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Classic racism  
12:15am 16/06/2010
 
 
Persephone
AN OPEN LETTER TO GATORGRRRL

[In all the years that I've been on LJ and now on DW, I've never posted about things going on in other journals. I've never even left comments to original posts. But since comments are frozen on the original post, and I feel I cannot let this one pass without comment, I'm making a post here. So here goes.]

I'm a Nigerian woman, I read the first half of your novella, here's what I have to say.

Your story pretty much nails all the major the tenets of classic racist ideals.

Bearing in mind that this is not an academic paper on the subject, your story nevertheless serves as a perfect tool for demonstrating what people claim to not understand when someone gets accused of "being racist."

Whether you intended the story as racist or not is, I'm afraid, your bad; I'm still going to use it. So if you or any one you know is baffled and wondering what's the big deal, point them in this direction.

This is in reference, of course, to your fic -- a novella, actually -- entitled Caught Between the Earth and Sky, written by you, asteroidbuckle, for the Supernatural Big Bang. It's a Jensen Ackles/Jared Padelecki AU slash story set in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. Jensen plays a doctor and Jared a photojournalist.

And yes, I am aware that you wrote an "apology" for choosing that backdrop, but we'll get to that later.

racism. what is it?
Racefail, racism, racial stereotypes. We've heard the words so much that they're now, in the words of Louis MacNiece, almost a cypher, like a Latin word that many languages have made their own, till it is worn and blunt and easy to construe, and often spoken but no longer heard.

Today, however, you're going to hear it, and perhaps understand it.

So what is racism? According to my dictionary (paraphrasing), it's the belief that members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race.

From your fic: Her wide eyes fixed on Jensen once again, scanning his face as if searching for a reason not to trust him. As if his white skin and American accent weren’t reasons enough.

Okay. So let's get right to it.

Your novella is not schmoop, fluff, smut, or what fandom calls "porn." Frankly, had it fallen into any of those categories, it would have been much easier to dismiss as silly-girl nonsense. But it's not. You wrote a 160-page piece of solid writing: well edited, well plotted, well thought out. The non-Haitian characters are detailed, given room to breathe and exist; allowed to be real. (And that, readers, is what makes this story so much worse than you can imagine.)

You constructed a perfect scaffolding of racial stereotypes and hierarchies, the likes of which I haven't seen since British colonial writings, to prop up your ideals of white heroism. I'm not even talking about books, still being written, with racist views or attributions to characters, I'm talking full-on "master race" ideals.

So here it is. Classic racism, as demonstrated by asteroidbuckle's novella Caught Between the Earth and Sky:

1. the inability to see human beings where you see black faces
From a comment you left after you'd posted the fic: The Haiti earthquake was still in the news and the more I saw about it, the more I wanted to use it until it seemed like the best idea ever.

?!???

Dead people? What dead people? All you saw were black faces suffering.. But what's new about that? Aren't they always suffering somewhere? It barely even registers.

Your use of that backdrop was what caused half the rage over the fic, which then prompted you -- when the comments started raining down -- to post a "sincere" apology that begins with "For what it's worth.." LOL. For what it's worth to what, placate us? We don't need placating.

Your inability to see human beings in that scenario juxtaposes like this: There is no goddamned way in hell you could have watched torn, broken body parts and bleeding, suffering human beings in New York City on the morning of Sept 11 and thought -- "Ooooohhhh! Yummy J2 longfic!"

OMG, what?? Those are people dying!

But in this instance it was Haitians. It was perfect. Black people needing white people's help. Just like in real life! So perfect.

Putting aside any and all discussions of world systems, let me tell you something about those white people you're writing about (and indeed all those other people like them the world over doing humanitarian work in faraway places). They're not like you. They're not even like me, or like most people I know. They're a special breed of people--tough, selfless, and with an undying belief in the betterment of humanity. They're not there to feel like benevolent members of the master race. That part would be colonialism. So if you've seen comments in which people accuse you of displaying "colonialist attitude," that's what they're talking about.

Let's move on.

2. the inability to humanize black people
This is different from #1 in that it requires activating your characters, and you applied it in two ways: characterization and language. And by that I mean.. the stereotypes. Oh, the stereotypes.

characterization
So what exactly is a stereotype? Well, going back to my dictionary, in terms of people that would be an oversimplified idea of a particular type of people.

