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19 March 2009 @ 09:54 pm
On Good White, Evil Black, metaphor, and racism  
This is a response to a post of acrimonyastraea's in moondancerdrake lj; she says: And also, there's the history of the genre as it relates to racism to consider. Do Drows reflect racist stereotoypes per se? I don't know. But they are at the very least part of a pattern of portraying dark-skinned people as evil or less honorable, heroic, worthy of admiration, more animalistic, primitive, etc. While lighter skin has very consistently been more valued and is used as a shortcut to communicate purity and honor in fantasy and sci-fi. This reflects conscious or unconscious racism among mostly white writers.

I realized my response should be a post, so here it is:


Well, there are at least two different things going on with the light/dark thing, and they interact.

One is absolutely latent racism; there are plenty of examples in sf/f where it's clear that real races are being mangled into painful stereotypes. And this bases itself off more cues than just the skin tone; it's seen in a very large set of possible racial biases/stereotypes.

The other is that humans are diurnal critters. The sun makes us feel better. Dark grey days are gloomy. and we're scared of the dark, for (evolutionarily) very good reasons. Having "a light in darkness" makes us feel better, partly because it lets us see. And all over the world, in every language known, vision is used as a metaphor1 (I think the main metaphor) for knowledge, and lack of vision for ignorance. There is nothing inherently racist in saying that someone is "enlightened" or "in the dark" -- that's based on our ways of gaining sensory input.

In addition, white and black (and generally red,too) are supernatural colors the world over. There is a physiological basis for this too, I think, but it's more complicated; let's just allow for now that they strike chords? And (I think because of the way light and darkness affect us psychologically), black is most often the color of danger, evil, and death the world over. Not always; traditionally, Hindu widows wear white, and the family wears white at Chinese funerals; and medieval European queens wore "white mourning".  Ghosts most typically are seen as white or wearing white, and vampires are of course prototypically "pale as death".  But one wears black at funerals in most places, and the base historical/cognitive reason is not racist.  Neither is it inherently racist for the Good Knight to wear a white tabard while the Evil Knight wears a black one. Boringly simplistic, yes, but not racist.

However
, the metaphor has been racialized. Be weird if it hadn't, right, given how nicely the two fit together? *sigh*  And the way Christian missionaries put it all together is appalling.  Perhaps someone better versed in history can tell me -- were there people before the big missionary/colonial waves who mixed these two things up so thoroughly, and claimed that the white skin of Europeans was a sign of superiority/goodness/enlightenment/knowledge and the dark skin of people... almost everywhere else... was a sign of savagery/evil/ignorance/false gods?

This way of thinking, of course, fed and feeds into the "savage/violent" (thus dangerous) and "evil" stereotypes of darker-skinned races, and has made it that much harder for us to shake the stereotypes.  Because once that connection was made, it linked white-to-dark racism into that primal fear of scary monsters in the night.


What this means is that I while wouldn't call it racism to think in terms of this metaphor, blindness to its racialization by the dominant culture hurts POC, and our allies need to realize and understand that, and undrstand that the racialization is ongoing and not just historical. And not listening when we say so, that's deeply dismissive. 

But I think it'd help if that's what we said, rather than mixing everything together as ZOMG racism.  I do think people are more likely to hear "Okay, there are cultural/historical/cognitive reasons you made this choice that have nothing to do with me, but because of the way this primary metaphor's been used against darker-skinned people, your usage is hurtful" than they are to hear "You hurt me, you racist you."
ETA please note dichroic's response to this!   

I would guess that entities like the Drow are a product of a) the metaphor and b) the convenient color coding of good and evil, in both folktales and (then) roleplaying games -- places where people didn't want think too hard about why something is evil. The hero rides a white horse. The evil sorceror wears black. (Though, elves being good because they're bright and shiny, and Bad Elves thus being dark, is I think only a D&Dthing. Historically the bright shiny elves were anything but nice.)

