Saturday, May 10, 2008

More on understanding racism and the
experience of Other

If you've been anywhere near a computer these past few days and you are in any way associated with the SF/F online community, you're probably aware of the discussion (kerfluffle, flame war, debate - intelligent or otherwise, finger pointing, and name calling) that has been taking place over this story at Fantasy Magazine. Take the time to read through the comments thread there so you can fully appreciate the extent to which some people's buttons were pushed.

Various folks have been writing commentary on the story itself - is it racist or isn't it? (personally, I think it is, but that it was wholly unintentional - which doesn't excuse it, however), as well as the way people handled their own reactions to the story. 

Writer Kelley Eskridge has written what is probably the most level-headed commentary I've seen so far on the whole situation. You really should go read it right now.

10 comments:

JuwBagel said...

Hate me for this, but I lack White Guilt. Maybe it has something to do with me growing up in a lovely, near-third-world barrio, but I've come to observe that racism usually isn't responsible for down-on-their-luck minorities.

In fact, it isn't even luck that they're down on: There's just very little that can be done when people refuse to apply themselves to their education to the point that they disparage those that do; there's very little that can be done when people would rather join a gang or have a baby and both ways drop out of school than to finish it out properly.

What I have my parents have struggled for and I have struggled for. Blood, sweat, more tears than I'd like to discuss (that's a testosterone thing)--all to get me to where I am today, and I'm going to continue clawing my way up the ladder, because I'll be damned if I'm going to stay like this.

Either way, I'm going to call that story unintentionally racist in the same way that a company not hiring enough minorities because not enough minorities have educated themselves properly for and applied for the job is unintentionally racist. That is to say that it is not racist, but that it is easy to present a argument for it being racist.
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This is a complete sidenote but at the same time very relevant to my present situation: Gringa, the CAPTCHA software on your blog is getting absurd. Not as absurd as, say, Rapidshare's four cats CAPTCHA, but it's going that route.

Dr. Dume said...

I saw no race specified in the story at all. The characters could have been of any race - skin colour wasn't specified, was it?

We have peddlers here sometimes. They aren't Romany, they're the same race as me. Just ekeing out a living. They don't buy children.

In the 17th century, there really were 'pins and needles men' in the UK, travelling salesmen who specialised in household hardware. If they had a wagon, they sold pots and pans. If they walked, they carried only small items. Hence the 'pins and needles'. They weren't Romany or any other currently recognised traveller group. They were, in effect, self-employed hardware merchants. No specific race.

I was intrigued, reading down the comments, to find 'Romany' contracted to 'Roma' and then 'Rom'. I didn't reach the end, where presumably they would have been referred to as the 'R'. These contractions came from the 'anti-racists' in the group, and those did make me uncomfortable. Would they refer to the Scots as the 'Sco', or the 'S'? We wouldn't be happy about that.

I saw no racism in that story, but if anyone can point it out I'd be willing to look again.

Barbara said...

While I never would have noticed anything controversial in the story on my own, I can understand the sensitivity of the folks in the comments. It's the same way that, as a woman, I often notice sexism in situations my husband does not. Or the way my black friends notice racism in situations I do not. If you are the aggrieved minority, you learn key phrases and expressions and grow sensitized to them.

While I don't believe this author intended anything negative, it makes me think about a writer's responsibility. While we can never have any experience but our own, if we're going to try to write about them, we need to do some research, not make assumptions.

That said, it's hard to do research when you don't realize you're even talking about a specific group. I don't know that the Romany interpretation was ever the author's intent in this story.

Barbara said...

Addendum:

One of the most interesting ideas I found in the comments was a criticism of people for taking a fantasy story and looking at it through the filter of real world problems. In my experience, spec fic authors all live in the real world. We are all shaped by the real world. The best spec fiction is, if not aggressively allegorical, at least grounded in the psychological and sociological structures of humanity.

claudia said...

When I read about the peddlers my thoughts went toward the peddler or traveler in Wizard of Oz. I guess you see what your reference point points you to. As being part Romany I did not feel slighted in the least. I marvel at how people came to the conclusion the peddlers were Romany. Very interesting and I have learned a great deal..I am sure some of my prejudices have been rattled. I don't like to think of myself as having any but as a living, breathing person I am bound to have a few.

Thanks for pointing out this discussion.

Julia said...

I marvel at how people came to the conclusion the peddlers were Romany

The portrayal coincided very strongly with 19th-century literary stereotypes about the Rom and Sinti. I, for one, was not a bit surprised when the author revealed in the comments that she had originally written the story with the word "gypsies" throughout. Yes, she took the word out, but the stereotypes remained (visibly, at least, to this reader).

We're not second-guessing her authorial intentions by suggesting that this portrayal of traveling child-buying peddlers was influenced by stereotypes about the Rom and Sinti; Ms. Mantchev clearly said that that's where she started.

And that's a weak point of the story. It doesn't make her a horrible person who has ruined the lives of Rom and Sinti people all over the world; it just makes her a person who wrote a story that has a really lazy and unfortunate element in it.

As I said in a comment over there, I'll bet she can revise the story further and do something more creative with the peddlers--which will have the double benefit of making the story more engaging AND avoiding an unexamined use of racial and cultural stereotype.

Julia said...

I was intrigued, reading down the comments, to find 'Romany' contracted to 'Roma' and then 'Rom'. I didn't reach the end, where presumably they would have been referred to as the 'R'. These contractions came from the 'anti-racists' in the group, and those did make me uncomfortable.

Those aren't "contractions." "Rom" and "Roma" are the Romani words for the English word "Romany".

Kristin Laughtin said...

I'm another person who initially didn't see the racism. Of course, I read it after seeing this entry, and went in looking for a more typical/obvious example (skin color stereotype, etc.). Now that I realize it was the use of the peddlers that's being viewed as racist, I can see where the complaints are coming from, although like you, I think it was unintentional on the author's part. Still, this is very important to consider. I try to write from a colorblind point of view, but I'll definitely be examining my characters more closely to make sure that nothing can be construed as racially offensive.

Dr. Dume said...

Julia -

I didn't know that. I apologise.

Dume.

freddie said...

One of the most interesting ideas I found in the comments was a criticism of people for taking a fantasy story and looking at it through the filter of real world problems. In my experience, spec fic authors all live in the real world. We are all shaped by the real world. The best spec fiction is, if not aggressively allegorical, at least grounded in the psychological and sociological structures of humanity.

Not only that, but I was surprised (and a little revolted) by the number of "oh, it's just fantasy" comments by people who read (and possibly write) fantasy.

The whole point—I thought, anyway—of writing a story is to tell the truth. And the only way to tell the truth is to examine your own prejudices and ignorance. I don't think the writer really did that here. I think she changed what she thought she needed to in order to not offend, and failed because she refused to acknowledge she was ignorant.

I don't think the author of this story really examined it thoroughly at all. But I'm grateful for stumbling across this controversy before being published. One because it has made me examine my own thoughts about the power of the story, and two because it has made me examine my own ignorance.