Today I read this opinion piece on why diversity in books is often poorly mishandled and encountered a quite familiar mantra that has never sat right with me, and that we’re gonna discuss today. I’d love to hear your opinions and urge you to read this piece for yourself.
Before you start throwing rotten mangoes at me, let me explain. I don’t think diversity in books is WRONG. NOT AT ALL. I just think that the way some authors and readers go about it is wrong. NOW THAT THAT’S CLEARED UP, hello! Welcome to yet another discussion in which I am more rambly and […]
My first instinctive reaction to this piece as a #blackgirlnerd #blackauthor #femaleauthor #contrarianPOS was “What the hell is “natural” and how do we know what “natural” is?” It is often one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it scenarios, but the whole concept of natural v.s unnatural diversity is laughable to me.
Let me tell you a little story, recently I was on twitter and came across a woman I’d been aware of before. She’s a white nationalist mommy blogger, who hopes to use her promotion of motherhood to prevent “white genocide” and she posted an image of the countries of the world. On this map were white figures to represent population density of white people and black figures to represent population density every other ethnic/racial group in the world. The captions basically were “Do you believe in white genocide now?”. When I first saw this image I wasn’t even upset or bothered by it. All I could think was “Did you…did you honestly think most of the world is white?” and instantly my mind was flooded by examples across my 25 years that confirmed that yes, a lot of people do.
And why shouldn’t they if they’re in the western world?
This isn’t exactly a common scene
Television, books, radio shows, newscasts, newspapers, and even the toys sections of children’s stores are dominated by the imagery of white people to an excessive degree. As a kid it was a struggle to find black media in North Carolina, and even when the X-Men movie came out I spent at least a half hour going through the action figure section, filled with Rogue and Jean Grey, until my mom asked a salesperson to go in the back and see if they had any Storm figures. That was a blockbuster film and still not all of the characters were available based on the perception of what people wanted and who could buy.
Diversity as a concept is deeply influenced by individual perceptions of the world even if they are not accurate. As a result the whole concept of “natural diversity” is buggered. What is natural diversity in a world where writers of color are told their minority characters aren’t realistic for not conforming to stereotypes, when constantly imagery exists predicated on the belief that white is universal and in high quantity. It simply does not exist.
With that said authenticity does and it isn’t limited to people of a character’s background being the only ones to write it. The above piece makes an excellent point, and I’ve seen much of the same where people struggle with including minorities of any kind into their work. While I sympathize with trying to create a character and struggling this is an excuse. What is it an excuse for? Bad writing at best and someone’s unconscious biases at worst. Why do I say this? Because I’m a person who is also black, and while that impacts my perception of the world it doesn’t not negate that I’m a person. I talk a hell of a lot about race because it impacts my life, because of the rise of nationalism, and honestly because I’m in an interracial relationship and if he can’t take me at my Angela Davis he can’t take me Marcus Garvey. But I remain a person, and I have friends who are gay. They are not just my gay friends, but my friends who are gay. They are people.
If you have problems with a character because they are not like you then you need to do research, and if that’s too hard for you then you need to just write something else. Find beta readers like your characters, email other authors for advice, and don’t get upset if someone says “How you asked that question and wrote this character is fucked up”. That is a question of authenticity, of whether the character sounds natural. If it is easier for a person to write dragons than asians…something is wrong, and I extend that to white people as well (but that’s not as big of an issue because white is used as the universal story).
The idea of natural diversity is an admirable one, and yes I do believe it makes sense to reflect the realities of diversity in context. While I enjoyed the black victorian soldier in a recent Doctor Who episode, the unwillingness to acknowledge that he was a black victorian soldier and just make him a soldier is problematic. To me it signals avoidance, but it still was nice to see. It was a clunky aspect of that episode’s casting that did feel forced, and it felt forced because no one wanted to deal with it. When The Doctor brought black woman, Martha Jones, to meet Shakespeare she addresses it directly and part of what makes it work is…characters respond to her race. Even in being flirted with she’s treated as an exotic dark woman. It wasn’t just glossed over. That felt natural. Not every setting, character, etc. will address race, but pretending it doesn’t exist is unnatural. In fantasy settings, and Americans have trouble conceptualizing this sometimes, ethnicity matters too. Race is noted because physical differences are noted, toted, and demonized. Over that? Ethnicity. Historically we know that is natural to people. That is an issue of authenticity.
The problem has never been that there are all white settings. I’m from the south where in the 1990s and 200s my family was often stared at in restaurants. Two years ago I was on vacation/research with my mother and a white woman did a fucking double take. She was tall like me, and she looked from my mom to me with utter confusion because two black women were in the nice part of down town because that usually doesn’t happen there. There are neighborhoods I know of that a white person gets stared at because they are so not common. At black BBQs I’ve been to a person’s white partner is accepted but also exceptionally rare. Majority asian, white, black, latin, etc. settings and places exist, but that isn’t an inherent problem. That is equally natural.
The problem has been that majority to all white settings have been unequivocally accepted as natural for centuries, creating a belief that white is the majority, which then feeds back into “It is natural to have majority white character settings as the relatable settings and cast”. The default is white, natural is white, in the west, to such a degree that people are uncomfortable with the modern reality of globalism as “white genocide” when what they’re experiencing is population reality. So this idea of natural v.s unnatural diversity is a big farce in the context of reality.
