Why Do You People Still Need All that Black Stuff?

I don’t know why I let Chesya Burke direct me to RaceFail on teh Interwebz.  There’s plenty enough out there without me having to seek it out.  Yet, when she calls in that “I ain’t playing.  I’m about to choke somebody” voice, I have to check it out.  Let this be a lesson to you:  quit winding her up, cause she winds me up, and I got deadlines.

The cause of the umbrage is the fact that this month’s BET Awards will be a royal affair: Prince is getting a lifetime achievement honor.  The 51-year-old joins the likes of James Brown, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross and Al Green in being honored by the BET Awards, which will celebrate its 10th year in Los Angeles on June 27.

The thread in question involved this old chestnut:  “One would think that since we’ve come so far as to have a black president we wouldn’t need award programs where the winners have to be of a particular ethnicity. Imagine the hate and protest that would come if there was a White Entertainment Television channel and awards ceremony, or a White Miss America Pageant. Are these ethnic-centered events still needed? Are they racist? What are your thoughts?”

My first thoughts:  this will mark the first time I’ve wanted to tune into BET since A.J. and Free were the hosts of 106th and Park.

Now to parse the fail.  I’m not going to cast this person as racist.  It’s a question that on the surface is a gut reaction to what one might see as unfair.  I’ll accept that premise at its word.  However, as I’ve said before, just because folks are your friends doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of saying and doing ignorant things.

Fail #1:  I was right there in the elation of electing President Obama, believing that I’d never see that day in my lifetime.  Of course, the fact that so many still had that sentiment ought to put this whole conversation in check, but I’ll continue anyway.  I know the temptation is to believe that now that we have a black president, the sins of racism have now been erased and we can move forward.  I guess this ignores the entirety of history as I double check to see where someone breaks the color barrier, say Jackie Robinson, all of the racism just goes away.  Just like with Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith coaching in the Super Bowl, the first black head coaches to do so. It doesn’t, and the backwash of latent racism his election has churned up should be evidence that we haven’t come as far and aren’t as sophisticated as we’d like to believe ourselves to be.  Plus, I don’t look to politics and politicians to cure what is a heart issue.

Fail #2:  The old “White Entertainment Television”, “White Miss America Pageant”, and because I’m in a generous mood, I’ll toss in one for free, “White Expo” argument.  Now, I’ll spare you my standard quips (“WET?  Yeah, we’ve always just called it ABC, CBS, or NBC.” “White Miss America Pageant?  It was only recently the pageant even realized there were beautiful women of color in this country to begin with.”  “White Expo?  Really, cause we let you have NASCAR.”).  Just like you can spare me conveniently overlooking the fact that BET, Black Miss America Pageants, and Black Expos (and I’ll throw in Historically Black Colleges since it won’t be but 30 seconds before someone throws in their tale of woe about not getting a scholarship because they aren’t black) wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place if black people hadn’t been shut out of institutions.

Now, horror has had its own legacy of RaceFail, so I turn to it to answer the question “What would the protest look like?”  It would look something like when Brandon Massey was doing the anthology series, Dark Dreams.  All of a sudden, many white “recognized racism when they saw it.”  They thumped their chests loudly at this “brand of segregation” and “affirmative action writing” … when we’re not even a year out of yet another “best of” anthology series having a table of contents featuring only white men.  So again, it’d be nice to declare us in a post-racial era, but let’s actually live like we’re in one first before we declare us there.
Fail #3:  Privilege and the “need for such things”.  Being a majority in a society, holding the bulk of the power, with the weight of history and social institution behind you, it’s easy to see any inroad/erosion of that as unfair.  In your quest for colorblindness, you don’t realize how much that negates people of color.  As I said at the conclusion of my blog on white privilege (and, yeah, for the sake of continued conversation, I no longer refer to “white privilege” as “crackernomics”):  I know, I know, you gentle white souls, this means you rage against the gods of political correctness as your slice of the American Dream pie continues to get cut into. The conversations are tough, exposing your possible denial, defensiveness, guilt, and shame of benefiting from systemic injustice. Be strong white people.

As for the need for such things, I look to institutions such as the “black church”.   It was a miracle that it came about in the first place and it still serves a vital function in the black community.  Would I like to see a post-racial church?  Absolutely.  Just as I recognize that it will take continued serious work and conversations to make it happen.  Until then, you can’t keep complaining that all the black kids sit with each other in the cafeteria.  Sometimes, we just need to.

Asking those questions isn’t racist.  It’s ignorance and there’s nothing wrong with ignorance as long as we’re willing to listen and learn.  I want to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” as much as the next person, but we aren’t there yet.  Hopefully we can keep having conversations until we get to this post-racial Nirvana we all are so ready to skip ahead to.

RaceFail ’09 – Feedback II

I’ve received a couple of really interesting responses to my RaceFail ’09 – Why Horror Ignores the Elephant blog. I thought I’d share a couple. Today is from a comment left on my blog a while back which I wanted to give further exposure to. As always, I look forward to your comments:

Hello, Mr. Broaddus,

I have been keeping a somewhat distant eye on Racefail ’09 and found your blog and the relevant bingo cards via a simple google search. I am not a writer of any professional leaning, nor am I immediately aiming to be.

