Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Privilege and I

I’ve been learning a lot about the idea of privilege over the last few months, both as an increasing member of the SF/F community, and the Steampunk community.

The argument goes that, being part of the dominant culture, I’m in a position of privilege.  I’m part of the dominate culture because I’m white, male, able-bodied and Western.  I can expect the cultural values I hold to be reflected in the society around me, and I can expect ‘my’ people to be extremely visible--i.e. white, able-bodied Western men on T.V., billboards, adverts etc.  Because of the visibility of WWAM, people in my society will take my opinions more seriously, offer me more respect and more doors will be open for me.  I’ll be recognised as part of the ‘norm’, you see.  The physical and psychological world I live in will be designed more around me than people not of the dominant culture. 

I can’t deny that it’s true.  Imagine you’re, say, eight-foot tall.  You’d have to stoop to go through any shop door, you wouldn’t be able to buy clothes easily, you’d only be able to drive larger cars etc etc.  Next time you’re walking around town, have a look at the amount of steps you need to navigate and imagine you were in a wheelchair, and couldn’t do it.

As a WWAM, the theory says, I’m also not subject to generalisations that other groups are.  You know, like ‘black people are good at dancing’, or ‘women are good cooks’, or ‘Indians like curry’.  People aren’t going to look at me and assume they know things about me based on my skin colour/gender/number of limbs, the way they might look at an Indian-looking person and assume they’re from Banglatown, or look at a Middle-Eastern looking person and assume they’re a Muslim. 

To an extent, I’ve been a victim of it too.  I gave up eating meat a few years ago, and I am so frikking sick of egg or cheese sandwiches.  If I want to have something to eat that I don’t make myself, those are pretty much my only options.  Especially in motorway service stations, although the ‘vegetarian option’ offered by most restaurants is normally little better.  When I give up dairy this year, my options when eating out are petty much reduced to zero, even in restaurants. 

The trouble I find with this notion of privilege is that it lumps all white, English-speaking people together.  Everyone from Scotland, Shetland Isle, Ireland, Wales, England, North American, Canada, parts of the Mediterranean, South Africa and probably a whole bunch of places I’m not too aware off, all in one great big homogenised lump, all sharing the same cultural values and goals.

I’m told this is the sort of thing people who aren’t part of the dominant culture have to put with all the time--e.g. all black people--from every part of the world--can dance.  As an example, a friend of mine drives a very old, very beautiful, very temperamental motorbike.  She had just filled up with petrol and the bike was refusing to start, as is its want.  A man from one of the other pumps came over and told her that he would help.  The problem is that she owns the bike and is very used to dealing with it, knows its moods and how to deal with it, but the man who came to help thought he knew more about it than her because ‘women aren’t good with cars or bikes’, that unspoken assumption he probably hadn’t even realised he held. 

This is a problem in the SF/F community (and by association the Steampunk community), as Jeste de Vries points out in a kind of related post on the Shine! blog:

“On the one hand, it is extremely hard to deny that the majority of both SF writers *and* SF protagonists are white males….

That none of the 57 Hugo Awards for Best Novel have been won by people of colour (and 15 by women), is not a good sign. That all of the SFWA Grand Masters are white, and that only 3 of the 27 SFWA Grand Masters are women doesn’t help matters, either. Compare this with a literary prize like the Man Booker Prize (where 8 people of colour, and 15 women have been awarded among the total of 43 recipients), or the Nobel Prize for Literature (where 9 people of colour, and, admittedly, only 9 women have been awarded among the total of 106 recipients), then one can clearly see that SF still has way to go in that respect. OK: one could also say that the whole of western literature has quite a way to go in that respect, but I do note that the number of ethnic and women recipients of both literature and SF prizes has been going up since, say 1960 or so. If looked from that perspective, SF has much more catching up to do than literature.”

Now, Jeste de Vries’s point is that SF needs to reach out to new markets in order to survive.  It needs to engage with people beyond its WWAM fanbase.  What people don’t seem to mention in posts like the above is that this is SF/F written in English.  How does the distribution of SF/F output relate to the distribution of the English speaking audience? 

According to the Internets, there are about 375 million people in the world who have English as their native language.  The top two countries--the USA and UK--account for 275,922,205 people, or 73.58%.  In the USA, 75.05% of people identify as white, and in the UK 92.10% of people do.  So, of those 375 million people, about 60% identify as White.  Okay, so that’s very rough.  Very, very rough.  But according to that, in order to be representative about 60% of SF/F stories should feature white protagonists. 

The thing that worries me is the skew in the numbers.  As someone who’s white, I get to be part of the worldwide 60%, not part of the UK 92.1%.  I worry people are going to say, ‘he’s white and is contributing to the WWAM bias’, and not, ‘he’s from the UK and its fine for him to be a white SF writer because 9 out of 10 people in that country are white’.  I worry that I’m only ever going to be seen as a WWAM writer.

I think the answer is that I’m getting butt-hurt over the fact I’m losing my privilege.  Up until now, I’ve been able to ignore the bias--that’s been my privilege.  Now I’ve lost that privilege and I’m just like everyone else.  Like anybody who loses something they haven’t earned, I feel hard done by.

Or maybe it’s that I’m losing the assumptions I’ve been brought up with, the world I thought I’ve been living in all these years is dissipating, and I’m scared.  Strange New Worlds scare the crap out of me.  People, you see, in Strange New Worlds will hate me, taunt me and keep me ostracised.  (Yes, I do have issues.  I’m working on them, I promise.)

Either way, this is where I find myself…


Jo Thomas said...

Where as I'm just cynical and maladjusted. People in any world will hate me, taunt me and keep me ostracised. (Yes, I do have issues. No, I’m not working on them.)

Or maybe not. ;)

Foxie said...

Hey, where are these people? I'll punch them in the nose for you <3