Friday, January 23, 2009

Your Obtuseness Is Exhausting

Damnit I'm too tired to be this angry. But I keep seeing people popping up in threads where PoC are speaking about what this past week has meant to them - just so that they (this group, this type of people I'm guessing are white, whiter, whitest) can say bullshit like: "If the only people who can write PoC's well are PoC's...."





Listen and I will tell you a few things that might make you think.

Have you, have all of you who speak about 'What can I do' ever taken the time to realize that People of Colour have absolutely no problem writing white characters? Have you pondered the fact that no one is asking us:

"Well how have managed to write white people? How have you dealt with writing the other. How have you made them real and three dimensional and respectful?"

I am fed the hell up with people who don't stop and think and realize that we, PoC writers, do not get hand holding on how to write white characters or white culture or European (via various countries) Descended Culture.

Why can't it be realized that it's NOT impossible to consider all (or as many as possible) sides - it's not a set of binaries and that it HAS. BEEN. DONE. In fact it's done all the time. It's not only done, it's lived.

PoCs, a goodly majority of them, navigate two or three and sometimes five and six worlds at a time. And I'm not even getting into those of us who're mixed. We have to know the majority culture, and then the intricate cultures of academia when we're in it, of the work place and of the particular history/family specifics of varied bosses. If we like fairy tales or Celtic Myths or any other number of things - no one boggles as how could we possibly manage to relate to it, study it, or pay attention to it.

This is the reason all those questions come across as so disingenuous - as if to stop and think about showing respect for a people's history and heritage is the most mind boggling, heavy weighted thing that's ever been introduced.

My problem with the women who wanted to insist I know nothing of Celtic myth and therefore couldn't understand xyz-their-panty is that to them it's only expected that the Celtic myths be investigated and used thoughtfully and that there not end up being someone shaking their head at assumptions being made about the use of those myths as archetypes , Jungian or otherwise, to upset what the fuck ever paradigms - but somehow I and other PoC are wrong in wanting to know why that much effort didn't get put into thinking about what it meant to use the archetype of man-eating-pony with a presentation as a man with black skin and what that means in the world we currently live in.

You (you asking the questions, you refusing to listen, all of you) get so upset at the word racist. To you it seems to mean instant thoughts of sheets and fire and spitting on people. And yet you're saying you can't understand why we'd be upset to see Man Eating, White Woman Threatening Black Man? Or any number of other things? Cat Eating Asian? Grubbing Greedy Fingered Jew? Hot Latina Temptress? Insensible Indian Taxi Driver?

[ I mean, I love Men In Black a whole damn much, but the instant 'Taxi drives are aliens for not speaking English' that Will Smith's character comes to is exceptionally wince worthy. ]

You get so upset at the word honkey. You rush instantly to talk about how so and so comes across as if all white people are Nazis or Lynching Southerners, or former Korean War or Vietnam War veterans grown embittered; because OMGosh they're so angry! They must think that!

Words are sounds and picture associations laden with context. When you string them together they paint a portrait.

I'm tired. I'm very, very tired. There's more I want to say, but I don't think I'll frame it the best I could. I just keep thinking specifically about role playing games and how PoC have no problem creating and playing white characters - making those individuals solid and interesting and reflections of what's happening around them - and how most of the rare times when I saw a CoC at all, if they were being handled badly - the player behind them was inevitably white; They couldn't paint an accurate portrait - just stick figures with over accentuated personality features.

Privilege, the expectation that other people can easily wear your skin and see out of your eyes - but you don't have to try and see things from their perspective.

PS: Being afraid of 'harsh criticism and turning away from making attempts because your feelings might get hurt is a truer definition of pantiwadulous than I've ever heard of.


I'm going to go create a backlist for features in Faces of Colour - I need to spend time looking at the work of people who paint better portraits.


  1. When my mom was visiting, a couple of weeks back, she asked if I had any books she could read (in the sense of 'ones she would like', she knows I have lots of books). As she's mostly a mystery reader and I'm mostly SF&F, I didn't have much, but one I pulled out was "Graveyard Dust," one of the Benjamin January mystery series. It reminded me of the series, and I've gotten some of the starting books from the library and am re-reading them. I'm starting with the first book, "A Free Man of Color."

    The protagonist is a black man living in New Orleans shortly after the Louisiana Purchase. There are times, as the author writes about his life and his world, that I have found myself gritting my teeth in sympathetic anger to his carefully controlled and concealed rage.

