2_perseph: (whatta day)
[personal profile] 2_perseph
AN OPEN LETTER TO GATORGRRRL

[In all the years that I've been on LJ and now on DW, I've never posted about things going on in other journals. I've never even left comments to original posts. But since comments are frozen on the original post, and I feel I cannot let this one pass without comment, I'm making a post here. So here goes.]

I'm a Nigerian woman, I read the first half of your novella, here's what I have to say.

Your story pretty much nails all the major the tenets of classic racist ideals.

Bearing in mind that this is not an academic paper on the subject, your story nevertheless serves as a perfect tool for demonstrating what people claim to not understand when someone gets accused of "being racist."

Whether you intended the story as racist or not is, I'm afraid, your bad; I'm still going to use it. So if you or any one you know is baffled and wondering what's the big deal, point them in this direction.

This is in reference, of course, to your fic -- a novella, actually -- entitled Caught Between the Earth and Sky, written by you, [livejournal.com profile] gatorgrrrl, for the Supernatural Big Bang. It's a Jensen Ackles/Jared Padelecki AU slash story set in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. Jensen plays a doctor and Jared a photojournalist.

And yes, I am aware that you wrote an "apology" for choosing that backdrop, but we'll get to that later.

racism. what is it?
Racefail, racism, racial stereotypes. We've heard the words so much that they're now, in the words of Louis MacNiece, almost a cypher, like a Latin word that many languages have made their own, till it is worn and blunt and easy to construe, and often spoken but no longer heard.

Today, however, you're going to hear it, and perhaps understand it.

So what is racism? According to my dictionary (paraphrasing), it's the belief that members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race.

From your fic: Her wide eyes fixed on Jensen once again, scanning his face as if searching for a reason not to trust him. As if his white skin and American accent weren’t reasons enough.

Okay. So let's get right to it.

Your novella is not schmoop, fluff, smut, or what fandom calls "porn." Frankly, had it fallen into any of those categories, it would have been much easier to dismiss as silly-girl nonsense. But it's not. You wrote a 160-page piece of solid writing: well edited, well plotted, well thought out. The non-Haitian characters are detailed, given room to breathe and exist; allowed to be real. (And that, readers, is what makes this story so much worse than you can imagine.)

You constructed a perfect scaffolding of racial stereotypes and hierarchies, the likes of which I haven't seen since British colonial writings, to prop up your ideals of white heroism. I'm not even talking about books, still being written, with racist views or attributions to characters, I'm talking full-on "master race" ideals.

So here it is. Classic racism, as demonstrated by [livejournal.com profile] gatorgrrrl's novella Caught Between the Earth and Sky:

1. the inability to see human beings where you see black faces
From a comment you left after you'd posted the fic: The Haiti earthquake was still in the news and the more I saw about it, the more I wanted to use it until it seemed like the best idea ever.

?!???

Dead people? What dead people? All you saw were black faces suffering.. But what's new about that? Aren't they always suffering somewhere? It barely even registers.

Your use of that backdrop was what caused half the rage over the fic, which then prompted you -- when the comments started raining down -- to post a "sincere" apology that begins with "For what it's worth.." LOL. For what it's worth to what, placate us? We don't need placating.

Your inability to see human beings in that scenario juxtaposes like this: There is no goddamned way in hell you could have watched torn, broken body parts and bleeding, suffering human beings in New York City on the morning of Sept 11 and thought -- "Ooooohhhh! Yummy J2 longfic!"

OMG, what?? Those are people dying!

But in this instance it was Haitians. It was perfect. Black people needing white people's help. Just like in real life! So perfect.

Putting aside any and all discussions of world systems, let me tell you something about those white people you're writing about (and indeed all those other people like them the world over doing humanitarian work in faraway places). They're not like you. They're not even like me, or like most people I know. They're a special breed of people--tough, selfless, and with an undying belief in the betterment of humanity. They're not there to feel like benevolent members of the master race. That part would be colonialism. So if you've seen comments in which people accuse you of displaying "colonialist attitude," that's what they're talking about.

Let's move on.

2. the inability to humanize black people
This is different from #1 in that it requires activating your characters, and you applied it in two ways: characterization and language. And by that I mean.. the stereotypes. Oh, the stereotypes.

characterization
So what exactly is a stereotype? Well, going back to my dictionary, in terms of people that would be an oversimplified idea of a particular type of people.

Also look at it this way: an original "stereotype" is a relief printing plate cast in a mold made from composed type or an original plate.

