Sunday, January 26, 2014

In Which I Use a Recent Misunderstanding to Reflect on Race and the Problem with Assumptions

Sorry in advance for the lengthy post; I wanted to give background, and the full text of the misunderstanding, and then segue into more general thoughts, and it took longer than I expected.

If you want the summary, here it is: be nice to each other, and try to read and write more fiction written by and/or about a wider variety of people.

And now to begin:

Last week a writing workshop I really wanted to get into opened for sign-ups.  It's called Out of Excuses, and is taught by Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells.  While I've read and admired Wells' John Wayne Cleaver trilogy and the current books in his Partials series, as well as Books 1-5 of Tayler's Schlock Mercenary series, I have to admit I was most excited about Kowal and Sanderson.  As in, I was afraid that if I got in I'd go all fanboy on them and embarrass myself.

For months I had a note on the refrigerator, and I went back and forth about the workshop--would I be able to afford flying back to the States to go? would I ever forgive myself if I didn't try?  The day registration opened finally arrived, and I waited on the signup page with bated breath, hitting f5 like a classically conditioned pigeon hoping for a treat.  One minute passed.  Two.  Three.  It was overdue, and I was beginning to panic.  Finally it cleared, and I scrolled frenetically down the page.  The lodging option I wanted was "pending."  I scrolled back up to get a general membership, figuring I could work out a hotel or something later, and there were still some available.  I clicked it, clicked register, and in those seconds it sold out.  It took about ten seconds in all for every slot to fill.

I was crushed.

But life moves on.  What else can it do?

Fast forward one week  I follow Mary Robinette Kowal's Twitter account, and have directed comments to her now and again.  She's always responded with graciousness and good humor, as she does to all of her followers who message her.  So when she tweeted that the single scholarship slot for the Out of Excuses workshop was still up for consideration, I clicked the link and read up about it.  According to the website, while the previous year's scholarship was open for everyone, this year it was focused on diversity, specifically for people of color.

Given Kowal's rapport with her Twitter followers, and my poor sense of humor and inflated quest for irony, I made a joke in admittedly poor taste:

*Note the hashtag #crickets, which I was using to imply shocked silence after an absurd comment--pointing out I meant it as a joke.  This is what I had in mind:

Funny, I thought.  There's no way in hell they'd let in a white male for a diversity scholarship, and with my clever use of the hashtag I show my hand and we all have a chuckle.  I thought it'd make an author whose work I admire smile, get a mild, good-humored reproach in response, and that'd be the end of it.  Apparently the internet had other plans.

Kowal, perhaps wisely, didn't want to touch it, and instead kicked it up to one of the adjudicators of the scholarship, K. Tempest Bradford:

Fair enough.  I missed the mark, which happens.  I figured I'd get an "I don't think so," perhaps a "smh" in response. Instead, I got my ass handed to me.

It started off as I expected, but then it went downhill fast.  There were a few things I objected to, which we'll get to in the next image, but mostly it was the overly officious tone, which I did not address with a response.  (Because, really, there's nothing more irritating than someone telling you they don't like your tone.)  I thought about the other points of contention for quite awhile, and eventually responded thus:

I'd like to take just a moment to elucidate, because this gets to the heart of what bothered me so much about the exchange. I was born in Florida, where because I had brown hair, tan skin (very dark tan in those days), and brown eyes I was seen as a brown person.  In that area of Florida, the default brown is Cuban.  So I was Cuban.  Then we moved to Tennessee when I was eight.  There, the default brown is Mexican, so I was Mexican.  We lived in rural TN, far from a small town; we had a forest, and I also discovered books, so I was in the sunlight less in those days; in addition, around puberty my eyes started getting lighter, eventually arriving at their current hazel color. So I guess I stopped looking less indigenous Mexican and more Spanish Mexican.  But, as far as other people were concerned, I was still Mexican.  (This was when I discovered that shades of skin are far more important to people of color, and of only limited importance to white people, who for the most part seemed to think brown was brown and black was black and that's all they needed to know.)  

It was something I dwelt on a lot.  A small, rural school in the South in the '90s was not a comfortable place to be in any way different, so I tried to minimize my differences as much as possible.  By the end of middle school, I wore long sleeves, pants, gloves, and hats with towels in the back to cover every inch of skin while I worked in my neighbor's tobacco farm so I wouldn't get dark again.  (Yes, I worked in the fields at a young age--starting at age 10, in fact).  

