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Larry.

David Anthony Durham on being a "color blind" reader

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I think this should provide lots of food for thought.

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Ah.. so no one has anything to say. Perhaps a "summon author" spell is in order? Well, I have a few thought and rather than posting them on his blog I'll post them here.

I read to expose myself to new ideas, new perspectives, new cultures. In fact, this is what draws me to SF as a genre, at its best. So do I actively try to seek out perspectives that are not white Anglo-Saxon male (or even female)? Hell, yes. My apologies for not being colourblind.

A note in proof - a few months ago, I went to the local Borders to pick up something by Octavia Butler, who I'd heard mentioned as an acclaimed SF writer but had never read. Kindred seemed to be her most well-known most mainstream novel. I looked for it in general fiction. Nope. I'd heard something about time travel, so I checked SF. Nope. I went to ask the store clerk. Yes, it was in stock. He directed me to African American literature. And, no, I had no idea that this section existed. I was shocked, and scandalized. Especially after reading the book, and musing on how its themes could be equally important to the decendents of slave-holders and of slaves. Yet they buried it in a section where very few non-blacks would venture.

On a related personal note about diversity, and finding characters in novels that are accessible to minorities:

I do find it annoying that so much fewer than half of the acclaimed and/or well-known SF books (as can be measured by the pimping on sites such as this) are by female authors. In fact, I have none on my reading list at present (not counting some vague notion to read the sequel to Orphan's Tales when it comes out). Georgia Martin? Vanishingly few are non-white.

The lack of women, especially women I could relate to, used to bother me a lot when I was younger. I distinctly recall reading The Swiss Family Robinson and actually mentally changing the sex of one of the children to be female. I think I did this with other books too. (Nope, no respect for the vision of the author LOL).

Growing up as an immigrant in a western country, I was almost an adult before I started coming across literature written in English that featured people from my ethnicity, written from their perspective. I remember reading Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy with such delight, because the teenage and young Indian women where like me! I was similarly pleased earlier this year with Mieville's heroine from Un Lun Dun. Some people might call that shallow. But I care!

Anyways... I enjoyed the essay! I have Acacia sitting on my coffee table and am looking forward to reading it this weekend!

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David's article definitely got me thinking. I have definitely fit into the "color blind" category for most of my life.

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Well, I already shared my piece over at Durham's blog (I kinda was the one who made the comment that sparked the post :P), so I'll be briefer here.

I grew up in an almost totally white neighborhood. Outside of playing baseball and soccer in a larger town than the one where I attended school, I knew no minorities around my age. That changed when I went to the University of Tennessee, of course, but I still was largely unexposed to non-European cultures (my major focused on European cultural history, thus the paucity of reads into African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian, etc.).

But after I taught for a couple of years in South Florida in the early years of this decade, I found myself attracted to various cultures. Latino, Haitian, Caribbean, African-American, you name it. I learned Spanish and bits and pieces of Haitian. I wanted to know more, to understand more. And I think that's why today I do search for more than the "usual suspects" when it comes to African-American SF writers. One in particular that I want to read more of is Nisi Shawl, but she's yet to write a novel or release a collection of her short stories. Another PoC that comes to mind is Karin Lowachee - I cannot recommend her novels enough to people, although the themes are a bit dark (revolving around three different abused boys and how they grew up and eventually interacted with each other in situations that don't seem forced - but this is risking distorting the story's focus on what war does to people, among other things). Butler, of course. Tobias Buckell is another one. Delany and Steven Barnes are still others, same for Nalo Hopkinson. But it's so hard to find others out there.

Maybe these names will give some here something to look into for future purchases. I know I've enjoyed them greatly. :D

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Damn, I need to take my blinders off. next time I go to chapters I'm going to the "Unmentionables" section.

ETA This is not sexual indduneo. It just came out that way.

