gaudior: (Default)
So I have been... not exactly enjoying Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi, but getting a lot out of it.

One thing that has become clear is that a big chunk of American history looks like this:

White People: *do appalling things to Black people*

Philosophical-Type White People: Oh God, this thing we've done is unforgivable.

Less Philosophical-Type White People: Oh, come on. How can something this profitable be wrong?

Black People: Hey, cut that out.


Less Philosophical-Type White People: Shit.

White People: *do MORE appalling things to Black people to try to reduce their power and ability to take revenge*

Philosophical-Type White People: Oh God...

Lather, rinse, repeat.

It's not funny, but it is kind of amazing how early this showed up-- both the stereotype of the Angry Black Person and the alternate stereotype of the Supernaturally Loving and Forgiving Black Person-- the White people's fear and hope in the face of White guilt. None of which considers the possibility that Black people might possibly have some priority other than White people, that Black people might be more interested in living their lives, recovering from trauma, and, I don't know, writing books and petting dogs and taking long thoughtful walks on a cloudy day.

White Americans have never been good at not centering ourselves in the narrative. But this particular manifestation is particularly ugly, because real people get hurt for the sake of protection from figments of projected guilt. And... gods damn it.

gaudior: (be the change)
Usually, in discussions of cultural appropriation, a white writer will say something along the lines of, "But you're saying that if I write anything about other cultures, you'll accuse me of cultural appropriation! If that's so, maybe I should just write about nothing but white people!" The usual (and, I think, sensible) response to this is, "There are worse things than trying and getting it wrong, the most important of which is not trying. Do your best, and use the criticism you get to do it better the next time-- if you're a professional writer, you'd better be able to handle the fact that not everyone will love everything you do without taking it personally."

This makes sense to me. But it also makes sense to me to create a basic set of guidelines and list of writers who have written about other cultures very well and respectfully, for two reasons. The first is that this will be an easy answer for people who raise the question spuriously and rhetorically-- one can just link them here. The second is that for people who ask the question because they are genuinely confused and want to write skillfully and respectfully about cultures not there own, it seems useful to try to set out basic guidelines and examples. To this end, I would very much appreciate others' suggestions for additions and revisions to these lists.

It is worth noting that I am far from the first person to write guidelines. My favorite is Nisi Shawl's essay Appropriate Cultural Appropriation which clearly and eloquently describes how to write well about cultures not your own; her use of Diantha Day Sprouse's metaphor of Invaders, Tourists and Guests is particularly useful. Elizabeth Bear also did a set of guidelines in her essay whatever you're doing, you're probably wrong. A number of similar posts were compiled by Micole and Rydra Wong here,, and they're definitely worth a perusal. I have not, however, found a compiled list of good examples of books and other media which do it well, so I hope that that may be a useful contribution to the dialogue.

Basic Guidelines. )
List of Books and Authors Whom I Believe Write Well About Cultures Not Their Own. )
gaudior: (be the change)
I was talking to B about foreign policy, and had an insight about one way of viewing world politics. It's the view I've held more-or-less unconsciously for many years, and I don't know how relevant it feels to other people, but I thought I'd share.

Namely: As a white American, I would talk about how we (whites and Americans) oppress everyone else in the world-- how our actions (currently and historically) are responsible for the vast amount of misery out there, and how other people's hatred of whites and/or Americans is completely justified because of what we've done.

Leaving aside for the moment the truth of this, I am struck by the fact that as a worldview, it can be tremendously reassuring. Because it suggests that whites and/or Americans are so powerful that we can cause all the pain in the world.

In my opinion, most worldviews are designed to perform the unconscious functions of making us feel both Good and Safe. The universe is huge, full of overwhelming amounts of information, and innately dangerous (we're all gonna die, sooner or later). We rely on our worldviews to make sense of it and our place in it, in a way that lets us feel secure enough to function. And if we need to distort or ignore some facts to feel that security, we'll generally do so for as long as we possibly can.

