Some Thoughts on Racism and Science Fiction/Fantasy

17:16 Fri 13 Mar 2009
[, , , , , ]

I’ve been reading a lot about this recently. I’m not sure why, although some of it is due to looking around for info around when I was coincidentally writing up my Fantasy World Sketch. Some of it is due to just happening to run into the edges of a larger discussion taking place mostly on LiveJournal.

Here’s some stuff I’d recommend:
Mary Anne Mohanraj writing on John Scalzi’s blog. Scalzi invited her to post giving her perspective after he ended up changing some of his own initial views on recent arguments over race. I think her post is great, and I recommend also reading the articles she links to before her first section.

I Didn’t Dream of Dragons, about, among other things, how the fantasy genre tends to assume Western medieval-like societies are normal (and normative). (Particularly interesting to me in light of my recent early worldbuilding, in which my intent was in part to create a setting with a feel explicitly similar to some aspects of late medieval Europe.)

How to use white privilege to make racism disappear. Pretty damn hilarious. My one minor quibble is that is seems strange to criticize people’s self-centeredness on LiveJournal, which is after all a space for people to talk about themselves.

How to Suppress Discussion of Racism. Also funny, but mainly because so much of it is true, which is rather sad.

I feel I should make some other comments here, rather than just post the links. My views on the whole area are still evolving, but here are some that are unlikely to change.

White privilege exists. I feel like this is obvious, but lots of people fight hard against it. I’m talking about the West, here, which is also the dominant world culture/economy (this might change soon, or not, but it’s where we are right now). I’ll limit myself to just the US, which is where I live, and say that I don’t understand how anyone could think that this isn’t a profoundly racist society. Yes, even despite the recent presidential election. A quick scan of what race the richest thousand people in the country are, or the rate of incarceration by race, or the rate of corporate officerhood by race, should make that extremely clear.

Privilege does not equal individual guilt. I have white, and male, and class, privilege in this society. (I have a bunch of other forms, too, and I may lack some, but I strongly suspect that they’re not as important as the first three. I think that debate about the relative importance of race, gender, and class is important, but am unlikely to be swayed from believing that they’re all extremely important and oppressive in their effects.) This does not mean that I’m responsible for the existence of that privilege, or that I am personally walking the streets oppressing those without privilege. It just means that I have a bunch of advantages that need to be recognized. (Also, despite what I wrote two sentences ago, it might mean that I have more responsibility for doing something about the existence of that privilege than some other individuals, because I have more power, in the sense of social capital, than many other individuals, and I feel that power and responsibility should be linked.)

Action, not actor. While there are some caricature-like individuals who defy this principle, in general it’s not right to accuse anyone of being a [potentially inflammatory noun] in any sense; the better approach is to state why you think their words/actions exhibit [objectionable behavior]. I’m not suggesting this in order to be polite or “nice”, but rather because I think ad hominem arguments are pointless distractions 99% of the time, and because all of us should keep the fundamental attribution error and the actor-observer bias in mind at all times.

SF/F shouldn’t shy from dealing with prejudice, or from any difficult issues. It can be escapist, of course, like any literary form, but it should not be (and never has been, for me) defined by escaping from tough questions. I believe that the fundamental question of science fiction is “what does it mean to be human?”, and that has to involve dealing with tremendous complexity and difficulty. That includes tough and unsettling questions about identity, what composes identity, what effect philosophical, social, racial, gender, and economic constructs have on our concepts of identiiy, and how those things might shift in reaction to massive change. In my view the genre has a proud history of pushing against many conventional boundaries, and I certainly don’t want to see it settle into any kind of complacency.

I hope to write more about this; it’s been on my mind a lot, but it’s difficult material for a variety of reasons (duh).

Leave a Reply