On Southern Racism

Prompted by that news story about the Louisiana Justice of the Peace who refused marriage licenses to interracial couples.

My initial reaction was, “Meh.” Because I’m always amused to see how many people are shocked, shocked they tell you, at the continued persistence of blatant racism. I always wonder what planet these people have been living on, because they don’t seem to realize that lynchings have probably happened within their lifetime and that there’s a reason so many communities are segregated to this day and there’s also a reason the poorer and darker-skinned of these communities don’t have the political power they need to improve themselves. Not just America, but much of the world still seems to be trapped in the self-imposed delusion that racism is dead, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. So my reaction to that almost has to be “meh”, because if I let myself dwell on it for very long I will probably start drinking. (And drinking is bad for writers.)

My followup reaction has been a more complex sort of annoyance, because I’m beginning to once again smell whiffs of the same old sh!t re “The American South is so racist!”

OK, some background first. I’m probably not a true Southerner. I was born in Iowa. (Yeah, really.) Spent my first five years in Brooklyn ’til the parents divorced, whereupon I moved to Mobile, Alabama with Mom. I spent my school years down there and I’ll be honest: I thought it was fairly miserable. Nothing to do, heat and mosquitoes out the wazoo, and I was constantly bombarded with astonished reactions from others — black and white (not many other races in Mobile) — when they realized I loved to read and did well in school and hadn’t had sex yet, much less gotten pregnant. Food was good, though, and family was there, and Mobile is really quite pretty in the architectural and climate sense. But I digress. I never truly settled into the Southern mentality because I spent all my summers up in Brooklyn with Dad, which included trips to Chicago and Los Angeles and Iowa (again) and Paris, and camping trips in the Catskills and softball games in Jersey. I went to college at Tulane in New Orleans during the years when David Duke was running for governor and Tim Wise had just graduated, leaving an active, galvanized anti-racist movement on campus in his wake, which I joined. But I’d had enough by the time I finished college, so I went to grad school in nice quiet tame Maryland. Still technically the South, but not really, to my Alabama-trained sensibilities. After that I continued a steady progression northward into Massachusetts and finally back to the place I feel most at home, New York.

But the South is powerful. It gets into your blood if you spend even a little while there. And the most valuable lesson that my Southern upbringing taught me was this: racism is everywhere, inescapable. But the honest, straightforward racism is far easier to deal with than the delusional, self-denying stuff.

And frankly, I respect the honest, straightforward version of racism more. If somebody hates me because I’m black, I want them to say it out loud. Then I know where I stand with them, and can properly arm/armor myself before I have to deal with them. What I despise are people who insist they’re not racist and then go right ahead and do racist things. I can’t prepare for those, because I don’t know where or who they are. I turn my back for a second and some random person sticks a knife in. Worst of all, a lot of them don’t realize they’re racist, because they’ve convinced themselves that only blackface and KKK membership and guys like this LA justice of the peace are what racism looks like. Those people are like sleeper agents — after they stick the knife in, then they blink in surprise and look down at their bloody hands and gasp, “OMG, what have I done?” and proceed to have a panic attack. Which does me a whole lot of good as I stand there bleeding.

Southern racism, IMO, is mostly the straightforward, “safe” version of racism. I call it “safe” — though it still kills people and causes great harm — because it’s relatively easy to avoid, easy to confront, and easy to scorn. But the racism I’ve encountered in every other part of the country (and every part of the world I’ve visited outside the US) is mostly the sleeper-agent version of racism. It’s not easy to deal with, and I suspect it destroys a lot more lives. It’s not safe at all.

Now, let me be clear: I believe both forms of racism are dangerous and must be eradicated. The “safe” version, among other things, facilitates the continued existence of the unsafe version by distracting attention from it. But which version do you think scares me more?

Seriously, why would some two-bit justice of the peace in the back end of beyond who’s at least thought about this stuff, and is willing to speak his thoughts aloud, bother me? I’m far more concerned about the agents and editors and publishers and art directors and sales associates and fellow authors and readers who smile in my face at conventions and networking events, and who might at any given moment “go active” and come at me with a broken beer-bottle. Or pan my work as “not universal” because it features people of color. Or ignore it at awards time because they genuinely believe only white men can do SF any justice. Or decline to read/review it because they see my author picture and assume it can’t possibly be any good because of what I look like and Those People can’t write. Or deride me as an “affirmative action baby” if I’m successful. Or or or or or.

So if I had to sum up my overall reaction, it would be Hey, you, person who just made yet another har-har funneh joke about Southern inbreeding and backwardness, do you actually have any idea how racism really works? No? Then STFU and go read a book, and meanwhile save your outrage and ridicule for the next RaceFail, wherever it may crop up. Which will probably be in your own backyard. Or, your mirror.

Or, shorter: meh.

38 Responses »

  1. Thanks for the post. Made me wonder though on your position in regards to racism in fantasy, as in, orcs are always evil, elves always wise, etc. China Mieville really strikes a chord in me with his fiction, wherein all races are full of potential but none of it dictated by more than culture, economics, etc. I read a book a whiles back (was it At The Bottom of the Garden?) where the author postulated that fairies where anthropomorphications of Victorian biases and fears. So if a goblin is a manifestation of our fear over a certain disability, can a monster ever just be a monster?

  2. I’ve heard this before from people who’ve lived in the South, and I sort of intellectually took the point, but reading this post may be the first time that it’s fully sunk in and made complete gut-level sense to me. Thank you for saying it.