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We touched upon some of the theme that Durham's post spun off in the Harry Potter 7 thread, on the appearance of characters that readers of minority groups can relate to. I think that a story that speaks to the common human condition can resonate with readers of all kinds. At the same time, seeing characters that reflect our own identity is also rewarding. I hear many people complain that inserting a gay/female/black character here would be unnecessary, or that it will be distracting, or that it will be too forced. Whatever. I think those complaints can be true, but they frequently are not. What it actually says is that we don't want to see the world in all of its complexity, or have this book challenge our assumptions in these areas.

We've also had broader discussions on "colorblindness" in the General Chatter forum. My take is that the concept is actually harmful, over all, to the cause of advocating diversity and being able to live with each other. The melting pot metaphor is wanting in many ways, and I much prefer a mixed salad metaphor. Regardless, it is obvious to see that if one adopts a "color blind" policy in life, one is not celebrating diversity, or gaining from it. Rather, one is smashing diversity into an acceptably harmless format and enduring it. If one is blind to color and ethnic differences, then how is one to appreciate the myriad experience offered by different ethnic groups? Do I want to treat having sushi the same as eating meatloaf? No, I don't. Do I want to watch an Opera in the same way as I would listen to Appalachian folk? No, I don't. Each of them offer a unique experience, and we are the richer to experience them as their different selves, rather than trying to pretend that they are all the same. Appreciation of diversity requires that we acknowledge that the diversity exists. Admittedly, this approach to life is far more risky when it comes to crossing the line into the territory of prejudice and biases, so one must be wary. But in the end, I think a true, honest appreciation of our differences is far more rewarding than pretending that we are all the same.

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My response to David's questions:

Small test... I'd be interested to ask each "color blind" reader when was the last time they read something by a black author. They might shrug and say, "I don't know. Remember, I don't pay attention to an author's race."

Last book was by Durham, can't remember the last time I read a black author's book before him though.

I don't look at an author's race when I buy a book though ( unlike whether or not the author is female, which i do take into account). I do look at the book's contents and whether that may interest me.

white readers that shop at Borders - when was the last time you went browsing for a novel in the "African-American" literature section? They'd likely respond with, "The what? There's not an African-American literature section. Black history section, sure, but..."

I would not go looking especially for an African American section if I lived in the US and went to a Borders.

I do agree it is odd though that such sub-sections exist. Unless of course black authors tend to write overhwelmingly about life as African Americans and booksellers group these books together because they know some people are especially interested in that sort of books.

So what's the remedy? Part of it, in this case, would be to put away that blindness and see the colors! When I come up with a reading list for a course I make sure it's racially diverse, and gender balanced, and I try to remember that we don't all have the same sexual preferences and that should be represented to. Do I have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to come up with good titles? Of course not. There's great literature written in all these perspectives and more. Don't be blind to them. Seek out diversity and you'll realize how rich it is, and how important it is.

This doesn't click for me at all. I'm not even remotely interested in seeking out authors so that my reading list becomes racially diverse. Or gender balanced.

Looking at my shelves, 80% of that would be written by white males and I am perfectly fine with that.

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Wow, I didn't even know Octavia Butler was black! The idea of putting her work onto a shelf away from the SF section is utterly bizarre. It'd be like putting Ursula le Guin and Robin Hobb into "women's fiction" (except they'd probably sell better there -- heck, I'd like to be in the "women's fiction" section and I'm not even a woman!)

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I'm just boggled by the idea that there's an "African American" section in a bookstore.

And I find this comment of his:

Small test... I'd be interested to ask each "color blind" reader when was the last time they read something by a black author. They might shrug and say, "I don't know. Remember, I don't pay attention to an author's race." My translation of that - they probably haven't read a black author since a college lit course, because if they had they'd KNOW they had. They’d remember it, and likely they’d have learned things from it.

To be complete bullshit. The only reason I look at the author is if I already know who they are. Not to mention his implication that somehow you'd just know by reading a book that it was written by a black man.

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I'm just boggled by the idea that there's an "African American" section in a bookstore.

I was shocked as well. I was just in the US a few months ago, and I can confirm they do indeed exist. The whole idea of grouping literature after the race of the author or intended readership makes me really, really uncomfortable. It's wrong on so many levels.