What is natural to write isn’t always actually natural, and the assumption that this would be the case or can be the case is one done with a lot of optimism, as the blogger of the piece reflects, or in more negative terms, as has been my experience.
Why must black authored and black created science fiction so compelled to separate itself from race or be only about race? This question seems like one perfectly crafted in the minds of far too many otherwise smart and interesting people. I say otherwise because the dichotomy is a false one. A few years ago I came across Andre Seewood’s article Freeing (Black) Science Fiction from the Chains of Race , and it has taken me this long to put what bothers me about this perspective into words. My race doesn’t simply stop being because I’m coding, because I’m researching, because I’m cooking. Who I am and how I engage in both activities and relationships is related to my upbringing and education both formally and socially. My being a black author, a black artist, and a sci-fi fan fits together. So why then is my race, my gender, or something else about me so anti-thetical to the science fiction elements or the “story” I tell?
Because for some reason we’ve been taught that “whiteness”, and in America whiteness without the accent, is neutrality. As a result non-whiteness or ethnic displays are outside of neutrality. To be black, to write black, is to be examined for that blackness. This can be a serious problem. Seewood argues in this essay that “placing the racial frame upon the science fiction/fantasy/or futurist work of African-Americans hastily discard[s] the genuine scientific, fantasy or futurist aspects of the work, which in turn, weakens and /or perverts the author’s original intent.”
While others have addressed the more technical problems of his analysis, I find Seewood takes this a step too far, and asks the wrong questions. The idea that we can just pull race out of experience is one that simply does not make sense and can only be supported by the notion that there are stories independent of race(gender, orientation, etc.) and then there are “racial (gender, orientation, etc) stories”. It relies on this assumption that race doesn’t effect stories in which race isn’t an overt concern, which relies on the assumption that white writers and creators who aren’t examined through a racial lense don’t tell racial stories or stories from a white perspective. That simply isn’t true. Everyone from everywhere has an ethnic perspective.
Lovecraft and Tolkien told “race” stories. Star Trek told “race” stories. Planet of the Apes has overt racial connotations due to the very history of its creation. Nothing is made in a vacuum, and the influences are there. But for some reason race is seen as an other type of analysis beneath the fantasy, the horror, the science, and the dystopia. The ethnic and racial elements of these stories are acknowledged, but they’re never called white science fiction. These stories aren’t chained to race, enslaved to it, or otherwise. While black science fiction and fantasy is somehow othered, as though every black centered story is categorically different and somehow of lesser interest than its white counterparts. Seewood reflects a very real irritation with the world of pop culture, anthropological, and literary analysis. He is right to question where a black centered story must be a race story. But it is the wrong question he is asking, and that has very real consequences to the conversation he tries to start.
With all that said I do understand why the question is being asked. The question is why are black stories somehow inherently more about race than other white films. The answer is because people have been defined as white(and primarily straight, anglo saxon, and attractive), and white is universal while anything else isn’t considered so. As a writer, I ask myself what will my story be viewed as? A black story? A race story? OR just a love story between a waitress and a stranger? The desire to have our stories just seen as stories is incredibly valid because often our stories are only filtered through a racial lens. But removing the black from a character’s experience won’t solve that.
Seewood offers a concept to film makers, saying
“Alternately, if you do not want to carry racial inequities forward into the future of your story context you just simply have to cast an African-American in the lead role and concentrate on the dynamics of the central “scientific” themes within the story. “
But why does race have to separate? Why do we create this incompatibility where writers and creatives have to choose between blackness and science? It simply feels a lot like when people called me an oreo in high school, as though blackness was separated from me. The thinking was that reading comics wasn’t racial…but it wasn’t something people thought black kids did. That sure as hell sounds racial to me. My race had nothing to do with my comics, but I was black while reading comics. So why do we keep using this language, as though race is only a factor or exists when the story is about race. I think Seewood’s suggestion is awesome, but the fact is the framing of this arguement is so often predicated on the wrong question.
It isn’t why must this be about race. It’s why is my race so anti-thetical to just telling a story? It’s why is the story assumed to be “racial” for latinxs, asians, blacks, and others but not for (just guessing) 99.9% of whites? The Irish have very ethnic stories, but I’ve very rarely heard Irish centered works in science fiction only viewed or considered ethnically. Black and other POC need to stop letting this be gotten away with. Whites need to stop letting this be gotten away with and accept that they and their ancestors created and were supported by a world where they have been taught to be seen as neutral/universal/default without ethnicity except with convenient.
A few years ago the film The Best Man Holiday was called a “race” film by USA Today and shocked people that it topped the box office. It’s a romantic comedy. Why was it a race film? Because it concerned the culture, lives, and experiences of black characters played by black actors. Alyssa Rosenberg had a brilliant response in this article If ‘The Best Man Holiday’ Is ‘Race-Themed,’ So Are These Ten Other Movies:
“[…] the idea that culture about characters of color is necessarily about race also creates the assumption that stories about white characters are inherently deracinated. Some white people, like Jews, are exempt from this, and the recent spike in Boston movies has put more Irish-American characters and Irish-American humor to the fore. But for the most part, the experiences of white characters are treated like they’re neutral, rather than representative of their whole race, or revealing in some ways of the pathologies and problems of various subsets of white America.
