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On Escaping Race

December 21, 2008

Three of the last five weekdays I was off of work due to snow days. I had to ditch my car in another part of the city yesterday and take the bus home because the roads were too icy. I’ve been in my house A LOT this past week.

So you’d think that would have made it more likely for me to write a bunch of blog posts. You’d think that. But, instead, I wrote less than I have in any other week, even though I was LESS busy. Interesting.

So why was that? Mostly . . . because I’ve been trying to escape from race a little bit this week (or thoughts about race, more accurately). I put up my book on revisionist history, grabbed a fantasy novel (the one pictured on this post), curled up on the couch, under a blanket by the fire – and tried to ESCAPE.

Because all the drama of the preceding week had me a bit burnt. All this back-and-forth, all the comments basically implying (or saying flat-out) that I was just “looking” for something to get offended about, etc. It put a sour taste in my mouth and made me want to just escape it all for a while. And so I did my best.

I slipped into a fantasy novel. And that’s always been my most effective means of escape through my whole life. The majority of my adult life, I have been thoroughly immersed in non-fiction – history, psychology, sociology-type stuff. But when push comes to shove, and I just want to hide out for a bit? I go back to my bookstore and find a thick-ass fantasy book to read.

Of course, when trying to avoid thoughts of race, fantasy isn’t always the best place to go. Because most fantasy out there is clearly written for white folks. In all the descriptions of characters, it’s always the attributes of white people – the pale skin, the golden hair, the piercing blue eyes . . . The “darkest” characters are generally the villains. Not exactly heart-warming and inspirational to a person of color.

As a result, I’ve found myself drawn to the edgier novels – ones in which there are no clear black/white goodguys and badguys. And ones that tend to fall on a more epic, global scope – and thus including characters of different racial backgrounds. The most successful on that level so far (as far as white authors) that I have found has been Steven Erikson’s “Malazan Book of the Fallen” series. A number of characters of color, a lot of gray areas – well-written. It’s definitely not perfect, but as far as these kinds of things go . . .

But no matter how “good” they get, I still have to put a part of myself aside when reading even these “escapist” novels to not allow race to sully my enjoyment. My mind still jumps at times when there are problematic descriptions, or when I still haven’t heard dark skin described positively 400 pages in. Mostly, I am good at “getting over it” and enjoying for other reasons . . .

But it doesn’t go away. Because I can’t ever fully “turn off” my racial mind. I went and saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (have I mentioned Keanu Reeves is actually a quarter Chinese) expecting exactly what I got – not the greatest movie, a bit ridiculous, but relatively entertaining. And yet, my racial mind kept firing off “why do the middle-class white folks get to represent all of humanity – and subsequently save it?” “Why does the one character of color have to be a black kid with no parents who keeps wanting to “kill them all” like his father?” And then I’ll be like, “Shut the f— up, mind – just watch the freaking movie!”

It’s like watching a stupid action film with an over-critical friend who keeps going, “Yeah RIGHT that could happen!” It’s annoying. And obnoxious. But I can’t make it stop. And that friend is good to me and helpful and necessary on so many other levels, so I can’t just cut it off. Because I’ve learned that “ignoring” race does just as much good as “ignoring” the bully who steals my lunch money every day – maybe it doesn’t get me as many black eyes, but it sure as Hell doesn’t keep me from going without lunch, and it only sets me up to be a sucker for the next bully at my next school and so on for the rest of my life.*

And that’s how escaping race goes. During a week of intentionally avoiding race-oriented blogs and discussion, mostly staying inside – it doesn’t just go away. I’m not going out of my way to look for it. In fact, I was intentionally avoiding it, and yet I can’t. It doesn’t work like that for me. Or – likely – for anybody else that isn’t white in this country. No matter what, race tracks me down and slaps me a few times a day. It’s like a woman trying to stay in and avoid gender – she can’t. Not totally. Because it’s a fact of life that doesn’t just go away because you want it to.

And that’s what all these “color-blind,” anti-Affirmative Action folks clearly don’t understand – race doesn’t exist because I see it. Problems of race don’t exist because I’m looking for them and calling attention to them. If I shut my mouth and don’t say anything, race and race problems will only go away for those few white people who have the privilege of ignoring it, while things get worse, overall.

If returning to my childhood, curling up in a ball by myself and hiding from the outside world while reading a fantasy novel can’t make race disappear – then nothing can. So how ’bout we all just accept that fact, stop lying to ourselves and others, and do something about it?

* Hmmm . . . it’s also a very white, middle-class cultural thing for adults to tell kids to “ignore” people they have problems with or who are messing with them, or to “ignore” insults because “sticks and stones will break my bones . . .” Could that have any relation to the tendency of that same demographic to want people to “ignore” race?

