Doubling-down isn’t how you make sf/f for everyone… and being southern isn’t a license to condescend
Although I already covered some of this last Thursday (Stop digging, don’t you see how deep you already are?), another incident has come to light that makes it even more clear that there are sadly a lot of people committing one of the most classic blunders—no, not that one about going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line—no, this one is from the Nixon era: it isn’t the crime that brings you down, it’s the cover-up.
I’m speaking metaphorically, though. I am not trying to imply that anyone has committed a crime, nor that they are trying to hide it. In the case of the Silverberg incident, while there was plenty that is of the gatekeeper-y style of racism/sexism (not to mention the bigoted trope of calling any marginalized person who is being anything other than deferential “angry”) in the original offense, the real problem came when he wrote about how he isn’t racist or sexist—using racist and misogynist arguments to do so. So, the original comments could have been apologized for as thoughtless or ill-considered (and hypocritical), the denial just made the unexamined misogyny and racist presumptions undeniable.
Turns out two weekends ago at LosCon Greg Benford got himself in a similar problem. Mike Glyer at File770 has several posts with statements from several people and there’s a lot to unravel, but the upshot was that Benford made a number of dismissive comments about works written by one black woman in particular and younger-than-him women writing sf/f in general during a panel, and then during the question-and-answer portion of the panel a pro sitting in the audience tried to call him on it and there was much yelling and recrimination.
The convention staff’s inconsistent handling of the subsequent complaints from multiple people in the panel are generating a lot of pedantic argument and deflection. I don’t feel like re-litigating that, I want to focus on the dismissive words and the problems there. The topic of the panel was supposed to be to discuss who the future Grandmasters of SF/F might be. One of the statements Benford made as part of a general dismissal of a lot of stuff being written today was, “If you write sf honey, gotta get the science right.”
A lot of people are trying to defend Benford by saying that everyone else is being bigoted against southern people by taking offense. They are making the claim that “honey” is used as a polite term to address a stranger in many social circumstances in the south. And they are right to an extent, however, it is not always polite, nor is it an entirely ungendered term, as Benford’s defenders are trying to claim. Straight men in the south never use “honey” to address another man, it is always gendered. Queer men can use it either way, though straight men are quite likely to take offense if a man refers to them as honey. Women can use the term to people of any gender and often it is considered a polite form of address, but it depends on the context.
An older woman might indeed address a younger person as “honey” if they are either asking them to do something, or suggesting that the way the younger person is behaving might be inappropriate for the situation, and so forth. The younger southern person would not take offense, and neither would anyone listening. Southern culture does have a very strong strain of respecting one’s elders, for one thing; the term “honey” in this case signals a difference in social standing. But if the significantly younger person were to call the older woman “honey” in the answer, she would be affronted, and other people overhearing would all agree that the younger person was being rude. Because this is inverting the social standing: the younger person’s use of the term “honey” in such a case signals that the older person doesn’t deserve the respect ordinarily accorded to elders.
If a man uses the term to address a woman who is not a close family member or intimate partner, it also signals a difference in social standing. But depending on the context, the difference being asserted might be simply that the man believes that all women naturally must defer to him. While it might sound friendly, it’s definitely got a message of “respect your betters (and that would be me)” about it.
As another old white bearded guy from the south, I have also used the term “honey” when addressing someone who wasn’t my husband. And as a queer man, I have used it without regard to gender. But I also have had friends explain to me that it just amps up the condescension when I do that. I didn’t consciously intend it, but once it was pointed out, I realized I have to learn to stop saying it, because they are right. Not just that it sounds condescending (which it does). And also not just that it can hurt someone to be talked down to that way whether I intend it or not (which it does). But also because now I know both of those things.
So, since Benford identifies as straight man originally from the south, we can safely infer that his off-the-cuff remark was aimed solely at women writers, and that it was more of an admonishment than friendly advice. It also is a bit of classic gatekeeper BS that conveniently is never used to disqualify any science fiction written by straight white guys. Something that John Scalzi pointed out in a chuckle-worthy way:
Another of my favorite authors, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, started a thread (which others contributed to) that gives more examples of science fiction written by white guys where the science is very, very wrong, but no one of Benford’s camp would ever say wasn’t sf.
