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This is something I posted a while back in a closed community. It came up again today, and I think this should be public. As usual, this isn’t original. Other people of colour have been saying this for a long time.

So today I saw a POC use the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” and I felt a bit iffy about it after remembering some comments that BlackAmazon made.

After having Googled around about it a bit I thought I’d share why I think it’s a problematic expression.

The expression has it’s origins in the circumstances of the Jonestown Massacre, where members of the Peoples’ Temple supposedly drank Kool-Aid (although some sources say it was both Flavor Aid and Kool-Aid) laced with cyanide and sedatives in a mass suicide.

The connotation is supposed to be that people who “drink the Kool-Aid” are willingly subjecting themselves to ideological brainwashing, are gullible and easily-led.

In the context of what happened in Jonestown, I think that usage of the expression is victim-blaming, misleading, insensitive, and racist.

Many of the 900+ people who perished in Jonestown in 1978 were forced to drink the poisoned drinks at gunpoint, and some were forcibly injected with it. Nearly 300 were children (and children were made to drink before the adults). The expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” erases the coercion of the Peoples’ Temple leadership, thereby tacitly accepting their abusive practices.

The majority of the members of the Jonestown community were African Americans, while the leadership was almost all white, and much of the revenue of the Temple was made from African Amercians’ Social Security payments.

In light of that fact, the notion of “drinking the Kool-Aid” has connotations of ignorant, gullible poc, easily fooled by a charismatic religious figure, with many of the stereotypes and stigmas about black churches and black styles of Christianity attached. In fact, Jim Jones appropriated these styles from black preachers he met early in his career. The colonialist and racist connotations of poc as irrational and incapable of self-determination are inextricably linked to the notion of “drinking the Kool-Aid” for these reasons, and again erase the responsibility of the white leadership of the Peoples’ Temple.

There remain African American families who have a legacy of grief and pain because of the Jonestown Massacre, and Guyana remains tarred by the actions of the Peoples’ Temple leadership.

I know(?) it’s largely a North American expression, but I think we all have a responsibility to avoid using language that’s hurtful, dismissive, and callous, as the “Kool-Aid” expression is.

There are a number of issues around cultural appropriation which I see continuously bog down discussion. I think they revolve around some crucial issues undergirding the whole concept of cultural appropriation, so I think we need to “get back to basics” somewhat.

Before I go on, I’d like to acknowledge the work of Andrea Smith, particularly her article ‘Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence’, printed in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide as being very influential to my thinking about these issues.

I disagree with a lot of the common definitions of cultural appropriation around. Cultural appropriation isn’t simply the “taking or borrowing of some aspects of another culture from someone outside that culture”. Cultures throughout time have traded, adapted, and borrowed artefacts, symbols, technologies and narratives from one another. The issue isn’t the aesthetic and material mingling of cultures, hybridity, or that human creativity crosses cultural boundaries. Those are aesthetic and perhaps moral issues, separate from the real political issue of cultural appropriation.

A lot of the time cultural appropriation is also called ‘cultural theft’. But cultures aren’t tangible things that can only be possessed by one person. Culture is made up of shared ideas, skills, traditions, styles, images, that circulate through a particular society. Cultures are heterogeneous — people who are part of the same society can be part of different cultures, which influence each other — and they change over time.

The problem isn’t that cultures intermingle, it’s the terms on which they do so and the part that plays in the power relations between cultures. The problem isn’t “taking” or “borrowing”, the problem is racism, imperialism, white supremacy, and colonialism. The problem is how elements of culture get taken up in disempowering, unequal ways that deny oppressed people autonomy and dignity. Cultural appropriation only occurs in the context of the domination of one society over another, otherwise known as imperialism. Cultural appropriation is an act of domination, which is distinct from ‘borrowing’, syncretism, hybrid cultures, the cultures of assimilated/integrated populations, and the reappropriation of dominant cultures by oppressed peoples.

What’s being appropriated in *cultural appropriation* isn’t the things themselves — the images, stories, artefacts, themes, etc. — it’s the capacity of people of oppressed groups to determine the meaning, scope, usage, and future of those things. Cultural appropriation involves taking over peoples’ control over representations of themselves. Cultural appropriation is an attack on cultural autonomy and self-determination, backed up by historically constructed domination.

I think it’s important to start by outlining a political definition of cultural appropriation rather than an aesthetic one (centred around “borrowing” and the particular things being “borrowed”). Too often, skirmishes around the politics of knowledge and authenticity obscure the real problems with appropriation. When conversations about appropriation occur on white peoples’ terms, they usually centre on these abstract issues, and the counter-claims of art and creativity, which are supposed to transcend everything else.

Anything that depoliticises the definition of cultural appropriation as being about cultural “borrowing” erases the reality of how cultural appropriation has come into being and operated. It’s the “colourblind,” i.e. race-aversive and power-aversive, version, that sanitises the history of cultural appropriation.

What white people always erase is that cultural appropriation has historically been accompanied, and enabled, by violence. From weavers’ fingers to genocidal rape, the violence built into cultural appropriation is undeniable.

White people most often neglect to mention that their own privilege — their material wellbeing and the wealth of the community around them — is derived from that violence. White privilege is a direct result of racial subjugation. Many of the centuries-old heirlooms of whiteness are products of cultural appropriation, as Shailja Patel’s rendition of the history of “paisley” fabric illustrates.

So if an act becomes cultural appropriation by virtue of its being an act of domination, how can we tell if the act is dominating?

This is the difficult part, because racial domination is built into the ways that white people and people of colour relate to one another (or, according to your perspective, it might be the easy part since domination is so pervasive as to make virtually all acts of cultural “sharing/borrowing” appropriative — I don’t agree with this viewpoint). We are living in a system of domination in which individual acts not only reinforce the domination, but are also informed by it whether the people taking those actions intend to dominate or not.

For a start, there’s a hell of a lot of material exploitation involved in cultural appropriation. At its basic level, this involves white people making profits from cultural products created by people of colour and peoples of the global south, often by using loopholes in property, copyright and intellectual property laws. Instances such as the publishing of books about Native American spiritual traditions, production of fake artefacts, and conducting of lessons and workshops by white New Age spiritualists claiming to be authentic are straightforwardly appropriating the symbols, designs, narratives, technologies/medicines, and practices that Native American people have worked to produce.

There’s also often considerable superexploitation — exploitation over and above the ordinary exploitation of labour, which involves whites taking advantage of different living and working conditions, brought about by racism and colonisation, for people of colour — involved in these processes. For instance, in Ishmahil Blagrove’s film This Is Our Country Too, about the Northern Territory intervention, actor David Gulpilil is shown explaining the exploitative nature of the Aboriginal art industry, where white gallery owners purchase paintings cheaply from local artists (Gulpilil mentions that the going rate is $20 per painting) and sell at a high price, pocketing the difference. The racist segregation of towns in the Northern Territory make it difficult for Aboriginal people to find other employment, so gallery owners can pick and choose between artists’ work.

