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Some thinky thoughts May. 28th, 2014 @ 12:01 pm
I may be a bit running late on particularly thoughtful commentary, but I still want to rant slightly on something that's annoyed me recently: to wit, people calling out Mark Cuban as a bigot for saying he'd cross the street to avoid a black youth in a hoodie or a white skinhead.

Primarily because: yes that's bigoted and that was his entire point. Essentially, it could be boiled down like this:

Mark Cuban: I think everyone has prejudices. I, for example, have these reactions in certain circumstances, which is totally bigoted of me, but what's important is what we say and do, not what we think.


Me: What is wrong with you?

Because he actually made a very good and true point. You can't help your prejudices, at least not in the short term. But you *can* decide how you're going to act, and what you're going to say.

Having racist thoughts doesn't make you a bad person, doing racist things does.

I'm now going to talk about my parents in a way that they might not like, but this is an important thing to me.

My parents both grew up in South Africa. Obviously there was pervasive, thoroughly institutionalised racism in all sorts of areas and ways all around them. Neither of them liked it, enough that they decided they didn't want to raise their children in South Africa the way it was or was becoming, and in 1982 they left their homeland and their extended families to move to a foreign country they had never even seen, for the sake of a better life for me and my sister.

I am in awe of the courage of that decision, the sacrifice they made.

However, as I've grown older and watched *them* grow older too, I've become more and more aware of another, ongoing campaign they've been fighting against the influence of the Old South Africa, all my life and possibly all of theirs.

See, my parents are both firmly agreed that Racism Is Bad. But they hail from a society that was deeply, insidiously racist, and a certain amount of prejudice seeped into them nonetheless.

And from what I can tell, they've spent their whole lives fighting it, and fighting even more not to pass those attitudes to their children.

With an adult's perspective, I can recognise the way my parents have, in defiance of average behaviour, become more liberal as they get older, generally speaking. But I can also, thinking back, recall the times when my parents would freeze, just for a fraction of a second, and then be firmly positive in their totally-not-racist reaction to something.

The impression I'm left with is that sometimes my parents' instinctive reactions to things are racist, but my parents are better people than that, and have made the deliberate decision that those thoughts will not decide their actions.

And I admire that. I think it shows tremendous strength of character, I really do. Throughout my childhood I was taught that people of other races are sometimes different, but never lesser. That differences should be respected - you should pronounce people's names properly, even if they're foreign to you, that you should respect their customs when you are their guest, and try to make them feel comfortable when they are yours.

It was my mother, I'm fairly certain, who told me the story of the great society lady hosting a dinner in honour of a foreign ambassador - the kind of dinner where there are a dozen different forks, with "correct" cutlery for every course. When the soup was served, the ambassador, to the shock of many guests, picked up his bowl and drank from it directly, rather than using the soup spoon, tipping it only away from him, and slurping decorously.

Whereupon the hostess, with utmost poise, lifted her own soup bowl and drank from it, then continued her conversation as if nothing was amiss. Some guests followed suit, others did not, but the ambassador was not embarrassed by his error at all.

I have, on occasion, become the instant favourite of friends' foreign relatives simply because, when introduced to them, I listen closely to their names and make sure I'm pronouncing them correctly. To me, this is the most basic of politeness, because if you're casually mispronouncing their name, how are you doing anything but casually disregarding everything about them that doesn't fit your own cultural preconceptions?

... post locked because it's very rambly and off-the-cuff trying to think through things.
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An odd question: the colour of bruising Apr. 9th, 2012 @ 11:23 am
I seek to learn: What colours do bruises go to and through for people with non-white skin?

See, I am thoroughly familiar with the way bruising works for white people, on account of I am white, and have, on occasion, acquired some spectacular bruises. (For the most recent example, see: "Breaking my leg in three places, then having orthopaedic surgery." This causes bruising for which the word spectacular is barely adequate.)

However, I have no idea how bruising affects skin less pale than mine. Are the colours different? Are they even visible? That stage where it's all just pale yellow, how does that look? I feel extrapolating from "how different it looks on me when I have a tan" is risky.

This is one of those topics I'm slightly afraid to google in case I find something I didn't actually want to.

But it's frustrating to me, because at the moment, I'm partly stuck on a couple of stories I want to write that have centrally-placed non-white characters because I have to write awkwardly around getting them even slightly hurt, where white characters can get as beaten up as the plot demands because I know what that looks like.

So... If you have any knowledge of any other skin type's bruising and are willing to share, please tell me?

Hypocrisy and free speech, etc Oct. 9th, 2011 @ 08:18 am
This is one of the better comments on the Andrew-Bolt-is-a-racist-but-zomg-FREE-SPEECH thing I've seen yet, because in no small part it makes the point that the whole thing was not about free speech. And that freedom of speech is not an absolute, and shouldn't be, and no-one sane thinks it should be.

The question about "freedom of speech" is not about whether it should be limited - it should. The question is about where those limits are placed.

Note to Americans, before you reply to tell me about how I clearly favour Orwellian dictatorship or how America the Beautiful totally doesn't limit freedom of speech: Yes, it bloody does. To use the age-old example, your laws regarding freedom of speech do not give you freedom to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. America's legal provisions limiting freedom of speech are woefully inadequate, but they're there.

(Man, those first two amendments to the U.S. Constitution are terrible. "So, we're going to have a country in which there's no legal way to limit hate speech or gun ownership? There is NO POSSIBLE WAY this could go wrong. I'm sure that it's just coincidence that approximately 16% of our heads of state get murdered in office, as of 9/10/11.")
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Breaking the Cycles Jul. 12th, 2010 @ 11:06 am
I only just learned of Yetta Dhinnakal Correctional Centre. It's out in western New South Wales, 70km from Brewarrina. Link goes to an ABC news article that's well worth reading.

The summary: Ten years ago, the chief commissioner of the NSW Department of Correctional Services read the report from the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody and actually thought about it, and came up with this place. The name means "right pathway" in the local Djemba language.

It takes young Indigenous men who've committed non-serious crimes, like burglary and drug offences, and, instead of throwing them into the prison system where nothing good will happen, sets about breaking the cycle of crime and incarceration, instead teaching the young men trades, skills, and self-respect.

It's working, too.

I almost cried reading the article, because it's one of those things - and there are a few dotted around Australia, but not nearly enough - where you can actually see that even the government is learning. The Indigenous population of this country is in a terrible state, and they need help... but at Yetta Dhinnakal, like all the other genuinely successful programs I know of that are attempting to get the communities out of the cycle of misery that is the legacy of colonisation and institutional racism, the way it's being done is that the government provides infrastructure and support for the Indigenous elders to get the younger generation in line.

What so many people don't even seem to want to see is that this problem was created by whites, but we can't fix it. It just maintains the structures of paternalism and oppression. It doesn't work. But their are Indigenous elders out there, who have the authority within Indigenous culture to bring the younger generations into line, and the will to do it... if given the chance. If the young black men who commit crimes because they never got the chance to know a better path in life are given over to their care instead of locked away.

In an ideal world, programs like this would be there for everyone who commits these kinds of crimes (although the prison industrial complex in the USA would struggle, but that's another, far more depressing post), but as it is, it just gives me such hope to know that it's happening anywhere at all, because these things have knock-on effects of their own; the young men who go to Yetta Dhinnakal will have a positive effect on their own children, and on their communities, and the success of the program will make it more likely that others like it can be set up.

A related example, to explain what I was alluding to above: the problem with endemic alcoholism in some Indigenous communities in northern Western Australia is being improved by "grog bans", where mid- and full-strength alcoholic drinks are banned from takeaway sale. Allegedly this has been bad for some local businesses, but the local communities have found it very helpful; bans are made at the request of the communities.

There's just a profound difference between "you can't have strong alcohol because the white man says you can't be trusted with it, because you're an irresponsible child even if you are old enough by law" and "you can't have strong alcohol because the elders disapprove of it, and forty thousand years of tradition says they're in charge, son, so suck it up and learn to like it".

Sometimes the racism is accidental: the problem is the system Jan. 5th, 2010 @ 02:10 pm
So, there's a kerfuffle.

HP's automatic face-tracking software tends to suck at tracking dark-skinned faces. There's a video. The camera tracks the white person, breaks if the black person comes in.

Here's how I see it:

This is, ultimately, because of racism.

But it's only a rather indirect symptom, in this case.

See, the camera is controlled by the software that drives the face recognition algorithm.

The odds are, the software was tested by the team who were writing it. And they would almost certainly have tested it on themselves, because why bother getting other people in when you yourself have a face to practice on?

The first reason racism is to blame is because it's less likely that the team included a dark-skinned person, because of institutional racism.

The reason this can show up so easily in this situation is that you are dealing with a camera - and a low-grade webcam, at that. The Angry Black Woman points out that adjusting the settings can make the difference to the camera successfully tracking dark-skinned faces, and that different shades of skin tone can make a difference.

