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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-10-15 16:49
Subject: [personal|process] Racism
Security: Public
Location:Omaha
Mood:introspective
Music:the air conditioner humming
Tags:child, culture, personal, process, writing
I've been mulling for a while whether and how to talk about racism and privilege. It's certainly been on my mind of late, both in fiction and in real life. This wasn't an easy post to write, but I'm reaching for some honesty here about both myself and my writing.

As I've observed before, I am very nearly the type specimen of the oppressor. I am white, male, middle-aged, of above average height, the college educated child of college educated parents, native English speaker, with a short Anglo-Saxon name, employed at an above average salary. If I cut my hair short, lost thirty pounds and dressed rather better, I'd be indistinguishable from a high dollar Wall Street trader or an early-career Congressman.

Speaking as a card carrying member of the Patriarchy (it says "M" right on my Oregon driver's license), I am wrapped in an envelope of privilege. If I'm standing in a group of people waiting for a clerk, and they haven't been tracking the order in which we arrived, more often than not I'll be asked first what they can do for me. I do make it a point of tracking the order in which we arrived, and defer to those before me, but even that very tiny, simple piece of social justice requires proactive attention on my part. Far more often I am privileged in ways that don't even impinge on my consciousness — not having my ID scrutinized when presenting payment, for example.

At the same time, I grew up in very nonstandard settings. Many times in my life I've been a racial minority of one when walking down a street in Africa or Asia. A privileged minority, wrapped in the cloak of my disposable income and my American passport, but it's still an experience many white Americans have never had. Most of us never leave the country, and for many of those that do, the beach at Cabo San Lucas or the plaza at the Louvre aren't quite this same thing. It gives me an awareness of being linguistically isolated, ethnically isolated, the subject of stares and glares and not-so-quiet whispers.

My family is multiracial as well. Like myself, the_child was born in China. Unlike me, she is ethnically Chinese, from the southern part of the country where people have darker skin and lower status within the Chinese culture and economy. Mother of the Child and I have made meaningful efforts to keep her engaged with her ethnic and cultural identity, but what we seem to have on our hands is a young person who is color blind in the most admirable sense of the word and quite happy just being an American girl. the_child and I don't go places and do things that get us harassed or refused service. These days, on the West Coast, such bigotry isn't easy to find in a public setting. Besides which, in the calculus of racial prejudice, Asians sometimes seem to figure as an odd variant of white people.

Still, I am a racist. Not by intent, and not where it can be corrected, but I have, for example, driven into gas station at night to find half a dozen young black men wandering around the pump area shouting good-natured insults at each other. I left again, without buying gas. My passenger called me on this, accusing me of being a racist. I told her I felt unsafe. Would I have felt as unsafe if they'd been young white men? Fear of the other is hardwired into us — the pink monkey phenomenon. Part of being an intelligent, responsible citizen is overcoming that fear, setting aside those judgments and impulses, and seeing others for who they are instead of who you fear them to be.

Racism and sexism are both dependent on power dynamics. If I were ever to say to a writer of color, "readers won't accept this sort of thing because it wasn't written by a white man," I would be called out hard for arrant racism, and rightly so. Yet I've been told in so many words that as a white man it's wrong for me to appropriate the experiences of other races, other cultures.

This was said by two other panelists at World Fantasy last year. One was Canadian, commenting on how First Nations stories and experiences belonged to their writers. The other was Australian, who went on to claim that white writers who talked too much about Aboriginal traditions were literally risking their physical safety. (I have no idea if this is true, but it struck me as bizarre.) As I pointed out at the time, by their logic I couldn't write stories about Jewish characters, as I'm not Jewish. I've been in similar lopsided discussions about what I could and couldn't write about women.

I think the issue here could be characterized as one of "standing." Disempowered minorities have standing to talk about their oppressors without offense, but the reverse is not necessarily true.

Where is the balance between "writing the other" — stepping away from what Steve Barnes calls fiction about white people and their imaginary friends — and not engaging in power-driven cultural (or gender) appropriation?