And.  I strongly suspect that Bear's Pooka is black because Pookas are historically most often black (a sign of the otherworld, along with their golden or red eyes, and of danger); that's a product of history and metaphor.  However, she clearly missed the racialized reading of the scene, which other people picked up on,because she wasn't seeing it from that point of view.  That would mean the scene is neither objectively "Not About Race" or objectively "Racist", but depending on the cultural framing/knowledge one brings, could be either2

So thinking about this as a writer -- the people I least want to hurt are the ones most likely to bring in cultural knowledge I lack, so if I make someone furious over something I don't see at all, I need to realize I'm missing a major part of their picture, rather than assume they're talking nonsense.  This is a big part of "shut up and listen" that I think is often missed -- "shut up and listen -- and assume that the other person has a real point and try to find it".

And thinking about it as a reader -- if a writer I otherwise have reason to respect says or does something that I find entirely appalling, I need to realize that it may look different from where they stand, and try to figure out what happened and how they and I are thinking differently before rather than after flinging labels around.  It's easy to do when angry and appalled, but it moves me further away from finding mutual understanding and thus being able to communicate how they horrified me.  I cannot give them the missing piece of information/framing if I start off assuming it's something less subtle than it is.  If I start off assuming it's something more subtle, well, I'll just get a blank look and can try again.


Notes

1. Brief aside about metaphor: metaphors are not just literary devices.  They constrain and shape the way we think.  When I say knowledge is metaphorically understood as vision, I mean we think, and not just talk, about knowledge as vision.  Fixme: Cites, links, etc

2. This is not the same as saying both are equally valid.  I am not saying all cultural frameworks and presuppositions are equally valid, merely that none of them are objective reality, they're all products of cognition, so treating them as such is useful.
 
 
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
 
 
 
Sherry Vernet: manga-meevilprodigy on March 20th, 2009 06:14 am (UTC)
Very well said, Shweta. Thank you, I may have to link people to this if I hear any more cries of "there's nothing racist about the Drow/the Orcs!" from the indignantly unwilling-to-believe-in-fantasy-racism.

- Katie
Dichroicdichroic on March 20th, 2009 06:28 am (UTC)
There you go being all nuanced again. Next you'll start expecting people to argue as if an issue isn't clearly black and -

oh, wait.
Dichroicdichroic on March 20th, 2009 06:31 am (UTC)
And if that wasn't clear, I think this is an especially birlliant point:
"But I think it'd help if that's what we said, rather than mixing everything together as ZOMG racism. I do think people are more likely to hear "Okay, there are cultural/historical/cognitive reasons you made this choice that have nothing to do with me, but because of the way this primary metaphor's been used against darker-skinned people, your usage is hurtful" than they are to hear "You hurt me, you racist you.""

Though it works two ways or otherwise we're expecting the victim to bear the burden of educating again. We also need to be able to think, "So-and-so called me racist. There are cultural/historical/cognitive reasons I made this choice that have nothing to do with her, but because of the way this primary metaphor's been used against darker-skinned people in the past, I can see where my usage is hurtful even though that wasn't my intent. I goofed."
Now without edit fail... - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 06:39 am (UTC) (Expand)
Which is to say - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 06:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Now without edit fail... - dichroic on March 20th, 2009 07:06 am (UTC) (Expand)
Which is to say - dichroic on March 20th, 2009 07:07 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Now without edit fail... - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 07:22 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - moondancerdrake on March 20th, 2009 01:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Alex Haisthowl_at_the_sun on March 20th, 2009 08:06 am (UTC)
I understand most of the argument, but not its conclusion.

I get lost here: "there are cultural/historical/cognitive reasons you made this choice that have nothing to do with me, but because of the way this primary metaphor's been used against darker-skinned people, your usage is hurtful."

Does that mean that it is inappropriate to use primary metaphors that have been twisted, but also mean things other than the twisting? The darkness / black is a really good example here, because it's so common place. It's in the fabric of English, at least, with all the vision metaphors.
Is it just when it gets used for skin color that it is hurtful, or does it extend beyond that?
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 08:21 am (UTC)
It means once the usage has been twisted in such a way, you have to be really damn careful how you use it.

We can't not use light/dark metaphors. They're the primary way to comprehend major domains of abstract thought. But we need to be aware that they can evoke racist notions, and be double-careful Not To Go There.

So... not that I'm terribly interested in simplified Good/Evil, but say, if the evil sorceror is a creature made of black smoke? Sure you could do that. But if it speaks a dialect of English associated with darker-skinned people, or uses non-European PaganMagicTM, or wants to steal white women, or if there's a group of Heroic White Folk going in to kill it or bind it... well, don't be surprised at the outcry.