** I know I’ve come a long way when I’m writing a whole post around reading a fantasy book. My brother gave me so much shit about that when I was a kid, that I’ve been ashamed of my enjoyment of fantasy books for most of my life – hiding the fact that I read them. I’ve even been known to keep a back-up fake “book I’m reading” at my side, so if anybody came in, I could switch out and hide the fantasy novel and pretend I was reading something else. Sounds like a precursor to a post on social stigma.

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8 comments

  1. Hey CVT,

    This post really resonated with me on so many levels. On a weird coincidental level, I, too, haven’t been blogging on a regular basis, and part of that has to do with being slammed with grading, but a strong part of it has to do with a series of experiences I’ve had that have left me drained and disheartened, and because of the political nature of these encounters, it’s not smart for me to blog about them–even in cloaked form.

    And so to decompress at night I’ve been watching re-runs of LOST, but like you, I can’t turn off my mind–I can’t stop asking these questions and making these observations about race and racial politics and wondering about the representations of people of color vs. white people, of Americans vs. non-Americans, of gay people, of disabled, etc…etc.

    And like you, I try to tell my mind to chill out–that I spend my daily, working life spinning these wheels, in and out of the classroom–and really want I want is to just get swept up in a good story.

    And for the most part I can (I have an easier time with film than with books/novels/fantasy or otherwise), but like you said, no escape is ever really an escape–just a temporary reprieve perhaps.

    Anyway, this is a long and rambling comment to say I really feel you on this. And I really felt for you when I finally caught up on my blog reading and tried to piece together what all the hullabaloo was about your comment and the original blog post on someone else’s blog (which was taken down, so I had to try to piece things together through other peoples’ comments).

    As one who has gone through similar back-and-forths, I can really empathize with what you went through and just want to say, for the record, that you aren’t crazy. It’s hard for us to really listen to one another, esp. when some folks have been used to doing most of the talking for so long. But you know, this is your blog and your voice and so I’m glad you are continuing to blog about this stuff, even if you’re taking a bit of a break.

    Stay warm! I don’t envy the snow storm–it’s the one thing I love about living in the South–the warmer weather!


  2. I was going to be asking you pretty soon, “what’s up?!” when I kept seeing school get cancelled, snow accumulating outside, and yet no new posts from CVT. I thought, I know he isn’t “busy.” There should be massive amounts of blogging happening… but alas, no new blog til I checked this morning- and you even answered the questions that were rattling around in my mind.

    Part of me wants to say something peppy like, “Don’t let folks discourage you!” or “Keep speaking your truth cause folks need to hear it!” or even “Some people are just not ready, or bright enough, or conscious enough etc… and we can’t let them steal our thunder!’ And while these things are true and important and at times encouraging, what do they mean when they come from the proverbial choir?

    Cause I am definitely on your side in regards to what you write about (via the blog world and your other creative writing), AND in regards to you as a person occupying space on the planet. So I read your blogs for affirmation, sanity, to support you, to read something that i enjoy and look forward to that has substance and is not “required reading” but my choice. So my agreements with you and our discussions in general doesn’t necessarily change the dynamic of wide spread ignorance in our state/ country/ world. But your blog inspires me.

    It reminds me how sexy intellect is when people decide to flex it positively. It reminds me that though I often feel like an isolated island in the vast ocean of this society, I am not alone. It affirms for me how important speaking out is, and how when more people do it we reach even more people. It affirms that there are people out there looking for substance, in a world where tv gives us a brother singing a love song about “Mcnugget lovin” try to entice more folks of color towards a life of heart disease and high cholesterol.

    Your blog is like a lighthouse on a foggy shore, letting us know there are places we can come to find refuge. And let’s be real, us choir members need a place to find like minds so we can keep singing on the truth too. A choir “of one” is not a choir, but some person singing to themselves. So your choir is also this wide spanning, multicultural phenomena that hits notes all over the spectrum, harmonizes, and sometimes we showboat a little so folks remember how talented we are and to stretch our vocal range for the future.

    So let the choir keep on growing til everybody joins in and is on the same page in the hymn book of erasing oppression.

    Also, I will never look down on you for reading fantasy novels. If we can’t imagine the world looking completely different than it does now through fiction and other creative means, how will we ever have the imagination and vision to create something new?


  3. omg. I love fantasy novels. I’m actually in school getting a degree in creative writing right now. In a lot of my CW classes, there aren’t many POC, maybe a handful if that. I totally understand what your saying about the characters though. Even the classic stories by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien don’t really have anything for POC. I’ve been working on writing my own fantasy stories that that are more diverse than what’s out there. Hopefully by the time I get out of school next year, I’ll have something finished. Have you ever read any books by Octavia Butler? She is a black women and an awesome writer. I’ve only read one of her books called Wild Seed, but her style is really great.


  4. One little comment: I just watched “The Matrix” again a couple of days ago. I know it’s not a book, but I have to say I was very happy with the many POCs in the movie who were both interesting and intelligent. Most of the bad guys (the agents and Cypher) were White.

