Race, Again, Still
By Nisi Shawl
4 April 2011
Sometimes race is the official topic of a given conversation, and sometimes it isn't. For many of us, though, race is always on our minds, in our hearts, at the tips of our tongues. It can't not be.
ICFA ended a day ago. That's the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (IFCA), an annual academic gathering-cum-ProCon held poolside in Orlando, Florida. I first attended in 2010, thanks to the generosity of Arthur D. Hlavaty, Bernadette L. Bosky, and Kevin J. Maroney. That year, ICFA 31's theme was "Race and the Fantastic." The Guests of Honor (GOH) were Nalo Hopkinson, Laurence Yep, and Takayuki Tatsumi—all people of color. This was reflected in the attendance. There was a strong and unabashedly responsive racial minority presence in the audience for the GOH speeches. (In her speech, Nalo "channeled" a translator having trouble with phrases from white speakers such as "I'm not racist," which they could only make sense of as "I can wade in feces without getting any of it on me.")
ICFA 32's Guests of Honor were Connie Willis, Terry Bisson, and Andrea Hairston. I felt I had to come to this session also, in support of Andrea, an audacious thinker, brilliant writer, and dynamic speaker. More generosity from friends made this possible. ICFA's 2011 theme: "The Fantastic Ridiculous." Thus Connie Willis and Terry Bisson, two of SF's more successful authors when it comes to infusing imaginative literature with humor. Andrea, as the Scholar GOH, gave her speech on Igbo traditions of satire, and the ambitions and failures of the film District Nine. Race was not the theme ICFA's organizers had chosen, but it was a factor in the conversation beyond any doubt—not only present but demanding attendees' overt acknowledgement.
The ridiculous intersects with race in several ways. Of course there are racist jokes. There's the ridiculousness of the pseudoscience inherent in the lack of any biological basis for racial classification. And then there are dozens of ludicrous ideas about racial difference, plus dozens of other racial concepts creating the tension laughter releases. During an ICFA panel on the problem of assigning genre labels, James Patrick Kelly posited as precursors to SF some nonexistent stories by an 1890s version of his copanelist Ted Chiang. Then Jim asked Ted if he thought he could have written those stories back in the 19th century, without the benefit of an SF tradition. "Assuming I didn't die working on a railroad," Ted said. The room exploded. Not that the idea of Ted dying was funny. But he had just whisked aside the drapes covering the elephant furnishing this conference's conversational nook, revealing the racial element missing from Jim's thesis. There followed questions about cultural and racial assumptions influencing genre assignment.
One joy of attending ICFA and other SF conventions and conferences lies in the informal discussions held. At dinner with Connie Willis I listened to her cheerfully proclaiming the aging and disappearance of racists in the US. According to Connie, virulent anti-Obama rhetoric—much of which takes the form of ridicule—is these racists' last gasp. I would like to believe Connie's right. In my 55 years so far on this planet I have seen some wonderfully positive changes in the arena of racial justice, and it's heartening to think that I'll outlive those nincompoops.
Except it's not that simple. At another recent convention I had not one, not two, but three racist encounters. This was in early 2011, and two of them were with people in their twenties or younger, people who probably aren't going to age out of existence before I do.
In the first of my two encounters with racism-in-arms I strode through the hotel lobby wearing white knits and velour. A boy of about fourteen—well, I'm pretty bad at estimating ages, so I guess he could have been a man of eighteen—asked me loudly "Who're you supposed to be? Whoopi Goldberg in STNG (Star Trek: The Next Generation)?"
I was not in a Guinan costume: no high collar, no regal hat. For contrast, here's someone who is. Also, I really look nothing like Whoopi: no dreadlocks, less melanin, eyeglasses. I probably outweigh her by at least 60 pounds. I was in a hurry. I quickly reviewed possible responses for speed and educational content and lit on the best one. "Fuck you!" I shouted over my shoulder.
"Sorry!" he shouted back.
