Recently I’ve been reading a lot of stories about how Doris Lessig, the Nobel prize winner for Literature, apparently made some disparaging remarks about the internet and TV. Now, Doris Lessig happens to be older than my grandmother, I can understand how the changes in society that have come about as a result of mass media and the internet might not sit well with her so I never even bothered to read the speech. I figured this was just a bunch of people from my generation getting annoyed over the words of a woman who would have a hard time understanding the world we live in. After all, when she was my age personal computers didn’t really exist yet.
The highlights for those of you who do not feel like reading the entire thing:
“It is said that a people gets the government it deserves, but I do not think it is true of Zimbabwe. And we must remember that this respect and hunger for books comes, not from Mugabe’s regime, but from the one before it, the whites. It is an astonishing phenomenon, this hunger for books, and it can be seen everywhere from Kenya down to the Cape of Good Hope.”
“I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the well-cared-for huts of the better off. There was a school, but like the one I have described. He found a discarded children’s encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap and taught himself from that.
On Independence in 1980 there was a group of good writers in Zimbabwe, truly a nest of singing birds. They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites – the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made in Zimbabwe, not easily, not under Mugabe.”
“Yet despite these difficulties, writers came into being. And we should also remember that this was Zimbabwe, conquered less than 100 years before. The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations, the transition was made from these stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books.
Books were literally wrested from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man’s world.”
There are actually other interestingly wrong ideas in that speech, and a few right ones as well, but I kind of felt the need to talk about this bit because while I have seen commentaries about her speech on the web, no one seems to have mentioned this bit. And as an African with a penchant for reading and occasional writing I was instantly rubbed the wrong way by the idea that I’m supposed to thank colonization and the white man for my ability to read and write English.
Never mind the damage colonization has done and still does to Africa, never mind the fact that the mission schools she so easily praises were built to teach a small minority of Africans to be government clerks and clergymen and were never meant to either educate the masses or produce the thinkers they did, thinkers who primarily came into existence because they understood how to subvert the education they were being given and take more out of it than was intended for them. Instead let’s take swipes at African governments and praise colonizers who were happy enough to enslave people, turn those they didn’t enslave into second class citizens on their own land and then annex the aforementioned land and strip it of resources for their advantage.
Of course, as I have been reminded, when Doris Lessig was my age, pretty much all of Africa was still made up of European colonies. As with her comments about the web, they should be seen in the context of the times she has lived in. Ghana’s Colonization ended in my parents’ youth. My grandmother was already middle aged then. Zimbabwe didn’t get freedom until around about the time I was born and I was in secondary school when Apartheid ended. I still remember that day. My perspective on her statements is significantly different from hers, and I reserve the right to be more than a little annoyed by the whole ‘white people civilized Africa and brought culture to you poor, backwards savages’ meme that runs through sections of her speech. Its not new, or even that unexpected, I’m just tired of hearing it right now.
And while we’reon the topic, I’m also interested to note how all the (minimal) uproar over her words centered around her dismissing the Internet and television and yet no one noticed or felt the need to comment on the way she chose to refer to me and mine. I wonder if that is because they genuinely couldn’t see it or that they agreed with the sentiments expressed.
An article in the Washington Post about this whole “We shall save Africa” hysteria.
There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.
very much worth reading
This campaign is „blackfacing“ white children with mud to pose as “uneducated africans“.
The headline translates “This Ad-campaign developped pro bono by the agency Jung von Matt/Alster shows four german kids who appeal for solidarity with their contemporaries in Afrika”
The first kid says:
“I’m waiting for my last day in school, the children in africa still for their first one.”
“in africa, many kids would be glad to worry about school”
“in africa, kids don’t come to school late, but not at all” (!)
“some teachers suck. no teachers sucks even more.”
Now, I’ve noticed a trend when this topic come s up of a set of basic excuses/rationalizations that always get rolled out when this topic comes up. Just to save time here’s a quick FAQ naming them and explaining why they don’t work.
*note: if I missed any of the standard excuses, let me know and I’ll put them up*
(a) Why do you even see race in this? whats wrong with you?
This I already covered here. I doubt if there is a need to update it yet
(b) This isn’t about race, its about the quality of writing
I immediately assume that means the person speaking has read little if any of the material whose quality they are commenting on. Either that or they really should not be ever put in the position to judge writing quality. That aside I tend to read this as meaning
“The real problem is that only straight white males have what it takes to write intelligently in this genre”
In which case please don’t bother to try and couch this idea in pseudo-reasonable terms. I can read. And I take as much offense at the idea that I’m too dumb to notice the subtext of the statement than I do at the statement itself.