The worldview "whites and/or Americans are evil oppressors" fills these needs neatly. It would let me feel that I was Good because I, as a liberal, saw that racism/imperialism is bad, and so I felt virtuous about wanting to work against them. But it also, without my realizing it, let me feel Safe because no matter what I could do, I was still part of this immensely powerful group. If our group is so strong that it can do all this damage-- well, then it's also strong enough to protect me, keep me safe from all the bad things out here. I might disagree with other whites and/or Americans, but doing so could not remove from me the power they/we hold.

Now, all worldviews may be flawed in this way (certainly, the view, "Americans are good, everyone else is bad, and we're the strongest and can beat them up!" also makes us feel both Good and Safe, but has definite drawbacks). But I am troubled by this particular flaw because I believe it works directly against the goal it claims to be attempting.

Namely: if I felt safe because our group is powerful enough to cause all the ills of the world-- then I could not feel safe if other groups gained power. My conscious desire for people of color and/or developing countries to become empowered went directly against my unconscious desire to feel safe.

This has many manifestations. One, as B pointed out, was my tendency to assume that, for example, the terrorist attack on September 11th was caused solely by response to American oppression-- not by, for example, the influence by the Saudi Arabian monarchy on the rest of the region-- or, indeed, anything else being done by the people living in the Middle East. I assumed that terrorists were "misguided" or angry about American injustices toward them-- because that is so much less frightening than the idea that people might have a real ideology opposed to ours, and the willingness to act on it to defeat us.

Another manifestation (one which I don't think I did so much, but which I recognize in other people) is one of white allies in anti-racism work basically trying to take over the movement-- because they believe that they need to rescue the poor people of color from their horrible plight. This leads to white allies not listening to POC, putting forth solutions to non-existent problems while ignoring the real ones, complaining about how POC would make more progress if they would just change their "tone," etc. (I also notice this particularly in disability activism, where disabled people saying they want the kinds of help they want, not the kinds that non-disabled people assume they need, are often met with considerable resistance and accusations of ingratitude.)

Now, it is very important to note that this does not mean that white and American people don't have a lot of power and the responsibility for tremendous misery, both historically and currently. We do, and I think it is incredibly important to work to dismantle that abusive power.

My point is that if we do not look at our unconscious motivations for doing that work, we may find ourselves accidentally working against our stated goals. If we cling to White Guilt, it can keep us from hearing the voices of the people of color who have the best grasp of what is actually happening. That guilt is a marvelous unconscious compromise; it lets us imagine our group to be all-powerful, but absolves us of the possibility of doing anything real about the harm we do. We can both be all-powerful (Evil White Americans oppress the WHOLE WORLD!), and powerless (we can never make up for all the Evil our group has done, so there's no point in trying-- and anyway, it's not our fault, because we are good liberals!).

The better position, I think, is one of having an awareness of exactly how much power we do and don't have. As a white American, I do have a great deal of privilege, and can use it to make the world a little better or a little worse. But people from other countries, and people of color, also have power. They look at their own situations and make their own decisions about the best route to take. And on the other hand, America is not immune from others' actions and beliefs-- September 11th was not our idea, it was genuinely people wanting to hurt us because they hated us. Everyone has some power-- not all, not none-- and a realistic worldview must realize and accept that.

I am not Safe because I am a white American. Nor am I Good for thinking that racism and imperialism are bad. I am a vulnerable, imperfect person, like everyone else. And it is only together, as a united group of vulnerable, imperfect people, that we can change the world.

gaudior: (be the change)
About Patricia Wrede's new novel The Thirteenth Child.

But much more about the history of America, and First Nations people, and names, and emptiness. She's done that thing she does where she has a new and original thought and phrases it clearly and chillingly and eloquently. I love when she does that.

Go read!


