Why I Talk About Diversity (And Something-Something Star Wars)

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.

150 responses to “Why I Talk About Diversity (And Something-Something Star Wars)”

  1. The conversations on this are absolutely riveting. So many people with so many opinions. Yeesh.

    I’m just a white chick who lives in a normal neighbourhood in America, and went to a normal high school where diversity was pronounced – but white was still the majority. My best friend is the colour of coffee with exactly a quarter of creamer (you know, the little creamers you get at a restaurant). Her family is richer than mine. Because of the way she acted, she got branded as an Oreo (if you need that explained, Google is a powerful tool). She and I both called her that too until the day our high school Sunday school teacher berated us for it, because it’s racist. And that’s coming from a VERY hetero-normative white dude who also happens to be VERY conservative. Now, I’m the first person to berate someone else for doing the same thing.

    An example: my roommates this past year at college are the same demographic as myself. Our neighbours across the hall are three large dark-skinned fellows from the football team. They and my roommates have been friends for a couple years now – I was the new one in the group. One night, all of us were talking, and Chelsea (one of my roommates, obviously) said something about how such-and-such guy on the football team “doesn’t act black.” Before anyone else said anything, I muttered something about that being racist. Chelsea attempted to defend herself, but even her friends, those big football players with dark skin, agreed with me. Though they said that they hadn’t really thought of it before, but now that it’s been pointed out to them, they realized that it was true. Saying that someone who speaks properly and wears certain clothes and drives a certain type of car is either white or acting white is racist.

    I’m not trying to say that I’m some crusader or trying to get some sort of praise for being so “progressive”. What I’m trying to explain is that a lot of this stuff just isn’t THOUGHT ABOUT by my generation – you know, the generation that’s next in line for running the world. We consider it normal to label people by their race because of certain identifiers (calling a white male who wears baggy pants and raps a “wigger”, etc) and still think that we’re not racist because hey, we have friends who are different races and we don’t treat them badly because of it.

    When really, we’re just better than some other generations, and still so far behind from where we should be.

    Honestly, I think most of these stereotypes come from the culture of WHERE someone grew up rather than their skin tone. The ghetto (sorry if that’s not a PC term) produces a certain type of mindset. It doesn’t matter what the colour of the skin is. It’s the same in a middle to upper-middle class neighbourhood like mine. We all have similar ideas about how to behave and dress and such, despite having different races.

    Really, though, Chuck, I just want some advice. My boyfriend, a member of the HWD mountain like you, definitely is a bit racist and sexist. More towards the racist than the sexist, most days. I’ve been trying to get him to change his views, but it’s really slow going. He really is a very sweet and nice man – he treats me well and respects me, and he respects other people regardless of their gender or colour. But he’ll admit that he has racist tendencies – he would never date a girl of colour, is uncomfortable with other interracial relationships, etc. He won’t say this to most people, obviously, but to me and to his friends he’ll admit it. And it really bothers me.

    How can I convince him to be more open-minded? I know he has to make the decision on his own, but there have to be ways for me to help him along the path to being a bit more like you, and while acknowledging his own inherent racism, also working toward eradicating it.

    • Never try to change a man with glaring character flaws. One of my biggest regrets in life is wasted years with men who were bad choices. Don’t try to convince your boyfriend. Find a new boyfriend who has better character. It makes me sad to think people would be uncomfortable around my husband and me because we have different skin color, but I have experienced it and I know it’s reality.

      • Trust me, his character is better than anyone else I know – even my own, a lot of the time. This is just the one area where he has problems, and it’s not entirely his fault. When you’re raised a certain way, it becomes ingrained in you, unless you work very hard to change it. Which is something Chuck mentions, I believe. There are plenty of men out there (and I have met a quite a few) who are as open-minded about gender and colour as can be, and are raging asshats otherwise.

        It makes me sad too that he would be uncomfortable with you and your husband. Not that he would show it – he would treat you the same way he would anyone else, and it would be long afterwards that he commented on it, in private. He’s like the others in my generation who would see you, and know that it’s okay, and that it’s wrong to think otherwise, but still be uncomfortable because it STILL isn’t the norm and parents STILL teach their children that people of other races are different.

        My own dad and my grandparents on his side will say things like, “He was quite nice for a black man” or “It’s just so good to see that a Mexican can be just as smart as anyone else.” They’re not trying to be racist, but they are anyway. That’s the sort of thing I mean. Where it isn’t actively malignant, just something that’s under the surface and bubbles away and makes it clear that equality isn’t here even if so many people think it is.

