Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Race Fail

In case you missed it, the sci-fi and fantasy community online has been buzzing for two months with a discussion of race and fiction. The entire discussion has been labeled RaceFail '09. If you haven't caught any of this, for heaven's sake don't try to catch up now. I estimate the discussion to run over two million words, divided between a few hundred blogs and comment threads. And the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty bad, for several reasons: a lot of the signal has been lost (in the form of locked/deleted/screened posts and comment threads), a lot of repeat in the signal (hundreds of people have said essentially the same thing in lots of different words, and several people have said the same things in lots of different places), and a lot of noise in the signal (it's occasionally devolved into vitriolic screaming matches). A few people on every side of the issue have behaved poorly, quite a few people involved have been rabidly angry, and the floors over at LiveJournal are sticky with mouth froth and flung poo. Don't get me wrong -- it's an important discussion, I've found it enlightening, and a lot of important things have been said. But, like I said: two million words. You can't sort through it, because so much of it's gone and because you can't put a coherent timeline together across all the venues where discussion was happening. Like Inigo Montoya said: "Let me explain.... No, there is to much. Let me sum up." So if you're interested, I recommend this short summary; it's as good a short introduction as you're likely to find, and all of the links are worthwhile, if you want to read deeper. I'm also recommending this essay; it was enlightening.

A lot of the discussion involves White Guy Privilege -- the concept that being white folk, and especially white and male, has a huge number of advantages, and that white guys are generally blind to their privilege, in the same way fish are generally unaware of water. This part of the discussion has been instructive. When I look around and pay attention, I become aware of a lot of the ways in which being a white guy works to my advantage. It hasn't had much professional impact; I'm a tech guy. But I have a broad-spectrum peace of mind that I probably wouldn't have were I not a white guy. F'rinstance, I just had expensive car repairs done. I suspect if I were a persecuted minority (or a woman), the thought would've at least crossed my mind that I got slapped with the unofficial Colored/Ovaried Fee. If I don't get a job I want, I'll never have to wonder if my race has anything to do with it -- or, if I get the job, I won't ever wonder if I only got in because I fill a quota. I bicycle at night through neighborhoods that I couldn't ride through in daylight if I weren't a guy (it helps that I've got lots of expert-level hitting-people training). This is just a tiny sampling of what I've thought of, and I'm sure White Guy Privilege impacts me in ways that will never occur to me.

Another major feature of the whole RaceFail discussion has been a bunch of White Guys claiming they're not racist and not trying to cause any offense, and a bunch of People of Color reminding them that, really, they are racist, and accidental offense is still offense. This is mostly valid, too. With the first point, it's arguable that everyone is racist, and with the second point, it's true that writers can control their work, but not another's reaction to their work. There's a huge ongoing discussion in fine-art circles about this issue, and the consensus swings like a pendulum from Artist's Intention Reigns Supreme, to The Audience Is Never Wrong. If the artist thinks his painting is about the triumph of deconstructionism over structuralism, but the audience thinks it's about gloomy birds sitting on a split-rail fence, the current thinking in the art world seems to favor the artist. The RaceFail discussion swings the pendulum hard in the other direction; if anyone finds your writing offensive in any way, it's therefore offensive, regardless of the author's intention.

I don't know that I entirely buy this argument. For one thing, critics always look through the lens of their own worldview. I once heard a college professor talk about the undercurrent of sexism in Piet Mondrian's work. I thought this was empirically untrue to the point of ridiculousness, but she took offense at the "sexist themes" of his work (if you don't know Mondrian, click that link and look at the sample works). I can't argue with the fact that she was offended. But merely because she found something to be offended at, doesn't automatically make anything about the work inherently offensive. Hostile Media Effect: it isn't just for news sources.

As a novice fiction writer, I had two reactions to the RaceFail. First, a completely selfish "oh, great -- something else to keep track of in my writing. As if pacing, structure, theme, dialogue, plot, and character arc weren't enough!" Just thinking about it drives me to fits of italics.

Second, this introduces a whole new category of error that writers can commit. If I write that Dirk Blackthorn stared darkly into the obsidian fireplace, watching the reflection of the flames dancing on the dark glass, I'm committing an error of fact. Obsidian would crack apart with the heat if you used it to build a fireplace. If I have Dirty Larry draw his .44 Magnum Desert Eagle and blast away at bad guys, I'm committing a research error; no automatic pistol is chambered for .44 Magnum. If I write that Oliver Crumley stepped off a double-decker bus in Trafalgar Square, munching heartily on a bag of chips, I had better mean French fries, else he should be munching from a packet of crisps. This would be an error of usage. But if I have a character say another character is scary like the boogeyman, I may have just used a racial slur, offensive to the Buganese people on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi -- the error is compounded if the character in question is, indeed, Buganese, because now I'm stereotyping and reinforcing cultural misconceptions with my writing. Suddenly I've jumped into a whole new category of error -- I've now committed a moral error. I've crossed the line from doing bad fact-checking to being a racist, a sinner, a Bad Person.