Cultural appropriation is usually justified, even advocated, on the grounds that it creates “understanding” or relationships with peoples of the global south/people of colour. Not only is this justification false, it’s downright misleading about the kinds of relationships that cultural appropriation involves, and what’s really “understood” about people of the global south and people of colour.

However, as huge as the profit from expropriated arts and skills is, it’s all too easy to miss the non-monetary/non-economic benefits that white people can gain from cultural appropriation. I think you can conceptualise these benefits, broadly, as “cultural/symbolic capital” (although that concept primarily refers to class-based cultural status difference, not racial/colonial difference).

Historically, white colonisers have gained enormous prestige by engaging in cultural appropriation (particularly where it involves outright theft or murder). From the import of luxury items like textiles and jewellery, to the expropriation of human remains (many of which are still in the British Museum!), cultural appropriation has long been bound up in the systems of imperial control. Many of these systems have continued, in the form of international trade/finance agencies, trade agreements, and trading patterns which subject post-colonial nations to various forms of neocolonialism.

“Globalisation” and “cosmopolitanism” tend to be buzzwords used to describe the changed regimes governing international mobility of people, goods and services, but those terms tend to gloss over both the economic inequalities generated by neocolonialism, and the cultural inequalities, i.e. the exploitation and oppression.

White people continue to get enormous prestige from appropriating from subordinated cultures. Whereas the people of those cultures are stigmatised, exotified, and patronised, if not subjected to physical violence, for practicing their culture, white people selectively taking on aspects of these cultures often gain a great deal of fame and praise. This is the operation of white privilege, whereby whiteness is considered to be the norm, and to transcend the “backwardness” of indigenous cultures. The work and lives of peoples of the global south/people of colour is transformed into an emblem of the white person’s worldliness and cosmopolitanism, i.e. it builds on and reinforces their symbolic capital, usually raising their status with other white people.

Cultural appropriation has enormous ideological influence. The culture of modern imperialism has been such that colonised peoples have never been considered entitled our own knowledge — either about ourselves or knowledge we produce about the world around us. We are talked about but not with. Expertise about us has been made into its own niche industries from which we are excluded. Cultural appropriation is a way of asserting the dominance of knowledge produced by the politically and materially dominant over subjugated people. It is asserting that the versions of the stories about colonised and dominated people are the valid ones.

Control over knowledge and knowledge production is an important part of control over resources, and peoples’ choices and behaviour. In that context, being able to assert that your knowledge about others is true confers a great deal of power over them. People with the authority to come up with representations of others influence how they are treated, what resources they can access, how they represent themselves, how they feel about themselves, and how they access resources (including others’ support).

Said’s concept of Orientalism is really useful here to describe how power relations between coloniser and colonised are reproduced through the politics of knowledge, especially academic knowledge.

Representations of majority world peoples/people of colour by white westerners are always already shaped by racism, because the world is a racist place. Idealisation, fetishisation and exotification of cultures, even when those things are associated with positive qualities, is still usually racist. It fixes representations of people into a very limited set of understandings, and in the context of imperialism and white supremacy, the cultures of people of the global south/people of colour have a history of being represented according to western imperialist imperatives and interests (which have changed over time, by the way, as those imperatives/interests changed). Those limited understandings limit the scope for people to act, as well as all the other limitations they face in the context of being subordinated through imperialism/white supremacy.

Knowledge of colonised peoples has always been produced by white Westerners to further the project of colonising. From ethnographic anthropology which created the ‘cannibal’ stereotype that precipitated mass slaughter of indigenous people of the Americas, to prurient dissection of the genitals of Khoi peoples in Southern Africa to determine the nature of their sexuality, to population surveys in colonial India which were used for divide-and-conquer policies, knowledge has been racialised for many centuries now.

Cultural appropriation therefore usually involves white people inhabiting derogatory stereotypes of people of colour/majority world people, while making use of images, styles, ideas, designs, stories, etc. that are sacred or important to the cultures of majority world people/people of colour. And frankly, where items that were made by racially subordinated people are used by racially privileged people in that way, it adds insult to injury.

Appropriation can also involve the direct exploitation of knowledge, such as with indigenous medicinal plant knowledge. Due to neocolonialism, many pharmaceutical companies are taking control of the intellectual property of indigenous peoples over medicinal plants, and using this information to commercially exploit the medicinal uses of those plants, without any significant returns to those indigenous peoples. Often, this results in conflict and power consolidation amongst certain people within those indigenous communities as well.

Okay, that’s my introductory-level explanation. If anyone reading this is confused about any of the terms I’ve used, please look them up before asking me or anyone else. I’ve got other posts in the works that further elaborate on these ideas, but they’re very much not for anyone who’s a beginner to these concepts.

Anyone making comments about why they just like anime/belly dancing/yoga/shamanic practice will have their comment deleted, and/or mocked. Because I just do not have the time.

I’d like to say I know better now, but I don’t. This post is full of cissupremacy, and it others and erases trans women. I hope to revise this one day to be less cissupremacist, but until then this note will have to suffice.

There’s been plenty written about how women within post-colonial societies are positioned as the bearers of cultural authenticity, and that deviating from a contrived model of authentically traditional behaviour is met with an intense backlash (violence, loss of livelihood, ostracism). Most of these focus on heterosexual societies, but I’m starting to feel like some women are subjected to it in western queer communities as well.

I think the dynamic is deeply conditioned by internalised queerphobia. Specifically, internalisation of the double standard that there’s a threshold of queerness that someone has to prove in order to be ‘really’ queer (when there’s no such threshold for heterosexuality).

Where you add some deeply racist ideologies about sexuality into the mix, it makes for a particularly marginalising position for queer people of colour*.

I think that the sexuality of people of colour is still very taboo, and incredibly unsettling for white people. There’s an ideology of people of colour as being either animalistic or robotic in our sexuality, having sex purely for reproduction, without experiencing more civilised sexual feelings of desire, autonomy, the mutuality of a sexual relationship, love. And in this ideology, a strong sense that people of colour cannot be queer – i.e. have a non-reproductive sexuality.

Misogyny is then brought down on queer women of colour. Masculinity is assumed to be indicative of agency and action. The closer a woman appears to masculinity, the more serious her claims to a queer identity are seen. Not only is masculinity associated with agency and being able to assert identity rather than have it granted to you, but presenting as outside a normative gender model is seen as risky in a way that justifies inclusion in queer communities.

