Racism and the well-meaning white novelist

Recently I had a brief exchange on twitter with another writer about structural racism in novels – in particular stereotypes and tropes which are included, deliberately or not, in stories written by white people which include minority characters. The discussion was actually started about gender identities, but it encompassed racial identities also. 

One of the phrases used was Well Meaning White Women. I hadn’t come across that before, but I felt like it probably applied to me, because every book I’ve written includes characters who, at this point in time on Earth, would be considered minorities.

My Position: I am only oppressed or a minority in that I have been identifiable as a woman with all that entails in present-day England. I am white. I’m not sure about my gender TBH but I pass as straight and have always had partners who were men though…let’s just go with straight because it’s only significant here in terms of visual or social identification. I have various fantasy lives in which I’m always male, not always white, not always straight. I don’t put particular significance on that. Discussing imagined constructs is for another post entirely, not unrelated but not useful here. I’ve experienced what I would guess is a low to average amount of sexism. If I was structurally oppressed I can’t say for sure. I am a woman who writes SF and every interview has always highlighted that. I have often fallen into the trap of discussing that, thereby validating it. I have not been on all cylinders all the time when I had opportunities to be viciously critical of things that needed it although I’ve felt strongly about it. 

I’m writing here about my Well Meaning bit and how it played out in my work up to now. If it reveals me to be a part of the problem then I’m glad to know that, at least. I don’t know that it does, so I will have to wait and see if others convince me that I am. (FYI would being convinced stop me doing whatever I’m doing? Of course it would. I can’t think of anything much more depressing than trying to fight against something only to see that you’ve been making it worse.)

In my first published novel, Silver Screen, I chose to write about a protagonist who was half white Irish and half Indian (Bharat, not North America). I know not much about being Irish, and not much about being Punjabi. I figured Irish was relatively safe as I had friends who were Irish. I had cousins who were half white American and half Indian. I assumed that there is a common humanity everywhere which would allow me to realistically imagine the rest in the usual way for all fictioneers since ever. (We are always writing only ourselves, we try to stand in others’ shoes).

However, I decided I wasn’t going to write Anjuli, or any other character in the book, whatever minority they might signal in the present, as a minority, I was going to write everyone as if they were equals who saw each other as equals and who did not have biases. I wanted to set it in a future where none of this was a thing, because I wanted to create a future where none of this was a thing – some part of me, born in the 1980s, actually thought that in my lifetime we were going to move to a point where all this was not a thing and I wanted to be in the vanguard of making it not a thing. I did my best to remove that.

One of the first, and very disappointed, pieces of criticism I got on that was that the book did not reflect the reality of being a mixed-race woman. It absolutely doesn’t, because I knew I could never pull that off convincingly and because to do so would have been the opposite of what I had in mind. The story is about the absolute bigotry handed out to an AI in a world that considered itself past all that. Even the main character dithers about whether or not to think of machine minds as equivalent to living humans. She doesn’t once think about her own heredity or history because she doesn’t think people still do that. I thought that would actually send up a signal that this is really genuinely odd, that it would give the story verisimilitude because it’s just completely impossible for a present-day actual mixed race woman in a top job not to have spent every day noticing that she was noticed for all the wrong things. The most she does is wonder about her own fractured family – which fell apart for reasons which again, were not racially motivated.

The category this falls into is the ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ category of not addressing racism and thereby letting it slip away, I suppose? Always supposing I had done it successfully (I can’t tell because I wrote it). I was trying to model my work on Star Trek, but better, without leaving Uhura on the flight deck all the time. That was where I was at. I think, then and now, that there is a great benefit in creating futures where current issues do not exist, even if you can’t explain how it happened, because you give people a chance to notice that it can not exist, that it is possible and, more importantly, that whoever you are it is fantastically desirable.

Moving on through a lot more examples e.g. in which the protagonist of Natural History is a black female history Professor who goes off with a cyborg transhuman into another dimension…we end up at a much more recent book of mine, The Switch.

The final cover

The Switch has a gay male protagonist struggling for survival in a world where the entire political, religious, social and scientific structure revolves around anti-gay bigotry. I think this fully captures pretty much every Do Not Never Ever EVER Do This recommendation of the original twitter thread on how to write minorities which started this entire topic. 

I felt all of those Never Evers for every bit of writing that story, even before having someone well-meaning say it on Twitter. Constructing that world became a bizarre game in how to save anything remotely plausible or sensible or hopeful from the massive fucking train-wreck that is Homophobia Through The Ages. It’s part and parcel of Hatred Management Through The Ages, which is why I wanted to write about it even though every sensible bit of me was screaming, “NOOoooo let’s go write about space aliens instead…” But I couldn’t because I’ve never come across a bunch of hateful justifications for shit behaviour and wanton stupidity that I could leave un-tilted-at. And I know I am not a great tilter. I’m more like a terrier that smells a rat and then goes into the Red Zone.

Anyway I did include some space aliens and a well-meaning interfering Social Justice Warrior from another galaxy who turned out to have well-meaning methods that involved all kinds of unpleasant murdery, rapey, emotionally violating collateral damage for our heroes as she helped them to dismantle their horrid world (horrid for them, mind you, not horrid for a good half the population). Like they were short of that stuff to start with. And then they discovered that the entire thing was…OK,  I’m not writing that spoiler here but trust me, it was the last thing you’d want to find out about Why You Suffered. 

But then I read that Twitter thread and I wondered – I did write about a non-existent reality but, because it features things which are trying, very obviously, to hit you over the head with the Look At This Thing Here and Now bat, have I been adding to the issue? I knew from the start my only way to write about it was in an SF structural way because it isn’t my personal experience directly. As with Anjuli in Silver Screen I didn’t want to write Nico as a victim, even though here his oppression is everywhere and unavoidable. Nico pretends he’s a hard case who can shrug it all off. He’s constantly failing magnificently to do this, but that’s his survival mode and it kind of works.

You would have to decide for yourself if my work falls into the category of Well Meaning White things. I feel that there is a discussion here I still haven’t reached yet which is the problem of trying to police/interpret/know other people’s thoughts but that has to wait for tomorrow’s post. 

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