This was a post that was difficult to write. That’s not the exclusive reason that it took so long (a magical concoction of laziness, distraction, and a dash of actual preoccupation helped) but it definitely was an obstacle. It may still turn out kind of rambly and tangential, apologies ahead of time.
So this blog was originally meant to be focused on racism and the perspectives of it from my own snow-white background. I quickly learned two things from it. First, that I really don’t know enough about racism to dedicate a blog to it, even as regards my own privilege. Reading requireshate and angryblackwomen in between raging impotently at comment threads somehow wasn’t enough. Second, that it is rightfully very difficult to speak exclusively about racism without recognizing the intersections between it and other means of prejudice and oppression. This is perhaps especially true from my perspective of nearly overwhelming privilege regarding many of these institutions.
Consequently, even though it really only affects me, I’m not going to be restricting content according to that original model. I will still be primarily concerned with dissecting the privileged perspective (regarding my own posts, not that of hypothetical commenters), and using that reflection to try and overcome my own hobbles in both thinking and writing. I will also be endeavoring to, when I’m not sure how I feel about a thing or am stuck somewhere in my thinking, simply post a question. I fully encourage any readers to answer, pontificate, deride, or even ask their own questions. Moderation continues to be light, but not absent.
That all being said, onto the meat of the post. Something I’ve been struggling with greatly is ableism. Specifically, I have used and continue to use ableist language–even more specifically, I say “retarded” an awful lot. Like…really a lot. And each time I cringe and yet…not sticking. I don’t know. I’ve met fair success with excising several other common words from my daily vocabulary, some more than others, but this one I’ve somehow resisted.
Before I get too much further with this, my own background with ableism and why this is a somewhat challenging post for me to write. I am able-bodied, my family is almost entirely able-bodied, and there is no particular genetic predisposition in my family towards defects (not sure how I feel about that word). Mentally, early-onset dementia has increased significantly on my grandfather’s side of the family, but nobody that I’ve had great exposure to besides my great-grandmother, who was old before I even met her. This position of normativity has presented us as a family–and me specifically, of course–with an unfortunate tendency to try and brush other, less “obvious” afflictions under the rug. There is a certain predisposition to excuse, ignore, and dismiss such behaviors that might otherwise indicate chronic afflictions such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, and autism, often consigning them to flaws of personality or self-discipline instead.
This can of course be damaging, both to those who never receive treatment and those laboring under the onus of diagnosis. When certain circumstances in my youth required that I be committed to a local mental hospital and, later, when a much more professionally apt psychiatrist finally diagnosed me with chronic clinical depression, there was a lot of pooh-poohing about medication and therapy. There was also, it took me about 15 years to realize, a lot of internalizing of the language and perspectives of self-deprecation.
It’d be really easy to slide into a long story of my own personal struggles, etc, but while blogging is of course an inherently selfish medium I do want to eventually get to the point. So, suffice to say that depression is quite a lot like Sisyphus’ boulder, except that the weight is oneself and the terrain is littered with reasons why you shouldn’t need help to stop being sad. My background of low-income combined with this internalized litany has meant a lot of time not being on meds, including right now. The point being that I should understand that language can have a devastating effect on even daily coping.
Other experiences (obviously second-hand) with disabilities include a friend and client from when I first decided to go back to school. An older man, recently blind, I read for him and tutored him in math, through the local Department for Rehabilitation. I learned a lot from him about depictions of sensory disability, including the both obvious and insidious damage from the common tropes of super-sense replacing lost sense. He also knew his way around San Diego blind better than I did with a map in my lap. Much more recently, I’ve fallen into the periphery of local Deaf culture. I took an ASL class last summer for fun and really found a love for the language, and besides the class itself (which was as much about introducing hearing students to Deaf culture and community as the language) I also got on very well with the teacher, a Deaf-from-birth woman who’d grown up locally. She suggested me to my teacher in fall, as I was transferring schools, and the latter took an interest in including me in more culture discussions and getting me involved in some of the local meetings.