    The author, Barbara Hambly, is white, female, and a native (and resident) of California. While she does have a degree in History, it's in Medieval History (she knows how to do the research, but she didn't start out knowing about that place in that era). I don't know what religion she is, but given that her parents were from a Pennsylvania coal mining town, I doubt she's Catholic, which her character is (was - lapsed, IIRC).

    Despite being about as "other" from Benjamin January as it is possible for her to be, the character comes alive. I can close my eyes and picture him walking down the street, keeping an eye out in case one of those damned crude Americans decides to start trouble.

    Yes, it took work on her part - but it didn't require anything more than that, and I doubt it took significantly more work than any historian who is also a writer would put into ANY character from a different culture and era. The difference is that she was willing to put in that work.

    - kdorian

  2. Kdorian:

    I'm not familiar with the book or author - something for me to make a note of. But it's possible that the author, being a Medievalist and thus aware than the character she wanted to write would be nothing like a character in medieval times or in current times remembered that people are part of history and thus researched people as much as possible.

    Too many in this discussion seem to put forth the argument that since they are people, they don't have to research anything - because characters are people first.

    And it's disappointing and extremely prejudiced and filled with privilege because they don't assume that socks are socks no matter the time period or even that sex is all the same no matter the time period or country of origin. But they seem to assume that they do not have to put the same amount of energy into researching and construction characters of colour as they do physics and the time space continuum of Celtic mythology.

    The privilege is that they reduce us to badly made/shaped props and then assume no one cares about the shoddiness.

  3. Yes. Another book I recently read had one of those - I picked it up at the bookstore thinking it was a supernatural thriller (it was one of those a woman on the cover facing away from the audience - you know the type I'm talking about) that had a man and woman working together to solve a supernatural mystery. I got the impression from the combination of the blurb and cover that the female half of the team was black. That's why I decided to get it; that is something you almost never see, and something I wanted to encourage.

    Wrong. In fact, the three black characters we see in the book are a Dark Loa Voodoo Priestess (who is killed by one of her own zombies), the Priestess's shop assistant, and a South African female witch who kills children in the process of removing their organs for use in magic.

    The white male racist character who accompanies the SA witch, BTW, is painted as just about as bad as she is... except that he has a Tragic Background to explain why he turned bad. Yes, the white man who discovers in the course of the book that black people don't smell bad after all gets sympathy points.

    Needless to say, I'm never picking up anything by that author again.


  4. My problem with the women who wanted to insist I know nothing of Celtic myth and therefore couldn't understand

    Yeah. But, aside from the point that "Celtic myth" is a bit of a botch-up anyway - English cultural appropriation of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, if you will - this is just wrong.

    I haven't read Blood and Iron (skimmed through the first three chapters a couple of days ago, which are all that's available on the Bear's website) but, here's what I know about the Kelpie:

    They're dangerous. Other magical creatures may be tamed or befriended, but you either enslave or are killed by a Kelpie. A Kelpie is either pure black or pure white, looks like the most beautiful horse you have ever seen, but the moment you touch a Kelpie, the smooth cold wet skin tells you this is not a mortal horse - and once touched, the only way to save yourself from the Kelpie is to cut your finger off where it touches the Kelpie.

    There are stories of farmers enslaving a Kelpie to harness, but the reason these stories never have happy endings is that Kelpies do not ever accept slavery willingly - there are no legends of a Kelpie who willingly served or loved their owners. Harness a Kelpie, eventually the Kelpie will find a means of getting loose, and then the Kelpie will kill you. The legend is that Kelpies can also take on the form of beautiful women, the better to lure men to their deaths (as in, man touches this gorgeous naked woman by the riverside, man gets stuck to woman, man gets pulled underwater and drowned).

    As far as I can see, Elizabeth Bear decided to make the following changes to the Kelpie legend for the purpose of writing her story:

    1. Her Kelpie is piebald, neither pure black nor pure white;
    2. Her Kelpie stalks prey seeking to kill: the Kelpies of legend surface from the river, dripping wet, and - whether as horse or woman - they attract their prey to them by their beauty and apparent availability.
    3. Her Kelpie is male, not female (okay, they must have had male Kelpies, probably).
    4. Her Seeker can ride the Kelpie and leave the Kelpie's back unharmed: in legend, if you touch a Kelpie you stick to them until you die, which, as the Kelpie will then plunge underwater with you, means you drown. Just like that. Kelpies can be enslaved and forced to work: they can't be ridden.

