My last post was about science fiction fandom’s Cultural Appropriation Debate of Doom. Although there had been rather a lot of unfortunate remarks made, I felt justified in linking to the most interesting posts and describing the overall affair in more or less positive terms, as an occasion when important things about complex, difficult and painful topics were said, as well as predictable and unpleasant things.
Things have changed, and my previous post needs an addendum.
As seems to be the general process in these debates, the “unpleasant” has shifted to the unconscionable. Many links can be found on Micole’s posts to the Aqueduct Press blog, linked above; Rydra Wong also maintains an enormous archive of fannish race discussion if you want background. What it boils down to is that more respected sf writers and editors from the small subcultural pond have become involved; nasty accusations have flown (I would say “in both directions”; but the accusations flowing one way have been “orc,” “troll,” and “blogwhore,” and the accusation flowing the other has been “racist” more often as an adjective than a noun. I think that’s telling.) and it has become very, very ugly.
Elizabeth Bear has stepped back from what she now calls a circular firing squad, a phrase that seems to me to skirt close to “political correctness gone mad.” I had initially planned for this post to segue off into a discussion of friendship and what is implied in Bear’s closing declaration:
Do not confuse my politeness, my willingness to listen to criticism, or my acceptance of the need to sometimes take one for the team with moral cowardice, a susceptibility to bullying, or any plans to throw any of my friends under the bus whether I disagree with them or not.
It made me wonder about the politics of friendship; does disagreement work differently among the internet friends with whom we (and by “we” I suppose I mean anyone who engages in an active digital life that is more than an extension of their pre-existing physical one) often share far more of our internality than we do with the people we see every day? At what point does someone become the kind of friend who is effectively family, with whom no disagreement can be a deal-breaker? Is that a point that can be said to meaningfully exist? Is it throwing someone under a bus to call them on their actions when you believe them to be wrong and you think they are hurting others?
I suppose that last question makes my standpoint clear; her post assumes that there are two sides with equal status and at equal wrong here, and I don’t think that’s the case. Ciderpress made a concise, eloquent and stunning post that deserves to be read in its entirety, and that is responsible for this post being significantly more opinion than the analysis I had originally intended. It reminded me of what’s at stake in my ability to maintain a racialized, classed tone of intellectualizing detachment.
The discussion that Seeking Avalon’s Willow and [info]deepad started and many other PoC participated in and the points they made regarding cultural appropriation, different PoC experiences with life in general, the media and the effect that cultural appropriation has on our emotions, our narratives and our ideologies was derailed. Instead, the discussion became focused on accusations of reverse-racism, racism against white people!, classism, anti-intellectualism, jealousy and grandstanding etc and the arguments that followed.
In fact, the whole focus and point of the discussion devolved into several PoC having to defend themselves, their integrity and their character for having a non-dominant-white-mainstream opinion and for expressing it. It became, as these discussions do without fail, almost completely about white people’s feelings, white people’s actions, white people’s reactions and white people’s needs. Even a discussion about cultural appropriation, about us and our representation? The whole conversation is appropriated, our concerns are very much silenced and lost in the furore.
[I]n the intense and almost singular focus on clueless white people in this discussion and the often repeated statement that this was an opportunity to dialogue, that there is solace in the fact that it has been worth all the pain and difficulty, that they are somehow *glad*, the underlying assumption is that:
• PoCs have emotional/intellectual catharsis after such discussions.
• PoC’s pain being part of an educational moment for clueless white people is worth it to PoCs because it’s worth it to white people.
• Anti-racism matters the same amount, in the same way to clueless white people, allies and PoC.
My own personal answer is, frankly no, I haven’t felt any kind of catharsis. I’m pretty sure that the sacrifice of my dignity and watching other PoC being denigrated without any remorse isn’t worth it so please stop talking for me and be more precise in your speech and own that you didn’t really think about whether my pain and humiliation is worth your enlightening moment. And I can’t walk away after a discussion and it’s not about having a choice (even a forced one) about writing or not writing characters that are in my head. When we talk about race, we are often talking about our lives, it’s deeply personal, it’s how we related to the world, to people, to media, to everything.
I try to avoid it, but I know I can do the flip utopian moment as well as any other white participant in conversations about race. But ‘at least we’re talking about it, people are learning’ is only valuable for the people who are doing the learning, not those off whose backs it occurs.
My last post about this debate-turned-debacle was linked from a metafilter post, in the comments to which LiveJournal is described as a zone of cat-picture-loving teenage drama queens. I moderated a panel at least year’s WisCon that asked whether internet drama could change the world, and for it to have a chance at that lofty goal, it has to be more than groups of friends at loggerheads over subjects whose content is irrelevant. And, in fact, it is; for better and for worse. I think Ciderpress’s post gives some sense of why the threaded, community-oriented discussion sphere that LJ is matters, why internet drama matters, even though the answer is not ‘great, a few more white people learned what racism is!’ Because the scope and the meaning and the reach of these discussions is not by any means limited to LJ or to the internet. Because it’s not a case of there being so many other ‘real’ problems in the world, but of this being one location where the structural inequalities of the real world (which does, after all, include the internet) play out.
Maybe the more people who can confront the fact that there aren’t easy answers–who can realise that the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation white writers complained about so vociferously is in fact a fundamental fact about the hierarchical and unequal structures and ideologies through which we experience the world, the better. Although that value certainly doesn’t outweigh what ought to be the exceedingly basic importance of, you know, not hurting people, and perhaps I am engaging in naive and privileged utopianism by even bringing it up, it might force some to recognize the wider problems to which their individual discomforts and lashings-out contribute.
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