On the other hand, the closer a woman appears to adhere to hegemonic femininity, the less queer she is assumed to be. Cue the litany of disempowering and dehumanising effects of misogyny and femmephobia. Why else would I be constantly assumed to be a man when talking with others on the internet? Because I assert my opinions, don’t put statements as phrases, and I’m not afraid of conflict. I’m not-infrequently masculinised until people meet me.

I wouldn’t describe the dance of queer authenticity to be a total picnic for men of colour. There are a whole range of other issues projected onto men of colour, too. But from friends and my own experiences in queer spaces, I don’t think queer men of colour struggle for visibility in quite the same ways as women do. [And I’m specifically not talking about non-binary-gender and/or sex people; this is about the dynamics of a binary, and as a binary-identified person, it’s not an experience I can speak to.]

I think this intersection of racism, misogyny/femmephobia, and internalised queerphobia places a unique burden on feminine-appearing queer women of colour to prove or display their queerness, usually through a butch partner.
Every single femme or feminine queer woman of colour I’ve ever met has described having this experience. Of being told, to their face, that they can’t possibly be queer. Of being asked “what are you doing here?” at queer events.

Feminine-appearing queer women of colour are positioned with the unique burden of disavowing our communities because of the queerphobia imputed to them by the white queer community. We bear the burden of the queer community’s insecurity. We’re called on to validate queerness itself, to prove that it can exist in the most hostile of conditions, to dispel heterosexism for the community at large.

The notion of queerness is still tied up with the western philosophical notion of an autonomous, self-contained, self-aware agent. If that kind of subjectivity can spring up in a body, a subject, who is neither western nor a man, it vindicates the authenticity of queerness. Queerness wins its place in a hegemonic social order — wins rights and responsibilities — by way of its whiteness, whether that’s embodied in pale skin and western culture, or in assertions of the centrality of white queerness to a queer life story.

I’m not suggesting that white queer communities are engaging in actual violence (perhaps symbolic violence) or destruction of livelihoods. Exclusion is often far more subtle than that in liberal democratic western societies which strongly assert their own moral rectitude. What I am saying is that, in a context of partly western-sponsored queerphobia in communities of colour and majority world societies, white queers’ exclusionary practices towards queer women of colour are informed by racism. And it leaves queer women of colour in a double-bind, which sucks majorly.

* I’m being very loose here about what I mean by this term. I acknowledge that not everyone who I’m describing using this term identifies with it. However, as I’ve said in the past, I’m using it for lack of a better term, and because I dislike the potential alternatives pretty intensely.

…are any of the organisers of solidarity actions even in touch with anyone in Darwin, let alone any of the detainees? The “refugee rights” movement is absurdly white, and, from what I know, a bunch of Trots fought, five years ago, to deny any autonomy over the movement to actual refugees. They brag about it to this day.

Ten years ago, the Trot-dominated activist left was fighting against Hansonism – against populist anti-immigration rhetoric. Now, it’s allowed itself to be backed into a corner in terms of immigration politics. The left chooses mascots onto whom it can project its own ideas about what misery and poverty are (a lot like how white radical feminists project immiserisation onto majority world women in the sex industry); and in the process the white left sells those people out. The white left romanticises and glorifies abjection, because it needs to constantly reinvent its own saviour complex. And when people don’t behave in the ideologically pure, selfless and righteous way that white radicals expect them to, the backlash is incredibly severe (more severe than for white left activists who do overtly and dangerously racist things).

The thing is, this saviour mentality is incredibly uninspiring, and makes for boring and dangerous politics. The last major refugee demonstration in Sydney was pretty much a publicity stunt for the Greens. The Greens, thanks to racist, pseudo-scientific anti-populationist rhetoric, have lower skilled migration targets than the ALP.
That’s right – in supporting a supposedly leftist party, the activist left is willing to throw immigrants under the bus in favour of refugees.

Most white leftists have no idea about what immigrants experience. They have no ideas about how the current anti-immigration backlash is affecting immigrants. And for all their “open borders” rhetoric, they have no understanding about how bureaucracy and regulation are used to punish immigrants and discipline the labour process, how racism is absolutely fundamental to capitalism. What the left has in relation to immigration is a sense of self-righteousness that’s downright anti-political.

Like, for instance, many of the detainees at Darwin who were denied food and water were observing Ramadan, i.e. fasting, and not taking any food or drink during daylight hours. In all the furore about the Darwin breakout, there’s been little to no recognition of this simple fact. The left is more interested in fetishising suffering than in recognising it.

And obviously, to beat a dead horse, this means that ‘left’ activism never has to deal with its own exclusive and racist practices. If the people “really” suffering are locked in detention in the desert, what are you doing complaining about how all the events are put on in pubs, or that the most authoritative voices in the collective are a clique of housemates who live in the inner west (and, as an Asian, share-housing is culturally inappropriate for you, so you’re never gonna be part of the inner circle)? White activists put themselves in a position to police the authenticity of suffering and exclusion, and shift the goalposts at will. They always have an interest in denying recognition of the suffering and exclusion of other activists, since that might require change, and work, and questioning their own legitimacy. And when the forces of capital, the state, patriarchy and hetero-supremacy are stacked against you, why would you take the time to question yourself?

It comes back to how assuming solidarity is really a power-play, and militates against any actual accountability to people experiencing oppression and suffering. How can you “organise a solidarity action” when the objects of your solidarity don’t even recognise or accept it? How can you just assume you’re that good?

Note: this is in relation to intimate partner abuse; I would have different advice about other kinds of abuse.

[an edited comment from the feminist LiveJournal commmunity]:

I’m putting this behind a cut because it’s potentially triggering.

View full article »

There has been some discussion around the traps lately about the term ‘people of colour,’ particularly from people outside the USA who aren’t white:

First of all, both of these posts are wrong about the history of the term ‘people of colour’.

It actually comes from French colonies in the Caribbean and was originally used to describe Black people who weren’t slaves. The term came to the USA by way of Louisiana. (Source)

Then, of course, Frantz Fanon, from Martinique, and writing in France, Martinique and Algeria (though he did spend time in the USA), used the term in his writing. (Source)

See, still not exclusively, or even predominantly, USAmerican. That didn’t happen until at least the 1960s.

It seems that, in a lot of ways, the US-centrism of the language is being read into it, and erasing a whole lot of non-USAmerican people in the process.

I’m not sure what other histories of imperialism make the term offensive. As it is, it’s pretty distinct from the term ‘coloured’ which I think has a much more oppressive history than ‘people of colour’. But people claiming that they don’t want to use it rarely describe any specific history, and I’m wondering if I (and a whole lot of other people) have missed something huge? (Not that anyone should disclose or talk about painful things in order to assert their point. I don’t generally demand to be educated, but I have kind of done my homework on this one, so I feel at a bit of a loss to understand this issue.)

