fools and angels treading: sensitive subjects in fiction

This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

Monica is very willing to share her opinion on topics other people would rather avoid. I personally appreciate the fact that she takes the trouble to remind me to take off the blinders. In a recent post she says:

Any other controversial issues are eagerly discussed in the romance community: Sexism, gays, plagiarism, kinky erotica, publisher bugaboos, conservative issues, but as a whole they really hate blacks and refuse to discuss black racial issues without hysteria and rancor.

I am going to disagree with one aspect of this. I believe that ‘they hate blacks’ is too simplistic an explanation for what’s behind the silence. It has to do with guilt and fear and laziness and a whole range of other complex emotions and reactions. Are there people who simply hate blacks? Sure. But I don’t think you can say that about most people. Does this excuse anything? No.

Examples of what Monica is talking about abound. The whole Cassie Edwards scandal was about plagiarism, but it was also about Edwards’ racism — or it should have been. I read quite a lot of the discussion on the scandal across dozens of websites, and I can’t recall anybody who came out and raised a related issue. I believe the passion that went into exposing Edwards’ plagiarism had to have something to do with the fact that her novels are unapologetically racist. Every stereotype about Native Americans is elaborated on, every wrong towards them trivialized; Native American men, as they appear in Edwards’ novels, are playthings for white women. Edwards has stated in writing that she is part Native American, and that her Native American grandmother, if she were alive, would love her novels. So we can add self-deception and blind bigotry to the list of her problems.

Why did Edwards’ work never spark a discussion about racism? Why did it take discovery of her plagiarism to open up a discussion of her work at all? And of course, Edwards isn’t alone. There are other romance writers who have gone down this same path, maybe not as often and as thoroughly, but they have exploited Native American stereotypes in pursuit of a story. For example (and I can hear the screams now) Linda Howard‘s very popular MacKenzie series is built on similar shaky and offensive ground.

Racism against blacks is there in abundance, as well. Some of the worst of it (the Mandingo themed novels) have passed out of public favor, but Gone with the Wind (the ultimate example) is as popular as it ever was. Other kinds of racism, more recent and subtle (and for that reason, more damaging) are easy enough to find. Take for example LaVyrle Spencer‘s Family Blessings. The hero is a big, blond, good looking, thoughtful, caring cop; he speaks ‘good English’ and he’s determined to help an ‘disadvantaged’ twelve year old black kid. And how will this be accomplished?

“Yo.”
“What you talkin’ like a black boy for?”
“What you talkin’ like a black boy for?”
“I be black.”
“You might be, but no sense talking like a dumb one if you ever want to get anywhere in this world…”
…”I could turn you in for dat, you know. Teachers in school can’t even make us change how we talk. It’s the rules. We got our culture to preserve.”
“I’m not your teacher, and if you ask me, you’re preserving the wrong side of your culture…listen to you, talking like a dummy! I told you, if you want to get out someday and make something of yourself and have a truck like this and a job where you can wear decent clothes and people will respect you, you start by talking like a smart person, which you are. I could hack that oreo talk if it was real, but the first time I picked you up for doing the five-finger discount over at the SA station, you talked like every other kid in your neighborhood…”
“I’m twelve years old. You not supposed to talk to me like dat.”
“Tell you what—I’ll make you a deal. I’ll talk to you nicer if you’ll talk to me nicer. And the first thing you do is stop using that F word. And the second thing you do is start pronouncing words the way your first-grade teacher taught you to. The word is that, not dat.”

(Spencer 1995:102-103)..

I would guess this excerpt made many people (white and black) hoot in agreement, because in general people have come to believe these arguments which are based in racism, self delusion, and ignorance about the way human language functions. The cop character has nothing more to backup his pronouncements about language than his own observations, biases, and the trappings of his own success. This is what you can have, he says, if you start sounding like me. If you do not, you do so out of mule-headedness and stupidity, and there is no hope for you. Be white, or be lost. There’s no logic in this claim, and a great deal of evidence to counter it: Can black people who sound white when they talk count on a rosy future, safe from all racism and discrimination? Equal opportunity at every turn? Is this cop really claiming that if the boy he is talking to would only start sounding white, there will be no more race-related obstacles in his path to a bright future?

Because you know, I’d call that bait and switch.

There are 38 reviews of this novel on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.5 stars. PW couldn’t find anything wrong with it:

Ordinary people coming to grips with real problems are handled with a sure, restrained touch that makes this latest novel from the bestselling author of Bygones a moving tale. […] While residing safely within the parameters of romance fiction, this novel has an appealing candor that transcends the genre.

It’s true that the hero’s relationship with this twelve year old black kid is not the main focus of the novel, but this scene is meant to make us see how caring, smart, and insightful he is, and how willing to take on difficult subjects in order to reach out to someone who needs his help. In fact, it demonstrates something very different: the author’s own attitudes, which I would call narrow, uninformed, and yes: racist.

