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real magic can never be made by offering up someone else's liver.

Please read this linked post before proceeding. This post has been closed to new comments.

As this is an open letter, I believe it deserves an open response:

You're right.

You're pretty much right categorically and without exception, and I'm sorry to have mislead you for a moment into believing I think anything different. I will say that the book of mine you threw across the room is, in part, actually intended to address the point you make about it, but I obviously failed for you as a reader in doing so, and I'm sorry.

That racism serves a story is never an excuse, especially if the racism is unexamined. There's a fine line to walk, of course, because it's also racist to make people of color sacrosanct in fiction. The only long-term solution I am aware of is saturation: getting enough characters of color out there that each one stops being special by virtue of their color.

When I said that sometimes it helps to write as if somebody "happens to have" a particular background, what I meant was not that anything else is the default. I meant that the character needs to be a person first, rather than being a stereotype or a token. A person, in other words, not an archetype or a stereotype or a role. 

It's a hard thing to talk about, to explain, and we've seen enough evidence already this week that the same words can sound very different to different people.

My intention really is not to earn brownie points. It is, hopefully, to do something about your pain and lack, and my own pain and lack, and the pain and lack of my friends and family and random strangers on the street.

If I check in with friends to see if I'm making mistakes, it's because I would rather be part of the solution than part of the problem, and obviously I'm not doing it well enough yet.

ETA: Think VERY CAREFULLY before you comment on this post. And make damned sure you are being both polite and respectful of others when you do. Or I will close comments.

Oz has spoken.


deepad's essay, here, is also excellent.



(I do wish people would stop assuming I'm straight.)

Comments

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Seems an overreaction

I have to say I find the open letter an overreaction. Over sensitivity to perceived racism tends to result in the nit picking of words and sentence structure. This open letter is full of just that. Also, the letter makes a large swing at other books, shows, and movies. I would guess because you are more accessible due to your blog that it was easiest to direct the anger at you.


Oh, and I have to assume your sexual orientation? Damn, I have a hard enough time choosing which cloths to wear each morning. Don't make knowing a person's orientation a part of my daily routine.

Re: Seems an overreaction

In what way is it an overreaction?
So, all storytellers should shut up because they can never tell everyone's story for them, correctly and exactly as that person would tell it, if they could? And we shouldn't even try, because we'll only Get It Wrong?

*is depressed*

Going back to bed, now. I shouldn't read LJ when I'm sick.
That's always been my reaction to this argument. I'm a white male, and this suggests that I'm not allowed to write anything but white males. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, if I write a non-white character someone will think I'm being racist - that I'm feeding the culture of racism.

I realized about a year ago that one of my characters was black. It wasn't a decision I made - she just was, it was beyond my control. And I immediately started trying to justify reasons to force her to be white because I didn't want anyone reading her and thinking I'd intentionally made her black and picking apart her flaws as an example of how racist I was (as opposed to her having flaws because she's human, just like her white partner in the book). It was at that point that I decided to ignore that argument and similar accusations and write the characters as they are. There is nothing I can do to prevent people from perceiving racism if they want to - short of never writing a non-white character, which I'm not willing to do.
Heh. In my current WIP, the black male rescues the whining heroine, protects her, impresses her with his strength and cunning, and delivers her safely to the next stage of her journey.

...and when she asks him to accompany her further, he says, "Hell no!", calls her three pints of crazy in a two-pint skirt, and walks away mumbling curses.

I don't know whether I'm going to be labeled racist or misogynist for this one. <:)
Sounds to me like a fun story personally.
Thank you for providing the links. I empathize with both of the authors, but I'm left with a certain sense of helplessness.

We're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't.
(We meaning the Caucasian folks)

If we don't include other ethnicities in our works (for whatever the reason - for me, I'm scared to death to include them as anything more than supporting characters precisely because I don't know the cultures as well as I do my own, and it's posts like the two above that make it pretty clear that no matter how well I think I know them, I don't and trying is going to be an exercise in futility...and you see where this is going), then we're being racist.

If we do try and include them, then we get slammed for all of the things we did wrong, and we're still racist.

This isn't mean to be a backlash against them - not at all. It's me standing here, arms thrown wide, asking these cultures - Help! How do we make this better?
If we don't include other ethnicities in our works (for whatever the reason - for me, I'm scared to death to include them as anything more than supporting characters precisely because I don't know the cultures as well as I do my own, and it's posts like the two above that make it pretty clear that no matter how well I think I know them, I don't and trying is going to be an exercise in futility...and you see where this is going), then we're being racist.

If we do try and include them, then we get slammed for all of the things we did wrong, and we're still racist.


