Obviously, the RaceFail…

Obviously, the RaceFail discussion kind of ate my life this past week. If you add up all the time reading the discussion so far, writing posts, and monitoring and responding to comments on John's blog, I think I easily spent 60+ hours this week on it all. Insane. But I think it was worthwhile. For the most part, I managed to stay fairly calm for it all -- or I thought I did. Last night I went to bed, and I guess I seemed kind of tense, because Kevin asked if I was okay, and I burst into tears.

It took me a little bit to figure out why I was so upset, but it went something like:

  • there were five or six outright racist (and unrepentantly so) posts at Scalzi's blog, plus a few personal attacks

  • this is, on the whole, in a pretty liberal space, so how bad must it be generally in America? How representative are those folks of American thought overall?

  • and then, god, when I think about what's going on in the rest of the world, with racism, and sexism -- how women are being raped and murdered, how many children are starving because people can't be bothered to give pennies a day, and then there's all of the damned wars...

I just lost it. Every once in a while, the pain of the world just overwhelms me, and it had been a rough week, between reading all the anger in the ongoing discussion, trying very hard to write coherently in my own posts, anticipating the possible attacks to come, and then actually sitting through a few of them. Just a bit more than my equanimity could take.

Kevin calmed me down reasonably quickly, reminding me that the vast majority of the comments had been positive, or at least understandably confused and resistant, which is also fine. I'm okay with talking through this stuff, at length, because it's hard material, and it takes a long time to work through it (by which I mean months, or years), and maybe at the end of it you still won't agree with me, and that's okay -- reasonable, good-hearted, well-meaning people can disagree about the nuances of this stuff. And by far, most of the people I was interacting with on his site fell into that category, and it doesn't make sense to let a few bad apples spoil the barrel.

As for the pain of the world -- well, at least on some fronts, it's getting better. I have far more rights and options than my mother did, or my grandmother. I hope and believe that Kavi will grow up taking for granted a lot of possibilities that I had to fight for, and that she'll push the conversation further. In a hundred years, we may have made some real progress (if we haven't destroyed ourselves in the process, but I try not to think about that part too much). I'm basically an optimist, so in the end, I do think the human race will end up okay.

But it's hard sometimes, when you stop and realize just how much pain there is out there.

16 thoughts on “Obviously, the RaceFail…”

  1. Thank you so much for your posts. I’ve been following RaceFail from the start, reading every post, going through all the comments. I appreciate your take on everything, and I admire how calm and positive you appeared in your comments. (I wanted to slap some people.) I will also admit I had to walk away for a while, mainly because of your points 1&2. I got discouraged, but I came back. And will keep coming back. Thank you again.

  2. I appreciate what you’ve written.
    I must admit I have not paid much attention to RaceFail, for much the same reason I don’t pay much attention to Blog Against Racism. Or, more accurately, because I thought it was like Blog Against Racism. Mostly because I’m tired. I have been the white half of a black/white marriage for close to thirty years now and I have been arguing with my people for most of those three decades. (By that I mean my ethnic group. From day one there has never been any question that my family would take Valerie over me in a heartbeat.) In all those years I can’t think of a single mind I changed. Perhaps I’ve become jaded, but I tend to think those “golly, racism is a bad thing” blog campaigns are less relevant to generating social change than those magnetic “support our troops” car ribbons are to establishing a lasting and equitable peace in Iraq.
    But every once in a while, against my expectations, a clear-eyed analysis and cogent prescription comes along and I again remember that change — progress — is possible.
    Thanks for reminding me.

  3. A Different Jess


    I’ve wandered over here from Scalzi’s blog.

    I wondered a little about the toll this must have taken on you. I’m so sorry for the extra stress and pain it caused you. Bless you for doing it anyway, for being infinitely patient and kind and generous. Also, for keeping it simple without ever being condescending. I imagine is was REALLY hard to not just say “Motherfucker, PLEASE” more than once. We all appreciate that you didn’t.

    Also, I get what you mean about the weight of the world hitting you sometimes. Progress happens at the pace of evolution, but it does happen. Try not to dwell on the bits you can’t fix all by yourself. =)

  4. As someone who’s been watching mostly silently through this whole thing – having little to say that someone else couldn’t say better, and no energy to try and say it anyway – I wanted to thank you for posting on Scalzi’s blog, and especially for linking your other essays on the race dialogue in SF/F, which are thought-provoking and just generally awesome, and which I wouldn’t have found if you hadn’t braved that wider forum.

