March 19th, 2009


My Clarion classmates are awesome.

But not only are they all awesome, two of them also have stories up online!

1) redcrowkater has a story up at A Fly In Amber. It's called "Marshmallows", though it's more bittersweet with dark shadows. However, this being Kater, there are still some laugh out loud lines in there.

2) keyan_bowes has a flash piece in the debut issue of Ruthless Peoples Magazine,, which is a free pdf download in a lovely readable font & size. Keyan's story is called "Anyways I borrowed your body", and lives up to the gigglesome title.

And now I miss Clarion all the more, so the rest of my classmates need to get stories up.

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.

, 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.


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.