Another Benford comment that was directed at a specific author is even worse: asserting that a trilogy which recently won three Hugos in a row isn’t all that because “psychic powers to control the earth and earthquakes had already been done in the fifties.” Which is another favorite gatekeeper trick to exclude people. Never mind that every one of Benford’s own books could be boiled down to a single “idea” that someone had written many years before he started being published. But that’s the nature of gatekeeping: rules are stated in a way that sound like an objective criteria, but aren’t applied to works by white straight cisgendered men.
But others have also explained that a bit better. Annalee Flower Horne did a twitter thread explaining how “the notion that ideas and tropes can never be re-used in SF and that anyone trying must be new here would be funny if it weren’t such an insidious tool of exclusion.”
But at this point I’m still just describing Benford’s original offense, and not how he dug himself even deeper into the hole. I’m not going to link to it because it’s hosted on sites that I refuse to give any support of. But his response boiled down to accusing everyone else of being too sensitive and lamenting the so-called victim culture. Ah, yes, that tired old chestnut! Every classic blunder deserves a classic racist/misogynist/homophobic dog whistle, I guess. But just to be clear: if you claim that other people are being too sensitive, all that really means is that you’re offended because you think you should be able to disrespect whoever you want and never face any consequences for it.
I didn’t do as good a job last week about explaining one aspect of why this doubling-down is not just pointless, but also ethically wrong. Fortunately, Brianne Reeves did a much better job:
You are at a playground. A gaggle of four year olds is running about. One of them is not paying attention and accidentally sends another plummeting off the equipment and into the asphalt. Suddenly, there is screaming and crying. Mothers race to the scene.
What do you do next?
You fix the wound as best you can, and the child apologizes. Not necessarily for the shove, but for the inattention. They didn’t *mean* to cause pain, but their lack of awareness meant that another is in pain.”
I mentioned above the time when a friend called me out for using the term “honey” in a condescending way. I wasn’t intending to belittle the person I was talking to, but intention isn’t an exculpatory factor. My friend was hurt by my words, and that is on me. More importantly, once I have had this explained to me, the onus also is upon me to avoid such thoughtless words again. It is tough breaking old habits, I know. I have screwed up since that was pointed out to me, but the answer isn’t to blame my friend for being overly sensitive. The onus is on me to keep trying to do better, and apologize sincerely when I mess up.
It’s also galling when a professional writer, of all people, tries to claim that words don’t matter. They do. We should take pride in taking responsibility for what we say and write.
N.K. Jemisin is the first author to win the Hugo for best novel three years in a row. These three best novel Hugos were not her first awards. Several years ago when she won another award, a person who has since became a notorious racist provacateur who happened to be an officer of the Science Fiction Writers of America at the time used the society’s official mailing list to send out racist and sexist comments (calling Jemisin, an African-American author, a “savage” was not the worst part of the comments). He was ousted from his position at the time, but subsequently from his own publishing house and blog he proceeded to rally people to harass Jemisin and every other non-white, non-male, non-straight science fiction/fantasy author he could identify who was getting positive attention.
So, when Jemisin won her third Best Novel Hugo in a row, she made some comments about the harassment campaign. Comments that the vast majority of people who saw the speech thought were funny and apt. They weren’t angry comments, they were triumphant. And she is hardly the first award winner to mention obstacles that had to be overcome in order to even be a nominee for the award.
But one member of the old guard of sf/f (Robert Silverberg) didn’t like the comments, and on a mailing list that he thought was private (but come on, hundreds of members!) he made comments that were racist, misogynist, dismissive, and hypocritical about Jemisin’s speech. He characterized her comments as vulgar, graceless, and angry. Which, as I commented above, is pretty rich from someone who used the speech at a previous Hugo award ceremony to make a long, elaborate (and worst of all, not funny) dick joke. Never mind the weird anti-semetic thing at another Hugo ceremony, nor sponsoring a weird conspiracy-theory petition about a sci fi organization a few years ago. Since these remarks came to light, various other professionals in the community came up with other examples of him being misogynist.
Further, while admitting that he had never read any of her stuff (despite being a Hugo voter who gets a free copy of each nominated work each year that most of the rest of us voters use to read before we cast our ballots), he indicated that he was skeptical that she deserved the awards.
