Monday, March 09, 2009

On PeopleFAIL

If you read almost any blog in the science fiction fandom community, you will be vaguely aware of the debate that has been raging around called RaceFAIL. To me, the debate has gotten incredibly toxic, on both sides of the argument, and I am not going to recap it for you. Google has wonderful search features for this reason. In fact, people on both sides of the argument--people I respect--have started doing such hateful things in defense of their position that I feel that their arguments undermine their positions. Hence, my name, PeopleFAIL.

In brief summary, RaceFAIL revolves around whether people of color are marginalized in science fiction fandom, as well as in fantasy and science fiction literature.

I have not wanted to speak out because at this point, I feel that my voice will never even be heard. I am a white female. What does my opinion count for?

But a friend of mine said that she would like to hear what I have to say... so here it is.

I have no personal experience with being marginalized due to race. As I said, I am white. I cannot help what genes I have, or who my ancestors were. I do not doubt that people of color have felt that they are marginalized; with all due respect, they are probably still marginalized, and this is something that everyone should work to combat.

But because the color of my skin is white, it is often assumed that I have no experience with prejudice of any sort. And that's when I feel incredibly uncomfortable piping up and saying, "Um, hello, I'm Jewish. Have been Jewish my entire life. Would you like me to list the immediate history of my prejudice?" Because I do not like having to play the religion card to get my opinion listened to.

I do not want to be treated as special because I am Jewish. I want to be treated as *me*. I do not want to walk around wearing a sign that says, "Look, I'm part of a marginalized religion!." I do not want to have to tell you about what abuses my personal family has suffered, in a ploy to get your respect. For the record, I have lost 53 immediate relatives in the Holocaust; many more in pogroms; have a pair of cousins who watched their parents and younger brother get executed by the Nazis in front of them when they were hiding in a barn, who my grandparents later were able to bring over to the United States in 1946; and oh yeah, there's the 2000 year history of the Jewish diaspora.

So I have very little sympathy for people who play the race card, the way that has been happening in this debate. I do not tell you my personal family history to garner your sympathy; I tell it to you because it is part of what forms my personal opinion.

I hold the personal view that the color of a person's skin does not determine their worth. Their sexual orientation does not determine their worth. Their religion does not determine their worth. The content of their character is the only thing that matters to me.

We live in a society that will never be free of prejudice in any form. We live in a world where there is constant prejudice against people of all groups and types. We live in a community where minorities of any type are underrepresented in fiction of any type.

So change that, if you feel that you are mistreated that way. Teach me about how to write about your particular culture or group or race; teach me how to write about them, so that I am doing them justice. Teach me how to be a better person and a better writer by including characters of any type of diversity in my own work. Teach me about how I can change this, so your children will not feel marginalized.

But do not beat me over the head with how marginalized you are, since you instantly lose my respect that way. Talk to me. Teach me. Reach out your hand and show me kindly how I can do something different.

Comments to this post are moderated, as usual, and if they are in any way toxic, I will close them. I do not have the energy to expend on toxic behavior.


Anonymous said...

I've read posts on some blogs that use "we shouldn't have to teach you" as a reason. In my opinion, if people aren't willing to either A) fix the problem themselves or B) educate others so they can fix the problem, then those individuals are just complaining rather than being proactive.

I don't have the answer. When I have people of a different race, creed, culture in my writing, I do my best to treat them as I would any other character. Their differences make them individuals, but in some situations it is simply a descriptor. As you said, a person's character matters more. I think that is true whether they are fictional or not.

I'm not sure what the "fix" is other than writers trying to consciously put PoC into their work. But without someone teaching writers the ins and outs of a culture, how can people expect those writers to do it justice?

Caroline Steele said...

Good post. I agree, it's far better to be constructive than destructive, victimized, angry. I'll be interested to see what sort of good things come out of this.

Nonny said...

Some of the posts made about this subject have been quite bothersome to me, as well.

I am disabled. I walk with a cane much of the time. In large stores, I have to use their electric carts or I'll be collapsed in massive pain halfway through.

This isn't something I can escape.

It is as obvious as color. The range of emotion you see from people when they look at you as a disabled person -- pity, hatred, anger, confusion, shock. I'm 23, so I especially get a lot of the anger; it's as though people think I'm "faking it" to get attention.

I've received nasty comments. I've received pity. I've received comments that were meant well but still hurt deep.

All in all, the looks I can't escape are the most haunting.

My issue is that one certain minority seems to speak out the most about marginalization yet does not realize that, even if "White People" do not deal with that particular factor... we may deal with others.

Try being a transsexual in transition in certain parts of the country. That's not something you can hide, either.

I want to learn. I want to understand. But I have priorities in my own life, and I hate to put it this way, but taking on all the wrongs of the world on my shoulders without any shut-off valve is not the way to go about it.

I'm sorry that you go through what you do. I understand you can't escape. But, I can't either. And I can't help you until I help me. *hefts cane and toddles off*

Criss said...

Great post. Very well said.

