Two weeks ago I went to Penn State Erie because a women’s studies class was studying Blackbirds as part of a “women and superheroes” class. (Fascinating takeaways from that class: the class was evenly split on whether or not Miriam Black is a superhero, anti-hero, or something else; they correctly saw that the book was very much an “anti-romance” novel; they also saw, to my delight, that the princess in the tower that needed saving was actually big burly truck driver, Louis, and Miriam was the one who had to save him.)
Then, this past weekend I sat on a fantastic panel about diversity in genre fiction with authors Gail Carriger, Carol Berg, and Jim C. Hines, and DMLA agent bad-ass, Amy Boggs.
Oh, spoiler warning: I’m a firmly-middle-class heteronormative white dude.
Basically, I’m one of the Career Tributes in the Hunger Games. I get all the cool snacks and weapons. I’ve already got a bunch of cards up my sleeve. Hell, sometimes I don’t even feel like a Career Tribute but one of the damn Gamemakers. To carry this metaphor to its naturally absurd conclusion, the odds really are ever in my favor.
And so it’s weird to me to be invited to talk about diversity. I have almost no stakes in the game. Hell, I should probably be continuing to tilt favor toward us folks living up on Heteronormative White Dude mountain because, hey, prime real estate. My son’s a little white dude, so why not keep the deck stacked for him, you know? And in a sense, getting to be on panels about diversity and giving talks about the same feels Trojan Horsey to me — like a littler version of me is gonna pop out of my own skull and be like, “HA HA HA WHITE POWER! MEN’S RIGHTS!” and then kick over a desk before running out of the room, cackling.
Further, I don’t feel particularly good at it. Speaking about diversity, I mean. I try. I really do. But I make mistakes. And even in making mistakes there’s this vibe that I’m so brave for speaking out about it when really, it’s easy-breezy for me to talk about this stuff. I don’t see myself losing readers. I might even gain readers. Any hate mail I get is pretty tame and, honestly, fairly infrequent — and has yet to ever invoke anything resembling a death threat or a threat of rape. So, it’s not particularly “brave” of me to bullhorn my opinions from this Very Safe Iron-Walled Bunker up here on Heteronormative White Dude Mountain while those living off the mountain are catching hell even when they don’t speak up.
So, why do I do it?
Is it privilege-flavored guilt? I like to think it’s more than this, though I’ll note that — like many of my ilk — I grew up in a family that could, at times, be considered casually and comfortably racist. Where gender roles were more firmly polarized and imbalanced. (I had friends, male friends, who sometimes wore skirts and that, ahhh, didn’t go over well?)
Is it that I wanna be a white knight? Oooh, god, I hope not. That thought makes my guts curdle. I don’t wanna play anybody’s hero. I’m a shitty hero. If I’m your champion… *low whistle* then everybody’s pretty much fucked. I get this stuff too wrong too often to be a hero. I’d much rather be your squire and try to cultivate a world where you get to be knight. Or maybe I’m the standard-bearer — the flag-bearer carrying the banners for a greater ideal. Maybe mouthpiece, or ally, or pit crew. So, nope, no white knight desires, here. I’m way too introverted to wanna be a white knight.
Part of it is a whole host of selfish reasons, honestly. I could probably subsist very well on writing to white guys, but just the same, I look around at a changing world where white guys aren’t always top of the pops anymore. I look at a world that is increasingly diverse at the street level, if not yet the institutional level, and — again, selfishly! — I don’t want to talk over or around people who don’t look or live like me. I don’t want to ignore them. I want to include them. If I speak to more people (selfishness alert), my audience grows (translated: I can sell more books). Monocultures aren’t healthy. Not in an ecosystem, not in a financial portfolio, not in a group of friends or a family. Monocultures are weakness. Diversification and diversity — polyculture — is strength. It’s how we keep on keepin’ on, y’know?