Also look at it this way: an original "stereotype" is a relief printing plate cast in a mold made from composed type or an original plate.

That's what you did to cast a mold for all your Haitians. You stereotyped so hard that at the end of your story you felt perfectly comfortable to name an abnormally large pet after the main black character. Yup. You sure did. But we'll get to that later.

Abraham Joseph, this main black character, is Haitian. He takes an instant master/slave love -- as only a person who's never thought a whit about brutal, indentured servitude could formulate -- to Dr. Jensen Ackles the pre-instant they meet. (The story is not clear on this part, but it seems as though Dr. Jensen saved the man's wife's life. Or perhaps it was someone else's wife.) Either way, Abraham shows up with his jeep and tells Jensen that from now on they're going to drive around the country saving lives.

Doesn't sound so bad, does it? It wouldn't if Abraham was a human being instead of a big black pet. First of all, the description of his physical attributes is the very definition of fetishizing. His height (6'5"), the size of his hands, his 300 pound body, his dark, sparkling eyes, all descriptions excessively repeated at every opportunity, because it's just so magical.

This is in spite of the fact that Jared Padelecki is himself 6'4" and even the fans have written fic about his huge hands. But Padelecki in this story is simply referred to as "tall." Because on a non-Negro, all that fetishizing of limbs and eyes (the whites don't stand out as much, thus not giving him the necessary ooga-booga look) is just plain weird.

And, on the language side, Abraham of course doesn't speak in full sentences. How can he? He's your sidekick Negro. He's required to display constant, unthinking, unquestioning loyalty, to talk in his non-speak that only his master can really truly understand. Like a toddler with its mother.

You see, speaking like the white people in your story would have made Abraham their intellectual equal, thus bring up issues in your own head of um, doesn't he have a life? And then he certainly wouldn't see a condom, on a planet suffering from an ongoing epidemic of AIDS, and shove "the first two fingers of one hand through the circle created by the thumb and forefinger of the other as he wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Hanky panky,” he’d said." To which the superior white doctor -- I can just feel his eyeroll at the big, dumb, oversexed black man -- has to respond, "HIV."

Not a single Haitian in the story is given an actual personality. The aforementioned big, kind, slightly fucking retarded Negro. The old woman being given loving, paternalistic medical attention, staring up at Dr. Jensen with the smiling, guileless eyes. The black National Geographic children who play with the equipment of the doctors and photographers and amuse them with "toothy grins." The way "these people" could bear their burdens in silence, and when they "couldn’t take it anymore, bear it some more."

Woman, have you ever met a person suffering in the midst of a natural disaster? That shit ain't romantic; if they're not wailing their throats soar for weeks it's because they've passed the point of being able to articulate, or even vocalize their pain. It's not because their stoicism would make Dr. Jensen proud. Or make them a noble [read: patronized] people in the eyes of the white, privileged world, seeing as "it was a far cry from some of the patients he saw back home, who seemed to suffer as loudly and as often as possible." White people are so bad, so privileged, and black people are so good, so noble. Even the babies are noble: The baby should be uncomfortable, should be fussing. But it wasn’t. Not a sound. Not a movement.

Is it that you couldn't imagine what "black people are like," even fucking babies, and so in not wanting to offend anyone you made them all "worthy" stereotypes you read or saw somewhere?

Or perhaps you thought you were giving them personalities.

If that's the case let me point something out to you: Non-white people really are people just "like you." Like you and the cousins and aunts and grandfathers you know. You don't have to give them any special attributes in order to write them. They don't have to be kind, simple, "interesting," noble, able to endure pain. These are just things whites who didn't bother to find out what was really going on in places they visited wrote about, for fuck knows what reason. So don't use them. They make no fucking sense. You know damn well if I'd written a story in which Jensen Ackles was a white doctor running around in the Nigerian jungles sometime early this year saying weird shit like "You bring baby, I show you medicine now. Penicillin!", people would be like, is she on crack? But that's embarrassingly the equivalent of how your Haitians think and act.

Look, if you feel uncomfortable writing black people, if you can't quite fathom writing them without having to make them trustworthy or perfectly lovable, like say, cats, or if you have to write the "bad" ones by making them silent movie Villains, then don't write them at all. Seriously, it's fine.