So with all of that in mind, if The Best Man Holiday is a “race-themed” movie, so are these ten other movies released in 2013:
1. Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen’s latest, which follows Cate Blanchett as the widow of a man she believed was a wealthy financier, but who actually turned out to be a Ponzi schemer, is a study in the ways in which the performance of whiteness are inflicted by class. […]
2. The Heat: Paul Feig’s buddy-cop comedy is set in Boston, and in Boston Police Department Detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) and her extended family, Feig has endless opportunities to riff on the very particular culture of Boston Irish-American families. It’s a milieu, in Feig’s reading, that demands a strong code of loyalty, even in the face of minor criminality, […]
3. The Bling Ring: Based on the real-life story of a group of California teenagers who began stealing clothes, handbags, and jewelry from celebrities’ often less-than-closely-guarded homes, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is substantially about the ways that white (and Asian) people view black culture as a symbol of affluence. […] Coppola lets their posing speak volumes about the intersections they perceive between race and class, and their attempts to appropriate cultural cachet that isn’t available to them as the children of middle-class and affluent Hollywood operators.
4. Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a screenwriter and director follows the misadventures of Jon (Gordon-Levitt), who is simultaneously an Italian-American bartender, a regular Catholic church-goer, and a porn addict. […]one of the movie’s virtues is the way it demonstrates how Italian-American traditions persist and interact with the conventions of modern life. Like everything else in Don Jon, the glimpses of ethnic life are turned up to eleven, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t perceptive about the compromises young white people who want to honor their roots but enjoy the pleasures, sinful and otherwise, of contemporary life make all the time.
5. Pacific Rim: […]
6. Star Trek: Into Darkness:[…]If Pacific Rim and Ender’s Game are about how quickly humans will put aside their animosities to destroy a species that doesn’t look like them, Star Trek: Into Darkness asks how far we’re willing to trust people just because they look like us, particularly when they look like privileged, physically perfected versions of us. […]
7. Pain and Gain: […]
8. Admission: […] Admission does some very funny things with the way race is both minimized and played up in the college admissions process.
9. The Great Gatsby: In its juxtaposition of old money to new money, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s linking of new money to Jewish criminality, The Great Gatsby is all about whiteness and status, and what kind of privilege and acceptance money can or can’t buy. […]
10. The East: The white guilt movie of the year. […]
I shortened this excerpt for length and really recommend you check out the article because overall it touches on how if black stories are “Racial” every story about white folk is too even if we choose not to recognize it.
The only reason a black author of science fiction’s rich worlds, gripping stories, and exciting characters would hindered by the racial elements is if the whole of those worlds, stories, and characters is ONLY analyzed through race. Blackness is considered so separate from simply existing. It may shock some people but…a person can be black and just exist. They can exist, be in a story entirely unrelated to their race, and still be black. Take the man from Seewood’s example, cast the movie just like that, and then don’t go around in interviews saying “It’s not a race story! It’s a story about humanity” as though somehow my race or ethnicity or anything isn’t part of humanity and the character’s experience with it.
The very premise of the idea of “Freeing” science fiction by black authors is that African Americans, and ultimately other POC, are stuck with their works being framed by race alone where it is simply not appropriate to do so. That requires comparatives to other work, the suggestion that other works can be viewed in isolation and that the viewer can simply turn off their racial and ethnic backgrounds. We cannot. Plenty have tried. What we can do is begin acknowledging that a story told by a white author featuring mainly (and far too often almost only) white charact
ers isn’t some universal story. I often explain to people, usually white friends, that I’m black but that’s not all that I am but don’t act color blind. Somehow they don’t get it a lot of the time. but it’s really not that hard.
I am black.
I live a black life with black experiences.
Don’t pretend you don’t see race.
Don’t pretend you don’t see my race.
I am black, and just because I am in my role as a researcher or a scientist those aren’t categorically incompatible aspects of me or anyone.
The worst that can happen with a black character just “being” is an insincere story that feels less like a thought experiment or just the character, but progressiveness that just chooses not to address race. It feels like bullshit color blindness. As forward thinking and refreshing as it can be to have a black soldier talk about his white sweetheart without it being a race thing in Doctor Who, removing the real world context can be both subversive and obscure reality. This character was just a soldier, but ignoring his race was impossible in the context of a Victorian army. But just as impossible to ignore was the that he was a prime example of a good soldier paying the consequences of terrible leadership. He had multiple aspects to him, but he felt like a check off box. Not because he was black, as some suggest, but because he was black and the reality of being a black Victorian was ignored. He still could have been just a soldier, and his comrades could have treated him well…but he was a black man from the 1800s. I liked the character, but I just couldn’t fully get on bored with the way this was handled.
Somehow my existence as a African American author is one that both confirms and confuses the expectations of those around me, and I am not alone. When you’re a science fiction writer of any kind you always encounter two camps, one praising “hard” scientifically focused sci-fi and one praising the “soft” social commentary and aesthetic elements. But as a black woman in this genre and fantasy I encounter a very different cross sections of these camps both eager to regard and disregard racial elements in my work. Race plays a role, or we focus on the story. Somehow even other black folk have been taught this frame of thinking, and while the conversations about it are helpful and healthy for the black and science fiction communities in general…it is inherently problematic because it derails what the discussion needs to really be about. It asserts that science fiction, fantasy, etc. shouldn’t be viewed via race when the conversation should be about why the hell a story about black folk is somehow only about race.