For those of you who haven't spent much time playing with cameras or thinking about how they operate: cameras function by the detection of light. Dark-skinned faces reflect less light. That's why they're darker. This means they are more challenging from the perspective of automatic camera controls (and good photography in general).

So here we come to the second reason racism is to blame.

Let's imagine, for a second, that we lived in an alternate universe where black and white roles in history were reversed. The modern world in this alternate universe would have systemic advantage to black people and white people would be second-class citizens.

Now, in this alternate universe, someone is writing the same face-tracking software. They come up against that same issue - darker-skinned faces are harder to track. They realise this instantly, and they adjust the program to compensate automatically. Because they immediately factored dark skin into their plans, instead of just not thinking about it and casually overlooking the substantial segment of the population for whom their program would be rubbish.

This HP webcam thing is not about HP computers being racist (the guy is mostly kidding, but still), or about HP programmers at any point being deliberately racist; this is about a systemic problem with overlooking the existence and importance of people whose skin is darker than beige.

(In the original video, it's also, to an extent, a problem with the guy being backlit, but the camera manages to compensate pretty well for that on the white woman, so it's not actually an excuse.)

HP are not the problem. The problem is in society. This is a symptom.

(Meanwhile, yesterday a Maori who is also a total world history buff told me to go see the movie Avatar. I said I wasn't sure I wanted to, because I'd heard it was hideously colonialist and offensive. He said not to think about that stuff, and just enjoy the movie.)

This may need its own post Dec. 11th, 2009 @ 07:13 pm
So, I have recently found myself disagreeing with someone in the comments to someone else's locked post (hence no link). The point with which I have been taking issue is the assertion that people in a position of privilege can/will be better-placed to fight -isms because they "can see the problem more clearly" and are "better attuned" to cultural boundaries than in-group members will be.

I feel my latest comment is a tad incoherent in places and would welcome some constructive criticism on how I'm presenting my central thesis, here:

Oddly, I just found a partial explanation for what I think you're missing in something I wrote about RaceFail in March:

... at the end of the 18th century, radical movements for social and political change changed from being the hobbyhorse of a few wealthy intellectuals (yes, I'm guilty of gross reductionism, shh) to the product of widespread working-class involvement, thought, activism, argument. The lower orders, as they were known, began speaking up, demanding representation, demanding rights.

This was a problem, and was met with repression, where the previous advocates of universal suffrage and suchlike had been tolerated calmly. The old advocates were eccentric aristocrats. The new radicals were workers. Lower-class, absent all the privileges held by the wealthy and titled.

The lower orders talking about politics, reading "The Rights of Man" and trying to claim they deserved respect and all that stuff? Arrogant presumption.

I think there's still something like that today, with some people's reactions to minorities advocating for themselves; while people might think they believe that disabled people should be accommodated equally with he abled, that homosexuals deserve the same rights in their loves as heterosexuals, that people who aren't white should be placed on an equal footing with people who are (including recognising that centuries of oppression have left their mark, and merely removing active barriers is not enough to put them, as a population, on that equal footing, because someone born in poverty to illiterate, alcoholic parents is not in a position of equality to someone born in better circumstances, and while it is not a firm rule for individuals of any race where they will fall on the socio-economic spectrum, on balance of population majorities, some groups are currently at a disadvantage that needs to be remedied)...

Pause here because that sentence got away from me a little, and I have a lot of reading to do and haven't time to edit it properly.

Yes. While they think they believe all that stuff, and probably sincerely do, some people seem to find it something of an affront when members of that minority group express their own opinions, voice their own experiences, insist on the respect which in theory most of us agree they deserve but only some of us notice they don't get. The idea being that "we" know whats best for "them"; it's probably an intellectual (as grouping) bias, in that intellectuals tend towards believing that We're Right.

And it can feel like a terrible shock, I guess, when you think you're being ever so kind and wonderful, and discover that actually, no, the person doesn't want your help, exactly, they want independent equality.

The thing is that that attitude is condescending. Like a wealthy landowner condescending to talk to his gardener; it's understood that it is an act of kindness and charity for the master merely to acknowledge that the servant is human, with experiences beyond his role as The Gardener. For the gardener to initiate the conversation would be presumption.

The unprivileged demanding equal status with the privilege is presumption almost by definition; it is denying that the unprivileged person should just "know their place", demanding that their place be moved, presuming equality to be their right.

It is not possible for the oppressed to be liberated without one of two things:

1) The consent of their oppressors

2) Bloody, violent revolution

Now, being that most minority groups are not in fact aiming for a bloody, violent revolution, it is necessary for the ending of systemic -ism that the privileged consent to end oppression. This is what activism does - attempt to establish that the -ism is a Bad Thing and that therefore if you embrace it you are a Bad Person. No-one wants to be a Bad Person so they try not to do the thing.

So privileged people are the ones who need to change. They will feel like they should be a part of this. All of this is fine.

However, the idea that they should be encouraged or even permitted to take a directing, decision-making, authoritative role in the breakdown of their own privilege is untenable, because it inherently reinforces the privilege. If you say that white people should have a strong role in breaking down racism in a way that gives them authority in the struggle itself, then you're doing it wrong, because that's reinforcing their position in a hierarchy that should not exist.

This is why the privileged need to be allies. Because it's the first step in establishing that sometimes, they're not in charge.

Orthography is interesting, cultural contact and race relations can be frustrating Aug. 6th, 2009 @ 12:31 pm
I'm working on devising my own personal latin-alphabet orthography for Shachop, a language from eastern Bhutan.  I have met one person from Bhutan in my life, that I know of, and we haven't conversed outside a group setting in which we quiz him about the language.  (He volunteered for this, is getting paid, and it is For Science, by the way.)

My reasoning for not feeling like this is horrible cultural imperialism goes as follows:

1) I don't actually know if Shachopka has a script; it's a little-documented language.

2) From what I do know, if it does, it's probably similar to, or the same, as the script for Hindi.  Which just looks like squiggles to me.  ("Just looks like squiggles" is not a value judgement; this is true of all scripts that aren't either the Roman alphabet or Cyrillic.  And I can't actually read Cyrillic either.)

3) Which, since I don't have time to learn a new script, leaves me with IPA symbols, and IPA symbols are useful, but also, horrible.

Allow me to demonstrate.  This is a phonetic transcription I had with an older Aboriginal gentleman on a scooter I passed as I walked to the bus stop this morning, in IPA:

Me: "gʰədʰæɪʔ"

Him: "ɐʊhəlɐʊːhæɔːzɪtʰ"

Me: "hɔːtʰɹaɪdʰ"

Unless you are, in fact, a linguist, I am Better Than You at reading IPA, because I did Phonetics and Phonology last semester, had worked with the IPA in previous units, and am currently spending hours a week transcribing things in IPA.  I can read IPA notation fairly fluently.

That?  Is still much, much harder for me to read than this:

"Oh, hello.  How's it?"
"Hot ride!"

Of course, Shachop sound values are quite different from English, but then, I'm used to reading other languages in the Roman alphabet.  I can sight-read German, French, Japanese, and Zulu with reasonable confidence, and a few others with lesser degrees of confidence.  I am accustomed to coding orthography-to-pronunciation dependant on what language I'm working with.  I can handle reading "dh" as dʰ, and remembering that /d/ is unaspirated (even though consciously setting aspiration levels on consonants is tricksy for a native English speaker).

It's also handy when I want to express this little anecdote:

We were going through some names of animals (having moved on from food, fruit, plants).  Now, I'm periodically irritated already by some of my fellow students' inability to comprehend that what's normal/common in our culture/environment might be rare or unknown in eastern Bhutan, OR a recent enough introduction that the words are simply borrowed from other languages, since we already know that that is in fact something that the speakers of this language do.

We'd already established the various words for cattle (for cow, bull, calf...) and someone wants to ask about oxen.  Only people are talking about "cattle used to pull ploughs" and things like that, and basically giving this really strong impression (e.g. as far as I, as a native English speaker, could tell, these people were in fact saying and possibly believing that an ox is just a bigger, stronger bull, which... they're bovines, but they are in fact distinct in general usage/perception) that they were the same.

And our native speaker was like... well, we don't really use cattle, there are these other things, that are bigger, and different, they're called ja:mtsa.  Not the same as what you normally call cattle.

So I had to sort of intervene, and say that it sounded like ja:mtsa were what we would call an ox in English.

We may work out there is a difference later, but right now... gah.  We are ignorant of this language and largely ignorant about eastern Bhutan, and he is an educated, literate man who is very much fluent in English, but it's not his native language and his grasp of nuance in areas that aren't part of normal conversation, especially in an academic setting, is not necessarily going to be perfect.  (Also, he's living in Australia, and it's not like there are a lot of oxen in the streets of Perth.)

Also, wow, do I not love it when people start to sound condescending.  Assholes, this man is better educated than we are.  He's a teacher, who's here because he's studying for his Master's degree.  Yes, he's soft-spoken, brown-skinned, and has an accent, and occasionally non-native English word usages, but the odds are he's in at least the top five most intelligent people in the room.  Probably top three.  And he's in a clear and outright second place for most educated, behind only the lecturer, who has a Ph.D.