What I am is a woman of the Indian/Caribbean diaspora who spent some time teaching in Japan. While I was there I was immediately adopted into a tea ceremony club when the teacher decided I was just the right size for her to practice tying kimono with. She gave me lessons and my first yukata and I gave her saris in return. I wear my yukata on occasion and my teacher wept tears of joy when I gave her the first sari, so there’s no doubt about appreciation on her part. I can eat with chopsticks, knife and fork or just my fingers and view the respective table manners as useful skills under my belt.

There are things on that Bingo card that I might say myself and racefail has raised uncomfortable issues for me. Is it only cultural appropriation if it involves caucasians? If there’s a history of exploitation between groups? How much effort must go into understanding another group before people can agree it is actual cultural exchange and understanding rather than appropriation? Where is the line drawn, who draws it and why? Should I have said something to that African American girl I saw on the bus during college, wearing a bindi upside down?

My own heritage is a mishmash and a jumble, thrown together on an island and forced through a sieve of colonialism. For better or worse, borrowing and lending, adopting and sharing, adapting and evolving has been my cultural experience. Everything I am says there must be some avenue to explore this varied earth, that an upside-down bindi is a chance to educate rather than rail, but the sentiments arising from Racefail seem to acknowledge no possibility at all. Along with that is the sneaking suspicion that my post-colonial education brainwashed me better than I thought.

I hardly expect that you’d have all the answers but I am interested in any thoughts you might have on the matter. Thank you for your time.

RaceFail ’09 – Feedback I

I’ve received a couple of really interesting responses to my RaceFail ’09 – Why Horror Ignores the Elephant blog. I thought I’d share a couple. Today is from the mailbag. As always, I look forward to your comments:

My name’s Hunter Eden, and I’m a young writer just new at this whole “forging the English language into something meaningful” thing. You and I corresponded very briefly a year or two ago on this same issue of race and horror, but I think I dropped the ball in responding to you, for which I humbly apologize. Point is, I had no idea that there was some kind of speculative fiction-based dust-up over race (or perhaps lack thereof).

Facts up front: I’m a white male of mixed Jewish/German-Norwegian (Hebrew Viking) descent. I don’t actually write about that many white characters, though. I finished a novel (currently with an agent but no publisher) describing the war between two ancient Mexican gods in a world where Europe didn’t conquer the Americas and Aztec gangsters smuggle contraband alcohol into Incan Cuzco. The only white character is the reanimated corpse of Charles Darwin, who probably isn’t (within the context of the story) actually human. My first story appeared in City Slab and was written from the perspective of a Mexican cabbie in a very Cancun-like city. I’ve got a story due out in Weird Tales about samurai fighting dinosaurs.

I’m not trying to brag or show off when I say all this, just that I wrote these characters because I wanted to. I hate when writers pull the Last Samurai card and go to the trouble of researching a whole different culture, but then don’t have the courage to actually go ahead and write someone from that culture as the main character (The Last Samurai particularly pissed me off in this regard because Tom Cruise becomes a better samurai than the Japanese characters).

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m conscious of race (who in today’s world isn’t?), but I think the key (and I’m really not trying to land on any bingo squares here) is to remember that in the end we’re all human. That’s not to whitewash, but just to say that whether I’m writing a character who’s Mexican or American or even a Jewish Aztec mob boss, we’re all motivated by the same needs. I think a lot of speculative fiction pussyfoots around race. I especially hate the way that fantasy, even fantasy written by American authors, always seems to go back to the same Anglo/Norse/Celtic pseudo-culture. Reading Imaro by Charles Saunders was great not because it made me feel like a Racially-Enlightened Young American but because it was something new. I loved the fact that somebody had taken a part of the world as vibrant and culturally complex as Africa and given it a fantasy treatment. (The fact that Imaro is a hardcore Maasai bad-ass who fights demons and necromancers was just icing on the cake).

I think a lot of speculative fiction’s difficulty with confronting race is based on two factors in writers and readers very much contrary to the spirit of the genres–cowardice and laziness. I guess these points have been made before, but they bear repeating. I think a lot of white authors and readers are scared to step out and confront the Elephant because they don’t want to be labeled as racist themselves. But then, there’s also the tendency to fall back on the same garbage we’ve grown used to. If there’s a fantasy culture, it’ll be based off somewhere in northern Europe because Tolkien did that. If there’s a non-white culture, it’ll probably be based off Japan or China or some fusion of the two. Maybe, if we’re really working, we’ll get some kind of distillation of the Arab world filtered through a heavily fantasized verneer with genies and carpets and sultans with veiled concubines. But Zanzibaris or Aztecs or Australian Aborigines? Not a chance. If Aztecs appear, they exist to either be heinous blood-sacrificers or a conquered and oppressed people (don’t get me started on Apocalypto). It angers me profoundly as a writer, and I’m not in the least bit Hispanic in my descent. It’s an affront to the imagination, and frankly, an extreme marginalization of a powerful and advanced culture.