As I was thinking about writing this post, I asked myself why I have never raised these subjects in my occasional review. The answer is simple: I don’t review books I find offensive. So now I have to figure out for myself if that’s laziness, or fear of repercussions, or if there’s something else going on that I’m not comfortable admitting. I don’t have an answer, but I’ll see if I can figure it out.

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7 Replies to “fools and angels treading: sensitive subjects in fiction”

  1. I must say I saw racism raised re: Edwards at Dear Author–specifically in the treatment of Native American cultures (inaccurate, homogenising and generally ‘orientalist’). But in general who is “they”? Is that also rather homogenising?

  2. Could you be more specific? Point me to a statement, and I’ll see if I can clarify further. Also, I may have missed it, but I don’t remember any discussion of the way men of color — in this case, Native Americans — are sexually objectified.

    It is possible, as I say, that I didn’t find these discussions, but even so the original question remains: why did it take the plagiarism scandal to bring Edwards’ work up for discussion, given the rampant racism that’s been there all along?

  3. I agree. That Spencer excerpt is racist. I remember when I read it, I didn’t care for the relationship between the cop and the boy. (I wasn’t nuts about the mother’s relationship with her children either–the only relationship that worked for me was the relationship between the two MCs.) It was clear the cop felt he was doing the right thing, and historically that’s how minorities and immigrants have created a prosperous life in America: by mimicking the white elite. Was Spencer advocating that? Or reflecting that? Surely, she was perpetuating that.

  4. “I told you, if you want to get out someday and make something of yourself and have a truck like this and a job where you can wear decent clothes and people will respect you, you start by talking like a smart person”

    This reminds me of what a (former) Glamour editor had to say about Afros and dreadlocks: “‘No offense,’ she sniffed, but those ‘political’ hairstyles really have to go.”

    As discussed at Racialicious, it was clear that there is a standard, to which everyone is expected to conform, so that they’ll appear closer to the white ideals of beauty (or in the case of Spencer’s novel, language), and failure to do so is seen as “political,” which means “political in a bad way, because it challenges the dominance of white culture/status.”

    But, as you’ve pointed out in other posts about language, not everyone can change the way they speak (or look), even if they wanted to. And even if they do, as you say, it will not ensure them “Equal opportunity at every turn.” What it would do, though, is help to ensure that the dominant group’s language-use (or beauty standard, in the example I gave) is not challenged or questioned. The onus is put on the minority group to change themselves to fit in with what is portrayed as a non-political, neutral, “norm.” But it’s not a non-political or neutral “norm” if it’s used to exclude those who speak or look differently. Instead it becomes method (subtler than more obviously racist statements) of excluding people who aren’t from the dominant group.

  5. Having all these years been in professions that are male-dominated, I learned to do things, or stop doing things, that are looked at askance by most men. Talking with hands, wandering off topic easily. Now I notice women talking with hands. On a phone? Really, how does hand waving help? Wandering off topic? Really, how does that help in a meeting with deadlines? Talking in slang different from the group in charge? How does that help?

    These are all, possibly, slight differences and could be called sexist or racist. In interviewing possible job candidates, would I choose a person that can’t speak/write in the business world over one that can? No.

    So how about the brilliant and creative candidate for a position that requires creativity and not a whole lot of interaction with others. Absolutely! Choose that person. Communication styles don’t matter much for this position. Creativity does.

  6. In this day and age of info access there’s no excuse anymore for racism, the facts don’t support the stereotypes. Racism is ignorance, obtuse thinking and should be smacked down hard. No tolerance I say!
    ..I’m a lil sensitive on the subject oviously, I’ve seen the damage done on canadian natives and it pisses me off.

  7. asdfg – This is a really big topic, and one that can’t really be addressed in this place given its limitations. I will just give you one example from the courts.

    After desegregation in the south and the passing of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII in particular), the owners of lunch counters and restaurants in the south continued to refuse to employ African Americans as wait people. When they were charged with violation of Title VII, the standard defense was: I have nothing against black people, personally. But my customers don’t want to be waited on by them.

    To which the court answered: Sorry, bub. Discrimination does not excuse discrimination.

    There’s a good overview of the legalities here, along with this summary:

    “[…] When an airline is told by a judge that it cannot discriminate against male prospective flight attendants, then the airline risks alienating some of its customers, but suffers no substantial business harm, because the same rule applies to its competitors too. (To be sure, at the margin, some people who previously flew because of the attractive stewardesses might switch to automobile transportation, but it is difficult to imagine that this effect is substantial.) Thus, the cost of enforcing the anti-discrimination norm in the face of biased customer preferences is borne almost entirely by the biased customers whose preferences go unfulfilled, which is altogether appropriate.”

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