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Blog Against Racism Week

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This past week has been International Blog Against Racism Week, and I've been so out of touch that I nearly missed it. Here are some links for anyone who hasn't been following it:

  • The most time-sensitive item: the Angry Black Woman has offered to answer questions. She says: "Ask me anything about Racism." Unfortunately, I didn't see this offer 'til just now, and it looks like she's going to stop tomorrow. So if you have questions about racism that you want answered by an Angry (but smart and interesting) Black Woman, zip on over to her blog and post them right away.
  • For those of you who are new to the discussion, you should start (after posting questions to ABW as described above) with ABW's Required Reading page. Even if you're short on time, if you're a white liberal then you really really ought to at least read ABW's "White Liberal Guilt" and, most especially, Ampersand's "How Not To Be Insane When Accused Of Racism (A Guide For White People)." If you're white and liberal, I strongly recommend reading both of those last two items before posting any comment in any of the below discussions.
  • Mary Anne has a good discussion of addressing prejudice and discrimination in fiction, in response to Scalzi's discussion of writing colorblind. (Which, in turn, was a followup to Scalzi's previous entry about leaving out race in his fiction, which was a response to an article about black science fiction writers in the Boston Globe.) See also Kameron's "Why Writing Colorblind Is Writing White (a rant)." I'm also reminded of Delany's explaining to us at Clarion lo these many years ago about the "unmarked state" of a character being white, male, and so on, and pointing out that for fiction set in the modern world, a character's gender (and race, and so on) does have an effect on how the character interacts with the world.
  • Claire L. has an excellent list of ways for editors to reach out to writers of color. Thanks, Claire! Could someone from the SLF maybe grab this list (if that's okay with Claire) and put it on the SLF site? Also, could someone from the Carl Brandon Society post such a list on the CBS site? (Some of us were talking at some recent con about putting together an "intro to race and racism issues in sf" resource list to catch people up on the discussion, and hoping CBS would host such a list; I think there are several good resource lists out there already (like ABW's Required Reading list and the IBARW resource list linked below), but it would be cool to collect them in one place.) Also, although this doesn't count as actually doing outreach per se, I hereby officially state that we SH fiction editors are always looking for stories by writers of color and featuring people of color as characters. But I imagine most other sf editors are doing that kind of passive "outreach" as well, so I'll try to be more active about it. . . . Also worth reading on this topic, of course, is ABW's "How To Promote Diversity in Fiction Markets" from back in May.
  • The International Blog Against Racism Week LiveJournal community has a good general resource and links list, from which you can roundaboutly reach the IBARW bookmarks list at del.icio.us.

P.S.: Although this is more or less off-topic, while I'm here I wanted to mention that I just discovered that Rod Serling wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie The Man, in which a black US Senator (played by James Earl Jones) becomes President of the US. Apparently based on the novel of the same title by Irving Wallace. I haven't read the plot summary, and I have no idea whether it's any good, but based on the premise (and when it was made), it sounds like it might be interesting enough to see. Sadly, it apparently hasn't been released on DVD.

6 Comments

I loved "The Man" when I read it as a teenager. I have no idea how well it holds up now, though.


In theory, addressing race in fiction is a great idea. In practice — and forgive me if I'm repeating something said in one of the links you posted — it's the biggest minefield an author, particularly a straight white male Protestant author, can walk into. The amount of hassle and critique that comes packaged with writing about race trumps anything else I can think of — with gender issues, sex issues, political issues, religious issues, any kind of crazy kneejerk reactionary subject, you can dive in and play around pretty freely. But a SWAMP writing about race is just painting a big target on his back, which is probably more hassle than most authors are willing to risk.

Example: the previous season of Survivor divided the sixteen contestants by race into four teams: black, Asian, Hispanic, and white. The commentary I read (before the show aired), in the mainstream press and in blogs, verged on apoplectic: should CBS be doing this? Is CBS racist? Is CBS exacerbating racial tensions? Arthur H. (whom I respect highly) called it Race War: The Reality Show three months before the first episode aired. In the event, the show went as I would've predicted: they were divided by race for about three episodes, then the teams were jumbled up, and racial issues were barely mentioned for the rest of the season. Whimper, not bang. But this innocuous little experiment was analyzed, criticized, and dismissed as a harbul idea O NOES ACK!!11! before episode one hit the airwaves.

Plenty of female authors can't write male protagonists, and vice versa, but we read their books anyway, and put up with the wince-worthy moments with larger or smaller quantities of grumbling. Everybody is an expert in something, and everybody's read a book that mishandled their expertise, but we rarely let it affect our opinion of the author as a person. I think a white author who does a creditable but ultimately flawed job of creating a gangsta protagonist would be raked over the coals in a very personal way — that would become What The Book Is About, whatever it's really about. Why would a writer (in Mary Anne's "class a" — i.e., someone who opposes racism in general but isn't called to address it as a major subject of his fiction) put himself on that hotseat? If he makes a single misstep — or if he doesn't make any missteps, but people get the impression that he did, from a review or the cover artwork or the impression his last name gave someone — that might well dominate discussions of his book, and overshadow whatever important thing he's actually trying to say, and open him up to nasty personal attacks to boot.

