: I am turning off comments because of spambots.
Bear responds to an open letter.
I have decided that not posting about this would simply be cowardice and the exercise of my white privilege to ignore the problem la la la can't hear you la la.
I. I admit, my first reaction is to be upset that someone is attacking my friend. That's human. Really, we should worry about me if I wasn't
upset about that.
II. Is Avalon's Willow
right about the portrayal of POCs in Blood & Iron
That, my friends, is a red herring.
It matters that Bear's intention was to present the servitude of a black man to a white woman as a problem, as part of a larger thematic argument, that she was doing it mindfully. It also matters that describing Kelpie as a "black man" is in certain senses wrong. He's a phouka, and it's clear throughout that he is a anthropophagous horse-fae first, all other attributes second. If that didn't matter, Blood & Iron
would not be a fantasy.HOWEVER.
It matters that Avalon's Willow's experience reading the book does not match up with Bear's intentions. This is not Bear's fault. It is also not AW's fault. It is an unfortunate inevitability of the attempt to communicate. Listing--as I did in the preceding paragraph--all the ways in which AW is "wrong" is a way to shut down the argument, not a way to respond responsibly.
This is the thing about stories: nobody gets to say your reaction is wrong. If your reaction is based on fundamental, factual misreading of the text (this does happen), then actually it is a kindness for someone to say, "I think maybe you didn't understand X." But that's not what's at stake here either. AW has not misunderstood anything. She is responding to what is in the text.
Therefore, her subjective experience cannot be shouted down or denied or pigeonholed as "overreaction." (Well, it can
be, because people can do any damn stupid thing they want, especially on the internet.) The question of interpreting the text is a literary one and can spiral off into "proving" that Bear did or didn't do X, Y, or Z. The question of responding
to the text is a political one, and in that arena, Bear's intentions have to be divorced from the reader's experience.
"I can only grade you on what actually makes it onto the page," I used to say to my students, and that goes double for published texts. We, as authors, can't run alongside them and offer an interpretive guide when readers start to wander off our straight and narrow path. AW's reaction is just as correct, just as valid, as anybody else's.
(Notice that I'm still couching this as someone who wants to disagree with AW. Because Bear is my friend, because I love her writing, and because I felt that she was successful in her attempt to include race in the complex of issues surrounding Kelpie (that would be my
reaction to the text). I want
to disagree. But I don't get to.)
III. I dislike the word "valid," probably dating back to being told by a teacher that fantasy was not a "valid" genre. Specifying something as "valid" tends to carry the subtext of "we might have found it 'invalid' if we'd wanted to." But at the same time, it's an important word, because it says, "We have to pay attention here. We have to listen to this."
Everyone's experience is valid. Every reader's reaction is valid. Even if I disagree with them. I disagree passionately with many reader reactions to Mélusine
, but that doesn't mean I get to tell them they didn't have the reaction that they did. In the same way, members of one group do not get to tell members of another group that they (members of the 2nd group) did not experience oppression because they (members of the 1st group) didn't mean to oppress them (members of the 2nd group).
If you're a member of the first group, it's not about you and your intentions, no matter how good those intentions are.
IV. I am a middle-class white woman. There isn't even a fraction of a fraction of non-Western-European ethnicity anywhere in my genealogy. The closest I get to an oppressed minority is Irish, and since all sides of my family have been American for more than a century, that's not very damn close. My great-grandparents may have experienced oppression on racial grounds, but that's not a meaningful part of my
Which is to say, yes, I have no inherited moral high ground here. In point of fact, I'm up to my knees in the swamp and sinking fast. I recognize my white privilege (back in '06, I blogged about
growing up aware of white privilege, even if I didn't have a word for it as a child), and I recognize that I can't disassociate myself from it. I can't take it off or make it somehow not mine
And I'm not saying that in a bid for sympathy, because, hello? Privilege is not something one gets sympathy for. I'm owning up to it, admitting that it exists and that I benefit from it, even though I find it morally reprehensible.
V. I also recognize my class privilege, and the fact that racial privilege and class privilege frequently overlap, but are not the same thing.
VI. And then what about that whole "woman" thing?
VII. And this is where discussions of oppression get complicated, and need
to get complicated. Because it isn't just
race, any more than it's just
class or it's just
sex. Prioritizing one kind of oppression over another merely obscures the matrix of identities that we're all stuck in. Yes, some of us are stuck in better positions than others; my point is not "We are all helpless like flies! My white privilege isn't my fault!" but that the social matrix is complicated and large and institutionalized--reified, even. No, this is not an excuse to bail out on trying to change things. But my belief is that changing things has to start with understanding them, and simple binary models of oppression, any kind of oppression, don't further understanding.
VIII. I am noticing that some of Bear's commenters are advancing the "I write my characters as people first!" notion as a defense
This ploy is different than the advice Bear gave in her Othering
post, which encourages writers to remember that the exotic Other is a person
. Bear's post is about tackling something big and scary and necessary, about undoing the prejudices that keep you from seeing over the fences of bigotry. The "people first!" defense is about being able to write all of your characters, regardless of race, class, or sex, as if they were people like you
. Which you have the luxury of only
from a position of privilege. You can be blind to the differences because they all work in your favor.The personal is political.
When I write a black, bisexual, lower-class man from the mid-South, I do so knowing that he is, like me, a human being with a subject position--i.e., not The Other. Definitionally, The Other does not have a subject position. I also
know that he and his subject position are shaped, inexorably, by his being black, bisexual, lower-class, and from the mid-South. He's not any
person. He's this
person. You can't do an end run around oppression and prejudice by chanting "people first!" This will not score you a touchdown. You have to make the empathic leap (if you are not black, bisexual, lower-class, and from the mid-South) to imagine what it would be like to be a person in these circumstances
IX. That, I think, is the obligation we all have as human beings: to try to make that empathic leap. Because otherwise, we're shut up alone in the very small rooms of our skulls.
X. But for some of us that empathic leap is a luxury because the world we live in reflects our subject position back to us. We don't have to negotiate a culture that doesn't represent us or even recognize us--or represents us only as a stereotype. And because
it's a luxury, it's harder to do. And because it's both those things, it needs doing. Even if we fail, we need to try.
XI. And when we do fail, we need to try again. Fail better
XII. And keep dancing, because if you aren't dancing when you write, you won't create a revolution anybody wants to come to.