Which reminds me - just on the general topic of "things that are kind of racist" - I stopped by an antiques shop just off Rokeby Road yesterday, because I was passing and have been curious since I saw the sign what sort of stuff it contained.  The place is called "Old Values", and apparently those old values include racism.  (And also very little stuff that's old enough to be interesting, actually.)

Because there are various knicknacks, statuettes, etc that have incredibly racist depictions of African and Australian natives on them.

Which makes me feel all weird and twisted-up inside, because on the one hand: all of those items are from more than fifty years ago.  Things Were Different Then, in a lot of ways.  Racist depictions of brown-skinned people showed up in Superman cartoons.  I see such items as having historical interest value.

On the other hand, selling them in antique shops suggests they're there for people to buy as decorative items, not historical artifacts of hideous racism, and raises the spectre of people buying them as decorative objects for their homes, and that's... really not right.  Product of another era, yes, but it just seems like it's too problematic for me, where other Old stuff can have appeal, even charm.  (Sole item in that shop I was tempted to buy for myself: an ancient camera.)

But I find it hard to articulate why a racist image doesn't bother me, intrinsically, if it's presented with context, and makes me feel all sick and unhappy if it's just presented, without comment, alongside a miniature statuette of Michelangelo's David and a rocketship coin box.

Current Mood: mild pain
Current Music: People chatting in the Guild Village courtyard

Miscellaneous Things: Events, Prisons, Racial Identity for White People Jul. 14th, 2009 @ 02:17 pm
I e-mailed the Facilities manager at uni with documentation of the total accessibility fail at the uni med centre last night. I got a reply today saying he was going to investigate the situation and get back to me. Neat.

Today, I'm going out to file my name change application. While I'm in town I also plan to buy a new music stand, as I've managed to break the old one pretty thoroughly. Then, if I have time, I'm going to pop down to Fremantle Prison (no, really) to do a tour, and possibly make a booking to do a Torchlight Tour, then stop by a grocery shop and come home. (Freo Prison may be tomorrow.)

I'll probably be exhausted at the end of all this, but I'm pretty sure it's within my capacity. And, you see, I'm pretty sure I'm at the point in recovery-from-illness where what I need to do is get my body into active mode, get my metabolism/circulation into gear. Plus, I really want to go to Fremantle Prison - I went once, on a school trip in high school (disconcertingly, I now realise this was only about two years after the prison closed - for some reason I thought it closed many years before that), but now I can go in possession of a good camera. Most particularly, one that can take photos in dim lighting conditions without flash - I've always wanted to have photos of some of the cell murals and so on, and flash photography is forbidden there (with good reason). And they have an exhibition on that I want to see.

Meanwhile, I've just had a thought, reading something else entirely, about racial identity.

See, one of the things that's brought up, reasonably often, is that white people don't Identify As White. This is elaborated, rightly, to consider that whiteness is treated as a kind of default in our society; not having to treat ethnic identity as intrinsic to general identity is white privilege.

But I've just placed why it might be that I think so many Well-Meaning White People, including me, find it uncomfortable to identify deliberately as white.

See, in some respects I think we should. If non-white people find their ethnicity a part of their Identity, but white people can leave it unspoken, it's still perpetuating the white is default thing; if we don't say, then we're somewhat perpetuating an idea that everyone on the internet is assumed white until proven otherwise.

And yet, I would be skeeved as hell listing whiteness as a characteristic in a profile of myself that didn't have a specific field for it.

Because people who Identify As White have a strong likelihood of being white supremacists, and nobody who isn't one wants anyone to think they're a white supremacist. (Even a lot of white supremacists don't. They're white "nationalists".)

So if I described myself as, say, "28 years old, white, female," I'd worry that would make people think I was the kind of person who'd vote One Nation/BNP/choose your racist party here. (And applaud me for omitting Liberal/Conservative/Republican there.) (Hilarity, that the Australian Liberal Party is the equivalent of the UK Conservative Party.)

So I'll say I'm white if it's relevant in conversation online (in person, I generally assume people can tell), but making a point of it is a special kind of uncomfortable.

Note that I'm not saying the people who are all "... but I don't IDENTIFY as white, I'm [nationality]!" aren't frequently being douchebags, because... they are.

I'm still thinking about this, but I'm interested in what other people think.

Guitar, The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, racism, etc Jul. 6th, 2009 @ 02:01 am
Feeling rather sadface at the moment, for various reasons - a list which includes "still feeling sick and exhausted despite sleeping all evening" - so shall talk about some awesome things, and should-be-awesome things. I want to put something about Barack Obama on that, but I suspect that I won't feel right posting about Barack Obama until I can devote the time and energy to explaining why I'm quite frustrated about him as well as still pleased by some things about him, too.

Earlier this evening I took on the guitar tab for Black Sabbath's Iron Man, mostly just the opening riffs - not only are they pretty awesome, but it's also good practice for learning to do hammer-ons and bends. I love my Vox Valvetronic AD50VT amplifier - it has a lot of settings that emulate a range of amp styles etc, so by adjusting a few knobs, I can get it to sound just right for different music styles. (For Black Sabbath: UK 80s amp style, crank the gain a bit, throw in some reverb, and go.)

The guitar practice is a good lesson in patience, actually. I'm enjoying it, and I know I'm getting better - I'm much, much better than I was when I started, and I'm gradually improving over time. But I want to be good at this already, I want to play awesomely, and I can't. I try to believe that I will be able to, but it's going to take a long time.

Usually it's hard for me to sustain interest in something like this - I think it helps that playing guitar is consistently fun, and errors don't persist. I don't practice guitar for a few minutes, then look at what I've done and sigh at how much it sucks. One day I'll probably work on recording music I play, and so I will then have something that persists after I put the guitar down, but right now, it's just the memory of enjoyment.

I find myself reluctant to watch the first few episodes of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, despite having heard good reviews of it. I'm wary of it, I think, because the same people who recommend the series are often people who recommend the books, and I have some trouble with the books. Alexander McCall Smith always seems to write a little condescendingly to me - even when he's dealing with very adult subjects, his African-native characters, up to and including the intelligent and resourceful Precious Ramotswe, seem to be written like children's book characters. Up to a point, they're written like children. It bugs me a lot, and I read the first book, but beyond that, I just couldn't bring myself to get into it.

It weirds me out that so many people give the series such outstanding reviews. I find myself doubting my perceptions of the book - I mean, so many people say it's so wonderful, so am I the one who's wrong when I find the writing so problematic? Am I judging too harshly because I know that the author of this series of books about a black woman in Botswana is a white man?

And yet, the reviewers are generally white non-Africans, and even the non-white reviewers who praise it whose responses I've read have been American, and y'know, not that I want to bag on Americans or anything, but Americans of all races have a tendency to be a tad reductionist in their assumptions about African people, especially African natives from rural areas. (As do people from Europe and Australia and quite a lot of Asia.)

I'm in kind of an awkward position, really, in terms of speaking on this one. On the one hand, I am, in some respects, African, and I care quite a lot about the peoples of southern Africa.

On the other hand, I'm white, and I'm also Australian. I don't have major Authenticity credentials for critiquing the depictions of Botswanan native women.

On the gripping hand, no, really, it read like a children's book, even when the subject matter was adult, and Precious Ramotswe is written like the characters of kids' adventure books. I wanted to love it, and I couldn't bring myself to do so.
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We should be clear on certain things: Names, identity, and why certain people need to shut up hard Jun. 15th, 2009 @ 05:53 pm
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the surname I was born with was "Resume". And it's pronounced like the verb - r'ZYOOM. (I'd IPA it but I can't be bothered.) And all my life, people have made a habit of pronouncing it wrong - r'ZOOM or REZyoom or rezyoomay, like it's the word for a CV.

And all my life, when people mispronounce my name, I've corrected them.

You'd think this would be a fairly minor thing - we're all agreed it's open to some interpretation, but we're also, I'd hope, all in agreement that it's my name and how it's pronounced is up to me. Sure, people on my father's side of the family have a vote, and they can pick another pronunciation if they really want to, because then it's their name, but in as much as the name I bear is MINE, how to pronounce it is up to me.

I'd hope, but I know that isn't so. Because all my life, I've had people correct me on how to pronounce my name.

Not "they read it off a form or a list and got it wrong", correct me, but I mean, they've got it wrong, I've said no, it's pronounced like this, and they've said no it isn't, or just pointedly kept repeating it their way.

Quick tip: If you do this to someone, they are going to conclude that you're an asshole, and they're going to be right.

Because my name is part of who I am, a part of me. Names are important. And if you try to tell me that you know how to pronounce my name and I don't, you're trying to tell me that you have more of a right to define who I am than I do.

I don't think it's coincidence that the people who do this tend to be the kind of people who play power games all the time - it's a way of controlling the conversation, controlling the discourse, controlling you. Which is why, since recognising that, I don't let that slide. I will be smiling and pleasant but I will be firm.

