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inclusion, exclusion, occlusion

Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote a note the other day essentially announcing his re-entry into the blogosphere with a note On Blogging that threatened to write an incomplete and imperfectly articulated essay. He did not mention that it would be On RaceFail ’09; I think those were the good old days before I had heard of the thing, anyway. I still know almost nothing about it, and although I found his essay provocative, I am going to attempt to avoid the provocation, and instead write about…

Well, see, here’s the thing. Browsing through the whole controversy, I was struck by this thought: the SF/F community exists, and I am not in it. This may not seem like a startling conclusion to you, but it was to me. When I was a teenager, I thought of myself as a fan, possibly a trufan; I went to the local conventions, dressed in costume, and talked about books and movies and television shows with other fans. Or fen. I wound up being co-president of the specfic fan group at college, although (and this is a whole nother minefield about community) the group wasn’t particularly interested in speculative fiction. But anyway. At the time, I thought (or I think now that I thought then) that there was a sf/f community, and that I was in it.

Later, when I drifted away from attending conventions, I realized that my high school con attendance was really a group of a dozen or so teenagers, taking advantage of an excuse to go to a hotel for a weekend and generally not interacting with anything bigger than ourselves. It was a community, if you will, but not an sf/f community, just a community of a bunch of teenagers. And I became convinced that in truth, there was no sf/f community in any significant sense. Oh, there were people who went to conventions and voted for the Hugos, but not very many, and there were people who wrote and published speculative fiction, but not all that many of those, and not all that many of those were fans, really, in the sense that I understood the term. And lots of people read (or really, watched) science fiction and fantasy, and almost none of them were fans, in the sense that I understood the term. So the idea that there was a community, in any real sense involving communication and connection, bridging, common interests and goals, cooperation, any of that, well, I don’t know that I ever said ain’t no sech thing, but pretty close.

But it turns out that there reallio trulio is a sf/f community. And that I’m not it. Because one of the ways that you can tell if there’s an actual community is if Big Issues come up that people within the community talk to each other about. Did you hear about the Davidsons? is one difference between a neighborhood and a community. And clearly, people were stopping each other on the street (well, the virtual street) and asking if they had heard. And not only had I not heard about the Davidsons, I continued to have not heard Davidsons while the gossip became about what the Jim Melton said to his wife about the Davidsons, and what she said back. Not that I mean to trivialize the topic, but then you can’t really assume that the gossip about the Davidsons is trivial or shallow, either. My point when you look at the dynamic from the point of view that it is All About YHB, the overwhelming conclusion is that I don’t know the Davidsons, nor the Meltons, despite having metaphorically lived down the block from them for years.

Now, one of the things I’ve recognized about the sf/f community, even when I didn’t really believe it existed, is that it is very much concerned with issues of exclusion and inclusion. Which is why the plural of fan is fen, right? I mean, there’s a lot of secret handshake bullshit, ghu and infernokrusher and rot-13 and zines and all the inside jokes that have come and gone over the years. And no, not all of them have been purely fanstuff, but the aggregation is clearly baffling to mundanes, and while I won’t say that such is the point, really, it’s not not the point, either, from the point of view of the insider who gets to really accomplish something by getting inside. On the other hand, this is scarcely unique to the sf/f community.

OK, so I’m getting, slowly, to my point here. Because I have one. Really. I just needed to get it out of my satchel, and there was all this other stuff on top of it. But I’m nearly there, now. Promise. Anybody still here?

So. While happily ignoring everything else about this whole business, what happened to the Davidsons is that a bunch of people were told that the sf/f community is perceived by racial minorities as unwelcoming to racial minorities. That is, racist. Now, as Ben Rosenbaum was saying up there, the accusation of racism, particularly of institutional racism, of community racism, is a very tender spot for us privileged white people, and we squawked. (Of course, by saying we, I am not claiming membership in the community that I was just talking about not being a member of, I’m just saying that had I been part of the we, I would presumably have been part of the squawking white we).