Which is all sort of beside the point, really. The origins of a term don’t define its current usage, prevent its reclamation, or erase/overshadow any subsequent history. And I, for one, place more weight on how it’s used now than on anachronisms. Of course, you can’t reclaim language on someone else’s behalf. I think it’s fine if people don’t want to use the term ‘people of colour’, but not where they suggest that others shouldn’t be using it.

I also have problems when they try to assert this in a white-dominated space such as amazonziti‘s comments pages. Much of the time, that’s being used as a means of undermining or distancing oneself from other, self-identified, poc, which is seriously disingenuous (not saying that either of the above-linked posts are doing that – I don’t read them that way).

In a lot of ways, I think this dynamic is a repetition of something else I’ve seen: blaming of oppressed USAmericans (and their political priorities) for US imperialism (cultural and otherwise). Insofar as the term ‘people of colour’ has a political history and weight in US race politics, I can see that a lot of people will associate it with US-exclusive politics. But that doesn’t mean that the term automatically has no relevance for situations derived from other (often quite similar) histories*. It certainly doesn’t make any use of the term “hegemonic” (as some people assert).

However, many of the comments that challenge the use of the term ‘people of colour’ seem to be from people in non-western countries. And in that sense, it’s not really the responsibility of self-identifying people of colo(u)r in white-majority countries, because we shouldn’t really have to be responsible for making sure that white westerners address non-western people respectfully when naming and identifying ourselves. If I choose to use the term ‘people of colour’ about myself, it’s not really my fault if a white person hears that and then describes other people with the same term whether they like it or not – the problem lies with the white person who doesn’t respect the identifiers of those non-western people, which is definitely an act of domination.

But not all instances of the application of the term ‘people of colour’ to non-USAmericans could reasonably be called “hegemonic”. In some cases, claiming that it is does erase experiences of racially oppressed people in the Americas and attributes something to them (USAmerican imperialism) which they cannot and should not be held responsible for.

In other contexts, the term can be used exclusively and may prop up the privilege of some USAmericans (as can a whole lot of other things). That, however, is not automatic. And honestly, I don’t think the case where the term is being applied to Haitians is a context in which exclusion, hegemony, or privilege are being asserted and reproduced.

Maybe I’m reading them wrong, but both the posts above read as though they’re directed at white audiences too. I don’t think we can have a conversation about the term “people of colour” or any other umbrella terms for people who aren’t white until we actually talk to each other rather than to white people. That’s difficult. Often, when we speak out about race issues, we do have to take a white audience into account, because of the demographics of the internet or the spaces we move in in our everyday lives. But first of all, a conversation about this issue has to actually address the people who have a stake in it, otherwise it’s massively disrespectful and not going to be useful at all. At the moment, I don’t see challenges about the term ‘people of colour’ reflecting anything about its actual history, or what’s important about its use.

The term ‘people of colour’ is something of an umbrella term and as such it suffers from all the problems associated with umbrella terms, especially in erasing conflict and oppression of groups of people under the umbrella. In that sense, this discussion is kind of… I don’t know. Politically naive, I suppose. All umbrella terms erase. The only solution to that has always been the political commitment of its users to respect and solidarity. Expecting language to do that for you is kind of an abrogation of responsibility to respect the autonomy of others.

Many of the challenges have come from people not relating to ‘people of colour’ as an umbrella term because it erases specific national or ethnic identities. I have to say, I’m wary of assertions of national and ethnic identity in and of themselves, and I prefer the term ‘people of colour’ because it requires a broader perspective that doesn’t privilege a national or ethnic group and reminds me to treat oppression in a more holistic way than narrower labels do.

National and ethnic identities are in themselves quite problematic and also associated with the oppression of a lot of people. Not least, they’re associated with colourism and racism towards those ‘lower down’ in the global racial hierarchy. I think it’s important to both own that, and to assert the possibility of an alternative, which ‘people of colour’ as an identifier offers.

As for the term itself, yes I use it, yes I identify with it, yes I have organised around it.

‘People of colour’ is a collective label for people oppressed by racism. This is how I use it. Insofar as my racial identity has mostly been shaped by racism in a western context, I identify strongly with it. I think it’s important to have an empowering self-definition. It allows me to exercise my agency about my own racialisation, by working together with other people of colour to transform our lives and the world around us. If I didn’t identify as a person of colour, I’d be subject to a whole lot of disempowering, bureaucratic classifications of who I am, that depoliticise and naturalise the ways that I’m oppressed. I use the term people of colour to politicise and denormalise racism.

Yes, the term suggests that all people who are not white have something in common. For some people, it may be tenuous, but I think what we have in common is an interest in eliminating racism. It represents our best aspirations towards solidarity, coalition, and mutual respect.

The term is positive rather than negative. I dislike the term ‘non-white’ because it does not have the political history or connotations of solidarity and coalition that ‘people of colour’ does.

I also prefer it because it’s associated with some (relatively) inclusive grass-roots organising, as opposed to other, more specialised terms. I think it has more of a stake in the lived experiences of the people it describes than most other terms.

In many contexts, I only use the term ‘people of colour’ to denote racially oppressed people in white-dominated places, and I refer to people who aren’t white and live outside the west as, variously, third world people, majority-world people, or people in poor countries (I realise this erases the fact that some countries with populations who aren’t white are actually quite wealthy, such as OECD-included Japan, and Singapore). This is because racial oppression has a particular character in white-dominated places that differs from the dynamics of imperialism and underdevelopment towards the majority world.

Mostly, I think I use it because there isn’t a better term out there which wouldn’t have the same problems associated with it. And given its history of being used for the mutual empowerment of the people it describes, I prefer it to a number of its alternatives.

* Having both studied and actively been involved in racial politics outside the USA, I have to question what people are thinking of when they refer to (white and western) contexts for which US racial dynamics absolutely do not apply. The USA doesn’t have a monopoly on any of the processes that contribute to its racial dynamics today – colonialism, dispossession of indigenous peoples, immigration restriction, imperialism, slavery, segregation. The history of all those processes is very much a transnational one, and particularly for settler colonies.

ETA: I also call bullshit on the “you’re oppressing yourself!” criticism of the term ‘people of colour’. No, acknowledging power relations doesn’t oppress you, oppression oppresses you. So does denial about it and pretending that racism doesn’t serialise people in such a way as they have something in common with each other.

I also don’t much like Wendy Brown.