    Now, obviously, as an author, Elizabeth Bear had the right everyone has to make changes to legend to suit her story. But she did make changes - and the changes she made are a large part of what made you find Blood and Iron too painful to finish. Bear chose to make her kelpie black/white-haired, to make him male, to make him a hunter/rapist, to make it possible to ride him, and characterised him as accepting his slavery and submitting to harness, none of which are decisions that are any part of the Scottish legend of the Kelpie.

  5. In my 49 years of living, nobody has ever used "honky" to me as an insult. Ever. It has less visceral impact than "silly person".

    Did nobody watch Blazing Saddles? Did nobody notice the hero's desperate attempt to use "honky" as an insult, and how feeble it was?

    But no, it's "I'm oppressed whenever somebody says 'h*nky'". Right.

  6. I don't know how you manage to write so eloquently and beautifully when you must be so exhausted and furious, but thank you for continuing to do it.


  7. Thank you. Thank you so much for this post.

    I still don't understand how very simple ideas like "research moar" and "suck it up and accept criticism when you fail" are being twisted into Are you saying that white people can't write CoC at all?!?!

    For some reason I'm reminded of Ann Coulter, who responds to every single criticism of her writing, no matter how minor, with "Are you saying that I should never write again?! FINE! I'll never write again!!" If only she would *actually* stop writing...

    - nenena at lj

  8. Thank you for this (and I'm sorry for all the crap that's been heaped on you recently). -marydell

  9. That is just the weakest excuse for not writing something. Or are they saying they can't research? Have no empathy or understanding? No imagination? I guess we should feel sorry for the writer who doesn't know how to write for being uniquely unsuited for the profession they've chosen.

    I also wanted to tell you how awesome you are. You've been subjected to appalling behaviour - thoughtless and ignorant behaviour by people who should be ashamed of themselves.

  10. Meg & Copracat"

    Truthfully I've no idea how I'm managing to be eloquent when I feel furious enough to froth at the mouth and tired enough to lie down and do nothing.

    At this point I'm just grateful to everyone else who is also writing about this. . I may be getting strength because I'm not shouting/having voice alone.

  11. I feel sad that I said the same thing just over a week and a half ago, in order to hopefully deflect these questions being asked again and again, and now you have to say it all over again, and how many links I've been following that prove that nothing I said was new either, it has all been said (again and again), by people who have been fighting much longer than I have.
    Anyway, props to you.

  12. Aside from commenting about my daughter's take on some of this, I have avoided saying much because I am not to the best of my knowledge a person of color, nor am I a writer. What I am is a mother to children of color. As a parent I have always respected my children's realities even when I don't always understand them. They are 13 and 10 now and have wildly different experiences with race and racism and I get that no matter how much I love them and try to "get it" I can't, not completely. What I can do is listen and validate and offer help when there is something I can do.

    In this debate what I can mostly do is listen and try to learn something from everyone. It's not that as a white person I throw in the towel and give up, it's that I want to be careful not to quickly say "yeah, I totally get what you mean" and then inadvertently recast the issues within my own reality.

    I guess I'm not making a lot of sense here, I'm not horribly articulate. Mostly I just want to say I'm trying to understand and I listen.

  13. I'm so sorry, and so frustrated by the moral and creative laziness that these whiners are visiting on you. And the hypocrisy! And the uuugly self righteousness!

    Seems like it was about a year ago, someone said something that has always stuck with me, and I trot it out pretty regularly; something about cops stopping a little girl for the crime of walking with melanin. This evening, I realised that I couldn't remember who had said it; google pointed me right back to you!

    Google also showed me where I'd quoted or paraphrased you without attribution; I've rectified that wherever I can.

  14. @kdorian: Sounds like Black Magic Woman by Justin Gustainis. Hrm, didn't even notice that with the only three black characters. Which of course is part of the problem of privilege. As a reader (or in Gustainis' case) a writer you can not even notice things that would be offensive to others. Which is where when having it pointed out its important to accept the criticism and not just break into "But I CAN'T be a racist, how DARE you imply I am!"

  15. "Too many in this discussion seem to put forth the argument that since they are people, they don't have to research anything - because characters are people first."

    This, yeah. Folks forget that people are shaped by their circumstances- and my circumstance as a White, middle-class, liberal gal in the US South is gonna be profoundly different from, say, a Black, middle-class, liberal gal in the US South; to say nothing of characters who differ in more than one respect.

    In order to even start understanding a character as a person, one must understand a character's life.

    But then, I suppose I'm preaching to the choir here.