To quote Lieutenant Data: One is my name. The other is not.

Where it gets interesting, to me, is the cultural aspect. The surname I was born with was originally Germanic, but it was anglicised around the time of the First World War - a more anglo spelling, though the pronunciation has shifted to be yet more anglo since. Trying to define the pronunciation sometimes feels like people are trying to define the degree to which my cultural identity is permitted.

Which isn't a big thing, when it's someone like me - I'm only vaguely foreign, and in any case, I'm still white - but then you get the cases where it's really political.

Yes, I'm talking about Judge Sotomayor.

I'm not giving a link to that ass Krikorian, but he said:
Deferring to people's own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English (which is why the president stopped doing it after the first time at his press conference) ... and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn't be giving in to. [...]

This may seem like carping, but it's not. Part of our success in assimilation has been to leave whole areas of culture up to the individual, so that newcomers have whatever cuisine or religion or so on they want, limiting the demand for conformity to a smaller field than most other places would. But one of the areas where conformity is appropriate is how your new countrymen say your name, since that's not something the rest of us can just ignore, unlike what church you go to or what you eat for lunch. And there are basically two options -- the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there's a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.

NO THERE ISN'T. Because, asshole, there's a difference between pronouncing a name in a way that is already Anglicised but to an approximation of correct and anything that can possibly be called "unnatural". What is not natural to English is rolling the R. Which is not required. Syllabic emphasis variation is deeply, profoundly within the category of SUCK IT UP. Attempting to pronounce someone's name correctly is the most basic of courtesies.

Trying to define how non-Anglos should pronounce their names is a clear attempt to exert control - to force Sotomayor, and anyone else, to abandon any visible markers of differing cultural identity. America doesn't follow English pronunciation rules at all, after all, or are we changing the pronunciation of Arkansas at last?

Shut up, right wing morons. Just shut up.
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Letter from the university Vice-Chancellor to all students: Your Safety and Security Jun. 9th, 2009 @ 12:33 pm
Since this letter is going out to many, many thousands of people, and is an official communication, etc, I feel minimal qualms about posting the text online. My university is responding to a perceived racially-oriented problem.

Dear Student
Re: Your safety and security
Many of you will be aware of recent media reports of attacks against international students in Australia. While most of these incidents have been in states other than Western Australia, there have also been some assaults in Perth, at or near university campuses, as well as in other suburban areas.

I am writing to all staff and students at The University of Western Australia to condemn such deplorable acts of aggression. Whether motivated by mindless hooliganism or by racism, the University abhors such violence. With several of my senior colleagues, I have this morning met with representatives of some of the international student communities on campus to listen to their concerns, and to discuss the University’s commitment to the safety and wellbeing of students. As well as existing safety initiatives, some suggestions made by student representatives will be taken up by the University in coming weeks.

All staff and students at the University have a right to feel safe and secure as they undertake their study and work. We will continue to work with you to ensure your safety while on campus, and will work in cooperation with government and key agencies at Federal, State and local level to better ensure your safety in the wider West Australian community.

The University strongly supports policies of internationalisation and diversity which encourage cross-cultural exchanges in an environment which is free from ignorance, intolerance, bigotry and prejudice.

The University website and campus newsletters will carry information about the importance of cultural awareness, and more specifically, information on support for international students. Staff will work closely with the UWA Student Guild to ensure good communication with students concerning security, and I will meet with international student representatives again in a month, to update them on progress.

I strongly encourage you to speak up about acts of violence or harassment which you witness or experience – by so doing we can combat more effectively any such deplorable behaviour. More positively, I also urge you to contribute to those activities and initiatives throughout the University which increase our understanding of diversity, and which celebrate cultural interaction.

In the meantime, I would draw to your attention two areas of important information for all staff and students:

Security on Campus

Regular security patrols, integrated alarm monitoring, intruder detection, access control and closed circuit television have helped us achieve a reputation for a safe and secure environment. Nevertheless I have also undertaken to address students' expressed need for improved lighting and additional alarm points to create more clearly identified safe walkways on campus. In the meantime, while on campus I encourage you to take the reasonable steps described on the enclosed page to ensure your continued personal safety. And if you are studying after hours, the University’s Security Service provides an escort service to car parks, colleges and accommodation immediately adjacent to the University. To use the service contact Security on (+61 8) 6488 3020 half an hour prior and a uniformed officer will respond.

Report-It Website

The University will not tolerate any forms of violence or other behaviour that makes people feel unsafe or unwelcome, including harassment or bullying.

You can help us work against this kind of behaviour by reporting it. When harassment is reported, the information can help state and local authorities prevent other people from behaving this way, and so help to make others safer. You can make your report anonymously. Your report will still be valuable.

If you have been the victim of an attack please report the details:

If you have witnessed an attack on a fellow student you can also report it:

Remember, your report can be anonymous, but if you leave your contact details you will be contacted by a member of the UWA Student Services team which can offer support.

The University of Western Australia does not tolerate racism. I appreciate the commitment of our staff and students to actively counteract discrimination and harassment.

Yours sincerely
Alan Robson

I can, by the way, confirm that UWA does actually take this stuff seriously. For example, one time, acquaintances hatched a plan to dress up as Crusaders and run around at a Harmony event aimed at promoting a better relationship with the Islamic students and community. This was when the War on Terror anti-muslim demonisation was at its height, you understand, so the University was trying to have a sort of interfaith-except-also-for-atheists-and-others program going to keep from propagating racism and Islamophobia.

I pissed them off by, when argument failed to stop them doing this, reporting their plans to the Guild, thereby producing an instant shitstorm wherein the Guild, backed by the University, intervened with a general attitude of Oh Hell No. However, because this was preventive rather than damage control, the issue was resolved quite quickly. (And without the media being involved, which... would not have been a helpful contribution.)

(I didn't regret pissing them off, by the way; I was quite convinced that I was right, and remain so, and in any case, none of them were actually friends of mine.)

To a fairly significant extent, UWA is part of who I am. It's the uni I always wanted to go to, it's the uni I've attended, on and off, since 2000; it's where I met just about all of my local friends. UWA is the place where, at various times, I've developed tendencies to refer to specific spots on campus as "home" when I slip up.

It's nice to see them still trying.
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*shivers* May. 28th, 2009 @ 09:01 pm
Somehow, between watchings (ETA: of Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe)... I always forget how deeply, profoundly gay for each other Idgie and Ruth are.

... and that it's also a story about race in the Bad Old South.

I wonder how it feels, as an actor, to put on a Klan hood...

Spoilers, so. Alongside description of a really quite ugly scene that, well, did I mention Klan? Many of you may not wish to read this. )

Current Music: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
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A tiny, tiny mini-rant May. 21st, 2009 @ 10:42 pm
I just came across someone complaining about the Racism 101 comm on LJ being "moderated by white women".

Same person complains about the universality with which non-white folks are granted superior authority in matters of race, by the way.

The thing is this:

Racism 101 is basic shit. That's the whole point. You do not need Authentic Non-White People to run it, to give their Brown Seal of Approval to things. Moreover, expecting non-white people to busy themselves with watching over the education of clueless white people is dear God what is wrong with you people anyway?

Think of it like this: a non-white person has a Ph.D. in Racism And Associated Crap. They may also, in fact, be wrong about some things. They may, in fact, be a fucking moron who needs to be smacked in the head with a chair. However, the discussion of their stupid-ass wrongness is not one a high schooler who's read, like, one primer on Racism And Associated Crap is going to be able to enter without being annoying and even more wrong. Odds are that if you think they're stupid and wrong, you just don't understand what they're talking about.

A Clueless White Person is someone who's in, like, year ten. Thinks they know everything, actually knows jack. If this were science, we're talking about someone who may possibly have a decent understanding of Newtonian physics and elementary geometry, but thinks relativity is e = mc2 because that's the Einstein thing, right?

Racism 101 does not need people with a Ph.D. in Racism And Associated Crap. It needs high school teachers. People who can teach Newtonian physics and don't find it aggravatingly basic and a painfully reductionist approximation of reality. This is the kind of crap that Somewhat Clueful White People can handle. And should.

Non-white people can get involved if they choose. Some people do teach high school even though they have a Ph.D. Sometimes because that's what they really want to do. But expecting Racism 101 to be taught by non-white people so you can have a more Authentic Experience in your Very Special Learning is, in fact, a branch of fail all its own.

Non-white people/people of colour are not required to teach you. They have no obligation or reason to hold your hand and walk you gently through the mists of your own ignorance to the bright sunny dawn of Clue. And you are probably the five hundredth person to ask them to do so.

If I'm getting irritated by the recurring cycle of "Teach me! Teach me! YOU have to explain stuff to me or it's YOUR FAULT if I'M RACIST", it is way, way past the point of seriously uncool.

