Thoroughly Nonracist Nonsense

Synopsis: Weird Tales was planning to publish the first chapter of Victoria Foyt’s Saving the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a novel which editor Marvin Kaye described as a “Thoroughly Non-racist book,” calling it:

…a compelling view of a world that didn’t listen to the warnings of ecologists, and a world that has developed a reverse racism: blacks dominating and detesting not just whites, but latinos and albinos, the few that still survive of the latter are hunted down and slaughtered.1

Revealing Eden is a science fiction novel, which is not what Weird Tales usually published. I.e., Kaye was going out of his way to promote this book, which is totally not racist.

Kaye condemned those who criticized the book as lacking in “wit, wisdom and depth of literary analysis to understand what they read.” I like to think of myself as someone who rolled reasonably well on those stats, so I figured I’d download the sample to my phone and give it a read.

Excerpts from the first chapter are indented. My thoughts are italicized.

EDEN JUMPED at the sound of approaching steps. They must not see.

Black people are “them.” There’s totally nothing racist about setting up a racial us vs. them dichotomy in the very first line of your book.

Eden shot to her feet, her heart racing, as a plump, dark-skinned lab assistant appeared on the other side of the partition. It was only Peach, who wasn’t as cruel as the rest of them.

From the fourth paragraph. Our heroine is named after the garden of paradise, while our heavy and not-quite-as-bad-as-the-rest black woman is named Peach. Totally not racist!

Had Peach forgotten that Eden’s skin only had a dark coating? Maybe she was passing, after all. Wouldn’t that be nice. Eden almost enjoyed pointing out the truth.

Eden wears totally-not-blackface both to protect her from the sun’s radiation and to make herself look beautiful. Also, Peach is apparently an idiot, despite being Eden’s supervisor.

In that quiet, treasured space, [Eden] allowed herself one small but true thought: I hate them.

To sum up so far, we have a white protagonist in a world where black people are cruel, idiot overlords, and she hates them. But maybe the author is going to do some clever and totally-not-racist inversion.

That bitch Ashina was now fifteen minutes late and Eden wanted to take her break. She glanced around the lab, hoping for a sign of the haughty Coal.

Black people are Coals. White people are Pearls. Also, the second Coal we meet is a haughty (uppity?) bitch.

Eden flinched. One of them was touching her. White-hot light exploded in her head. Before she knew it, she blurted out an incendiary racial slur.

“Get your hands off of me, you damn Coal!”

“Coal” is an incendiary racial slur … which our protagonist is constantly using in her narrative. Also, I’m a little curious why the author uses and defends the term in interviews. I’m sure there’s a totally-not-racist reason, though!

###

I only read the sample, so it’s possible that Foyt manages to use the reversal of traditional U.S. racial dynamics to produce an insightful and important work that goes beyond nasty, bullying, caricatured Coals and the brilliant-but-persecuted Pearls. But the first chapter that I read doesn’t move beyond these simplistic dynamics and one-dimensional portrayals of a heroic white girl in a world dominated by nasty, dull-witted blacks.

And that first chapter is what Marvin Kaye was going out of his way to showcase in Weird Tales, a magazine which had earned a place on the 2010 Hugo ballot under the leadership of former editor Ann VanderMeer. That is what Kaye defended as a Thoroughly Non-racist book.

I’m more than willing to grant that the author probably did not deliberately and intentionally set out to write a book based on racial caricatures and stereotypes, that she intended no offense when she hypersexualized black men or described Eden’s black love interest as a “beast man,” that her premise, which relies on Eden and her white father being smarter than all of the evil blacks, was not meant to be hurtful. I accept that she didn’t try to write a story which takes place in a world almost identical to the paranoid fear-rantings of a lifelong KKK loyalist. (“This is what will happen if you let them darkies take over!”)

If you choose an incredibly narrow definition of racism as intentional, deliberate, fully conscious harm, then an argument could be made for Kaye’s defense of the book.

It would be a very poor argument. And it’s yet another incredibly problematic example of a white man in a position of power standing up and lecturing people of color, in a most condescending fashion, about how they don’t understand what racism is, and that he is declaring this book officially Not Racist.

I see now that Kaye’s piece has been pulled, and the magazine is apologizing for any pain and offense it caused. Kaye is traveling and hasn’t responded yet. While I appreciate the apology from the higher-ups at Weird Tales, I remain highly disturbed that the editor ever thought this was in any way a good idea, that he was so supportive of this novel that he was going out of his way to defend  and support it … up until the Internet landed on his head.

I’m sure Marvin Kaye, like Victoria Foyt, had absolutely no intention of causing harm. But lack of intent doesn’t undo or negate the harm caused by ignorance, and Kaye’s actions have been harmful indeed.

ETA: And it sounds like Kaye and the publisher were told months ago that this was a bad idea. (From Jeff VanderMeer – also includes a screenshot of Kaye’s post.)

ETA x 2: N. K. Jemisin – This is how you destroy something beautiful

  1. Kaye’s original post has since been yanked from the Weird Tales site.