Then September 11, 2001 happened, and suddenly I wasn't Mexican anymore.  I had finally grown the year before, after being short my entire life, so I was a tall, thin, tan-skinned, brown-haired man in a country that was suddenly afraid of tall, thin, tan-skinned, brown-haired men.  Airport security was especially interested, and for ten years I was "randomly" searched before every single flight.  (And there were many; I especially loved to visit South America and Europe, where no one really knew--or cared--where I was from.)  

I worked very hard.  I got two degrees (not majors) in four years, while holding at least one job, usually two, and then went on to get my Masters while holding two jobs.  I learned a lot in college, and I don't mean from books.  Knoxville isn't the most diverse place in the country, but for the first time in my life my skin or hair or eye color didn't matter.  I had professors--professional men and women!--who would patiently listen to what I had to say, and would take the time to consider my arguments and reply in full.  That this could happen was news to me, and I gloried in it.  I worked as a writing tutor for the Black Cultural Center, and later the Student Athletic Center; I taught classes in Freshman Composition.  I learned more about myself and others, my opinions shifted, expanded, shifted again; my beliefs were tested, cracked, reforged, tempered.  The world became simultaneously larger and smaller.  In other words, I grew.  That's the most important, and the best, thing I can say about college: I grew.

My point is, you never really know someone's story, and the immediate supposition that I was a typical, ignorant exemplar of male whiteness really irked me.  I had hoped my response would help clear up that first of all, my initial comment was meant to be a joke, and second of all, the way Ms. Bradford responded to it was also misguided and offensive.  Surely things would smooth over and die down now, I thought.

Then I got this:

Once again, with the first few comments, I thought, Fair enough.  I, too, was unaware of the full context, which is what I'd objected to from her comments.  The tables turned, as they are wont to do.  Apparently there are humorless assholes out there on the internet (not a surprise), and they're bothering the scholarship committee for this writing workshop (a bit of a surprise).  

Then we get the shift in tone in the third comment, and once again it's downhill from there.  We also, once again, get firm assumptions about who I am and what that means, and added to them additional assumptions about my finances.  Am I a banker, a wealthy investor, that from my "privileged position" I can move to another country any time I feel like it?  I don't really follow the assertion that I can "just leave" Hong Kong at any time.  Perhaps I could convince my wife to break her contract, quit her job, forgo a reference, and have difficulty ever working again.  Perhaps I could break my lease and try to get out of the country before my landlord files a lawsuit for breach of contract and damages.  Perhaps we could scrape together enough  money to buy flights home.  Perhaps, once there, we could find an apartment, and pay a security deposit and the first month's rent.  Perhaps we could even get our utilities turned on.  Perhaps I could leave my friends, my life here, my home.  Perhaps.  

But perhaps not.  And once we were back in the states, with no money, no car, no phones, no health insurance, no jobs, and no prospects--what then?  As I pointed out in my response tweet the first time around, this is a ridiculous assumption, akin to telling people of color in America that if they don't like it they, too, can "just leave."  

It reminds me of how a number of Asian Hong Kongers feel about whites here: they should go back to England.  Never mind that many whites were born here, or that many whites are Australian, or Russian, or French, or Canadian, or American, or just about any other country you can imagine.  "Go home to England" is the slogan for racists here.  Which is as equally misguided and absurd as, and should be very reminiscent of, the old slogans of racists in America: black people should "go home to Africa," or Arabs should "go home to the desert."  I can think of any number of others I've heard for Native Americans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Central Americans, South Americans, Chinese, Koreans, etc. etc. etc.  But let's allow two examples speak for the others; there's no sense rehashing hurtful speech unnecessarily. 

As a self-described activist, and someone who blogs extensively on issues of race, and has had essays published in textbooks on the topic, I would have expected Ms. Bradford of all people to understand my point, and to not leap to a foggy assumption and from there to a faulty conclusion.  As a well-intentioned person, I also expected not to be addressed with such unwarranted aggression.

This is not the space to explore every wrong that every person of color, every woman, every African-American has ever been dealt in the United States.  I'm sure Ms. Bradford has plenty of reasons to be, as one of her many blogs is titled, an Angry Black Woman.  Doubtless she has reasons for automatically assuming the worst of a white male making a boneheaded remark.  The internet is a big, ugly place, and I can only imagine what kind of trolls breed there.  But that doesn't make such assumptions right, nor does it make it appropriate to make those assumptions so vociferously public.

