Saturday, 19 April 2014

On The Erasure of People Of Colour From Dystopian Fiction

I've been thinking a lot about the comments made by Noah co-screenwriter Ari Handel that have been circulating recently. Asked about the extreme whiteness of the cast, Handel said that the "the race of the individual doesn't matter." Presumably this was meant to be a defense:

"From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn't matter. They're supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Bennetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise."

Handel's comments were so completely bizarre to me because of how blatantly they reinforced the problematic idea that whiteness is a universal experience that everyone and anyone can relate to. He acknowledges that the movie is myth (and therefore a fiction they have created, over which they have total control) yet refuses to acknowledge that this does not in any way, logically translate into an all-white cast. His words reminded me of a little quote from novelist Kayla Ancrum I stumbled upon a little while ago while perusing a tumblr blog about women of colour in sci-fi and fantasy:

"Seriously guys, put PoC in your sci-fi movies, books, and tv shows. Seeing a film with none of them at all is actually kind of scary for me."
"It would be like you sitting down to watch a movie about a dystopian near future and there are absolutely no men and the plot doesn't address that at all. Like, literally wouldn't your first thought be that men were at some point eradicated completely by the women?"
"That is what we're pretty much forced to think about your entirely white fictional society. Maybe y'all herded us into death camps Maybe y'all just shot us all in the streets. All I know is there are none of us left and no one seems to find it suspicious or unusual."
"If you don't want people to think that about your work, then for the love of God, include us in your narrative."

It got me thinking. What does it mean that so many white authors and filmmakers find it perfectly natural to erase the presence of people of colour from their dystopian narratives? Forget addressing the issue of fleshing out actual minority characters, but literally just not including them at all?

Illustration by Ron Ackins
Illustraion by Ron Ackins
The usual argument here is that authors are allowed to create whatever characters and worlds they wish, and that they shouldn't be forced to be "politically correct" about their imaginations. In theory, I agree. But when we exist a world where racial disparities often dictate things like access to wealth, proper healthcare, proper education and fair treatment under the law, it's disingenuous to pretend that continuing to marginalize people of color in fictional venues is anything less than equally egregious. The fact that so many authors think that it's not a problem to completely omit the very existence of millions of people and cultures entirely when constructing a narrative, is a product of white supremacy and the attitudes and thinking that come with it.

I've seen it said that the reason many black authors gravitate towards futurism in their works of fiction is because it allows them to envision a different world where they set the rules and I can definitely see the appeal. With the ability to craft a narrative completely from scratch, science fiction is a way to create characters that reflect us, as well as help us explore a world free from the political constraints that plague us in the real world. It's why speculative fiction is so intriguing to me. At it's core, it's all about answering the question, "What if?"

To me, this is why I tend to lean towards Ancrum's thinking. If we're talking dystopias; worlds in which the theoretical apocalypse has already come and gone, and there are no people who look like me in it? I'm going to wonder about why that is. I'm going to wonder if that whiteness was intentionally constructed by the people who remain in that world. I'm going to wonder if the people like me were exterminated. There is, after all, a "historically accurate" precedent for that assumption.

When it comes to an author or filmmaker having free reign over their imagination, my concern about their inclusion of people of color isn't about trying to please everyone. It's about wondering what kind of thinking they live by wherein minority people simply do not exist, the issue is never mentioned, and the fact that they are nowhere to be found is nothing to be alarmed about. It makes me wonder about the kind of people they are that their race blindness is so severe that even in their minds, we're invisible. Or worse, that the only people they recognize as human, are white.

Personally, I think the lack of diversity in science fiction is particularly egregious because it's the one area where you can't claim "historical accuracy." Speculative fiction opens up possibilities that would never exist in the real world, allowing us to imagine scenarios that we could only dream of in real life. That so many of those imagined possibilities still include whiteness as the default, to the point of whitewashing characters originally imagined as non-white, is disheartening.

When you get to create a world completely from scratch, where you could rewrite the laws of gravity or the science behind genetics should you so choose, but your vision of all the people is still lily white? I really do find that worrisome. It bugs me that people are more easily able to imagine the existence of non-human intelligent beings, or interactions with a completely alien race, than that a protagonist might be anything other than white. It tells me that in the real world, we have a problem imagining the humanity of people of color. It tells me that as a culture we still see people of color as nothing more than bit players in the lives of white characters, if we even see them at all. Why is it that so many people find nothing problematic about the willful erasure of people of color from their visions of the future? Because there's a real and almost tangible problem with race if audiences can suspend their disbelief enough to accept that a fictional character can burst in to flames, repeatedly, at will, and not die, but not enough to accept that the same character could be black.