The worst part is, you can't avoid screwing up. If I decided to learn Cantonese, I could spend years mastering the lexicon and pronunciation and syntax and culture that make up the language. But no native speaker would ever confuse me for another native speaker. A thousand little cues and quirks would give me away. Similarly, no matter how much I work at it and research and travel, I can never get a foreign culture completely right. It occurs to me that it's almost offensive to assume I could. And it doesn't matter if the culture in question is in Chad or Chile or China -- or even ten blocks from my house, where the barbershop window says "Estetica Unisex" and the meat shop is a carnicero. If a native looks close enough, they'll always see the gaps in my grammar, the Spanish words painted over English thoughts. But with language, you've got the advantage that, as long as you're making the effort and manage to communicate, natives will overlook your intermittent incorrect usage and poor grammar. When you're writing The Other, any minor lapse is all it takes to get people crying "racist!"; it's a tighter standard, according to a large number of RaceFail participants.

Further, if you include any bit of ethnicity, your ethnic character had better not exhibit any stereotypical traits. The difficulty of writing flawed characters who are also non-WhiteGuy is that your flaws can't be perceived to line up with any existing ethnic stereotypes. If I've got a stingy, skinflint shop owner, he had damn well better not be Jewish, or any other ethnicity with a stereotype for pinching pennies. You even need to avoid non-negative stereotypes; what instigated RaceFail was, apparently (I should mention I never read the book in question, just the critique), a white author writing about a tall, well-endowed black man. Neither of these traits are undesirable -- they can, respectively, get you the corner office (according to the business world), and hot babes (according to my spam trap). But they (amongst other things) were considered damning evidence of authorial racism. So, if I'm writing a lesbian character, I need to pay extra attention to make sure she doesn't wear flannel or drive a pickup truck; if she were a straight girl, she could wear and drive whatever makes the character work. If I'm writing a Puerto Rican character, I need to make sure he doesn't play baseball.

And that's another writing problem: I don't have any Puerto Rican stereotypes floating around in my head. I know a few Puerto Ricans, but I've never heard anyone making snide comments about them. I just threw out the baseball example because I just listened to a news story about Major League Baseball recruiters in Puerto Rico. I have no idea if that's an actual stereotype, or if I just made it up. But if I wanted to write a Puerto Rican character, I would need to do research to make sure it's not. In order to make sure you avoid stereotypes and misculturizations for unfamiliar ethnicities, you need to spend a lot of time learning about the stereotypes. I can't pinpoint why, but this instinctively seems like a bad practice. Packing my head with this stuff, just so I can purposely avoid it, seems like not only bad writing, but also bad moral practice.

Several of the White People in the RaceFail discussion have said something like: "So, now I'm expected to write multiculturally, and if I get it wrong in any tiny way, I can expect to be crucified for it. The hell with this -- I'm sticking with white characters only from now on!" I can see where this comes from: sins of omission are easier to live with than sins of commission (I think it was Mark Twain who said, "it's better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you're a fool than open it and remove all doubt"). But I don't buy into this. Racism is a problem, and by consciously avoiding dealing with it, you shift yourself towards the part of the problem end of the problem/solution continuum. By choosing to address the issue, you're adding to the discussion, and pushing in the right direction.

And it's important to realize that it doesn't have to be perfect. Striving for perfection is a good way to do nothing at all; it's paralyzing. Most books on the craft of writing have an entire chapter about how poisonous perfectionism can be. So my target is to write well and consciously work to avoid negative cultural biases to the best of my ability. Personally, I use the U.S.S. Enterprise as my gold standard. Looking back on it through a modern, politically-correct lens, the original Star Trek series seems like a mess of ethnic stereotypes and tokenism. But it was a huge step forward for television; in a lot of ways, it redefined how race and culture could work on television. If I can do half as well in my writing in my time, as Gene Roddenberry did for his time, I can live with that, even if it occasionally pisses people off. And I hope my readers will be able to live with it as well.


wychwood said...

Interesting post. I just had to comment on this bit, though:

"When I look around and pay attention, I become aware of a lot of the ways in which being a white guy works to my advantage. It hasn't had much professional impact; I'm a tech guy."

Which, well *g*. Somehow I suspect that you haven't much experience of what being a woman in a technical field is like, or you wouldn't have said something like that! I'm guessing you were thinking in terms of race, but you did say "white *guy*", so.

Good luck with the writing, anyway; "try your best and take your lumps when you fail" definitely seems like the best strategy.

Aaron said...

I'd like to suggest that it'd potentially be just as great a failing to write a Puerto Rican who doesn't play baseball, if baseball really would be vital to the identity of your character as a Puerto Rican. Then you'd be denying the culture of the character you're writing. There isn't only one way to screw up- stereotyping isn't the only way you can offensively present a member of another race, and deciding to write a Puerto Rican by leaving out anything that makes him fundamentally Puerto Rican is certainly one way to do it.