Here’s the thing: if you are not a member of a marginalized community, and you tell a person in that community that they should tone down what they are saying about their own experience being discriminated against? You are guilty at the very least of mansplaining. Which, in case you don’t know means:
explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer.
Here’s the other thing: if you’re a long time Hugo awards participant but you can’t be bothered to check out the work of someone who has won several times recently, yet still feel entitled to opine on whether they deserve any of the awards, it’s time for you to hang up your hat and go out to pasture.
This has become part of the conversationn so many months later because Silverberg contacted the publisher of the fan news site, File 770, all upset because he thought some comments others had made about his comments were libelous. Let me state for the record that, as a person who has professionally been involved in libel cases and sat through long convoluted conversations with lawyers about libel, those comments aren’t anywhere close to libel. At all. But, because he felt that way, he demanded that the publisher post his 1500 word essay about racism and sexism to reply, and oh, my goodness, talk about being deep in a hole and deciding to dig yourself deeper!
A few words of advice: if you ever begin any paragraph with the phrase “I’m not racist” everything that comes after is a lie. It you say “I’m not sexist” again, that is a lie and everything that follows it is. But, even worse, if you try to defend yourself by saying, “Some of my best friends are…” You have just demonstrated that you are so deeply steeped in ignorance on the topic that you should be too ashamed to ever show your face in public again.
It is impossible to grow up in a society without absorbing that society’s racist, sexist, sectarian, and homophobic prejudices. The best any of us can hope for is to not be intentionally racist or sexist or homophobic; learn from our mistakes and keep trying to do better.
Silverberg hasn’t helped his cause with this essay. And besides the complete lack of awareness, another issue is the self-victimhood. He—and a lot of people defending him—make a big deal about how his original comments were made on a mailing list that he thought was private, and therefore he is the victim because his privacy was violated. First, let’s turn to Miss Manners on what one should do if something you said in private gets leaked to the public:
Admit your wrongdoing. Don’t try to blame it on being misheard, the vendetta of other people, or her paranoia. If you said the wrong thing and you were caught out, fess up – however painful it might be. Don’t put it off – do it right away, in private if you can.
It doesn’t matter if he thought it was a private conversation. It was bigoted commentary, period. And if his private comments become public, the only honorable thing to do is admit that what you said was wrong. Period.
I’ve blogged many times about bigots who don’t think they are bigots for all sorts of misguided reasons, including this one: the mistaken idea that if you don’t say it to someone’s face on purpose, somehow it isn’t racism/sexism/homophobia/whatever. You can’t claim to be an ally when you are trash talking the person behind their back. You can’t claim not to be a bigot when you are spouting bigoted things out of earshot of the people in question. How hard can it be to understand that?
Silverberg is an author whose work I have written positive things about. And I’m an old, white-bearded sf/f fan just like him. I understand that he sincerely thinks he’s the victim here. I also understand that he couldn’t be more wrong, and it just makes me feel a lot of pity for him and his ignorance.
But let’s try to close an a more upbeat note:
Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist – Avenue Q – Original Broadway Cast:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
I keep finding myself writing either cranky and dark stuff, or fluffy weird holiday stuff. And then not wanting to post it. Meanwhile, the interesting images I swipe from various parts of the internet pile up. So here are a few of the more thought-provoking ones:
This next one was being shared several places but without the attribution of whose book is shown. Fortunately, feeding an entire sentence into Google got me the name of the author and the book in question.
This one should more accurately say: “A banker and two working class people—one white, and one not—are sitting at a table with 20 cookies. The banker takes 19 cookies and warns the white worker: ‘Watch out, that other guy (who I bet isn’t even a real american) is going to take your cookie away.’” Because there is a long history of the rich pitting people against each other along color lines. The recent use of variants on immigrants are dog-whistles for the racism.