So often I feel as though people like to make markers, separating blackness from anything perceived as neutral. No race should be neutral before others. No black centered story should be talked about like its a “Race film” or viewed as only racial when there are a thousand more complex science fiction elements happening. Of course not all stories and experiences and interchangeable. It’d be inauthentic to say race, gender, etc. never mattered just as it would be inauthentic to say those were the only things that made black centered or authored science fiction intriguing. Yet it doesn’t matter either way so long as we keep saying white science fiction is just science fiction and black science fiction can’t just exist as science fiction. In the end we have to reconcile those facts to move forward in the genre and begin building new exciting worlds and stories, black or otherwise.
*****Check Out Works by Black authors here and here******
Lately in my writer’s groups and circles I’ve been seeing a lot of white writers saying that they feel as though they can’t write POC, or it will be inherently seen as offensive. They bemoan POC as being controlling and over sensitive, or even rightfully concerned, but that it shouldn’t be that way. White authors, they posit, shouldn’t have to fear that their work will be taken the wrong way. They didn’t mean it that way. They are really trying, or they’ll just only write white people then. The story I see is they’re told by friends, editors, etc. that they shouldn’t write POC as a white person. How goddamn un-American blah blah blah. The funny thing is if they looked around plenty of white folk are writing great and enjoyable POC characters that are praised on the page and screen. So what gives? Why can they write POC and be white, while other white authors can’t?
Well, I’m here to tell you why and that reasoning you think is correct can’t be your shield anymore. This one is gonna hurt, and it should.
The reason you are told this is because you talk about POC in a way the demonstrates to those people you can’t present POC without the loaded baggage of centuries old systemic racism and stereotyping. And you never want to listen to that being pointed out. It isn’t just POC trying to stop you from writing freely. We don’t care about that. We care about what you’re saying about us because we’re sick of the same bullshit being peddled as truth. It is POC hearing your words and hearing how you have internalized and attached race to certain stereotypes and beliefs.
If a POC says you need to stop writing, and think about how you even asked them their opinion then you said something way off the mark. You demonstrated to them your incompetence on race and/or your ingrained prejudices. You say you don’t really like to write black characters, or you begin describing a character idea and it becomes increasingly clear you have tied stereotypes to race. When called out, and people point to this baggage the response is intense defensiveness. No one likes to be implied to be a racist. However, we live in a world of ethnic and racial baggage that crawls into our language and very concept of race.
An example(not linking because of privacy) would be a recent role playing game forum online where someone asked if their black character would be a stereotype. The asker was thoughtful, but the question was still worded to be concerned with how they were seen, not the stereotyping. A responder asked “why did you make her black?”, and people were sincerely flummoxed that the question would be asked. It didn’t make sense. They didn’t see what was obvious to the black responder, and refused to. The character in question was a sex worker, a formerly teenage mother of two, from the ghetto; described as strong, courageous, and devoted to her kids with a smart mouth and street smarts. Things kind of rambled out from there and the question never got answered. People said don’t put on a “faux-black affect of speech” during the game, and then people started asking why not. To those people, these elements, stereotypes, were inseparable from black people. It can’t be wrong if it is the “truth” and that character was a “truth”. Yet that character could have easily been any other race.
The question they couldn’t fathom asked why did those traits become attached to a black character, and no one understood that because the baggage is glued to race in their minds.
It’s part of why it is so common to hear nerdy POC be called coconuts, oreos, bananas, etc. The very concept of X race even in creative media is still loaded down, and if an author cannot transcend that it shows.
So what of the white writers who can write POC? They listen, they learn, and they don’t just sympathize they do their damnedest to empathize. Because the truth is it ain’t all white people, and the white authors who say they can’t write POC because of POC responding to their works are lost, at best, and willfully delusional, at worst. In America blacks may be a smaller part of the population, but that smaller part still numbers in the millions. Same with latinxs, east Asians, and virtually all peoples. There are sources you can turn to conquer your “fear” of being perceived as racist.
In building this blog I’ve stumbled upon so many posts about people of color and how to describe them. At this point dozens if not hundreds of easily available blogs talk about describing POC like Writing with Color, Springhole , or words from reflective authors of color like N.K Jemsin . Yet it seems like there are more people wanting to complain or ask the same questions ad nauseum. And asking this question isn’t a problem, but one begins to wonder about how isolated white folk are when this comes up.
As a person of color in America, my life has been drowned in consuming white culture because white culture is mainstream culture. In a few days I’ll have a post that goes into more details on this, but the short version is POC in the west can’t escape learning everything about white culture as simply existing, neutral. White isn’t just white it is beige, khaki, and as a result I’ve learned a lot about it. I’ve worn it and studied how it’s shaped. Yet as a black person my culture has been whittled down to pockets based on kernels of truth filtered through white perceptions of my body, my life, who I am, and what blackness means. Even in the black community that filter has traces everywhere.
I have countless examples of not only white friends and lovers, but the whole of the film, television, and literary industries to inform my white characters. The depictions of black, brown, yellow, and everybody in between is historically and currently limited. But before you go saying “Well, D that’s why white authors shouldn’t be judged or penalized or critiqued,” that still isn’t an excuse in 2017.
There are authors of color online on every platform. There are Meetup.com groups, universities with POC students, and essays like this that can inform you. If you choose not to listen, to continuously defend yourself before listening to what POC are telling you– that your words are filled with old stereotypes– then the problem is you. You can choose to change, to learn, to be open to listening, and to know that it isn’t POC’s job to educate you all the damn time…or you could not, but you don’t get to use the same excuses anymore.
