I Don’t See Color – Michi Trota
Welcome to the second week of guest blog posts about representation in SF/F. Today’s essay is from Michi Trota, whose photo (at the bottom) is SO MUCH COOLER than any of my author photos. Not that I’m jealous. Nope, not me. Sigh.
There’s a line in this piece that really stuck with me:
Skin color was nothing more than interchangeable window-dressing if we were “all the same underneath,” right?
It resonated with something an artist was talking about this past weekend at the “Diversity in Nerd Culture” panel at No Such Con, about how changing the race of a character like Perry White can be problematic if it changes nothing except skin color, treating race as something that has no effect on who someone is. It was a good panel, and I’m still processing a lot of what I learned.
In the meantime, thank you Michi for sharing her story and kicking off the second round of posts. And tomorrow, Nalini Haynes will be talking about the “evil albino” trope.
Almost all of the women in science fiction/fantasy fandoms that I have felt the strongest affinity for have been white. Partially it’s because there just aren’t many Asian (particularly Pacific Islander) women in supportive (much less leading) roles in the fandoms I grew up with. Most of the TV shows I loved watching as a child had a terminal case of Smurfette Syndrome in which the single girl on the team was white (Voltron, Battle of the Planets, Silverhawks, Starvengers, Starblazers, I’m looking right at you). And when there were characters who were Asian women, they almost universally conformed to some variation of Asian stereotype: the awkward (science/tech) nerd, the ingénue pop star, the Dragon Lady, the grades-obsessed student, and almost always without a love interest (or at least one who reciprocated their feelings).
No one wants to see themselves as a walking cardboard cut-out, but that’s not really the problem with seeing characters who look like you being played as stereotypes. It’s not that I didn’t find anything of myself to relate to in those stereotypes – yes, I played the piano, I was a hyper-competitive honors student, and I even studied kendo for a few years – it’s that many of them felt painfully familiar. Seeing those moments reduced to caricatured facets and bad punchlines that all but screamed “Look how DIFFERENT and EXOTIC these characters are!” made me want to run in the other direction. When you’re the only Asian kid in your neighborhood and get weird looks for bringing chicharrón with spicy vinegar and garlic pork-filled siopao to the annual block party, you really don’t need any more reminders that you’re not like everyone else.
So when I discovered comics, I ignored spunky teenaged, fireworks-spouting Jubliee because I wanted to be like the poised and telepathic/telekinetic (and occasionally cosmically powerful) Jean Grey or the sarcastic, ass-kicking Domino instead. I played Sonya in Mortal Kombat instead of Chun-Li in Streetfighter. Robotech was probably the defining fandom of my childhood, and it had lots women in positions of authority, many of them tough, intelligent, independent and just as likely to do the rescuing as be rescued. But I hated the single Asian girl, the pop star Lynn Minmei. Even though she was one of the most influential characters of the series, I found her shallow, self-absorbed and selfish. It was her romantic rival, the no-nonsense Lisa Hayes, who I empathized with. She was brave, responsible and resourceful, and in the end, she got the guy.
At the time, I didn’t see anything odd about this. I grew up being told that not “seeing color” was the best way to avoid racism. Regardless of the color of their skin, people were not different “inside,” and treating everyone as if they were the same meant that you were not racist. So if everyone was “the same,” there was no reason I shouldn’t want to be more like Lisa than Minmei, or see myself more in Jean Grey than Jubilee. After all, Psylocke was still the same person after her mind was switched from her British white woman’s body to that of the Asian assassin, Kwannon. The writers wanted Psylocke to not “look like everyone else,” so why not makeover the white girl into an Asian? Skin color was nothing more than interchangeable window-dressing if we were “all the same underneath,” right?
But if people didn’t really “see” color, why was I the only one getting asked about martial arts and told I spoke English very well? Why did I always have to play Sulu during make-believe Star Trek at recess? If people still treated me differently, maybe it was because I wasn’t acting enough like everyone else or trying hard enough not to see skin color, especially my own.