If we want more authors to address racial issues — and I think we do — we need to reduce the cost of failure. You can fail at almost anything, as a writer, without people losing respect for your moral integrity; I'm not sure that's true of trying and failing to address racial issues. Race should be available to play around with, just like any other tool in the toolbox. Some people will do a good job, and some people will embarrass themselves, but that should be the end of it. It should only be as embarrassing to create an unconvincing black character as it is to create an unconvincing numismatist — something writers should strive to avoid, but not something that leads to immediate angst and aspersions.


I can sum it up more crudely and concisely with an example: for a writer to write well about race, "nigger" has to be just another word he can use. For most readers, it's not, and its misuse can be a serious slap in the face.


Kendra: Thanks! That makes me more likely to try to look for it.

Jere7my, and anyone else who feels similarly: I strongly urge you to acquire and read a copy of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's short book Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. It's very common for white writers to feel that they're not allowed, in some sense, to write about race. Nisi and Cynthia's book helps writers give themselves that permission, along with providing some tools for how to do it well. (And it's not only about race; it covers a bunch of hot-button areas that writers often feel they can't touch.) If you want a quick look at the kind of thing the book covers, you might start with Nisi's article "Transracial Writing for the Sincere."

I don't have time to write a full response to your comment, but I do want to note in passing that race (especially in the US) is a heavily charged cultural issue, and has been for at least a hundred and fifty years. It's hard to examine a particular work outside of its cultural context. If one white author includes one stereotyped black character in a book, that's not such a big deal per se. But when that author and that character and that book are among hundreds or thousands that do the same thing, it's part of a larger cultural problem.

...I strongly disagree with your statement (or at least with your phrasing) in your second comment there, if I'm understanding you right, which I may well not be. There are plenty of writers who write well about race, and most of them don't use the word "nigger." For that word to be "just another word" that anyone could use casually, we would have to live in a world in which this stuff wasn't an issue--in which case there wouldn't be much to write about it.

In other words, I sorta feel like you're saying that readers and writers and critics should pretend that we don't live in the cultural context we live in. There are plenty of people who do write (and read, and critique) as if we lived in a world where there's no racial (or other) prejudice, but I feel that that's part of the problem. I'd like to see more acknowledgment of the world we live in, rather than less.

I do agree with you that writers shouldn't be afraid to try. Which is why I recommend Nisi and Cynthia's book.

...I should also note that it's quite common for white people, especially white writers, to feel personally attacked when this kind of discussion comes up. I don't know whether you're feeling that way or not, but for anyone who is, I urge you to follow the above link to Ampersand's "How Not to Be Insane When Accused of Racism."


I'm not saying that every writer who writes about race uses the word "nigger", or should — I'm saying that they have to feel free to use it if and when it's the right word to use, and often they don't. And it's certainly true that there are a lot of readers and commentators who also feel that white writers shouldn't feel free to use that word.

That's not something you can say about most words. But it's a word like any other, which means a writer should use it when it works. That doesn't make it powerless or inoffensive, any more than "fuck" and "unguent" and "prism" are innately powerless and inoffensive — or innately powerful and offensive, for that matter. A writer shouldn't use "fuck" when it's inappropriate, and should when it is; the same is true for "nigger". But a lot of people feel free to use one and not the other.

The essay you point to makes what seems to me the laudable and reasonable point that you should research race like you would anything else — cooking, Wankel rotary engines, Communism — before you start writing, but it doesn't speak to the sense I have that the penalty for failure is higher if you fail in writing about race. Nobody's going to brand you an anti-Wankelist if you skimp on the research and mess up on explaining the Carnot cycle. If writers are afraid of writing (for instance) realistic urban youth dialogue, telling them "Research how urban youths speak!" isn't necessarily going to help them, at least not all the way. Telling a tightrope walker to practice walking the tightrope is certainly correct advice, but if one is walking over a pit of pillows and the other is walking over a pit of rattlesnakes then it won't be sufficient advice for one of them.

Personally, I try very hard to not be afraid of offending people — in fact, I think it's very important that writers be willing to offend people. Fear kills fiction by making it dishonest. There are quasi-African characters in my book, and I'm not sweating the response to them — I'm writing them as best I can, the same as all my characters. But the racial debate is so broken in this country that I can't blame writers who don't want to touch the issue — a cardboard engineer is going to get people rolling their eyes, but a cardboard black person will get you tossed on the "contributing to racism in our culture" pile.

The only way to fix the racial debate, in my eyes, is to make people feel free to talk about race, even the uneducated and insensitive. I don't think the solution is to make sure everybody's been to a seminar or read a book before they can talk about it — I think the solution is to react more calmly and generously to people who are naive and stupid when they talk about it. Stupid questions should be okay, and (last week's Angry Black Woman excepted) they're usually not.


I have a sci-fi/horror/fantasy magazine that's dedicated to Black culture. So, if you're looking for an alternative, it already exists at www.lulu.com/cecilwashington . It's my way of giving people what they want.


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