I know tons of white writers who ask these questions about how to portray POC better. They seek out POC and POC writers and learn from them. These writers, if they can, travel and live with the people they wish to write about. If they can’t they find resources, meet people near them, and explore the many cultures of the world and how race impacts perceptions. They don’t come in with an attitude bemoaning POC telling them they need to learn better. Of course all humans can be defensive…but they still try to really listen. In the end they learn to listen to themselves because they begin to notice how odd it is they tend to use “savage” when talking about black folk or African inspired things not just as a colloquialism. They notice how odd it is that they keep writing Asian characters as though Asian cultures are interchangeable; or like all Asian parents are the same and not just of a particular cultural background. They notice how they keep making innocent characters white and light, and cast antagonists as darker from hair to eyes to skin.
The white authors who listen have the courage to actually challenge themselves, and learn how to navigate stereotypes and their own prejudice. They accept they will make mistakes, and listen enough to try to learn from them in order to become not only better writers but better people. They know they have baggage, picked up from society, that they may not even realize is racial baggage because it is their normal…and they realize it shouldn’t be normal, and it can’t be allowed to flourish unintentionally in their writing.
But second to all this is, you have to accept that POC can criticize you as much as we please. This may surprise you because you choose not to think about it, but I’ve meant hundreds of white folks in my short life who truly deeply are offended that POC would dare have negative opinions about them. They aren’t even aware of how differently they respond to, usually, immigrants and dark people. They don’t hear the patronizing or condescending attitude that accompanies their defensiveness. The insinuation that POC just don’t get it, isn’t racism…it’s just anger? But it usually ain’t and people of color, especially black people, have been forced to learn the difference over the centuries. POC aren’t stupid or hysterical. The critique of a POC, especially an immigrant or a dark person, has been coded in our society as doubly insulting, a diminishing of character or intellect. (And let us not forget that other POC engage in this behavior as well against black and dark people)
This attitude doesn’t just belong to the 90 year old grandmother whose racism is excused as “that’s just grandma”. It’s the 20 something year old white coworker who sees my critique of their plan as more insulting, who denies that they treat black coworkers differently when they have a tendency to try to report them to their boss for “unprofessionalism” or acting maliciously. So let me say this:
If you are more afraid or mortified by the thought of a POC saying your work is disrespectful or stereotypical than actually dealing with why you created a problematic and racist work then the problem above all things else is you.
Repeatedly, the undertones of the defensive remarks from white writers frustrated at the responses their works– filled with passive veiled racism– is that they shouldn’t be critiqued this way. This in part goes back to the first problem of connecting a stereotypes being part of how different races are defined. They believe they shouldn’t be critiqued because they don’t see what’s wrong or erroneous about what they’ve made. There’s a voice going “But this is true!” or “But this is just how black folk are described” or “Well I think Asian guys who break dance are cool!”. They destroy the conversation by rendering POC into being inherently wrong, liars, or fascists opposing their creative freedom.
This I one of the most insidious legacies of racism because it seems so harmless. No one dies. No towns get fire bombed like parts of Tulsa. Generally no one gets denied usage of anything public. It simply relies on one socialization, one life lesson, one gift from the past to white descendents who can be as liberal or as nice as they want. That one thing is the belief that POC don’t know as much as white folk even when it comes to the experiences, the trends, and the linguistic/creative issues surrounding race or ethnicity. So they should not be questioned, and this thought isn’t necessarily conscious, but it is pervasive because of that very reason. If you don’t acknowledge it or disarm it then you won’t challenge it. Then when you encounter a black person saying, “It’s very odd and racist that you made this character black and then also have her be this series of walking stereotypes even if you perceive some nobility about those stereotypes” it becomes a personal attack deeper than a standard critique.
The result is half of ya’ll seem stuck here alternating between using ignorance, denial, and defensiveness as a shield. Sometimes using other POC as a shield because a handful agree with you as though we’re a monolith, and they come rolling out not realizing how you just used them as a tool or a dog to be summoned at your leisure. The other have are still having to explain this shit, and look at us POC like “I’m so sorry.” and experience an iota of what it’s like to be a POC because we get that fairly often(especially if you’re in the south in a “nice” part of town the other ethnic family acts up and all eyes fall on you. It is total bullshit). And it isn’t. It’s an observation, a critique, a perspective, and if a hell of a lot of people are explaining why and saying why your work is deeply flawed in a racist way then something is probably actually wrong.
But there is all this other shit in the way, bogging down your writing and your life. Being nice to a POC or even other POC doesn’t free you from prejudice. I grew up in the southern U.S, sweetheart, we bleed nice and that ain’t NEVAH stopped racism or prejudice. Plenty of people were nice to my kinfolk when they cleaned their houses and talked shit in the next sentence. Plenty of writers can create amazing innovative worlds loaded, unintentionally, with the stereotypes and associations of the real world. It doesn’t make a difference. A person can be nice and talented, and that has nothing to do with if they’re capable of showing people as people, or if they write hurtful, lazy, and incredibly problematic aspects to their imagined species, cultures, and real world races. Whether it is Earth or Nabu, a human colony or Vulcan, if your characters read like caricatures or have dubious elements you will be critiqued. POC , like anyone else, can critique you how ever the hell we like…and I can assure you POC know a lot more about racism than you. It is an entirely different experience to be white in the world, and in the U.S, than black or dark or yellow or what have you. The slights inflicted on others are taken for granted as truths, but they are not.