I think the first time I ever read a story when the author described a character’s skin as “coffee colored” I was about 12 or 13 years old. And I remember pausing and thinking, “Is it plain coffee, or coffee with cream? And if it’s with cream, how much?” Because, for instance, I had one aunt who put almost a half a cup of milk or cream in her cup if she had it before pouring the coffee in, whereas one grandmother who made coffee only put a small dollop in hers, so the coffee was very dark. The description completely bounced me out of the story for several minutes while I puzzled over that. I eventually went back to reading the tale, but I had a difficult time visually the character, because I couldn’t decide how dark her skin was supposed to be.
I don’t remember the story, so I can’t go back and check, but don’t think any character other than her had their skin color described.
A few years later I was reading another story where the author described a character’s skin as coffee-colored, and also described another character’s skin as the color of cream. And I immediately imagined the second woman as albino, because I had a few classmates with that condition, and it was the only skin I had ever seen literally that color, right? I only thought that for a few minutes, then realized the author was being a bit metaphorical.
Anyway, a little later in the novel I noticed that most of the male characters had not had their skin described. One guy had been described at one point as “bronzed” and there was a reference to another man as being “red-faced” but their physical descriptions were not as detailed as the women. I was fifteen or sixteen years old at this time, and midway through the book I had started developing a crush on one of the male characters (though I didn’t quite realize it, since I was still deeply closeted and in denial about my own sexuality) and found myself being actively annoyed at the author for not giving my more of a description of him. Which I wanted to know purely for accuracy, and not at all for any lustful reasons, ahem.
Even with the frustration, it would be a few more years before I finally realized there was a pattern in lots of books, particularly when written by men: describe the women’s looks using various food metaphors, but virtually never describe the men in detail, unless those characters were supposed to be comical or villainous or otherwise disliked. Then, of course, the men would have various physical features that emphasized their inferiority to the blue-eyed hero.
And the hero was almost always blue-eyed, wasn’t he? Which should be another clue. Of course, I was a pasty-skinned blue-eyed cisgendered nerd myself, so it took me longer than it should have to notice just how skewed all these treatments, in the narrative, of characters of various genders and races were.
To answer the question in the title of this post: What does it mean when an author describes a character as having coffee-colored skin? Well, it means that the author is falling back on a cliche that is deeply steeped in racism. And since these descriptions are almost always reserved for women in those narratives, and the women’s characterizations all center on how attractive or unattractive the women appear to men in the story, it is also steeped in a whole lot of sexism and misogyny.
So you should avoid doing it.
And this isn’t about political correctness. It’s about bad and cliched writing. Seriously, I am not the only reader who will come across a description like that and stop to wonder what kind of coffee. Or if you use another food, no matter what it is, there will be some readers who are unfamiliar with it.
But it’s also pretty creepy to describe characters as food, as if they’re meant to be consumed—as if their appearance is the only thing they have to contribute to the narrative.
I know that I sometimes under-describe. I’m a more minimalist storyteller where my focus is on what the characters say and do; I only include description when I feel I have to. But, nothing should be in your story if it doesn’t advance the plot, develop or reveal a character’s personality, foreshadow events to come in the plot, and so forth. And 99.9% of the time, a character’s appearance has nothing to do with those things. Yeah, you need to set a scene, and you want the reader to imagine the character while reading about them. But how much detail does someone really need to follow your story?
Let the reader fill in the details that don’t matter to the plot.
And don’t perpetuate cliches, whether racist, misogynist, heteronormative or not.
It is impossible to grow up in a racist society and not absorb a lot of racism. It is also impossible to grow up in the U.S. as a white person and not benefit from all that racism. Part of it is the generational thing: we lived in nicer neighborhoods than we otherwise would because our parents, grandparents, and so on benefited from preferential hiring practices, redlining of mortgages, and unequal distribution of resources for public schools. And it’s easy for us to say, “Well, that was the bad old days. Things have changed, now, and besides, I can’t do anything about it.” But it isn’t just the bad old days. Racist assumptions are baked into all of our social conventions, institutions, and business practices. Studies have shown again and again that changing something as simple as making a name look less ethnic on a resume substantially improves the odds that a submitted resume will get result in a call for a job interview, for instance. We see it in statistics of which people cops decide to stop and question, let alone the ghastly statistics about police shootings.