I'm not a sci-fi reader or writer, but I heard about the RaceFAIL debates through other author/writer blogs.

Race is a touchy issue, and there's a lot of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" involved. If you DO include "minorities" in your stories, but you are not a member of that minority yourself, then you can easily be accused of making that character a stereotype, by making him/her too "different." Or, if the character is not "different" enough, then you've made the character too "white." If you don't include minorities in your writing, then you're excluding them and being racist.

I'm Hispanic, because I grew up in Chile; I have a Chilean father and a USian mother. I grew up speaking English and Spanish; going to a private school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. My skin is white; Chile has a lot of European influence due to the many European immigrants that came over during the wars. So, am I white? Am I Hispanic? Am I Latino? If I write for a Latino audience, am I going to be "Latina" enough? Because we attack each other for that, too...

See how many layers of muddy there are in this issue?

Stephanie said...

Hear, hear! As a writer and teacher in the deep south, I often feel like I'm being bludgeoned to death for not understanding the minority's point of view. I am very aware of and careful how I present literature to students to be sure that everyone's views are heard and that all cultures are represented in what we study, especially since I have a very diverse group of students. However, in my writing I would be remiss to tell a story from a main character who is not white, because I am white. Crossing cultures would be too far out of my comfort zone. After all, aren't we taught to write what we know? On the other hand, I tend to have characters of color, other than the main, who are friends with the main character. Why? Perhaps it is because one of my best friends in high school was one of the two African American girls in the class.

Perhaps the reason people of color
feel marginilized is simply because the majority of the population in this country is caucasian. This probably correlates with the fact that most writers are caucasian, hence, a left-out and/or misunderstood minority in print. I don't think it's intentional on the writer's part, it's just that we don't know how to do their race justice. As Jenny said, we haven't been taught. I also don't believe it's due to insensitivity on the writer's part, as most writer's tend to have sensitive souls (the good ones, anyway). Again, I think it all goes back to the fact that we write what we know--from that safe, comfortable place we understand and is deeply ourselves.

Kathleen said...

I'm a new blog following, but I'd like to drop in and say that you've stated this beautifully. I think there are plenty of us who feel this way, but who feel like we can't really state it, because no one wants to hear a white girl's opinion. ::shrugs::

So thanks for stating it for us!

Kristine Overbrook said...

I am a white woman. In an effort to integrate the schools I attended an inner city high school that had an unofficial "kill whitey day" during exam week.

I don't hold resentment for being beaten on that day every year in the hallways of the school. The people that did that to me were not blacks, they were jerks.

I have a problem with being told that because I am white I can't understand what they go through. But isn't that opinion prejudice in itself?

We are all different. I agree Jenny that we should all take the opportunity to learn about each other. Ask questions, be positive, be respectful and learn.

I haven't heard about that particular controversy before. Thank you for blogging about it.

acpaul said...

I am white. But I grew up in a military family, and spent most of my childhood in places where the white person was the minority.

The Samoans used to bully us howlies in Hawaii. One young boy got locked in a locker over a weekend because he was blond/blue-eyed. I lived in Okinawa, and the Japanese are nearly the epitome of xenophobia.

Then we moved to Phoenix, and I went to a high school that was 80% Hispanic, and somehow, I was personally to blame for their failures and shortcomings.

Have I seen prejudice? Yes. I still don't understand it. Human is human, in my opinion. We all bleed red. If you bleed some other color, you're a scientific miracle.

I work in the cardiac ICU. I don't care what color your skin is. I stand by and watch as the Navajo shamans come in and perform their rituals in the room, because that is what the patient needs.

As a writer, I sometimes mention skin color, but I don't emphasize race. I write fantasy, and so I play up fantasy races and cultures. I have not intentionally avoided the race issue, it's just so incomprehensible to me that I ignore it.

Elissa M said...

Jenny, your post is very good. I want to comment on this, but I don't know where to start.

Be aware, no matter what your race, creed, color, or level of physical ability, if you are female, you are already marginalized. It's not as bad in the US as it was, but it's still there. In many countries, women are not even considered human.

And if you are a white male, everybody else blames you for everything, makes automatic assumptions about who you are and what you think, and can publicly insult your gender and race without much repercussion.

Everybody has their burdens. You can blame racism, society, religion, whatever. Or you can just deal with it.

Jenny Rae Rappaport said...

Thank you, everyone. =)

It was a hard post to write because I wanted to make sure that I said things in the right way, to truly say how I felt. I think I may have done that, by your responses.

Joseph Lewis said...

As a white writer, my take-away from RaceFail 09 is this narrow sliver of insight: SciFi/Fantasy is about entertainment, heroes in space or heroes swinging swords. Kids eat this stuff up (as do I!). Unfortunately, SF/F tends to have a team of heroes that contains numerous well-adjusted white people and one or two non-white characters who are marginalized, hyper-ethnic, violent, or otherwise dysfunctional or stereotypical. Kids/audiences of all backgrounds should be able to watch SF/F and see clearly positive role models who look like themselves. I think this is a more than reasonable goal for SF/F writers.

