shweta_narayan (shweta_narayan) wrote,

Positions on Race in Fiction 101: final grades

The race thread on AW has died down for now.  My community was mostly supportive, thoughtful, and open through the discussion, though it had its rough spots.  I learned a lot from the various reactions and conversations, and consider it an overall plus. 

But there were of course the ObExceptions. I and others were called racists over it at least once. We were told we hate white people and we're picking on them.  Now, I see myself coming at this as someone questioning her own privilege, not so much as one of "the oppressed" speaking up (I've been the picked-on PoC before. But not nearly so much in the US, to the point where I used to think the "colorblind" thing was okay myself); but apparently if a PoC supports the point of view of another PoC, it must be because of her race. Also, apparently it's counterevidence to the whole argument, rather than further proof of need-for-discussion, if there are oppressed white minorities too. Oh, and color terms are a bad way to talk about this so we just should stop.

This race thing, it's complicated, and the I think the ObExceptions are well-meaning people who do not want it to be so.

Posting about this here for two reasons. 1) Because it's over for now over there. 2) Because, as a forum moderator, I am nervous about making any thread about myself and my opinions over there. 3) Because... I want to hear what my friends here think.  Even if that is "Your breakdown is wrong!" or "You are overthinking this waaay too much girl".

So! Culled from that discussion and several other places (including the notorious Fantasy Mag Gypsy Thread TM) I hereby present a final grade breakdown for a class that does not exist.

(Full disclosure: I've been guilty of some of the ones that I'm giving low grades, some of my comments are things I'm only just learning myself, and I have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy books with monoculture casts.  This race thing, it is complicated.)

Positions on Race in Fiction 101: Final Grades

Position: "Stereotypes exist for a reason."
Grade: F
Comments: Completely missing the point. Wilfully so. In a way that displays deep racism.
Edited to add: The position might be better characterized with, "I'm not racist, it's true."  But the other is as close as I remember to a quote.  I'm not denying that there are reasons (cultural, historical, power-dynamic, cognitive) behind stereotypes and stereotyping. 

Position: "My lizard-people are lazy and bad parents because they're lizards. They're just dark-skinned by coincidence, since it doesn't matter what they look like."
Grade: F
Comments: ...For reals?
Edited to add: I have nothing against lizard-people.  I'd love to read about lizard-people, and I'd expect them to bask in the sun a lot and be more self-sufficient at birth(hatching) than humans.  What I'm objecting to here is having a characteristic (dark skin, as opposed to green scales) that does not match the race well and makes the whole closer to a nasty racial stereotype than a reasonable non-human group, "just because".  I'd treat that "just because" with deep suspicion. 

Position: "You're racist and hate white people and infringing on my freedom to write whatever I want." (response to "You might want to check your own privilege.")
Grade: D
Comments: Completely missing the point in a way that displays defensiveness of said privilege, but not necessarily racismblatant racism or intent.
Edit: cf nojojojo's comments below on blatant racism vs internalized racism.

Position: "If you mention Race, the story should be about it. Otherwise it's irrelevant."
Grade: D
Comments: Completely missing the point in a way that displays stunning lack of awareness, but not necessarily racismblatant racism or intent. Considered consistent with the idea of mentioning the hero's blond hair and blue eyes, which are totally not indicators of race or anything.

Position: "I like writing Fantasy because then I don't have to deal with race."
Grade: D+
Comments: Hey, I like reading fantasy, and I'm dealing with race every time another novel tells me that I'm a freak of nature and fictional people can't look like me.

Position: "I need to put a character of color into this novel."
Grade: C-
Comments: Acknowledging that there is a problem, good. Tokenizing, bad.

Position: "My character of color will be a wise Native American named Runs With Scissors / exotically beautiful Asian woman named Mi-so Cyoot / clever Indian engineer-doctor named Vecannotpronouncethis Patel Singh, etc"
Grade: D+
- Position: "...who dies, motivating the hero to save all."
- Grade: D-
Comments: Stereotyping, bad. Lack of research, bad. Exoticizing, bad. Magic Negro Syndrome, bad. Attempt to use "positive" stereotypes doesn't get you a gold star.

Position: "I feel that {I understand other cultures/anybody questioning me is bigoted/nobody is affected by race unless they choose to be/anything I write is accurate because it's drawn from my experience} therefore that is objectively true."
Comments: Your privilege is showing.

Position: "My characters all look different but act the same." (the same generally means white-middle-class here but not always.)
Alternative statement: "My characters' races don't affect how they act."
Grade: C
Comments: At least you're trying.  But really.  You're saying, "I'm so accepting! Everybody can be like me!"

Position: "My characters are a girl with a stutter, a gay boy, a left-handed black girl, a diabetic hispanic boy, and Native American twins."
Grade: C (B-  if by some miracle you get them right.)
Comments: 1) Characters are people, not Pokemon (unless you're writing for Pokemon).  You don't have to catch 'em all.  2) If "black" and "hispanic" and "Native American" are worth noting, so is the ancestry of the other kids.  (And what's with the capitalization? And er, which tribe(s)?) 3) "Gay" is not like those other descriptors.  It is neither an illness nor an adorable quirk.

Position: "Nothing human is alien to me."
Grade: B-
Comments: It's a lovely notion, and if you mean that you can understand anybody to some extent with enough work, well done (but phrase it better next time).  If you mean you don't need to work at it, and nothing human could be really different from your experience, get thee to an anthropology library.

Position: "I don't need to think about this stuff to write, because I'm colorblind."
Grade: B-
Comments: You mean really well.  I get that.  And you're trying to live an ideal where nobody faces bigotry.  I get that.  But you're denying that anybody faces bigotry and is affected by it now.  Which just makes it harder for people who do and are.  If the PoC around you say this is hurtful, try listening.  Give them the respect you demand for yourself.  They're not calling you a racist.  They're telling you that problems that don't affect you nevertheless still exist.
To quote nojojojo, Race is not the problem.  Racism is the problem.

Position: "I have no right to write about the Other.  I don't want to appropriate anyone's culture, and I only know my group.  So I'm done."
Grade: B
Comments: Full points on awareness.  But points lost on positivity.  Your knowledge can change!  Go make friends with people whose life experience is different from you.  Talk to them and listen to them.  It's not only your writing that will be richer for it.

Position: "My Ethnic Friend told me about this race, so I can write it now."
Grade: B+
Comments: Good start, but that's only enough (at most) to write your Ethnic Friend's point of view.  Not the whole culture or race.  Do some other research too.  Look at the culture's history.  Look at their art.  Visit a community if you can, and try to visit it respectfully.
Having said that, I am totally willing to be an Ethnic Friend, if anyone wants Indian-pseudoscot-from-California.

Position: "This real-world based setting, necessary to the story, happens to be monoculture/segregated for <reasons>."
Grade: A-
Comments: I would enjoy this, so long as it doesn't happen to be true for every different setting you ever use.  Or at least, so long as I don't notice.

Position: "I write about a variety of people because I know and listen to and hear and care about the stories of a variety of people."
Grade: A
Comments: I care about the stories of a variety of people too, so I look forward to yours.  I wish I could claim this myself; I'm far too middle-class to do so (yet) with any truth.

Position: "I write about other races by knowing people of other races, hearing their stories, thinking out the consequences, researching and visiting other cultures, reading up on their history, their art, their points of view.   And I know I'll get some things wrong, because I'm human and we all have filters -- but when I do, I'll listen openly to what they say and do my best to fix what I have wrong."
Grade: A+
Comments: OMG I am in love, can I beta-read your babies?
Tags: race, writing

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