You can be more than wrong. You can create and incorporate out right racial lies and prejudices in your work. IF you’re called out on it you can either be a coward or not. You can listen and consider….or not. You can get an attitude….or not. But if you keep writing X race and it sounds eerily stereotypical you should question yourself. You shouldn’t get mad that people noticed.
But I doubt that many of you will. Instead you’ll do something else, something better writers don’t do…
You resent. You justify. You assert in a thousand different passive to overly aggressive ways that your work is correct, valid, and even reflective of POC. It can’t be racist or come from stereotypes, you say, because there are blacks like this. She just sort of happened to be black, right? You’re a good person, and a good writer, and all of those nasty POC don’t know what they’re talking about, right? They don’t get what you’re saying, and you just have to make them understand. Now you’ve tried, and they still don’t change their tune? Oh well they just don’t get you, right? Who cares what they think about your work! After all you have those two or four black people you know and they like you? They get you and the nasty ones are just not capable of understanding your genius and even if you did mess up it doesn’t matter because it wasn’t intentional maliciousness! You spout shit like that, and then wonder why POC don’t want to deal with your trifling ass writing anymore.
In short you don’t give a damn about POC. You only care about looking good, and anyone with a lick of sense can tell the difference.
Listening to white, especially American, dudes talk about weapons is some of the most scary shit on this planet. It’s so fucking fetishistic, almost cultish, and there is this profound disassociation between reality and what they want to be reality…which is faux machismo “in another life I’d be a a successful warrior” fantasies. So many seem to use a love of weapons to make them seem interesting and cool. They may claim to see a gun or a knife as not a toy, but a second later they start verbally masturbating themselves, mentioning how big their gun collection is, uploading pictures to facebook, and seeing any critique on gun laws as a personal attack on them because the dozens of guns hanging in their room are for looks. And the big kicker? These are the same guys who get upset when you point out you have more reason to be afraid of someone like them, when you live in a nation full of men mistaking weapons for their penises or personalities, than a terrorist.
Shit is insane.
And yes, you little snowflakes, its not always just white guys, but a large number of guys like this are white in my experience from North Carolina to Maryland to the under bellies of the internet. From cradle to adulthood I encountered these folks in the mostly white spaces I entered with alarming regularity. These gun toting men who’re very unaware they can act this way, as though this is normal and shouldn’t ever be questioned, so openly because is because of their privilege. Often these guys are “nice guy” types, nerds, awkward sorts, and the other half I’ve encountered tend to be men bathed in a household where guns were everything to a man. To them they aren’t speaking like guns are toys to be collected like mint condition Barbie dolls or G.I Joes. They don’t see how uploading a wall of guns in their basement with them grinning makes other people cringe and wonder “what if this guy snaps and thinks I’ve wronged him in some way”. They see their 2nd amendment rights, an unquestioned fact for many white people. They expect the world to know he’s dangerous, cool, but also an unquestioned and unfettered example of one of those mythic “good guys” the NRA and GOP like to mention. They laugh over their guns the way they laugh over their penises. Their eye rolling responses to the recent NRA video, which essentially declared that gun owners should attack “they” and “them” to protect “their president” from protestors and left leaning people, and dismissing other gun owners who were alarmed by it seems deeply attached to the “but I’m a nice guy so its ok” attitude a lot of melanin deficient men think is their protection from judgement.
That is a privilege…one I will not indulge and you shouldn’t either.
The problem of course isn’t just owning the guns. I grew up around guns. I’ll probably own a gun at some point, in fact. But there’s something deeply troubling about listening or watching a group of white guys whether on Facebook or in person brag about their weapons in such an open and often times pushy way. The weapons sound like toys, trophies, and the conversations remind me of men flashing watches, talking about houses, wives, and sex. Conversations where even if it isn’t gross there’s a one sided fascination that leads a person waiting for the gun lover to drool and lick their lips.
I couldn’t imagine living that way not just because I’m a woman, but because I’m darker than a Hershey’s kiss.
A black guy? A latinx guy? They’re “just thugs” and the associations both inter-personally and by others are different when they post weapons pictures. However the core function is in many ways the same. That said most know better than to be so…proud of exchanging weapons for character, or to boast so readily in a world where their bodies are considered super human weapons of inherent and imminent danger to others. Those who do either make money off it, or are in a life where they feel they have nothing to lose but everything to gain by being viewed as a badass. A way of being, which I can assure you has some thinking after the death of so many black men and boys…and even women who were believed to have guns or who did legally. Yet we’ll touch on this in general masculinity terms in a second, but just know that’s a response to cultural pressure, poverty, and shifts where guns give power, which is generally tied t racial class perceptions of what is “cool” where power is always cool. Guns are penis extensions, but for the poor and those wanting social approval they get this strange fetish object status which manifests across racial lines with different meanings.
Truthfully that’s a western attitude influenced deeply by western masculinity, whereas the role of weapons and becoming a man are aesthetically similar to other cultures until you dig deeper. Where other cultures tend to hold weapons as weapons, valued, but holding more significance and power than a dick extender (see the Masai, samurai, and numerous other cultures; also note how colonisation and loss of masculine power structures reorganize men around the gun around the world). The difference in part is those cultures tend to hold coming of age rites, and make distinctions of maturation and masculinity tied to a group identity. There is no need for a machine gun pensis…it has already been bequeathed. They have been scarred, taken hunting, traveled outside their communities, they’ve been asked to perform some sort of something or have had something given to them. American culture doesn’t really do that by and large, and when American culture has defined itself by White culture that has impacts.