That's what you did to cast a mold for all your Haitians. You stereotyped so hard that at the end of your story you felt perfectly comfortable to name an abnormally large pet after the main black character. Yup. You sure did. But we'll get to that later.

Abraham Joseph, this main black character, is Haitian. He takes an instant master/slave love -- as only a person who's never thought a whit about brutal, indentured servitude could formulate -- to Dr. Jensen Ackles the pre-instant they meet. (The story is not clear on this part, but it seems as though Dr. Jensen saved the man's wife's life. Or perhaps it was someone else's wife.) Either way, Abraham shows up with his jeep and tells Jensen that from now on they're going to drive around the country saving lives.

Doesn't sound so bad, does it? It wouldn't if Abraham was a human being instead of a big black pet. First of all, the description of his physical attributes is the very definition of fetishizing. His height (6'5"), the size of his hands, his 300 pound body, his dark, sparkling eyes, all descriptions excessively repeated at every opportunity, because it's just so magical.

This is in spite of the fact that Jared Padelecki is himself 6'4" and even the fans have written fic about his huge hands. But Padelecki in this story is simply referred to as "tall." Because on a non-Negro, all that fetishizing of limbs and eyes (the whites don't stand out as much, thus not giving him the necessary ooga-booga look) is just plain weird.

And, on the language side, Abraham of course doesn't speak in full sentences. How can he? He's your sidekick Negro. He's required to display constant, unthinking, unquestioning loyalty, to talk in his non-speak that only his master can really truly understand. Like a toddler with its mother.

You see, speaking like the white people in your story would have made Abraham their intellectual equal, thus bring up issues in your own head of um, doesn't he have a life? And then he certainly wouldn't see a condom, on a planet suffering from an ongoing epidemic of AIDS, and shove "the first two fingers of one hand through the circle created by the thumb and forefinger of the other as he wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Hanky panky,” he’d said." To which the superior white doctor -- I can just feel his eyeroll at the big, dumb, oversexed black man -- has to respond, "HIV."

Not a single Haitian in the story is given an actual personality. The aforementioned big, kind, slightly fucking retarded Negro. The old woman being given loving, paternalistic medical attention, staring up at Dr. Jensen with the smiling, guileless eyes. The black National Geographic children who play with the equipment of the doctors and photographers and amuse them with "toothy grins." The way "these people" could bear their burdens in silence, and when they "couldn’t take it anymore, bear it some more."

Woman, have you ever met a person suffering in the midst of a natural disaster? That shit ain't romantic; if they're not wailing their throats soar for weeks it's because they've passed the point of being able to articulate, or even vocalize their pain. It's not because their stoicism would make Dr. Jensen proud. Or make them a noble [read: patronized] people in the eyes of the white, privileged world, seeing as "it was a far cry from some of the patients he saw back home, who seemed to suffer as loudly and as often as possible." White people are so bad, so privileged, and black people are so good, so noble. Even the babies are noble: The baby should be uncomfortable, should be fussing. But it wasn’t. Not a sound. Not a movement.

Is it that you couldn't imagine what "black people are like," even fucking babies, and so in not wanting to offend anyone you made them all "worthy" stereotypes you read or saw somewhere?

Or perhaps you thought you were giving them personalities.

If that's the case let me point something out to you: Non-white people really are people just "like you." Like you and the cousins and aunts and grandfathers you know. You don't have to give them any special attributes in order to write them. They don't have to be kind, simple, "interesting," noble, able to endure pain. These are just things whites who didn't bother to find out what was really going on in places they visited wrote about, for fuck knows what reason. So don't use them. They make no fucking sense. You know damn well if I'd written a story in which Jensen Ackles was a white doctor running around in the Nigerian jungles sometime early this year saying weird shit like "You bring baby, I show you medicine now. Penicillin!", people would be like, is she on crack? But that's embarrassingly the equivalent of how your Haitians think and act.

Look, if you feel uncomfortable writing black people, if you can't quite fathom writing them without having to make them trustworthy or perfectly lovable, like say, cats, or if you have to write the "bad" ones by making them silent movie Villains, then don't write them at all. Seriously, it's fine.

Oh, and reader, need I mention that all the white characters in the story have actual personality descriptors? And can do things like "smile wryly"?

use of language
This one is going to be short: Human beings don't gibber and chatter, simply because they're speaking a language you don't understand. Monkeys gibber and chatter.

But if you insist that human beings do indeed gibber and chatter, then, per the dictionary again, "gibbering" is speaking rapidly and unintelligibly, and "chattering" is talking rapidly or incessantly about trivial matters.

Either of these words do not convey intelligent people speaking. They convey "oh my god, the natives are gibbering and chattering, god only knows what they're talking about."