More Thoughts

Anonymous said...

Fortunately or unfortunate as the case may be, I've not encountered the whole racefail debate. I can certainly see why it would become contentious. While I can understand the marginalization effect, it does make some sort of sense to me. Writers write about what they know and are familiar with. I'm not familiar with any communities of color. I'm a white, suburban male. While I could certainly write characters of color into my stories, I won't ever have a major/main character be one. I'm not even going to pretend to be able to get into the head of a black person, or indian, or whatever. I would think it would come across false to anyone of that particular race no matter how hard I tried to make it real. Mostly because the genuine emotion of living as a minority in this country is not something I can relate to. I have people of color in my stories because we happen to live in a colorful world, but I don't think I'd ever be comfortable writing their 'story' as it were. Not my place, and I think it would be a bit of a disservice to try and do so. Not to say I couldn't have major characters of color that I relate to as a white person, it's just not my place to portray their story as a person of color. We need writers of color to do that, and I suspect that there are very few writers of color in the sf/f world. I know there are some, but in comparison to the percentages in the population as a whole, it's very small. Curious if anyone knows this information. What is the percentage of white writers in the sf/f market today? Any clues, Jenny?

Jenny Rae Rappaport said...

jimnduncan, I don't know the percentages, but from a rough estimate it seems that most sf/f writers are white.

There are a number of very good people working on changing that though, not least among them Yoon Ha Lee, Marjorie Liu, Tobias Buckell, and K. Tempest Bradford (who has many long and sometimes explosive opinions about this subject).

Tochi said...

As a black young writer, I agree with Jimnduncan.

I've seen writers try to ride the 'ethnic' wave by having an ethnic main character to seem diverse, but the character only comes off as stereotypical and somewhat offensive.

How do you get more diversity in literature? Get more diverse writers, agents, editors,'s a big system that I think needs diversity on every level.

Anyway, this is a long topic that would take 20 blogs. My advise to agents would be to pay attention to emerging writers from different ethnic groups who are talented and have a unique perspective. That's one way to help out. It's beneficial for everyone. New ideas get put in the system, new readers get involved in books, etc.

That's my $0.02

Anonymous said...

Tochi, have you seen this new project:

verb_noire: "To celebrate the works of talented, underrepresented authors and deliver them to a readership that demands more."

Anonymous said...

The way I see it, the demand for "proactive" and "productive" behavior from POC is often just a cover for asking them to do all the work. There's a certain basic level of awareness that we white people can get for ourselves by reading all those "racism101" primers long before we start wasting anyone else's time and demanding education.

It's similar to how I'd be happy to discuss gender issues with a clueless personal friend, but I don't have time to waste on guys who think women are already 100% equal because we often get awarded custody. ("Feminism has gone too far! Men are oppressed too! Reverse sexism! Reverse sexism!")

Asking POC to educate instead of yelling feels like a neutral statement, but I don't think it's actually neutral at all.

Jenny Rae Rappaport said...

franzeska, it's not meant as a neutral statement, and it's not meant in the context of just POC.

It is meant in the sense that I acknowledge that for people of different races or cultures or societal groups--I don't know enough to write your particular group accurately. Part of educating someone is just giving them a link to a book, or a book title to read. It's telling me what are the good things to read; the things that you think will help me do my research as an author better for a subject that I am admitting I am not as familiar with and that I want to be more familiar with.

Part of educating someone, is for example, if I sat down to write a story about Ethiopian immigrants to the US--I would try my hardest to find actual Ethiopian immigrants to speak to, which granted, is slightly easier for me in the NYC metropolitan area. Failing that, I would try to find books about those Ethiopian immigrants. I would try to find people who knew Ethiopian immigrants first-hand. I would try to find someone who could explain the culture, which I'm sure is radically different than mine, and I would look for someone who could over my work and tell me when something was wrong.

I would seek to educate myself so that family of Ethiopian immigrants in my story would be as authentic as possible, and would hopefully reflect some of the actual worldview of an actual family of Ethiopian immigrants.

I am not infallible, but I would try. I do not know what POC or of groups that are not me; I do not know their personal experience. But I am telling you that I *want* to be taught that experience, rather than ignore it in my writing and in my life.

Does that make sense? I want to listen.

Tochi said...

Hey chomiji,

Thanks for the link. I'll definitely have a look at Verb Noire.

MaLanie said...

Okay, you sold me! I love you! Excellent post, thank you for putting that out into the internet ether.

Soratian said...

Thank you for your post. I have a race and a colour but I deeply resent how we're all being forced to belong either in one camp or the other- especially when both sides have assumed extreme, emotional and politicised positions and have behaved abominably. I also really find it horrible that writers and readers who chose to abstain were dragged into the mudslinging. What happened to our right to withhold judgment?

I was worried about what would happen in the fallout. I think anyone who had a stake would be. But you made me feel less afraid. So thank you.