It is very true, as has been previously noted by John Scalzi, that straight white male is the lowest difficulty setting in life.  Since college, I have mostly been accepted as a straight white male, and I am not unaware of how fortunate I am in that respect.  (Though the year I lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea--where being white is often looked down upon, and where my employer treated me and my white colleagues more as objects to display and prove affluence than employees and people--taught me that this is not always the case.)  In the general course of things, straight white men don't understand what it's like to be an Arab, or a South American, or an Asian.  Or black, for that matter.  And in the particulars of the experience, they can never know exactly what any individual goes through, or how they have been made to feel, or the looming specters of race, gender, sex, sexual preference, class and/or any other number of variables that make us all so unique and interesting and beautiful.  

But I'm a writer--empathizing with other people to try to understand how they feel and what motivates their decisions is my job, my hobby, my passion.  And, more importantly, I'm human. That simple fact means I have far more in common than I'll ever have in difference with anyone, and with a little explanation, a little effort, a little kindness--I think we have the ability to understand one another.  Perhaps not in every particular, but in the general, broad sweeps of our lives, yes.  

I firmly believe that.  I have to believe that, otherwise it would mean that our biological differences, over which we have no control, determine us, and I think that's bullshit.  I have to believe it because it means we can grow together, and become more and more equal over time; it means that if enough people are willing to accept and love one another for who they are, we can change the world.  

This already happening, has been happening for generations.  It's slow, let's be clear on that; so very, very slow, and it will take generations more.  But it's happening.  And it's easy: you listen to what people have to say more often than you assume you know them based on how they look or who they love or whether or not the practice a certain faith.  You listen more than you speak.  It's not that hard a task, in the end.  You also have to think a little bit, but we can all manage that, too.

As I mentioned above, issues of Otherness have been on my mind since I was child.  This is something I try to deal with in my own work.  To date, I have written three novels (for which I'm currently seeking representation, so if you're an industry professional reading this... :) ).  The earliest is a fantasy novel, in which I sought to escape from the European origins of modern fantasy.  I started imagining the world a decade ago, and started writing the book six years ago, and between those two stages I realized that my world mirrored a first contact scenario more than anything else, and consequently issues of race were very important to not just the story but the worldbuilding.  In the novel (the first of many, I hope), the main characters are all people of color; two are female, one of whom, as are several other important characters, is not heterosexual. (I deliberately say "not heterosexual" instead of "homosexual" because there are many more than two sexualities.)  Race is a very big issue in the book, as is violence against women.  These were not accidents.  I also wrote a science fiction novel set in the 2030s.  Of the three main characters, one is a white teenager whose best friend is black; one is a black woman who is a newly minted MD, and the other is an elderly Jewish woman.  These also were not accidents.  Finally, I recently completed my first short story since finishing my Masters degree nearly six years ago; it is a contemporary fantasy, and the main characters are both female, and of mixed Caucasian/Cherokee descent.  Again, a very deliberate choice.  My second novel is an historical fantasy set in the 1890s in Iceland, and as such does not have any people of color, but issues of class and sex are important to the characters and plot.

I think giving voices to the under-voiced and voiceless is important.  I think these people not only have stories worth hearing, but very often have the most interesting stories.  I believe in strong, female characters who are not mere stand-ins for men, but who have motivations and dreams and conflicts that are all their own, and may or may not involve men, but certainly do not rely upon them for definition or validation. I try to write fiction that involves a broad variety of people: characters who have prejudices and beliefs and backgrounds that are as varied as the places they come from.  This is important, but it's also important that such differences are not made out to be spectacles.  When the narrative takes for granted such things, points them out without fanfare and with little remark, and other characters react accordingly, then for the reader the result is the same.  The exoticism of the Other is decreased, and we focus instead on what's inside their heads and in their hearts, rather than what's on their skin or down their pants.  

Fiction, especially genre fiction, is the possessor of a most beautiful power.  It may not be as obvious or as powerful as people marching in the streets or being civilly disobedient, because its effect is slow and quiet.  But for readers who find the right books, its reach can be just as ineluctable.  The SFF community is already shifting wholesale in this direction--see the bandwagon for cons to have anti-harassment policies, for example, or the recent spate of anthologies celebrating women in the genre--and I'm proud to be a part, however so small, of such a great community.  Even if it involves an occasional misunderstanding; these things are to be expected, and the best thing we can do is reflect upon them and see what we can learn--about ourselves, and about others.

This, then, is my plea: let's all be a little more understanding, and a little nicer to each other.  Let's read, and write, more diverse fictions.  Let's help, one small step at a time, to change the world.

Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said! I think I would enjoy a daily or weekly column by you! Of course I'd expect you to do it while writing two or three novels a year:-)