So I have about as little excuse for being unsympathetically ableist as an abled man can have, if there are such things as excuses for it. It’s not even a almost-kinda word like “idiot” or “dumb,” but something I know full-well is offensive.
I’ve discussed with other people the entitlement I have felt in the past to, in essence, being able to insult somebody. To having words that I can use to belittle and deprecate. I recognize that false entitlement, in myself and others. The whole tantrum of “Well why don’t you just make a list of all the words I CAN say then?!” is a squall that I can at least say I haven’t fallen into, but it was a near thing. Understanding that is what helped me pull away from other word use–I mean, it was only within the last five years that I understood what a “gendered slur” meant.
So I guess the point of this post is, does anybody have any good advice or shareable experience? And, perhaps more importantly, this is also an apology to anybody who’s been stung by words what I know better than to use. I promise I’m trying to get off your foot, as it were, but I respect that doesn’t do you much good right now.
I’m working on a post about myself to celebrate my triumphant return from my first semester at a grown-up university, but this popped up on my Tumblr and I thought it was worth drawing attention to, besides generating some much-needed content for all these folk pinging me from the illustrious requireshate.
Cameron Russell is a Victoria’s Secret model, and she stood up to give a talk about what being a model really means, how privilege (or as she calls it, “legacy”) functions for her in her job and life, and a little bit about her struggle to unpack that. I find it quite brave, and you can see the blank looks from a lot of the audience, and I salute her for standing there and laying it out in ten minutes.
And without taking away from that bravery, I’d like to contrast it with this: Meteorologist Fired for Responding to Racism. This woman, politely and professionally, responded to a Facebook comment shaming her for her short hair. Her network reprimanded her, fired her…and liked the comment.
Also, in a follow-up search on the article, I found more than one gem about how an angry black woman viciously lashed out at a disabled man with dementia online. Happily the writer neglected to carefully cherry-pick and doctor quotes from the actual post, and was pretty well lambasted in the comments, but…
The point is Rhonda Lee, for the crime of her image, was summarily fired for her politely standing up for herself. Cameron Russell can be safely applauded for outing her whole industry.
This is a teal deer response to this post here. I don’t feel I have much place discussing this sort of thing in the spaces of those so marginalized, but that’s why I went and made a blog of my own, amirite?
In short, there is a lot of misalignment of scrutiny and fallout within social-justice circles, where people tend to target POC and women of color far more than whites and men for “calling out” on issues and asshattery. I believe that there are two over-arching forces at work in this phenomenon: betrayal and bullying. Each of these has as many underlying facets and sub-sections as they have people who function under them, but the two forces are split up generally by whether the person in question is, in fact, interested in social justice or not.
For those that are, those people who are genuinely trying to explore privilege and denounce its manifestations, those (generally marginalized) who are often involved in actual activism besides dram_comms, it is a matter of finding amongst themselves, the army they have come to trust by necessity, somebody who has failed. It is the queer whose black friend votes against gay marriage, the latino/a whose girlfriend cracks a racist joke. It is the feeling of the knife in the back. It results in a reactionary anger based on broken trust, on the realization that it takes more than one common cause to find a safe space between people. And I think that it builds up–that these repeated breakdowns of intersectionality result in a habit of “policing the borders,” so to speak, of being more focused on making sure everybody on the front line with them is facing the same direction than finding targets across the divide.
I don’t think that this is an unreasonable reaction, though obviously it has its faults and, when more and more people give in to it, results in a lot more energy being focused on what may or may not be constructive whistle-blowing than stopping oppression from people who have the power. But it’s not easy fighting the rich and/or powerful, and it is doubly hard when you have to keep side-eyeing the people who have your back. It becomes a matter of trying to clear some safe space from which to work before you can focus outwards again, but this turns into an exhaustive full-time occupation (usually on top of actual full-time occupations) and then it’s all one can do to stay afloat, much less swim for shore. And what once was a stop-gap before you can finally focus on the fight again becomes your only contribution to a hopeful next generation–weeding out the problem children.