So, there I was, thinking about what Ben said, and about the fact that I wasn’t part of the squawking white we or any of the we at all, and I was thinking about other communities that are similar in some sense to the sf/f community. In that they exist, I mean. One of them that came to mind immediately is Scottish Dancers; while a lot of it is just people going to their local groups and having a good time, there is a national and international community, as evidenced by the fact that when something happens to the Davidsons, people hear about it. Heck, I hear about it, sometimes, and I don’t strathspey. And you know? I suspect that there are people who feel that Scottish Dancing is not welcoming to racial minorities. And that there are people who would seriously squawk about the idea that the community is racist. I mean, seriously. Of course they would.

Of the communities that I am a part of myself, there’s… let’s see, I’m not really good at it, honestly. There’s the Jewish community, which (a) is not looking for new members, other than generationally, which, you know, is different from racism in important ways that are really difficult to explain, and (2) really does, in places, go into the neighborhoods and the churches and try to have bridges between communities, but again, it’s a lot of work, and we have day jobs, and it’s easier to remember that stuff in February than it is in September. And we have a really heavy tradition of inclusion and exclusion. Not perhaps a good comparison with other communities, but I thought I’d mention it.

What else? I work in a library, and am slowly starting to keep up with what is happening at the Davidson branch, and surely there are lots of libraries that are having issues with inclusion and exclusion. I like to think that libraries are less likely to squawk when called on the barriers to minority groups of various kinds, and more likely to put effort into building bridges. Because, you know, libraries. Still, you know it happens: there’s an accusation that a library is not welcoming to the new immigrants to the neighborhood (whether those are from overseas or from the other side of town), or just as likely the local patrons and volunteers get all whatnot, and the story gets written up in one of the library journals or sent around on a listserv, and a RaceFail would definitely be a possibility.

Stretching a point, let’s call community theater a community; I might hear about something that happened to the Connecticut Davidsons, but probably not if the Davidsons were in Ohio, but let’s stretch the point. Is community theater welcoming to racial minorities? In a pig’s eye, is it. I mean, look at it. Look at us. We may talk a good game (or we may not) about race-blind casting or whatnot, but when it comes down to it, we’re a bunch of white college-educated people who would have to work like dogs to make our group anything but a bunch of white college-educated people, and frankly, we’re working pretty hard just to put on a show in the old barn. We’re not going to go into the neighborhoods and find black or asian or latino volunteers, and we’re not going to find babysitters for those volunteers, nor give them the extra help they might need approaching the plays because they didn’t have the college theater experience the rest of us did, and we’re not going to choose plays that are going to appeal to black or asian or latino audiences because we are having enough trouble selling tickets to the shows we like and that have parts that are perfect for us. Which means that we’re going to stay a bunch of white college-educated people, who are largely comfortable with each other, and are certainly not racist. No, no. Just busy.

It seems to me that it’s really hard for people within the community to really know how that community appears to people outside the community. After all, the political Parties spend millions of dollars trying to figure out what they look like to Independents, and look what they look like. And I think—I think—that when you can assume that your community looks good to the people outside, that’s a good deal of what is meant by privilege.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Huh. Lots to think about. Glad I read this. Might talk more after processing.

peace
Matt


Well, now I know what Jed's post re: RaceFail was about. Thanks!


Ummm, even if the conflation of class and race in the second-to-last paragraph is supposed to be archly tongue-in-cheek or something, of a piece with "No, no. Just busy", it's still not really working for me.


Not sure it's really defensible, but conflating race and class may be better than separating them. In particular, the class barriers have the effect of reducing the participant pool to mostly white people, and this reduction produces a perception of hostility to racial minorities, or at least a perception of an uncomfortable atmosphere for the college-educated African-American (or Latino, or South Asian, or Asian) who would be The Only One in the crowd, which further reduces the participant pool to almost entirely white people. This is likely different in different locations, but in my experience, the group has to address the class barriers to practically address the pool being a lily pond, which in effect requires the conflation of the issues to some extent.

There's a somewhat separate issue of the barriers to working-class white people, but (a) those barriers are less likely, I think, to create a perception of hostility to working-class white people, for lots of cultural reasons, and (2) we college-educated white liberals are unlikely to be particularly uncomfortable with the lack of working-class white people in our group.

Having said that, it's a fair cop; re-reading the paragraph I made it sounds as if all white people were college-educated and affluent and all non-whites were poor and ill-educated. My bad, and I plead utter failure.

