly has been there up until a very few years ago, is that this guy and others like him are seeing this:

1) White Writer Writes Story About Characters Of Color (COC)

2) People of Color (POC) Tear Out White Writer's Eyeballs

He's seeing only the most obvious, shallowest layer of the interaction. Or looked at another way, he's seeing only the loudest, brightest bits of the interaction. Either way, he's missing the (slightly) quieter bits that happened in between those two events. Actually, it looked like this:

1) White Writer Writes Story About COC

2) POC Calmly Offer Concrit, Pointing Out Some Racist Issues

3) White Writer Acknowledges Error, Thanks POC and Apologizes

4) White Writer's Friends Interpret The POC's Statement As Telling Their Friend "You Are A Filthy Racist!!!" And Respond In Writer's Defense With Snarky Chainsaws And Racist Flamethrowers

5) POC Stomp Friends For Their Racist Attack [EDITED because "flame" has connotations which don't fit here.]

6) White Writer Gets Defensive, Attacks On Behalf Of Friends

7) POC Tear Out White Writer's Eyeballs

What's really frustrating about this is that if the sequence had stopped after 3) then everyone and everything would've been cool. Barring that, if folks like Mr. Levine had actually seen what really happened, and noticed steps 2-6 in between 1 and 7, he'd have known exactly how to prevent 4-7 from happening to him, wouldn't have gone into a fit of frozen terror, and could've had a quiet discussion with his friends -- maybe made a post to his journal -- talking about how he does his best when writing COC but realizes that he might make some inadvertent mistakes, and how he'd welcome and appreciate concrit from anyone who sees a problem in his portrayals and treatments, letting said friends know that he would not want them to come dogpiling onto anyone who might ever point out to him that his Black female is behaving stereotypically in Paragraph 12 or whatever. There you go, that's all it takes.

He doesn't see that, though. All he sees is a bunch of POC and their allies swooping down with their flamethrowers for no good reason he can tell. That makes it an uncontrollable situation from his POV. Since he can't think of anything he could do to prevent it happening to him, or to keep a racial concrit discussion in his journal from turning into a mushroom cloud, he feels helpless and afraid.

Anyone who's actually studied the issue of racism knows that there are plenty of journals and web sites all over the place explaining what's what and how to deal with this stuff. Mr. Levine doesn't know that, though, and because he already believes he knows everything there is to know about racism -- what's to know, after all, besides not hating people for their skin color? [sigh] -- he's never thought to go looking. He doesn't know what he doesn't know, so he sees only the most shallow and blatant characteristics of a conversation or interaction about racism.

I realize that the fact that it's ignorance rather than malice at work here doesn't make any practical difference from the POV of a POC. If someone punches you in the nose, it really doesn't matter whether they meant to do it or were just flailing around blindly -- it hurts the same either way. And when you get "accidentally" punched in the nose on a daily basis, it gets harder and harder to give a damn that 90% of the punches weren't deliberate.

From my POV, though, as a white person who used to be like Mr. Levine but has since learned better -- I stood up and took a good verbal/textual smacking-around back in '06, and it blasted me out of my rut, or at least up onto the rim of the crater, where I can see the territory I have still to explore -- I see what's going on with him and have some hope that he, too, might some day learn better. He has to want to, and he has to realize he needs to, and then he has to go out and put in the time and effort to educate himself. It's possible, though. He's annoying right now, yes, but there's a potential cool, aware person in there. I'll keep a set of virtual fingers crossed for him.

[*If you've missed the CADoD, start here, read the linked posts, then keep clicking the green right-arrow at the top of each link-list post to go on to the next list of links and repeating, until you get it or your brain fries. Note that in some, particularly the first one, most of the "good stuff" is in the comments. Or if you only want to read two posts, read this for an example of concrit regarding race, this for an example of how to respond to concrit regarding race, and the comments to the second link for how not to respond if a writer friend of yours gets racial concrit.]


Internet Posts

How Not to Be Insane When Accused of Racism -- if you only read one, read this one.

Ally Work -- Suggested Reading -- an excellent list of links.

The Angry Black Woman's Required Reading List -- another very good list of links, particularly the first one, "Anger Does Not Equal Hate."

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack -- if you're white and are sure you don't get any benefit from it, read this. Or even if you know what white privilege is, read this anyway because it's excellent.

White Privilege in SF/Fantasy -- a more specific analysis, great to read right after the one directly above this.

Excuses, Excuses -- great post, but I particularly love the roller-skating race analogy.

[Added] Ursula K. Le Guin on the TV Earthsea -- the writer responds to television's whitewashing of her characters.


Writing the Other -- Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, Aquaduct Press

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race -- Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., Basic Books



Ann Somerville said...

I have to say, this is where I miss fandom. The pro publishing attempts to discuss such weighty issues as prejudice, tokenism, racism, and appropriation inevitably end in FAIL (witness the intelligent, calm and measured response to the recent 'Beautiful Cocksucker' imbroglio.)

Levine's behaving like a whiny cry baby. There's a lot of it about. But no doubt his fans and fellow authors are clustering around him mopping his fevered brow as we speak. There may even be a few PoC fans who are assuring him they're not offended, so he doesn't have to worry.

And nothing will change. Sigh.

My own take on Levine's dilemma - i.e. writing PoC - is here. Comments welcome, especially if I'm showing my arse. Would like to know that, stat.

Angie said...

Fandom definitely has a lot more of its act together on this subject. [nod] Which isn't to say there isn't still plenty of ignorance to go around -- enough to fuel great, heated debates every few months -- but there do seem to be more people in fandom who've actually educated themselves about racism, or are working on doing so, and who at least get the basic issues.

Mr. Levine certainly isn't presenting himself very well here, I'll agree. But as I said, I can empathize with him. He's coming from a position of blind ignorance, and he has no idea there's a whole, huge topic out there he knows nothing about. The world isn't behaving the way he thinks it should, based on what he knows. To him, there are accusations of racism falling out of the sky at random like meteors, and I get how that can seem scary.

The problem is that rather than studying some astronomy and figuring out what's up with all those meteors and what the pattern is in how they move, he's huddling with his umbrella and complaining about how unfair it is that it doesn't protect him from the falling rocks. Because it's supposed to, you know? :/

And yes, I agree that anyone who's giving him pats and hugs and e-cookies isn't doing him any favors. But then, they probably have the same problems of ignorance that he does, so they don't know any better either. That's how this mess perpetuates itself.

Oh, and I didn't see any ass showing in your post. I loved the "How [not] to Write About Africa" link, though. [eyeroll]


laughingwolf said...

if one makes an inadvertent error, own up, rectify, learn... move on

great post, angie :D

Angie said...

LW -- yes, that's pretty much how it's supposed to work. The subject of race makes some people crazy, though. [sigh] Thanks!