This whole discussion is extremely American, and I think we Europeans better stay out of it—we have too much of a history with "Jewish Physics", and there is a huge and old debate in the American public sphere that we are alien to. Suffice to say the the knee-jerk "politically correct" reaction to the idea of identifying oneself or somebody else with their race is the exact opposite in Europe and the US.

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You generally do know when a book you're reading is written by someone who's white, so why not know if they're black?

Now, if one generally reads in the F/SF genre, part of the issue is that there simply aren't a lot of black authors in these genres. Octavia Butler is gone (alas), Chip Delaney's output isn't that great any longer... There's Durham, of course, and we've still got Steve Barnes and .... and I'm running out of names. Oh, Nalo Hopkinson. Doubtless there are a few others, but they're simply escaping me right now.

It's a quantitatively a small group any way you look at it. It's an issue that's endemic to the genre, getting people who aren't white interested in it (well, hell, it's a bit of a problem getting people who _are_ white interested in it too, at least if it's SF, these days...).

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No, if they are American writers, I usually don't know, unless I have seen a picture.

And, BTW, what about Asian writers, who seems to be conspicuously absent from this discussion? Is their situation comparable to Black writers or not?

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You generally do know when a book you're reading is written by someone who's white, so why not know if they're black?

The hell? I can barely tell if the author is a women half the time. I mean, if the names not clear when you read it on the cover (like C.J.Cherryh, who I never knew was a women till someone on a website talked about her as "her").

I mean, what characteristics of their writing tells you this? Do black people use more vowels or something?

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Here are a few links for people curious to read more by PoC writing in spec fic:

Nisi Shawl

Andrea Hairston

Sheree R. Thomas

Greg van Eekhout

Carole McDonnell

Maya Khankhoje

Here's a link to a LJ discussion involving Postcolonial fictions, if any are interested.

And I'd be in remiss if I didn't provide a link to Nalo Hopkinson's website. I've been a fan of hers for over four years now and her collection Skin Folk is a nice introduction to her writing style. I still need to read her first two novels, but her last two, The Salt Roads and The New Moon's Arms (which was released in Feb.) are very much worth whatever you have to pay for them. She addresses a lot of issues in fantasy/SF/human relations that just are not addressed by those of the ascendant social classes, but it's done in a way that doesn't condemn, only to note in passing the everyday disparities.

And those authors above can be found in the anthology So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy that Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan edited and had published a couple of years ago.

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The hell? I can barely tell if the author is a women half the time. I mean, if the names not clear when you read it on the cover (like C.J.Cherryh, who I never knew was a women till someone on a website talked about her as "her").

I mean, what characteristics of their writing tells you this? Do black people use more vowels or something?

I suppose it would differ depending on where you live and/or grew up, but it's quite obvious in many books penned by African-American authors that they were not writing from the perspective of those who had the "privilege" to be "color blind." You will find many more references to having to guard your tongue, of code-switching when speaking to people of different backgrounds, of explicit and implict prejudice in treatment. Maybe it's because I grew up in the American South, but when I read works by a Zora Neale Hurston or an Octavia Butler, I recognize almost immediately that the setting and characters are different and that the story will be focusing on other matters than might be the normal for a white-penned novel. Just as I can tell for the most part when someone who's not from the South tries to write about my native region, it is quite obvious the shift in tones when a person of color is addressing certain social issues. But maybe that's because race is still a hot topic in my native land, despite the apparent progress of the past 60 years (since Truman integrated the armed forces). *shrug*

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The hell? I can barely tell if the author is a women half the time. I mean, if the names not clear when you read it on the cover (like C.J.Cherryh, who I never knew was a women till someone on a website talked about her as "her").

I mean, what characteristics of their writing tells you this? Do black people use more vowels or something?

I'll point to what Dylanfanatic says, but also to the fact that 95% of the time you know a writer is white because 95% of the SF/F is being written by ... white people.

It seems to me that it behooves people to be just a little bit intellectually curious about the writers of the works they're reading. The author's experiences gives the work they produce some of its context. David is absolutely right that being willfully "color blind" is not a way to approach literature.