Thanks,
-V.


On the rare occasion that a working-class white person is allowed onto the grounds or even under the tent, they accurately perceive hostility mixed with invisibility. The lack of perception is on one side in that environment.


Your comment, Michael, does not entirely line up with my own experience. I have no doubt that there is a lot of that hostility and invisibility going on; it's quite common throughout our culture. And I have never had the experience, myself, of being a working-class white person in community theater, nor have I had conversations with working-class white people who did feel invisible and excluded. So I don't want to absolutely claim your statement is false.

Having said that, I have worked in community theater with builders, plumbers, waitresses (of course) and other people who I would probably describe as working-class. Mostly, as I started with, it's college-educated folk, which largely means not-working-class, and the nature of the thing does throw up (as again, I think I started with) some substantial barriers to working-class participation, but I have found in my own experience (and let's be clear here that my own experience is all I've got on the subject, not that it extrapolates well, but I have no quantitative information) that the inclusion of the occasional white grocery cashier or correctional officer is more frequent than the inclusion of an african-american or dark-skinned Latina or South Asian or other racial minority. And, of course, it is much more obvious to us and to anyone, I would think, that the non-whites are absent.

I should also, at the risk of overtalking this particular part of the issue, mention that I am a bit fuzzy about what constitutes working-class in America these days. I've never worked in a community theater with somebody who works in a factory all day, nor with a landscaper or janitor or truck driver. Security guard, yes. I wasn't clear on construction worker vs. contractor for a couple of fellows. My point is that I could easily imagine a delineation that would consider all of the people I've been in shows with as middle-class (including the bank executives), but that isn't the one I work with. It's an interesting question for another thread: In a (f'r'ex) auto-body/repair place, is the mechanic working class? The receptionist? And there are other class considerations than work, but that gets even fuzzier.

At any rate, I can't help thinking that in the places congruent with my experience, although working-class white people probably do experience the hostility and invisibility you mention, it is on a level that is overcome by the occasional person (who is also able to overcome the babysitting issue and the transportation issue and other logistical problems that are easier for those of us in the middle class). Since I have (unless I am misremembering) never been in a community theater show with an African-American of any class, and only with light-skinned Latinos, I'm guessing it's a Bigger Deal for them. This comparison may be the wrong way to look at it, of course. But your comment seems to me to overstate the class issue, and (in the context) understate the race issue.

Thanks,
-V.


I have neither evidence nor experience to draw upon to address this issue, but let that not prevent me from throwing in my two cents--

Theater, as an art form, presents more complex issues for racial inclusiveness than it does for class inclusiveness. Race-blind casting is increasingly common in professional theater, especially in classical theater, but it is not a convention that is universally accepted or understood by theater-goers. For some plays and communities, it's not likely to work or to be tried out, and that makes it quite hard for a member of a non-white racial group to just "walk in" and get involved in a community theater group, I would think. To put it another way, theater's mode of performance is actually quite good at effacing or re-arranging class differences, but not race differences.

In addition, the histories of race and of theater in the United States have led to the development of an African-American theater infrastructure. There are both amateur and professional theaters devoted to the performance of plays focused on African-American life, and, insofar as American dramas are not being written as race-blind, plays tend to be written for casts that are mostly black or mostly white. This makes integration within a community theater group somewhat challenging to manage. It certainly can be done, but it can only be done by deliberate planning.

There is not, so far as I know, any corresponding infrastructure separating "working class theater" from "theater in general" in the United States, nor does the canon of twentieth-century American drama imply that the American theatrical heritage is significantly divided by class.

I guess I'd sum up this line of thinking by saying that the challenges of racial integration of theater companies are imbedded in the art itself and in the history of the theater, where the challenges of class integration of theater companies are not imbedded in the art itself nor its history, or, if they are embedded, it is to a considerably lesser extent. That doesn't mean that there aren't community theater groups that are strongly classist, but that it is quite possible for community theater groups to gain class diversity without trying to do so or without ever having recognized that class was an issue in the organization, whereas it is likely that racial diversity in theater can only be achieved, at this point in time, by deliberate planning.


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