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.