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    “keeping it simple without ever being condescending” — this is actually where practice teaching at different levels comes in really handy, I think. For fiction writing, I’ve taught:

    – total beginner workshops to random folks off the street
    – intro fiction, which mostly gets English majors
    – advanced fiction, mostly seniors thinking of doing an MFA or some such
    – advanced SF/F, limited to folks who have published at the pro level
    – graduate fiction, dedicated to people who have made the commitment to a graduate program and who have generally been working on their writing for several years

    Some teachers prefer to teach only at the highest level, and I can understand that, because then you’re closest to engaging with your own peers, and that’s both satisfying and challenging to your own writing.

    But I find that I enjoy teaching every stage of the process, beginner to advanced. We were all beginners once, and at every stage, you’re doing some things well, and you’re working on other things. (There is *so much* that I’m still working on with my writing.) It’s silly to condescend to beginners — they’re not ‘lesser’ — they’re just at a different stage in the ongoing process.

    That translates reasonably well to handling the racism discussion, I think. 🙂

  6. …belatedly, I said this over there, but it is definitely worthwhile to say this over here: your posts were wonderful and in some places, really thought-provoking for me. Not only in the things you said but also the way you said it. So thank you, and I’m sorry that some of the follow-up caused you pain.

    Also (I kept thinking this but forgot to say it) your description of your daughter’s name was gorgeous. And so is your daughter’s name!

  7. I was struck by your comment that “this is, on the whole, a pretty liberal space”. I think I struggle with that issue, expecting liberal views to correspond to a lack of racism. And, that’s not the right correlation. A liberal viewpoint helps with issues of conscious racism, but it’s not clear to me that conscious racism is even 10% of the racism problem today.

    Thanks for the articles; it is depressing to realize not just that my socioeconomic environment provides me with a buffer zone against discrimination towards me, but that it provides me with a buffer zone from my own racism. I don’t want that, I want to be in environments where people call each other on the snot until it’s not there anymore.

    I rewatched the Namesake tonight, and realized that Gogol and Mosumi are both struggling with their own racial preference for white skin, that both involve themselves in relationships with white people despite the fact that on a color-blind basis those white people are Not Nice People.

  8. First, thanks for for your amazing posts. I was up until 2am last night reading them and the comments, both here and on John Scalzi’s blog. You are, as ever, intelligent, insightful and OMG a pillar of self-control when it comes to disussing something so prone to knee-jerk reactions, as evidenced by some of the comments. I do have one further (slightly off topic) area about which I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, although if your first reaction when reading this is “I’m just too exhausted to write about this anymore” please feel free to tell me so. 🙂 The massive amount of thought and time you have put into this already boggles the mind.

    As parents, at what age do we develop in depth conversations about race with our children? I have an almost five year old son and although we have had some conversations about race, I have found myself up to this point mostly working through example and exposure (via friends, co-workers, the very multi-ethnic day care I have consciously chosen for him) rather than explicit conversation. I have caught myself thinking, “But he doesn’t even really SEE race at this point, so why can’t I let him stay in this lovely way of looking at the world for a much of the brief time it is allowed as possible?” And then I remind myself that it is only because he is blond-haired white boy that Finn has the luxury of not ‘seeing race’, in that almost everything he sees validates him, in addition to the bonus of not having racist behaviour directed towards him by others.

    I am concerned that I see myself failing to engage enough on the issue of race and racism, because I do not for one minute fail to let an instance of gender bias slide by my kid without comment from me. Even my son knows that the mere use of the words pink and girl in the same sentence is going to trigger a response. We talk regularly about how we will not be calling the Happy Meal toys from McDonalds ‘girl’ toys or ‘boy’ toys because there’s no such thing and anyone can play with dolls and/or robots as they please. So it’s clear to me that I am perfectly willing to expose him to the idea that sexism exists, is darn near everywhere and requires conscious thought to avoid participating in without noticing. Reading everything I did last night makes it clear to me that I am probably letting my own implicit racism (wow, that word really is hard to use about oneself) dictate my less than complete engagement on the topic of race with my son.

    In any case, if you’re not too pooped to pop (as we say in our house), I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. But you deserve a complete and utter pass on the subject if you want it. 🙂 I’m simply glad to have had the chance to read so much of what you’ve written about it already. Thank you!

  9. I think the thing I was most impressed with, Mary Anne, was not merely you keeping your cool, but you returning again and again to a personal level, with striking, specific examples, precisely where I would have been tempted to go abstract (and/or snarky).