Current Mood: grumpy
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Seriously, if anyone spoils me in the next two hours I will cut them May. 19th, 2009 @ 04:35 pm
There are several things I want to post about, I think, but I have brain ferrets this afternoon and I'm saving all the spoons I can to go see Star Trek tonight (yay! including for not having to dodge spoilers any more, especially since I got one in a medical science-related blogpost from a dude who issued a spoiler and then said "don't worry, I won't give away anything more about the movie - TOO LATE, JERK), so a vaguely rambly reflection I would really rather NOT see linked in Mammothfail contexts because bringing new authors into this is only going to make things messier, seriously, but it's what I'm thinking about right now, so I'm still posting about it.

One of the things with Race/Mammothfail, for me, is realising:

1) That I have lost touch with sf/F quite thoroughly. I think the most recent writer I've developed a love for is Connie Willis.

2) That I didn't really engage with print fandom before, either.

Most of the names that have come up in recent discussions are just completely unfamiliar to me, or familiar in it-turns-out inaccurate ways. I thought Scalzi was just a blogger; I had some vague inclination that he was a novelist too, but from his comments on his blog I'd decided that, for my tastes, he was likely to be a very bad one, and dismissed him out of hand. I'd never heard of Elizabeth Bear, although it turned out at least one of my friends had read at least one of her books. I don't think I know anyone who's read anything by Shetterly, but on the other hand, based on the things he writes online... I don't think anyone I know would actually want to.

However, some names are familiar to me, and I've been learning things I never considered about them before. Steven Barnes is black, apparently. The only stuff of his I've read was co-written with Larry Niven; I'm not sure how, or if, that fact alters my perception of those stories. (The biggest role he seems to play in co-writing with Larry Niven is giving characters emotional depth. Niven spins a good concept, but his characters are rather two-dimensional. Barnes improves that a lot. Of course, the one I remember is the one that Niven drafted, couldn't make 'work', and gave up on, then gave to Steven Barnes to see if he could fix it; Niven himself acknowledges that what it turned out the story needed was heart.)

I've always been turned off reading Steven Barnes-alone stuff because, well, it always seems to be novels. Or novellas, or just really long stories, in anthologies. I have a tendency to look through the index for the stories that are ten pages or less. I've since been diagnosed with ADHD - I suspect there is a connection.

According to the Internet, Samuel R. Delaney is both black and gay. I think I vaguely knew the black part; I was surprised by the gay part. And yet, he's a dude I've read mention of for as long as I can remember.

An odd sidenote: Most of what I know of both of them, as individuals, comes from reading Larry Niven's various commentaries in some of his short story anthologies. Niven never mentions the race of either of them, that I recall, but speaks in admiring tones of both of them.

Which suggests that Niven thinks of them as talented sf-dudes, in theory.

Except that this is Larry Niven, who is, as a white, heterosexual American male who has been wealthy all his life, about as soaked in privilege as it is possible to get, and who not-that-long-ago made some hideously, horrifically problematic comments as part of the Homeland Security-attached panel of science fiction authors (no, really; the idea is that they are supposed to be good at thinking about creative solutions to problems).
Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.

"The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren't going to pay for anything anyway," Niven said.

"Do you know how politically incorrect you are?" Pournelle asked.

"I know it may not be possible to use this solution, but it does work," Niven replied.
You know, I desperately want Niven to have been taking the piss here. For this to have been some kind of bitchy meta-commentary on something, taken out of context.

But it's hard to make that case, without a hell of a lot of context, because that statement, from the rich-from-birth descendant of oil tycoons and the like, from someone as privilege-sodden as Niven? It's terrible.

Which is why I understand the pain of people seeing favourite authors fail, because if I had to name a favourite science fiction author of my own (in terms of authors I read for the science fiction factor), it would probably be him.

(Overall favourite: probably Anne McCaffrey. If anyone has any instances to cite of Anne being a horrible person, I don't right now want to know, because she's always seemed to be one of those people who's not perfect, but tries to be inclusive, and to fail better next time when she does screw up, and Pern novels were my great escape from a really, really shitty childhood, please don't take that away from me. Seriously. My childhood was horrible, and Pern made me happy. I don't think I could handle losing that right now.)

Ahem. Anyway, yes. Niven's Known Space series, especially, was just cool. There were a wide range of varied cultures, there was genuine science, there were stories based on interesting corners of the known universe. There Is A Tide, and Neutron Star - his stories are based on ideas, and here and there an overt attempt to mess with assumptions about melanin levels.

One of his major Known Space characters is an albino - they're fairly common on the planet he comes from. Various historical factors meant that that particular genetic variation crops up pretty often amongst the people of his world. However, he takes melanin tablets, and spends most of his time being very dark-skinned, because it's more convenient; skin colour is largely a cosmetic choice, in his Known Space series, and since there's a rich diversity of cultures, and he has aliens who aren't actually funny-looking humans, I kind of loved his world, and didn't notice the major gap that now I can't help but think of:

There are no Hispanic/Latino/what-have-you people that I can think of. Black characters, both by choice and by nature? Yes. Including having the cultural aspect of not-being-white be relevant and meaningful, for black-and-from-Earth characters. Asians? Well, there's Louis Wu, but it's hard to make a cultural case for him - thinking about it, there's an element of Earth = America in Niven's work, which... ew. But Louis Wu is very much himself, because he's too old (multiple centuries), too well-travelled (all over Known Space), to fit quite in with any Earth cultural category. He's spent too much time alone, or with aliens, and he's kind of an entity unto himself.

Mostly, though, skin colour is black and white and other - which can be anything, because cosmetic skin colour choices are serious business - and culture is American or alien or colony-world.

I haven't read any of these in many years, mind you - I might not be remembering that well, and it could be better or worse than I get from my recollection of the standout, memorable parts. But it's kind of a gaping hole now that I do think about it.

I still think he's written some damn good stories, both his sf and his fantasy - the Warlock stories, with his mechanic for magic, are really kind of brilliant - but I fear, now, that beneath his genial demeanour, in his comments on his field, he may in fact have a very, very ugly bias.

Current Mood: depressed
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Reverse racism is not a valid argument about anything. May. 17th, 2009 @ 12:19 pm
Man, there's a distinct flaw to having your entire music library on shuffle when catching up on Mammothfail reading: the cognitive dissonance caused when reading thoughtful race-related discussions when We're Gonna Have To Slap The Dirty Little Jap crops up from your collection of World War II music.

My possible future Ph.D. on the subject of popular music in war notwithstanding (still only vaguely conceptualised for a reason, and may be done for Honours instead: tentative title "How Vera Lynn Defeated Hitler: Music, Morale and the Home Front", although the stuff I have about the Home Front may end up being a different dissertation entirely), and the part where I appreciate the historical interest aspect of propagandist racism (hi, Superman!) also set aside... no, basically.

Some of my WW2 music I actually like. Lili Marlene? One of my favourite songs. I have several versions, in English and German. And some of the propaganda songs never fail to crack me up, like these:

When der Fuhrer says, he is the Master Race
Then we'll heil (thbbt!), heil (thbbt!) right in der Fuhrer's face!


Hitler has only got one ball
Goering has two but very small
Himmler has something similar
And Mister Goebbels has no balls at all

But that, right there, is part of what's so fascinating about propaganda, and war-era popular culture's role in it. Some of it is stuff that doesn't seem so bad, some of it is stuff that, after a few decades, seems really mindblowingly horrible.

And it puts an odd spin on the racism of old people. If someone grew up listening to that kind of thing, how much can you blame them if they have some persistent racism in their attitudes? Especially if they nonetheless endeavour to be nice to people of !ethnicity?

One of the most vitriolic racists I ever knew was an old man who, to the day he died, could not hear mention of anything that involved the Japanese without it triggering an expression of anti-Japanese hatred. I could never criticise him for it or think less of him for it, for one important reason: he'd been a prisoner of war of the Japanese during the Second World War.

Let's just say his experiences were not such as to dispose him kindly to the nation from which they hailed.

I could not, in conscience, try to persuade someone who'd been through the horrors he had, experiences more terrible than most of us can imagine, that he should try and forgive the Japanese people for the sins of their forebears. Neither I nor anyone else could have that right - he suffered, and blaming the Japanese for the deeds of the Japanese army is not exactly a stretch. He went to his grave hating Japan and the Japanese people, and I would vigorously defend his right to that hatred. (Possibly he could have got past it on its own had he had the PTSD counselling he needed, but without that? Nobody's call to make.)

A woman I know, who was a child in Italy during the Second World War, hates Germans and Americans. The Germans were bad; in her view, the Americans were worse, because the German officers kept a very strict discipline on their men, whereas Americans were often drunk in the streets, and set up a rape camp near her house. For some time she lived in fear that the Americans would take her for that.

She's 82 now. A kind and loving woman. Not racist at all, that I'm aware, to anyone but Germans and Americans - but she still thinks those are lesser peoples. I don't feel the right to tell her otherwise.


There's a statute of limitations on that kind of thing. Someone of my generation, I feel, doesn't get to maintain a race-based prejudice on the grounds of crimes which are not ongoing. The English put my ancestors in concentration camps - okay, they had the right to hate all English people. The Anglo-South Africans (called English) tormented my father for being Afrikaaner throughout his childhood and adolescence - does he have the right to resent them? Well, yeah, kinda, actually. It's not the best thing for him, it might be healthier if he could get past it, but that's his journey to make.

