Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Open Letter: To Elizabeth Bear

Sometime this January there will be a PoC in SF & Fantasy Carnival and the topic of discussion will be the representation of Men of Colour in SF and Fantasy fiction. But I've recently had an experience online, very well summed up in Livejournal's Deepad's essay here on cultural appropriation and the erasure of self.

Dear Elizabeth Bear,

It's about Mandingos. It's about the great scary, long cocked black man who will devour, rape, sexually satisfy like never before, protect and or die for this one, oh so special, white woman.

It's about we-sha-sha and the noble brave; the Indian scout. And it's not really progress when that 'Indian' is an amalgamation of cultures, shot into space and yet is still loyally following the phenomenal against/despite her circumstances white woman.

Aside: My historic strong female captain is Tryla Scott. She appeared on screen long before Janeway, was highly respected by her peers; was in fact the youngest officer to gain the post of Captain in quite a while. And ends up possessed, controlled, shot and never heard from again.

It's about my personal confusion that an author so highly spoken of by people I respect, would write about a magical, negro who gets bridled by a white woman after trying to kill or eat another white woman and, to my horror, becoming some sort of beast of burden/big buck protector; my horror at watching the humiliation of yet another black man so that a white woman can be empowered in front of her peers.

It's about the fact that you and writers like you don't have to think about this stuff. That you have the ready made excuse that it all 'serves the story' and that said character was written intelligently and as a well rounded individual with wants and needs of his own; with plots even. It's about the fact that I couldn't finish reading your book because I threw it across the room in disgust.

Aside2: Though I will admit that part of that was disappointment at yet another magical adventure in the land of Europa Celtic where every magical being the world over owes allegiance etc to a white Empire. In this case a FAIRY white empire.

It's about Tyr Anasazi being one of the most powerful and original black, male, SF characters I'd ever seen - subsumed and hobbled by Kevin Sorbo. The black man in the future is the ultimate epitome of what humanity can become? Strong, powerful, cunning, independent? Well, let's make him a sneak and pretender, woefully misguided, just plain wrong and then killed off for his own suddenly inserted stupidity and ambitions.

It's about Ronon Dex being yet another powerful character of colour, but existing, buck and strong and 'animalistic' at the expensive of Lt. Aiden Ford - left to become the black man junkie in space; because the writers didn't know what to do with him. The character was a US Marine, weapons & explosives expert - but he just wasn't 'buck' enough; no mandingo he.

It's about Geordi being blind. It's about Worf being, time and time again, a tragic mulatto. It's about holding on to Benjamin & Jake Sisko with finger nails and eye teeth. And also about conflicted feelings over Julian Bashir - South Asian & East Asian academic stereotypes vs someone who even knew what a sari was, up on a mainstream American show.

It's about Teal'c being solitary and alone, without a love life and an emancipation preoccupation. It's about Gerak ending up the personification of a newly freed people's inability to govern themselves.

It's about the first Black Power Ranger, being the actual first Black Power Ranger. And his martial arts style being something akin to break dancing. It's about the absolute and utter joy I felt when T.J Johnson became the Red Ranger. After seeing little black boys coming up with everything from Orange to Grey in schoolyards in my neighbourhood so they could pretend in that universe - here was a chance for them to say 'I can lead the Power Rangers. I can be the Red Ranger. TJ was!'.

Have you noticed yet that I'm listing? That I can list? That it's not impractical for me to list? And in my listing there's heartache and anger and depression and disgust?

It's about Avatar: The Last Airbender except in the live action there will be no Heroes of Colour, because the cast has been decided and they're all white. So too are the major Heroes of Dragonball Z. As were the main hero of SciFi Channel's EARTHSEA.

Even when the culture is non-white, even when it's not a case of aspects of my culture or some other non-white culture being incorporated into some white Europic Fantasy for some white Europic goal - there's no guarantee of proper, respectful representation.

It's about being fed up with all of that and not in the mood to pamper or pet someone who has far more privilege than they seem willing to admit to in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. And not wanting to watch them parade in a hairshirt when there are others who are actually hurting from a true lack of something.

I'm not calling you a monster. I'm not calling you a racist. But I am calling you clueless and ill worded and more than a touch thoughtless. Your ability to think about things, sometimes, does not erase my pain or lack. And only thinking of how things come across, sometimes, is not enough to make me like you. In fact, I don't think there's anything that could make me like you, other than you somehow earning my respect. And that's never going to happen if you keep checking in with me (metaphorical me, the larger culture and audience of PoC me) to see how you're going. Cause then it looks like so much brownie points, so much patting yourself on the back, so much excuses and dissembling; so much pride.