    I also thought John did a pretty good job with restraint and specificity, like when that poster accused you of “insinuating” yourself — I could have strangled the fucker — John handed him his ass coolly and adeptly, I thought.

  10. Not to clog up your space with more “me too” posts, but…

    I’d also like to add my thanks for your thoughts and words on the topic–your compassion, your clarity of expression, most of all your ability to address the different players in this mess as individual human beings, not mere representatives of a Side. I’ve been searching for your voice, I think, since I first discovered this massive fail, and I’m really happy to have found your journal. (I’m a fellow Chicagoan, by the way–God, is it spring yet??)

    Anyway, hearing you describe the collective sort of spiritual sludge and weight this whole Thing leaves all over one sort of echoed what I’ve been feeling for weeks…thank you.

  11. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    notanattack, it’s a good point, that conscious racism isn’t a big part of the problem — or rather, it’s not a big part of the types of problems I run into myself. Obviously, for lots of folks around the world, they’re dealing with a ton of conscious overt racism on a daily basis — but that’s not something I’ve ever had to deal with, and it’s not what I was focusing my discussion on, certainly. And there’s not much reason to expect liberal Americans to be automatically any better on the unconscious racism front — but it’s hard to keep that in mind!

    I’m a little confused by your note that the white person Gogol gets involved with is ‘not nice’ — I don’t actually remember how the movie dealt with her, but I remember liking her in the book…a lot more than I liked Gogol, in fact. I thought that, in fact, he behaved badly to her because of race issues — he’d dated her mostly because he was using her to aspire towards a certain upper-class whiteness in his own life. Which isn’t fair to her. But it’s been a while since I read/saw them, so maybe I’m misremembering…

  12. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    AJ, on the parenting front, I think I have no clue yet! Kavi isn’t quite two, so our conversations so far are still strictly limited and pretty functional. That said, I imagine well before she turns five, we may need to have some kind of conversation about race, if only because some other kid asks here, “Why don’t you look like your mommy?” Or, if she asks, “Why do we eat with our hands at Ammama’s house, and with forks at Grandma’s?”

    That said, I think I’d handle it the same way others recommend handling sex conversations — let the kids lead, for the most part, and address the issues as they come up in their lives. I’m not sure if there’s a need to be more — proactive? Maybe there is, though, especially if they’re going to school in an environment where they’re likely to encounter a lot of racism. (There were a ton of ‘dumb Polack’ jokes at my grammar school, for example.) Hmm…no real answers here, I’m afraid…

  13. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Ben, I loved the way John handled the ‘insinuating’ thing — much better than anything I could’ve said. 🙂 It was funny, too, because I thought that post was incredibly hostile, and was prepared to just ignore anything else the guy said, but his later posts actually became much more reasonable. Sometimes people just come into this conversation defensive, I guess, and if you can defuse that, you have a chance of actually engaging with them. Interesting.

    Re: the specific example thing — I agree, it helps a lot in this kind of conversation. I know that when I’m reading these posts, I much prefer the ones retelling specific examples from peoples’ lives than the ones that are just claiming broad political positions. It can be tricky, because an anecdote certainly doesn’t constitute sufficient evidence for proof (I tell my students that ALL THE TIME), but they just help so much in illustrating the specific example of a general point.

  14. Re: the how-to-tell-your-kid discussion, we have a related issue with religion (as Switzerland, esp. school, is so aggressively, hegemonically Christian). Yes: let them lead, but also take the lead if they really seem to be suffering from it. And provide them enough of a positive thing to be heading towards, that the conversation is not all about what you are against… if that makes any sense. If you spend time celebrating what they are, not defensively but in fun and celebration, that is the best protection against assaults on what they are.

  15. In the movie, Maxine is ridiculously self-absorbed; this is a little culture-shock when she does things in front of his parents that Gogol warned her against (holding hands, calling parents by their first names), but at the funeral she actually tries to get Gogol to go away for New Year’s. I think the book presented that more sympathetically, that she waited a month before getting antsy, but not much.

    How glad for you that you’ve never had to deal with conscious overt racism – I find that unreal, frankly.

  16. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    In part, it’s a function of where I’ve lived — growing up in New Britain, the ethnic tensions were between the Polish and the Irish; I wasn’t even on the map. In part, I imagine I’ve been shielded by class privilege — people read me as upper-middle-class, based on clothing, voice patterns, etc., and I’m sure that affects their responses.

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