But I don't. They're not my wounds, and maintaining the hate only perpetuates the evils of racial cruelty. The cycle has to stop. So I don't want to hold onto those hatreds, the bitterness of unrighted wrongs. (What can be done to make good the cruelty the English inflicted on my ancestors during the Second War of Independence - the one they call the Boer War?)

I can leave that all behind, because it doesn't affect me any more. I grew up a first-generation immigrant in another country, and my mother was the South African-born daughter of first-generation immigrant British parents. Culturally, I picked up a lot more from my mother and her Scottish mother than I did from my father's side of the family.


Injustice can only be surrendered once it's no longer causing active harm. The black and native populations of America are still being hurt by the legacies of the crimes against them, by institutionalised, all-pervading racism that has merely continued, modified, from the days of slavery and "nits make lice". Indigenous Australians have gone from bounties to the Stolen Generation to military intervention alongside active neglect - there is no basis for them to be obliged to let go of anger towards the white man. There may be cases where that's helpful, and it's always worth judging any individual you meet on their own merits... but until there is no systemic harm under way, it's just like the old man hating the Japanese. Wounds have to heal. His hadn't, they'd festered across decades - but that's understandable, for individuals. For others, the same wounds can't heal, when they're ripped open, again and again, by people poking them with sharp sticks.

This is why "reverse racism" doesn't exist. It just doesn't. The woman I encountered a few weeks ago, who accused me of moving away from her at the bus stop just because she was black and I was assuming she was going to try and rob me, when in fact - as I pointed out - I was moving away from her because she was smoking... yeah, she was being a jerk. But if she were white, she'd have been an asshole about that in a different way. Some people suck. Accept it and move on, don't use that as justification for how somehow black people are just as racist as white people.

Learned response is not the same as prejudice. If you had found, all your life, that almost every person you saw wearing a hat smacked you in the face, wouldn't you flinch when you saw a hat? Wouldn't you think that hat-wearers just sucked?

I'm not sure what else to say. It's time for lunch and meds, my brain ferrets are waking up.

Current Music: Ipi Tombi - Emdudeni Uhlele
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Mammothfail: An explanation for the hard-of-thinking May. 16th, 2009 @ 11:50 am
I'm going to try to express this with as much clarity as possible, and to break it down as atomically as I can, because this was either inadequate, or people aren't reading it, or any of the other posts I and a zillion other people have been making about this stuff.

Let's see what's cropping up around the net.
[ profile] peake: And in fact, as I understand it, Wrede did not 'erase' the Native Americans from her book, she just imagined a world in which their forebears did not cross the land bridge from Siberia, a perfectly legitimate invention since that crossing is one of the great might-have-beens of history
Your understanding, it isn't quite right.

This was, indeed, the justification Wrede employed.
Wrede: The current plan is to have the primary difference before 1492 be that the various pre-historic attempts to colonize the Americas were unsuccessful; thus, no Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, Mississippi Valley civilization, or Native Americans of any sort.... The absence of an indiginous population in the Americas is obviously going to have a significant impact on the way things develop during the exploration and colonization period, and I'm still feeling my way through how I'm going to finagle that to get to where I want. '

Which is, basically:  A North America in which the threat of Indians was
replaced by the threat of un-extinct megafauna...
You'll note that she perceives Indians as a "threat"... but okay, that could be argued as being just a slight miswording, right? So as far as we've established, she is, in fact, looking at a vaguely legitimate alt-history setup. However, this quickly becomes extremely problematic:
Wrede: The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem, plus it'll let me play with all sorts of cool megafauna). I'm not looking for wildly divergent history, because if it goes too far afield I won't get the right feel.
As I've discussed before, this is unsupportable as alt-history now - it's just bad history. It does not stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny. So you can't legitimise Wrede's book as an alt-history explanation. To be acceptable on that basis, it would have to have at least some effort to recognise the historical impact of this kind of change, which it doesn't. The closest Wrede gets to acknowledgement of that is this:
Wrede: ...since there won't be any Native Americans to have already done a certain amount of prepping land for human occupation, nor to be exploited later.
If you cannot see the flaw in viewing the net effect of thousands of years of inhabiting the land, modifying the environment, and cultivating crops by the indigenous population as "prepping the land for human occupation", there is a serious problem, but I'll try to explain it anyway:

1) Native Americans are, in fact, humans. Therefore they weren't "prepping the land for human occupation", they were improving the conditions of the human occupation already underway.

2) Viewing it as background preparation for the arrival of humans dehumanises the population there, and reinforces the "terra nullius" view that renders acceptable the invasion and occupation of inhabited land, with the attendant attempted genocide upon the people who were already there.

3) By viewing the Indians as a "problem" to be "eliminated" so that she gets to "play with cool megafauna", she is buying into a lot of very nasty assumptions about whether the native populations had a right to exist - or at least, to continue existing once the white people had shown up and made use of what they had done up until that point.

(Anyone else: Feel free to expand upon this in comments, I find it difficult to explain things which, to me, are intuitively obvious.)

If you still think this is a "legitimate" alt-history, please read the post I linked above, wherein I explain in depth why it is historically unsupportable.

As I have said before: I'm not saying it's impossible to write speculative fantasy on these premises - what I'm saying is that you can't do it as background. If you write a people out of existence as background, rather than as the setup for an exploration of how the world is different without their influence, then you're almost guaranteed to be doing it for reasons that are entirely offensive.

Meanwhile, [ profile] kerravongenius says:
However, the general tone remains that it is racist and evil and mean of Patricia C. Wrede to write about an America with no Native Americans but it is fine and good and reasonable to write an America with no European settlers.

Why cannot our dear raceflailers understand that if someone's ethnicity is the deciding factor in how they may be treated, that is racist?

Personally, I think it is the vilest possible insult to suggest that Native Americans cannot grasp the concept of fiction. Don't the raceflailers know that there are Native American authors WRITING fiction?

Raceflailers, accept it, you're all patronising bigots, insulting the very people you pretend to defend.

And I regret that I'm writing this sitting on my bed with my laptop on a chair next to it, because I have no desk to slam my head into. *headpillow*

No-one is suggesting that anyone - Native American or otherwise - can't tell the difference between fact and fiction. What we are saying is that the inherent assumptions behind The Thirteenth Child are extremely problematic and predicated on some very skeevy race issues, that the world-building is shoddy and implicitly dismissive of all contributions by natives of the Americas to world and local history, and that these things, in fiction, do in fact need to be challenged, because ideas are meaningful, and words matter.

Are we clear now?
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Two noughts add up to a nought... May. 14th, 2009 @ 01:08 pm
Huh. Based on this sample alone, I would have voted for this guy: Humphrey-Muskie, 1968. Humphrey came into the race late, having won no primaries, and won the candidacy at a disordered Democratic convention following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Transcript (by me):
Voice of young man in audience: Mr Vice-President, how do you expect to gain the respect of the American people in the event you're elected?

Then-Vice-President Hubert Humphrey: "Well, I think, by my record of public service... When a man says that he thinks that the most important thing is to double the rate of convictions, that he doesn't believe in and he condemns the Vice-President, myself, for wanting to double the war on poverty - I think that man has lost his sense of values. You're not going to make this a better America just because you build more jails. What this country needs are more decent neighbourhoods. More educated people. Better homes. Uh, if we need more jails we can build them but that ought not to be the highest objective of the, a Presidency of the United States. I do not believe that repression, alone, builds a better society. Now if Mr Nixon can close his eyes to that, then he doesn't have enough vision to be President of this country. And that's why I've said what I've said.


Voiceover: Humphrey, Muskie. There is no alternative.
If only at some point in the last forty years, or the last four hundred, the idea that repression alone doesn't build a better society, had really caught on.

I mention the centuries with a reason, because the history I'm studying right now includes the era when the modern police force was invented, and almost immediately turned into an instrument of social control, to keep the lower classes in their place. And, too, the era in which the notion of criminal justice went from deliberate savagery (the idea being that, though many crimes were left unpunished, those who were punished should be punished harshly and very much in public, to serve as an example to others), to the form we follow now - the surety, not the severity, of prosecution. Neither seems to work all that well.

Though the Bloody Code was cheaper, because imprisonment just wasn't how it was done. You were flogged, you were pilloried, you were executed, you were publically humiliated - but you weren't locked up. And they were making no pretense of trying to prosecute every crime. And charging someone with a crime could be expensive to the plaintiff, and in any case, people wouldn't prosecute if they didn't think the criminal who had wronged them would be deserving of the punishment they would receive.

Of course, sometimes this became "community justice" anyway. One man who wrote against the King was pilloried, and pelted with flowers instead of rotten produce or stones by an approving populace. Just about anyone who was convicted of deviant sexual crimes (either interfering with children, or, sadly, homosexuality) had a near-certainty of being stoned to death in their time in the pillory.