PS: I despise the phrase happens to have. Do you happen to be white? Do people happen to be straight? No. You hear "He or she happens to be Chinese/Indian/Gay/An Immigrant/Etc..."

And you, Elizabeth Bear in particular have written that someone just 'happens to have that cultural background'. I do not happen to be black or gay or have a Caribbean culture background. I'm not a straight white woman who just happens to have on these "accessories". Who I am, the facets that make up me cannot be picked up somewhere for $3.95, no matter how well you think you shop in exotic locations for true bits of said exotic culture. I am not white down deep beneath my brown and my dreads and my accent and SGL. And I'm as offended by it as white women would be if they were told that surely, surely, they're really a good thin girl down deep inside and they just happen to be fat on the outside.


  1. "I'm not calling you a monster. I'm not calling you a racist. But I am calling you clueless and ill worded and more than a touch thoughtless."

    Thank you; thank you so much for writing this in response to that.

  2. "And that's never going to happen if you keep checking in with me (metaphorical me, the larger culture and audience of PoC me) to see how you're going."

    This is where I have the problem.

    If I (a white English male currently living in LA) want to write characters with other racial/cultural backgrounds to my own, and what to do those characters justice, I need to try and find out whether what I am doing "works". And yet this is not the first post on the subject of cultural appropriation/depicton of "the Other" that explicitly says "don't come to me to find out what PoC are like/to ask how you're doing".

    So, if I don't try and engage in any dialogue, I run the risk of getting things Badly Wrong, and being (rightly) excoriated fr doing so.

    If I do try and engage, the above seems to be a not uncommon response.

    The easiest thing for me, clearly, would be to not bother and therefore not take the risk of writing such characters. But that just perpetuates the exclusion and that's wrong too.

  3. *later for popcorn, i'm making ot make bebenne wafers*

  4. I'm working on the carnival. honest!

  5. One last thing-- did you see this? Out in April.

  6. I'm kind of at the point now where I'm like, why are we even talking to non-colored folks when clearly the general expectation is that we smile and hand out cookies?

  7. Tchernbyelo:

    I don't do Anti-Racism 101. And your problem is very much a 101. It could be merely the way you've phrased things. But I'm not going to guess or give you the benefit of the doubt because I don't do Anti-Racism 101.

    It's extremely exhausting to do someone else's homework for them, especially when that someone is often tens of various white people wanting me to explain and/or award points (every. flipping. day) - just like you're doing right now.

    When you've done enough of your homework to figure out what's wrong in the comment you just made, you may come back and try to engage me in discussion again. For now I suggest you Google 'Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack' and I suggest you look up Tim Wise.

  8. Just dropping by to say thank you for writing this.

  9. Interesting that you mentioned Earthsea...in the books, as I recall, Ged and most of the people of Earthsea were dark-skinned, and it was Tenar and the people of Atuan who were white...

    Has nothing to do with anything...and yet. Where is the line between racism and culturalism? It seems like most of the conflicts/ misunderstandings between peoples are more about culture than color, but it's the cultures which can be readily color-identified where the conflicts are so obvious.

    I don't know where I'm going with this.

    So I'll stop. But your post makes me think.

  10. Underdog:

    It's fascinating that you can articulate the obvious fact that not looking white has factored into conflicts/misunderstandings/slavery/genocides and imperialism and yet not understand the line between racism and culturalism.

    Perhaps there is someone from Rwanda or the Congo or Iraq or Twaiwan or Tibet who might be able to explain the distinction to you. I'm not sure I could even if I wanted to.

  11. This is beautiful. Thank you for writing this.

  12. Thank you for writing this; it opened my eyes to just how much I don't always notice.

  13. I'm white, female, and a fan of Bear's blog though not a big reader of her books so far. Thank you for your words. I want to apologize for the folks who have responded defensively and dismissively, in her comments and Truepenny's. They are not everyone.

    It's hard enough to encounter painful, familiar patterns in everyday life. Running into them in entertainment is wearying and a different kind of betrayal. The "wearying" part makes it hard even to speak about. So I'm grateful that you chose to. Bringing those experiences to light is part of what might make things better.

    I know I'm still always learning. Thank you for your voice.

  14. Thank you for writing this, Seeking Avalon. I don't know Elizabeth Bear's work so I can't comment on that.

    I have to agree with Seeking Avalon's post in the comments as well.