(My own thought on the book is that a book about an America which is not founded on generations of genocide could be fascinating in how it could point out the flaws in our own America, and how different our "white-washed" history is from one genuinely not built on bloodshed. But I am told that is not this book?)
gaudior: (Default)
Happy International Blog Against Racism Week!

So, I’m starting this with a caveat: the below is not meant to suggest that I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about race, try to educate, confront racism, etc. On the contrary—I’m incredibly glad people do, because it’s made a major change in my life. My first year of graduate school, one of my professors showed us some very unsettling films and had us read several assumption-questioning papers ("Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," etc.) It made me start to really question a lot of my beliefs about race, and it sent me to the internet, where I joined [ profile] ap_racism and read and wrote a lot of essays (yay [ profile] rachelmanija, [ profile] oyceter, [ profile] coffeeandink, and [ profile] yhlee), and generally spent about two years thinking. The result of which is that I’m much clearer about my views, much more comfortable addressing and working with race in my fiction and my practice (very good thing when you work with clients of color), feel much less guilty and more empowered, and am enthusiastically working for equality.

All of which is why I was a little taken aback by what happened when, at a dinner party yesterday, the question of race came up. I mentioned the idea of differentiating between “prejudice” and “racism,” where racism = prejudice + power. What interested me was that while many people had interesting things to say, one of the reactions was not to react to the idea itself, but, “That sounds a lot like the kind of internet-wankery that people get into on livejournal.” I replied that yeah, I and a lot of my friends on livejournal do talk about race a lot, and someone else said that this was all well and good, but that often, it seemed to fall into the “gotcha-game”—where discussions of racism became, not discussions of racism, but people trying to catch each other doing something wrong.

Which is frustrating. Because yeah, many white people do feel very guilty and defensive about our privilege, our attitudes about race, etc, so there is a fair amount of defensiveness\. But on the other hand, it’s totally true. Some discussions about race really do feel like the discussants are just trying to “win” by proving the other person stupid.

The problem with this, and the way to prevent it, seems to be one of clarifying goals before starting the conversation. I can see five different reasons why people discuss race online, and I think they’re all worthwhile… but when they get conflated, things go downhill fast. )
gaudior: (be the change)
So, on Friday, I made a post about a thought I'd had about cultural appropriation*. Unfortunately, I got it all down really quickly and ran out the door, so it came out sort of half-baked. (And then I went down to see my wife and my friends for the weekend (yay!), and spent no time online to fix it). And people came and made interesting comments on it, so I don't want to delete that entry, or massively revise it, because then their thoughtful and interesting comments won't make any sense. On the other hand, I think the idea was interesting, and I want to work on it more. So I'm going to leave the original entry there (and respond to the comments presently), and post the revised version here. Cuz it's my lj, and I can re-post if I want to.

So, sparked by [ profile] coffeeandink's useful post on last year's WisCon panel, I've had a thought. I haven't, I'm afraid, read enough to know whether anyone else has had this thought, but I think it's a good one.

Last year, I wrote a post on cultural appropriation trying to answer the question that many White people have upon first hearing the concept-- "Why is this such a big deal?" But what I'm thinking about now is: why, for White people, is it so hard to understand that it is a big deal? A lot of people give the answer of "entitlement," and that may well be true, but I think it's only a partial answer-- and that there are more interesting cultural reasons behind it. )

*cultural appropriation: the use of other cultures' creations and ideas for one's own purposes, sometimes without much understanding of their meaning in the original context
gaudior: (be the change)
In a comment to a recent post of mine, [ profile] homasse described "White Woman Syndrome," or WWS, a phenomenon discussed on a lot of the minority-focused forums on lj. She said that the usual explanation people there come up with for why White women sometimes act like complete, entitled twits is that "White women, being considered the ideal for beauty and such, fully expect the world to love them and make everything perfect for them because they were the Perfect Little Princesses, and when it's *not*, they can't deal." She says she's not sure she buys this completely, but she can't deny the phenomenon.