Trans Day of Remembrance

Today is the International Trans Day of Remembrance, a day to remember those trans people who have been killed by cissexist violence. It is a day of mourning, a day to recognise the violence that besets trans people, and a day to value the lives of trans people. In mourning we recognise life as significant, important, valuable, beautiful.

Transgender Europe has an international map of over 160 trans people murdered around the world between November 2008 and November 2009 (via Chally).

Queen Emily’s post last year how to mourn at Questioning Transphobia on the political significance of mourning.

Little Light at Taking Steps in the quick and the dead on life and death on the outside of a Community.

kaninchenzero posts at FWD about the TDoR:

Lucy at Catspaw quotes the Remembering Our Dead website:

The Transgender Day of Remembrance serves several purposes. It raises public awareness of hate crimes against transgendered people, an action that current media doesn’t perform. Day of Remembrance publicly mourns and honors the lives of our brothers and sisters who might otherwise be forgotten. Through the vigil, we express love and respect for our people in the face of national indifference and hatred. Day of Remembrance reminds non-transgendered people that we are their sons, daughters, parents, friends and lovers. Day of Remembrance gives our allies a chance to step forward with us and stand in vigil, memorializing those of us who’ve died by anti-transgender violence.

This is for the People of Colour in SF Carnival Special Edition — Interrogating the Text, De-Colonizing the Mind: An Intra-PoC Dialogue. The whole article is in two parts; here is part 1.

Initially when I heard of the Remyth Project I was hesitant to try to lay claim to myths which I feel I don’t have a strong entitlement to, as a woman living in the diaspora. Generally, at the moment I feel really disconnected from my spirituality and the mythology of my culture.

Mythology, as traditionally defined, has turned out not to be the focus of Remyth, but I’m still trying to go for something slightly different.

At age 16 I tried to reconcile my enjoyment of LotR with a definite sense of disquiet about Tolkein’s ethnocentrism and racism. I imagined worlds that weren’t male-dominated or white, where women fought and resisted male-domination, and societies governed without autocratic ruling classes.

I couldn’t write about those visions. And in some ways, I still can’t.

But my outpouring in part 2 came from a conversation I had with Sylvia the other night about the many stresses arising from my work and social isolation, where she encouraged me to find creative outlets for expression. I’m trying. I tried som drawing yesterday, and today I’ve been writing. But I think I need more, and I think we, as a community of writers and fans, need more.

Deepa’s post about her sense of loss and absence — the loss of language, of cultural reference points to translate, the absence of opportunities to create new ones or to recover the old and forgotten — resonated very strongly with me, and with many other fans of colour. It seems we’ve all had difficulty redirecting the SF&F genre to anti-racist ends.

But, like Gloria Anzaldùa says, we need to do more than lament. We need to write. We need to stop talking about how great it would be to take the time to decolonise our creativity and actually make time for it. We need to stop

You see, because I have indeed dreamt of dragons. Quite literally. Dragons.

In the chimaerical constructions of dreams, reality is pulled apart and put back together in startling and unexpected ways. In dreams we see our fears and hopes play out, and clear out our mental rubbish. In dreams it is our own feelings that play a central role.

Let us make our dreams come true.

What are the half-formed ideas you have for story-worlds, characters, plots, and themes that turn domination inside out? What kind of world do you imagine when your spirit swells with hope for the future? How do you imagine your history? What fantastical and supernatural figures inspire you?

I propose a project, much like Remyth, to collect the ideas, stories, notes and fragments for fictions that can rewrite our relationships with ourselves. If you have a piece of work that you are stuck on, post about it. If you’re stuck for ideas, read those of others and be inspired. Post about your wildest dreams — you’re not bound to any action in making a contribution to the project.

Write up some fictive concepts based on social structures, body types, myths/legends/folk tales, technologies, and concepts from non-white cultures and histories. Turn your subjugated knowledges and your racial-justice sentiments into art. Post fragments, RP modules, @descs, settings, even illustrations, pieces of music, or photographs.

Practice shaking off the white lenses forced into your eyes by the white gaze. Practice practice practice.

Unlike Verb Noire, this isn’t about putting together a finished product. It’s about getting your ideas out there and lifting creative blocks. It’s about supporting each other’s whims and fancies by affirming that another world is possible. Sharing your inspiration with others and being inspired in turn is the point of this project.

I’ll begin:

1. At 16 my response to Tolkien was to imagine a female-dominated society to the East, ruled by a young god-queen (I was oblivious to the obvious Mary-Sue aspect of this; or so self-indulgent about it that I was impervious to shame) and protected by dancing warriors (I swear I hadn’t heard of capoiera back then). After hearing about Umgugngundhlovu, the city of the Zulu nation, in my postcolonial literature class, I incorporated a version of it into the setting as well and happily had a number of Mary-Sue-ish adventures in my head up to and including actual dreams, including:
(a) an attack by giants made of stone, who were similar in appearance to rock paintings of monsters by Aboriginal peoples in the local area (I forget their names, but we learned about them in primary school);
(b) a war in neighbouring nations, causing a need for everyone to migrate overseas, and the whole thing watched over by dragons (yes, there they are).

2. A typically cyberpunk future, heavily male-dominated, and where people were effectively owned by corporations through a system where corporations would sign people into debt-bondage by paying for cybernetic modifications and then set astronomical interest rates, making cyborgs effectively debt-slaves, to which the companies could then sell the title (to corporations or individuals). The revolution was being orchestrated by lesbian cyborgs. I’ll post the fiction fragment I actually wrote sometime.

3. I’m usually bored by the concepts for superhero comics, but a few have stood out: Promethea, and The Invisibles. Of these, I was originally drawn by the philosophy, and then, after that turned out to be a big wank of semi-digested academic trend-bombing, by the notion of superheroes generated by mythopoesis. I’m also tired of the endless retelling of the Mahabharata and Ramayana (and implied Hindu-supremacism; thank you Ashok Banker) that passes for Indian fantasy.
So, to amuse myself at work one day, I started thinking up ideas for a superhero comic about collective organising incorporating the less-loved elements of Hindu mythology, plus Parsi, Muslim, and Buddhist mythology, particularly the celestial beings (gandharvas, apsaras, yakshis, etc. as well as djinn, nagas and other non-Hindu figures), who take the form of several young South Asians who are summoned, or in one way or another find out that they are actually celestial beings. Then they have to work together to stop a nuclear war breaking out between India and Pakistan.
The tone would be partly comedic, partly epic, with little emphasis being placed on their supernatural powers and more being placed on their histories and the current economic, political and military pressures on the region, and on how they, as young people, navigate those pressures.

Obviously all ideas are copyright to the original owner.

I have no idea if this will take off, but I’m already feeling a bit better for having written about it.