And, as has been shown, if you're using the traditional Irish tale-form in which a (white) woman binds a black horse-man, and that's good -- and you're steeped in that culture and the black means only supernatural danger to you -- well, you could easily miss how it matches a really bad pattern. (For the record, I am much more familiar with Irish folklore than with the history of race'ngender relations in th US, where I did not grow up -- and I missed it too.) But it still does match that pattern well enough to upset people.
(no subject) - howl_at_the_sun on March 20th, 2009 08:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 08:34 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - frostfox on March 25th, 2009 01:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
karen meisner_stranger_here on March 20th, 2009 12:51 pm (UTC)
This is beautifully said, thank you. I've been thinking about the uses of racialized symbolism, how it gets thrown into fiction in ways that are somewhere between "Not About Race" and "Racist".

Something related came up on Jeff Ford's blog a few days ago when it was pointed out that Bela Lugosi's Dracula wears a large six-pointed star. The discussion over there is coming at the question from practical angles and the responses seem to be mostly focusing on provenance of the object and how it's not an actual Jewish star, but I thought it was more interesting to think about the sorts of unconscious decisions that go into using that kind of symbolism. When a movie is made in 1931 suggesting a connection between blood-drinkers and Jews (who for centuries have been accused of killing Christian children for their blood), it's not something I can look upon as remotely harmless. And yet I'm not inclined to accuse the filmmakers of purposeful anti-Semitism. What I wrote at Jeff's LJ was this:

I think there's an interpretation somewhere in between overt Jewish reference and innocent coincidence. When presenting a character who stands outside of the Christian world as something foreign and secretive, you reach for whatever images conjure up that feeling of mysterious Otherness.

I'm playing devil's advocate here, because I'm Jewish and my gut reaction is to assume anti-Semitism. But I'd like to think that sometimes these things are not done with full intention. I find thoughtlessness a more reassuring interpretation than a deliberate mapping of Jew to vampire.

I'm not sure it's a conscious effort to invoke Jew-fright, so much as just the fright of the threatening unknown. I do believe Jew-fright would have been fully present behind the choice to stick that star on Lugosi, and an awareness of blood libel informed the audience's reading too. But sometimes people use symbols for their emotional associations, without bothering to think through the cultural ramifications of *why* they have those emotional associations.

Or what effect they will have on an audience. Because of course, regardless of what went into the wardrobe choice, the effect on the audience is to make or strengthen that association.

In other words, you might have the feeling that a prop looks effectively "sinister" without bothering to think through why it gives you that feeling.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's disturbing and fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

I think your example is closer to "actually racist" on the scale than mine necessarily are -- would you agree? Since there would have to be actual anti-semitism for a 6-pointed star to hit "threat" buttons, whereas the Drow seem to me to be based in the light-dark metaphor and intended to be independent of darker-skinned human races (though that doesn't work, because of aforementioned racialization).

So if that's right, I start to see a progression:

Not racially offensive > Clueless error > Careless error > racialized symbol subconsciously primed > outright racist
(no subject) - _stranger_here on March 20th, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - _stranger_here on March 20th, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 04:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - _stranger_here on March 20th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 05:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - _stranger_here on March 20th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - adrian_turtle on March 22nd, 2009 09:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 23rd, 2009 02:43 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - adrian_turtle on March 23rd, 2009 06:57 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 23rd, 2009 07:11 am (UTC) (Expand)
moondancerdrakemoondancerdrake on March 20th, 2009 01:05 pm (UTC)
I am so glad you wrote this. Thank you.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you right back! I was a bit scared to post it because of all the fail, but I refuse to let the fail stop me.
(So I've got your back!)
(no subject) - moondancerdrake on March 20th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - moondancerdrake on March 20th, 2009 02:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
jordan179jordan179 on March 20th, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC)
... were there people before the big missionary/colonial waves who mixed these two things up so thoroughly, and claimed that the white skin of Europeans was a sign of superiority/goodness/enlightenment/knowledge and the dark skin of people... almost everywhere else... was a sign of savagery/evil/ignorance/false gods?