There’s a passage from David Byunghyun Lee’s powerful essay about growing up Asian in America that encapsulates what I’ve struggled for most of my adult life to articulate about my relationship with racial identity:
“[W]hen [our parents] saw that their children could perform as white, they encouraged it without teaching us or telling us to love our Asian side. And as the line between performing as white and being white blurred, so did the line between thinking white people are better and thinking that being white is better. In hindsight, our biggest mistake was having believed in the line at all.”
Nowhere has the absence of that line become more apparent than in my own writing. Every piece of fiction I’ve ever written has been based around white characters. The short story I wrote about a family dealing with parental loss like mine? All white characters. The aborted fantasy tetralogy I spent years outlining and rewriting the first five chapters for? The main characters were all white, and the setting was another Tolkienesque pseudo-Western Europe. When I Mary Sue’d myself into my fan fiction, I wrote myself as a white girl. Apparently it never once occurred to me to write any Asian characters, much less as protagonists, even when they were supposed to be me.
In my personal essays, there is next to nothing about my experiences as an Asian American, outside the mentions of the Filipino food my mother made. I can easily write thousands of words about what it means to be a woman who loves geeky things and what it was like to be the only woman in my local comic book store every Wednesday. I can write about the shock of recognizing internalized sexism within myself and the embarrassment of realizing cotton candy pink blush is really not my color (simple bronzer, on the other hand…). I don’t have to force myself to acknowledge my relationship with gender.
Writing about my relationship with race, however, is a struggle.
When I write about being Asian, I instinctively move to the emotionally neutral realm of academia and sociological concepts. Writing about my relationship with race is like trying to talk with a distant relative who engenders no discernible feelings. Rebuilding that connection requires peeling away thirty-six years of scar tissue I never knew that I had, and while each layer reveals new depths of understanding, it also forces me to deal with the consequences of self-alienation.
What does it mean when I say that “I don’t see race?” It means that because I learned to see no difference between “white” and “color,” I have white-washed my own sense of self. It means that I know more about what it is to be a white person than what it is to be Asian, and I am a stranger among both. It means that I built my identity on a warped foundation but never noticed the asymmetry until I not only tried to create new worlds upon it, but began exploring my own as well. In the absence of acknowledging how being Asian is an inescapable part of who I am, I’ve become a cipher to myself.
Navigating the pitfalls and traps of gender stereotypes as a woman has been daunting, but I’ve never lost sight of my internal compass there. Exploring what it means to be an Asian woman, not just in distant terms of abstract social constructs, but in the language of my deepest self, means chasing my own personal white rabbit down the hole. And I have no idea what I’ll find on the other side.
Michi Trota is a writer, speaker, communications manager and community organizer in Chicago, IL. She writes about geek culture & fandom, fire performance and occasionally bacon on her blog, Geek Melange, and is a member of the Chicago Nerd Social Club’s Board of Organizers. In her spare time, she spins fire (sometimes in cosplay) with the fire+bellydance showcase, Raks Geek, and at the Chicago Full Moon Jams (for which she also manages communications and event planning). Her mutant power is making anyone hungry merely by talking about food. Which she does a lot.
Photo by Braden Nesin.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 24, 2014 @ 10:00 am
Thank you so much for including me in this series, Jim. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to be in the company of the other amazing writers who’ve contributed to this series.
Now if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to be over there squeeing myself silly over the fact that I have an essay published on the site of one of my favorite authors! Because this would be me right about now: http://25.media.tumblr.com/73db98f98e39e0e69cd4311e81978fa5/tumblr_mxpd6n8njh1s6hrz6o1_500.gif
February 24, 2014 @ 10:56 am
Let me start by saying thank you for your article and I really appreciate what you have written. I have a slightly different opinion. I see color. As someone who dabbles in art, you have to. You can’t always paint in monochromes. I see people in much the same way. I look at people through their cultures (usually food). Everyone uses pretty much the same stuff when cooking, what changes is the spice. And remember, variety is the spice of life.