    Tchernabyelo, what I find most frustrating about being a person of color is the explaining. I'm supposed to be patient with my time and energy while constantly educating people. Think of it as someone constantly asking you what it is like to breathe EVERY DAY. This is what many well meaning white people do. They constantly expect you to explain to them your existence, then make your experience every other poc's experience, then not be pissed off when you get tired of:

    a. having your experience speak for all other poc's experience
    b. having to argue against other poc's experience and opinions which that white person has previously co-opted as THE poc experience/opinion (I don't care if your best black friend from 20 years ago thinks black face is okay that doesn't mean I agree with them!)
    c. having to constantly field questions when I should be working, vacationing, not having an educational experience.
    d. hearing stupid questions. When it comes to race, that whole "there are no stupid questions" goes out the window. If I look at you like you just grew antlers, take it that you asked a stupid question.
    e. getting annoyed because the white person has gotten defensive because I didn't agree with them or give them the answer they wanted. If you ask me a question on race, I disagree, you fire back, and I call you on being offensive and then you really lose it then don't expect to get anymore answers. EVER. I don't have the time or patience.
    f. think that just because I'm your friend I want to school you. We may get into a conversation and I may be feeling generous with my opinion, but I might not want to talk that day. Deal with it.

    Also, while no opinion is universal (see a and b above), there are books on general etiquette and race. Don't ask me for the million time about some stereotype you heard. Go read a book. The great thing about the library is that it is free or really, really cheap to obtain a library card. And they have these amazing people there called librarians to help you find books and they also have this thing called the internet that has lots of links to clicky. Do that. Do that first.

  15. Just one question. Why do you title your blog after a white myth? Walk your talk.

  16. tlc22:

    Oh your blazing wit, your cutting remarks. Oh I am slain! Not!

    I'm a Post Colonial Native - The Matter of Britain is my birthright, one of the few perks of slavery and imperialism.

  17. "they're all white. So too are the major Heroes of Dragonball Z. "
    No. The major Heroes of Dragonball Z are japanese. It's anime. From Japan. Made for Japan, by the japanese. Japanese authors possibly can be accused of rasism, but hardly the rasism you talk about.

  18. Taisin:

    You appear to have misread my words / or they were unclear to you. I'm referencing the live action casts of Avatar, Dragonball Z and Sci Fi's Earth Sea, where the main protagonists have all or were all cast with white actors.

  19. This is one of the fiercest (in the best way), well-articulated and on-point responses to racism and White appropriation/misrepresentation of people of color images / cultures that i have read in a long, long time. Thank you so much for writing this. Will definitely link to it on my blog.

  20. Wow, I wasn't even aware that there IS a live action cast for Dragonball Z. :) In Europe only anime is known.
    Indeed, the full white cast is very stupid.

  21. U.K. LeGuin wrote about 'Whitewashing Earthsea' on her website. Except for Tenar, none of the heroes of Earthsea has any business being portrayed by a white actor.

  22. Hear hear.
    Thank you for this. I've gone round and round in circles so many times on this issue with white friends and colleagues, and you hit this one out of the park.

  23. It's about Geordi being blind.

    I've read this a number of times in the context of what else you're saying here, but I'm still not sure I understand what you're saying. Is it that you mean that by being blind Geordi is lesser than the other team members (as the other examples you cite seem to be about the PoC characters being lesser in various ways than the white characters?

    If so (and I apologize in advance if I've just misunderstood you), I guess that depends on your point of view (as it were). As a blind person I don't consider myself a lesser specimen of humanity (nor am I thrilled if other people make that assumption about me) and nor did I think Geordi was. In fact, they went out of their way to show him as an equally contributing member of the team (which led to a whole other can of worms about how that completely fudged the implications of disability, but that's another story). To me despite any problems with handling of his disability it was fantastic to see a person with a disability as a crew member, and I'm disappointed that to you his being blind was a drawback to making him the PoC character you wanted to see.

  24. I came over here from The Red Shoes' LJ. I said there:

    Being the parent of four now grown-up Asian Americans, I spent a couple of decades watching for, and seldom finding, mainstream Asian American characters who weren't The China Doll (female), The Wimp (male), The Nerdy Brain (either), or The Martial Arts Expert (either, though more often male). And then there are the Ancient Mysteries of the Orient (which is, y'know, all one place...). So--yeah.

  25. "It's about Geordi being blind."