So if you wanted your Haitians to be normally written people, they should just talk.

Oh, and allow me to shatter at least one colonialist misconception you're clearly under:

When a black person says "God bless you, doctor," to a white person, she's not saying it because of your lovely white skin (which, remember, engenders instant trust or we have here a defective native). Neither is she mystically invoking her god to shower you with material comforts, as the Haitians do to Jensen at every opportunity in the fic. No, it's just her way of saying "Thanks, guy."

But none of the blacks in this story speak in any other way but this to the blessed doctor. They can't even seem to manage anything as basic as a "Huh?" All their words and actions are either crazy native chittering, or profound, worthy statements. My dear woman, what the fuck.

But why is the latter so bad, you might ask? Well, it's bad because the moment you don't treat non-white characters like the rest of your characters in your story, you won't treat them like the rest of the people you know in real life, either.

And reader, let me add: were the story set in an Asian country, we would still be having this conversation. In the description of the one Asian mentioned within the first 50 pages, she still manages to nail the perfect "Asian" stereotype: Jensen’s tent mate, a smallish Asian-American civil engineer...

3. the inability to feel real compassion instead of a false, romanticized version of it
And here we get to the crux, the most terrifying thing about this story, if it's not already obvious. It's even more terrifying than the racial stereotypes, because it's what birthed those stereotypes, and this is that fact that this isn't really a J2 story. It's a solid 160 pages of white superiority porn.

That's 160 pages. In 11pt font. An inch and a half thick - 3.80 cm - when printed out.

Jensen Ackles and Jared Padelecki are just present for Big Bang context. If you disagree, read 40 pages of it. Heck, read 20. The events, moment to moment, page to page, are deeply, thoroughly, richly detailed stories of a white doctor lovingly wallowing through the love, the adulation, the profound, eternal gratitude of a people so very perfectly in need of him. It's like she set off to write J2 romance and got lost in the deeply satisfying sensation of saving native after native.

How about we move all this love and adulation to New York City when bodies were still being pulled out of the wreckage. Jensen wallowing in the love, the adulation, the profound, eternal gratitude of people so very perfectly in need of him. Oh, I should stop? That would make it playing with real life tragedy?

and lastly, 4. the classic inability to recognize one's own behavior
I don't think -- because it doesn't look as though anyone or thing around you has ever made you see it -- that you realize how much this story reveals of your mindset about other races. (At this point I should say that the proper term of course would be "other cultures," as there's currently only one race of hominids on the planet, and that's us Homo sapians. But you can't seem to explain to people that there's no such scientific thing as "race," that outward physical manifestation doesn't make you "of a different race," like a Martian, and have them believe you. So oh well.)

And I say that you don't realize what it reveals about you because if you did, you would have been deeply disturbed by the fact that in the end you figuratively transformed your big black loyal sidekick into a pet.

“Besides,” Jensen added, sliding up Jared’s body and pressing his lips to Jared’s shoulder. “I have a soft spot for strays. Especially ones who just show up on my doorstep one day and refuse to leave.” He rested his chin on Jared’s chest and gazed up at him with clear eyes.

Jared smiled and ran a hand through Jensen’s messy hair. “At least I’m housebroken.”

Jensen’s lips twisted into a smirk. “So is he. And he eats less.”

“But why did you have to name him Abraham?”

Jensen shifted, stretching out beside Jared and settling within the circle of Jared’s arm. He rested his head on Jared’s shoulder, sighing as Jared’s fingers absently traced the dark lines of his tattoo.

“Do you really have to ask?” he said, looking over at the cat. “I mean, look at him.”

Jared studied the cat again. It was the largest black cat he’d ever seen outside of Animal Planet, with paws bigger than those old Eisenhower silver dollars Jared used to collect when he was a kid. And he did always look like he was just on the verge of smiling.

It was uncanny, really.


Indeed.

So now whenever the cat jumps on the furniture, you're okay with imagining in you head Jensen Ackles going, "Abraham, get off that couch!" Something one would presumably feel comfortable saying to a grown man who was purportedly your best friend in Haiti.

Your "sincere" apology was to express your regret in offending anyone in mindlessly using the backdrop of Haiti after the earthquake. But you made no mention whatsoever of the freakish racial stereotypes you employed, even though it was loudly and repeatedly pointed out to you. And I believe you didn't make that apology, no matter how false, because you have no idea what you did wrong with the Haitians.

so in conclusion
Your story, dear [livejournal.com profile] gatorgrrrl, is a perfect tribute to pure racial ideals. Almost pathologically so.