Or, sometimes, a person finds that it is much easier and almost as satisfying to attack other marginalized allies. Hence phenomenon two: bullying. Because white male institutions are dug in deep into the foundation of power and walled high with the rhetoric of privilege, and hapless refugees are merely hiding behind precarious sandbags of hope and effort while flanked by the wide open cavalry plains of internalized bigotry. And over-extended metaphor. If are going to put your precious effort into the attack of people spouting off on the internet, will it satisfy you to be a splash of water on those high white walls? Or is it more personally edifying to drown somebody already struggling for breath? Finding women and POC who have broken some covenant and dragging them down is something a small group of SJ warriors can conceivably do, and it has a clear result. And then you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
Conversely, if you’ve just always been an asshole and would like to continue to do so without that occasional pang of guilty conscience, there’s nothing better than learning the SJ language. Then you can be exactly the same person doing exactly the same thing and you’ll always find a home amongst like-assed brethren, enjoying the warm glow of community and vindication when you dogpile some poor fucker who made you feel guilty for being a dick five years ago and just let slip something that, considered carefully and slantwise, could almost be a privileged statement.
Clearly I have more patience for one of these, but I see the latter very often. Especially on anon sites, where there need not be any identification of marginalization (or otherwise, obviously) and people use these carefully chosen and defined terms like bludgeons in the hands of malicious playground bullies, laughing at how clever they are to have subverted all this nonsensical uprising against oppression and all this naming and shaming. Where better to associate with trolls and bugbears than in the fetid marsh of drama_comm, under the graffiti’d bridge of anonymity?
And the worst of this is: when encountering the latter, do you then become the former? Do you put the effort into weeding out the so-called social justice weekend warrior instead of focusing on the ivory tower? Can you fight those who say they’re on your side in good conscience while an open enemy stares down his NRA-endorsed sights, watching, waiting for his chance to take a report of how insipid and foolish these people rallying at his gates are? Because he watches, too, and he loves to place the blame of his comfort on the shoulders of the powerless, for if they could but work together, how could he resist?
Got linked to this amazing piece by my partner: Native Tongue
Kent Monkman is a Cree artist in Canada, re-working/imagining primarily white and totally heteronormative depictions of native people and life. He tackles both the quiescent, passive role of the sublimation of native cultures portrayed by a media that keeps telling us they no longer exist AND the intersection of native culture and sexuality/gender.
This is a power I wish I had, but am way glad that somebody else has it instead. Somebody who needs that power. And it illustrates (har) a clear example of how easy it is to speak well of a culture while simultaneously trying to stamp it out of existence.
Growing up I was exposed to a lot of stereotyping. It came in all forms, from jokes and off-handed, overheard comments to in-your-face media. And when you’re young it’s hard to differentiate between what you’ve heard and what you know–they become the same. So deconstructing these ideas later in life can be very work-intensive, and sometimes harrowing, as I try to peel apart these old, congealed conceptions to expose the seed they germinated from. Sometimes it turns out to be strange half-heard moments in a school hallway, and those are easy; sometimes it’s lies and bigotry from people I’d trusted and loved and never thought to second-guess, and those can be hard.
But as I pick apart these gnarled old chestnuts I come to realize what stereotyping actually means. Yes, this is a privilege of mine, that I didn’t have to think about this until I chose to, and I don’t just mean what a stereotype is. I mean the purpose of the stereotype, why they are, and how they manifest. A stereotype is a method by which we label people for easy categorization, a means to think less, to process and dismiss. Each generalization doesn’t just label, however; because it is a person we are defining it necessarily confines, distorts, and dehumanizes. Furthermore, it causes assumptions based on assumptions, which are rarely flattering to begin with. For the purposes of this post I’m labeling these three facets the face, the focus, and the fallout, because I’m a nerd who likes alliteration.
