Race-Fail 09

Theres been a lot of noise lately about racism in fiction, and a particularly notorious live-journel discussion that devolved, apparently, into a violation of privacy party.  Scalzi has talked about it, a lot of others have talked about it, I got bored quickly and didn’t read it.

I do follow Scalzi’s blog however, which means I was inflicted with essays written by friends of his who were involved in the idea.  I think they were supposed to be thoughtful essays on race in fiction and in the world.  What they actually were was insulting, and I have to admit I didn’t read the whole thing.  I actually don’t get worked up about race; it would be stupid for me to.  I grew up middle class and white, regardless of where I live (unless I moved, say, to a poor bitter black community in America who decided to take out their issues on me) I am unlikely to be touched by racism.  I got off scott free, I get it.

I also agree with some of what they said.  It’s true that lots of people suffer for other reasons.  They are fat, unattractive, stupid, female, there are lots of other people that are discriminated against other than for race, and its true that suffering one of those discriminations does not mean you understand the pain of racism.  Sexism and Racism, for instance, are different, equal in magnitude (or not, as you believe), but not “same”.

Then they start with the “everyone is a racist” generalisations and my back was immediately up.  I think, to be generous to them, that what they were saying was that everyone, through their upbringing, has a certain set of prejudices that they can’t help having and that colour their world view.  This is true.  It’s not, however, what they said.  They said “everyone is a racist”, and whilst it makes great shock-copy, the word “racist” has decades upon decades of negative connotations piled on top of it like a big steaming insult sundae.

Let me explain what I think.  Remembering that i’m middle class, professional, white and male, so as far as the political correctness hitlist, i’ve grown up as public enemy number one (which I can assure you is a new, modern form of discrimination which has it’s own level of pain.  Certainly not “can’t ride the bus” pain, but it’s not negligible either).  So knowing that, you should feel free to abuse me, shout, scream, hate and generally point the finger, with or without actually understanding my point of view.  Society says it’s ok for you to do so, so go ahead.

Racism starts, in my opinion, when someone looks at someone else and says: They are different to me, they look different, therefore we must not be the same.  That is the very beginning of racism.  It becomes the modern ideal of racism when the second party is a minority, in that they do not have the power (militarily, physically, emotionally, culturally, educationally or even intellectually) to resist the will of the first people being placed upon them.  Therefore a white says “black people are less civilized than white people, and they need us to conquer them and rule over them, as they are fundamentally incapable of ruling themselves.  This was the official position of government in England during the Victorian era, used to justify expansionist policies in Africa and India.

I don’t believe the phrase “Black people are lazy” could ever be true.  It is a generalisation for a start.  What I believe is that a black person “can be lazy”.  So you can have lazy black people, white people, asian people and martian people.  You can also have a lazy culture – and certainly many cultures would likely appear lazy to one wholly posessed by the protestant work ethic for instance.  But even within cultures, there are people who go against the grain.  Generalisations fail because people aren’t general.

Which is why the minute someone says “Everyone is a racist”, I immediately think “Epic Fail.”.  It’s a generalisation and a stupid one.  When people think of the phrase “we are all racists” now, with all the history the word has built up, they don’t think it means “we all have a certain level of prejudice related to our environment and childhood” which is true, they think it means “we all perform acts that oppress those of a different race to ourselves due to a lingering hatred and desire for our own racial supremacy” or some such rubbish.  Which is so patently untrue that it could be a politician’s sound-bite.

What is interesting is the author of this essay, whilst claiming we are all prejudice, makes statements designed to be statements of fact.  You cannot make an objective claim that we are all biased.  (The following statement is true.  The previous statement is false.)  And her bias shows here.

I’m an Australian.  Even more to the point, i’m a Tasmanian.  Teachers in school years ago used to say we are “a multi-cultural” nation, which is a politically correct saying a nation of mongrels.  You just don’t find that many “pure breeds” around the place, we’re creating our own race of raceless people in a lot of ways.  There are many cultures, beliefs and colours represented, but they don’t necessarily follow established traditional lines.  Personally, I hail from scottish, english and maori descent (that I know of) and probably other besides.  That is to say, despite the fact that my skin is the pale lily-white of the scottish poor and english convict, i’m actually 1/8th (or something) black.  My wife is in a similar position, but descendant from the aboriginal people – her grandmother is one of the Tasmanian aboriginal elders.  My daughter’s birth registration recognises her as being of aboriginal descent.

Tasmania is a state that knows a little something about racism.  Just ask a full-blooded Tasmanian aboriginal about it (you can’t, they’re all dead.), and yet i’ve never known anyone to be discriminated against in modern times because of it.  Certainly aboriginals have a harder time, particularly on the mainland, for similar reasons that I have heard black americans do – lack of education, born to poverty, crime, abuse.  These are problems that exist within the modern aboriginal culture, problems that society are trying to fix, problems that have no simple fix.  (Problems that our previous government used to perform some of the most incredible institutional racism of our time, but I digress)

The point is that, for the most part, these are problems of ‘traditional’ racism for us.  That movie kind of racism, where a black man can’t get a job cause they dont take kindly to his type round here.  Aboriginals aren’t uneducated because they are prevented from going to school.  They’re uneducated because a vicious cycle in their culture prevents them from seeing the benefit in making the effort.  Some do and escape the cycle, and it is important that all assistance possible be given them. 

Part of the problem of modern race disadvantages is the fact that you can’t help people who don’t help themselves.  Whilst real hateful people still exist and may always exist who will hurt these people simply because of their, the idea that people of all races are equal is one that is gaining ascendance amongst modern people.  I have met several truly racist people in my life but they are the exception, not the rule, and I take decided offence at the implication that we are all racist.

I may have swayed from my original points and i’m not sure i’m as coherant as I could be, but thats nothing strange in arguments about so passionate a topic I suppose.  In the end, I put it like this.

I have never oppressed anyone.
I will not apologise or feel guilty for the ease or hardship I have or have not had.
I have worked hard in my life.
I have helped others along the way.

Personally, I think white guilt is a crock, and am always happy to point out that those who did some of the most damage, short of the massacres, to racial relations in this country were “only trying to help” and honestly thought they had the Aboriginal’s best interests at heart.  I wont carry their guilt either.

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One thought on “Race-Fail 09

  1. This is a month after you posted this but I just saw it. I used to keep up with so-called Race Fail for a while and then got too mad, so I stopped.

    GREAT post, succint and thoughtful. You said exactly what I couldn’t say without injecting vast amounts of sarcasm and impatience. Which wouldn’t have helped anyone, least of all me.

    So thanks. BTW, I’m a white, middle-class woman. And although I have my own set of cultural lenses, I am not a racist by any definition I know of — as I reject the RaceFail people’s off-the-wall definition of it. And it’s a shame too. That one loaded word turned what could have been a sensitivity-raising session in SF to a debacle.

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