One of the best books I have read recently is Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson. In this story, there is only one white character, a Muslim woman. All the other characters are Middle Eastern, but they are all interesting and smart. A different culture presented well.
Kylie Chan has a series of books that deals with Chinese Mythology and Martial Arts. True, she is not Asian, but she does write about the main character, an Australian woman, who loves a Chinese god and lives in Hong Kong. The only thing both these books have in common are that they are very readable and do not focus on white culture. I could give you more examples dealing with Australian Mythos, Hindu gods, African gods and Norse vs South American gods, all good stories, just using different colors.
Maybe part of the reason I look for stories dealing with different cultures is because I am a frustrated traveler. I would love to go around the world drinking in the differences in each country. Meeting new people, exchanging ideas and finding points of commonality. I spent this weekend taking my wife to fashion expo with clothes from India and Bangladesh. We were invited to go by a former co-worker. So while my wife shopped I talked with one of the guys working there, a film student, about the films of Steven Chow and how I was watching Shaolin Soccer on a local Spanish language channel, but having seen the film before I could follow pretty well. That gives you a white guy talking to an India guy about a Chinese film in Spanish.
What I am trying to get across is that you should not be afraid to write about anything that interests you. You are the girl who brought chicharrón with spicy vinegar and garlic pork-filled siopao to the annual block party. Do the same with your writing (if you want). Sure, if you love a pseudo-European Tolkienesque world, go for it. But, if you want to write about the Philippines, there doesn’t seem to be much competition out there. I would think a story that has a knifefighting-based martial art form that shares the name of a Hindu goddess of chaos and destruction might be a good starting point (Kali). Or a story that includes a nice recipe for siopao.
S. L. Gray
February 24, 2014 @ 11:12 am
There are some things here that resonate (a little uncomfortably) for me here. Thank you -so much- for writing this!
I was (am? Am) a kid of color adopted into a white family. My mother in particular encouraged me to go and explore the cultures that made me up, so I saw color, but my experience of all of them is always as an outsider, touched by many, truly part of none.
I confess to writing mostly white characters and to having most new characters come into my head as white. I have led a sort of personal rebellion against writing books with characters of color, I guess, because people always ask why it matters. Does it change the character if they’re not white and if not, why does it matter? That, by the way, is one of the most frustrating questions I have ever been asked. I don’t always want to write an issue book, where a character’s race is a constant topic of conversation. I don’t want to have to justify -why- a character is the race he or she is. Can’t I just write the character as they come to me, whatever color that might be?
And yet I feel a certain obligation sometimes, as an author of color, to write characters who look like me. I don’t remember wanting to read about characters who looked like me as a kid, but I do remember being excited to see them in the television I watched. Roadblock was my favorite G.I. Joe. Jazz was my favorite Transformer. As I have recently confessed, I wanted to play Lando Calrissian’s daughter in the “next” Star Wars movie because OMG! So I feel like I ought to be putting out works that reflect those bursts of excitement I had when I saw them, but they’re not always organic and that feels just as wrong to me as not writing them at all.
But slowly but surely, I’m learning to go with it when it feels right, to embrace the character and ignore the guilt, to brace myself for the questions and try to swallow the defensiveness. It’s been hard and will maybe always be hard, but it’s important, I think, to be true to myself. So thank you, again. Thank you.
February 24, 2014 @ 11:21 am
Michi, wow. I have read your writing here and there and had no idea you were Asian, so I do see how you white-washed yourself. And it’s sad. I hope you can get through the scar tissue to find your actual self, whether that be kinda-white, Filipino, or whatever.
Your second paragraph made me hungry. I need pork buns now. Your mutant power works. I have just spent 5 minutes trying to think of when various Asian fast-food places near me open. Dim sum at least 2 hours, and Jollibee’s not till dinnertime… but I think the drive-thru is open! Palabok!
@Rob Myer: We used to watch the kung-fu movies on the Spanish-language channel instead of the English one, b/c the Spanish station had high-budget ones set in the past, with pretty colors and wonderful costumes and sets, and the English station only had low-budget modern ones with triad guys scuttling through alleys in Hong Kong.