An interesting digression on this, actually, is the death sentence: Many crimes were capital crimes, at the time, but only a minority of those convicted of a capital crime were generally executed. Why this was is a matter of some historical debate (isn't everything?), but (my view, fairly well supported by evidence and historiography) was that the following things were major factors in this:

1) Past a certain point, too many executions would shift public opinion from "that bastard deserves to hang for what he done!" to "just about every day someone else swings at Tyburn - do they all deserve it? What if it's me or someone I love next?" Balancing public opinion on this stuff was quite important.

2) By granting clemency and reducing death sentences to transportation, the judges (who were of and represented the upper classes) could seem merciful and kind - despite the fact that the sentence they were giving was to send people, chained in ships which could be more-or-less just like the slave ships (including the women, children, and high death rates), to servitude in distant, harsh conditions, frequently for very minor crimes. In doing so, they reinforced a paternalistic class-power structure to their own benefit.

3) While, at the same time, more-or-less retaining the legal right to kill off anyone who was too much trouble. Which they did. At certain points in this period, habeas corpus was suspended. (This is never, ever a good thing.) There was, in place, a fairly thorough system of oppression.

I think one of the most interesting things about English history is the frequency with which there weren't revolutions. Negotiating the path from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy by a process of gradual adaptation, overall, is kind of impressive. Especially when you factor in religious upheaval and the other countries of the British Isles.

(Of course, reading the history of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries kind of makes you hate the English a lot, but I'm a sensitive woman of the 21st century and have only occasionally mocked my English classmate for her nationality - which, since she gives as good as she gets, including to the Glaswegian lecturer, is All Good Fun.)

It's that interesting thing about context, and power relations. It's easy to make light of casual racism when it's taking place in another country altogether, where participants are in fact on equal terms now - and when each target is represented equally as well. My lecturer can make snarky jokes about the Scots because he is Scottish; I can make snarky jokes about the English-in-history because the English were the dominant power group, I'm part-English, and so on. Whereas no-one has made a single Irish joke, because in the period we're dealing with, the Irish were the victims of some serious, comprehensive wrongness that just doesn't allow for humour.

It reminds me of a section from Mock the Week's first episode. Relevant: Dara, the host is Irish. John is English. The show is English.
Dara O'Briain, on an EU referendum: There is photographic evidence, of course, that vote-rigging took place in the referendum in France. [A picture comes up on screen of two women with their arms raised, revealing hairless armpits.] With armpits like these, there's no way these two are French.

Audience laughter.

John Oliver: Is that not - I'll go out on a limb here - a little bit racist?

Dara: It's a tiny bit racist, but not as much as the next one is racist.

John, laughing: Oh, okay, I'll look forward to that.

Dara: The next one is actually painfully, hideously racist on many many levels. It hits them repeatedly with a shovel and a pike at the same time, the next line. Do you want to hear it?

John: I love casual national hate. Come on.

Dara: It's fantastic. And it's not even my national hate. I quite like the French! The Irish get on very well with the French! It's your national hate. Anyway, I'm here, I'll play your game. All right! I'm willing to try and mix. Okay! A recent survey revealed that all of Europe sees the French as rude, smelly, and obsessed with sex and food. One Frenchman replied: "Piss off! I'm busy eating garlic off my girlfriend's nipples."

Audience laughter and applause.

John: No!

Audience response dies down.

John, pointing at the audience: Shame on you!
On the bright side, it's been years since any of these countries went to war with each other, when it used to be a near-constant; frankly I'll take making catty jokes about other European Union countries while still actually maintaining the EU as greatly preferable. (Besides, even if the racist jokes aren't funny, the snark about the racism itself often is. For instance, in this section, the jokes Dara is reading off the autocue aren't funny, but John Oliver's reactions are.) But that's the thing - the history behind this hate is of war between approximate equals, not one of oppression of one group over another.

It's interesting to look at the way this more-or-less represents progress: First violent, bloody warfare, for centuries on end, culminating in two World Wars that touched every continent except Antarctica; then, peace, uneasy at first, then more calmly, but tinged with vicious national stereotyping and hatefulness that gradually becomes jokes almost nobody really takes that seriously - then jokes that also get called out as racist. I wonder if this evolution will continue till the jokes become entirely harmless, the kind that acknowledge difference without implying either side is superior. That would be good.

But even if that takes centuries - and it might, because the grievances and hatreds have had centuries to build - I can live with that, because European countries only tend to invade each other by accident these days.

Heh, I'd forgotten that the next section of this episode of Mock the Week includes the serious discussion of who would win in a fight between an owl and a tiger. The argument: the owl would win. Every time. John Oliver explains to Linda Smith how the owl would adopt Ali's rope-a-dope strategy, letting the tiger swing itself out then flying down to peck it, while Dara simulates the fight with his hands. It is hilarious.

... No, I don't quite understand how I get from one point to another either.

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Mammothfail: Am I the only one who thinks that They are really trying to defend bad writing? May. 13th, 2009 @ 09:13 am
Okay, here's the thing: I was going to take a break from posting about this RaceFail stuff, because I've got four assignments due in the next week and I've been in a bad way for pain the last few days and I'm running out of spoons... and besides, as someone who's a) only peripherally involved in fandom right now and b) certified white (no, really. By a government), who says I'm someone who even should be making daily arguments about race issues in fandom?

The thing is, though, not saying what I think about stuff also costs me spoons. Spoons that, right now, I can't afford, because an out of spoons error quite literally could kill me. So for the sake, if nothing else, of my brother-out-law, who's having to deal with me trying to deal with everything, I'm not going to shut up.

I keep seeing this same whine pop up, in a couple of different forms.

If I try to write PoC but I do it wrong, I'll get attacked. I guess I just WON'T EVEN TRY.

So you're saying that you can't write an alt-history that removes a race, or any alt-history at all if you get right down to it. Because you'll get attacked. These expectations are so unfair.


*takes a deep breath*

See... here's the thing.

You are allowed to write characters of all races and ethnicities. You are. What will not pass unchallenged is writing them as stereotypes, or as nothing more than props for the betterment of white characters. No-one's stopping you doing that either, technically, people will just point it out as offensive, because it is.

It's also bad and lazy writing, anyway, so why would you want to be able to do that? Be grateful for critical readers - they'll make you a better writer if you let them.

This complaint is seriously akin to: "Man, when I go into shops, they don't let me steal what I want and piss on the displays. I GUESS I JUST WON'T GO SHOPPING THEN."

You are allowed to write alternate histories on any premise you choose. However, you have to think about it.

The problem with The Thirteenth Child is not, inherently, the unpopulated Americas. It is entirely possible to write a genuinely good alt-history on those terms.

The problem with The Thirteenth Child is that:

i) The author removed all native populations from the Americas, and then proceeded on the assumption that this would make no substantial changes to history. That the USA would be about the same. That is just bad history, and is therefore fundamentally a bad alt-history novel. You engage with history, you think about it, or... else. Seriously. We history types are slow to rouse, and not so quick and worldly... but we will fuck you up. Because we are persistent. We are the kind of people who will chase ideas through microfilm and archives, breathing dust for days on end, and we live to argue.

ii) The author explicitly did this because it "eliminated the problem" - HER WORDS - of having to choose between two disliked stereotypes of the Indians. "Eliminating the problem" is, historically, also code for attempted genocide. A genocide of which the author herself is essentially a beneficiary.

I am honestly bemused that someone could write that down and not realise what they're doing. That it didn't seem to occur to her that "writing the Indians as people instead of stereotypes" was an option. That she didn't see that the implication of subtracting the natives but leaving the development of the United States more-or-less the same is that she thinks that the contribution of the natives (and of slavery, which she also skipped over for her own ease) is negligible.

That's not all of what's going on, of course, but my point is: Writing an alternate history in which the Americas had no indigenous population is a valid choice. But you would have to recognise the vast changes that would wreak in world history. You just can't treat it as a minor choice.

As I said before:

I'm not saying it's impossible to write speculative fantasy on these premises - what I'm saying is that you can't do it as background. If you write a people out of existence as background, rather than as the setup for an exploration of how the world is different without their influence, then you're almost guaranteed to be doing it for reasons that are entirely offensive.

Apologies for the less-lucid quality of this post - ultimately, I'm really frustrated with these lines of argument, and it's harder for me to argue things that seem like they should be intuitively obvious. A part of me just wants to know why the hell do people want to be able to get away with bad, lazy writing? WRITE BETTER AND YOU DON'T HAVE THIS PROBLEM.

So, in essence:
Dear people who think the expectations of PoC-and-allies fandom regarding non-white characters/races are unfair,

It's fine. Lern2play.



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Back to Patricia Wrede and the Thirteenth Child: You Haven't Read This Post! May. 12th, 2009 @ 10:26 am
Discussions following on from these posts have been interesting. In some cases, educational. A lot of it is really beside the point of what actually matters about the problems revealed regarding Wrede and Bujold, but that's also why I'm writing these. Derailment is endemic to these discussions - people try to redefine the terms of the discussion so the important points don't have to be answered, because people are talking about something else instead.