  3. Phil,

    I post fairly frequently about racism in fantasy, both here and in the group blog the Magic District. Here, I tend to tag/categorize those under “On Writing”, since IMO this is a matter of good worldbuilding, characterization, etc. Some posts that might interest you are this one and this one.

    And to answer your question, IMO context matters. If a goblin is depicted in a way that reflects our fears of disability — e.g., if that goblin considers itself hideous compared to “normal” people/humans; or if it’s naturally hunchbacked or clubfooted or has a cleft palate — then it’s reasonable to view that goblin as a problematic symbol. But if the goblin is just a goblin, so to speak — i.e., if it’s depicted as a non-human entity with its own culture (not an emulation of human cultures) and a logical sense of self — then it works. If you’re dealing with a creature that’s derived from a specific culture’s mythology, of course, then you have to depict it as that culture viewed it, and sometimes that means including the culture’s biases. But it helps if a modern writer is educated and aware about those biases, and maybe acknowledges/subverts them in the retelling. (Case in point, I think: my own retake on the Red Riding Hood fairy tale and its messages about sexual freedom, innocence and its loss, the assumptions made about certain classes of people, etc. Also, the Datlow & Windling anthologies on reworked fairytales are chock full of informed subversion.)

    I haven’t heard anything about that book — is this the one? Sounds interesting!

  4. I love, need, crave posts like this. I can’t even express the frustration I feel when people tell me racism is no longer a problem. These words make me want to melt down into a puddle of angst: Post-racial America. Who came up with that??? Yes, the subversive “non-racist” racism is the most evil kind in my view.

    After this summer, and hearing that what happened to Henry Louis Gates was his fault for losing his temper and not racially but power-motivated (surely power motivated for racial reasons) and hearing that the incident with the kids at the PA pool wasn’t racially motivated??? And that the problem with Larbalestier’s book cover–not about race??? People just make me want to tear my hair out sometimes. And the arguments you get back when you try to explain your position about race in America these days? Similar hair reaction to those…

    Saw Staceyann Chin for the first time last night. She made some excellent points on race in Jamaica and the US. So glad I got that opportunity.

  5. Yes, yes, yes! I agree with every one of your points.

    I grew up on the West Coast, spent time in the South, and finally settled in Pennsylvania. The racism I’ve seen here has been worse than any other place because it is, in fact, the sleeper cell racism you so eloquently describe.

    I’m biracial, and although I’ve felt scorn from all groups, it seems by far worse now that we’ve elected a black president. People feel like they can make wildly inappropriate comments and brush it off by following up with, “but I voted for Obama.”

    Thanks for this, it will be my teaching moment for when another person I know refers to “those people.”

  6. Great post. It is most definitely the modern-day covert and subconscious racism (and the denials of same) that hurt the most.

  7. May I offer the suggestion that blatant racism, such as what this judge showed, comes as a surprise to many people not because they don’t know it exists as a concept, but because nobody in their immediate social circle practices it.

    It certainly does not excuse being horrified, or taking action. And it really, really sucks that people don’t learn.

    Today, one of the other major stories was that Irish tenor Ronan Tynan was pulled from singing the National Anthem at the AL Playoff Game this evening because of a stupidly prejudiced remark against Jews that he thought was humorous. Granted, it was not nearly as reprehensible as the marriage license incident, because it did not directly interfere with people’s lives, but the two camps seem to be “Oh, that’s horrible and reprehensible,” and “Dammit, can’t ‘those people’ take a joke?”

    Prejudice is prejudice, no matter what group it’s against, and no matter how serious or slight it is. And I am not sure which is worse — that people can still be startled by its appearance, which at least suggests a knowledge that it is horrible, or that some people are not startled by it, which — to my mind, anyway — indicates that the non-startled non-victim thinks that it is a normal part of life.

    Of course the victim knows that it is both, equally.

  8. Your points are sustained. In addition to what you’ve said. We know that racism was not originated in the US but from Britain and other points of origin. And since racism is proven to be a governmental seed that has been sown in society, its required that blacks weane themselves from institutions posing as places used to save their souls, when indeed its just religious ploy. Why are blacks still flocking to churches which teach schemes of delusions, thoughts creating concepts which are designed to norrowed one’s consciousness, so that they have a false worldview. Though blacks are no longer psysically enslaved, yet they’re largely enslaved by continued belief and practice of rituals white people imposed on the fore-parents while under slavery. Why can’t blacks just embrace facts of literal history opposed to the biblical imaginary alleged mad God in Genesis creation story.

  9. I just read your other two posts on racism and objectification and really dug them.

    Also, the book I meant to cite is ‘Strange & Secret Peoples’ by Carole Silver; still, ‘At The Bottom of the Garden’ is a brilliant and engrossing book and definitely worth reading (if only for the author’s demonstration that fairies are the descendants of Babylonian and Classical Greek demons and her chapter on how UFO’s today serve the same purposes as fairies did in the 19th century).

    Ok, I’ve re-written the following part of this post several times in an attempt to sound both lucid and cogent, and am now despairing of my ability to do so. But see if the following makes any sense: I’m worried that if you choose to accept that mythological creatures (like goblins) arose from collective and unconscious fears of misunderstood aspects of humanity then it’s incumbent upon us as writers to not promulgate such biases but rather to subvert them. One way is to not essentialize these figures by declaring them all ‘evil’, but to instead give them the same free will and ability to react to their own cultures that we possess.

    So far so good. But in giving them agency and self determination are we not humanizing them at the expense of the very monstrous nature that is their raison-de-etre? How are a band of raiding goblins different from a band of raiding 12th century Mongolians if both possess free will and are shaped by their culture, economic necessity, etc?