February 24, 2014 @ 11:22 am
This was powerful. Substitute “Jewish” for “Asian” and you pretty much have m childhood in the late 60’s and early 70’s in the extremely Christian town where I grew up. I had an embarrassingly Eastern European Grandmother with a thick accent who made me food no one else had ever seen. I desperately wanted to be blond and willowy and go to Church socials. Much to the horror of my parents and grandparents.
February 24, 2014 @ 11:30 am
I wish you’d lived near me. We had enough Jews that it wasn’t weird for them*. Also, I would have eaten all your bubbe’s food. Except the fish. Pleh.
*except, I mean really, you gotta tease Fienberg about annually being forced to eat PB&J on matzo instead of Wonder Bread. The jelly oozing out is just funny.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 24, 2014 @ 11:38 am
Thanks for commenting, Rob.
I want to make it clear that it’s not that I “don’t see race or color” at all – I do and am very deeply aware of it, nor do I advocate “not seeing race or color” as a way of approaching understanding diversity issues at all, because, as I hope was clear in the essay, it’s an extremely damaging way to look at race and ethnicity. “Not seeing race or color” is a way to avoid acknowledging systemic racism and racial inequality, as well as erasing identities other than “white” because of how white culture is considered the “default” (ie – people assume characters are white unless otherwise specified) here in the US.
Regarding food and understanding cultures – looking at people through their food can be somewhat problematic – while an important part of one’s culture, appreciating ethnic foods doesn’t always equate to understanding other cultures – this is a really vibrant discussion that’s been getting more play lately and given my food geekery, I’m really happy to see it happening. Which isn’t to say that people shouldn’t appreciate other ethnic foods – they’re all amazing and different and delicious and I love it when people go out to try new tasty things & even try integrating those elements into their own cooking. It’s just that sometimes loving ethnic food has become shorthand for understanding other cultures, when obviously culture is more than food.
The idea that “the food is the same, just the spices are different” or that gods/myths/stories are all the same, “just using different colors” is, while a nice sentiment, actually part of the problem, as reflected in the idea that the X-Man Psylocke, who was originally a British white woman, was able to be transplanted into the body of Kwannon, an Asian assassin (and notably, we’re NEVER told specifically what her ethnicity is, she’s just “generic Asian”), and still be considered the same person because, as Claremont noted, it would “make her stand out.” I don’t doubt for a second that Claremont and the other X-Men writers thought they weren’t doing anything wrong with this – and FTR, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve really come to appreciate how complex and interesting Psylocke is (not to mention thank Jebus they updated her costume from that ridiculous swimsuit with useless thigh bands!) – but the reality is, racial identity *isn’t* as simple as “different spices over the same food” or “same deity archetypes with different colors”. Those “colors” mean something specific in our cultural context, and for anyone in the US (or even Western civilization) who isn’t “white”, the awareness of that difference in social standing, in societal power and influence, is impossible to ignore for long.
The problem with my writing isn’t that I’ve been “afraid” to write about anything regarding my identity as an Asian/Filipino American – it’s that because of a vast number of different reasons, being able to articulate my relationship with racial identity, and being able to use that relationship as a tool in my writing, is difficult to do so without defaulting to a “white” perspective, even though I am not white. I know I can write whatever I want, and it’s really hard NOT to be aware of the fact that the market is saturated with fantasy stories based on overwhelmingly white western mythologies/fantasy settings. I would consider writing something that looked toward Filipino mythology as inspiration, but the problem is, I don’t feel a deep connection with or have an understanding of that mythology like I do with Greek/Roman myths, Norse mythology, Tolkien-like worlds, etc. If non-white culture-based fantasy worlds were just as prominent as those, this wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem, but unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in, and it’s why I’m so thrilled to see more fiction like NK Jemisin’s and other authors who are making a conscious effort in truly creating new worlds that don’t automatically conform to white culture as the default setting.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 24, 2014 @ 11:43 am
YES! I’ve felt the same way, too, because I don’t WANT it to matter, even though it does, and for the longest time, I wondered why, if it was so easy for me to imagine myself as a white character, or write characters/perspectives that weren’t just those of an Asian American, why couldn’t white writers seem to do the same for characters of color?