Again, the quality of the work out there my minority voices in the genre speaks for itself in my opinion. I’m not saying all of it is good, but in terms of average quality they come out well above regular science fiction writing. Granted, this is an opinion and it could be wrong, but it is my experience that most of the bashing of these works tends to be done by people who have never looked beyond their covers. And maybe page 1.
(c) The publishers have books to sell and a predominantly white audience can only relate to white people
i.e. “Our audience happen to be the ones with the problem not us. We just appear to be as unenlightened as them because we must pander to their prejudices and we care more about money than we do about principles”
You know, I wouldn’t really have a problem with this if they would come out and say it directly. I wouldn’t necessarily like the person saying it, but I could at least respect an attempt at honesty.
Its still an indictment of the general science fiction reading public and the open mindedness they claim to have inherited from/brought to the genre though. If they are as free of prejudice as they claim and this is really me being too sensitive then where could publishers have possibly gotten this idea from?
(d) Its hard for us to write about people who don’t look like us
So….. You are a science fiction writer who expects me to believe that you are capable of building entirely new universes with new alien cultures or maybe projecting into the future or past of humanity etc..
And at the same time you expect me to believe that you are incapable of writing with any kind of empathy or sensitivity about the people in the world around you based on differences in skin colour/gender/sexual orientation?
Either that’s a cop out or you aren’t a good enough writer for me to be paying attention to anyway. It isn’t as though there aren’t writers who are capable of pulling it off either(Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis spring immediately to mind but there are others). Hence I have a very hard time believing that this isn’t more about you than it is about some intrinsic inability of any writer to do this sensibly.
(e) That’s not true. The genre is VERY diverse in terms of writers. Look at ……….
Tobias Bucknell beat me to this one. In summary, its a silly statement. Stop making it and actually address the issue.
(f) What are you talking about? The genre does include lots of diversity. Just in the form of robots/little green men/elves etc.
Oh, yes, the old ‘the other as the alien’ bit. Now this has been used brilliantly in the past(Isaac Asimov and Octavia Butler come to mind) it also tends to be used as one hell of a cop out by some writers.
For the record. Telling me that you view me as so alien that the only way you could address me was to make me something totally not human(and usually still a caricature, just with different biology) is really not something you should be trumpeting from the trees as some sign of how open minded you are.
If I were to write a story where I represented race relations by creating an all black universe and had white people represented as an evil rapacious alien species that smell bad and are totally devoid of rhythm I expect you might not necessarily see that as a sign of the diversity of my thinking process.
Well, that is the FAQ for now. Please feel free to remind me of any common arguments I forgot and they will probably be added to the list in time.
Apparently one of my major peeves, Race and Science Fiction (which actually has its own category in this blog that you can look at to get an idea of where I stand on the issue) has surfaced again online in dramatic form. Thanks to Pam for pointing me in the direction of some of the relevant posts (and reminding me that Tobias Bucknell and ABM should have been on my blogroll a long time ago)
So, since this is an area I have some (read: a lot) of interest in and also one I haven’t really talked about for quite a while now, I feel some posts coming on especially now that I have so much reference material to work with.
Before I start though let us establish a few basics.
I am a Black African male with a physics degree who works with computers for a living and grew up spending a decent amount of reading time buried in science fiction and fantasy books as well as comics.
I continue to be a fan to this day
I am a therefore fan of genres which barely have room for people who look like me. Or are anything other than straight, white and male as a matter of fact.
To the extent that they do have room for us, we are frequently caricatures of human beings and not afforded any real depth of character.
It does not matter how much science fiction fans like to pretend like the genre is more liberal than others because of its scope, it isn’t. It definitely has the potential to be however at this point it time it is not there yet by a long shot. Its chances of getting there will also not be helped by wilfully delusional (predominantly white)fans and creators pretending that there is nothing wrong with the genre while an increasing number of fans and creators of colour repeatedly tell them there is. If we’re all saying it then its probably not because we met up in a back room somewhere to synchronize our stories. You might just try applying Occam’s razor and assuming we all say the same things because they are common to our experiences as people who love the genre but feel snubbed by it.
Interestingly enough I always thought Ronald McNair (another personal hero and inspiration) was the first. I guess we learn new things all the time.
