I've been reading a lot of metafandom in the last few days. Can't remember how I found it, but once I had I was delighted. It seems a bit dead these days, but I've been reading back through the archives and enjoying myself thinking deeply about things, perhaps a bit too deeply.
Anyway, I got to one point around June 2010 and suddenly there was an avalanche of posts referencing hurt/comfort bingo and also racefail. I'm not entirely sure but I think those things came from different places. Anyway, I tend to read the summaries and subject lines and see if I'm interested rather than reading everything, and most of it seemed to be quite obvious stuff (to me) so I let it pass. But I finally found a post which sparked my curiosity, and then began through a series of linkjumps reading the story about that racefail.
Very succintly (ha) an author wrote a J2 big bang where Jensen was a doctor and Jared was a photojournalist and they met during the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. Naturally, being J2 and all, they had a bit of angsting and tiny issues and so on and then fell in love and everything ended happily ever after. (The story, I should note, along with its accompanying artwork, is now gone).
There were unforunately several pretty big failures with this piece. There's the fact that the Haitian earthquake, a relatively recent (and thus still quite painful) large tragedy, was being used as the backdrop for a story about two totally unrelated people to fall in love. I initially used the word 'framework' instead of backdrop, but then realised that makes it sound like they were somewhat involved in the tragedy. They weren't. By which I mean, while they were there as a doctor (so definitely helping) and a journalist (so, er...I suppose at a stretch being useful in letting others know what was going on) they weren't the ones who'd had their homes/families/lives and so on torn to shreds. Doctor Jensen might be out there living in dodgy conditions and quite uncomfortable for six months or whatever, but essentially at the end of it he still gets to go home to nice clean safe America (relatively speaking). The Haitians, for the most part, don't. So while they were around to help, they weren't involved in the same way as the people of Haiti were, and the people of Haiti weren't focused on in any way which made them anything other than props for the story. So, huge tragedy which hurt tons of people, being used to tell an essentially nice easy love story...bit inappropriate to say the least.
Then there was the fact that people of colour were written, well...not well. Generally entirely one-dimensional. There was, from what I can gather (like I say the story is now missing) a character who was fairly prominent, a Haitian nurse, but even he wasn't much other than a huge walking trope. Huge being the operative word there. His being huge seemed to be quite a definining characteristic, and that leaves one thinking that perhaps the author didn't exactly pad his character out in the same way she did Jensen and Jared's....except with height. I mean, no motivations or history or family or anything...just height. I could of course be wrong here and there could be an epic backstory all interwoven which really describes this guy well, but from what I could glean...it was all about his height. Anybody else (apparently there were no less than three women who said nothing other than, "My baby,") was no better off.
[I should note here: I personally don't tend to use the term 'people of colour' because I find it a bit...bizarre. It essentially separates people into 'white' and 'not white' and suggests that all those who are not white are or should be being treated as a homogenous group. It does the same for those who are white. I would suggest American Indians have different issues than African Americans do, in terms of how they are treated regarding race (as that's where the term 'people of colour' seems to be used). Equally I would suggest that white Irish people have different issues than white English people do. There is a much longer explanation of this if anyone gives a shit, but basically, I will use the term 'people of colour' here to denote a shorthand for a group of people who do not have 'white privilege' in the way that fandom usually refers to. Equally, if I use 'white' I will use it in the way that fandom usually uses it, referring to those who have 'white privilege'.]
There was also the speech issue, in that this huge guy was written to sound like his grasp of English was very basic and very 'foreign'. However, I won't go into that because I honestly couldn't say if that's what someone who first speaks Haitian Creole or French and then learns English ever sounds like at some point in their journey through the English language. By this, I mean, I can (I think) fairly accurately render the speech of a Brazilian native speaking in good English. This is due to a lot of listening to Felipe Massa, Rubens Barrichello, Bruno Senna and so on. Their English is pretty fucking good (better than that of many first-language English speakers in the UK, indeed) but there are tells which give away that they speak a different first language: most notably, sentence structure. Sometimes the verb will go a-wandering and it'll turn up somewhere unexpected. I imagine this is exactly what I sound like when I spoke in French or German or Latin, when I did. So far I seem to be doing okay with Welsh but then I've not done much 'off the cuff' speaking yet, so there's still much time to cock it up. Anyway, my point is, this could theoretically be an accurate rendering of someone from Haiti's shaky English, but I haven't read posts speficially touching on this, so I won't guess either way. Suffice to say that if it is accurate then, that's how some people speak. If it's inaccurate then it's quite liable to be an offensive stereotype.
I believe there may have been other fails, but I've lost them now.