Edit – 23 April 2009: This idea also owes inspiration to the PoC in Fantasy: Reflections of Ourselves project by kialio, which is a collection of fantasy art featuring characters of colour. The project continues in the Chromatic Images community on Dreamwidth.

This is for the People of Colour in SF Carnival Special Edition — Interrogating the Text, De-Colonizing the Mind: An Intra-PoC Dialogue.

This is a short break in my I Can Dream of Dragons series to expound on the theme of (oppression-related) writer’s block. I thought it was wiser to let Gloria Anzaldùa say what I wanted to, since she said it earlier and better, and there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.

Re-reading this, it strikes me how apt it is for RaceFail09. So much of it. And no doubt many of you have read this before, but I would like to share it with you again. And for those of you who haven’t read it before, enjoy your first time.


from This Bridge Called My Back, pp. 165-173

Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers

Gloria Anzaldùa

21 mayo 80

Dear mujeres de color, my companions in writing —
I sit here naked in the sun, typewriter against my knee trying to visualize you. Black woman huddles over a desk in the fifth floor of some New York tenement. Sitting on a porch in south Texas, a Chicana fanning away mosquitos and the hot air, trying to arouse the smouldering embers of writing. Indian woman walking to school or work lamenting the lack of time to weave writing into your life. Asian American, lesbian, single mother, tugged in all directions by children, lover or ex-husband, and the writing.

It is not easy writing this letter. It began as a poem, a long poem. I tried to turn it into an essay but the result was wooden, cold. I have not yet unlearned the esoteric bullshit and pseudo-intellectualizing that school brainwashed into my writing.
How to begin again. How to approximate the intimacy and immediacy I want. What form? A letter, of course.

My dear hermanas, the dangers we face as women writers of color are not the same as those of white women though we have many in common. We don’t have as much to lose — we never had any privileges. I wanted to call the dangers “obstacles” but that would be a kind of lying. We can’t transcend the dangers, can’t rise above them. We must go through them and hope we won’t have to repeat the performance.

Unlikely to be friends of people in high literary places, the beginning woman of color is invisible in both the white male mainstream world and in the white women’s feminist world, though in the latter this is gradually changing. The lesbian of color is not only invisible, she doesn’t even exist. Our speech, too, is inaudible. We speak in tongues like the outcaste and the insane.

Because white eyes do not want to know us, they do not bother to learn our language, the language which reflects us, our culture, our spirit. The schools we attended or didn’t attend did not give us the skills for writing or the confidence that we were correct in using our class and ethnic languages. I, for one, became adept at, and majored in English to spite, to show up, the arrogant racist teachers who thought all Chicano children were dumb and dirty. And Spanish was not taught in grade school. And Spanish was not required in High School. And though now I write my poems in Spanish as well as English I feel the rip-off of my native tongue.

I lack imagination you say
No. I lack language.
The language to clarify
my resistance to the literate.
Words are a war to me.
They threaten my family.

To gain the word
to describe the loss
I risk losing everything.
I may create a monster
the word’s length and body
swelling up colorful and thrilling
looming over my mother, characterized.
Her voice in the distance
unintelligible illiterate.
These are the monster’s words.

Cherríe Moraga

Who gave us permission to perform the act of writing? Why does writing seem so unnatural for me? I’ll do anything to postpone it — empty the trash, answer the telephone. The voice recurs in me: Who am I, a poor Chicana from the sticks, to think I could write? How dare I even considered being a writer as I stooped over the tomato fields bending, bending under the hot sun, hands broadened and calloused, not fit to hold the quill, numbed into an animal stupor by the heat.

Hot hard it is to think we can choose to become writers, much less feel and believe that we can. What have we to contribute, to give? Our own expectations condition us. Does not our class, our culture as well as the white man tell us writing is not for women such as us?

The white man speaks: Perhaps if you scrape the dark off your face. Maybe if you bleach your bones. Stop speaking in tongues, stop writing left-handed. Don’t cultivate your colored skins nor tongues of fire if you want to make it in a right-handed world.

“Man, like all the other animals, fears and is repelled by that which he does not understand, and mere difference is apt to connote something malign.”

I think yes, perhaps if we go to the university. Perhaps if we become male-women or as middleclass as we can. Perhaps if we give up loving women, we will be worthy of having something to say worth saying. They convince us that we must cultivate art for art’s sake. Bow down to the sacred bull, form. Put frames and metaframes around the writing. Achieve distance in order to win the coveted title “literary writer” or “professional writer”. Above all do not be simple, direct, nor immediate.

Why do they fight us? Because they think we are dangerous beasts? Why are we dangerous beasts? Because we shake and often break the white’s comfortable stereotypic images they have of us: the Black domestic, the lumbering nanny with twelve babies sucking her tits, the slant-eyed Chinese with her expert hand – “They know how to treat a man in bed,” the flat-faced Chicana or Indian passively lying on her back, being fucked by the Man, a la La Chingada.

The Third World woman revolts: We revoke, we erase your white male imprint. When you come knocking on our doors with your rubber stamps to brand our faces with DUMB, HYSTERICAL, PASSIVE PUTA, PERVERT, when you come with your branding irons to burn MY PROPERTY on our buttocks, we will vomit the guilt, self-denial and race-hatred you have force-fed into us right back into your mouth. We are done being cushions for your projected fears. We are tired of being your sacrificial lambs and scapegoats.

I can write this and yet realize that many of us women of color who have strung degrees, credentials and published books around our necks like pearls that we hang onto for dear life are in danger of contributing to the invisibility of our sister-writers. “La Vendida” the sell-out.

The danger of selling out one’s own ideologies. For the Third World woman, who has, at best, one foot in the feminist literary world, the temptation is great to adopt the current feeling-fads and theory fads, the latest half truths in political thought, the half-digested new age psychological axioms that are preached by the white feminist establishment. Its followers are notorious for “adopting” women of color as their “cause” while still expecting us to adapt to their expectations and their language.

How dare we get out of our colored faces. How dare we reveal the human flesh underneath and bleed red blood like the white folks. It takes tremendous energy and courage not to acquiesce, not to capitulate to a definition of feminism that still renders most of us invisible. Even as I write this I am disturbed that I am the only Third World woman writer in this handbook. Over and over I have found myself to be the only Third World woman at readings, workshops, and meetings.

We cannot allow ourselves to be tokenized. We must make our own writing and that of Third World women the first priority. We cannot educate white women and take them by the hand. Most of us are wiling to help but we can’t do the white woman’s homework for her. That’s an energy drain. More times than she cares to remember, Nellie Wong, Asian American feminist writer, has been called by white women wanting a list of Asian American women who can give readings or workshops. We are in danger of being reduced to purveyors of resource lists.