The questions and the defensiveness they engender continue to be some of the hardest things for me to deal with. Because my identity as an Asian American and what that brings to the table matters, but at the same time, I don’t want that to be used to Other me and it’s so frustrating how easily and unconsciously that can happen in conversations. Good intentions are great, wanting to learn is great, but it can still be so exhausting that sometimes I just want to run in a corner and hide with a bucket of chocolate covered bacon.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 24, 2014 @ 11:44 am
Hmmm, I’d never thought of putting peanut butter on matzo instead of bread (although I’m not as much of a PB+jam person, I like jam on it’s own – nutella+PB however…). Is it good??
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 24, 2014 @ 11:50 am
I hope so, too, thanks! Oddly enough, writing more about geeky stuff has actually provided an entry into being able to understand myself as an Asian American more. Like, I’d never really thought about how much I hated Minmei in Robotech vs. Lisa Hayes. And now I REALLY want to write a whole essay about that and use it as an avenue to explore race and identity for myself more.
Also, Psylocke. OMG do I want to write about her more, especially after getting that confirmation from Claremont about how/why they switched her body like that.
And my evil plan is working! I work right around the corner from a Wow Bao and it’s dangerous, let me tell you. And holy cow, Jollibees, there’s an eatery I haven’t though of in YEARS! Um… you’re not in the Philippines are you? And if not, where the hell is there a Jollibees stateside?!?
February 24, 2014 @ 12:49 pm
My parents didn’t–don’t–observe Pesach, but my family does now. Pizza made with matzo is pretty good. I imagine nutella would be good. Anything that doesn’t squish too much.
My family was one of the few Jewish families in our town. It didn’t matter that we weren’t particularly observant. What mattered was that we were a different color. That basic difference in skin tone, and maybe in hair, was that clear. Of course, many of the people living there at that time were really fair with light hair and light eyes–stereotypically White, I suppose.
Thanks for your essay. It points up the fact that I need to pay close attention, not just to the political and cultural basis of my current work’s world, but to the physical differences of its inhabitants.
February 24, 2014 @ 1:19 pm
Firstly: Yay Chicago! I will checking out all those links.
Secondly: That gif is WIN. As is the kick ass picture of you.
Finally: This really hit a nerve with me. For the longest time I thought I had to write MCs who were white males in western medieval-ish fantasy mythos; it didn’t occur to me that anyone else could be the “hero” in anywhere but Narnia/Middle Earth.
Up until about high school when I was my most desperate to escape real life and started writing about people I actually identified with. And being a short fat female queer introverted Sicilian put me pretty close to the opposite side of the spectra from the typical “hero” as one can get. So for a long time all my villains were handsome/pretty tall svelte blue-eyed blonds who may have had a slight resemblance to some people from high school. Purely coincidental of course. >.>
February 24, 2014 @ 1:31 pm
I give you: http://www.jollibeeusa.com/storelocator.html
None near you, sorry. They don’t do flyover. But in the areas just outside San Fran and LA, they are there.
You can’t get NEAR the ones closest to me on Sunday. The local Filipino community says they are really just like Manila. I’m still not doing the spaghetti. And thank goodness they don’t serve balut.
I used to party near a hole in the wall mom and pop bao place. After Saturday night’s drinking, bao for Sunday brunch was divine.
February 24, 2014 @ 1:33 pm
It is surprisingly tasty, but a bit dry. I used to eat about half his sammich on the regular.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 24, 2014 @ 2:28 pm
Well clearly I’m going to have to get back to LA and visit some friends, because wow, I haven’t been to a Jollibee in decades. The last time I was in the Philippines was about 20 years ago!