So we learn from the critiques, and try and do better next time. And probably still fail and fuck up, but it might be a step better, and at least it's doing SOMETHING. And hell, the pain of receiving a critique of something we've written that's racist is a hell of a lot less than the pain of someone who has to constantly experience that racism.
Sadly, frustratingly, maddeningly, this is one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't situations. I wish there was an easily perceived solution, but there's not.
Indeed. It is a heavily intractable problem. Which, of course, doesn't excuse one for trying.
Thank you for engaging with this kind of critique openly, honestly and without being overdefensive. :)

(The assuming you're straight thing is a right pain, says he who gets assumed to be straight and cissexual on a regular basis...)

Edited at 2009-01-14 03:12 pm (UTC)
*g* I get assumed straight, in general, either by people who want to discuss my bigotry, or the ones who want to discuss how I'm writing gay characters who make them uncomfortable only because I'm doing it for my own sexual gratification.

No, I don't know how that works.

Re: critique: what are you going to do? Treatment of characters of color in television and literature *is* a problem. And not talking about it isn't going to make it go away.

I knew it was on fire when I lay down on it.
it certainly is thought provoking (the link)

The open letter.... feels like someone had a chip on their shoulder.

Perhaps it all boils down to the fact you can't please everyone no matter how hard you try to.
...but an incredibly well-deserved chip on their shoulder.
Unless you identify strongly as not-straight, the default assumption is always going to be straight. If you identify as bi or queer, people will see you as either gay or straight. There is no middle ground, and bi people are invisible.

And your reaction was respectful. I'm proud to know you.
bi people are invisible.

So are asexual people. Except, funnily enough, to Bear, who made one a heroine in Dust.

And got it right.
I find myself consumed with irritation about this, which I can only attribute to the discovery that straight white people are an offensive menace, and need to be taught their place, which apparently is some kind of fenced enclosure.
Something about your description of these feelings reminds me of when I was working selling subscriptions for a local very large not-for-profit live theater company.

Part of our mission was to include and promote plays written by (and with parts for, acted by) people of non-white extraction. However, every time we were calling for renewals, I got a significant pushback from white longtime subscribers ... an accurate, short paraphrase is, "Quit putting on plays whose only purpose is to make me feel guilty for being white."

When that was never in fact the purpose of the play, from the playwright's point of view, or that of nonwhite people in the audience. However, a significant portion of the white viewership got that as the main take-home message of anything that wasn't blatantly feel-good comedic musical, etc.
I wish I had something wise or even useful to say to this. But I don't (do I ever? Rarely, and then only about Celtic History) apart from: this is such a difficult area, and imho you are handling it far better than I would. We all have histories, wherever we are from, whoever we are, and we all have to live with them as best we can, but as a conflicted Celt I will add that this is true for both sides -- which means that blaming is satisfying but there has to be movement after it, too.
Bear, that's an honest, decent response. You really make an effort to be open to a range of experiences not your own, and to lay them out on the page. That's a wonderful thing, and a beautiful exercise of the imagination.
We're all just doing our best here, aren't we? I can't see how getting up in each other's faces helps when we have the same goals. The way characters of color are generally treated in the media makes me crazy, too, and I can try to understand the frustration that arises from seeing yourself marginalized again and again.

The problem's obvious. The solution's not.
OK, I admit to being (probably) 100% caucasian (probably? Well, having been left outside a Florida hospital almost 50 years ago with no identifying info mean's I will never really know my ethnicity) and all, but my children are not, in fact they aren't even a little Caucasian and I showed the article to my older (13) daughter who reads SF/Fantasy avidly (so does my 10 year old son but he's a little young to really want to think hard on this stuff). Her response was not what I expected, I expected her to agree with some of the issues the writer of the open letter raises and I expected her to find it a little over the top. What I didn't expect was for her to be a little pissed off.

She said that she is tired of being told there is only one correct way to be a person of color. She is tired of not being able to enjoy a book, movie or tv show with out getting into the politics of race every time and that when she disagrees is told her opinion doesn't count because her mother is white and she isn't really of color because she is Chinese (of course, her brother has dark brown skin and so he gets to be more "really of color", although he is Southeast Asian (apparently Cambodian is more of color than Chinese). I'm serious- she suddenly went off on a rant about kids at school, teachers, and others who have an entire hierarchy of who is really of color and who isn't and who has a right to speak as a minority and who doesn't and at the end of all this she asked me somewhat plaintively when she gets to be just herself without a whole bunch of expectations and assumptions already heaped on her from both racists and other people of color who have declared themselves the arbiters of correct race relations.

As for sexuality? I agree with the commenter who said it's hard enough picking out one's clothes in the morning, let alone assigning sexuality to people we have never met.
The issues your daughter is experiencing are analogous to the ones that led me to abandon radical feminism/separatism as a bad job all around.