    To a degree I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but I’m curious as to your thoughts. Is there a middle ground between depicting goblins as humans with pointy ears or as symbols of our own prejudices? How do you create inhuman monsters without playing to the very biases and prejudices we’re seeking to avoid?

    (Random thought: do you think humans would be less prone to racism amongst themselves if there actually were other races amongst us? Do you think brown humans would feel a sense of kinship with brown elves? Would downtrodden orcs in a human dominant city seek to emulate human fashion, modes of speaking, and values so as to appear successful? I think so!)

  10. Um… dude/dudette/gender of your choice, what does this have to do with anything I said in my post?

    (And aside from that, racism originated from a lot of different points, individual as well as governmental, and religion has formed the basis of most opposition to racism in this country, so I think you’re labeling with far too broad a brush.)

  11. Hi otherdeb,

    Nobody in most intelligent, socially-conscious, politically-aware people’s circles practices blatant racism, or at least not openly. Blatant racism these days is something like terrorism — the way we react to it is all out of proportion to its actual prevalence in daily life, or its actual likelihood of harming us directly. Everybody in my circle is talking about this justice of the peace right now, calling for his and his boss’ resignation, even though he hasn’t killed anyone or even inconvenienced them much. But far fewer of the folks I know are talking about (let alone doing anything about) the racist underpinnings of the anti-healthcare-reform movement, even though that has the potential to kill thousands — people of color especially, since we’re disproportionately represented among the poor.

    So I think it is worse for people to be so shocked by blatant racism, because it reflects an understanding of what’s horrible that is superficial and not rooted in anything resembling reality. And it has a weird kind of soporific effect — the shocked person gets a nice solid morality boost from being able to say, “Well, at least I’m not like that guy.” Then they blithely go on their way, not bothering to examine all the little ways in which they themselves might have helped to harm thousands of people. It’s a kind of false righteousness that does no good to anyone.

  12. Well I happen to think that more emphasis should be placed on blacks doing things to raise themselves above active or stealth racism. To have millions of blacks gladly bathe in European false religion which sedates their minds is even grounds they shouldn’t bother to complain about racism, their still blind to whites manipulation, and which results in no respect for blacks in the form of racism spoken of in this thread, and is therefore inseparable from the posting. Get blacks out of the spurious Jesus Christ faith and teach them some world historical truth, give some coherency. Too many are dumb-down by baseless religious beliefs designed to neuter thinking. Not relevant, oh no?

  13. Yes, the reaction to blatant prejudice is out of proportion. And I agree that it’s far easier to condemn the idiot who is openly blatantly prejudiced than to examine where one’s own shortfalls might be.

    The thing is, I’m not sure the person who is horrified by it is always doing a “At least I’m not like that guy.” There are those of us who, when confronted with stuff like that look to see what we might be doing to contribute to the problem.

    I guess that my biggest issue is that there seems to be no rational way to discuss the issue. So often, people who are horrified at prejudice towards one group don’t see it toward others, or seem to feel that acknowledging that other types of prejudice than against their particular group somehow takes away from the legitimacy of their complaint, and that is what scares me.

    Both you and I belong to groups that have, historically, been persecuted. Both groups suffer from stereotypes that are still believed by the ignorant. Yes, there are differences between both groups. I would be an idiot not to know that. Still, it seems to me that if one wants to fight prejudice, one must fight against all prejudice, not just against one type. Sizism, racism, gender issues, religious issues…they are all prejudices, and I think we really have to be cognizant of that if we don’t want to equally be written off as being prejudiced.

    I agree with your point that those who do a “at least I’m not that guy” are looking for an easy way out. But I don’t believe that everyone who is shocked by blatant racism (sizism, whatever) does react that way. Speaking in generalities makes great rhetoric, but I am not sure it represents truth, and so — even when well-intentioned — can ultimately cloud the issue.

    I think that (and, to quote India Arie, “Don’t be offended this is all my opinion/ain’t nothing that I’m sayin law”), we all need to examine our beliefa and conclusions, especially when we hear ourselves saying, “all ‘x’ are…” or things to that effect. The reason I feel this way is that it seems to me that the very prejudices that you, and most of the people we know are fighting to do away with are the result of just such generalizations. And by perpetuating generalizations, are we, in fact, perpetuating the very prejudices we are fighting against?

  14. Um. Do you listen to what you are saying? Or do you just spout off? “Well I happen to think that more emphasis should be placed on blacks doing things to raise themselves above active or stealth racism. To have millions of blacks gladly bathe in European false religion which sedates their minds is even grounds they shouldn’t bother to complain about racism, their still blind to whites manipulation, and which results in no respect for blacks in the form of racism spoken of in this thread, and is therefore inseparable from the posting.” is a classic case of blaming the victim. Blacks, or Jews, or Rastafarians, of Muslims, or Daoists, should not have to “raise themselves”. Goddess, how offensive that phrase is!

    NKJ: Sigh, I begin to cede your point. Clearly there are still people who would rather blame the victim, whether I know any of them or not. I apologize if I came off as high-handed before. I certainly did not mean to. But I still hold that generalizations do further prejudices, rather than clarify them.