That is utterly context dependent, obviously. For example, I remember as kid reading a very early Heinlein story which included a comment on the narrator's cab driver whistling, "doubtless intent on some later Darktown assignation of his own." (Quote culled from imperfect memory, if anyone has the correct cite I'd love to see it.) In 1975 I found this shocking, specifically the use of "Darktown", which is only slightly euphemistic for "Niggertown" — it was perfectly clear to me at 11 years of age how grossly wrong this was. Yet insofar as I can remember of the story, Heinlein was writing in a minor character of color without making an elaborated point of his color, and using a term which was still in common currency immediately after WWII.

These days we have a very powerful meme in our culture (at least the liberal-progressive end of it) that in a social justice context, the aggrieved party is entitled to define the boundary of the offense. This can be seen in the very simplified example in that some Native Americans find the term "Native American" annoyingly politically correct and prefer "Indian", while some find the term "Indian" racistly offensive and prefer "Native American." In more complex terms, look at the ongoing kerfuffle over the ENDA legislation in various portions of the politically active LGBT community.

So how do I write? Do I shut up and stick to white people, mostly male? This is certainly the default of our genre, and it's possible to write quite successfully without ever really leaving that pasture. It's where my "standing" is.

Or do I write about people of color, LGBT people, women, or any other oppressed class present or past, and risk, even guarantee, giving offense to some readers? It sometimes takes a conscious effort on my part to remember to people my stories with women, with gay characters, with non-whites. Does that admission make me racist/sexist/genderist? Does the fact that I try to make that conscious effort only deepen the offense, or ameliorate it?

The enormous irony here is that our genre is all about the secondary world. We can tackle anything through the lens of metaphor. Our writers always have, from Jonathan Swift to Ursula K. Le Guin to Suzette Haden Elgin to Nalo Hopkinson. Writing the other is what we do. Yet when we remove the lens of metaphor we seem to fall prey to the same interlocking pitfalls as any other field of arts and literature.

Writing is hard enough. Writing about real stuff is harder.

Do you write the other? What does the other mean to you? Am I an example of self-justfying white, male privilege, or am I on a useful track?

I don't even know the answers to questions like these, but I think asking them, repeatedly, is important. I will write what I want to, what I'm moved to, to the best of my abilities. I don't know what else to do besides that.
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sheelangig: bench
User: sheelangig
Date: 2007-10-16 00:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bench

I like your brain.

People are funny, and because of that, these questions have no solid answers. Write what you want. If someone gets bent about it, at the very least, that means they *read* it and gave a damn about it.
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Andrew Trembley
User: bovil
Date: 2007-10-16 00:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've got mixed feelings on the whole "cultural appropriation" thing.

I don't like being somebody else's minstrel show, entertaining and enriching folks who have no respect for me or "my people."

I think it's important that everybody is represented in entertainment and literature, and that "writing the other" is necessary for this to happen.

In the end I ask a few questions:
  1. Is it (in any way) truly representative?
  2. Is it good?
  3. Is it exploitive?

If it's good and representative, that's good enough for me.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-10-16 01:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The above response is how I feel about. Respect and understanding are the key for me.

And as for: The other was Australian, who went on to claim that white writers who talked too much about Aboriginal traditions were literally risking their physical safety. (I have no idea if this is true, but it struck me as bizarre.)

I can't say I've heard of anyone's physical safety being at risk and it is more about being non-Aboriginal than white but I’ve personally been told that a story I wrote based on the Aboriginal Dreamtime myths was unlikely to see publication by any mainstream publisher.

The Aboriginal people vigorously defend their intellectual property rights against commercial exploitation (God knows that after 200 years of exploitation they have little else left to defend); just as strongly as Disney would protect Mickey Mouse or Lucasfilm defend StarWars.

This was brought about by the exploitation of Aboriginal art, which is a multi-million dollar industry. Cultural appropriation is taken seriously here and it has certainly bred an air of caution.

