Finding the Words

My apologies for the spotty posting recently. I can’t give any particularly good excuse, other than my (temporary) mindless minimum wage job. In general, the issue is that I’ve been finding it hard to muster the appropriation indignation for events like the Mark Millar “rape doesn’t matter” incident. My reaction was basically: am I going to get really angry about this, or am I going to just throw up quietly somewhere because this man is an actual, real writer of comics who has more cultural power than I probably ever will? I basically chose the second option. His comments went into the deep recesses of my brain, to join similar incidents whose deeply tonedeaf wrongheadedness have made me nauseous. (I’d give examples, but the specifics have become ether and joined the “background radiation of my life.”)

As for what hasn’t been making me want to find a hole to live in until the world is no longer terrible, I could very easily turn this site into a Pacific Rim fan blog, but I won’t.

Today, in light of my blogger’s block, I will consider the benefits and pitfalls of being able to find the words.

Being able to identify and express harmful aspects of our society by using precise terminology can be extremely empowering. For better or worse, words hold power. Language reinforces and influences culture. This is one of the reasons that, every so often, the internet finds itself in a debate about the real, quantifiable definition of sexual assault. Armed with the specific words to describe an incident, it can be easier to cope with. Being able to say, “that is sexist” or “this is racist” helps to reinforce the idea that inequality not only exists, but marks our everyday lives. We can point it out, say This Specific Thing is Bad.

But language is not always enough. When we lack the discourse and actions required to solve the problems we are able to point out, we remain as powerless as we are without the terminology. It seems that we, culturally speaking, have the vocabulary for identifying racism, but lack the teeth to enforce the punishment that should logically result from saying racist things and holding racist beliefs. We all, at some level (excepting extreme cases), think that racism is a real phenomenon, even if we think it means only Jim Crow or apartheid. Even if the definition is woefully inaccurate or incomplete, we believe at some level that it is real.

By contrast, it is much more common to hear women identifying sexism without ever using the word. Women will say things like, “if men got pregnant, abortion wouldn’t be an issue.” Or, “women have to work twice as hard as men do to get just as far.” But they will rarely say that sexism is the cause of the problems they are identifying. And I think that a lot more women would deny the existence of “sexism” than people of color would deny “racism.” Yet, I would argue that the US’ cultural discourse on gender is (marginally) better than its racial discourse, if only because mainstream media outlets are free to frame gender discussion around upper-class white women.

So is it better to have the terminology, even without the power to enforce it? Or is it better to be able to state the problem without naming it? Do they leave us ultimately in the same position culturally? I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I figured I’d offer these somewhat coherent thoughts to you, O Internet, to consider. Next week, I promise to return to more tangible analysis. Until then, be glad this didn’t turn into “Mako Is Tha Best!!!!!!111 Part Two.”


Fantasy’s Race Problem and Racism IRL

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A problem I’ve always had with high fantasy is the way that entire races of sentient creatures apparently share character traits. I can accept that it’s possible to generalize about people who live in a particular region, because cultures shape our attitudes and behaviors. (As long as those generalizations stop at comments like, “Germans really like being punctual” or “Chinese culture is more collectivist than the US’s individualist culture.” Obviously people can also make pretty harmful generalizations, that dance along or outright cross the border of racism.) These aren’t rules that are set in stone, but rather observations that aren’t necessarily meant to be applied to every single individual within a culture.

However, high fantasy’s racial attributes tend to transcend geographic or cultural location and, perhaps more dangerously, reflect the moral and ethical outlook of an individual within this race. This means that, within fantasy worlds, the goodness or evil of an individual is predetermined by her or his race. Within the context of these fantasy worlds, we accept this, because the rules have been laid out for us. When reading fantasy novels, watching fantasy movies and TV shows, or playing fantasy RPGs, there is a certain level of trust required on our part; we prefer fantasy worlds where things “make sense” given their internal logic. This means that all of us have, at some level, internalized the fact that in some worlds it is possible, even logical, for race to predestine an individual’s morality.