We were the people who *invented* political correctness, and it can indeed be a weapon of silencing.

I'm still a feminist. But I think I'm a much more inclusive one these days. I hope your daughter finds a place where she feels she can be herself, too--but please tell her that it can be done. You can't control the expectations of other people. All you can control is your own actions.

But I'm enough of an idealist to believe that if enough of us make that choice, it will make a long run in the difference.
Each of us measures using ourselves as a 2 foot yardstick; each of us interprets another's words through our own expectations. Because I have chosen, more often than not, to live in places outside those that would be expected of me (for example, right now I live in a tiny rural community with a population under 200), I have often been told that I am the "first real Jew" this person or that has met. It is desperately uncomfortable to feel - rightly or wrongly - that they will be judging all Jews by me. I remember when I was described as a "female attorney"; now I am simply an attorney. My gender gets little more attention than my green eyes. S.f./f. has evolved similarly over that same period of time; where the female character used to be someone for the mighty-thewed male to rescue, now she can be a strong character and leader in her own right, neither because she is female nor despite it.

I think the author of this letter, with their lists of characters of color and the way they are written, is reacting to years of the development of such characters from making their race a defining characteristic to what it seems to me you (and other authors I like) try to do, making race one characteristic among many. That has changed as the society has changed in Real Life(tm). I don't know if you could succeed in writing a character of color this person would find credible. I don't know that anyone could, because the writer is viewing the characters through a filter of disappointed expectations. But that viewpoint leads to saying that men can't write credible female characters, or that straight authors can't write credible gay characters, or that a Yankee can't create a credible Southern Belle. To my way of thinking, the nature of writing is to get inside the heads of people who are Not Like You in whatever way, and make them live.

All of which is a very long way to say that I think the letter was an over-reaction, conflating your work with all the years that such characters have been evolving with the society.

And I never assumed you were straight. I also never assumed you weren't. I never even thought about it. Except for my spouse, who another finds attractive is irrelevant to me, as well as none of my business.

>> And I never assumed you were straight. I also never assumed you weren't. I never even thought about it.

Exactly!
It's Blood & Iron. Which I'll be happy to send you a copy of, if you want context and email me a physical address.

Or, you know, I can send you the file.
I hadn't noticed the race issues with Whiskey until the letter brought them up--which is a little embarrassing, especially as he's one of my favorite Promethean Age characters.

I am glad to know that... you intended that level of the story to be there, for better or worse. FWIW, your books have been a real inspiration to this white bi chick, in terms of how much richer a book can be when it draws its characters from every background.

(I took five minutes to write that last sentence, and it's still not entirely right, but it's closer now.)
He's the thematic pin the whole discussion of service vs. servitude turns on, I think. The modern-day books, at least.
Thank you for responding to the open letter. I'm still thinking this over.

Let me link drop resources for people who want to do more reading.

http://delicious.com/ibarw/recommended.reading
http://delicious.com/starkeymonster/forcluelesswhitepeople
I think that your answer is very honest - the attitude "do your duty and come what may" is the only productive one there is.

The sort of thoughts in the open letter is why I - A. tend to write about totally imagined worlds, people and religions and B. do not usually even bring the nationality, beliefs etc into the story unless they have a direct bearing on it (which they should be, of course, but I lean to the introspective sort of characters).

Of course this may be because I do not have the wherewithal to research and present a credible story based on the real world. And of course the critics usually say that there are not enough details to make the world believable.

On a totally unrelated issue: maybe because English is not my first language (as I'm sure is obvious), the expression "I happen to be straight/Caucasian" seems entirely logical to me. I certainly did not choose to be straight or white - it just so happened.
It seems logical to me also, and I would use it. But that's not what's at issue here.
I do my damnedest to write *people* in my books. If those people, with their virtues and flaws and actions, don't meet someone's expectations of what a male, female, white, black, native American, Vietnamese, or whatever should be and say and do, perhaps mine aren't the only prejudices in the equation.

So. How would you take someone saying "based on my experiences as a black woman, and those of black women I know, that character's reactions don't make any sense."
I know you and others have said above that this is a problem for which you don't know the solution - but I think people being willing to engage in thoughtful and sincere dialogues like this about fiction and its real-world ramifications is very important and goes a long way toward making a start.

...well, that was babbly. I know what I meant to say. I wish brain had told fingers what to type a little more clearly.
Is it acceptable to solicit stories featuring a presumptuous, rock-climbing feline protagonist?

Not that I think PC would ever deign to go rock climbing, but it's a fun mental image.