I feel it is also important to note at this point that there is no such thing as a “positive” stereotype. Though we may use a label containing language we think of as complimentary, the net result is the same as a “negative” stereotype, plus the weaselly misdirection in an attempt to avoid guilt. To illustrate, I’ll use a couple so-called “positive” (and yes I will feel the need to pretentiously air-quote that word every time) stereotypes in my breakdown, starting with one recently discussed.
Note: These are common stereotypes propagated in the US, at least in the midwest/west where I’ve spent most of my life. Mileage may vary.
The face: “Black women are so strong.”
This is to say, black women are emotionally stalwart, activist-oriented, no-nonsense bullshit-free zones. They are immune to depression, to exploitation, and even their sadness manifests in glorious, stone-faced revenge.
The focus: Black women cannot be hurt.
This means that no matter what their life stories are, what attacks are made against them, what indignity they may suffer, they shouldn’t cry. I don’t have to feel bad for hurting their feelings–I may as well feel bad for riding a horse or disciplining a dog. They don’t feel pain like real people. This also explains their tendency to be too loud, too obnoxious, too large–it comes with the territory.
The fallout: Black women aren’t human.
A black woman cannot be treated like a normal person because there can be no empathy. A black woman who walks through fire is not an amazing person–all black women are strong. It’s just natural that she suffer, if at all, in silence. A black woman who cries is exceptionally weak, doesn’t realize who she is, or is lying. Corollary: a white person (especially a woman) who succeeds in emulating a black woman’s strength is exceptionally strong. (This seems to be true also for “black men are natural athletes,” allowing white men who compete to enjoy extra glory for accomplishments.)
The face: “Asians are good at math.”
This is to say, Asian-American students, particularly in the high school-to-collegiate ages, are mathematically inclined. All subjects relating to math are processed easily by Asian-Americans either because of genetic advantage or their family/culture/history has groomed them for this purpose.
The focus: Asians are manifest intellectuals.
This means that no matter what their home lives, their personal interests, their eighteen years of piano lessons, they will always be real-life Vulcans. They don’t process emotion, or art, or creativity like normal people. They are career-oriented and driven in a pathological, almost supernatural way to succeed in their chosen, undoubtedly math and/or money-related field. There is no shame in asking for help, cribbing their work, or stealing their identities because all they care about is sums and success.
The fallout: Asians aren’t human.
Be they fifth-gen pre-civil-war immigrants or fresh-off-the-boaters, Asians cannot be treated like real people. They don’t possess beauty or feelings or imagination for any other purpose than to emulate or titillate Westerners, because they don’t need it. Their accomplishments are degraded because there is no success in accomplishing what you are made for. This allows them to be both the objects of pity AND fear, like any good robot culture. Corollary: their women exist to be saved from the weight of their backwards heartless native lands. Feel no shame in fetishizing them since it’s probably the most real love they’ll ever get.
Does this seem extreme? Maybe we’re just not paying enough attention. I’m not even a scholar of these trends and I can extrapolate this far, and I can feel niggling in my brain that there’s more I could have worked out in just these two examples. And again, these are the “positive” kinds–it only gets exponentially worse when the language doesn’t even bother to pretend to be flattering.
The primary trait of stereotyping is defining the Other, so it is by necessity othering to adhere to stereotypes. There is no “reason” beyond that for stereotypes–the stereotype is not a cliche. A cliche is a linguistic tool that has found repeated, constructive use in order to portray an idea, while a stereotype is a shoddy patch over our gaping lack of knowledge, which we use rather than choosing to educate ourselves. There’s nothing to be gained from them other than more ignorance, and the crusty feeling of cheap adhesive.
And the outer geek, for that matter. Should I start of with the ways I am Geek? Well alright, if you insist. And it’ll help me practice with this WordPress html.
