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Missing the Point pt.2

This has been a long post in coming, and has undergone several rethinks and adjustments along the way to improve coherency, make it less angry, and to really get the core or this portion. What I’m discussing over the next raft of words are the topics of perception, tokenism, and the creative process. These three areas are often misused and misunderstood by many people who argue for the maintenance of the status quo in SF&F gaming and media.

Perception informs much of what we think as individuals. Perceptions of ourselves, perceptions of others, our perception of how people perceive others perceiving them and so on and so on. Unfortunately, the human brain is not wired to be overly critical of what we perceive; if it were, we wouldn’t stress critical thinking so much at the secondary and post secondary levels of education. In its most basic form, the people perceive the way things are to be the way things have always been, and use that perception to forecast how things will be in the future. Owing to the high levels of emotional investment built into these perceptions and the associated beliefs that come with them, people can become very upset when evidence is presented or events occur that are counter to their perception shaped beliefs. This feeling of discomfort, sometimes articulated or expressed as anger, is called cognitive dissonance.

In SF&F, perception plays an incredibly powerful role, shaping not only how others perceive SF&F media, but also in its formation. Formation will be covered later, in the creative process segment. Here we’ll talk about how perception shapes what we think about SF&F. To say that education, and in particular, history, is extremely eurocentric in the west is a gross understatement. The contributions and participation of POC and other minority groups is glossed over, if they’re covered at all, and historical figures are carefully whitewashed in illustrations. In the absence of inclusion, a perception is created that all historical periods, until the advent of mass chattel slavery in the 16th century to feed the demand for workers in the New World, there were no POC and little to no interaction between ethnic groups. This is patently false. [1][2][3] However, years of exposure to the idea that minorities and POC never set foot in Europe before the 16th century, and then only as slaves, many people are resistant to the idea of POC in a historical sense.

How this plays into the defence of the status quo in SF&F media and materials is by the emotional weight it carries. People don’t like to be wrong. Also, people don’t like to share things that they thought were entirely theirs, in this case, history. What this results in is the studious omission of POC from materials. “There weren’t there!” or “It wasn’t like that then!” are the typical rallying cries here, and the cries are equally blind to the fact that POC were indeed “there”, and active, in the historical record. This carries into futuristic settings as well, where POC are limited to well defined and stereotyped positions in art and story lines.

Tokenism is, unfortunately, lauded as a “step forward” by members of both the POC and non-POC communities.[4] Supporters point to it as an important step in increasing the inclusiveness of SF&F media in general. If it were 40 odd years ago, when tokenism was really getting started, I might agree. But it’s 2014, and tokenism is still running strong throughout the SF&F world, with supporters of the status quo often using the rude, and derisive, comment that “You should just be glad to be included.” (or a similar one). Tokenism allows non-POC/non-minority characters in SF&F to be individuals, and frequently narrowly slots POC into specific roles and makes heavy use of stereotypes.[5]

To really look at tokenism, and missing the point, I’m going to reach into the way-back machine and dredge up Barret Wallace, a POC character from Final Fantasy VII, and one of the most divisive characters acceptance wise. Barret was the first overt POC character in the Final Fantasy series, appearing in FFVII on the PSOne. A caricature cobbled from Mr.T and stereotypes, he dripped racism from every pixel. I could have let a lot of it slide, except he was the only POC, the only character with a distinct “accent” (his text boxes were phonetically spelled), and he was irritating as hell to me every painful second he was on the screen. He was a token creation, a strange entry into an otherwise largely non-POC world, and it showed. When I had the chance to stop using him, I did. I’m not alone in this opinion, but according to some, I should just STFU and not complain about obvious racism because, and I’m paraphrasing, “Complaining about racism will hurt the chances of minorities and POC being used as characters in games.” [6] (this link is to an example of that happening)

That last link is a rough read, but it neatly encapsulates the vehement support the status quo can have. The author explicitly blames minorities complaining about legitimate issues for why there are so few POC in video games. “Stop complaining and accept your position and portrayals!” could sum it up. The truth is that the days where tokenism was an acceptable way to include POC in things are gone. So is saying that token characters are “stepping stones to full inclusion”. SF&F is theoretically where imagination is exercised to extremes not allowable within the boundaries of historical or contemporary fiction or media; the continued use of token characters is a sad carry over and perpetuation of racism best left in the past.

The creative process and formation of SF&F media is no minor operation. However, it’s important to remember that imagination seldom, if ever comes from a vacuum, as a good friend of mine often says. Imagination is shaped by the perceptions and knowledge of the person doing the creating, and is further influenced by the perceptions and ideas of that persons culture, social position, and peer groups. Popular media plays a large part as well, doing a lot to shape our perceptions and ideas of the larger world around us.

Here’s a quick mental exercise: think about South America. What do you see in your head? Probably jungles, mountains, the Amazon River and ancient ruins. Did you picture the cites of Chile or Argentina? The industrial areas of Brazil? The numerous wars for independence that rocked the continent in the 19th century? Probably not; because unless you’ve made an effort to learn about the non-jungle/mountain/river/ruin parts, all you know is the bits that might have been mentioned in history class and what you’ve seen on TV. Try the same about Kenyans. Do you picture Masai herdsmen on the Serengeti and Olympic sprinters, or urbanized Africans in Mombasa and Nairobi, living lives similar to those in European or North American cities?

Now that that’s done, realize how much the pulp era still influences our SF&F materials. The Pulp Fiction era is one of my favourite literary eras; I love reading about two fisted adventuring and battling Nazis and Bolshevism. I have a pile of the old Conan comics at home (the magazine sized ones). Enjoying them doesn’t prevent me from recognizing the racism in them, or how it influences us today. Harking back to The Chult Event, in 2e AD&D, Chult was an atypical African setting. It had the trappings of the racism in SF&F, but it also had a thriving, peaceful, well developed POC culture and civilization. In 4e, it was re-imagined back into a familiar pulp mould. The status quo at work.

So, what does this have to do with the larger SF&F community? In its most basic form, people like what they’re already familiar with. They don’t like change, especially change that threatens a privileged position. SF&F has spent generations building up a variety of stereotypes and roles for POC (and POC occupied areas), designed expressly to support the superiority of non-POC (read: White) culture, morality, technology, intellect, and physicality. These creations continue to influence us when we design new worlds, and can even trip up otherwise less racist and more progressive works. [7]

Read Part 1 Here


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