I have been following the latest round of Cultural Appropriation discussions for the last week (and, only slightly less recently, the Avatar: The Last Airbender discussions centreing around the all-white cast for the movie), and as a result I have some thoughts floating around in my head that seem to need to be expressed in a concrete way. This post is largely for my own benefit, as a way of working through little bits of exploding consciousness and awareness. Sometimes the only hope I have of understanding my own head is by pinning thoughts down to a page. Those of you used to fandom-squee, please forgive (and feel free to completely ignore) the following stream-of-consciousness.
There is a lot of talk about intent and how it relates to racism and stereotypes. The idea that if offense is not intended, then the hurt the offense generated it somehow negated or made less, which I feel is a deeply flawed argument on several levels, many that have already been expressed passionately and eloquently by other people in other places.
What I feel hasn’t been fully expressed is that the unintentional — the but I was trying to do good and but this is what I meant — is what does the most harm in our society today, because inevitably it’s these stereotypes that get held up as shining examples to educate white people, which does nothing but perpetuate them further.
When you see cultural representations of stereotypes of white men on film, in art, or in literature, they’re almost always intentional stereotypes. If you were to point them out to the creator, odds are extremely promising that the creator of the work will nod and tell you, yes, that’s what I meant and how I intentionally created that character. In fact, people almost never point them out because it’s usually easy enough to tell what stereotype the author is using and what the literary function of it is, whether it’s being used as a comedic or dramatic device.
The problem there is that, when characters of colour are tropes or stereotypes, it’s rarely a conscious decision on the part of the author or artist, which speaks to the larger issue at work. We don’t see the stereotypes we use to pin down our coloured characters the way we can easily identify the ones we actively chose to call upon for our white characters. In fact, we almost always believe precisely the opposite: that we have created rich and three-dimensional coloured characters we should feel proud of, and don’t even notice the stereotypes at work until someone points them out, and even then most white writers and artists don’t even acknowledge them as the stereotypes they are, because how can something possibly be a stereotype if it wasn’t meant to be read that way? These things have to be intentional after all, or they just don’t count!
Part of the reason I felt the need to express this particular point in my own words here is as a timely reminder for myself that I am not exempt from any of this. I’m currently in the process of developing and doing research for an original work that will (and really must, in order to work properly) contain several coloured characters, but these discussions have sent me back through my notes, and you know what? There they are, pretty blatant coloured stereotypes right there in my own house, and I never noticed them. Just as topically, there’s also huge potential for irresponsible cultural appropriation to boot that never once occurred to me before this week.
In the last week I’ve considered my own written work in these contexts, and I realized I’ve failed in some pretty significant ways, certainly from a race standpoint (I’ve written a person of colour in a published fic only once, badly) and also from a gendered standpoint. The body of my work — even including my drabbles — includes a scant few female characters and even fewer female POV characters. As a female, I’m forced to wonder why that is. Do I identify more strongly with male characters? Why? And how is it that I’m female, 26, been actively writing for over ten years, and only just asking myself this question now? (This thought isn’t meant as a comparison to racial issues, but the racial and cultural appropriation discussions have expanded into other areas of my brain, and some of the underlying issues definitely apply to gender and male privilege as well.)
I wrote a series of West Wing stories that each touched on anti-semitism in either undertones or as outright themes, and I realize have no idea where my ass is showing there. I wonder how my Jewish friends would react to them; whether or not my Jewish characters (particularly the original one, whom I have no canon context for) and the way I tried to address anti-semitism would receive her blessings. I suspect maybe they might not.
Lots to think about. We Canadians tend to think we’re much better with these racial and cultural issues, but I think we’re just as bad, especially when it comes to the native peoples and the whole Quebec thing, which is Canada’s own unique issue.
I’m going to actively try to be more aware of my white privilege; check my assumptions, correct and acknowledge my stereotypes, and correct other people’s stereotypes, even when doing so would cause conflict or discomfort or be seen as rude, because all that’s really just crap. No excuses. I will start writing more females, because the fact that I’ve written so few disturbs me profoundly. I will scrutinize characters of colour (my own, and others’) more closely, looking for the stereotypes I know about and keeping a watchful eye out for the ones I don’t even realize exist yet. I will learn more and keep listening and say nothing when my knee-jerk instinct is to defend myself against criticm and critique. When I fail I will acknowledge that I have failed.
And I will keep thinking thinky thoughts. Because I believe they do me good.