So if you’re like me, looking at this news this weekend and being horrified that an angry white man who drove his car into a crowd killing a woman (and wounding at least 19 other people), while people ranging from ordinary citizens to news anchors and even the president are bending over backward to say that bigotry isn’t involved—it isn’t enough to say, “Aren’t they terrible people?” We have to be willing to admit that these terrible people were enabled by a society which explicitly benefits white people, whether we individual white people think of ourselves as racist or not.
Some other folks have explained it quite well: How “Nice White People” Benefit from Charlottesville and White Supremacy:
“For white people who don’t self-identify as disciples of Richard Spencer, David Duke, and/or the ancient demon Beelzebub, there is extreme anxiety around the accusation of racism. We see this fear of blame in Trump’s statement. “Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama” seems to say, ‘Hey, there’s been a tense racial climate in this country forever. It’s not anyone’s fault!’ Except the opposite is true. American white supremacy has been a problem forever, and it is all of our fault, fellow white people.
“White people benefit from white supremacy. Period. Peggy McIntosh spelled this out for us in 1989, but apparently we’re still not quite getting it. Her famous piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” lays out undeniable ways that it is simply easier to be white in this country, like always having a boss who is a fellow white person, or, you know, being able to eat Skittles at night without getting shot. Most white people didn’t ask for this privilege. Actually, that’s the whole idea. White privilege is an inherent advantage that easily goes unnoticed and unacknowledged. Rather than stuffing down the sense of shame associated with this obvious unfairness, why not work to even the playing field?”
The referenced article by Peggy McIntosh is also a very good read: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”
We can’t just shake our heads and blame it all on those people. Society as a whole, including us, are to blame. The first step is recognizing that the problem isn’t something which was forced on our country. The problem isn’t something that just appeared recently. The problem has always been there. It has been growing and getting angrier for years. We are part of the problem, so we have to be part of the solution. We have to find ways to oppose this racist authoritarian movement with more than just words.
Anyway, my confusion lasted only milliseconds, because I hadn’t even finished reading the headline before I understood that for this flag, the new stripes represented Queer People of Color. Which made perfect sense. But, as an article that I included in the most recent Friday Links noted, the new flag wasn’t greeted enthusiastically by everyone: The Surprising Controversy Surrounding A More Inclusive Pride Flag.
I’ve seen some of the negative reactions on my own social media, and one thing I couldn’t help noticing was that every person I saw objecting, if you checked out their profile, they were white and male (Full Disclosure: I’m white and male, myself). And their objections are, to a one, ludicrous. I especially liked the guy who said something along the lines of “if you don’t see yourself included in the universal symbol of the rainbow, you need to do some soul searching.” Because first of all, it isn’t a universal symbol, is it? As just one example, we have all the whacko Christian fundamentalists who get all angry and in our face claiming that we’ve stolen the rainbow from god. When the flag was first created (and hand sewn) under the direction of artist Gilbert Baker in 1978, some people in the queer community didn’t like it for a variety of reasons.And it isn’t as if the flag has remained completely unchanged since its original creation. In the fall over 1978, after the assassination of Harvey Milk, there was a sudden demand in the San Francisco area for more of the rainbow flags. To meet the sudden demand, Baker and a flag company decided to use existing stock rainbow fabric (red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet), so they lost the hot pink and changed the indigo to a lighter blue. And a year later the official banners for the San Francisco Pride events switched to a six-color version ( red, orange, yellow, green, royal blue, and violet). There are two different explanations given for that change: some say it was because when the seven-color versions were hung vertically from street lamp poles the middle stripe wasn’t always visible, others say that there was difficulty getting both the turquoise and indigo fabric. The point is, the rainbow flag changed several times, with the original artist’s blessing, in the first few years of its existence. I mentioned above that not everyone was happy with it. Some weren’t happy because they thought the rainbow was two generic. Others because there were already symbols being used by lots of queer people (for example: a pink triangle or a labrys on a black triangle), and they thought we should stick to those symbols for various reasons. Other folks have made other variations. And a lot of people in the community didn’t think that the rainbow (or the Pride marches themselves) should include anyone other than exclusively gay men and lesbian women. I remember public arguments about whether the words bisexual or transgender should be added to the official name of the Pride Parade in Seattle during the 90s, for instance. There many other arguments still raging about who should be included. I wasn’t around the community for the arguments about the rainbow flag when it was first introduced, but in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was just coming out, the arguments about why the rainbow wasn’t a good symbol for LGBTQ+ people were still raging. I knew more than one person who was adamant that the Pink Triangle was a better symbol because it represented a time gay men were targeted for extermination in Nazi Germany, and we had taken the symbol back. Of course, there were plenty of people who didn’t like the Pink Triangle, either (some because it was considered to represent only men; others because of its origin as a symbol of our oppression). Or only liked it if it were used along with other symbols commonly associated with lesbians.