  15. Let me respectfully say this. Blacks were indeed victimized and stripped of their identity, social understanding, religious views and much more. In lieu of those virtues they were forcefully programmed with white people mafia freemason religious beliefs. Since they no longer physically worth $475.00 as a slave on the plantation, why have they not deprogmmed themselves from those false gods and church rituals? Isn’t that part of what links them to their past as folks who can’t read and thereby are alienated from good history? So yes, victims are not to be blamed as a rule, but we really have some serious status problems here–am I seeing wrong cuz?

  16. One, I am not, thank the Goddess, your “cuz,” and would appreciate it if you did not address me that way..

    Two, No one disputes that blacks were, and still are to varying degrees, persecuted.

    Three, if they are being programmed, which I am not sure is the case, wouldn’t it be better to not program them, rather than to put the onus of escaping such programming on them? Again, that is placing the blame on the victims, i.e., “if they are so oppressed, why the hell don’t they revolt?” That’s just the kind of intellectual laziness that perpetuates prejudice, and seems to me to be exactly the kind of thinking that people like the esteemed Angry Black Woman, her readers, the readers of this blog, and most people genuinely interested in resolving these issues get annoyed at.

    Four, many people of all colors and faiths draw comfort and strength from their beliefs.

    Five, if you are going to set yourself up as knowing what is best for any group of people, you had damned well better have good credentials for doing so, which you have not shown us.

    Six, yes you are seeing wrong. You are making an awful lot of presumptions about what people’s faiths are, how they regard their faiths, and what they take from them.

    NKJ: If I have missed anything here, or have mistakenly misrepresented something, please feel free to clarify or correct it.

  17. ::blowing whistle::

    Wow, my first flamewar! I’m moving up in the world. =) Well, it’s not really a flamewar yet; thanks to both of you for being civil thus far.

    However — enough. ANCIENT, at this point I’m not sure you even read my post. I didn’t say word one about religion in the OP, so I have no idea why you’re bringing it up. Are you trying to suggest that religion has something to do with the differences between Southern and Northern/Western racism in the US? If so, please clarify. Because at best this looks like you’re tossing out a random rant about your personal bugaboo for no reason, and using my space to do it. At worst it looks like you’re trying to derail the conversation from “forms of racism and their relative danger” to “religion is bad”. Either way, it’s off-topic. Please return to the topic, if you choose to post in this thread again.

    Deb, I don’t think you’re off-base, but because you’re replying to ANCIENT you’re off-topic too. I’m OK with a little bit of topic drift but this thread’s gone into the blue yonder. So let’s just get back to the discussion at hand.

    Thanks!

  18. The thing is, I’m not sure the person who is horrified by it is always doing a “At least I’m not like that guy.” There are those of us who, when confronted with stuff like that look to see what we might be doing to contribute to the problem.

    But when you’re talking about blatant racism, you’re not doing anything to contribute to the problem. The actions of a frothing white nationalist skinhead, or a judge who thinks his screwed-up opinions about miscegenation trump those of the Supreme Court, are the responsibility of those individuals. That’s why blatant racism is so easy for white Americans to scorn — because for the most part, they’re not complicit in it. There’s little guilt attached these days, because American society has already taken the necessary steps to reject such behavior, or at least confine it in a social space where it will do the least harm. It’s not like aversive or other subtle forms of racism, which society perpetuates through white privilege and internalized self-hate on the part of PoC. In order to scorn that, we have to consider our own part in making/letting it happen, and that’s a much harder thing to do.

    I agree with you about generalizations. But please note that I did not do that in my OP. I’m talking about a very specific kind of person here, not just everyone who was shocked by the Louisiana incident. I’ve seen a lot of people reacting with surprise because that guy said what he did out loud, and because he got away with it for so long, and because other people helped/facilitated his behavior, and so on. But they’re not who I’m talking about. Basically, I’m talking about people who’ve bought into the whole “post-racial America” idea, and convinced themselves that racism is nothing more than backwoods Southern hicks lording what little power they have over the PoC in their immediate vicinity. I’m talking about people who think they can’t possibly be racist because they’re not Southern yokels, in other words. Hope that clarifies things.

    Oh, and —

    I guess that my biggest issue is that there seems to be no rational way to discuss the issue. So often, people who are horrified at prejudice towards one group don’t see it toward others, or seem to feel that acknowledging that other types of prejudice than against their particular group somehow takes away from the legitimacy of their complaint, and that is what scares me.

    There is a rational way to discuss the issue, and you’ll see it if you visit anti-racist blogs like ABW and Racialicious and whatnot. But that kind of discussion requires serious self-education on the part of all participants, and a serious willingness to listen on the part of folks from the privileged group. Without that, you end up with people getting defensive and spouting rhetoric, as you’ve mentioned.

    Which explains some of the inter-group fighting you’ve seen. One of the most effective tactics of institutionalized racism has been to pit Group X against Group Y, so that they will fight each other rather than the real source of their problems. Examples of this in history: Africans vs. African Americans; the “model minority myth” re Asian Americans, which was used to dismantle affirmative action for African, Native, and Latino Americans; the feminist movement’s hostility toward women of color, lesbians, transwomen, poor women, etc.; and so on. But if all parties are willing to acknowledge their own “isms” of whatever kind, and recognize that the animosity isn’t helpful, then conversation can — and does — take place.

  19. First, thank you for the clarifications.

    And second, thank you for not doing what many people do. I think the biggest hindrance to any conversation on this (or for that matter, any) subject is the tendency to devalue the opinion and experience of one party to the conversation.

    “But if all parties are willing to acknowledge their own “isms” of whatever kind, and recognize that the animosity isn’t helpful, then conversation can — and does — take place.”