Extreme words, I realize (and don’t get me started on Ancient Astronauts, either). I guess the reason I feel strongly about this is because it’s just more evidence of total lack of imagination in what is supposed to be the most imaginative set of genres we have. I guess my thoughts on writing the Other is that this doesn’t need to be some sort of birdwatching exercise. I’ve got friends from a wide spectrum of religious and racial backgrounds and I don’t stay friends with any of them so I can write minority X better.

Sorry to carpet-bomb you with this, but I’m glad somebody is confronting the whole issue and doing it without kidgloves. Personally, I’d love to see more speculative fiction written by people who aren’t white and JewCatholiProtestant. Thanks for confronting the elephant (or shoggoth?) in the room.

Sincerely,
Hunter C. Eden

RaceFail ’09 – Why Horror Ignores the Elephant

A few years ago, I was speaking to a fellow black horror writer and she told me that she didn’t write characters of color in her work. She didn’t think it was important, even as a black writer, for her to write black characters (and descriptions of characters with dark hair and brown eyes was enough). It was more important for her to write for her chosen audience, who she perceived as white and she didn’t want to in anyway alienate them.

This is how badly issues of race have infected and confused some people.

Yes, there is a current brouhaha brewing in speculative fiction that has since been dubbed RaceFail ’09. It started when Elizabeth Bear wrote a piece on writing the other which was then openly disagreed with. The hilarity ensued (catalogued here). I, too, wrote a piece on writing the other (in a response to something Jay Lake had written, mind you, both pieces came out a few YEARS ago) and have stayed out of this round of self-examination except to offer up a play along cultural appropriation bingo card to go along with the “fantasy/science fiction no racism edition” bingo card. And yet, as Chesya Burke laments, such a discussion has largely not reared its head in the horror community. I don’t expect it to, frankly. Not to be too pointed about a race discussion in horror, but the genre largely amounts to white folks writing about white folks for the consumption of white folks. In other words, horror circumvents the issue of “writing the other” by … not.

With a few exceptions, race isn’t discussed much in the horror genre. Most folks are afraid to discuss it or admit there is a problem. With good cause: the last horror brand RaceFail discussion involved the release of Brandon Massey’s anthology series, Dark Dreams. The bulk of the discussion revolved around the series being the equivalent of reverse discrimination (because, you know, there are no all white, even more specifically, all white male, horror anthology series) or writer affirmative action (because obviously writers like Tananarive Due, L.A. Banks, Wrath James White, Eric Jerome Dickey, Zane, or, I humbly submit, myself, can’t be published elsewhere).

In some ways, I can see why RaceFail has gone on within the science fiction and fantasy genre/communities. By the nature of those genres, they explore (and are allowed to explore) big ideas. Horror too often prides itself on being the “lowest common denominator” genre, not built for rigorous idea exploration. “I’m doing an analysis of man’s inhumanity to man” usually amounts to puerile masturbatory fantasies of rape and torture justified by someone getting their comeuppance in the end.

Let’s be honest, there are two kinds of writers/readers. The first don’t want to be challenged. They essentially want Stephen King redux, rearranging the deck chairs on a familiar cruise. They cling to their comfort zone of base elements, slaves to the tropes, as they await the playing out of the ensuing hilarity. Rarely is there an examination of the human condition, existence, or the exploration of a big idea. For every Gary Braunbeck there are hundreds of … pick your blood splattered cover.

The other kind looks for a new experience. They want to go to a new place and think about things they haven’t before. Yet, when I hear horror writers talking about their craft in term of such artistic terms, there is a chorus decrying such lofty literary ideas or critical analysis. How many times have even best of the mid-list writers complained about their publisher neutering their work for the sake of reaching their market? Their lowest common denominator audience.

Right now, the genre can barely handle a discussion on women in the genre. That discussion breaks one of two ways: who are the women who write in the genre (so the discussion becomes a listing of women writers) or it centers around “can women be scary writers?” (and yes, that discussion is as ignorant as it sounds). And that’s before we talk in general about sexism in the genre or its conventions.

I was reading Kelli Dunlap’s post on diversity in the genre. Normally, when someone tells me “they don’t see race” it sets off a red flag of suspicion with me because that typically means “as long as all the people of color act and think like me, we have no race problem.” But I’m in her peer group, I look around our close circle of writer friends and I see the guests for Mo*Con, and I, too, see the diversity. I’m tempted not to engage in a discussion about women in the genre because I’m surrounded by fierce women whose talent I’d question at my own peril. But then I have to wonder if this is a chicken or egg dilemma: was there diversity in the genre to begin with or did we, The Others adrift in the sea of The Majority, simply reach out to each other?

So could horror handle a conversation involving cultural appropriation, the concept of white privilege, or even the idea of racism in the genre (much less among its writers)? The fact of the matter is that I could probably name the prominent writers of color in the horror genre, know most if not all of them, and I don’t often hear them discussed in the various horror communities. What I hear is how race doesn’t matter, all readers care about is a good yarn. Though I suspect that’s true as long as that yarn doesn’t stretch them too far. And that’s the ultimate RaceFail.