It is, as many have noted, International Blog Against Racism Week.
This is a blog. I am against racism. Therefore, we are observing the week.
I waited until Tuesday to observe it because I figured it would be a nice idea to make one really good post rather than a series of slipshod ones.
My entire life, I have lived in mixed-race* communities. My best friend in first grade was Renee, my next-door neighbor, who was black. (We didn't have African-Americans yet.) As a little girl, I was given a dark-skinned babydoll (of the real eyes that open and wets herself when you feed her from a bottle variety) by a person of color who was a friend of the family. The reason my middle name is Bear (and the reason I use it as my nom de plume) is because it is the name I was given by a Metis friend of my mother's when I was in grade school, and I have adopted it into my legal name. I have had good friends and acquaintances who were Cambodian, Chinese, and Japanese; Trinis and Jamaicans; Indians and Nigerians--immigrants, and good old mongrel-Americans. According to DNA analysis, something like 90% of persons of American southern heritage are of African descent. My grandmother was from a proud old antebellum Alabama family, and I know
there's Cherokee back there; I can only assume that, statistically speaking, by the one-drop rule, I'm "black" as well. (Although I can't claim to be of mixed race because I am acculturated white, working-class, Yankee/immigrant; I'm a third culture kid, but it's because I was raised queer/pagan.)
I was raised in the Lesbian counterculture in the 1980s, in a time when women of color were placed on a sort of pedestal of political correctness. Carel Bierce is modeled on a real person; so is Jenny Casey. Though none of the details of those characters lives
are similar to the women I knew growing up, their personalities and their appearances are strongly influenced by these things.
I find it impossible to write a novel in which persons of color do not appear, unless there is some very good reason for it. (The book being set in not-Iceland in not-940 AD is a pretty compelling reason, say.)
manage to be a clueless white person more often than I'd like. There is no shame in being a clueless white person.
There is a fair amount of shame in willfully remaining
Kameron Hurley recently blogged about how "writing colorblind is writing white.
" I'm not sure this is entirely accurate, having not-too-long-ago read Neil Gaiman's sly Anansi Boys
and smirked cheerfully when, two thirds of the way through the book, I realized that while there are black characters and Asian characters, the only time anybody is ever specifically identified by their skin tone is when they are white. That, I thought, was a lovely and subtle reversal, and a very nice way to point out the base assumptions of the reader and get them reassessed.
On the other hand, I can attest that characters of color are often
mistaken for white people unless somebody specifically points out that they are not, you know, [default.] In my own work, I've experienced this a couple of times--with Elspeth Dunsany (she's Creole, if you missed it) and Vincent Katherinessen. (Apparently, the idea of an auburn-haired, freckled black man is outside of many people's default experience, even when his skin tone is described as reddish-brown. And, yanno, nanites. Ate all the white people.)
And that seems to me a huge part of the problem. The stereotype, the default, the assumption. We (the clueless white people) assume that black men don't have freckles. (Some do.) We assume that Creole women don't have hazel eyes. (Some do.) We assume all sorts of things. This despite the description of Vincent's cornrows, of Elspeths' corkscrew curls (and her ironing them) and "bronze" skin. This despite the fact that she jokes at one point about the inadvisability of falling for white boys.
The base cultural assumption is to not see
black people until it is pointed out that they're black. As the base individual is assumed to be male ("he" is the neuter pronoun), the base individual is also assumed to be white.
Some of that is laziness. Some of it is institutional. Some is ignorance. Some is ingrained reflex. Some of it is growing up around a lot of other people just like us.
Well, wait. Let me try to explain by example.
Of the seventeen novels or mosaic novels I've sold (Jesus, seventeen
? *checks* Erm. Yep. Seventeen.) in nine of them, there is at least one protagonist or major character who is non-white. (Yes, I'm on my website bibliography counting now. I do not actually keep a list.)
Three more (the Jacob's Ladder books) are mostly devoid of racial cues, because the important color difference is between the blue people and the not-so-blue people. ("Are you bluish? You don't look
One has no white people at all in it. (All the white people were eaten by nanites. So sad. I hear there was a party.) This one is already included in the above count, though.
Two of the remaining ones are set in not-Iceland and two are set in Elizabethan England, both of which were mostly if not entirely devoid of nonwhite people (although there were a very few blacks in Elizabethan London), and one is set in contrafactual upper-class New York.
Number of my books with identifiably non-white people on the covers?One. Carnival
. Which has Michelangelo Osiris Leary Kusanagi-Jones on the cover, with distinctly African features (despite the name (there are reasons for the name) he's from Cairo, and he's of subSaharan parentage) and if you look in the crevices of his mask, you can see very dark eyes and skin tone. And which has Lesa Pretoria on the back, looking more Brazilian than Asian/First Peoples (In my head, she looks a bit like Karin Lowachee). (That's Angelo over there in the icon. Man, I love that cover.)
Whiskey didn't even make the cover of his own book, alas. (If you're wondering, his human form looks a bit like Colin Salmon and a bit like the lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals.) In fact, none
of the people of color in that book made the cover. Jenny got bleached (she also got her head cut off, because she's over forty).
Admitedly, seven of these books do not yet have cover art. But...
I do not yet know what the covers for All the Windwracked Stars
or The Sea thy Mistress
will look like, although I have hopes we might get a brother on that last one, since the two main POV characters are both people of color. (I still need to flip a coin and see if the younger one is male or female.) By the Mountain Bound
, all Vikings. No hope there. Ink & Steel
is going to be Elizabeth I, and Hell & Earth
is going to be the Queen of the Faeries.
So if you, like me, are a clueless white person, and you ever wondered why people of color feel as if they are still marginalized, ignored, not the default, invisible?
Maybe there's a reason for that after all.
*I'm very uncomfortable with the word "race" as used to describe people. But then, part of the problem here is that words are slippery and we don't really have the right ones.