    Absolutely, but it is my limited experience that that is more often the exception rather than the rule. What I have, sadly, seen happen in some of the anti-racist blogs (not by the blogger, but by some of the folks commenting, I hasten to add), is that someone says something that differs from the general opinion, based on their experience, and is promptly told that their experience is not valid. To me, that is the best way to derail the conversation, because one wants to be told that their experience is invalid. It is, after all, their experience, even if it differs from the experience of others.

    I have not seen you do that (whether it’s just good manners, or a serious intent that *all* parties to a conversation must be willing to listen as well as talk, I do not know you well enough to judge), and it seems to me that deep conversations on your blog are far less contentious because of that. It also seems to me that my opinion (right, wrong, or otherwise) is more likely to be listened to and seriously discussed in a non-defensive manner, so that I don’t have to get defensive back here, therefore I have a greater chance of hearing what you are saying.

    I seriously hope that these comments make sense. I can certainly understand why some of those commenting on anti-racist blogs are tired of having to lead people through racism 101 yet again. Goddess knows, I get tired of explaining that not all Jews have money (and if you saw what I make as a school aide, even you would laugh), or that all fat folk are not, necessarily, slobs and moral losers, but I am also aware that there is still a great need for doing so, no matter how tired I get of the process.

    Thank you for being willing to be part of the process of facilitating the conversation, rather than falling prey to the rhetoric on all sides.

    (Oh, and you forgot my favorite intragroup hypocrisy: Many of the early feminists, while paying lip service to the idea that every woman should get to do and be what she wants, were totally willing to discount those women who really did want to be wives and mothers, rather than pursue a career of some kind. And they were totally blind to the fact that this was a devaluing of the rights of those women.)

  20. Okay.

    Your blog, your call.

    Not a problem for me.

  21. Nkjemisin said: “Are you trying to suggest that religion has something to do with the differences between Southern and Northern/Western racism in the US?” The answer is yes.

    You should be as politically correct protecting theme of you post. But is there some limited room for simple allusion which underlines and aids the very problem you object to? So of course the two forms of racism has been in this society ever since the so-called emancipation proclamation, and what you’re really spotlighting is a certain psychological comfort that’s preferable in an encounter with racist who not hypocritical about it, opposed to racist who are like eroded graves.

    The subject should not be kept silent, however because of its colloquial value by nature falls to none progressive energy. In fact I find that just talking about those racial proclivities, is analogous with folks on the plantation discussing differences between their superiors in the way they were being treated, instead of being concerned with weightier issues. If I’m judged of entirely violating rule of context here please forgive me.Nkj and my other companions.

  22. Thank you for saying this. On the one hand, I run in circles where this stuff gets discussed on a fairly regular basis (Anthropology major, former assistant to a cultural anthropologist whose specialty is African Diaspora religion and culture, now a Creative Writing/Women’s Studies grad student…all in situations where a significant proportion of my professors and fellow students are themselves PoC). On the other hand, I am from Georgia and when I go to other parts of the country as soon as I open my mouth and people hear my accent they start making assumptions about me. I’ve been told that I MUST BE a racist because I grew up in the South, in so many words, by people exhibiting the exact kind of passive, oblivious behavior you are describing. When I call them out on it, eg “Er. Could you not make the one black person in the room into the SpokesPerson-of-Color, please?” it gets…interesting. By which I mean they get angry.

    People like that Justice of the Peace strike me as exasperating but, well…not quite harmless, but ineffectual. For one thing, if he’s trying to stop miscegenation in Louisiana, he’s about 300 years too late. It’s the passive racism that I also think is dangerous…health care like you said, the myth of the “welfare queen,” and so on. Racism is tied up with classism, and both are tied up with attitudes about the South in convoluted ways. My aforementioned anthropology prof says that the South is more culturally African than the rest of the country, and she thinks that people elsewhere hate Southerners because we are “black by association.” That’s an Afro-Cuban woman from New York talking…I definitely think there are strong elements of classism, as demonstrated by the word “redneck.” A redneck is a working class person. Using that as an insult says a lot about the speaker and where their mind is. And while “redneck” is aimed at white people…classism turns back on PoC’s, because they too tend to be poor and working class.

    I teach undergrads, and I see both signs of progress in their attitudes and some regressiveness, but I think there’s some real heavy lifting going on here in terms of those issues. *Even though* not as many PoC make it into college because of other factors, the sheer population numbers mean that there are more PoC students, more grad students and faculty, and so conversations can happen that wouldn’t necessarily happen when you’ve got maybe one PoC faculty who is trying to hold on to his or her position at a school where the student body is overwhelmingly white. Additionally, I notice that people are not as socially segregated as they were when I was a child; people have always maintained personal friendships but I am talking about seeing people out at dinner and so forth, less and less of the “all the black kids sit together” phenomenon and more public socializing.

  23. Otherdeb said: “You are making an awful lot of presumptions about what people’s faiths are, how they regard their faiths, and what they take from them.”

    I want to keep respect to the thread, and in that light I think its in order to state that the racial matrix relevant to the different manifestations of color hatred in the US, has a well written history that’s rich with intrinsic separatist racist practices, torture and murder and is accessible to all. If you’ve been reading any of it, you’d know that the US culture is made up of Roman theological ecclesiasticism and secularism. This worldwide religious paradigm was routed through Europe and made its way through Britain and brought to the US mainland by Pilgrims and Puritans. Does anyone need an institutional PhD to digest that? Rome created the Killer Religion of Christianity with every elements of racism we have come to know. Anyone who reads Vatican history since A.D.1st century knows that Rome is a clandestine mafia that’s controlling much of our world population with false religion.

