July 17th, 2006

bear by san

That's me.

When I was in college, I was fortunate enough to see Maya Angelou speak. My mother drove up to campus to come with me, and I raced back to my dormitory from a night class (I think it was Philosophy 102) to meet her, so fast I gave myself shin splints.

She not only gave a speech, she also read some poetry. Langston Hughes, and "Phenomenal Woman."

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies
I'm not cute or built to suit a model's fashion size
But when I start to tell them
They think I'm telling lies.
I say
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips
The stride of my steps
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman
That's me.

Just in case, as I suspect, a couple of y'all needed to hear that today.
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bear by san

It's international blog against racism week.*

I'm not sure what to say about all this, so I think the most productive thing I can do is out myself.

When I was in college, I was a victim of racial violence.

Myself and six other white students were out early in the morning, postering for Campus Crusade for Cthulhu and singing Monty Python songs. (Yeah, I know.) We happened to find ourselves occupying the same grid square as a black fraternity that was pledging. They took exception to our presence. (According to later police reports, they thought our singing was chanted racial slurs.)

One of my friends was sent to the hospital with cracked ribs and other injuries. Another was stoned, though she was not seriously injured. I was restrained, and struck.

You know what? The only reason I didn't get my eyes blacked and my nose broken was because a young woman grabbed the arm of the six-foot tall man who was about to punch my lights out. That interruption was enough for him to come to his senses, and then she made the guy holding me let go of my arms.

When I tried to thank her, this woman who had protected me--who had, at risk to herself, saved me from serious bodily injury--turned her back on me.

I owe her something. And I also owe something to myself, I think, and future generations, if it's not too precious to say so.

There's thousands of years of hurt there. Even when we try like Hell to do the right thing, we're still going to hurt each other. We're still going to provoke a defensive reaction.

Those of us who have been hurt are going to react to a rub on raw skin. Those of us who have not intentionally done that hurting are going to be angry that we are not judged on our own merits, but rather by a standard of oppression we don't believe in, that we may actively be working against.

This is bigger than our own hurt.


I have another confession to make. I sometimes wonder if I'm trying too hard to be politically correct--I've been accused of it--because so many of my protagonists are not white people. Collapse ) I guess I run about fifty-fifty, when I break them out like that. It would probably be different if I included major secondary characters. (Min-xue, Bobby, Kadiska, Carel, Bunyip, Don, Kuai, Fred Valens...)

The funny thing is, I never think about the characters I write in terms of their skin color. I mean, in making the above lists, I had to think hard about which characters should be classed as "white" or "non-white." It's not... it's not a categorization I think in, in terms of the people I write.

I think in terms of their ethnicity and social background, yes, completely. I think of Don as Jamaican-American, and when writing him I try to be aware of what that entails socially, and in terms of his character and acculturation. How that background informs him, the same way I try to think of how Kit's background informs him.

But I'm not immune to my own unrecognized prejudice. Actually--funny story--the group I assimilated the most prejudice against as a child was Italians. I was in college before I didn't automatically assume Bad Things about somebody with an Italian last name. Funny thing to look back on, now.

I thought about that, though, when I was writing a particularly unlikable character in Whiskey & Water, and wondered if I gave him an Italian last name because of some lingering prejudice. (The tradesmen and women I knew as a child were a lot more dismissive of the Puerto Ricans and the Italians than blacks. Possibly because there were fewer blacks working in the skilled trades, and thus no sense of a threat?)

Part of the social circle I spent a lot of my childhood in--the Northeastern US lesbian community of the 1980's--actively privileged women of color. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.) I remember as a child going to women's music retreats where there were safe spaces set aside for women of color, and how it seemed to me that they must be wiser and better than the rest of us to deserve that consideration. (I know, I know. I was ten. I'm talking about childhood programming here.)

I still tend to assume that black women, in particular, are cooler than other people until proven otherwise. Is this othering? Exoticising? I dunno. I know exactly why Carel Bierce is who she is--she draws from some amazing women I knew in my childhood, and I suspect there's also a smidge of some other women who I have either had the privilege of meeting, or only wished I could--people like nnaloh, and Octavia Butler.

And I'm not immune to social consciousness or in trying to avoid stereotyping--I have, in fact, thought "Oh dear, I can't kill this character, he's gay/black/etc." (I can think of two characters who got reprieves that way--one because he was black and the other because he was homosexual, and because I could make the story work without killing them.)

I have never thought "I can't kill this character, he's white."

I think on some level, it's an attempt to chisel away at a weight of injustice. Is it unfair? You betcha. I think of it as affirmative action.

I'm in favor of affirmative action.

But of course I'm not colorblind. I can't pretend to be. I don't wish to be. What I wish is that we could find a way to be equal, to share out cultural heritages while still encompassing them. Which is why I get tangled in the whole cultural appropriation issue; because there's so much richness out there, and I don't think it's wrong for me to want to touch and understand the culture of Ethiopia or Hawaii any more than it is to want to touch that of Ukraine. There is a difference between a melting pot (that old, suspect image) and a chorus.

coffeeandink with a handy list of tips on how to shut down discussions of racism. (also, here is one of the several posts describing what this week is and how to observe it)

There are other good posts at oracne, yhlee, oyceter, rachelmanija, and truepenny, that I've noticed.

*and I helped!
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