    I think it is healthy to be conscious about these types of issues in the media (including books). It’s capacity to infiltrate our minds and relax us to the point where we kind of turn off critical capacities, makes it a very good tool to control and manipulate people.


  5. Jennifer –

    Thanks for the sympathy (or is it empathy here?). That’s one of the wonderful things about this whole internet phenomenon called blogs – definitely lets me know I’m not the only one. Which is also frustrating at times (if there are so many of us, why are there still so many of “them” still?).

    I’m escaping the snow to head to CA today (if all goes well), so that should be a nice reprieve (on so many level).

    Sis – Thanks for the pep-talk. I wasn’t thinking on quitting or anything, but I still appreciate it. I’ll say hi to the Bay for you.

    Isityouorme? and mthgk –
    I know Octavia Butler, but haven’t actually read a full novel yet – I guess I should really get on it, what with all the complaining I do.

    And the Matrix isn’t bad, on those terms, but I don’t know about the whole “Aunt Jemima” mystical black woman that helps Neo in the first movie . . .


  6. And that’s what all these “color-blind,” anti-Affirmative Action folks clearly don’t understand – race doesn’t exist because I see it. Problems of race don’t exist because I’m looking for them and calling attention to them. If I shut my mouth and don’t say anything, race and race problems will only go away for those few white people who have the privilege of ignoring it, while things get worse, overall.

    Regarding the issue of Colorblindness (or related ideas like “Post-racial society”), this principle has ceased to have any progressive political value in terms of advancing racial equality or justice–if it ever did.

    There is scholarship on the rising political trend where the “ideal” of colorblindness is invoked TO MINIMIZE THE REALITY OF (WHITE) DOMINANCE AND RACIAL INEQUALITY, and tacitly to reaffirm an unjust racial status quo.

    This phenomenon has been termed by people such as Eduardo Bonilla Silva as COLORBLIND RACISM.

    Though not widely understood, this concept is very important because it challenges mainstream conventional wisdom on what racism is and how it works.

    “Racism Without Racists- an analysis”
    http://whitestudiesblackstudies.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/racism-without-racists-an-analysis/

    One troubling aspect of colorblind racism is how it manipulates the argument that race is “Socially Constructed” to deny or discredit the reality of race or racism as social factors.

    Certain social constructivists seem to believe that just because some identity does not appear to have a biological basis, it thus is somehow not real.

    This is nonsense. There are many types of non-biological identity that have profound reality and real world effects like National identity, Religious identity, Class or Caste identity, etc.

    In fact, certain feminists like Judith Butler have credibly argued that *even gender is socially constructed.*

    Moreover, the “anti-racist” argument that Colorblind Racists make seems to go like this: In order to oppose racism, one should eliminate the idea of race itself.

    The real world effect of this political move, however, is to not to end racism but to reinforce a de facto White racial homogeneity: One “doesn’t see race” because everybody has been assimilated into (White) norms of culture and identity.

    I would suggest that the problem is *not* the idea of race per se but the subordination of racial groups into hierarchical systems of dominance (i.e. racism).

    In short, anti-racism NOT anti-race should be the political goal.

    Colorblind Racism
    http://www.alternet.org/story/16792

    Colorblind Racism vs. Old Fashioned Racism
    http://www.rachelstavern.com/?p=395

    Colorblind Racism?
    http://www.equaljusticesociety.org/colorblind/


  7. Hi CVT

    I LOVE this post. I finished A Game of Thrones a few weeks ago and I just ordered the third and fourth books in the series. This is an area I have thought a lot about in the past because like a little like you, I am an avid fan of fantasy novels. I’m also a black girl so I’ve suffered through the fact that I would never, ever have a plethora of fantasy books that write about people that look like me.

    There are a few fantasy authors who don’t paint monochromatic worlds but they are few and far in between. For myself, sometimes I will just imagine a character as whatever I want them to be, and ignore any racial-descriptors by the author when they arise.

    Also, since you’re reading G. R. R. Martin. Do you think Jalabhar Xho will continue to hang around in the background, or will he become a main character. Also, the only people Martin writes up as asian seem to be the Dothraki. I wonder if he will allow any non-white character to be more than just background….


  8. Angelycka –

    I’ve actually read the next couple books (this was a “re-read” to get ready for the next one that just came out – or is coming out), so I don’t want to ruin anything for you . . . but the series gets a little more international in feel as it goes along. It’s been a while, so I don’t remember much more than that (and I don’t remember how “main” the characters of color become, but it gets better).

    One thing that is nice is the fact that the character of Tyrion (a dwarf, to those who haven’t read it), is done quite well. We see from his perspective his ill-treatment and assumed “evil-ness” due to his appearance – and learn to appreciate him (he’s actually one of the least morally flawed characters in the books, in a lot of ways). This is in comparison to his “beautiful” blue-eyed, blonde-haired siblings – who just so happen to be more morally suspect. It’s a start, at least.



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