Oh, and reader, need I mention that all the white characters in the story have actual personality descriptors? And can do things like "smile wryly"?

use of language
This one is going to be short: Human beings don't gibber and chatter, simply because they're speaking a language you don't understand. Monkeys gibber and chatter.

But if you insist that human beings do indeed gibber and chatter, then, per the dictionary again, "gibbering" is speaking rapidly and unintelligibly, and "chattering" is talking rapidly or incessantly about trivial matters.

Either of these words do not convey intelligent people speaking. They convey "oh my god, the natives are gibbering and chattering, god only knows what they're talking about."

So if you wanted your Haitians to be normally written people, they should just talk.

Oh, and allow me to shatter at least one colonialist misconception you're clearly under:

When a black person says "God bless you, doctor," to a white person, she's not saying it because of your lovely white skin (which, remember, engenders instant trust or we have here a defective native). Neither is she mystically invoking her god to shower you with material comforts, as the Haitians do to Jensen at every opportunity in the fic. No, it's just her way of saying "Thanks, guy."

But none of the blacks in this story speak in any other way but this to the blessed doctor. They can't even seem to manage anything as basic as a "Huh?" All their words and actions are either crazy native chittering, or profound, worthy statements. My dear woman, what the fuck.

But why is the latter so bad, you might ask? Well, it's bad because the moment you don't treat non-white characters like the rest of your characters in your story, you won't treat them like the rest of the people you know in real life, either.

And reader, let me add: were the story set in an Asian country, we would still be having this conversation. In the description of the one Asian mentioned within the first 50 pages, she still manages to nail the perfect "Asian" stereotype: Jensen’s tent mate, a smallish Asian-American civil engineer...

3. the inability to feel real compassion instead of a false, romanticized version of it
And here we get to the crux, the most terrifying thing about this story, if it's not already obvious. It's even more terrifying than the racial stereotypes, because it's what birthed those stereotypes, and this is that fact that this isn't really a J2 story. It's a solid 160 pages of white superiority porn.

That's 160 pages. In 11pt font. An inch and a half thick - 3.80 cm - when printed out.

Jensen Ackles and Jared Padelecki are just present for Big Bang context. If you disagree, read 40 pages of it. Heck, read 20. The events, moment to moment, page to page, are deeply, thoroughly, richly detailed stories of a white doctor lovingly wallowing through the love, the adulation, the profound, eternal gratitude of a people so very perfectly in need of him. It's like she set off to write J2 romance and got lost in the deeply satisfying sensation of saving native after native.

How about we move all this love and adulation to New York City when bodies were still being pulled out of the wreckage. Jensen wallowing in the love, the adulation, the profound, eternal gratitude of people so very perfectly in need of him. Oh, I should stop? That would make it playing with real life tragedy?

and lastly, 4. the classic inability to recognize one's own behavior
I don't think -- because it doesn't look as though anyone or thing around you has ever made you see it -- that you realize how much this story reveals of your mindset about other races. (At this point I should say that the proper term of course would be "other cultures," as there's currently only one race of hominids on the planet, and that's us Homo sapians. But you can't seem to explain to people that there's no such scientific thing as "race," that outward physical manifestation doesn't make you "of a different race," like a Martian, and have them believe you. So oh well.)

And I say that you don't realize what it reveals about you because if you did, you would have been deeply disturbed by the fact that in the end you figuratively transformed your big black loyal sidekick into a pet.

“Besides,” Jensen added, sliding up Jared’s body and pressing his lips to Jared’s shoulder. “I have a soft spot for strays. Especially ones who just show up on my doorstep one day and refuse to leave.” He rested his chin on Jared’s chest and gazed up at him with clear eyes.

Jared smiled and ran a hand through Jensen’s messy hair. “At least I’m housebroken.”

Jensen’s lips twisted into a smirk. “So is he. And he eats less.”

“But why did you have to name him Abraham?”

Jensen shifted, stretching out beside Jared and settling within the circle of Jared’s arm. He rested his head on Jared’s shoulder, sighing as Jared’s fingers absently traced the dark lines of his tattoo.

“Do you really have to ask?” he said, looking over at the cat. “I mean, look at him.”