Anyway, to discuss the first, that is of the tragedy being used as a backdrop for a love story between people basically unaffected by it. (Not unaffected in the sense of not giving a shit, but in the sense that they can choose to come over and help. They have no ties to the country (that I know of) and they get to go back at the end.) I found it very interesting that many, many people when discussing this point, instead wrote it as, "A tragedy being used as a backdrop for a love story between two white men."
Now, while this is clearly an accurate description, I'm not entirely sure that it conveys the point in the best way.
Like I say, this story was mostly called out as major racefail. While there is clearly a lot of racefail there, I'm going to stick my head above the parapet and suggest that perhaps the fact that Jared and Jensen are white isn't the point. Or rather, isn't the point in this story.
I totally get the wider message that there is a problem with the fact that people of colour are generally under-represented and often represented badly when they do appear in the mainstream (English speaking) media of all kinds. Many, many of the Big Important Stories are about white people. While white people are generally the majority in the countries where this is the case and therefore it makes sense that there would be quite a lot of them, the issue is obviously that they are over-represented even while being a large majority. E.g. when was the last time you saw a Hollywood movie lead by an Asian actor? (Second question: when was the last time you saw that and it wasn't about martial arts?) Now compare to how many actual Asian people you know of, and how many white people you know of, and how many white people you have seen leading movies, and somehow it just don't add up. So, I get that there is a general pervasive problem with many stories being about white men, and that this is yet another example of this. However, clearly that in itself is not enough to call fandom up to arms, because if it was we'd be calling out more than 50% of our own fics constantly and telling each other to stop it and only write about females of colour for a while to try and even the balance. But while we say that more of these stories would clearly be a good idea, it would be also problematic to entirely erase the white men stories in the process. So.
My point here (if I can remember it) is that yeah, this tragedy was used as a vehicle to serve another story about two white guys. But I don't know that that matters any more in the context of the story than it would if the characters falling in love were two black women. I mean, if this was about, say, Missouri and Tamara (which would be, er, interesting), would that make the fail about using the Haitian earthquake as a backdrop any less faily? I don't think it would. I think it would still suck to use a recent tragedy in that way, when the tragedy isn't the point but a plot device, and so it being about Jared and Jensen is a red herring.
I also saw several people calling out the fact that this white men story was being used over the backdrop of a tragedy for black people. And again, I don't think that's the point. While, again, there is racefail here (i.e. anyone who isn't Jared or Jensen is a walking stereotype), that has nothing to do with the fact that the choice of 'venue' for the story was inappropriate. I mean, this could've been written around the relief efforts after the September 11 attacks (not an exact parallel because clearly there were more people of colour involved in those than there were white people in Haiti during the earthquake, and shitloads more people died in Haiti and there were longer-lasting effects on the country's already battered economy and people's homes and jobs and so on, but I struggled to find a comparable recent disaster involving mostly white Americans (because when we talk about white privilege and racefail and so on we are mostly talking in the American sphere of experience), and that is a point I will address later) and very soon after them like this was, and even though that was mostly a problem for white people (in comparison to Haiti), that would not make the use of the tragedy as a backdrop any less inappropriate.
To come back to that point I had about not being able to find a good parallel for Haiti, much of the problem I had is because the more developed world is generally speaking a helluva lot whiter than the less developed world. Less developed countries tend to have bigger tragedies and more often because they often can't afford to cope with what's happening in the present, let alone protect against what might happen in the future. If half your population is living in a tent and a one in four death rate among kids under 5 is normal, you are not likely to have the funds or the plans to be reinforcing your buildings against earthquakes. You can't move people away from the sea even though living there is dangerous because if you do they won't be able to fish and they'll die. And so on and so forth.
Even within America, land of the free and home of the brave and place of the gigantically ridiculous national debt (because the more you have the more you can overspend...), black people in general live in shittier circumstances than white people. More likely to end up in prison, on welfare, in low-paid jobs and so on. Clearly this is ridiculous and unfair and needs to be dealt with, but the problem here is not the race of the people involved, but the fact that they are living in poverty and with low social mobility (to vastly simplify the issue). There are people who are black who have millions in the bank, and there are people who are white who are struggling to feed themselves. Those white people living in poverty aren't any better off for being white. They're still poor. They might not have to deal with racism in the same way that black people might do (and there I think is fandom's white privilege) but the problem there is about racism and prejudice, not poverty. So while being white in America might in general suck a little bit less than being black in America because you aren't being oppressed all over the show, and generally if you're white you're going to be better off, being white still doesn't make being poor any better. Poverty and social mobility needs to be dealt with. I don't think the world would be any better off if they evened up the numbers and made sure that exactly proportional numbers of black and white (and people of other races) Americans lived under the poverty line, and exactly proportional numbers of all those groups were multi-millionaires. It would be nice and fair, in terms of race, but it would still be shit for those struggling to feed their families. So the issue there is not the race but the poverty, although obviously there is a strong correlation between the two and more than a little causation. The causation ought to be dealt with but not in the sense of 'let's make black people richer' but in the sense of 'let's stop being racist and prejudiced and oppressive'.