CAT: MONKEY, REACH FOR THAT HOLD. NO, THE OTHER ONE!
MONKEY: IF YOU DIDN'T HAVE YOUR TAIL UP MY NOSE, I COULD SEE WHICH ONE YOU'RE NOT POINTING UNHELPFULLY AT.
CAT: YOU DID _NOT_ JUST END THAT SENTENCE IN A PREPOSITION....
MONKEY: ...
It's like you live here.
"I try so hard to be just who i am, and everybody wants me to be just like them."


This is an infinite regress. But it generates a lot of comment. I realize that i will never get published for fiction, and therefore have no opinion worth notice, but i never have to make people up. There they are. Boom. And even when i report accurately, people say i make things up all wrong.

Skroom. Woodworking is easier, and there are thousands of people who tell me i don't know how to do that either.

Carry on, dear heart.

Part of the reason that I stopped writing when I did--not a big part--much smaller than the other parts--but a part nevertheless--was that I kept seeing things that needed to be done, in fiction, that were this kind of crucial and this kind of fragile both, and finding myself entirely, entirely overwhelmed by my inability to do them anything that would even begin to gesture towards justice. I'm glad there are other people who try--honestly, openly--to do those things. And I'm glad that at least some of those people are willing to listen--honestly, openly--to criticism and to keep trying to do them better. Thanks. (Sorry about the repeat edits. I keep losing my paragraph breaks. If they don't stick around this time, I give up.)

Edited at 2009-01-14 04:24 pm (UTC)
*I meant that the character needs to be a person first,*

I just finished example of this, *Killing Rain* by Barry Eisler. The first person narrator is a half-Japanese assassin, who, as far as I can make out, grew up in Japan identifying as Japanese (I haven't read the rest of the series). He thinks of Tokyo as home, looks Asian to others, etc. But I kept forgetting he was supposed to be essentially Japanese as I read; there were no little reminders in his cultural responses or thoughts, nothing a "default" American/Caucasian character wouldn't as easily have referenced if he'd bummed around in Asia a bit, no quaintnesses or "Hey I'm furrin" habits, nothing. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing -- does it mean race and culture are deliberately not fraught issues in this book's view of modernity, or does it mean the author doesn't have a feel for Japanese pov? -- but it sure as heck was an *interesting* thing. Contrasting heavily with, for example, Qiu Xiaolong's Chinese cop characters who are majorly Chinese every minute!
I find it FASCINATING that here's a post in which the original poster publically recognizes that she made a mistake, apologizes for it, and resolves to do better in the future, and yet many of the comments here seem to be saying something along the lines of Nonononono, you didn't do anything wrong, don't apologize, those people over there are too (insert dismissive word or phrase), and in fact, don't change a thing.

Once again, I am sad to say, fandom needs to put on some pants. Or a skirt. Or a kilt, or a sari, or any kind of ass covering that you prefer. EBear put hers on in this post, and I would guess it wasn't easy, but there is no reason why she has to be alone in this.

Edited at 2009-01-14 04:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the link -- I like that analogy.
With respect, I think the writer's critical point is not You're White and Therefore Bad but that you, in this instance, created a character who plays into certain stereotypes that have been historically used to put down black men.

I have not read the book, so I have no idea if the letter writer is correct. Let's assume for sake of argument that she's overreacting.

But let's discuss what the word *overreaction* means. It means that someone's past experience is fueling the intensity of his or her response in the present. Key thing is that this past experience is genuine ... and the writer of the letter, does acknowledge that this is coloring her reaction to Bear's book. That's why she brings up all the other examples that, in her view, similarly marginalized or stereotyped black characters.

Here's the trick, speaking as one who has experienced racism myself, once you have been on the receiving end, you *never* know if someone white is doing something that upsets you because they are racist or if they are behaving (let's use corporate speak and say sub-optimally) some other completely unrelated reason.

And the pressure on POCs to parse the intentions of this or that white individual is utterly crazymaking. Perhaps this pressure is unimaginable for someone who has never experienced it ... because either way you *never* know if you're right! Even in the face of *actual* racism you never can be sure. You can't make windows into people's souls.

So please, don't dismiss the LW's thoughts out of hand because she is responding to racism in SF. To be certain she *is* responding to real racism, even if the racism in question is not Bear's.

I've been watching this conversation about writing the Other, and I think the fundamental problem will never really be solved until we have more writers of color writing characters of color in SF&F. This is not to denigrate efforts of white writers to present non-white charactors, but to point out that part of the problem is that genre writers are so overwhelmingly monocultural. That the best intentioned writers are writing the Other ... as the *OTHER*. And this is inevitably, again, a sub-optimal solution to the greater problem.

We need more Octavia Butlers in the field. And there is no easy fix for that.
I think you may misunderestimate the number of writers of color in SFF currently. Which is *not* to say that there isn't room for and need for more (diversity is of the good), but please please don't dismiss or overlook the ones we have, many of whom are writing brilliant work.

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