And I have to say, that’s really messed up. As I mentioned in my previous post, I didn’t really start to think about the implications of this until the out-of-character casual racism of certain D&D party members was juxtaposed with the in-game comments NPCs made about specific races. My party encountered a Rakshasa (essentially a tiger person), who was running an orphanage where everyone seemed suspiciously happy. As the DM and various NPCs made clear, the peculiarity of the orphanage was emphasized by the fact it was being run by a Rakshasa, who are typically evil. Despite this apparent racial red flag, I tried my best to have my character ignore the fact that the orphanage owner is a Rakshasa, because I’m pretty tired of racism getting a free pass in fantasy worlds. (That part of the story hasn’t been concluded yet, and I’m hoping that this character turns out to be good.)

Of course, the major race that isn’t associated with rigid moral attributes, that is allowed ethical ambiguity and individual alignment, is human. And human, in most fantasy worlds, isn’t much more than shorthand for “white.” White is seen as the default in storytelling, but it is especially typical of fantasy to create various nations of diverse white people, including other humans and their countries and cultures as background noise or obstacles for the white protagonists to overcome. The attribution of rigid racial characteristics is especially problematic given the freedom humans have to be good, evil, or neutral as they will.

If we allow ourselves to settle for fantasy worlds that dictate behaviors and morality by race, are we settling for a real world that is unconcerned with allowing any individual of any race the opportunity to be as good or as evil as they wish to be? Are we suggesting that race can determine a person’s ethical core? It seems that way. While race, like gender, certainly influences the way that we as individuals see the world, it’s not because it’s encoded that way through our melanin count. It’s because, living in the society we live in, race is still important. Racism and white privilege are constants. But while race may affect our perceptions of the world, it does not provide us with the ethical blueprints that high fantasy provides for its non-human races.

The two casually racist members of my D&D group think they can get away with saying offensive things about Martin Luther King Boulevards and Latinas wearing lipliner, because within the internal logic of their world, that’s fine. It’s not racism if you aren’t wearing a white hood or throwing a brick through someone’s window. While my boyfriend and I use our characters to stop NPCs from making casual comments that reinforce this fantasy world’s racist logic, we are also getting better at trying to get those players to understand that we aren’t going to tolerate out-of-game racism either. We refuse to allow the racism of fantasy worlds to reinforce the racism of real life.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem important, given the pervasiveness and dangerousness of real-life racism. Perhaps it seems frivolous to suggest these instances of RPG racism have lasting consequences in our lives. But I can’t help noticing that my D&D party is equally indifferent to NPCs asking my character “what’s a Kalashtar doing here?” and to someone suggesting that black people are dangerous. The logic of fantasy worlds does not create racism or sexism, but rather reflects the mindset of the society in which it is made. In a society so mired with racism, it is no wonder that our fantasy worlds, the ones we escape to, the ones we dream in, would maintain even stricter racial laws than are possible in real life.


Race and Fandom Revisited

So, my cosplay post has mini-exploded a few times on the internet. The fat positivity portion of the post has been well-received, for which I am very thankful. It’s encouraging to know that this is an issue people are concerned about, and that people are being supportive of fat cosplayers.

Not so much with the other part of the post, the race part. What little response I’ve gotten about that part has been negative. Basically, I need to relax because we should be over this whole race thing. In short, these people seem to be subscribing to the view that being colorblind solves all problems, and probably that we live in a post-race society.

Now, maybe I wasn’t clear enough about what my original point was when I wrote the post. These responses only related to that particular Zoe cosplayer, not the issues raised by the article, or the fact that we in the geek community should actually think about racial issues for once. This suggests that I may have let my stunned response to that picture overshadow my overall point, which really isn’t about blackface itself.

Blackface isn’t the problem, but it is a symptom of it. The fact that people refuse to see what might be wrong with this way of cosplaying reflects a wider problem about race, and the overall apathy (sometimes antipathy) felt towards talking about race in the geek community. In a post that has been viewed over 1000 times, the Racialicious article has been clicked on only 69 times. The fat positivity articles and sites have each been clicked on hundreds of times.