Chris
crisjc@bigpond.net.au
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jsd
User: aekai
Date: 2007-10-16 00:36 (UTC)
Subject: overthinking is bad for your health
You are doing fantasy/science fiction, not a personal diary.

My experience has been that self-censorship in the first draft, always makes for stilted art.

Reworking the phrase “Darktown assignation” is a simple fix, but only writing about bearded white dudes form Oregon is rather limiting.

Whatever you do, someone will always be offended. If you have concerns, add a Jew, LGBT, or rocket scientist, to your proofing group and ask for feedback.


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When life gives you lemmings...: Archway
User: danjite
Date: 2007-10-16 10:32 (UTC)
Subject: Re: overthinking is bad for your health
Keyword:Archway
I can confirm that one of Jay's first readers is in fact a queer, Jewish, (ex) rocket scientist, so those are all covered.
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J.K.Richárd
User: neutronjockey
Date: 2007-10-16 00:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think (and this time it is IMHO) that it is the very nature of the writer, and writing to place oneself in the shoes of another and cover the picture/story from their perspective.
If we were to only accept our own boundaries, and cater to our own inhibitions --- then the only fiction we would ever see would be non-fictional derivations of our own lives.
While you can't psychologically dissasociate from your writing completely (not without some serious psychopathy) you also cannot involve too much of yourself in your writing without losing some objectivity in its execution. It's a careful balance: This is definitely a Jay Lake story about a gay black man growing up in Queens, NY. Your voice --- their story.
I believe that by writing "the other" we are truely putting ourselves in anothers shoes and that is that path to understanding and resolving our fears.

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mzmadmike
User: mzmadmike
Date: 2007-10-17 01:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I saw an hysterical LOtE in a Columbus, OH paper at Marcon one year. The subject was an Octavia Butler story. Now, I haven't read that story, but I have read others of hers.

The writer "ventured to guess that Ms Butler didn't write about the black experience in the Civil War" in this Civil War story.

Without reading, the writer assumed that Ms Butler, by nature of being a successful writer, couldn't be black, nor understand the "black experience." (Um...can a modern black understand the "black experience" during the Civil War? Can a white writer understand the "white experience" during the Civil War?)
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
O'Mike aka  onyxhawke
User: onyxhawke
Date: 2007-10-16 23:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think saying we are all racist is one of the more useless generalizations i've seen in a while. I am not, nor have i ever been racist. I know lots of people who have never been racist.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2007-10-16 01:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Do what I did. I set myself a challenge over the summer to write a story where the protagonist isn't a white straight christian/agnostic male... you know someone who isn't like you.

I cheated and made my protagonist gay (cheated because I thought a gay male would be closer to me in terms of viewpoints than any other demographic).

I also ran towards stereotype, rather than away from it. I could have made my protagonist's partner a lawyer or a doctor, but that would have been cheating... so I flew right up to stereotype and waved in its face by making him a drag artist. Now let me say in doing this, it prompted a 3 hour discussion where some friends and I mapped out this characters life, the prejudice they would of encountered, how it would have impacted their views... it was the most detailed character study I have ever done and this character is dead for the entire story (as in dead, not as in a ghost).

The end result was a lovely story where sexuality is vital to the plot, BUT where the story isn't about sexuality. It's a weird story, where the speculative element is almost hidden, and maybe I'll be able to sell it (fingers are crossed as it's out at SH at the moment), but in workshopping it I've had people thank me for writing a story featuring convincing gay characters in an otherwise non-gay story. Even if it doesn't sell, those comments make writing it all that worthwhile.

Throw yourself in at the deep end. You'll probably be extra careful to make sure you're not insulting anyone with your characterisation, but is that a bad thing?
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J Erwine - writer/editor
User: jerwine
Date: 2007-10-16 01:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As long as you don't fall into stereotypes, either positive or negative, I don't think there should be a problem. There are so many differences among individuals of any "race" that it will probably fit someone.