    Try researching the issue of who introduced the A.D. calendar. These issues on the surface may not show instant relevance to the immediate subject, because of the general ignorance to them which makes many of us inadvertantly aid and abets the very existence of detestable situations we’re experiencing. Yes, how much have you shown to have an intellect connected to relevant history and that’s well aware of what got us into this racial dilemma? Griping about racism without knowing where it came from and the right reaction to it is just not helping. I don’t mean to be mean, but how can we get rid of this compound race problem without knowing the basis of it? Ignorant lips-talk won’t help, its the knowledge of relevant history that will make us see behind and before us, and determines appropriate responses. You got your religion under slavery, is it then something to embraced? Do you need not a PhD to understand that.

  24. Honestly, I think that if humans shared this planet with another sentient species, we would do everything in our power to wipe them out or enslave them, or be wiped out/enslaved by them. (You know there are theories that’s what happened to the Neanderthals, right? The wiping-out, not the slavery.) The only thing that would prevent that would be stalemate between the two groups.

    Here’s where I invoke my science fiction training. =) Science fiction regularly posits the existence of creatures we would call monsters — aliens — and regularly tries to humanize them to some degree, because otherwise we’d have real trouble relating to them in fiction. What seems to work best is a partial humanization, though, because otherwise — like you said — they’re humans with pointy ears/extra arms/whatever. They still need to be fundamentally different from us, or the SF reader won’t accept it. (Good example: CJ Cherryh’s atevi, in the Foreigner books. To a degree, Cherryh essentializes them as Japanese, per American stereotypes about the Japanese — they’re inscrutable and obsessed with honor, etc. But she trumps all that by showing that they’re also just not human. They’re all math geniuses [but they hate the number 2 for some reason]. They have emotions we don’t, and lack some of the ones we do. The whole series focuses on the need for humans to understand their culture, their beliefs, etc., in order to achieve peace.)

    I think the same thing should apply to fantasy races. Unfortunately far too many fantasy races not only are humanized too much, they’re treated as human stereotypes given form. e.g., D&D’s orcs = lazy, stupid, violent, ugly, and inherently evil = what racist white people think of black people. There’s no need to understand creatures like this; all the humans need to do is dominate/destroy them. Manifest Destiny all over again. And that’s lazy worldbuilding/species-building, IMO.

    Here’s a question, though: what do you mean by “monster”? IMO, the term “monster” is relative. One group’s monstrous behavior is another group’s desperate struggle for survival. Whether a fantasy/alien species is monstrous also depends on whether humans are able to communicate with them or not. Your goblins who raid a human town might just be starving to death; if they knew how to ask for food they would. Or they might have motives we consider immoral — they need sacrifices for their blood-god or something — but to them it’s an honor to die for the blood-god, and they’re choosing to use humans because they think humans are really cool. Whatever. An intelligent species stops being monstrous once we understand it.

  25. Well, let me be clear — I don’t have a lot of tolerance for white people who try to privilege their own experiences over people of color. I shut them down too; it’s just that I don’t usually have to do that here, because people aren’t here primarily to talk about racism.

    And white people frequently do try to privilege their own experiences over PoC in discussions of racism — typical example is white participants bringing up the time some random black person was mean to them/spat on them/beat them up/whatever, and trying to say that this is equal to PoC’s generations of rape, murder, and legal/economic oppression. It isn’t possible to treat that white experience and the PoC experience as equal in the context of a discussion of racism — they’re nowhere near equal, and in fact the white person’s story shows that she has no understanding of how racism really works. To even try and accept that white person’s experience as equal devalues the experiences of the PoC in that discussion — so the only way to deal with it is to invalidate it. Quickly, before it derails the whole conversation. (Because it will. It’s the first step in turning a discussion of racism into a discussion of what’s wrong with PoC; I’ve seen it happen too often not to recognize the pattern now.)

    See, you didn’t quote one of my key points from further upthread: But that kind of discussion requires serious self-education on the part of all participants, and a serious willingness to listen on the part of folks from the privileged group. The willingness to listen on the part of white people in discussions of racism — and in some cases to shut up and listen, is absolutely essential.

    But as long as people demonstrate all this with me, I’ll be civil. I might still shut them down for the sake of the conversation, but I’ll be civil about it.

  26. Well, yes, I did not quote that. I did not quote it because I honestly believe that *all* parties to a conversation have to be willing to listen as well as to be heard. I didn’t miss your point at all; I just was not certain how to verbalize my feelings on it (I hadn’t had my caffeine yet…).

  27. Nkjemisin said: “Are you trying to suggest that religion has something to do with the differences between Southern and Northern/Western racism in the US?” The answer is yes.

    ANCIENT, if that’s the point you’re trying to make, then you need to make it. You’re tossing around a lot of big words, but they’re not stringing together in a way that makes sense to me except in the most vague way. Help me out here: make your point simply and plainly, with straightforward language.

    For example, explain how you think religion has made a difference in the two forms of racism. Because the churches I encounter here in New York are no different from the ones I grew up around in the South; the only difference is that there’s more variety here in terms of faiths and the ethnic groups that follow them. And there are more people here who are openly atheist or agnostic. And you still haven’t addressed my point about how religion has been the source of resistance to oppression for the black community. Martin was a Christian preacher; Malcolm was from the Nation of Islam; Southern black churches helped to organize most of the Civil Rights marches, sit-ins, and so on. So it doesn’t make sense to me that religion is the cause of racism (if that’s what you’re saying). Yes, religion has been used by racists to justify their behavior, and the system. But lots of things have been used to justify racism — science (e.g., phrenology), literature, skewed history. Are all of those the cause of racism too?