The thing is, if race didn’t matter, if we lived in this wonderful rainbow of a colorblind society, then the author of the Racialicious article wouldn’t be given shit for being a black woman cosplaying as a white character. You can’t defend the rights of white people to paint their skin to look like black people, if you’re also ignoring the rights of black people to cosplay as white characters without receiving rude comments. That’s not being colorblind, that’s using the myth of colorblindness to absolve yourself of any responsibility to think or care about racial issues. (Which, admittedly, is the only point of the colorblind myth anyway.)

But Joanna, you might be saying, a black man is president of the United States! Surely we live in a post-racial society! Would that that were true, dear reader. Yes, we in the US elected a black man as president. This man has then received demands to prove his citizenship, which you can’t really believe has nothing to do with race.

Also, black people in the US are disproportionately impoverished, incarcerated, and affected by NYC’s “stop and frisk.” The struggles and poverty of the Asian community are often ignored in favor of the “model minority” myth. Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by alcoholism. The fact that, for some, this nonsense about Gabby Douglas’ hair overshadowed her incredible athletic accomplishments. Just this week, a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh temple, and major news outlets responded by explaining that people can’t tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims, implying that murdering Muslims is expected and, consequently, less horrible.

In case that’s too “real world” for you, and you’d like examples related to the geek community and fandom (other than, you know, the original article in my original post), this report on the Racebending panel at SDCC should give you some ideas of how race still affects the geek community. Some choice points: “Marjorie Liu talked about being told that she should change her name, and related a story of a friend who was told that her Asian name was ‘ethnically tainted’ leading to the friend changing her name for her professional work… David Gaiden… brought up a truly disturbing fact, that the most popular mod [in Dragon Age] allows the player to change the race of the game’s one black female to a white, blonde… Brandon Thomas shared a story about his mother, when he was writing for a website that asked for him to include a picture with his posts, his mother asked, ‘Do you really want to let everyone know you’re black?’ ‘And she was right’ he followed up with.”

And how about all the racism that popped up on Twitter after black characters in the Hunger Games were played by black actors? Speaking of movies, how many times have you gone to see a Hollywood blockbuster that starred a person of color who wasn’t Will Smith, Vin Diesel, Morgan Freeman, or Denzel Washington? And there’s the fact that in two seasons of The Walking Dead (set in Georgia, whose population according to the 2010 Census is 30% Black or African American) there have been 2? 3? black characters. Latinos on the show are virtually non-existent, and Glenn functions as Token Asian.

But none of that is a problem, because white people. Or something.

I get it. Race is an uncomfortable subject. Life is much easier for white people when they ignore racism. But life isn’t easier for anyone else in the myth of colorblindness. And suggesting we live in a post-race society is about as absurd as claiming we’re living in a post-gender society. While race and gender may not be quite as oppressive as they used to be, that doesn’t mean that we’re done thinking about these constructs. Just because black people are no longer property and women can vote, doesn’t mean race and gender have no negative effects on people’s lives.

I’d like to reiterate: I didn’t bring up Kendra James’ article solely to condemn blackface cosplay. I brought it up because fandom and the geek community generally aren’t all that interested in discussing race issues. The community is guilty of trying to take the easy way out, instead of facing the harsh realities. And now that we’re talking more and more about gender in gaming, but also geekdom generally, it’s time we had similar discussions about race.

I’m not trying to strip white people of the right to paint their skin to look like Zoe Washburn. I’m trying to foster intelligent, engaged discussion about the place of race in fandom, in terms of both its people and the shows/movies/games/books they love.

I leave you with this relevant video:

(Transcript and background on La Jolla Playhouse can be found here.)


Love Letter to Storm

Dear Storm,

Why are just the coolest? I mean it, the coolest. Look at you! Harnessing your control of the elements with your badass glowing eyes!