I had someone confront me at a Con about my use of an Indian (Native American) character. This guy was quite upset with me, and I couldn't understand why. He then informed me that I was taking something from Indian people that I had no right to take. That was when I told him one of the stories my great-grandmother used to tell me about her grandparents walking the Trail of Tears. I then asked him what his BQ (blood quotient) was, and he informed me that he wasn't Indian at all.

I still can't quite figure out what they guy was on about, and I still use Indian, or Jewish, or female, or whatever else I feel like using. Sure, I'm going to upset someone, but that's ok. When we read, we should occasionally be shocked out of our pre-conceived notions of the world.

And now, I'm starting to ramble, so I'll shut up...

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Andrew Trembley
User: bovil
Date: 2007-10-16 01:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I still can't quite figure out what they guy was on about, and I still use Indian, or Jewish, or female, or whatever else I feel like using. Sure, I'm going to upset someone, but that's ok. When we read, we should occasionally be shocked out of our pre-conceived notions of the world.

It's white liberal guilt. It's on par with white conservative guilt; one is expressed in the form of "supportive" outrage and the other as denial. If we grow up, we learn better how and when to express it.
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When life gives you lemmings...: Bucky the human
User: danjite
Date: 2007-10-16 01:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Bucky the human
Everyone is a rascist of some flavor. Inevitable, unavoidable. Pink monkey. We are alll wired for it.

As you know, I- as a white, priveleged male- am subject to racial judgements every day. Though I live in a foreign country and am a minority, I faced similiar judgements when I lived in the US, too.

Write what you write. Write the other. If people make judgements about you for it, well, they are just being rascists, cultural superiorists or politically correct chickenshits.

You write fiction- as far as I am concerned, that means anything goes. Screw the boundaries or just ignore them.

Never let who you are and how you were born or the fact of your sex, skin color or status limit what you write- that would be rascism at it's worst.
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O'Mike aka  onyxhawke
User: onyxhawke
Date: 2007-10-16 23:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
GAH!!!

This is why i don't discuss politics on my LJ. We are not all racist. This is an asinine assumption. We _Are_ all programed to react to differences. HOW we react to those differences determines among other things if we are racist or not.
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Renegade Vagabond
User: khaybee
Date: 2007-10-16 02:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Writing about the other in regards to race or sex is no different than writing about the other in terms of occupation. There is no expectation that all of your characters will be working as marketing or product managers. The expectation is that if the character is a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon or a chicken caponizer or whatever, you will have done an adequate amount of research to make them believable as what they are.

I am personally quite sick of being told that I can't understand because I've never been black or Jewish or whatever. I've dealt with my own stuff. I've spent plenty of time living in areas where when I picked up my kid from daycare the other kids would shout, "It's the white baby's mama."

I've been told straight up that I am charged a higher price due to the color of my skin. I've been told that I should move away because everyone here hates white people and we aren't welcome. I am a racially mixed person. To most people I look like a giant Irish girl. But my eyes are a little different. I am part Chinese. It is amazing how many people who don't know me will choose to confide in me about what is wrong with the Chinese.

Sorry, I wandered away from my point there. I don't like being told that I cannot understand the impact of racism on a life because I'm white. I don't like being told that people understand how I feel in any way, shape or form, but if a writer wanted to write about an experience like mine, it would just take a little research. To say otherwise is mindless political correctness and must be fought.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-10-16 06:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
Writing about the other in regards to race or sex is no different than writing about the other in terms of occupation.

Sorry, but I don't buy that.

For starters, we have a certain degree of choice in our occupations. Most of us haven't chosen our race or our sex. And we don't have that occupation from birth onward; it's something we come into as adults, after some of the most formative periods of our lives are over with. Plus, while certainly there are negative stereotypes associated with certain jobs, those are rarely if ever seen as something inherent in the person who holds them. Ergo, writing about someone in a different job is more a matter of knowing what skills and modes of thinking that job entails, maybe what economic lifestyle, than understanding how their inscribed identity has shaped their life from birth. Equating the two does an injustice to the reality of prejudice and difficulty that minorities face.
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When life gives you lemmings...
User: danjite
Date: 2007-10-16 02:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Did anybody give Niven any crap for writing Kzinti and Puppeteers, even though he is (to the best of my knowledge) 100% human?
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PROBE UNIVERSE
User: liviapenn
Date: 2007-10-16 10:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

"Imaginary characters don't complain about their representation in books, so neither should real people?" Really?