        People CAN change. My grandfather on my mother’s side (which is the only grandfather I have who is biologically related to me) grew up in Arkansas. When my mother was growing up, he was the most racist son-of-a-bitch there ever was. Luckily, he ended up marrying my grandmother, who is so freaking saintly that she’ll say nice things about Hitler because “Jesus told us to love everyone, no matter what.” He changed. She didn’t just dump him because he hated other races – if she had done that, given the time they were living in, she would’ve never found a man worthy of loving, because they got married long before there was much talk of desegregation and all that (in fact, it wasn’t until my mother was in middle school that desegregation even happened, so you can imagine what it was like for my grandparents).

        My grandmother knew that my grandfather was a good man. That his character was impeccable in so many other matters that she would simply have to change his mind about race. And I’m glad she did, because otherwise the first time he met my best friend, my soul twin, he wouldn’t have said, “Well goddamn am I glad that my granddaughter has a friend as wonderful and sweet as you. Maybe now she won’t get in so much trouble.”

        So, I respectfully decline to follow your suggestion of breaking up with my boyfriend because of this one flaw. He’s a good man, who makes mistakes and somehow ended up thinking like his parents on this matter – which isn’t exactly something many people can say they haven’t ended up doing themselves. I’m just hoping that he’ll be able to figure out the error of his ways.

        • I’ve been through a similar thing, with the difference that when we got involved I was the same as my partner, oblivious to the casual sexism and racism around us. Neither of us were as bad as your boyfriend, but we weren’t anywhere near where Chuck is (or where we are now.) I started getting my eyes opened because we are polyamorous, and a lot of poly blogs are also feminist or intersectional blogs, so I got sexism 101 and intersectionality 101 with my dating advice, which led to my taking the time to to try to learn about racism for myself. It wasn’t long before I was getting really pissed off at some of the things my partner would say, and had to constantly remind myself that he hadn’t changed–I had.

          Every time that anything related to sexism or racism or homophobia, or transphobia, or anything similar came up, I would feel like I was pounding my head into a brick was. He scoffed at the idea of rape culture, insisted that calling his friends ‘gay’ when they did something foolish was okay b/c he “had gay friends who did it too!” I could go on. And nearly a year after I got my eyes opened, when I had resigned myself to the fact that he was never going to change, I overheard him trying to explain rape culture to one of his gaming buddies and why something in a game was especially fucked up.

          He told me recently that every time we talk about sexism or racism, he learned something from me. A lot of times it was just a little thing, sometimes it was a big thing, but slowly, it changed his mind. We still butt heads on the subject–he has suffered significantly for being a man, as strange as that sounds to many people, and often feels that the emphasis on women’s suffering under the current social system overlooks or invalidates his suffering, where I tend to see it as if you know one strain of the flu virus is causing 90% of deaths and another strain is causing 10% of deaths from the flu, you put most of your research money in to the first strain, because splitting your money equally will result in more deaths. But now we are debating the tactics and focuses of how to achieve equality, not whether or not equality is needed.

          I don’t know if any of this helps you, since you and your boyfriend are starting in a very different place than we were. But just keep talking with him. Don’t call him out every time he does or says something (not if you want your relationship to survive, anyway) but call him out often enough for him to know you don’t approve. Talk to him about interesting news articles, read a lot of feminism and racism 101 blogs so you have information at your finger tips when he says “But what about…”, do what you can to increase his exposure to people of color and interracial couples, preferably (as much as possible) through movies and books and such (yeah, it’s hard, but it’s doable), so that he starts to see them as people and individuals, not a category

          And yeah, it will be horrid slow going. Like I said, I went through a year with my partner without seeing any change at all, and it was nearly another year before we switched from fighting about racism and sexism to fighting about how to fight racism and sexism. All you can do is keep exposing him to new ideas as much as possible, and reminding him that one of the most important people in his life disapproves of his attitude. And he still may never change, you can only try.

          (apologies for typos and grammar. It’s too damn early.)

  2. I wanted to suggest a resource: Medieval POC http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/
    When writers and other folks say they want to be “historically accurate” a lot of times they believe that people of color didn’t exist or do anything significant way back when. That is untrue. So here’s a great resource that has a lot of information and further resources about people of color who existed and did do things way back when. Because as a person on Twitter put it, “it literally doesn’ t matter how far back you go ‘historically accurate’ will never NOT include a person of color.”

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