Not as explicitly (because, before the Reformation and even more the Enlightenment, few people needed an excuse to treat foreigners badly), but the medieval Europeans did notice that they were on the average lighter-skinned than the Moslems, and this birthed the stereotype of "dark-skinned paynims."

shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
Good to know, thank you.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 21st, 2009 05:59 am (UTC) (Expand)
whswhswhswhs on March 20th, 2009 01:31 pm (UTC)
When you oppose "objective reality" to "products of cognition" (in your second note), is that meant to convey that the two are mutually exclusive categories? If so, then in your view, is that mutually exclusive relationship, in your view, a product of cognition or an objective reality? It looks to me as if it's an element in some people's conceptual frameworks but not others (it's not, for example, part of mine). If that makes it a product of cognition, then asserting it seems to fall into the fallacy of self-exclusion. On the other hand, if you take it to be an objective reality, then how is it that we have access to that particular objective reality?

What degree of moral responsibility in this sort of dialogue rests on people who are critical of racial implications? Your statements imply that it is not sufficient to go straight from "I can read this text as embodying racial biases that hurt or offend me" to "the author of this text is expressing racial hostility" (as Tolkien put it, there's a difference between allegory and applicability); that feelings of being the target of racism do not immediately or irrefutably prove that someone is the target of racism. Do people who have such feelings have moral responsibilities regarding how they act on them or express them?
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 02:19 pm (UTC)
Um...

I think objective reality is something that affects all our senses, but since we sense the world through (we increasingly learn) an active construction from minimal cues, our experience of reality is not the same thing as objective reality. And much of that construction is top-down, informed by previous experience. More than we realize.

By the time you get to things as high-level as language and narrative, there is just no hope for unfiltered understanding independent of experience. Experience has given us the frameworks that let us make any sense at all of any of it.

We do still live in the real world, though, and we've evolved to cope with it pretty well, so the products of our cognition are grounded in reality. (They're also parts of objective reality, as they are physical brain states in entities that actually, y'know, exist. But that's pretty irrelevant to the discussion.)

Would you call mutually exclusive? I can't really tell; depends on how you're thinking about it. But perhaps more to your later point, I will claim something as more than my opinion, despite having no direct experience of objective reality, when there's empirical evidence to back it up. As there is -- a rather large body from several different fields.

I don't think I get to say what moral responsibilities other people have. I think I can talk about what's useful/productive, and if it is useful/productive to them, they will benefit from my saying so, and thus everyone wins. But as I said in response to an earlier post, I'm not an authority who gets to draw other people's lines.

What I can say is that anyone who harms other people -- and doesn't then feel really awful about the fact and try to understand and minimize that harm -- is no friend of mine. The only exception I can think of is if the person they harm is a menace of some sort, physical or psychological, and the action is a pretty unambiguous defense of self or others.

"Harm", of course, is hard enough to define that this is not a simple statement with easy judgments down the line. Still, it's as simple as my statements get :)
(no subject) - moondancerdrake on March 20th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - whswhs on March 20th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - whswhs on March 20th, 2009 03:35 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 04:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - whswhs on March 20th, 2009 05:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - whswhs on March 20th, 2009 09:10 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
On holding authority - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 04:13 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Erik Amundsencucumberseed on March 20th, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
Very well thought and followed through quite well. As far as the color/morality encoding in western Europe, it's at least as old as the beginning of the middle ages, though I'm not certain how attached it was to race in the earlier days. I suspect it got moreso around the time of the Crusades, but this is really, really rusty history I'm rummaging through, so beware.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure the color/morality encoding goes back a long way, since you can see the metaphor in words like "divine", which (note how it means either "godlike" or "to know, figure out"?) comes from proto-Indo-European root *deiwos, which means something like "bright, shining". It's related to Sanskrit "Deva", among other words.

Oh, and! - shweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 04:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Oh, and! - cucumberseed on March 20th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Madman Across the Water: Hermitmadmanatw on March 20th, 2009 06:19 pm (UTC)
I just wanted to say thank you for writing this.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 20th, 2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome *smiles*
(Also! Wombat!)
opheliastornopheliastorn on March 21st, 2009 07:15 am (UTC)
Thank you for writing this. You've laid out the case very well - I don't know if it's just because I've been missing the relevant posts, but I don't recall seeing much discussion of the fact that the black-white symbolism dealie isn;t necessarily about skin colour, but that at the same time, it really is necessary to watch yourself when you're employing it.