The thing is, it's impossible to exoticize, exploit or stereotype a culture or a people that doesn't exist. There are no real Kzinti to be *mis*represented, or hurt by any slanders or exaggerations, or to be under-represented in popular culture, or stuck in stereotypical roles only.

If there were, then they might start speaking up for themselves. Or "giving people crap" as you put it.
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Danny Adams
User: madwriter
Date: 2007-10-16 02:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
>>Do I shut up and stick to white people, mostly male?<<

And yet if you do that, you'll risk offending the people who still constantly complain "Science fiction is full of nothing but white males!"

My solution to this doesn't really transfer well: when I have a character pop into my head, much of that character's history--and race--comes with the popping, fully-formed. I don't choose race and background; they choose themselves. The exceptions to this are when the background is necessary to the story. *Shrug*
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Leah Cutter: Just Talking
User: lrcutter
Date: 2007-10-16 02:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Just Talking
Many times in my life I've been a racial minority of one when walking down a street in Africa or Asia. . . .It gives me an awareness of being linguistically isolated, ethnically isolated, the subject of stares and glares and not-so-quiet whispers.

Ding ding ding ding!

I lived in Asia for a couple of years. I've been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, the roundness of my eyes. I think it was one of the most important lessons of my life.

I've also written more than one novel from the POV of a non-white character. I've been told that I did it well. I was scared to death that people would tear into me for it. I think what other people here have said was the key -- respect. Get it vetted by people who know, but also realize that there isn't a single person who is the gatekeeper of a culture. If it's a longer piece, include a bibliography of research sites and books.

But this is something that I think about too. A lot.
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scarlettina: Writing
User: scarlettina
Date: 2007-10-16 02:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Writing
My perspective is pretty simple: writing the other is the nature of fiction. We are none of the people we write about, though certainly they are part of us in one fashion or another. The more "other" our characters are, the more we have a duty to get them right, through research, conversation and personal inventory (because no matter how Other someone else may be, they are still human and in this, we each have ourselves as a resource no matter the color of our skin or the core of our beliefs). If we get them right and do it well, we've respected them, ourselves, our readers and our craft. I've seen plenty of people write Jews and do it badly. (Of course, that's the Other that I am, so it's what I know best.) Write a Jew, get it right and do it well; extend that to all sorts of Other and I think, FWIW, that it satisfies.
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2007-10-16 09:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree absolutely with your first point. Fiction is about making truth out of stuff that isn't true. Fiction is at its finest when it speaks to people as being something as - or more - real than dull and tedious fact could ever be. It is incumbent, therefore, on ANY writer of fictino to make sure that whatever they write feels authentic to the reader.

Of course, what one reader may feel is authentic can bring a cringe from another, because we don't have a single consensual reality (and I'm rather glad we don't).

If you have concerns about anything you're writing, then consult someone who knows about the subject in question. See how plausible they think it is. The problem I have come across here is that some people will confuse what is "typical" with what is "stereotypical" - what might seem fine and dandy to one reader might press the explode button on another. It's all a matter of context, a matter of perspective, and every reader is different.


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User: ktempest
Date: 2007-10-16 04:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:angry black woman
At the risk of being the Official Voice of Blackness...

Or do I write about people of color, LGBT people, women, or any other oppressed class present or past, and risk, even guarantee, giving offense to some readers?

Yes.

It sometimes takes a conscious effort on my part to remember to people my stories with women, with gay characters, with non-whites. Does that admission make me racist/sexist/genderist?

No, it makes you an honest person.

Does the fact that I try to make that conscious effort only deepen the offense, or ameliorate it?

The latter.