Neither do I, and neither can I. But I think I have some ideas about where it comes from. )

On pain

Jun. 9th, 2006 05:51 pm
gaudior: (profound)
The people from Teen Empowerment (a program in the high school where I work which hires high school students to do projects to "improve their school climate") came up with what seemed like a fairly daring project this year. They had an English class of students from our high school, E High (urban, almost all students of color and/or recent immigrants, many of them living in housing projects, and all of them dealing with gangs, drugs, shootings, poverty, racism, and a fuckload of other badness on a regular basis), do an exchange program with a class from W High School (almost all White, upper-middle-class, suburban). They exchanged emails for several months, had classroom discussions about social inequality, and then, finally, went to visit each other's schools.

It seems to have gone well-- better than I expected. The W High kids talked about being happily surprised to see "people, not stereotypes," being shocked/impressed with the sorts of things our kids deal with all the time and how they're able to handle it, as well as enjoying the "colorfulness" of the school. I didn't get a sense of whether they learned much that they hadn't been expecting to learn from the experience. But I was more struck with the reactions of our kids. One thing that was something of a relief was that while they did get a clear sense of the unfairness of the situation, they also found things that they appreciated about their school-- the diversity, the energy, and the teachers who care very deeply about them and support them*.

But the other thing that struck me was how struck our kids were by the problems of the kids of W High. They had, they said, assumed that since the W kids were rich and White, they wouldn't have many problems. And indeed, the kids at W don't have to deal with watching their friends get shot, or watching their parents work three jobs to put food on the table, or trying desperately to learn English on the fly quickly enough to pass their classes. But they have problems, our kids said. Problems with parental expectations, and grades-- problems so bad that they do things like pour vodka into water bottles to drink in class to get through the day. One of our teachers said that when the two classes were talking together, some of the W kids were talking about binge drinking, and our teacher realized, looking around the room, that her students had no idea what this meant. She explained it, and they stared at her in confusion, then said, "That's just stupid."

All of which leads me back to a question I had when I, too, was a White, suburban, upper-middle-class kid-- and I looked around and saw how terribly, self-destructively miserable my friends were-- and I didn't understand. How, I wondered, does it hurt so much when life is just not that bad? Of course, I was young and naive and quite emotionally stunted (didn't let myself feel sadness until college, didn't understand depression until after I graduated, I'm only just now learning about anger, and I haven't touched fear yet)... but it's still a question for me. Why is pain like this? Why is it that outside circumstances don't seem to make a damn bit of difference to how much it hurts?

I don't know, but I have a guess. )
gaudior: (profound)
So I know I'm days late to this topic, but it's finals time (they're going well-- one class completely finished, three more with only small bits of work left to do, one with only an optional class, yay!). But this post appeared a few weeks ago in the blog Reappropriate, "a political, current events, and personal blog written from the perspective of a loud and proud Asian American woman": "Fuck you Asiaphile": I'm Mad As Hell And I'm Not Going to Take It Anymore. Followed by tremendous discussion, both in her comments thread and in [ profile] debunkingwhite and [ profile] sex_and_race. (I got the link from [ profile] homasse. Thank you, J.) Basically, Jenn is pointing out how annoyed she is, as an Asian-American, at White Americans who profess love for all things Japanese, or all things Asian.

Now, as an undeniable otaku (looking up, I can see eight pieces of anime merchandising without having to turn my head), I was quite bothered. I could see myself as definitely being one of the people she was talking about, and I felt dismayed and unhappy to hear that my taste in art could upset anyone that much. I could see myself pretty easily in many of the commenters to her thread who objected, and I didn't see what the deal was.

So I sat down to think it over. And, twenty minutes later, I think I understand. I think I've hit on the thing which was so obvious to Jenn that she didn't bother to say it, and the thing which all the objectors to her post had never thought of. I think it's about choice, and power. )
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