The only advise I can give you or anyone who feels that in writing people from "another race" they have to go do research, is don't. Don't write it. I'm not talking about researching culture or language. I mean that if you have to imagine "how they must think" or "what it feels like to be them," you're already being weird.

But I'll tell you how it feels, because I'm sure you really do wonder. It feels just like being another human being on this planet. Shitty, cranky, happy, callous, thoughtful, selfish, tired, bored, manipulative, grateful, fill in the blank. Just fucking write people. I mean, the fact that this has to be explained..

So the purpose of my writing this essay is twofold: One, to show by example what racist ideals look like in application; and two, to disgrace you so badly that the next time you so much as think about another human being whose hair, nose, mouth, "almond eyes" or color of skin is not like yours, you'll hesitate to touch that keyboard.

Because if you end up hesitating, it'll mean, at the very least, that those people are no longer invisible to you. And when they're no longer invisible, it will be very difficult for you to cut and paste whatever caricatures you find in your wanderings and believe that they are beautiful, perfect, and more than enough for the Black, Asian, Latin or any other "non-white" people in your stories. In the meantime, fuck you.

 

Edit: "Getting it" in Writing Non-white Characters. A couple of commenters brought up this point and I thought this would be a good time to address it as well.

on 2010-06-16 03:34 pm (UTC)
mrsbean: (Don't Wanna Know)
Posted by [personal profile] mrsbean
Can I just say WHAT THE HOLY FUCK!!!!????

on 2010-06-16 07:32 pm (UTC)
mrsbean: (The Solo)
Posted by [personal profile] mrsbean
I read the "apology."

Uh-huh.

BTW...what's your Friday looking like? Drop me a line. ;)

on 2010-06-17 04:10 am (UTC)
the_rev: gotta bad feelin (carlajean)
Posted by [personal profile] the_rev
I heard a tiny something about some story being set in Haiti after the earthquake and thought it in poor taste. But I had NO IDEA this was... THIS. That last bit, about the cat... I can't even imagine how she could have thought that wasn't fucked up.

on 2010-06-17 09:54 pm (UTC)
torachan: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] torachan
After the cat quote, I think this is the one that made me jaw-drop the most:

“You guys are kinda famous around the camp, you know. The dashing American doctor and his trusty Haitian sidekick, driving around the country in an Army jeep, healing the sick and generally making the world safe for democracy, one band aid at a time. It’s a great story.”

([personal profile] bossymarmalade has a bunch of quotes over here.)

on 2010-06-18 02:04 am (UTC)
the_rev: (442)
Posted by [personal profile] the_rev
I was hoping the above quote was spoken in jest, but after reading some of the other quotes I guess not.

The way Abraham speaks is familiar. My current fandom is the Mighty Boosh, the cast of which includes a talking gorilla. Abraham speaks the same way, like a talking monkey.

on 2010-06-18 06:54 am (UTC)
torachan: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] torachan
Yeah, exactly. She really can't claim she didn't know what she was doing. She said it right there!

on 2010-06-17 06:30 am (UTC)
mlyn: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] mlyn
I knew it was bad, but I didn't go look. I didn't know it was THIS bad. God, I wish she had a big enough clue to read and understand and process this post.

In related news, I want to lick you from head to toe. Sorry, was that inappropriate?

Honestly it makes me a bit paranoid about my own writing. I'm looking for tests—comparing my characterizations to the problems you pointed out, for instance—and while I feel mostly okay about it, I still worry. And I've never had it addressed by a beta, so I don't know if I'm not committing any sins or if my betas are as biased as I am. *gnaws lip*

on 2010-06-18 06:59 am (UTC)
mlyn: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] mlyn
Kind of. It affirms what I was thinking—that my intentions are good, and I'm treating both my characters with similar sets of issues (and lives), and just trying to write them as I imagine life would be for anyone of any color, not the poor oppressed noble savage or whatever. But it seems like that could be dangerously self-congratulatory, too. I guess I'll just have to wait until someone tells me I'm making a hash of things.

