The first quarter of 2009 has seen a passionate and often contentious debate on numerous subjects related to race, identity, cultural appropriation and the complexities of esoteric/exoteric social systems. Dubbed RaceFail '09, the debate has sprawled across the internet, pulling writers, editors and fans into a discourse that has generally been labeled either a boondoggle or a watershed.
In my examination of the discussion, I think it's more of the latter. While the discussion has derailed in places, a lot of it has, admirably, remained on task. At its core, it's an examination of institutional privilege, cultural representation (or lack thereof) and the status quo in the field of science fiction and fantasy.
I see RaceFail as a watershed moment because it opened the channels of communication to examine these topics. Cultural critic Sut Jhally (UMASS) has posed the theory that one of the ways the dominant, entrenched power structure remains ensconced is a direct result of a dearth of scrutiny. Silence, in that case, really is golden.
It makes sense. Generally speaking, a discussion of gender equality often gravitates to a look at feminism and women's rights (and not any meaningful discussion on the Good ol' Boys' Club). Discussions on sexuality tend to focus on the GBLTG community, not the prevailing attitudes of the heterosexual community about that community; racial discussions seldom shine the light on white privilege.
In the case of RaceFail, the discussion did lead many writers, readers and editors to reconsider their notions on what it means to inherit a place of prominence in American culture by virtue of race. That's no small feat. It takes a lot of energy to be honest with one's self.
In our literature classes at the college, I ask my students what they learned from the work. Many often reply, simply, "Life's not fair."
Well, right. We all understand that. As Moonrat outlines in the preceding post, luck plays a large role in seeing your work in print.
She outlines a number of ways in which writers can hedge their bets to mediate the influence of luck on the decisions that affect their work.
But what if you are a writer or artist of color, and the field you are trying to break into is, and historically has been, governed by a (generally) homogeneous power structure (gatekeepers, as many like to label them)? What if the characters you've created don't fall neatly into the traditional/profitable molds that you see within the greater field?
Sheesh. The odds just got a little longer, right?
That's why I think this discussion has been good.
If a number of editors and publishers and writers and fans have taken the last few months to honestly look at how they create characters and deal with each other, then that is good. If this discussion somehow catalyzes a movement toward fewer insulting and/or clumsy character representations and greater opportunities for artistic exposure well, then that's great.
Many of you who read this blog are students at the college. If you've got the time (and believe me, you'll need a lot of it), click on the first link to Ann Somerville's journal and take a look at the conversation.