I'm not just talking about color or sexuality or religion here. Economic factors, education, etc. can also matter -- knowing that Larry Niven inherited a significant amount of wealth, or that Steven Erikson's training is as an archaeologist -- provides pieces of the puzzle when you look at trends in their work.

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This post triggered some very interesting responses from 'sides' if you can call it that. So way to go, David!

It made me think about the apparent color blindness myself as well, and I reckon I have probably read mostly fantasy works written by white males. Hell, call me ignorant but I had not realised Durham was black untill I searched for some photos of the author on google images. That being said, it does make me feel a bit ashamed because it feels like I have neglected a major issue brooding somewhat deeper under the surface. Even present in (fantasy) literature, so it appears that the social struggles and literature are more related than I have fanthomed.

Still, to be brutally honest when I pick up a book, I pick it up because I heard good things about or because I know the author in question is a talented writer. Maybe up untill now I would not have picked it up for racial diversity. I also think it is a bit of a different situation considering where I grew up, The Netherlands to precise, because only in the recent past we have been faced with (more extreme) racial and religious differences, ie. two people murdered because they (ab)used their to freedom of speech. But I do wonder if everyone has grasped the implications of the problems surfacing here, about 80% of the people here is white. So maybe I had the privilege, as Dylanfanatic put it, of being colorblind. The situation in the States may be alltogether completely reversed, considering racial problems have been a hot topic there for a long time. The thing I can do and probably will do, is open my eyes and raise my awareness, by reading in a more diverse way when I am looking for view of ideas/input. And yeah, I totally agree with Ran there that people should be at least a bit intellectually interesting in the background of the author. I know I should, this is like an eye-opener.

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I'll point to what Dylanfanatic says, but also to the fact that 95% of the time you know a writer is white because 95% of the SF/F is being written by ... white people.

It seems to me that it behooves people to be just a little bit intellectually curious about the writers of the works they're reading. The author's experiences gives the work they produce some of its context. David is absolutely right that being willfully "color blind" is not a way to approach literature.

I'm not just talking about color or sexuality or religion here. Economic factors, education, etc. can also matter -- knowing that Larry Niven inherited a significant amount of wealth, or that Steven Erikson's training is as an archaeologist -- provides pieces of the puzzle when you look at trends in their work.

Oh, I agree that it is good to know author's background. I agree with Happy Ent, though, that it is extremely American issue and we Europeans - who mostly have kneejerk reaction against anybody identifying themselves primarily by their race - really should stay out of this debate.

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And yeah, I totally agree with Ran there that people should be at least a bit intellectually interesting in the background of the author.

I'm not. It's part of my intellectual make-up to force myself to not consider who is making a statement. That's part of the modern project, part of the appeal to universal ideas.

I consider it a moral failure to let my evaluation of an idea be influenced by who is making it. Not a failure I can always avoid. But certainly not a failure I actively strive to cultivate.

This approach I apply to discussions, my work, music, and literature. In my book, it's part of the Enlightenment package. I understand that many decent people disagree, especially in the US. But also understand that I was brought up in an environment where the classification of music or science by race is something the Nazis did. And that was bad. And not only because the Nazis did it.

To denigrate this sentiment as absence of intellectual curiosity strikes me as the result of a misunderstanding. Finding out that an author is also an archaeologist is not even remotely comparable to actively seeking out fantasy books written by archaeologists, feeling guilty about not having done that, or having a section in the book store reserved for books written by archaeologists. Instead, there should be a section on Archaeology, and people should feel bad about never having read a book about it.

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Last week was Internationnal Blogging Week against Racism (or some kind of similar name), which was probably the context for that post.

On European's point of view of this, there were an interesting post on my flist about racism from an European PoV : http://bwinter.livejournal.com/260194.html

It's true we don't think so much in term fo 'races' as in skin colours as Americans do, but we definitly think in term of ethnicity and nationality IMHO.

I remember seeing several discussions lastly about SF being written out of the classical SF genre by people who are Blacks or Gays (and women, even!) which end up in different shelves than the SF ones because they're not published by the classical SF field. I remember one where Mike Resnick dropped in the comments if that rings anyone's bell.

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