Coming face to face with one’s limitations. There are only so many things I can do in one day. Luisah Teish addressing a group of predominantly white feminist writers had this to say of Third World women’s experience:

“If you are not caught in the maze that (we) are in, it’s very difficult to explain to you the hours in the day we do not have. And the hours that we do not have are hours that are translated into survival skills and money. And when one of those hours is taken away it means an hour not that we don’t have to lie back and stare at the ceiling or an hour that we don’t have to talk to a friend. For me it’s a loaf of bread.”

My family is poor.
Poor. I can’t afford
a new ribbon. The risk
of this one is enough
to keep me moving
though it, accountable.
The repetition like my mother’s
stories retold, each time
reveals more particulars
gains more familiarity.

You can’t get me in your car so fast

Cherríe Moraga

Complacency is a far more dangerous attitude than outrage.”

Naomi Littlebear

Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency. Because I have no choice. Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispell the myths that I am a mad prophet or poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit. To show that I can and that I will write, never mind their admonitions to the contrary. And I will write about the unmentionables, never mind the outraged gasp of the censor and the audience. Finally I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing.

Why should I try to justify why I write? Do I need to justify being Chicana, being woman? You might as well ask me to try to justify why I’m alive.
The act of writing is an act of making soul, alchemy. It is the quest for the self, for the center of the self, which we women of color have come to think of as “other” — the dark, the feminine. Didn’t we start writing to reconcile this other within us? We knew we were different., we internalized this exile, we came to see the alien within us and too often, as a result, we split apart from ourselves and each other. Forever after we have been in search of that self, that “other” and each other. And we return, in widening spirals and never to the same childhood place where it happened, first in our families, with our mothers, with our fathers. The writing is a tool for piercing that mystery but it also shields us, gives us a margin of distance, helps us survive. And those that don’t survive? The waste of ourselves: so much meat thrown at the feet of madness or fate or the state.

24 mayo 80

It is dark and damp and has been raining all day. I love days like this. As I lie in bed I am able to delve inward. Perhaps today I will write from that deep core. As I grope for words and a voice to speak of writing, I stare at my brown hand clenching the pen and think of you thousands of miles away clutching your pen. You are not alone.

Pen, I feel right at home in your ink doing a pirouette, stirring the cobwebs, leaving my signature on the window panes. Pen, how could I ever have feared you. You’re quite house-broken but its your wildness I am in love with. I’ll have to get rid of you when you start bring predictable, when you stop chasing dustdevils. The more you outwit me the more I love you. It’s when I’m tired or have had too much caffeine or wine that you get past my defenses and you say more than what I had intended. You surprise me, shock me into knowing some part of me I’d kept secret even from myself.
— Journal entry.

In the kitchen Maria and Cherríe’s voices falling on these pages. I can see Cherríe going about in her terry cloth wrap, barefoot washing the dishes, shaking out the tablecloth, vacuuming. Deriving a certain pleasure watching her perform these those simple tasks, I am thinking they lied, there is no separation between life and writing.

The danger in writing is not fusing our personal experience and world view with the social reality we live in, with our inner life, our history, our economics, and our vision. What validates us as human beings validates us as writers. What matters to us is the relationships that are important to us whether with our self or others. We must use what is important to us to get to the writing. No topic is too trivial. The danger is in being too universal and humanitarian and invoking the eternal to the sacrifice of the particular and the feminine and the specific historical moment.

The problem is to focus, to concentrate. The body distracts, sabotages with a hundred ruses, a cup of coffee, pencils to sharpen. The solution is to anchor the body to a cigarette or some other ritual. And who has the time or energy to write after nurturing husband or lover, children, and often an outside job? The problems seem insurmountable and they are, but they cease being insurmountable once we make up our mind that whether married or childrened or working outside jobs we are going to make time for the writing.

Forget the room of one’s own — write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping or waking. I write while sitting on the john. No long stretches at the typewriter unless you’re wealthy or have a patron — you may not even own a typewriter. While you wash the floor or clothes listen to the words chanting in your body. When you’re depressed, angry, hurt, when compassion and love possess you. When you cannot help but write.

Distractions all — that I spring on myself when I’m so deep into the writing when I’m almost at that place, that dark cellar where some “think” is liable to jump up and pounce on me. The ways I subvert the writing are many. The way I don’t tap the well nor learn how to make the windmill turn.

Eating is my main distraction. Getting up to eat an apple danish. That I’ve been off sugar for three years is not a deterrent nor that I have to put on a coat, find the keys and go out into the San Francisco fog to get it. Getting up to light incense, to put a record on, to go for a walk — anything just to put off writing.

Returning after I’ve stuffed myself. Writing paragraphs on pieces of paper, adding to the puzzle on the floor, to the confusion of my desk making completion far away and perfection impossible.

26 mayo 80

Dear mujeres de color, I feel heavy and tired and there is a buzz in my head — to many beers last night. But I must finish this letter. My bribe: to take myself out to pizza.

So I can and paste and line the floor with my bits of paper. My life strewn on the floor in bits and pieces and I try to make some order out of it working against time, psyching myself up with decaffeinated coffee, trying to fill in the gaps.

Leslie, my housemate, comes in, gets on hands and knees to read my fragments on the floor and says, “It’s good, Gloria.” And I think: I don’t have to go back to Texas, to my family of land, mesquites, cactus, rattlesnakes and roadrunners. My family, this community of writers. How could I have lived and survived so long without it. And I remember the isolation, re-live the pain again.

“To assess the damage is a dangerous act,” writes Cherríe Moraga. To stop there is even more dangerous.

It’s too easy, blaming it all on the white man, or white feminists or society or on our parents. What we say and what we do ultimately comes back to us, so let us own our responsibility, place it in our own hands and carry it with dignity and strength. No one’s going to do my shitwork, I pick up after myself.

It makes perfect sense to me now how I resisted the act of writing, the commitment to writing. To write is to confront one’s demons, look them in the face and live to write about them. Fear acts like a magnet; it draws the demons out of the closet and into the ink of our pens.

The tiger is riding our backs (writing) never lets us alone. Why aren’t you riding, writing, writing? It asks constantly till we begin to feel we’re vampires sucking the blood out of too fresh an experience; that we are sucking life’s blood to feed the pen. Writing is the most daring thing I have ever done and the most dangerous. Nellie Wong calls writing “the three-eyed demon shrieking the truth.”

Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what the writing reveals; the fears, the angers, the strengths of a woman under a triple or quadruple oppression. But in that very act lies our survival because a woman who writes has power. And a woman with power is feared.

What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s time? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood. — Alice Walker

I have never seen so much power in the ability to move and transform others as from that of the writing of women of color.

