Posts Tagged ‘race’

I saw the movie Lincoln last weekend. It was excellent, and tellingly the theatre was nearly full two months after the release date.

Apart from Daniel Day Lewis’s eerie transformation into exactly what you imagine Abraham Lincoln to have looked and acted like, the outstanding performance in this film, to me, was Tommy Lee Jones’s depiction of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was an abolitionist congressman who had to retract his statements that he thought all races were created equal in order to make the 13th Amendment more palatable to less radical politicians. (He does so with searing rhetoric, but the emotional cost to him and to the black people listening to him is apparent.)

The rest of this post requires a minor spoiler (probably not a spoiler at all if you know anything about Civil War history or are inclined to look things up on Wikipedia). Stevens’s housekeeper and mistress/common law wife, Lydia Hamilton Smith, was black. (This fact is not apparent until nearly the end of the film and is played as a “big reveal” of sorts.)

After the movie, one of the people I saw it with thought that this fact cheapened Stevens’s work for abolition somehow; several others in the party agreed; I caught myself agreeing for a second.

But really, how is acting in the interests of someone you love—not just acting in their interests, but fighting for their human rights when they have less opportunity to do so themselves—a less-than-noble motive?

Taking the original statement further, is it ignoble for Lydia Hamilton Smith herself to support the abolition of slavery, because she’s black and therefore serving her own interests? If we frame the story that way, it’s the privileged members of society granting rights to the less privileged who are the greatest heroes; the underprivileged who fight for their rights are less worthy of praise. (I’m writing in general terms now, because the argument could apply to any social justice movement.)

This reasoning, to me, is obviously wrong. In fact it’s a way in which hegemony is maintained after it’s been officially dismantled. The narrative of already-privileged allies acting benevolently supersedes the narrative of activism by the less-privileged group and thus makes their contribution to history seem smaller, keeping them as a group less visible.

It also ignores the power of personal interactions to change people’s opinions. It might not always turn out so well, but sometimes it takes having a gay sibling, or a child in an interracial relationship, or a feminist teacher, or a trans friend, or a Muslim coworker to change a person’s mind about their bigotry. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with reconsidering one’s own bigotry.

Allies are vital to any social justice movement. But let’s not pat them—or ourselves—on the back too much for their detached benevolence. Granting rights to those who have been deprived of them is good; but the struggle by those people for those rights is the heroic tale we should remember.


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…while you’re waiting for me to climb down the mountain and write another post (oh, and comment about, but it might take a bit for me to moderate):

Have a listen to A Nerd of Advice‘s wonderful episode about mansplaining among the geeks. They have some particularly thoughtful things to say about enjoying media that takes the occasional sexist/racist/what-have-you turn as well as some useful links.

Now to steer the discussion away from the mansplaining part and towards the “dealing with literature etc. that sometimes makes you cringe but is otherwise good”…you may have noticed that I have a slight obsession with one H. P. Lovecraft. I started reading Lovecraft about a year ago, and basically devoured the complete works in a few months. There’s something compelling about the wordy prose balanced by the shying away from overt description of unimaginable horrors, the total ownership of the word “eldritch”, the idea that too much knowledge is deadly and/or maddening. But here’s the thing: Lovecraft was super racist. In more than a “well people were more racist/didn’t know better back then” sort of way. I get the impression that if Shakespeare had been born in the late twentieth century his more misogynist and xenophobic edges would have been blunted. But Lovecraft? He just seems to have genuinely hated black people, truly thought they’re inferior. In his prose, this comes across infrequently, but his poetry (on top of being uniformly bad) is disgustingly racist. I feel like I have to deal with it in a different way than I deal with, say, the misogyny in Heinlein, which is basically to say “damn I like this guy’s writing; too bad he’s backwards about women”. In truth I haven’t decided how to deal with it.

Here are some SFF authors’ thoughts on the matter, collected by Nnedi Okorafor—a woman of colour who has won “The Howard”, the World Fantasy Award, which comes with a creepy bust of Lovecraft’s head. (Who wouldn’t want that in their living room?) (P.S. Let me slap a trigger warning on that link, because it quotes in full Lovecraft’s most disturbingly racist poem.) In sum: many lean towards just making H. P. roll in his grave by their very existences as successful non-white/non-racist authors. Nnedi herself, more charitably, suggests that Lovecraft is now a being of pure spirit who, having had his mind opened to things beyond the realm of human conception after his death, realizes the error of his ways. Neither approach really helps me as a reader of Lovecraft’s work, though. I have concluded that all I can do is change my Time Travel Priorities such that I would go punch Lovecraft in the face before I went off to find me some dinosaurs. (In short, feeble fist-shake to the cosmos.)

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I’ve never liked Maclean’s university rankings—really, it’s stupid to compare the entire undergraduate experience at different universities—but this article is egregiously full of fail. It’s about whether certain Canadian universities with reputations for being academically rigorous, especially in science and engineering, are “too Asian”.

I’m an alumna of the University of Toronto, one of the schools singled out as being especially “Asian”. Yes, there are many Asian students there; yes, many of them are very hard-working and very strongly focused on their grades; and yes, U of T has a reputation for being really frakking hard. But allow me to explain why that is not the point, and furthermore how associating a university’s reputation for being strongly academically focused with its racial composition is misguided at best and racist at worst. (more…)

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Here is an Onion article that thinks it’s funny because haha, black people have all the exciting stereotypes and srsly who wants to be a geek? But actually it’s funny because nerds of colour, with a few notable exceptions (the Indian doctor stereotype, anyone?), get no representation in the mainstream media!

You know what sucks? When you turn on the TV and you cannot find a single character that reminds you of yourself.

You know what else sucks? When the characters that do remind you of yourself are the butts of everyone’s jokes.

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