This has been thought-provoking reading, at the very least. :)

on 2010-06-17 09:53 pm (UTC)
tripoli: (gcpd)
Posted by [personal profile] tripoli
This post is badass. Thank you for writing it.

on 2010-06-18 12:42 am (UTC)
starwatcher: Western windmill, clouds in background, trees around base. (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] starwatcher
.
Linked from I-already-forget-who. Just wanted to say 'thank you' for explaining so clearly. I will keep this for sound advice on how not to write characters in a story.
.

on 2010-06-18 08:38 am (UTC)
stewardess: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] stewardess
Thank you. Dissecting it as a work of fiction brought out the underlying themes more sharply than quotes can. When I think of Haiti's history, the first nation in the Americas to throw off the yoke of colonialism AND slavery -- sixty YEARS before slavery was abolished in the U.S. -- and then think of the concepts in the j2 story, I am too pissed off to be coherent.

on 2010-06-18 01:57 pm (UTC)
quivo: A lowercase q on a pink-and-brown backround. (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] quivo
Can I just say, word? Times a million?

Also:
In the meantime, fuck you.

This.

on 2010-06-18 11:15 pm (UTC)
jlh: Chibi of me in an apron with a cocktail glass and shaker. (Clio Chibi)
Posted by [personal profile] jlh
This is amazing, such a fantastic analysis of why and how and what went wrong within the text itself. Thank you for writing this.

on 2010-06-21 10:30 pm (UTC)
ringspells: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] ringspells
You don't have to give them any special attributes in order to write them. They don't have to be kind, simple, "interesting," noble, able to endure pain.

I think this is especially bad, since it implies a need for a long list of positive traits to counteract their non-whiteness. It's another way of showing a racist's thoughts on how a white person is foremost a person, and a non-white person is first Black or Asian or Latin, so of course they must think of themselves as Black or Asian or Latin above all else they are (overpowering even the fact that they are, before anything else, a person). And so non-whites have to strive to have all these attributes the author values, just to counterbalance their non-whiteness which is ever present in their minds, the one thing that defines them, and the one thing they need to hide with Goodness, since it's what makes them different from The Way They Want To Be.

I was showing my sister (who is not even in fandom) some of the insightful posts (such as yours) brought about by the fic in question, and we were talking about how we don't have the fact that we're Latin or South-American always present in our minds, how that's not the first thing we think about ourselves. Because it's not what defines each of us as a person. (And in case someone tries to misread that: that we're not constantly thinking about it doesn't mean we ignore it, or that we wished we weren't, or that we don't like thinking about it. Because this would imply we make a conscious effort not to think about it, and the truth is being Latin is just one fact of who we are, not the defining factor, and just like we don't go through life constantly thinking how we have a liver, neither do we constantly think about our ethnicity, or our facial features, or our skin colour.)

Because, really; when my family and I went on holiday to the US, the first thought we had wasn't, "Wow, White Americans all around! I feel so Latin!" It wasn't even the last thought in our minds. We had regular, people thoughts. Shocking, right? How was that even possible?

And this talk lead us to how in the descriptions we read from quotes of the fic, Black people are Black first, and people later (and from the responses I've seen, sometimes it doesn't read like they're people ever), even in their own minds. And this, as much as everything else that has been pointed out, depicts the white supremacist mindset that constructed the story.

on 2010-06-22 08:41 pm (UTC)
skywardprodigal: (tru blood - family)
Posted by [personal profile] skywardprodigal
Excellent post.

*applauds*

on 2010-06-24 12:25 pm (UTC)
ionaonie: (People are wrong)
Posted by [personal profile] ionaonie
I've been reading about this (because I don't live under a rock) and just as I think I can't read anything more offensive, I see something else

As if his white skin and American accent weren’t reasons enough.
I. I just. Really? I mean, really???

Everything about this post is awesome.

The way Abraham talks just makes me wince. I can't believe that anyone would think that's okay.

And the cat thing is disgusting but the one that makes me rage is the condoms/HIV bit. Because, as a nurse in Haiti, Abraham would have no knowledge of how to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS? Riiiiiiight.

It makes me so embarrassed that people write stuff like that without getting how fucked up it is.

on 2010-06-26 01:02 am (UTC)
lanning: (wild things)
Posted by [personal profile] lanning
Thank you so much for this. An excellent post about a despicable story.

on 2010-06-27 07:28 pm (UTC)
ender24: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] ender24
here via cathexys, and you know?
//human beings in New York City on the morning of Sept 11 and thought -- "Ooooohhhh! Yummy J2 longfic!"//
you have been posing the question , that I have asking myself, since the discussion around the haiti story started:
*are* there actually really no porn fanfictions about 9/11 ??
or Katrina catastrophe.
Hard to believe, no fictional characters driving around and "helping" those countless New Orleans victims.
if fandom and fangirls has shown me something, that is, that writers are about just capable of anything.

(as a Vietnamese I am used to have the Vietnam War being backstory fodder for countless Hollywood movies, and thousand of TV eps.
and fanficions.
But then, that tragedy is 35 years old already)

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