Jared studied the cat again. It was the largest black cat he’d ever seen outside of Animal Planet, with paws bigger than those old Eisenhower silver dollars Jared used to collect when he was a kid. And he did always look like he was just on the verge of smiling.

It was uncanny, really.


Indeed.

So now whenever the cat jumps on the furniture, you're okay with imagining in you head Jensen Ackles going, "Abraham, get off that couch!" Something one would presumably feel comfortable saying to a grown man who was purportedly your best friend in Haiti.

Your "sincere" apology was to express your regret in offending anyone in mindlessly using the backdrop of Haiti after the earthquake. But you made no mention whatsoever of the freakish racial stereotypes you employed, even though it was loudly and repeatedly pointed out to you. And I believe you didn't make that apology, no matter how false, because you have no idea what you did wrong with the Haitians.

so in conclusion
Your story, dear asteroidbuckle, is a perfect tribute to pure racial ideals. Almost pathologically so.

The only advise I can give you or anyone who feels that in writing people from "another race" they have to go do research, is don't. Don't write it. I'm not talking about researching culture or language. I mean that if you have to imagine "how they must think" or "what it feels like to be them," you're already being weird.

But I'll tell you how it feels, because I'm sure you really do wonder. It feels just like being another human being on this planet. Shitty, cranky, happy, callous, thoughtful, selfish, tired, bored, manipulative, grateful, fill in the blank. Just fucking write people. I mean, the fact that this has to be explained..

So the purpose of my writing this essay is twofold: One, to show by example what racist ideals look like in application; and two, to disgrace you so badly that the next time you so much as think about another human being whose hair, nose, mouth, "almond eyes" or color of skin is not like yours, you'll hesitate to touch that keyboard.

Because if you end up hesitating, it'll mean, at the very least, that those people are no longer invisible to you. And when they're no longer invisible, it will be very difficult for you to cut and paste whatever caricatures you find in your wanderings and believe that they are beautiful, perfect, and more than enough for the Black, Asian, Latin or any other "non-white" people in your stories. In the meantime, fuck you.

 

Edit: "Getting it" in Writing Non-white Characters. A couple of commenters brought up this point and I thought this would be a good time to address it as well.

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tags: racism
 
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"Getting it" in writing non-white characters
 2_perseph
 
05:51am 18/06/2010 (UTC)
 
 
Persephone: snoopy wirter
It's often been said that white writers should never attempt to write for people of color because they don't "get it" and can't portray the unique experiences of people they can never possibly understand.

I'll speak plainly here. I believe that this mentality, where it exists, has come about because a lot of people of color (I don't like that term but it's the current phrase so I'll use it) feel that on a planet where whites have historically placed themselves at the top of a pinnacle, they sure as hell don't want to see them attempting to write others.

To be constantly held up against this one particular color of people and then watch them attempt to write your life? There's a sense of "don't do me any favors" about it.

Therefore I don't think it's from a fact that whites can't in fact write people of other races, I just think no one wants to bother having to "educate" the perps, as it were.

But this, I believe, is in relation to writing people of color in specific contexts relating to certain social issues. Meaning, if I had to write a story about the difficulties of a Mexican family trying to immigrate to the US today, I would have to "get it."

Whereas if I wanted to write, say, a story set in modern Haiti after an earthquake -- bearing in mind I come from a different hemisphere of the world and know next to nothing about Haitians or their culture beyond what I can read on Wikipedia -- I would feel perfectly comfortable writing that, because I would simply write people suffering in the aftermath of a disaster. I can imagine that.

So here's what I would advice about "getting it":

- Imagine you wake up one morning and walk outside and pretty much everywhere you look people are giving you hostile looks. You don't know these individuals and you've never said a word to them. But wherever you walk into you feel hostility, disdain, threat. Or if not that, they're simply ignoring you half the time, as though you're walking around with an invisibility cloak. They cringe at the way you talk or try to communicate if their language is not your first language. They look at you with a slight crinkle to their noses. When you see yourself on TV it's always a caricature.

90% of the time would you have faith enough in humanity to want to leave the house? If you're not depressed would it be teeth clenching anger for hours on end before you could let it go? Or would you grow a thick layer of skin and work not to let it bother you?

Well, when it comes time to write a character of color, and if you feel your story calls for this type of layer to the character's arc, then think about the stuff above and write how it makes you feel.