Image credit: Windriderx23 on

When I grow up, I want to be like you. I’m sure other women and girls feel the same way. You’re physically and emotionally strong, independent, can control the elements, and when The Dazzler wants to have girl time at the mall, you’re sort of wary of this whole thing until you start dancing. When you talk, it’s sort of funny to me in the same way that it’s funny to me when Thor talks. All in all, you’re like my favorite superheroine ever! The thing that I don’t get is, why, when you’re such a total badass, haven’t you gotten the chance to star in your own movie?

I know the easy answer: you’re a black woman. And because we live in the dumb society we live in, movie executives think that black women (in general, but especially in action movies) won’t sell movie tickets. That, for some reason, no one would want to see a movie about one of the most beloved X-Men of any gender. Not only that, but you’re (I would argue) the second-most easily recognizable superheroine. (Name one other black superheroine with white hair.)

But, I know that’s the problem. You’re a superheroine. We can’t even get THE most recognizable superheroine her own movie or TV show. Because spell check doesn’t even want to acknowledge the existence of women like you. So why should movie execs? Never mind that ever since you busted into the comics world in the ’70s, you’ve been a vital part of the X-Men. Never mind that practically everyone knows who you are. Never mind that Halle Berry, when she was a super-duper star, even played you in the X-Men movies.

You know what else bothers me, Storm? The fact that I can’t go into stores like Target and buy Storm T-shirts like I can buy T-shirts of Hulk or whoever. (I’d have to buy them in the men’s section, but that’s a whole ‘nother letter.) You’d think that Marvel would love to market you. If I were Marvel, I would market the crap out of you. You know why? Yes, because you’re a total badass. But also because you are so visually recognizable. People, the kinds of people who’d be buying superhero shirts, would look at a Storm shirt and go, hey that’s Storm. Part of the reason why certain superheroes still get merchandise without a recent movie release is that they stand out visually. They don’t look like other superheroes. And nobody else looks like you, Storm. How could they? No one else’s mom is a Kenyan witch-priestess princess.

Someone tried telling me that regular non-comics people wouldn’t recognize you or care about you if they did make a Storm movie. I don’t believe that. I don’t know for sure how many people would recognize you (though I’m willing to bet it’s a lot), but it’s not like people only watch movies because they decided to before they saw a commercial for them. The point of trailers and marketing is to make people interested in movies. And, tell me Storm, who wouldn’t want to see someone wielding lighting and creating windstorms in the name of justice?

And since when has anyone who doesn’t care about superheroes known about Deadpool? He’s getting his own movie, and he’s not even half as cool as you, Storm. So I don’t want people to give me this bullshit about how people wouldn’t want to see your movie because they don’t know who you are. (Sorry about the language, Storm, but this really bothers me.) When I Google “Storm,” your Wikipedia page is the second link, despite the fact that your name is a common noun. But, you know, you’re not that well-known or anything.

There are a few other things that bother me, Storm, like why you aren’t in the X-Men Vs. Avengers series, and why they made you marry the Black Panther. (No offense to him or anything, but Storm, you’re an untameable force of nature! You don’t need him! They just married you two so that they could inexplicably pander to the women and black readers, as though all we really wanted was a black supercouple, not constant, positive portrayals of people like us.)

But anyway, the thing that bothers me the most is that, despite being one of the most visible superheroines (or -heroes, really), you’re practically invisible from non-comics pop culture. Even though, you as you are, without any changes, are already an amazing role model for girls and women, you get thrown into the corner, because the racist, sexist world of media and marketing has decided you aren’t worth their time. In reality, they aren’t worth your time. Because even though they might try to make excuses and place the blame on the public, I know, and I’m pretty sure you know, that it’s really just that they can’t handle your power and your poise. They want to control you by silencing you, but they can’t, because you already control yourself. They can’t tame you and belittle you, so they try to destroy you by ignoring you. They would do anything to destroy what you represent. But you won’t let them, and I know you never will.