Men using weapons to give a sense of masculinity and identity in place of rituals or rites signifying adulthood in modern culture is a grave condition that continues to associate male power with male aggression. But it makes sense. After all what is easier to produce than that which is already within yourself? Testosterone levels make humans more aggressive regardless of gender, and men have been socialized to angry and emotional so their emotions don’t appear weak. No matter if you are scarred ritually or can afford to travel, you can be aggressive and you can buy a gun. The gun becomes power, power is masculinity, and ergo the gun becomes something as phallic and edifying as the penis.
But why am I talking about white men specifically? Am I a racist?
Nope. Not even a little. I’m a realist, and I have been in and out of white circles my whole life usually as an outsider…a quite observer and very rarely a friend to a select few. I have seen this attitude in action, and have been forced to smile as male friends of friends show pictures of their latest gun buy a world away from the way my father taught me to feel about guns.
The fetishizing of weapons is exasperated in poor communities of all races, but also in communities whose cultures are so diffuse to no afford members specific identity signifiers. So white folks are “white” they as a group traded, across time, specific in-group positives to become a mass ultimate in-group, i.e the mainstream on every level.. Working class=white. Middle Class=White. People=White. Anything else is othered even if their counted. The result of course is plenty of white folk don’t feel this power, or this trade particularly if they aren’t racist consciously, in public, or in general. Much like how many don’t want to or incapable of seeing their privilege because it doesn’t necessarily manifest in their every day lives.
They gain net social power, but in a time when that power is being challenged, and when men in general are struggling to meet the coming of age and personal identity signifiers presented to them they seek out and construct their own. That’s part of why poor black dudes in Bmore ride off-the-road bikes. That’s part of why you honestly see a lot of gun nuts have tied themselves to imagery of the confederate flag etc. It’s a way to psychologically and socially establish what men have come to see as inherent to masculinity, various rites and markers tied to being distinct, part of a hobby/culture, and to feel as though they’ve come of age, have gained power which is implicit in the very definition of western masculinity.
White men don’t really have the unquestioned social power they once did, nor do they have an overt strongly felt in-group of identity that isn’t associated with being racist because…white culture was a construct designed to be the definition of normal every day life. American culture praises Machismo differently in every community, and many do not meet those communities standards. Many cannot. They’re too nerdy, quiet, mentally unwell, awkward, bossy, and yes even aggressive. Some just don’t have the money to do the “adult” things they’ve been taught mean they’re adults. But weapons, phallic and powerful, are easy means to satisfy the psychological and social needs taught to males. That’s also one part of why it’s so fucking scary because those who hold power and don’t see it, but feel powerful contingent on a gun that emboldens masculinity which generally excuses aggression…is terrifying. What truly soldifies it is how many of these men think they’re owed implicit unquestioned trust regardless…and that, as a black american raised to be aware of shit, is something I simply can’t afford to give.
In light of recent events I wanted to take the time to talk about my father, a former police officer, and a black man in the United States of America. Over and over again I hear the same resistance, and the same arguments. I hear blanket attacks on cops, reflecting passion and the same blanket offenses. To me these are understandable reactions, but there is one question that cuts through both in many ways…”What are the experiences of black cops, of black men who work public safety as more than just a bouncer?”. Another way of wording this question: “Does being a cop protect you from other cops?”. When these officers take off their uniforms do they get treated like other black folk do? I’ve known an officer of the law since I was born, and that officer taught me repeatedly that no matter what people will see your skin color before they see anything else about you. Black folk have to prove a world educated in anti-blackness wrong, so we work twice as hard to get just as far and do everything everyone says we should do. Some of us grow up to work in law enforcement, the military, public service…but when has that stopped us from getting killed or injured? When has that stopped people from assuming the worst of black people and fearful of black bodies?
I don’t know, but I do know this…my father was a black man before he every put on a badge and that badge didn’t change his color.
People talk about cops like somehow being one erases blackness, and while there obviously some very vocal cops who think that way (of all colors) my siblings and I were taught how wrong that was by watching and listening to our father. He was a cop from 1972 to 1990, worked contracted security (Nascar tracks and other places), he worked for the county sheriff from the late 90s to the earlier 2000s, and now he works security for the federal government. That’s 45 years of combined security and safety work from D.C to North Carolina and back. He always liked to have two things on the car…a sticker indicating he was a retired police officer and a free mason symbol. My dad is one of those guys who loves repping his teams so to speak. He still has an old Cowboys jacket we got him for Christmas over a decade ago because of it (and sentiment). But one day not too long ago, soon after he got his new truck, he told me that the reason he always had those emblems on our cars was that he was a black man in America.
No one was going to stop and ask if he was a “safe black man”, no one was going to assume he had his gun because he was a former officer, no one was going to assume he had a gun because he was a lawful citizen, and even as a member of the NRA my father knew they wouldn’t do shit for a black man whose rights were infringed. After all he knew his history. He knew what pushed gun laws and reeled in the NRA was black people with guns stating they had a right to defend themselves, and defend themselves from injustices committed under white supremacy. He knew the internal racism of police departments, of which black. latinx, and other minority officers thought they could join the old boys club by being just as or harder on blacks and latinxs. He’s seen other retired and active cops be yelled at by white officers while trying to assist potentially different situations. He’s been stopped between NC and D.C, and god knows where else and questioned about why he needs a gun by white officers who have literally refused to accept he was an officer in another state or D.C.