  28. Racism as we know it now…even the construction of the idea of race…is a phenomenon of the modern era starting in the late Renaissance. “Whiteness” and “blackness” didn’t exist in the 1500’s as concepts the same way they do now. The emergence of those categories has to do with colonialism and the economic value of creating an arbitrary division then used to justify the enslavement of one category of person. And, as Tim Wise likes to point out, it also keeps the poor people who fit in the other category on the side of the elite and against the people with whom they actually have more common interests.

    Slavery as a practice is immensely old, and pre-dates Christianity. But the type of slavery that existed in the Americas is a different kind of thing, and it has a history rooted in the forces that created it…that is to say, colonialism and imperial expansion. Christianity was something of an enabler and a tool for that process, but it is not the source of it. It’s also perfectly true and obvious that Christianity has been a force for resistance and liberation in the hands of people who found inspiration in it, specifically MLK and the grass-roots movement of the Southern Christian Leadership Council.

    Your history is wrong, your prose is muddled, and your arguments range from not holding water to anti-Catholic and laced with conspiracy theory. You are right about the value of knowing where racism comes from. But I believe you are barking up the wrong tree about the rest of it.

  29. Y’know what — forget this. ANCIENT, I’ve warned you several times about going off-topic, and you’re determined to be hard-headed. The history of slavery in America, or Christianity’s role in it, is not the point of this conversation. I’ve given you as many chances as I could to come back to the topic, but at this point you’re becoming a time-sink and I got books to write.

    I’m putting you on moderation. If you can bring yourself back to the point, I’ll approve your comments going forward, but otherwise you’re done with this thread.

  30. Sara,

    Thanks for pointing out the anti-Catholic stuff; I have so much trouble understanding ANCIENT’s posts that I’d missed that. Yeahno, I’m not fond of bigotry against any group; that’s not acceptable here.

    But frankly I’m tired of talking about this, and annoyed that ANCIENT has succeeded in derailing the conversation I wanted to have. I should’ve shut him/her down sooner. ::sigh:: Well, live and learn.

  31. “I’m biracial, and although I’ve felt scorn from all groups, it seems by far worse now that we’ve elected a black president. People feel like they can make wildly inappropriate comments and brush it off by following up with, “but I voted for Obama.””

    Yeah, and I want to smack them, but at worst, I ask them if they really hear what they just said.

  32. Man, excellent stuff in your response. I agree with you completely on the partial humanization, and think that the best examples of genuine, alien ‘other’ has happened when the author has carefully thought out the consequences that basic physical or mental differences have on an alien race. Like say their life spans only last 10 years, or their society operates along an extreme hierarchical pack mentality, or they have different phases in their lives like larvae, caterpillar, butterfly. Posit those basic differences, and then extrapolate how an intelligent creature would see the world as a result of those constraints.

    And I agree with your assessment of the human drive to conquer any sentient other. I read somewhere that our warmongering actually proved to be a means through which we achieved civilization: those who were peaceful and remained content with their lot were dominated by those who were able to organize and impose enough martial discipline on their ranks. Basically the urge to conquer resulted in the need to organize. Interesting to think: if we were to encounter an intelligent alien race, our urge to conquer them would result in our own consequent advancement in terms of technology, organization, unification, etc.

    As for what I meant by ‘monster’, I guess I meant ‘other’, something with an alien and inhuman nature or quality that defies our ability to understand them. As you illustrated, an intelligent species stops being monstrous once we understand it, but that’s precisely the problem – how do you create an intelligent species that retains its monstrous nature? Aaand I guess the answer is precisely what you said–by partially humanizing them.

    The closest I’ve seen to creating an intelligent, resolutely ‘other’ being is China Mieville’s multi-dimensional being in the form of a giant spider called the Weaver in his ‘Perdido Street Station’. It speaks in torrents of poetical free verse, is obsessed with scissors and is completely unpredictable to those who interact with it.

    Ok, I’m rambling here, but it’s great to get these thoughts out on paper. I’m in the process of brainstorming some stuff of my own, and this has been very helpful, so thanks!

  33. Sara,

    FYI, ANCIENT has asked me to give you his/her email address, in case you want to continue the convo privately: Jeremiah2004@bellsouth.net.

  34. Interesting to think: if we were to encounter an intelligent alien race, our urge to conquer them would result in our own consequent advancement in terms of technology, organization, unification, etc.

    Or our annihilation, if we fuck with somebody who’s better at it, yeah. =P

    Interesting idea, though I’m not sure I agree with it. It seems to me that the structures of what we call civilization are rooted in the avoidance of conquest. It’s easy to call up a posse and go attack somebody, after all; more complicated to build walls to defend against attackers and grow food to withstand siege and design weapons to kill from a distance (for good defense) and so on.

    As you illustrated, an intelligent species stops being monstrous once we understand it, but that’s precisely the problem – how do you create an intelligent species that retains its monstrous nature? Aaand I guess the answer is precisely what you said–by partially humanizing them.

