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30 July 2009 @ 08:13 pm
Context (a RaceFail post)  
All human communication, whether written, spoken, or drawn, exists in context: the set of surrounding ideas within which it is understood. Context is multi-layered, and these layers may be concentric, overlapping, or intersecting. The layered contexts of a sentence in an essay, for example, include the paragraph that contains it, the essay in which the paragraph appears, the conversation or conversations in which the essay participates, and the culture or cultures in which the conversations exist.

It is important to understand that context exists within the mind of the reader. Some layers of context are under the writer's control, such as the sentences immediately before and after a given sentence. Some are outside the writer's control but known to the writer, such as other essays in the same publication, or aspects of the writer's own culture. And some layers of context are unknown to the writer, such as works in other publications recently read by the reader, or aspects of the reader's culture which differ from the writer's. It's those unknown contexts that can really bite you.

When I wrote my blog post "My only statement on the cultural appropriation imbroglio" back in January, I was angry and scared because I was seeing friends of mine being attacked online by people I didn't know. I felt that my friends' words were being taken out of context, misinterpreted, and twisted, and that the attacks were disproportionate and harmful to the attackers' cause. What I didn't understand then was that my friends' statements were not being "taken out of context" -- they were being correctly interpreted in the readers' contexts, which my friends and I did not share or understand.

For example, one white editor's statement about some readers failing to comprehend a writer's words was race-neutral, in the limited context of the blog post to which it was a reply, and was interpreted as such by me and by many white readers. But in the larger context of the ongoing online debate about race, and the much larger context of race relations in America, it was interpreted as a continuation of previous denigrations of the intelligence of people of color. When this was pointed out, the editor replied that he stood by his statement, in context -- which made perfect sense to me, because in what I considered to be the statement's context (the limited context) it was entirely defensible. But other readers, with different large-scale contexts, found both the original statement and its defense insensitive and infuriating.

My own post was intended to be a complaint about what I considered to be inappropriate and unhelpful anger in the ongoing debate about race. But I failed to understand my own context -- or, to put it another way, my white privilege -- and how it differed from the context that readers of color brought to my post. When I said that I was frightened and disturbed by the argument and that it caused me to reconsider the inclusion of characters of color in my own writing, I intended it to convey just how upset the debate was making me and to encourage others to moderate their tone. But because I am an award-winning white writer, a person perceived to be in a position of power within society and prominence within the science fiction field, it was read as a petulant threat. Furthermore, I was not aware that I was rehashing arguments that many others had used before me, especially "it's all about me" and "we'd listen to you if you weren't so angry."

My post, which was intended to improve the tone of the debate, was itself offensive and hurtful to many readers, and for this I am very sorry.

Disabling comments on the post was intended to avoid having a flame war break out in my own blog. It succeeded in that, but the flames came out elsewhere anyway, and it made me look arrogant and unwilling to listen. For this too, I apologize.

My silence on the topic since then was intended to avoid digging myself any deeper into the hole I'd created, but it can be interpreted as meaning that I still hold the same opinions. I've been reading and thinking a lot since then, and my opinions have changed, and this post is intended to clarify that.

Exclusion of characters of color is a historical failing of the science fiction field, and the deliberate continuation of such exclusion is an indefensible injustice. As a white writer I may think that I have the luxury to ignore issues of race in my writing, but ignoring them doesn't mean they aren't there. In fact, a text that ignores race is more likely, not less, to stumble into error. Because the context belongs to the reader, not the writer, a writer who fails to deliberately consider issues of race is likely to bring them up without realizing that she has even done so.

Yes, including characters of color is risky. In general, considering the impact of one's writing on readers of other races (and cultures and genders and sexual orientations) is hard work, and even if you try hard you may still get it wrong. But if you don't try, failure is inevitable.

I did complete, and submit, the story I referred to in that earlier post, the one with a major character of color whose African heritage is an important part of her character and motivates a key plot point. Another story I've written and submitted since then has an Indonesian-American major character and a Hispanic secondary character. The story I'm writing right now has a black protagonist. And I created several new characters for the Wild Cards universe, one of whom is an American of mixed African, Vietnamese, and European ancestry and another is Chinese-American. I received some feedback on the latter from another Wild Cards writer, who is Chinese-American, and changed the character to address it.

Dealing with issues of race (and culture, gender, and sexual orientation) in fiction, and talking about those issues online, is difficult and scary. I've sometimes gotten it wrong and gotten slapped for it. I've sometimes reacted badly to those slaps, and I apologize to those who've been hurt by my reactions.

I intend to keep trying. Let me know how I'm doing.

[Thanks to nojojojo, ktempest, and mamohanraj for generously taking the time to talk with me about these issues. However, any errors of tact or fact in the above are my own.]
csinman on July 31st, 2009 06:27 am (UTC)
Well said.
Rachel Swirskyrachel_swirsky on July 31st, 2009 08:06 am (UTC)
This is really good, David. Thanks.
mcjuliemcjulie on July 31st, 2009 04:07 pm (UTC)
Good essay. I think there's also another context you can't understand -- individual variations in perspective, which are infinite.

Some readers will do you the courtesy of realizing that you couldn't possibly know, for example, that their dog just died and therefore they found your story particularly upsetting. Other readers will simply hold you responsible for upsetting them.

Also on an individual level, people have different personalities. Some people seem to enjoy going around taking offense at everything and being indignant. Some people enjoy arguing with any point you might make just because you happened to make it and will never concede any point ever no matter how delicately you argue. Some people like to stir up trouble. Some people like to be the center of attention.

Oh, and, sense of humor. I sometimes complain that the Internet, collectively, has a bad case of Asperger's. Then if people get offended because they take you literally, and you say, "uh, it was a joke, did you actually think I literally wanted to punch people in the face?" they basically accuse you of Ann Coultering at them, because claiming it was a joke is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

It's not always about what it seems to be about. Sometimes it's just about people being, you know, people.
(Deleted comment)
kzmillerkzmiller on July 31st, 2009 10:00 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you posted on this. I've been reading about these issues here and there (not in as much depth as I probably should) and I know what a land-mine-ridden stretch of territory it is. I think it's very worthwhile to explore, though.
Katekate_nepveu on August 1st, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you for saying this. It does matter.
Debbie N.wild_irises on August 12th, 2009 03:52 am (UTC)
beth_bernobichbeth_bernobich on August 2nd, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you for writing this.
A.kaiweilau on August 3rd, 2009 09:03 am (UTC)
Good post!
vito_excalibur on August 11th, 2009 06:11 am (UTC)
Good to hear, man.
Nick Mamatasnihilistic_kid on August 14th, 2009 08:10 am (UTC)