I don't think that we should force our way into meetings and demand that casts be more diverse, or hold authors hostage until they rewrite the features of their protagonists, but I also don't think there's anything wrong with continuing to hold people accountable for the prejudices they may display through their creative choices. I can't force anyone to recognize the implications of the message they send when they simply "forget" to write minority people into existence, but I can keep pointing out how those biases in fiction, in representation, continue to affect the way we interact with race in the real world.

In the same way that authors and filmmakers continue to question why they should include people of color in their narratives, I continue to ask:
What exactly is it do they think their stories will lose if they did?

Saturday, 12 April 2014

An Incomplete (Play)List And Critical Analysis of Beyoncé's Feminist Evolution And Praxis Through Music: Part One

I am 100% certain that absolutely everyone is fed up of hearing me talk about Beyoncé. I've written about her quite a bit in the last few months. It isn't because I'm her biggest fan, but more because I recognize what an amazing economic and political statement her latest album was, and it irks me to see the way so many people have been absolutely determined to downplay her accomplishments.

Beyoncé, a powerful, visible, and extremely famous black woman, managed to drop an album with no advance notice (and zero leaks!) sell over 800 thousand copies in just three days, and go platinum in just under a week. That's a huge deal! And on top of that, she managed to do it with an album that saw her unabashedly embrace feminism; a concept she's been pretty publicly inching towards for some time now.

Now this isn't to suggest that these accomplishments mean either Beyoncé or her feminism is above reproach. Her continued association with Terry Richardson alone is enough to make me judge her, (just a little) but when the majority of criticism lobbied against her effectively scapegoats her for all the perceived problems within the feminist movement (Oversexualized! Too much focus on her marriage!) while refusing to view her music and public image through an intersectional lens, I get annoyed. Can we please let a black woman prosper?

What people keep forgetting is that Beyoncé is not required to be a perfect feminist. No one is. Such a magical unicorn simply does not exist. Contrary to popular belief, feminists are in fact human beings, (even Beyoncé!) and sometimes human beings mess up and get it wrong. To try to "revoke her feminist credentials" over her past mistakes reinforces the idea that feminism is an elitist club that does not welcome new members. And I haven't even gotten to the pretty blatant racial double standard yet.

Personally, I love that Beyoncé has been fairly public about her slow transition from apprehension about feminism to fully embracing it. I think that it's an honest reflection of the way most women come into feminism; bit by bit and piece by piece, slowly building on their understanding of the term, what it means, and how it applies to their life. I love that Beyoncé has admitted to watching videos about feminism on Youtube. For so many women, and especially women who look like her (myself included) the internet and popular culture is exactly how they came into feminism. It's entertaining and refreshing to find that even Beyoncé, Ruler of The Universe, accesses feminism in this way, and in turn, contributes to this practice by inserting feminist ideals into her music. It also reinforces for me, that Beyoncé is figuring this thing out in exactly the same way the rest of us did, and she deserves the room to slowly and carefully expand her feminist understanding.

I've always loved Beyoncé's music, but I didn't really consider myself a full-fledged fan until after the release of her latest album. Looking back however, it's clear to me that although Beyoncé has only just started cozying up to Feminism: The Ideology, she's be flirting with it for almost the entirety of her career. From Bills, Bills, Bills to ***Flawless, feminist themes have always been a subtle presence in her music. So here, in approximate chronological order, is part one of "An Incomplete (Play)List And Critical Analysis of Beyoncé's Feminist Evolution And Praxis Through Music."

Friday, 11 April 2014

A Refresher Course On Tone Policing

The term "tone policing" is often incorrectly used as a defense against privilege blindness and insensitivity. This is not okay.

People sometimes unintentionally make the mistake of reducing the vocabulary that makes up the framework that oppressed people have created to articulate their oppression, to meaningless buzzwords that have lost their purpose; usually through misapplication.

"Tone-policing" is a specific term with a specific meaning, and misusing it directly co-opts the tools that oppressed groups have created to defend themselves against a system that discriminates against them. Misapplying the term dilutes its meaning, and reduces any impact it can have when used appropriately.

It is not okay to use "tone policing" as a blanket defense against people who disagree with you. 
It is not okay to use "tone policing" as a shorthand way to silence dissent.
It is not okay to defend being an asshole by claiming that anyone who calls you out is "tone policing."
It is not okay to co-opt the language of the oppressed because someone was mean to you once and it hurt your feelings.

To revisit the lesson: Tone policing is the act of using the messenger's method of delivery against them, as justification to dismiss the message, when they have a stake in having said message be accurately received. It is the act of disregarding the substance of someone's argument by focusing on the way it was conveyed. A tone argument focuses on delivery as a means to sidestep the issue at hand. It is a derailment. 

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