If your character, however, is just some college student trying to deal with early morning classes and a newfound party habit while trying to maintain a B+ average, then just have her have the experiences of your average college kid. (Mind you, this is where culture related research comes in because if she's Nigerian then she also has to have a lingering fear of death-by-parents for having a B+ average instead of coming up with the mythic A. :p)

Not allowing the college girl to have a non issue-filled life is the daily transgression of TV shows and movies. White characters have lives -- they go to the movies, have fun -- non-white characters have "issues" (social issues).

But the truth is, those "issues" are what people in society bring to you when you step outside of your house, for no reason except the color of your skin. We don't walk around thinking, ugh, I'm so oppressed. You're just minding your business and then you come to LJ and see someone trying to turn you into a pet cat. That's why a lot of people of color say don't bother.

But I don't think "getting it" and applying it right are really that herculean of a task. It's just a matter of wanting to.

Anyway, that's my take on the whole thing. I hope it helps. Cuz writing is awesome and more people should do it.
picword: snoopy wirter
 
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Re: "Getting it" in writing non-white characters
 shrinetolust
 
03:24pm 18/06/2010 (UTC)
 
 
Shrine to Lust
Thank you so much for this added explanation. It is very helpful, for life, and for writing. The more we know, the less likely we are to do something stupid and add to the shit people of color already have to deal with. :)

people of color (I don't like that term but it's the current phrase so I'll use it)

It's constantly changing, as no one can ever agree on what's offensive and what isn't. May I ask what term you would prefer?

Some stuff, like the fic in the original post, is blatant in its offensiveness. But the more I've learned over the years, the more I see the not-so-blatant stuff. It's like the first time you sit down and watch what you would have previously considered G-rated TV--with a child. And suddenly you see all the innuendo, profanity, and violence that you never noticed were there before. That's why posts like this are good, because it helps open people's eyes to things outside their own experience. We all have blinders on, whether we know it or not.

I love you to bits, as ever. *squishes* And I hear you on the B+ average...lol.

P.S. Have you been getting my emails? Nothing important at all, but I just wondered if you were using a different addy than the one I have. Just wanted to send you smooches every once in a while, no biggie. I hope things are going okay with you.
 
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Re: "Getting it" in writing non-white characters
 2_perseph
 
09:04pm 21/06/2010 (UTC)
 
 
Persephone: sean laughing
May I ask what term you would prefer?

Honestly, I don't have terms I prefer. I just find "people of color" to be: well, there are white people, and then there's the rest of the world (when clearly white people are also people of a particular color).

It makes it seem as though "people of color" are one homogenous race while whites are another.

The problem, however, is that a lot of these discussions that blow up are to do with whites vs. the rest of the "non-white" world so the dialogue always has to be framed in those terms.

I think in discussion, saying "people of different races" instead of staying "PoC" opens up the mind to the idea that this is simply not about whites "and the rest of a non-white world," this is about whites still trying to exclude themselves from the concept of bring part of the whole spectrum of the human race.

If I was white in this day and age I would have to ask myself, no matter what I'd been told being white does for me (look at the poverty-stricken yeoman farmers of the American South who were told slavery works for them too): Do I want that?

I mean, it's like there's a party going on and you're not invited.
picword: sean laughing
 
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Re: "Getting it" in writing non-white characters
 shrinetolust
 
05:36am 24/06/2010 (UTC)
 
 
Shrine to Lust: Eric Orli snugglebunnies
Okay, got it. You're right, as always. It's like if the census form had only two boxes for race: Caucasian and Other. And actually this becomes cyclical, because framing all the discussions in a white vs. non-white just reinforces the whole "white as their own species" kind of thing. Argh.

Thank you for all of your brilliance in these posts, as ever. You keep making all of my rusty brain cells work, that's so mean of you. :)

(when clearly white people are also people of a particular color).

This reminds me of one of our first conversations about race, though I didn't realize it at the time...lol:

http://perseph2hades.livejournal.com/67802.html?thread=2464730#t2464730

Hee! I found that post right away, but just spent 2 hours because I thought our convo was in an Orlando/chair post and not an Eric/chair post...turns out it was an Orlando/chair comment in an Eric/chair post--so confused...lol. It was fun reliving all the pervy fun we had, though! xoxo
picword: Eric Orli snugglebunnies
 
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