The reason your notion of researching stereotypes in order to avoid them seems wrong is that you're thinking about it in a funny way. What you want to do, if you want to write a Puerto Rican character, is research their culture thoroughly. This will include understanding stereotypical portrayals, but it has to go beyond that. You have to understand what is realistic and what is unrealistic, or your characters will fail because the best way to racefail is to portray characters in ways that aren't fair to reality.

Jeff Mountjoy said...

Thinking about it, you might be right -- my initial thought was that, in what's traditionally a guy-dominated field, a disproportionate number of the people I trust the most are women (including, not incidentally, my wife!). But this might also be because of broad sexism in the field: the women have to be better to compete.

At this point, I think I can safely say the ongoing effect on my career is minimal. These days, I survive on extreme competence in a broad range of tech skills. People hire me because I'm an asset to have on the crew. But, you're right -- I have no way of knowing if I would've gotten to this point, if I weren't a White Guy.

Anecdotally, the stagehand's union (where politics can outweigh ability -- in our local, even after you finish three years of classwork and apprenticeship, you still need to be voted in by the current members to get your card) is dominated by guys. But the tech crews at non-union houses (where you're hired for ability, rather than seniority) are mixed. At the LORT theater next door, about half of the staff in painting, scenery, props, and lighting are women. It's good to see.

NerfSmuggler said...

I think that fiction ages and over time becomes exposed as either comments on contemporary society and mores or comments on the human condition.

A number of the Star Trek (The Original Series) stories are speaking to issues particular to that time which are only historically relevant today. The explicit and implicit prejudice are still obvious without any deeper story to distract viewers from the flaws.

Not that contemporary issues aren't valid subjects for a fiction author, but I wouldn't want to try to stand to whole story on one. It's like building an outdoor structure with a foundation of untreated lumber.

The 3rd volume of the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes Golden Collection has an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg warning viewers that these cartoon shorts are from the 30's, 40's and 50's and portray common prejudices regarding gender, race and nationality. She (and WB) agree that they were wrong then as well as today, but censoring them would be the greater wrong.

Jeff Mountjoy said...

Aaron -- that's kinda what I mean. I think the ideal is to write a realistic character, true to the story and true to their culture. And I'm honestly not sure to what extent I need to police my writing to cull out anything that might be considered offensive. It's not an issue of whether I should -- it's an issue of degree.

In the interest of authorial laziness, it's tempting to write a Puerto Rican who's (f'rinstance) just like my friend Ricardo. He's extremely realistic, being a real person, and I know him well enough to put him on the page as he is in real life. But I don't know if I wrote a character just like him if it'd be somehow offensive. Actually, in his case, I can guarantee it'd be offensive. But the offense would have nothing to do with his ethnicity-- he's that kind of guy. :-).

Which is another issue: realistic can be offensive. This is one I'm not sure how to deal with. The neighbor kid across the street is a real person, but he's also almost a walking cartoon of a specific stereotype. There's no way to put him in fiction without being blatantly offensive. And I'm not sure how to deal with it if I needed a character like him. The fact that he's story-necessary is no excuse to use a cartoonish, offensive character. I think this is more a writing question than an ethical question -- what can I do with the character or my story to make him less of a cartoon?

Related: another reason to avoid these characters has less to do with offending people, and more to do with the fact that they're off-the-shelf stock characters. I try to avoid writing any character who precisely fits into one of these categories. And, this is an instructive, fairly complete list of fictional character tropes, including such standards as Asian Storeowner, Angry Black Man, Bridezilla, Bumbling Dad, and Erudite Stoner. Avoiding these is just good writing practice....

Another problem I encounter is how to write a bad-guy character with respect for his culture. This is also less a matter of racism than one of craft -- writing villains who aren't cardboard cutouts o' evil. If my bad guy needs to be French, how can I make him distinctly French without having the French be part of the Bad? And, again, it's a matter of craft (heck, I'm still battling the problem of making vaguely Marty Stu-ish heroes, just like me but Cooler In Every Way!)....

Joseph Lewis said...

I think you need to be a bit more nuanced in saying what you can or cannot write. Stereotypes, while bad when shallow and sweeping, do reflect aspects of reality. The important thing is to represent reality in a mature and realistic (not lazy and stereotypical) manner. Avoid token characters or token references, but embrace honest portrayals.

Anonymous said...

I know this is not on topic for the main discussion, however it bugs me when people get their firearm facts wfong. The Desert Eagle manufactured by Magnum Research does indeed fire .44 Magnum rounds. It can also be bought in .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum (which are all rimmed or belted cartridges) & in .440 Cor Bon & .50 Action Express(both are rimless cartridges).

Jeff Mountjoy said...

Oops -- I didn't know you could get a Deagle in .44Mag. Really, I should know better than to ever use a firearm for this kind of reference, because it's amazing what's out there. Heck, I know a guy with a pistol (single shot) chambered for .220 Swift; that might be as obscure as it gets....