- Big genre lit geek. Sci-fi (hard and soft) and fantasy and those that lay betwixt. Cyberpunk is an obsession that waxes and wanes but is always there. Waiting.
- Big video game geek. More or less anything that’s good (subjective much?) but mostly RPGs. Avoided FPS between the first Quake and Half-Life 2 but have taken in some pretty good ones since. And some really horrible ones.
- And speaking of RPGs, been playing pen-and-paper roleplaying games since AD&D, now also play online. Actually almost entirely online these days, except when I can sucker my partner into sitting around our makeshift game board for Pathfinder.
- Anime. This is probably my least geeky aspect, since I’ve only really gotten into a few series and movies, but I do get into them. Anything by Manglobe wins my heart. Everything by Ghibli breaks it.
- Oh and comic books. Are those still geeky?
I make this list because it occurs to me that, while I’m certainly exposed to the systemic racism in news and more popular media, and I want to explore the ways that’s shaped my thinking, these are the areas that I am more commonly involved. And if I could ever be considered qualified to talk about race–which I don’t take as a given–it would be in these genres of mass-entertainment. Talking about True Blood and Foreigner was a lot easier than trying to keep up with current events that, sequestered little child that I am, I don’t have the practice for. Those are still important things to me, and I will continue to endeavor in that direction, but these are things I know now.
So first, some words on being a geek. Geeks are not an oppressed minority. No, I don’t care how many times you were swirlied in high school. Geeks are not persecuted. A geek, in and of itself, is not entitled to its persecution complex because somebody threw your carefully organized collection of DNAngel cards into Monday’s trash. These presumptions lead in turn to some very ugly practices amongst geeks, that are much more damaging than a couple of awkward and horrible secondary school experiences. In fact, geeks should all read this excellent takedown of some social fallacies perpetrated by geeks.
Thus, I do not feel compelled to like something just because it falls within my geek spheres. I do think that, overall, it is mostly middle-class white kids in this country who have the time and spending money to devote to these kinds of obsessions, and being able to do so grants some kind of geek cred no matter how thoroughly somebody enjoys something that they can’t afford the miniatures for. It also sets up a supposed target market for geek products. A very white market. (And straight, for other reasons.)
So I see an awful lot of products that are pushed at me (for while I don’t qualify for the middle-class club, I do have the internet, and aren’t we all monied on here?) that have very little color outside of their lovingly rendered backgrounds. I’ve recently finished The Witcher 2, which despite having about twice as many NPCs as the first (which is a feat, since it takes place in less than half the geographical space) lacks in it’s entirety a single person of color. Instead it has dwarves and elves. Nothing new in the fantasy genre, but…really? Not even one? Also, if the other species are meant as a sort of stand-in for minorities, it’s highly problematic that they take extra damage from the witcher’s silver sword…you know, the one meant for monsters. Then there’s Divinity II, which I’m actually stuck 3/4s through in, but same thing. At least Witcher has the excuse of Geralt being the pre-established hero. There are no color options for character creation in Divinity, and nobody of color in the whole game that I’ve seen. And that takes place in a world where travel is augmented with great zeppelins, so it’s not like people couldn’t get around.
And this is ridiculous. Two huge, modern games, not with an under-representation but no representation at all. It’s criminal, and it sets up such a massive, white-washed wall of egoism that I used to be ashamed but am now just angry at how these people, these companies, and these rabid, defending fans represent white people’s attitudes.
[Oh and the FANS. When somebody goes so far out of their way (ie, before the mod tools were released) to replace Rochelle's model in Left 4 Dead 2 with Zoey's model because THIS JUST CANNOT STAND, it's ridiculous. And responding defensively to accusations of racism? Ridiculous! When similar folk feel the need to mod CJ into a white man in GTA: San Andreas because it CANNOT BE. I'm sorry, are there not enough games for you to immerse yourself in? Do you feel UNDER-APPRECIATED because you're white? Get. Over it.]