I fear I've lost my way a bit here. To get back to the story and its meta, while there was some racefail, I don't think that race was in itself the issue. I don't think the author meant to be at all racist (and intent does matter to me a lot) and she appeared to accept the criticism of her portrayals. Whether or not that led to a much more developed understanding of the problems is unknown, but let's hope so. At the very least it appeared to make her think, and that's my mission for everyone in this world, so, works for me.
Like I say, I think the first big issue was the use of a recent tragedy as a plot device, being used inappropriately (I am not, I should point out, at all saying that tragedies can't or shouldn't be written about), and the second was the stereotypes of the characters. These were generally racist stereotypes. But, going by the author's response (and I am, I must admit, guessing at someone else's motivations here and may therefore be talking total bollocks), this was less her being intentionally racist and more her being not a brilliant writer. By which I mean, many of these characters are tropes. None of them seemed to stand out particularly, even that big guy (though he did stand out in a crowd by virtue of his height, ho ho ho) and so they were flat.
It takes a frankly stellar writer to put not one stereotype or trope into a long work of fiction, and most of us will use them fairly often because not every character needs to be anything other than one-dimensional. If I want someone to give my leads directions to the bathroom, I don't need to know their exact weight, their mom's name and how many pets they have (unless this is relevant to the story in some way). It would totally bog down the story in fact to make them anything other than 'the girl in the red jersey' and would detract from my main characters if all of the people were as fully fleshed out as they were. And stereotypes, while they totally do not describe an entire group of people and it's a bad idea to use them to inform your behaviour towards said people, do generally come about out of some kernel of truth. Black people are good runners is a stereotype...which, going by the looks of the Olympics, looks kinda true. English people are dedicated to queueing...well, yes. And so on. So if, you know, I have a character in my fic who is American and overweight, while this is a stereotype, it doesn't mean that character is necessarily badly written or unrealistic. If I had a bunch of overweight Americans all over the place and they weren't at, I dunno, a Weight Watchers meeting or something, then yeah, we're edging towards bad writing.
And this is what happening in the fic, a whole hoard of stereotypes all came along and sat down and no one said, "These people look a bit cardboard." And more importantly, those stereotypes themselves were quite racist, in the sense of painting black people apparently as quite helpess and loving the white people a bit overly much and so on. I can't be terribly explanative here because again, haven't read the fic (though there were some extensive excerpts from it to paint a picture of the fails). The main problem here is with the racist stereotypes. That doesn't at all excuse the author from using them (offensive language is offensive language whether you knew it was offensive or not) but again, I think intent is important. Offense is subjective. I don't get offended hearing my cousin refer to herself or her (female) partner or me or anyone else as a dyke, but I know that many would, and I would be angry (though not offended because it's not worth my time, frankly) if someone used that word towards anyone with the intent to be offensive. So when I say 'offensive language' I refer to language which has been used often to attempt to belittle others and in some way refer to some attribute of theirs which is seen as negative by the perpetrator (and usually many others) but with the caveat that I still may well not find it offensive personally. The language for me isn't the problem, it's what the person is trying to make me feel about myself or others, though I say offensive language because I know many people think that the language is the issue.
So I think when this author used racist stereotypes, it wasn't because she was necessarily racist, but because she wasn't a brilliant writer. She may well be racist in that sense of people who say, "I'm not racist, but," and then proceed to spout racist shit, but she could equally have just been perpetuating those tropes without any genuine understanding of how they painted people of colour. To me, to be racist you need to actually dislike people by virtue of their race. You can be non-racist and still say or do something which is racist, unintentionally (or perhaps even intentionally, maybe when playing devil's advocate or going undercover or something).
If she has friends who are not white and she would write them exactly as she wrote the background characters in that fic, then yeah, she's racist. But one hopes that is not the case.
Phew. I think I'm done. Any comments, thoughts, discussion etc gratefully received. These are just my thoughts and I'm happy to chew them over and accept I may be wrong about something (or everything) and these thoughts are not finite, merely my thoughts at the moment in the wake of everything I've read tonight and my life experiences up to this point. I hope I'll not need to look back in five years' time and think, "What a berk," but it's happened before, so. We live and learn and grow, and all that.
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