Lots of love and admiration,

Joanna xoxo

Musings on Fantasy’s “Brown People”

Here at geekalitarian, the question about fantasy that most perplexes us is: why, when you can create absolutely anything you want to, would you simply reinforce the inequities in race and gender we see in real life? Especially in high fantasy, where many simply stick a few magical things in the Dark Ages and call it a fantasy world?

In grappling with this question, I have begun to write a story based in the world Bat Cat here and I created. The two countries present in the story are not white; they were not based on medieval European cultures. I’m having a hard time conveying this without saying things like, “half-circle headdress that looks like a sun — it’s like an Incan headdress, get it?” Apparently, I’m not doing the best job.

I presented this story to my fiction-writing workshop. No one seemed to realize none of these characters were supposed to be white, despite all the brown skin I mention. Someone suggested I not simply stick to old Eurocentric fantasy tropes (though not quite in those words), particularly in the way that characters talk. I find the idea of changing dialects to reflect different regions to be an interesting idea, but I don’t really know how to accomplish that without making up a language or using ethnic stereotypes. Part of that problem probably has to do with the fact that there aren’t really examples of that for me to follow. Rarely are “brown people” given a large enough speaking part in high fantasy to warrant the genuine creation of a dialect.

Most of my classmates admitted they don’t read much, or any, fantasy. So their assumption that, “it’s a fantasy world, obviously everyone is white, even when their skin is brown” can be forgiven to some degree. Fantasy is definitely painted as a white man’s genre in the mainstream consciousness. It’s a real challenge for fantasy writers to break these stereotypes, not only because it’s so easy to fall back into the old Eurocentric modes, but also because of the necessary cultural sensitivity. How do you describe a fictional people based loosely on a real-life culture without becoming stereotypical, yet while making sure everyone knows it isn’t just more and more whitey?

One way to avoid racism and caricature is by not making the generic “brown people” that appear in HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones. This isn’t, of course, the only place “brown people” like this exist, but it is the most relevant right now, in part because of the crossover popularity of both the TV show and book series. Amidst all the other things to be offended about while watching GOT, Bat Cat and I couldn’t get over the barbarian treatment the Dothraki people were given. Think of any stereotype of “brown fantasy people” (nomadic, libidinous, half-naked, violent, etc.) and you have the Dothraki. Some cite Tolkien himself as the father of fantasy’s “brown people.” Sure, they were evil, and on the periphery. And he introduced the amalgamation of Persian, Hun, and general African that defines “brown people” in fantasy to this day. But Tolkien helped to invent modern fantasy, in the early twentieth century. That doesn’t mean we have to continue his outmoded tropes into the twenty-first century.

A typical fantasy racial breakdown, as seen through Game of Thrones:

“Brown people” look like this:

They’re sorta dirty looking, live in tents and have mustered up enough technology to weave baskets.

White people look like this:

They ride horses, make real metal armor, and seem to be going somewhere important, rather than mucking around in the dirt.

One of the most striking things about HBO’s Dothrakis is that they stripped from them the palace and mosaics (hints of civilization) the book’s Dothraki have. When Bat Cat began to read the book, we were stunned at the (rather offensive) changes HBO’s series makes to the novel. Khal Drogo and The Dragon’s marriage consummation was consensual, for one. For some reason, HBO decided to take a decent (though far from equitable) portrayal of non-whites in fantasy and make it offensive. (This was probably the same board meeting where they realized there weren’t enough breasts or prostitutes, and people didn’t say the word “whore” nearly enough.) I would hardly consider HBO to be a progressive, egalitarian channel, but it would have been nice if they hadn’t downgraded the Dothraki people the way they did.

It’s difficult to think of a portrayal of “brown people” in fantasy that’s not of an uncivilized, “less-than” nation. Only Tamora Pierce’s worlds come to mind, where the non-whites weren’t all confined vaguely to one group of people. She actually bothered to create separate nations for different kinds of “brown people,” like she did for the white people. Pierce has even written books that focus mainly on non-white people! Crazy, I know! I can’t imagine what fantasy would be without racism and sexism! A little better, a little more welcoming? …No, of course not. Everyone knows only white guys read fantasy books.