Later, after I'd danced maybe an hour, I felt mellower and decided the fellow deserved more of an exegesis. I went looking for him, but of course he was nowhere in sight. So I approached a group composed of people who looked a little like him in terms of age, clothing, and, I admit it, skin color. I addressed a female of perhaps seventeen. "I'm looking for this guy I said 'Fuck you' to," I told her.
"Was he black?" the seventeen-year-old asked. I paused. Paused deeply. Wondered to myself why I would approach a bunch of white people looking for someone black. Wondered if the assumption behind the question was that I, a black woman, would only say such a thing to another of my race. Wondered how I could explain to this new offender what exactly was wrong with what she'd said—and what she hadn't had to say.
"I only told one person here, 'Fuck you,'" I answered wearily. "And it was because he did something a lot like what you just did." I turned away and headed to my room, through for the evening. Behind me the seventeen-year-old apologized. But did she know what for? Did the first boy know why he was sorry for his stupid question? Do you?
Do you know why I chose the response I gave to the boy in the initial encounter? One factor was my reluctance to spend the time and energy necessary to teach yet another person about their own racism. Another was wariness of the myriad forms of pushback such educational projects can generate. Often, though, I ignore these irritations and annoyances and outright dangers. I say what must be said.
For the last month or so I've been pondering the irony of the respect I get these days for my thoughts on race and Othering. Joanie Jackson and Loretta Lockett, fellow students at Northglade Elementary and Hillside Junior High School, would never have believed such an Oreo could say anything of significance on those topics. I had white friends, almost exclusively. I used big words and got As. But maybe those things weren't actually drawbacks to my understanding. Maybe they're really reasons I was able to co-author Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, the textual source of my rep as an expert. I experienced the penalties of blackness—suspicious retailers, rental houses that became mysteriously unavailable as soon as my family showed up for an appointment with the landlord—simultaneously with the privileges of (honorary) whiteness. The contrast probably helped me perceive related injustices all the more sharply.
At any rate, my Oreo past hasn't prevented me from commenting on Othering, particularly as it relates to race. See above. It also hasn't kept our community from listening to me. Which is good, because I have more to say. In May, at WisCon 35, where I'll be Guest of Honor, a new book will appear: WisCon Chronicles Volume 5: Writing and Racial Identity. It's an anthology. I edited it. I solicited essays and art and photos. I chivvied the authors and questioned their intentions and drew out what they'd truly meant. I chose the theme.
Race is an uncomfortable subject, but a compelling one.
At a certain point in US history, racism was a mainstream attitude. Racist stereotypes appeared on syrup bottles and outside tobacco stores. Postcards were printed to commemorate especially fine lynchings; you'll find reproductions in the book Without Sanctuary, edited by James Allen.
Nowadays racism is much less accepted. A recent TV commercial ridiculing reward systems for a rival's credit card does everything it can not to appear racist. The rival system's customer service is depicted as a small office stuck in a desolate snow-covered landscape—the exact opposite of the tropics. The rival's workers speak in funny foreign accents and give themselves improbable names—but they have white skins, and the "normal" customer trying to cash in reward points is black. No connection to East Indian call centers at all. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
As racism wanes in acceptability, other bigotries rise to prominence. Ageism and ableism, particularly mental ableism, are almost invisible to the majority of citizens. Fatphobia is widely practiced; I've been guilty of it myself, and now find I'm on the receiving end of misconceptions concerning my weight's relation to health, exercise, and diet.
But I don't believe these other isms will replace racism. Which is not about to vanish utterly from the Earth. Despite what I hear from my favorite optimists, I don't envision us all turning beige or outliving its proponents. I think I'll keep running into racism. I think I'll keep seeing it, and hearing it, and feeling it. Not because I'm "overly sensitive," as some would call me. I'm just sensitive enough. Sensitive enough to see an important aspect of what's going on. I'll keep running into race and racial issues, and I'll keep writing about them. Again. Still.