Gwen (dysprositos) wrote,

Racefail Bingo

Below the cut, a bingo card I made last night for Racefail '09 (a.k.a. the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM + Derail Fail), and why the arguments on it are wrong:

Racefail bingo card

All of these arguments have been made during Racefail '09 several times. (I intend to edit this post eventually with links throughout, when I have more-functional computer access and more time.)

What's wrong with these arguments? (B, I, and N are in this post; G, O, runners-up, honorable mentions, and mini drinking game are in the next. ETA: Bingo card transcript.)

Well, broadly speaking, the "Bad discussion" column arguments are wrong for two reasons: first, this has been a very productive discussion, and second, because "I refuse to take part in this discussion because it isn't exactly like the one I would have, so instead I'll just sit here and help you improve by handing out helpful pointers and moderating!", while well-meaning (maybe) is patronizing.

I've read, at a guess, about two-thirds of the discussion so far, through rydra_wong's links, metafandom, and links in posts, and I have yet to regret clicking on a link. O.K., that's not completely accurate. I have regretted clicking on links for the sake of my sanity and ability to respect certain people, but I wouldn't, ultimately, take back those mouse clicks, because I'd rather know that I should take Making Light off my reading list (and not waste my time trying to explain to Teresa where she went wrong, as I'd wanted to do back when I thought she was still amenable to reason) and not take Peter David seriously (for example) than go on listening to people not worth my time.

And on the positive side, as shitty as it is that there was this much hurt and pain along with/causing the good stuff, there is some good stuff: some brilliant essays, some awesome projects, a lot more people working on articulating the problems with certain arguments (without which my recent attempts at dealing with Well-Meaning Privileged Straight White Guy #4 would have likely gone about as well as all my other attempts at the same in the past), and now we all know what sparkymonster's superpower is.

(I should note here, for the benefit of the "bad behavior on both sides!" crowd, that the closest I've seen on the fannish* side to "malevolent little cunt" and "malignant fuckwitted troll" and so on, has been one post entitled "Lies and the Lying Bitches Who Tell Them," which I originally thought was going to be paraphrasing/quoting similar language from the pro* side. It was in fact a reference to Elizabeth Bear, and the language of the sentiment was only commented on once, by someone requesting it be changed to something less misogynistic. And nothing's reached the level of the outing of coffeeandink. All "bad behavior" on the pro* side has been extensively documented; all accusations of the same against the fan* side have been vague and not backed up.)

Second, nobody's going to shut up--or change the way they discuss this--just because you don't like the tone or vocabulary (e.g., "privilege" or "racism") or writing style or exactly correct quantity of links (not too many, because then you'll get overwhelmed; not too few, because then they're probably making things up) or place on the Internet it's mostly taking place or targets of criticism or whatever. Because this discussion is not about you. It's not for you. You're interrogating this text from the wrong perspective.

And, see, when you say things like this, even if you don't mean to sound like a concern troll, even when you don't mean to sound like you're saying, "Oh, I'd be anti-racist, too, only your tone isn't deferent enough or you're using words I find misleading"--I mean, maybe you do identify as part of the cause, and you're just trying to help--well, you still sound exactly like all the people so far who are concern trolling. And it simply sounds ignorant when you say this, because it's not by any means the first time anyone's said it (as the folks on Everything2 might put it, "your revolutionary ideas on discussing race have already occurred to others"), and it's never worked before.

In this discussion, it's been the experience of the fannish* side of things that you can't win for losing when dealing with the pro* side. We're too white, too nonwhite, too in solidarity (and using similar vocabulary from previous discussions), too contradictory, too educated and high-class, not educated or high-class enough, too few (so obviously Racefail '09 has been just flamers attacking the NHs), too many (we're a horde! A witchhunt! A lynch mob!); we're doing too little (so we're just talking about it too make ourselves feel good about ourselves without actually fighting racism), we're doing too much, we're taking it too seriously, we're not taking it seriously enough....

So even if you personally weren't going to shift the goalposts? Hopefully you can understand why we're thinking you were. And why very few people will take your advice for how to properly engage in this discussion to heart.

Besides, positioning yourself as the "neutral" position who can therefore "objectively" moderate the discussion presupposes a number of things that simply aren't true: that you can remain "neutral" in a discussion between, essentially, the status quo and the new ideas, that you're as objective as you think you are (see the next section, on the "I'm not racist" arguments, for more on this), that anyone in this discussion wants or needs a moderator, that you're the best person for the job.

Finally, if you for some reason feel the need to announce to the world that you didn't read the Racefail '09 discussion for whatever reason but you think it's stupid and you choose not to engage: stop. Consider: do I announce to the Internet at large every time I don't get involved in something? Do I need to minimize and belittle a discussion that obviously has a lot of value for a large number of people, just to state that I refuse to get involved (thereby, obviously, getting involved)? If you don't feel the need to announce visits to the bathroom to everyone in your immediate vicinity, consider the possibility that people also don't care what your opinion on Racefail '09 is. And don't announce your refusal to engage.

What's wrong with the "I'm not racist" column: Yes. You are. Yes, even if you suffer from the bad effects of sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, faithism, transphobia, what have you. You live in a racist society, you've picked up racist attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes, and if you're white, in every part of the world I know about, you benefit from your race and from racism. This doesn't make you a bad person, a bigot, or a member of the KKK. It does, however, mean that in discussions of race and racism, you might not be as enlightened about things as you think you are.