Look, it's true that no one is going to give you a cookie just for trying. You try and you may fail. What counts is what you do at that point. If you act defensively and like a jerk, that helps no one. Yes, it can be hard to hear people say "You've offended me!" but if you choose to go down this path, it's like to happen. You just have to accept it. Because, if you learn from each instance and comport yourself in such a way that people can't credibly call you an insensitive jerk, eventually you're going to come out the other side as a writer that can be trusted.

And then you get your cookie.

Do you write the other? What does the other mean to you? Am I an example of self-justfying white, male privilege, or am I on a useful track?

yeah, I wrote the other. though it's complicated what "other" means for me, though. In a lot of ways, black people are 'the other' because I spent a huge chunk of my life unable to relate to any black people outside of my family. But then white people are 'the other', too, and I have to write about them all the time.

also, I don't understand men.

anyway, from my balcony, you seem to be on the right track. but i shall reserve judgment until I read something or whatever. proof, pudding, all that.
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A. Nakama
User: elenuial
Date: 2007-10-16 14:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Risking another "token ethnic person" label, I want to make an addendum:

Rule 2 (or whatever) is "write what you know until it becomes constraining, in which case, do whatever." Since nobody is going to do a better job at representing the group(s) I belong to than me, I try to make sure that some of what I write does that.

And I don't mind some degree of it from other writers, so long as they put in the effort to get it right: honest intellectual curiosity is good for the soul. But then you have the sticky widget of trend-setting, and it's the second generation -- whether fan or fellow writer -- that starts to destroy and culturally misappropriate and stereotype. And does the first writer have any responsibility for that? It's a sticky question.

I mean, I'm waiting for the day when there's a Jacqueline Carey knock-off set in "Cathay" where samurai are running around humping kung-fu masters. And when that day comes, it will be enormously popular, and I will cry.
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The Green Knight
User: green_knight
Date: 2007-10-16 05:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So how do I write? Do I shut up and stick to white people, mostly male? This is certainly the default of our genre, and it's possible to write quite successfully without ever really leaving that pasture. It's where my "standing" is.

I am saddened by the fact that you see white males as the default of speculative fiction; because to me it lives off *not* being constrained by colour, race, or membership of the human race; and it is *much* more acceptable - in my view even expected - for writers to write what is right for the story, whether that character be white, black, human, or alien.

Yes, people who belong to a certain subculture may have insights into that subculture that others don't, and if they choose to share it, I am happy. On the other hand, it appears that Romance (which I don't read, and not-living in America, I can't walk down to my local bookshop to confirm this) is spawning its own segregation: white writers are supposed to write about white people, black writers are supposed to write about black people, and those stories are deemed to be of interest _only_ to a black audience, so they get marketed differently, shelved in different places, and - guess what - paid less.

To me, this looks as if a segment of the population is being kept in its own little ghetto, and occasionally patted on the head with the words 'see, we care about you so much that we give you your own space.' In South Africa during Apartheid, this was done physically - 'go to your own ancestral homeland, medical school is not part of your cultural heritage' - this is more subtle, and better packaged, but not really different.


As for being a closet racist, I think most of us carry a little bit of that in ourselves, but three weeks of being a gaijin in Japan have taught me the value of being approached as a human being when you're the one that stands out like a sore thumb. It is very disconcerting at first to be at the other end of racism - to be the one that can't hide in a crowd, the one that people move away from as soon as another seat becomes free, the one that no-one in a crowded train wants to sit next to. (Although I had that experience with perfectly white middle class bullies at school...) It was humbling, and educational and I'd like to think it has made me more aware; but I cannot honestly say that I have never acted the same.
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User: ktempest
Date: 2007-10-16 13:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:angry & black
On the other hand, it appears that Romance (which I don't read, and not-living in America, I can't walk down to my local bookshop to confirm this) is spawning its own segregation: white writers are supposed to write about white people, black writers are supposed to write about black people, and those stories are deemed to be of interest _only_ to a black audience, so they get marketed differently, shelved in different places, and - guess what - paid less.

That's not just Romance, it's all books.
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