My answer to so what do we do about it, which I can't guarantee will work but it's worth a try, is this: writing posts which address the issues people are bringing up, in detail. Not necessarily 100% correctly. [ profile] antarticlust brings up interesting points on megafauna extinction here, that shows I'm less right than I thought I was.

However, as antarcticlust points out, that doesn't mean the premise of The Thirteenth Child is not obscene.

On more than one occasion, already, I've been able to reply to attempts at derailment with a link to a post I've already made. This, for me, is handy. "This has already been covered. *link*" and I'm done. (I encourage others to do this, with my posts or those made by others: no need to engage with derailments over and over again. Toss them a link where it's covered, it's more than they deserve.)

But new derailments keep cropping up, so... my work is not yet completed. I'm waiting for my ADHD meds to kick in before I really get into it, because the alternative is made of fail.

... speaking of derailing comments, while I'm writing this (am currently reviewing stuff I want to cover, etc) on my TV an American baseball game is playing. It was what was on when I turned it on. Chicago Sox (I thought they were called the White Sox, but the dude whose socks were visible, they were BLACK) versus Cleveland Indians. I'm trying to learn more about baseball but every time I glance up I see their hats and seriously what the hell how are they allowed to have that logo. And they're playing at "Progressive Field". The irony, it burns.

Anyway, back to Wredefail 13: The 09th Race. Or, you know, however to identify this particular discussion without slamming one's head into a wall to dull the pain.

First: According to Lois Bujold, only since the Internet have non-white fans of genre fiction existed. I am not a non-white fan of genre fiction, so this isn't my territory to argue: to pick one link on this out of many, the wild unicorns are doing a herd check here.

Second. The argument that, so far, will not die: but you haven't read the book! So you can't judge it.

This? This is my territory. (Not just mine. But I have a share in it.)

See, here's the thing.

We're not really talking about the details of The Thirteenth Child. The plot, the characters - they're irrelevant to this discussion. Inasmuch as the subject is still The Thirteenth Child (as it has expanded somewhat, to include things like the existence of non-white genre fans) it's about the underlying premises and assumptions, and for that, you don't need to read the book. The points under discussion are not in question. It's not that we're all jumping in on the basis of hostile reviews - the positive reviews agree about these points. And in any case, you can get all you need from the author's description of the premise and her motivation for it.

Blatantly stealing from a comment I made elsewhere:

The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem, plus it'll let me play with all sorts of cool megafauna). I'm not looking for wildly divergent history, because if it goes too far afield I won't get the right feel. (emphasis added)

If - and I would argue that this is the case - the major problem is that Wrede felt:

a) writing an America "without Indians" was just the easiest way to go, rather than, say, writing them as a real, non-caricatured people (which makes her intellectually lazy)

b) that the extinction of the megafauna is entirely due to the native American population, and this not-actually-supported-by-evidence view was totally unproblematic

c) the possibility that real people would be upset to find their own history wiped away was unimportant

d) that doing this was "eliminating the problem", and it was totally okay to say that when there is a strong history of attempted genocide as a means of "eliminating the problem" when the "problem" was defined as "the existence of Native Americans"


e) that doing this would not be "wildly divergent" history, thereby displaying the assumption that the Native American contribution to American history is trivial at best

then as a matter of fact, stipulating that these points are in fact contained within the book (which is uncontested by anyone who's read it, whether they're in favour or opposed - and many people have read it), further verification isn't really needed, because you can get it from Wrede's own statement.

Expecting people to read the book before they can have an opinion on it is unreasonable. People do not have infinite time, certainly not infinite leisure, and expecting people to read a book they have substantial, credible reason to think will be hurtful to them is unsupportable.

This discussion is not about whether The Thirteenth Child is worth reading. Not really. Everyone already has enough information to make that call, and that one is subjective. It's about why the things that are wrong here are wrong, so that perhaps this crap won't keep happening, and so that this kind of offensive, hurtful material isn't being left unchallenged.

What's the quotation I'm thinking of? Something about how the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

The Thirteenth Child has already failed, on ethical and moral grounds, on - by my subjective standards - literary grounds, and very much on historical grounds. However, in challenging that, the rest of us can try to contain that failure to just Wrede (and Bujold, sadly). The idiocy underlying this, the inconsiderate attitude towards real people, the unconscionable assumptions... Those don't get to stand.

It doesn't undo what Wrede did. She's wrong. She hurt people. Lois Bujold is hurting people. But they don't get a free pass on that.

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In which the History Wars go cross-continental May. 11th, 2009 @ 12:12 pm
So, one of the things that keeps being brought up in the discussion around Racefail09, Racefail the Thirteenth Child II is this:

The justification given for the deletion of the entire native populations of the Americas is this: in order for magic megafauna to survive, the natives need not to have moved in, because, it is claimed, "archaeology" says that the megafauna were rendered extinct by the hunting of humans.

As I quoted in my last post on this topic:

The extinction of megafauna around the world was probably due to environmental and ecological factors. It was almost completed by the end of the last ice age. It is believed that megafauna initially came into existence in response to glacial conditions and became extinct with the onset of warmer climates.

In temperate Eurasia and North America, megafauna extinction concluded simultaneously with the replacement of the vast periglacial tundra by an immense area of forest. Glacial species, such as mammoths and woolly rhinocerous, were replaced by animals better adapted to forests, such as elk, deer and pigs. Reindeers (caribou) retreated north, while horses moved south to the central Asian steppe. This all happened about 10 000 years ago, despite the fact that humans colonised North America less than 15 000 years ago and non-tropical Eurasia nearly 1 million years ago.

Source: The Australian Museum, factsheet on megafauna extinction.

This, then, is the actual current mainstream view. Now, orthodoxy is not automatically accuracy, but where the bulk of research is in agreement, a radically opposed view must bring the weight of evidence to bear in its favour.

The book that keeps getting cited on this is 1491, by Charles C. Mann. Allegedly a really convincing source; certainly, as it's the one that they all bring up, I'm going to treat it as a sufficient source for this argument, as far as pointing out why this is wrong goes.

First of all: Yes, it's a book. A published one. That doesn't mean it's right, doesn't mean it's not in fact purest excrement. David Irving writes books. Keith Windschuttle writes books. Not-even-slightly coincidentally, they're both racist revisionists.

One paragraph summary of Mann:

Setting aside Mann's political aim - which is, as I understand it, more about better land management than about writing the native populations out of existence, so don't judge him by the people who cite him - we have, as the central relevant claim, the idea that the various native American populations were vast and numerous before 1492 and European invasion. His contention is that up to 95% of the population were wiped out by European diseases, factional warfare, and overexploitation of available resources; the wild lands into which the colonists moved were much wilder than they had been.


1) There were tens of millions of native folk, but they all died around the 16th century of European plagues.

This argument? It is not clever.

a) If this were the case, the oral histories of the relevant peoples, which are not extinct and which record other instances of plague, would include it.

b) If diseases like smallpox (the one specifically cited) had ravaged the populace previously, subsequent generations, being descended from the survivors, would have an inherited resistance to it - they would not have been as susceptible to it the way they were when smallpox was being used as a biological weapon a few generations later.

c) Smallpox would have been extant on the continent. Diseases don't disappear. Even smallpox, the only disease now nominally eradicated by humanity, occasionally recurs in isolated areas, but it's not endemic, so it's kept in check. Without serious and advanced vaccination-based medical intervention, these diseases persist. Consider that, despite modern medical technology and the widespread availability of preventive vaccines, a landmass as isolated as Australia still only recently eradicated endemic measles. It wasn't. Nor were other European diseases.

d) Plagues just don't hit that hard. Consider that worse diseases than smallpox have not had anywhere near that kind of kill rate. The Black Death killed between 30 and 60 percent of the population of Europe - which, at the time, was living in conditions pretty much perfectly designed to maximise its impact. The 1918 flu pandemic didn't get anywhere near those kinds of kill rates. Nor did the plague of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Zaire Ebola Virus, pretty much the deadliest disease in existence, doesn't get that high.

If your argument requires something to be deadlier than Ebola Zaire, you damn well better have some evidence. There is none - not historical, not epidemiological, nothing.

2) Those millions of native folk cultivated the land and modified the environment for their own benefit.

Okay. Assume they did. Why does this mean they exterminate useful animals? Remember, we are talking about the extinction of the megafauna - dragging in wider considerations of prehistoric living in the Americas is purest derailment.


The animals humans exterminate when we modify the environment to our own benefit are predators. Wolves, lions, tigers - they kill livestock and they kill people. The actual evidence is that native populations of the Americas hunted and ate large meaty beasts. This means that they have an active disincentive not to hunt them to extinction. The actual evidence is that they killed them if and when they wanted to - buffalo jumps aren't exactly the least wasteful way to bring down your dinner - but, as the actual evidence shows, this didn't cause buffalo extinction. Millions of buffalo were still wandering around North America after millennia of human habitation.

Please stop bringing Charles C. Mann into this.

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