There's nothing you can do to make yourself magically 100% enlightened and non-racist. You can't take a class, march in a parade, adopt or date or even be a person of color, and suddenly get awarded an Invisible Cloak of Imperviousness to Racist Tropes and Stereotypes. (Although I've yet to see a POC in this discussion claim otherwise. I have, on the other hand, seen many white people claim that because their ancestors were Irish, or because they're one-sixteenth Cherokee [but have never set foot on a reservation in their lives...], or because they're Jewish, they're automatically and obviously non-racist. Um, no.)

And for the love of Eris, you cannot grow up in Western (or indeed any) society and be totally unaffected by the cultural attitudes and beliefs around you. You're not some special snowflake who was "able to pick and choose how society affected me, because I could see the underlying messages in everything I experienced." (I'm talking to you, Well-Meaning Privileged Straight White Guy #4.) You've internalized sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and all the rest right along with your understandings of economic exchanges, clothing and modesty, food and eating, reading, writing, and the proper way to discuss topics like racism.

You can work to understand what ideas you've internalized. You can fight to overcome them. You can try not to act on them. But you can't erase them entirely, or never pick them up, and you're going to screw up sometime.

One easy way to screw up is to claim to be "colorblind." Well, maybe you are. I find it hard to believe that that level of face-blindedness occurs as often as people claim it does, but sure, let's say you really truly "don't see race." That's not something to be proud of. That's saying you don't "see" one of the most important facets of many people's lives. (If you wrote down on a list your most important characteristics, the things that make you you and affect your day-to-day life, would you write down your race? If you're white in the much of the Western world, probably not. If you're not, on the other hand, you're more likely to.)

No, it's not ideal. It's not ideal that I, as a woman, experience the world differently enough from the men around me that my gender is noteworthy. But since we don't live in an ideal world where race doesn't matter (and as long as people keep acting like an ideal world where race doesn't matter is homogeneously European, it'll be a while), where people are negatively affected on a day-to-day basis because of their race, "not seeing race" is ignoring a huge part of their life experience.

"Not racist" column: Sometimes, you have to call a spade a spade. If it disproportionally hurts POC in our world, regardless of intent or severity, it's racist. If a policy in the U.S. disproportionally hurts POC because it, say, targets poorer people, who are more likely to be non-white, arguing that it is instead merely "classism" disguises the ugly truth that there's a reason why POC are more likely to be poor. (Hint: starts with an "r.")
And if you're arguing otherwise--"for whatever reason (but not racism!), POC just happen to be poor" (or in prison, or on death row, or in lower-paying jobs, or dropping out of school)--unless you have a damn good reason why something that shouldn't be affected by race is (like, I don't know, some strange Ancient device left on Earth that teleports people with the ATA gene out of prisons automatically, and since SGA indicates that Ancients are white, well...), it's going to sound an awful lot like you're saying "well, POC just are just inherently lazy/criminal/murderous/stupid," which I just know can't be what you mean to say.

And insisting that we call racism "privilegism" or "dominant-group-to-minority-group oppression" or whatever crazy idea you've come up with that won't be "as bad and hurtful as 'racism' to avoid the knee-jerk defensiveness white people often get," as well-meaning as this suggestion often is, is just the first step to not talking about racism at all (because calling something someone said racist is uncivil). It may not seem like it, but next time you call someone out on racism (you are calling people out on racism in your everyday life, aren't you?), try phrasing it so politely you don't get a knee-jerk response (but still get across the idea that what was said was racist).
Because FSM knows we've tried being polite and civil and scrupulously careful to avoid hurting people's feelings, but the average person not only hears "you evil KKK member bigot lynch-mob-member anti-abolitionist Sherman-supporting Nazi!" when someone says "hey, what you said was kinda racist" but also when someone says "hey, what you said kinda resembles something that's often used to support racially-discriminatory beliefs and policies." Hitting on the magic phrase to get a thoughtful and non-defensive response to calling someone out on racism is kinda like coming up with the magic phrase that indicates to a guy that the woman uttering it does not want to have sex and will not have sex with that guy right then no matter how many arguments he makes for it, how many objections he overcomes, or how many times he asks.

There is a place for discussion of anti-racism terminology and effectiveness, don't get me wrong. You can discuss the etymology and connotations of "privilege" to your heart's content--when that's the topic. In the middle of someone else's attempt to fight racism, however, it just looks like a derail (and a bit like the "let me dictate the proper tone and style to use so I can take anti-racism work seriously" argument).

On the other hand, while "this is the commonly-accepted terminology used to discuss and fight racism in this community" does make arguing against it a derail, "this is archaic ("nithing" and "draggletailed") or fantastic ("orcs") terminology, so it's not as bad!" is not an acceptable argument. Just because you didn't say "person so disgusting and evil s/he should be killed on sight and certainly shunned from any kind of society worthy of the name" or "slut" in so many words doesn't mean you didn't say it. Own your words; don't be disingenuous. Similarly, "I'm keeping track of your names and if I interact with you again, it will not go well for you" [not exact quote] while invoking your publishing-house power as gatekeeper for your company at the same time does mean "you're never working in this town again!" and pretending otherwise is disingenuous, especially for someone who works with words for a living. And I'm not making things up to put on airs and make myself sound interesting.

(G, O, honorable mentions, runners-up, and a mini Racefail drinking game are in the next post.)

*For the purposes of this post (since I've seen some objection to the common framing of "anti-racism" and "privilege-defending" or "fail" sides), delux_vivens, sparkymonster, deepad, ithiliana, rydra_wong, &c., are on the "fannish" side, and Elizabeth Bear ( matociquala), Teresa Nielsen Hayden ( tnh), Katherine Cramer (not linking due to malware-containing-site redirects), W!ll Sh!tterly, &c., are on the "pro" side.
Tags: essays, fandom, racism

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