So Orlando happened. And immediately people started pointing fingers at all sorts of stuff – gun control, Muslims, political correctness, Christians, etc. Some of this was people tapping into their own rage & pain, some was people being defensive, some was people trying to further their own agenda. Show us the thing or idea or policy we can eliminate to stop this from happening again. Show us the path which will lead us through all the illusions and into safety and harmony.
Then we get two days in a row where black gentlemen were killed by officers of the law. Again, people blamed the media, the KKK, various shadowy conspiracies, conservatives, etc (yes, I actually saw blame laid at the feet of all those and more). Then last night, close by in Dallas, some guys retaliated by shooting law enforcement officers. Once again, blame goes flying everywhere, leaving us with nothing but dead bodies and uncertainty about how we got into this situation, and uncertainty about how to get out, but if we can blame someone or something, then get rid of that someone or something, it’ll fix it all, right?
Amidst this whirlwind of shit and death, I became a finalist in the Writers of Color and Native Voices contest (www.wcnvcontest.com). As the title indicates, it was a writing contest for people of color. There was some interesting fallout in the wake of the contest – discussion as to whether X or Y could be counted as a “person of color.” Race, ethnicity, and hell while we’re at it, gender and sexuality are really really complex things that NEED to be and absolutely SHOULD BE discussed. Discussing those things wasn’t really the aim of this contest – the aim was to showcase people of color as artists who may have been overlooked because of their ethnicity, or because the stories they’re telling don’t fall within the normal “white & Western” perspective.
Have I ever personally been denied or shut down because of my ethnicity? Honestly, how would I know? I submit my novel, if for some reason an agent doesn’t like Asians, they could just say “it wasn’t for me” and I wouldn’t know any better. Is this a thing? I don’t honestly know, but the fact that someone’s doing something about it makes me think that maybe it is. I am reminded of a previous agent who once turned down my previous work, “Rise of the Righteous Mantis,” done in collaboration with a close friend. The agent said there were some “historical inaccuracies.” She didn’t cite anything specific, nor her sources. We on the other hand had a friend who is from China, as in “grew up in China, studied English so she could get out, and moved to the U.S. in the last couple of years” read it, and she said it “read like it was written by a Chinese person.” She made no mention of any such “historical inaccuracies” (other than our obsession with sweet potatoes, which wasn’t really thaaaaat far off).
I thought nothing of it at first – when someone tells me “there’s a problem” but doesn’t offer any specifics, I usually see it as a giant red “bullshit” flag. I’m used to this because I get a lot of it at work. Regardless, a rejection is a rejection, and I started to question my own facts and my own story. “Would it be better if we re-wrote it in some fictional universe which resembles Ming China?” my partner asked.
It was an option we very seriously considered, and that fact should offend you.
Do I think I was shut down because of my ethnicity? No. Do I think I was shut down because a white person thought she knew Asian culture better than I did? Yes. If you’re paying attention, you already see how this all ties together.
So back to the present. For part of my WCNV submission I had to write a statement why #OwnVoices is so important. For those of you who don’t know, #OwnVoices is basically a movement which encourages authors of color to write in their own cultures. And before some asshat comes in claiming whites should be included because they’re writing in their own culture, let me say that the point of all this and WCNV is that we’ve had white males dominating our narratives for the last thousand or so years. People have been complaining about how Hollywood is just re-using old themes and re-making old movies, and it probably has something to do with our living in this cultural vacuum where we tell and re-tell the same stories over and over, then pat ourselves on the back for being awesome. #OwnVoices is part of an effort to expand the number and scope of stories which can be told.
Anyhow, my statement went like this :
“If no one makes an effort to represent minorities in art, we’re doomed to an eternal repeat of things like this year’s Oscars, whitewashing in film, and insulting cultural appropriation. An unrepresented population, a people without a voice, is easy to vilify (as we’ve already seen with Muslims), control, marginalize, or destroy. When we see a people’s art, we see their humanity, and identify with it.”
It’s a pretty simple idea, actually. It could boil down to something as simple as, “Holy shit, that guy also cusses when stubs his toe on the couch.” And yeah, I wrote that before all these shootings happened. Am I some kind of prophet? No, I’m a half-white guy looking in on both white and Asian cultures and seeing how people de-humanize the “other.” Having one foot in each culture effectively makes me neither – I’m used seeing the way people look at me like I’m not “one of them.” I rather enjoy my elusive nowhere status, but that’s a post for another time.
There’s a LOT of diversity among humans. I shouldn’t even have to write that line because you folks already know there’s a lot of diversity within your own race / gender / ethnicity / religion / sexuality / etc. Pick one of the above, look around your immediate vicinity, and analyze how the people there differ from you on that ONE point. Needless to say, while all the possible combinations aren’t quite “limitless,” it does make for a lot of potential for originality.
But beneath all those things that make us different (some of which are little more than illusory lines drawn by ourselves), we’re all still human. We have very similar biology to one another. We seek structure and order and build those when we can’t find them naturally (hence civilization, government, and language). No matter the language, we tend to express joy and anger and a host of other emotions in relatively similar ways – for example everyone laughs.
And yet we cling to these artificial lines as if a person on the other side is somehow NOT human. We get into an uncomfortable situation with an unfamiliar person, and fight or flight takes over. We stand on our side of the line and assume we understand the people on the other side, sometimes even if we’re friendly towards them. We see a person of (*insert ethnicity / gender / religion / etc. here*) and our brain loads-up a bunch of stereotypes. We focus on the differences rather than the similarities until we forget the other person is human too.
An example of this can be seen in how many black people are saying, “there’s a problem.” I find the resistance to this odd. They’re effectively telling black Americans, “Your experience is wrong,” as if somehow they’ve stepped into that person’s skin and actually had the experience. I too have had an outsider tell me I was wrong, that there were “historical inaccuracies.”
Amongst the chaos last night, there was a photo of a bunch of people, white and black, forming a human shield around a baby stroller. At the time nobody knew the snipers were after cops, they just knew there were gunshots. These people decided one child’s life was more important than their own, no matter the skin color or other differences at hand. Humans are capable of that kind of magnificence too, but it’s a choice we have to make. I would say it’s our job to look deeper and ask questions – of ourselves, of our stereotypes, and of the people we’re looking at. If we don’t understand someone, instead of disliking, distrusting, or fearing them (or assuming they’re wrong and sending a rejection letter), engage them (in a non-offensive way). Ask them why they wear that thing, what they believe, where they’re from, what’s important to them, what’s the funniest joke they know – remember that everyone laughs. Do they also cuss when they stub their toe on the couch? No? Well they’re better people than I.
In the end you may not like that other person – you don’t have to. But most times at least trying to listen to and understand them turns you both back into humans, at least in each others’ eyes. Is it worth having a five minute or five hour conversation? Only you can be the judge of that, but the real question should be “what’s the price of ignorance?”
Well, we’re seeing that price in the news a lot these days.