    Well, no. Once an “other” is humanized — i.e., understandable — it can’t be a monster anymore. This plays into how racism works; many of the stereotypes that have floated around about PoC are those which resist our humanization in the eyes of white people. (e.g., Black people are innately violent, less intelligent, sexually voracious, good at music and dance but bad at literature and the sciences, whatever; anyone who believes these stereotypes feels less guilt/hesitation at treating us unfairly) The same thing applies to stereotypes about Southerners, actually — maybe it’s a remnant of the Civil War, but a lot of Northerners and Westerners are quick to dehumanize Southerners by assuming they’re all racist, or more racist, or all ignorant religious nuts, or whatever. It’s not nearly as bad as racism, but there’s still some significant prejudice involved here.

    But back to fantasy. IMO the only way to keep an “other” monstrous is to make them completely incomprehensible. But incomprehensibility alone isn’t enough — most of us worship deities that are incomprehensible, after all, and we don’t think of those as monsters. So in addition to incomprehensibility, they have to be a threat. Or so diametrically opposed in values as to amount to a threat — that would make them “evil” in our eyes, though it’s still a relative thing.

    Have you ever read Jacqueline Carey’s BANEWREAKER and… er, I blank on the second one, but basically she wrote a duology that essentially reverses the focus of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien, Dark Lord Sauron was monstrous because his values seemed incomprehensibly immoral — he was all down with the genocide, had no problem with destroying the world, used other races (e.g., the elves, whom he mutated into orcs) slaves and tools against their will, and so on. In Carey, she tries to show things from the Dark Lord-figure’s perspective. He thinks humans are a threat to the other races of the world (and they are, through overpopulation and their tendency to try and conquer everyone in sight), so he has no problem wiping them out by the bajillion in order to protect the orcs and so on. He knows the elves are planning to launch a preemptive strike, so to prevent it he kidnaps one of their princesses, figuring they won’t attack if he’s got her. (They do anyway.) And so on. All the things Carey’s DL does are “evil” from a certain perspective, but perfectly reasonable actions from another take. One author’s monster is another author’s pragmatist.

  35. I was discussing this elsewhere and offered the opinion that people who have enough home training to know that overt racism is Bad but who are really kind of racist and classist in that condescending passive-aggressive way tend to show their asses when talking to white Southerners, whom they tend to assume are stupid and need admonishing. Or we get treated to all that stuff they won’t say to your face because they assume said white Southerner agrees with them. (Sometimes both!) Maybe we could form a volunteer corps to help you smoke out the jackasses. Just doing my part, ma’am…:D

    Though..in my experience, people aren’t just single-issue bigots. There’s a strategic aspect to intersectionality (I know I’m sort of misusing the word but I can’t think of a better one) in that if someone disparages group X to your face and you aren’t a member of that group, or displays the kind of behavior you know is a danger signal, the chances they are doing it to you behind your back go up significantly. This goes beyond solidarity; I tend to assume that someone who has certain attitudes about PoC or so on are probably not people to trust on my own account.

    But what do you do with people who otherwise seem decent but have huge, privilege-spangled blind spots, and just refuse to see it? I sure would like to know.

  36. This. Thank you.

    Am very much enjoying your book, by the way, and will be e-mailing you soon with a question to add to our original interview. :)

  37. Again, thanks for the awesome response. I’ve not read Banewreaker, but can’t tell from your description if I’d actually like to read it despite the novely of the idea. Is there enough to it to prevent it from becoming gimmicky after awhile? Clever idea, but does it become more than clever? If you think so, I’ll check it out.

    As for your formula of incomprehensible + threatening = monstrous, well, I love it. Succinct and true. Works not only for SF as you said, but to pernicious stereotypes and even the kind of humans we openly call monstrous like serial killers with questionable culinary habits. Take Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’. Terrifyingly unknowable despite his intellectual acumen and prodigious cultural knowledge. Add in the overwhelming sense of danger, and you have a true monster.

    Also, as an end note, I’ve added ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ to my Amazon Wishlist. If your blog posts are this thought provoking and stimulating, I can’t wait to get my hands on an entire novel.

    Ciao!

  38. I can relate to your post. I’ve been to Mobile a few times btw..but I actually am from Mississippi, and have spent quita alot of time in New Orleans, so I know the general geographic area quite well.
    I’m gay, so if you think growing up black in the south is difficult, try being gay. But I will say this: dealing with any kind of hatred from others whether it’s as a child in an abusive home or whether it’s an abuse you get from society is like a psychic attack, which is really draining on all levels to deal with. That process can have life-long effects on economic and career goals, health, self-image, and how you relate to others. I agree totally about the straightforwardness of the south. Most people there actually don’t play games. They will tell you “I love you” or “I hate you”, but you never feel like you’re dealing with undercover agents who you need to give truth serum to in order to find out their motives. Strangely enough, that can be relaxing in a sense rather than what I’ve experienced by some people in other parts of the country when i have that shock of finding out that the angel i thought loved me was really the devil.
    I will say this: although people in the south are more straighforward as individuals, i’ve noticed that the lawyers, judges, police, real estate agents and people in power are just the opposite. I learned that when I inherited money. They have the world’s most effecient system of milking money out of anyone. That group is as stealthy as they come. Average southerners however are nothing like that.
    One thing about the south which nonsoutherners fail to understand is that it is a connundrum…people can be indivually compassionate and generous but limit those qualities out of fear or ignorance to only certain people. The minute you think you understand the culture, it’ll throw you a surprise. It’s a very nonlinear culture and so that’s why it has produced most of the nation’s culture *great literature and music. Really I think that a nonsoutherner would not understand the intricacies involved in the culture unless they grew up there. So, it’s simplistic for someone say from Boston or New York to think they can grasp it just by an image they have formed in their heads. I’m from there, and to this day i still have trouble formulating exactly what is going on. LOL