In the San Francisco area, where I now live, none can stir the audience with their craft and truthsaying as do Cherríe Moraga (Chicana), Gennie Lim (Asian American), and Luisah Teish (Black). With women like these, the loneliness of writing and the sense of powerlessness can be dispelled. We can walk among each other talking of our writing, reading to each other. And more and more when I’m alone, though still in communion with each other, the writing possesses me and propels me to leap into a timeless, spaceless no-place where I forget myself and feel I am the universe. This is power.

It’s not on paper that you create but in your innards, in the gut and out of living tissue — organic writing I call it. A poem works for me not when it says what I want it to say and not when it evokes what I want it to. It works when the subject I started out with metamorphoses alchemically into a different one, one that has been discovered, or uncovered, by the poem. It works when it surprises me, when it says something I have repressed or pretended not to know. The meaning and worth of my writing is measured by how much I put myself on the line and how much nakedness I achieve.

Audre said we need to speak up. Speak loud, speak unsettling things and be dangerous and just fuck, hell, let it out and let everybody hear whether they want to or not.

Kathy Kendall

I say mujer magica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same. Stop the chatter inside their heads.

Your skin must be sensitive enough for the lightest kiss and thick enough to ward off the sneers. If you are going to spit in the eye of the world, make sure your back is to the wind. Write of what most links us with life, the sensation of the body, the images seen by the eye, the expansion of the psyche in tranquility: moments of high intensity, its movement, sounds, thoughts. Even though we go hungry we are not impoverished of experiences.

I think many of us have been fooled by the mass media, by society’s conditioning that our lives must be lived in great explosions, by “falling in love,” by being “swept off our feet,” and by the sorcery of magic genies that will fulfill our every wish, our every childhood longing. Wishes, dreams, and fantasies are important parts of our creative lives. They are the steps a writer integrates into her craft. They are the spectrum of resources to reach the truth, the heart of things, the immediacy and the impact of human conflict.”

Nellie Wong

Many have a way with words. They label themselves seers but they will not see. Many have the gift of the tongue but nothing to say. Do not listen to them. Many who will have words and tongue have no ear, they cannot listen and they will not hear.

There is no need for words to fester in our minds. They germinate in the open mouth of the barefoot child in the midst of restive crowds. They wither in ivory towers and in college classrooms.

Throw away abstraction and the academic learning, the rules, the map and compass. Feel your way without blinders. To touch more people, the personal realities and the social must be evoked — not through rhetoric, but through blood and pus and sweat.

Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don’t let the pen banish you from yourself. Don’t let the ink coagulate in your pens. Don’t let the censor snuff out the spark, nor the gags muffle your voice. Put your shit on the paper.

We are not reconciled to the oppressors who whet their howl on our grief. We are not reconciled.

Find the muse within you. The voice that lies buried under you, dig it up. Do not fake it, try to sell it for a handclap or your name in print.


This is for the People of Colour in SF Carnival Special Edition — Interrogating the Text, De-Colonizing the Mind: An Intra-PoC Dialogue. The whole article is in two parts; here is part 2.

I’m writing this partly in response to Deepa D’s essay titled I Didn’t Dream of Dragons and partly as a result of ideas I’ve been having for a while. Deepa’s post itself began by gathering attention from fans of colour, but soon became embroiled in the blogstorm known as RaceFail09. I want to the original theme of the post, and the early days before the internet exploded with SF fans failing and being disappointed in each other, to the dialogue between fans of colour about our reactions to the embedded racism of speculative fiction and our attempts to reconstruct it.

To do that I’ll have to take you back to the year 2000. I was 16 and the Sydney Olympics meant we got 3 weeks off school between terms, rather than the usual 2 weeks. In that 3 weeks I decided to read through Lord of the Rings just before the first film was due to be released.

As a teenager, and one caught up in the excitement of the epic grandeur of the Olympic Games, the epic grandeur of LotR appealed to me very much. But even back then I noticed how white it all was. How pale skin was equated to beauty and purity, how elements of white culture were reworked aesthetically and romanticised, and how elements of non-European cultures were either demonised or totally absent.

Even the very terminology of East and West, which took on such a sinister turn after the September 11 attacks on New York in 2001 (which occurred just before The Two Towers was released), repelled me. And, having had my elementary education in Indian history through the lens of Hindu nationalism, I knew very well that the invading army of Alexander the Great was defeated by the elephants of Indian armies. Seeing them feature in LotR as the tribute of a complicit nation in a campaign to occupy and subjugate made me furious. (I preferred to concentrate on Sam and Frodo’s progress.)

It also marked the loss of some innocence. As a child I was given few stories from my parents; after I grew past 5 they stopped telling me stories. But one of the few they did share with me was The Jungle Book, the Disney version specifically. (I actually haven’t read anything by Kipling other than some Just So stories. So.) It’s astonishing how early we’re inculcated into accepting colonisation. For of course, in The Jungle Book, elephants are proudly part of the British army.

It’s common knowledge that, in LotR, the societies of the West represent a number of aspects of English culture/society/history — the Shire represents rural England, Rohan represents Anglo-Saxon and Gothic culture, Gondor Norse/Germanic culture and Arthurian romance, and Elves are based on Celtic legends. The fact that an ‘evil empire’ based in the east is threatening the West by co-opting armies that incorporate elements of real military forces in the ‘eastern’ hemisphere of the actual Earth… was a total reversal of history that marked the beginning of my realisation of just how fucked up the fantasy genre is.

So racial diversity has always, for me, been the elephant in the room when it comes to evaluating imagined societies, histories, and futures. The role of colonisation, empire-building and domination — along very specific Euro-centric models — in driving narrative progression and world-building is ubiquitous in the genre, which for me as a social justice activist is particularly depressing.

Even at 16, I wanted to salvage fantasy. At least, the technical (for want of a better term) aspects of epic fantasy that involved creativity with histories, myths, and the supernatural. So right then I started imagining other kinds of fantastic societies using a mish-mash of knowledge I had about the histories, societies, languages and cultures of peoples of colour. An imagination which hasn’t given way to much at all in actual expression or output, which brings me to part 2.

But before that, an interlude with Gloria Anzaldùa.

This is a repost of an older entry I wrote in 2007, hence the rather outdated spoiler alert and references.

Reading bana05‘s excellent and in-depth post about Martha prompted an outpouring of my own fannish critique meta.

I’ve cut it down because there are spoilers for Doctor Who Seasons 1, 2 & 3, and Torchwood Seasons 1 & 2.
View full article »

This is a different kind of blog to my other, She who stumbles, more personal and less squarely in the public eye. Maybe keeping away from the search engines will make it easier to focus on my own needs in blogging.

You’re welcome to come along with me so long as you respect my space.


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