Wednesday, 17 September 2014

I'm a privileged middle class white European male; ask me how

Both of these men are too damned pretty to be cast as the
'everyman', but that's not why one of them would be
overlooked by a Hollywood producer.
So, I was reading an article by a successful author, as I sometimes do, and also as I sometimes do, I recognised a close analogue to something in my own experience; something that suddenly felt worth talking about.

This is the article, by Kameron Hurley: It's called Why I Stopped Writing About White People; which is an attention getter if nothing else. I won't summarise it, because it's short enough that I should just let you read it yourself.

Okay? I'll try not to just repeat what she said.

If I had any serious money, I would belong to the single most privileged chunk of modern, global society. I'm middle class (I shop in Waitrose and buy their Essential range parmesan cheese), white (well, somewhere between a quarter and an eighth Indian, but barely enough to get stopped at airports), European (English, God help me) straight male (not very macho, but definitely Y-carrying, hetero/cis and happy that way). Okay, I'm a polyamorous gamer, but that's small potatoes.

I say this not as an excuse, but as background for the fact that as a matter of habit, I used to, as Hurley describes, write about white people all the time. It was the natural thing for me to do; I was surrounded by white people. It might have been different if I'd lived in London, but I didn't want to live or go to university in London; I don't like cities. Instead I went to Cambridge (I know, I know; hateful aren't I), which is not exactly a hotbed of racial integration (less from deliberate racism than from the inherent racism which derives from the continuing entanglement of race with the British class system.)

There was a UFO church guy - I forget his name just at the moment; 1960s or 70s era, big hair and porn 'stache - who claimed to have been taken on a spaceship where the aliens created beautiful women of all types for him to make love to. Now, that's creepy as fuck, but also inherently racist, because the types he described were blonde, red-head, brunette, black and Asian; because black and Asian have no subdivisions. Now, I reckon that guy was always going to be a creepy bastard, but it's a fact that you define and discriminate the world based on experience. If there's only one black kid in the class, then that's a defining physical characteristic.

Greater integration at the school stage would not only lead to greater understanding between different cultures and races, it would also do wonders for our creative writing skills, because when your inner and proximal friendship groups include a spectrum of humanity, the rather lazy descriptor 'black' ceases to be of use. For me, that level of awareness only really came when I was teaching in a school which had pupils from Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Mongolia, to name but a few, as well as a housed Romany family whose daughter was the palest thing I had ever seen.

This is probably why it was during my teaching career that I looked back over one of my old science fiction projects - an epic bit of world-building that I have yet to set a satisfactory story in - and realised that almost all of the historical figures I'd written up were white. I was kind of horrified by what I written. There was a multinational Mars mission with two non-Europeans, and one of them was a white American.

So, I changed it, and at first it felt pretty token, and I was more or less sure I'd be discarding the project in shame in the very near future. But then I started thinking about the wider effect. Without planning it, I'd changed one of the pivotal families in the setting to half-black, half-white, made French the dominant language of the Martian working class and begun to derive entirely new categories of class and race based on origin rather than ethnicity. I even took a good long look at the aliens and started to move them away from planets of hats towards more rounded and fully-realised cultures. I'm a trained archaeologist, for fuck's sake; I have no excuse for sloppy culture-building.

At about the same time, I started revising some other stuff, addressing the sexism inherent in just about any mythic base (there are precious few major queens in myth and legend, and most of them don't end well). It was a time of much reflection and consideration.

These days, I'm a lot more careful. I confess, I get jittery about writing other cultures if I don't have the time to research them thoroughly, but I'm also aware that playing it safe (by sticking to 'what I know') is both creatively limiting and intrinsically racist.

Besides, if I wanted to 'write what I know', I wouldn't write fantasy and science fiction in the first place.