So claiming the current six-color rainbow flag is universally recognized as including everyone even within the community simply isn’t true.
There’s another big hint that something like the More Colors Flag is needed: white queers wouldn’t be offended (and the folks objecting are definitely offended) at the flag if the problems it addresses weren’t real. Not only that, all of the arguments I’ve seen used to explain why the More Colors Flag is unnecessary sound exactly like the homophobic arguments given for why queers don’t need representation in movies, books, TV and such or why laws against queer discrimination aren’t needed. And they also are exact parallels to racist arguments used to argue we don’t need laws about racial discrimination (among other things). As they say, if it looks like a racist argument and sounds like a racist objection…
None of this will sound unfamiliar to anyone familiar with discussions about intersectionality. In case you don’t know what intersectionality is, let’s start with the definition (I warned you in the title we would get to dictionary topics in this post!):
intersectionality noun the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
So another reason that you can’t claim that the rainbow is a universal symbol that applies to all queer people is because the experience of being queer isn’t the same for all categories of queer people. It’s kind of like the people who make that argument that you shouldn’t let a black actor portray James Bond or a woman portray Doctor Who because that would make the shows political. Insisting that the hero must be a white male is just as much a political statement as asking why the hero can’t be something else. Similarly, suggesting we should do something to make people of color feel more welcome is not racializing the Pride flag any more than resisting that inclusion is.
I’m a cisgender white man. I also happen to be queer. I have faced discrimination (and worse) because I’m a gay man. But I also know that I have been shielded from certain types of discrimination because I’m a guy and because I’m white. I don’t know all of the times that this happened, but I understand how systemically racism and sexism are baked into our culture, and therefore there are times when I experience no obstacles, where a person of color or a woman would find things less welcoming. The types of discrimination I experience and the ways I encounter discrimination as a gay man are often very different from the types and ways experienced by queers of color. The same kind of discrimination that I might be able to somewhat sidestep because of a bit of white male privilege I don’t even notice at the time can be a much more devastating experience to someone who does not have those two advantages.Recognizing this isn’t about trying to decide who is more oppressed. This isn’t the Oppression Olympics. The truth is, that a lot of white queer people are unaware of their own racism. Most insist that they aren’t at all, which is literally impossible. You can’t grow up in a racist society without being conditioned to the assumptions of racism. Asserting that the rainbow already includes everyone ignores the fact that there is a lot of racism within the queer community, some of it really subtle because it is just a manifestation of the systemic racism of the whole society, and others of it quite blatant. It’s blatant while also being rationalized away. The photo here of the sign that was seen at the Equality March earlier this month talks about one of those examples. Please note that this sign was at an Equality March, not a Pride March. But it underscores a real truth: a lot of queers, particularly certain white gay men, have these racist attitudes. And yes, it absolutely is racist to say in your dating profile “no blacks” or “no asians” or “no latinos.” The usual counter argument is that they’re just talking about a preference.
I have a preference for redheads. Yet I have never refused to date a non-redhead. And a good thing, too, since neither my late partner, Ray, nor my husband Michael are redheads. I lusted after and occasionally dated redheads, but I wound up falling in love with two different men for reasons other than their hair color. That’s because while I have an attraction toward redheads, I recognize that’s all it is, and that there are other reasons to like or dislike a person than their hair color. The same holds true for race. If you completely exclude someone from consideration because of their race, there is no word other than racism to describe it. And while we’re on the subject: fat-shaming and fem-rejection aren’t any better, and if you’re doing that you’re just being a different kind of bigot, but no less of a bigot than the racist, so don’t do it.Nobody’s free until everyone is. And one of the steps to setting everyone free is recognizing that not everyone is as free as everyone else. We have to find a way to actually be inclusive, not to simply say that being inclusive is a good thing. And being inclusive requires us to recognize intersectionality. To understand that there are different degrees of discrimination. Society imposes different types of disadvantage on people based on categories of race, gender, sexuality, economic class, and other things. Those differences are real. The pain and suffering they cause is real. And the benefits that other categories of people receive at the expense of that pain and suffering is also real. Fighting for equality means not just giving lip service to inclusivity and intersectionality, it means taking steps to do something about those problems. You have to look for the people who are having trouble getting into the freedom tent and work to help them inside and to feel welcome. That requires first listening, really listening to try to understand–not pretending to listen while we’re really just waiting for our turn to talk.