    I'm not really sure what the intention was using that example but as a (white, and admittedly not very familiar with Star Trek) disabled person, it struck me as rather qualitatively different from Ronon and TJ and Ged and most of the other instances you listed. Was there something particularly attention-worthy or fraught about the portrayal itself, or...?

  26. Re: Geordi

    Geordi La Forge was a two-fer. He was blind and black. To me there's always been something off about a character who could provide so much more to the show, who was used so infrequently and seemed to be around to say that in this future even someone with two doses of 'Not-an-able-bodied-white-man' could be part of something greater/serve in Starfleet, etc...

  27. What is it with people feeling the need to clarify their ethnicity/culture/race/color of their underpants before stating how much they agree with you? I mean, fuck. That is NOT good.

    So, I am an 18-year-old female from Latin America (you know, that jungly place where everybody looks like Mexicans and where all the food is spicy), which means I have every bloody right to agree with you. However, I also happen to be white, so you better give me some points for being able to understand all the nonsense you colored folks come up with. Good for me!

  28. I agree that it is not the job of every member of the minority to educate the clueless majority when they ask questions.

    But at the same time, even the most well-meaning outsider is likely to miss patterns and stereotypes and repetitions that grate incessantly on the members of the minority. Because the outsiders can't see it. Even if they've read the standard introductory readings - there's a lot that knapsack doesn't tell you.

    It is not the minority's job to explain in exquisite detail why the unintentionally stereotypical representations are painful, or to 'justify' their reactions. But it would be greatly appreciated if people gave some examples of what they did want to see - takes a hell of a lot less time and makes people less defensive on both sides. And is more likely to produce results, I suspect.

    (My husband never could understand why I burst into tears at a particular comic book character's death and refused to continue reading the series... but to me, she was the Only Hero Ever who was 'like me', and they'd killed her off, indicating she wasn't important.)

  29. Eloquent and aching and brilliantly incisive commentary.

  30. I've been reading all about this and digesting it all, and I feel just awful.

    Everything you've said in this post is 100% true, and why didn't I see any of it before? How could I have watched 5 entire seasons of Angel without questioning Gunn's story arc?

    I, like everyone else, fancy myself Not Racist. But obviously I have a big ol' blind spot when it comes to science fiction.

    This has been a painful experience. Thank you.

  31. I remember being a pre-teen and really loving Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider of Pern series. About six books in, I asked my mother where all the black, Asian, and Hispanic people were in this future of mankind? Yes, it took me about six books to notice that none of the character's were described as people of color- I was young. Were we not allowed on the ships that took the settlers to Pern? Since then, I've continued to read SF/F but it's hard to own the stories when the heroine/hero is always fair-skinned, light-eyed, and BLONDE with long, flowy hair- the opposite of everything I am.

    Thank you for this article. I'm surprised it took me so long to find out that other people noticed this issue as well.

  32. Why Teal'C in the list, He saves himself and his people from slavery. By strength and determination he reaches his goals. He has courage and honour. That he is solemn and alone (at first, he befriends over time) is more because he is a warrior of great standing and not a earthling. But even that he overcomes. He is respected, well admired and a rolemodel indeed.

  33. Cabaray:I let your comment be published because I'm going to put down your lack of knowledge about the Noble!Savage to you being from The Netherlands.

    I suggest, however, that you find some works on racial stereotypes and tropes translated so you don't annoy others with your ignorance. The internet is large and multi-lingual. And if you're going to pop your head up in these kinds of conversations, you should know what the heck you're talking about.

  34. It actually makes me cry tears of joy when I read things like this. It tells me that I, a young black woman who couldn't even write a black heroine until she was fifteen (because I grew up with the notion that black girls - or rather non-white girls in general - COULDN'T be heroines), am not alone in my fight. I'm not alone. There are other people who get it. Hopefully, together we can try to do something about this. Change never came from the centre anyway. Always from the margins.

    Thank you.

  35. Long after the fact, but thank you for posting, and doing so with such uncensored intimacy.

  36. *claps*
    WOW. Just...wow. I'll admit that for a long, long time I was one of those annoying white fangirls who insisted that "color didn't matter," "go write it yourself," etc. But my thoughts on it have been evolving, and your post was what finally persuaded me.
    Thanks for writing this. It really opened my eyes, and I now I can't agree more with you.
    Note to others interested in race in "geek" genres: The book Fic by Anne Jamison has some interesting, though far too short, thoughts on this.