So when I play a game like Mass Effect and it takes no effort to create a Commander Shepherd that is unambiguously black and female, yes, it’s a relief, it’s amazing, and it is so ridiculously sad that this is the bar for inclusion. And when I play another Bioware game that has none of these options (eat a dick, DA) I’m like, what? Did you hit your quota? Or did you take all of that coding it would have taken to put in POC and cram it into rendering those huge, freckled tits?
All my blog posts have cut off sort of abruptly thus far, and that’s because where a conclusion is there should be some answers, and I’m not that far along. I have none, other than anger and words in the void.
I was writing a long-ass comment on this post over at ABW, and decided that it was verging on the self-serving. So I figured I’d go ALL THE WAY to self-serving and just make a post out of it.
I hated True Blood as a whole (and thereby the past tense; I stopped watching after a season) but I loved quite a lot of its parts, and Tara was a big part of that, uh, part (Lafayette being the other). Because UNlike Sookie, Tara reacts only to the things that have ACTUALLY happened to her, she’s the only proactive (human) woman with any sort of positive goals, and she is so beautiful and proud and heartbreakingly loyal. But like Martha (best companion EVER) she is hated by fans for getting in the way of their white romances with things like, oh I dunno, a realistic impression of vampires? An opinion that isn’t based exclusively on her attraction to a man? A series of actual Bad Shit that happens to her?
Unlike Martha, though, and what really galls me, is that Tara is also maltreated in-character because of these things. Sookie treats her only friend like slime because she thinks Bill’s a creep, or warns her of danger, then calls her traitor when she decides to take care of her own shit instead of Sookie’s. So not only do the writers treat Tara like Sookie’s Lassie (an issue in and of itself) but it’s like if everytime Lassie came to tell the parents that Joey’s fallen down the well they gave her a swift kick.
Viewing all black women as being strong is like viewing all Asian-Americans as being math geniuses. Even a so-called positive stereotype is still a stereotype, still a box to put others in as a way of separating them out from Us, the White People Who Are Actual Humans. It’s why only a white woman’s tears illicit the reaction they do–black women crying seems somehow a cheat, a subversion we neither expect nor want. She should be angry and loud so we don’t have to feel so bad when she’s hurt. How dare she ask us to feel guilty for our wrongdoing when everybody knows black women don’t have real feelings?
Seeing things like this from the other side of Not Being a Douche makes me try and think back to any positive representations of POC in the media I’ve been exposed to over the years. I’ve seen plenty of black hard-asses, certainly, but that’s not necessarily positive in a way that, you know, allows people to be people. I liked what we got to see of Book and Zoe from Firefly, though I was starting to get some bad Whedon Warning Signals even by the end of the first season. And then Book promptly died in the movie. But he was a black man (in an overwhelmingly white cast, considering it was supposed to be the US and China whose cultures mostly survived) who got to be both strong and sensitive, spiritual and practical, right and wrong. Zoe, I think, was definitely a victim of Strong Black Woman, and while I loved her character and her inclusion in soldier culture it was wee white Kaylee whose vulnerabilities were used to make us cry. And I still feel really weird about the bounty hunter…
CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series is also a bit of an issue for me. It oscillates wildly between several known problematic tropes and what I feel could be Doing It Right, from chapter to chapter and sometimes from line to line. The Big Black Aliens are all people, at least by the end of the first book, but they’re still mysterious and stoic (and what says “bizarre and inhuman” like bastardized East Asian culture mishmash?) and the POV character is SO WHITE. And so the Hero, albeit not in the usual sci-fi ways. Some POC humans are introduced throughout the nine books but they’re all bit-parts. I don’t know. I have a lot of mixed feelings about that series.
I could go on, but not really that long. It’s hard enough to find genre examples of POC characters and then they’re all just the same stereotypes that we get in more mainstream titles. Or they’re turned into aliens or elves or Black Council Evil McEvilPantses so we can treat them however we want because now it’s fiction, right?