Part of it is because I am racist and I am sexist. I dunno if there’s a biological component at work there, but I do know there’s certainly an environmental one — and growing up white in America, with a male identity that matches what lurks within my Iron Man Underoos, you kinda get this stuff drilled into you a lot of the time. Sometimes actively, sometimes passively, in much the same way that rape culture isn’t always overt (or has been overt for so long it feels like part of the fabric rather than as a flaw in the design). I can still feel, like a turning worm, that flinching reaction of ingrained racist, sexist bullshit — and it’s honestly pretty gross. (A good example of how this exists in a practical way is that all-too-common moment when other crappy white dudes assume you are just as crappy as they are and they find you and in a low voice say something toxic about that woman over there or that Arab guy across the room or gay marriage and you’re like, “Ohh, hey, no, I’m not on your team, you rancorous shit-bird.”)
Sometimes it’s just that once you try to embrace the duel-wielding power of empathy and logic you start to see a lot of flaws in a lot of systems and, in turn, you start feeling like that’s fucked up. The data points of rape culture. Or the fact that American prison culture is the new slavery. Or the castigating bullshit surrounding gay marriage. Or cop stops or TSA stops or anything in the news ever. You just start to see that everything is weighted for me and everything is weighted against you. It’s like, I’m born, and they give me a high-five and a soft pillow. Someone unlike me is born and they cut your hamstring before drop-kicking your ass out of the crib.
(Shit, maybe it is guilt, I dunno.)
As a writer, it’s that I wanna talk to more people. Not at more people. But as part of a two-way, we’re-all-at-the-same-table conversation. Even when I’m getting it wrong. And it always strikes me as ironic that science-fiction (HEY LOOK THE FUTURE) and fantasy (WE CAN MAKE UP ANYTHING WE WANT) are so frequently mired in the narrow Heteronormative White Dude paradigm. You can do anything you want in these worlds and yet somehow they end up always looking like the samey-samey worlds that came before them.
Which brings us to Star Wars.
I won’t go into this too deeply, and yes, I recognize that we may see more casting yet. But they announced what appears to be the primary cast and it looked a lot like the composition of, well, every other science-fiction film you can think of, which is to say one woman, one non-white guy (John Boyega rules, by the way — go see Attack the Block), and a bunch of other white lads. A major piece of pop culture like that would be improved by being representative of all the audience in potential, you know? I played Star Wars as a kid and had a panoply of roles I could comfortably drop into because damn near everyone on screen looked like me. My cousin, a girl, played, mmm, ohhh, Leia. (What, was she gonna play Mon Mothma? A Jabba slave girl?) And no, it’s not that she was unable to change gender roles and play a boy — it’s that to begin with, she had no representation on screen except for one (admittedly pretty bad-ass) woman.
And here someone might flinch and say “something-something quota” or “blah blah politically-correct,” but it’s not about mandates or forced heterogeneity so much as it is trying to speak to more people and not make your entirely made-up world look like something less progressive and less inclusive than actual reality.
Fiction, and genre fiction in particular, has a Human Centipede problem, I think. We keep ingesting and regurgitating the same stuff. Tolkien! BARF. Heinlein! BARF. You eat the same, you puke the same, and we call just scoop it up again and put it back on the plate (AND NOW YOU KNOW THE ORIGIN STORY OF TACO BELL). Anything that breaks the cycle is jarring — but, also, necessary. It was interesting that, at the diversity panel in Colorado, the topic of “blind people feeling people’s faces” was brought up (by, if I recall, Jim Hines), and how basically, that’s total bullshit. And yet you see it everywhere, don’t you? Why do we see it everywhere? Because it’s a (false) data point that we keep scooping up and barfing back.
It’s a fly that’s been in the soup so long we think it’s an ingredient, not an invader.
(That, perhaps, is an apt metaphor for a lot of this stuff.)
Now, the larger question is —
Why the hell am I talking about diversity to anyone?
Why do I get to do that?
I assume, in part, because it’s the reverse-version of that “impromptu KKK meeting” vibe I mentioned above, where white dudes feel comfortable being shitty around other white dudes. Like, sometimes the message needs to reach the residents of Heteronormative White Dude Mountain, and so sometimes that message gets carried by a fellow resident. I can use that same vibe of straight white guys listen to each other and use our shared frequency for good, not evil.
I assume, also in part, because it’s just another advantage conferred to to already-advantaged.
Mostly, my hope is that I can make some small effort to not diminish evil — because I don’t know that I have that power — but diminish ignorance. Both in myself and those listening to me.
That is why I talk about diversity.