tpuel;dr (puella_nerdii) wrote,

RaceFail '09; or, Art Does Not Exist in a Vacuum

I've done my best to avoid the whole RaceFail debacle so far for a number of reasons, chief among them that while I can point and laugh at wank with the best of them, what I read of RaceFail gave me hives. I had, and have, a lot of respect and admiration for some of the authors featured most prominently in the fracas -- at the very least, I think some of them are capable of producing damned good work. (I still love Elizabeth Bear's Stratford Man duology with all of my Shakespeare-fangirling heart.) And yeah, sometimes -- often, even -- good artists are capable of being great idiots, but it's disappointing and painful to see people whose works you've admired repeatedly Not Getting It.

But, well. They're Not Getting It.

I want to go back and examine the crux of the matter, or what this started out as: Bear's post on writing the other. I'm not going to do a line-by-line analysis of what she said, I'm more interested in addressing the question, because it's an important one. How do you write someone else -- more to the point, how do you respectfully and thoughtfully portray a person disadvantaged in an area you have privilege in, privileges that have historically had and continue to have very real consequences for those lacking them?

I'm reminded of the talkback for my college's annual ten-minute-play festival that showcases pieces where women are the protagonists and the antagonists, where women, for once, drive the dramatic action of the play. (Trust me, there's a need for that kind of theatre. Also, I don't mean to imply by this that the challenges women face are the challenges persons of color face, or that because I'm a woman and lack privilege in that respect, I therefore understand what it's like to be a person of color. I don't. I won't. The tools of oppression might be the same, but their personal meaning sure as hell isn't. The point I'm sort of meandering around here is that privilege isn't an all-or-nothing prospect -- we have god knows how many ways of categorizing people, and I'm privileged in some of those categories, and I'm not in others, and my privileges or lack thereof come into play at different times depending on where and when I am.) Someone raised the question near the end about how to treat female characters when writing this kind of a play: does their gender come to the forefront, or are they characters who just happen to be women? My response was that these characters' gender is a part of who they are, but not the part, and that like with any other components of our identity -- ethnicity, occupation, roles in friendship and kinship and other social systems, etc etc etc -- its prominence in our conceptualization of ourselves varies. It informs who we are, but it doesn't dictate who we are. And I think the same answer holds true when you're writing characters of color, since that's what the debate's really centered on, but it's only part of the answer.

Art does not exist in a vacuum. When we write, we have to be conscious not only of the world we're writing about, but the world we're writing in, and the people we're writing for. And again, our cultural context doesn't dictate what we produce, but it sure as hell informs it, and I think good artists should be both conscious of this and in dialogue with it. If I as a white person write a novel where the villain is a large, muscular, menacing black man (for example), that carries meaning with it beyond the words I put on the page. It calls to mind decades and centuries of degrading stereotypes, and it creates associations with those stereotypes in the minds of my readers, who have also been bombarded with those images and patterns and have their own responses to them. If I as a white person get into a debate with a fan of color and chide them for becoming too emotional, or basing their arguments on emotional response rather than rational analysis, that carries with it cultural connotations. I might not intend to make ignorant or offensive remarks. I don't think most of the people involved in this meant to attack fans of color or make them feel unwelcome. But regardless of what they intended, they did. Intent isn't everything. Intent is read and filtered through layers upon layers of personal context, and people are not wrong for applying personal contexts to their readings of the world, whether those personal contexts be years of formal academic training or years growing frustrated with certain harmful and pervasive stereotypes. To apply this in a broader artistic context: the author's voice matters. So does the audience's, and so does the voice of everyone involved in shaping and developing the work in question, and that confluence is what produces meaning, though meaning is both personal and variable.

Racism is a touchy subject. That's an understatement. People accused of being racist will generally go to great lengths to demonstrate that they are not, in fact, racist. Lord knows I will. But like it or not, I'm a product of a culture where race is a very real and very prominent social construct, and I've been socialized into this culture, and to some degree I've accepted and absorbed the messages and images and common-sense teachings about race that are so prevalent in my culture. This doesn't make me a bad person, but it does mean I need to be a conscious one. I need to know the kind of world I live in, and I need to know what any remarks on my part might mean in the context of that world. And if I as a writer try to capture what subjective reality is like for someone other than myself, and I screw up in my construction of that, I'll own up to it and engage in dialogue about what's going on and what things might be informing what I wrote. In the end, I might not agree, but I can do my best to understand. I can accept someone else's worldview as valid and coherent in context without embracing it and denouncing my own, and I think that's what a lot of people are missing here. Someone else's perspective being valid doesn't invalidate yours, it just means that what they do and see and think makes sense because of who they are and where and when they're from.

The key word in all of this is "dialogue," of course, because this kind of understanding can't be reached if no one talks about it. Silence is the greatest enemy of social change, because if nobody's asking questions, assumptions go unchallenged, and they shouldn't be. So I'm talking about it, and I'm doing all I can to listen and understand.

I'll fess up: the other big reason I stayed out of this was because as a fan of Bear's and of many others involved in this, I felt attacked by proxy, as though I was being told that enjoying their books condoned and perpetuated racism and elitism and lord knows how many other isms. I was wrong. That was my own defensiveness coming into play, and I recognize that, and I recognize that calling "zomgoppression" in this context is, frankly, an assy move on my part. I also recognize that people I otherwise admire can, at times, be boneheads. The eyebrow-raising part comes not from the initial screw-up, but from repeated refusals to acknowledge and apologize for said screw-up. I hate it when fictional characters do that, and I don't like the trait much in real people, either.

So I end this post with a clear restatement of a policy I've always tried to implement: if I screw up, tell me. If you're in a position to know, and what I'm saying doesn't match what you know, tell me. We might not agree, but we can try to understand.

And recommendations for good SF/F writers of color -- especially women writers of color -- in the comments wouldn't be amiss. I mean, I've read everything by Octavia Butler and I adore her, but she's just the tip of the iceberg.
Tags: meta(stasis), socially relevant!
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