He knows being a black police officer will not protect him, or afford him the immediate response of kinship other lighter officers may receive. He was a black man in America long before he was cop, and very few officers raised in a racist society taught by an institution dripping in current and historical racism will automatically assume he is someone who protected the public. These days they may see an older black man, and maybe his age will protect him, but that’s if they look at his face. These days they may see the patches on his favorite vest and see he has some ties to law enforcement, but they have to get close enough to see it. These days my dad knows that his smart and sarcastic son and his bright anxiety filled daughter are too old to automatically get a sympathy (not empathy) from an accosting officer from dropping “Oh my father was a cop” in conversation.
Over my relatively short life I learned all sorts of things from my father both good and bad, both things he meant to teach and not. He’s mellowed in his old age. The man who once said don’t bring a white boy home, smiles warmly at my white boyfriend and enjoys taking the both of us out to eat (If you’re reading I could go for a steak soon by the way, daddy, or an Eddie Leonard’s fish sandwich in the near future). He tells us about the supreme court justices and judges he protects. Nothing much just that they are nice and funny people. We talk about the news and politics a lot more these days. He can’t stand that Sheriff Clark, and says most black officers he’s known can’t either. Every time his face comes on the TV “I can’t stand him” or sometimes “That Tomming asshole”. It usually makes me laugh cause he’ll stop talking and get this sour look on his face, and even interrupt our other conversation. Now sometimes he’s even nice and listens to him talk to reporters, essentially say all black people but him are liars(including other black officers with differing opinions), and that asking for justice reform means you hate cops because apparently demanding them to be accountable is too much. Daddy will roll his eyes, say “Please” while rolling his eyes, grab the remote, and usually turns it something else. Sometimes QVC, but more often the History Channel.
It’s funny to remember that daddy used to be one of those rare creatures, the illusive black republican, a phase my mother still groans about. I can remember that phase too and it was eerily adjacent to his bolo tie and cowboy hat phase. Even then he couldn’t stand officers like Clark, blacks who didn’t just have an opinion(that’s their right), but who silenced other officers and repeatedly were paraded by white higher ups like a willing praised poodle. Why? Because they always claimed there were no problems, that the police needed uncritical support, and that if other blacks just “did right” things would change.
These officers of color say they integrated and flew right, when really they just assimilated, and began believing they were special snowflakes while other blacks were brainwashed and ignorant. They keep their mouths shut when they see injustice, or don’t see the injustice at all because they believe they’re cops first. Hell some of them believe with their white wives/husbands, their pats on the back, and their willingness to readily agree with white officers that their uniform is the only protection they need out in the world. After all they assimilated into white culture, and feel successful under white supremacy. They have their opinions, and consider every other black officer is uninformed. That is their right(and a dangerous one), but when they come out of the side of their mouths and begin to say that all police officers everywhere leave racism at the door? When they say that in light of internal emails, texts and more from fellowofficers cracking jokes about black people, our black former president and first family, and about other black officers? No, they say, nothing is wrong. All those racists disappeared when they came along. Much like all those grinning white folk you see in lynching pictures they vanished and turned off every racist comment, belief, conversation and lesson. They’re not anyone’s superiors, teachers, parents, friends, and family. No, to Sheriff Clark and his ilk police officers are without racism or justified in it. So holding cops to a higher standard to ensure they protect everybody isn’t needed, and cops protect all other cops no matter what because racism doesn’t affect justice. We know this isn’t the case, a fact reinforced by the Philando Castile verdict by that officer’s non-sensical words. Justice isn’t and has never been colorblind. Justice isn’t and has never ignored ethnicity. Justice isn’t and has never ignored gender, sexuality, or plain old personality. I wish that was the case, but unlike these officers of color and white officers my family, my play-uncles, play-aunties, friends, etc. can’t afford to pretend it does. Maybe if you get on TV every time your superiors need a cop-friendly brown face you can, but I don’t know many cops like that.
To my father and to me when they say that nothing is wrong in light of entire police departments all over this country being 70% to 90% white with an exceedingly disproportionate arrest rate for blacks and latinx, when crime rates are so deeply skewed because of an inability to pay bail, when again and again black people young and old are murdered regardless of whether they listen to an officer, employ their right to bare arms, or are a cop themselves…they are choosing to believe that they are exceptional black people because they have done everything right, because they disagree, because they’re cops and no cop ever threatens, harasses, or shoots black cops without cause right?
In April 2015 I went to protest in Baltimore in a march I’m 90% certain you didn’t see because it was one of the many peaceful marches in 2015 where reporters stood around looking irritated by how peaceful it was. I chanted for reform in police departments, that black lives mattered, told people that I wondered about having kids because I didn’t know if I could take it if they were as dark as me and they came into a path of a officer whose first instinct was to assume they were dangerous criminals. I marched because I believe in justice and because I care about the black community. I marched because I love black officers, and know their lives and jobs would be better without entrenched racisms. Citizens who want change and believe in the better natures of their people, while still knowing the worst, get involved anyway they can in changing society.
I didn’t tell my parents about the protest. They’d worry, and when they found out…they were more than surprised to say the least. Despite that daddy was proud because he spent years telling his children that black lives did matter and that we couldn’t trust the world to see it. We had to make the world see it. We had to be willing to fight, to be both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and learn the lesson he taught us without ever having to say it:
You’re black long before you are ever anything else.