Honestly, stories about people like that do a lot to keep me on track. Its unlikely I’ll ever face anything in my life as challenging as the troubles they faced and yet they made it. What can my excuse possibly be?
Thanks to this post from Nalo I just found a comment on my Octavia Butler obituary that I must have missed the first time. I guess that’s what happens when I get lazy and start occasionally skipping my daily blog reading.
Since that quote was attributed to Nalo, she went ahead and answered it here and covered the topic pretty well. I still felt the need to address it though. I guess something in my ego just keeps me from just letting this slide.
Of course, the really amusing thing about that blog entry is how generic it was. Generally speaking, as Pam noted, there seems to be a generic white response to these kinds of complaints about genre writing. Namely, the assumption that any mention of the whitewashed nature of the genre most imply some sort of automatic dislike of white people. Usually this is just followed by some kind of MLK-lite suggestion that we judge the writers by the content of their works instead of the color of their skin. I have seen it over and over again in discussions of race and science fiction and comics. At this point I can pretty much see them coming.
What is really amusing about these statements is that they tend to reveal how little critical thought the person making them has really put into the issue.
Why do I say this? Simple. How exactly would a black person who hated white people get into a whitewashed genre to begin with? Who would they be reading?
Personally, I’ve been a science fiction fan for the better part of two decades. I already made a post about the books that most influenced me as a child. Long before I’d ever heard of Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson etc. I was reading Asimov, Heinlen, Ben Bova, Andre Norton, John Brunner…. Obviously I have absolutely no idea what it means to relate to someone who does not look like me. Ok, bad sarcasm aside, the truth is that every genre fan of color must by definition be able to relate to people who are different from them. There is no other way to get into the genre. There just aren’t that many non-white people in it. The chances of there existing a black science fiction fan who has only read black authors and/or characters is so small I’d rather lay odds on that snowball in hell first. On the other hand, it would be remarkably easy to find white fans who have almost never read a science fiction book which didn’t have a white writer and/or character.
Hell, as far as I know there isn’t a stigma against putting white faces on a book because they might not sell as well. Which makes it remarkably interesting that the question being asked is why people who have to make a special effort to *not* read a genre story which requires them to identify with someone who doesn’t look like them are prejudiced. If anything, the question should be reversed.
Why is it that putting a black face on the cover of a book is automatically a bad thing?
Why are non-white authors such a rare thing?
Where are the non-white fans?
What keeps them out of a supposedly universal genre?
And why is it that those who do exist tend to cluster into their own communities?
What is the cause of this defensiveness that shows up chiefly among white fans whenever the racial makeup of the genre is discussed?
Like I said, that piece displayed an all too common lack of critical thinking about the issue. I understand its probably due to long standing unquestioned assumptions that people are not even aware they hold. Still, since cornute was kind enough to ask…..
I kind of wondered into this post topic by accident while writing about Eric Jerome Dickey’s new ‘Storm’ comic book. One of the things I found interesting about it was the fact that he showed the animosity that sometimes tends to exist between Africans and black Americans. At the same time I’ve been thinking about a post on the genius of the boondocks character ‘Uncle Ruckus’. What they both have in common is what I tend to refer to Universal Black Constant #1. Namely black people don’t like black people
The most damaging legacy of slavery and colonization is , in my opinion, the widespread inferiority complex it left across all of those affected. The truth is that most black people, regardless of where they are born, have to deal with the message that the very fact of their birth makes them less than everyone else, but especially white people, from the day they learn how to communicate. Maybe a little after if they are lucky.
Africans and West Indians have the advantage of only being stuck with each other, which means that we are required to acknowledge each other’s competence to a degree that isn’t necessary here. Its still there though. Just about every African I know can tell you stories of Ruckus style comments made by other Africans. Most notably a wish for a return to colonial rule because the Europeans ran the continent better.
Now consider the fact that human beings have a natural tendency to place themselves in a hierarchy and consider what happens to those who know from day 1 that they are assigned the bottom rung. A struggle to stratify the bottom rung begins with everyone trying to be on small of that little space so at least they are better than someone. Hence all of the above reasons are amplified by the need to put down the other group in order to feel a little better about yourself and your group. Not the smartest solution known to man, but definitely understandable. And that right there is a vast majority of the reason different groups of black people stay at each other’s throats.
The genius of Uncle Ruckus, in my opinion, is the fact that he brings light to the thoughts that lie buried in the minds of a lot of people, black and non black, tend to carry around with them and avoid talking about. I think there’s a lot to be gained by actively admitting to and confronting the mindset instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.