If my queer kindred of color tell me that they don’t feel welcome in many queer spaces, then I have to take that seriously and ask what I can do to help. And then I have to actually help. Which is why I say that intersectionality isn’t just a noun. Because those of us who have some privilege, however little it may be, have to stick our necks out and use that privilege to help those who don’t.
Pride should be for all of us.
A lot of people, not just the moderates that Dr. King talked about in that quote from Letter From Birmingham City Jail, rationalize and deny the existence of bigotry by making appeals to certain fallacies. Academically, we often state those myths as five fallacies:
- Individualistic Fallacy: racism/homophobia/antisemiticism/etc is perceived as being only interpersonal, ignoring the systemic structural realities (such as underfunded schools)
- Legalistic Fallacy: the belief that abolishing racist/homophobic/religious laws automatically ends the bigotry.
- Tokenistic Fallacy: the inference that the presence of members of the marginalized class in influential positions in society proves that all bigotry has ended.
- Ahistoric Fallacy: the belief that the denial of basic rights in the past has no lasting effect on subsequent generations (“but slavery is over!”).
- Fixed Fallacy: assumes there is one and only one kind of discrimination, not recognizing new forms that emerge in context of societal and legal changes.
There’s an academic paper that explains all of this: WHAT IS RACIAL DOMINATION?, by Matthew Desmond & Mustafa Emirbayer of the University of Wisconsin—Madison, if you want to get into it. It’s rather long and involved, but if you open the PDF at the link and search for Five Fallacies you can jump right to their discussion of the fallacies. The paper is focused on racism, but the fallacies apply to all kinds of bigotry.
All of those fallacies contribute to that preference for an absence of tension rather than a passion for justice that Dr. King talked about. It’s the classic “Can’t You Get Past it/Live and Let Live Fallacy.” Or maybe another name could be the “Respectful Disagreement Fallacy.” It’s the belief that as long as a person isn’t physically attacking you right this moment, and is framing their critiques in polite-sounding language, than it can’t possibly be racist/homophobic/antisemitic/misogynist/etc.
So the bigot talks in dog whistles (coded language that doesn’t sound overtly like bigotry to people who don’t know the code), claims to respect or even feel love for the community targeted by their language, and if we point out that they are being racist or misogynist or antisemetic or homophobic, we’re the ones causing a problem. And people who think of themselves as moderate or enlightened turn on us. They don’t just look the other way from the bigotry and bigoted policies that the community is enduring, they actually enable it.
Which means they’re part of the problem. They’re not being neutral. They’re not seeing things from both sides. They’re not being nuanced. They’re oppressing other people.
I wish there was a simple solution. I wish I had some words of wisdom. Instead, I’m just stuck with this regrettable conclusion, having to try to educate people who don’t think they’re being an enemy.
“Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed in the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice: who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
— Martin Luther King Jr, Letter From Birmingham City Jail (1963)
Seattle, where I have lived for thirty years, is one of many cities in the U.S. that have declared October 12 Indigenous Peoples Day. In Seattle the ordinance declaring the new name for the holiday was signed into law 364 days ago, which means that today is the first time we’re officially celebrating it here. There are a lot of good reasons we should consider getting rid of Columbus Day: Christopher Columbus was a lost sadist. There shouldn’t be a holiday in his name and Columbus a problematic historical character: unreliable navigator, relentless self-publicist, chaotic colonial administrator, and probable mass murderer. Which makes many ask Why is Columbus Day still a U.S. federal holiday?