Would you mind if I add you to my friends list? I loved your story in "Strange Horizons," and I would like to keep up with your writing, both fiction and meta.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 21st, 2009 08:21 am (UTC)
I think I'd phrase what I'm saying as "it isn't necessarily about skin color to one group, but that doesn't stop it being about skin color to another group, since meaning is context-sensitive".

Th thing being that meaning seems so real to us, so obvious, but it's not as shared as we think. But ... well, I don't know if any other linguists are talking about this, so it might not have come up. I have been utterly unable to follow the whole thing, and stopped trying a few weeks ago.

I'd be happy to be on your friends list! And I have good news for you in my next post (well *really* good news for me, but I think you'll like it too...) I'm very glad you liked Nira and I! Thanks for coming by :)
(no subject) - opheliastorn on March 21st, 2009 09:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 21st, 2009 09:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - opheliastorn on March 21st, 2009 10:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
treetelling on March 21st, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this post - I am saving it for future reference. As a church music director, I have been struggling with the incredible amount of white/light=goodness and black/dark=evil language in the hymns and anthems for quite some time, and this is an excellent reminder for me to be more stringent about rewording or rejecting such language, and to explain why I am doing this.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 22nd, 2009 03:35 am (UTC)
I would guess that overall light/shadow language is (mostly) race-neutral, while black(or dark)/white language is not -- but of course this is going to depend a whole lot on context.

But for an example: When I was in school in Scotland we sang hymns at assemblies, and one went Jesus bids us shine with a pure clear light/ like a little candle burning in the night / in this world is darkness, so let us shine / you in your small corner, and I in mine.

Which is, well, trite... but I'm having trouble seeing it as racialized, since nobody outside Twilight actually sparkles, so it's not picking some people out as inherently better.

Maybe other people will see it differently, though.
Kenyessod on March 23rd, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
On elves in specific, 2 things go into this.

1: Elves in DnD are heavily based on Elves in Tolkein, who are all pale skinned. It's Tolkein who made the elves the good guys, and he didn't do it along racial lines. Now, he did include weird southerners who allied with Mordor, but that's an entirely different issue from elves. ;)

2: Drow in DnD came along later ; they were more or less invented by Gygax, who had a thing for S&M and a thing for dark skinned women. As a result, they were originally a race of super-powerful darkskinned women who wander around in silk stockings beating their cringing, objectively (and mechanically!) inferior male counterparts with elaborate tentacle whips. They were pretty much straight out of an R Crumb cartoon, only with more melanin and less curly hair.

So the elf / drow dichotomy didn't start out as white skin = good, dark skin = bad, even if it can be argued to be one now.

For legendary dark elves, there were the svartalfar (svartalvar? Dunno) from Norse legend. They lived underground, but were not really more evil than regular elves and didn't have dark skin, so they are not really much like drow in DnD. They may have actually been dwarves.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 24th, 2009 03:19 am (UTC)
It's Tolkein who made the elves the good guys,
Yes, I'm aware, though he gives them (at least) great potential for evil.

But Tolkien's elves are part elf, part angel, some fantasy writers don't seem to realize.

and he didn't do it along racial lines.

Well, yes he did. You can't make your best good guys tall, fair and blond without it being along racial lines. He didn't make them up, sure, that aspect of them is based on the Tuatha -- whose stories originate on racial lines.

Now, he did include weird southerners who allied with Mordor, but that's an entirely different issue from elves. ;)


Again, no -- it's not. It's all a part of his mythology. I doubt it was intended as racist, but honstly, the notion that unconscious racism wasn't affecting an Englishman in the early 20th century is... idealistic :) It's the sea he was swimming in, the world he was writing in.
(no subject) - zwol on March 26th, 2009 02:55 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - yessod on March 26th, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 26th, 2009 09:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 24th, 2009 03:35 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - yessod on March 26th, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on March 26th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Suefrostfox on March 25th, 2009 12:53 pm (UTC)
Beautifully written and full of good sense, thank you very much for this.

FF(off in the corner being thinky again)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on March 26th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you back :)
I had been sort of feeling that as the resident metaphor theorist, I probably ought to say something about metaphor and how it plays into this...