When I was a kid, I don’t remember any of the school districts I attended giving us the day off. Columbus Day was a day we talked about the very white-washed version of his “discovery” of the Americas. I used to work with a man who was born on Columbus Day, and what he loved most about it was that where he went to school it was a day off, so he and his friends always got to go to the movies or something similar on his birthday.
Any problematic figure can represent a teaching opportunity, of course: Ángel González: I’ll be raising a glass to the adventurer whose legacy shows how Hispanic culture and the United States are inseparable, in glory and in shame. And it must be noted that simply changing a holiday’s name doesn’t necessarily solve real problems: It’s been a year, but improvements for Native American services are off to a slow start.
And of course some people wonder Why Do We Celebrate Columbus Day and Not Leif Erikson Day?
I have neither a clever nor wise conclusion to this. I think it is sad that there are people who defend Columbus Day, and not at all surprising that many of them are the same ones who bitch about so-called illegal immigration with absolutely no self-awareness of the irony of what Columbus and other European colonists did to Native Americans. But I do believe that names matter, just as truth and understanding matter. So, count me as one of the people who thinks the federal holiday’s name, at the least, should be changed.
At least some people are arguing that the NAACP bombing doesn’t deserve more extensive coverage because no one died. But the firebomb didn’t kill anyone only because the main gas can didn’t ignite. Yes, that means the attempted terrorist is incompetent at bomb making (or at least at deploying the bomb), but incompetence can still kill. The incompetent often kill more people than the competent, they’re just more likely to kill unintended targets.
The effort to which some rightwing groups are going to in an attempt to claim that the bombing didn’t actually happen doesn’t jibe with claims that the story isn’t being covered merely because no one died. When known racists start claiming that the people of color are making it up, that’s a pretty good indication that a lot of less obvious racist forces are also at work trying to sweep things under the rug.
Not to say that there is a vast conspiracy. There are several reasons this story doesn’t lend itself to the circus-like atmosphere of a good 24-hour news cycle story.
- No one died. Because no one died, the networks can’t show you pictures of the victims. There are no images of grieving relatives to exploit. There are no images of bodies in body bags they can show you. There are no images of ambulances gathered around the site of the attack.
- The amount of damage done was minimal. There are no dramatic images of a burnt-down building, or smashed windows, or collapsed walls that they can plaster on the screen again and again.
- Authorities don’t have a specific suspect, yet. They especially don’t have any images of a suspect that falls into any of the usual categories we like to trot out as the perpetrators of such a crime. No mug shot-esque photos of swarthy-skinned men with middle eastern-sounding names that the talking heads can repeat over and over.
- No hate groups have taken credit. There is no dramatic footage of protestors on the streets. They can’t dig up old stories of past incidents involving the group to repeat again and again to fill up time on their broadcast.
The media has certain narratives it knows how to exploit, and at the moment this one doesn’t neatly fit into their favorite terrorism narrative. While there are reasons to believe it is a race-motivated hate crime, we don’t yet have the details that fall into the media’s typical narratives for those, either.
Those things all contribute to the lack of coverage, but they aren’t the only reasons. Race-motivated crimes against people of color, when the perpetrator is believed to be a white guy, are always dismissed as the actions of a single, disturbed individual. Even when a bunch of people die. So in case like this, when, thankfully, there are no casualties, hardly anyone is going to give it a second thought.
But if we don’t give it a second thought, we’re just enabling the next incident.
I was raised by a racist jerk.
My dad is such a stereotype that people didn’t always believe me when I described him. To this day he regularly throws around the n-word, refers to the latino men who work on his crews as “wetbacks” and “spicks,” refers to any eastern asian-looking person as a “gook” or a “chink,” and so on. He will go on and on about all of the bad qualities he believes each of those groups share, if you let him. It is simply toxic to talk to him. The fact that he also speaks with a pronounced Oklahoma drawl, and that his conversation is peppered with words and phrases people associate with the south is just icing on the redneck cake.
My dad is the kind of racist that is almost too easy to spot. Guys like him make it very easy for the rest of us to pat ourselves on the backs and congratulate ourselves on being more enlightened. Because compared to him we clearly are.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t racist… Read More…