Chicago does have an extremely large Filipino population though. There’s at least one awesome bakery that I know of, and I’ve had more people telling me I need to check out the newest Filipino restaurant in a northern neighborhood a couple of miles away because the food is amazing. I’d make more siopao at home but jebus, that dough is finicky to work with and I haven’t quite gotten it to the fluffy amazing texture my mom made yet (my mom died when I was 11 and my dad when I was 14, so unfortunately it’s not like I can ask them, so a lot of the food I make is either going off my mom’s notes or from memory).
You’d need to pay me an exorbitant amount for me to eat durian though. Urg!
Becoming a Cipher to Oneself : The Cultural Gutter
February 24, 2014 @ 2:33 pm
[…] Jim C. Hines’ blog, writer Micha Trota writes about what it means when she says, “I don’t see race.” “It means that because I learned to see no difference between ‘white’ and […]
February 24, 2014 @ 4:36 pm
I used to say things like “I don’t see color”, until I realized what those words literally meant.
What I meant to say was “I see human beings who emerge from their histories of pain and joy as unique individuals with equal intrinsic value to that of all other human beings.”
But what it sounded like I was saying was, “I don’t see you. I don’t see the cleavages of race and class in my society and I don’t want to admit how they’ve affected you. I refuse to acknowledge that you have been made to suffer for what is visible to everyone, and how that as shaped who you are as a person in ways that are not so visible.”
Which…was not what I meant.
So nowadays, I just try to write diverse, interesting fiction and I try to write and treat other people with as much respect and compassion as I can. Because the truth is, I’ve always seen race. And I’ve always thought that race was a pretty dark tree, with strange fruit.
For the record, you are not the only writer who writes outside her own “race” or gender. The first story I ever published was from the viewpoint of a female Navajo scientist having very serious issues with her gender and racial identity. My military science fiction novel’s viewpoint character is Asian, male and Catholic–I am none of the three.
[Truth: I’d love to say that there was some high-minded motive to making an Asian action hero the protagonist of my novel, but I think the truth is that I knew I was going to spend weeks essentially watching a movie in my head. And if I was going to spend weeks watching a movie in my head, I wanted it to be a movie I would love. So I cast Jet Li. 😛 It was purely selfish and venal on my part.]
I haven’t really asked myself whether I write non-white or non-female characters because I have an ambivalent relationship to my own visible identity (whiteness, femaleness) per se. But that’s the thing about being privileged–how often do you have to think about being frigging white? And who ever worries whether it’s weird for a character to be male?
Many thanks for the insight and the food for thought.
P.S. Another vote for your author photos being by far the coolest I’ve seen in genre fiction. 🙂
February 24, 2014 @ 7:12 pm
“But, if you want to write about the Philippines, there doesn’t seem to be much competition out there. I would think a story that has a knifefighting-based martial art form that shares the name of a Hindu goddess of chaos and destruction might be a good starting point (Kali).”
Speaking as a Filipino writer, why do you mention martial arts and Kali as topics Michi should write about? No Filipinos I know do martial arts or are Hindu.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 24, 2014 @ 8:00 pm
RT – another Filipino writer? HI!!! Thanks so much for reading this!
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 24, 2014 @ 9:06 pm
You know what really used to get my classmates give me the weird-eye was bringing SPAM sandwiches to lunch. Never realized what a big thing SPAM was in the Philippines (not to mention other Pacific Island cultures) until I got older, but my dad used to make them and they were delicious. Sunday brunch was often fried rice with soy, garlic and scallions, with SPAM (my dad would fry the SPAM and sprinkle a smidge of sugar on them so it had that whole salty but just the right amount of sweet). On the rare occasion a friend worked up the nerve to try some, they ended up liking it.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
February 24, 2014 @ 9:41 pm
Michi, I really love matzoh, but that’s probably because I didn’t *have* to eat it for all my meals for a week every year. I usually keep a box in my pantry at all times, and I love it as emergency bread, or occasionally just because. PBJ on matzoh isn’t my favorite, but that’s because I really love just buttered matzoh, or butter and jam.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
February 24, 2014 @ 9:43 pm
Um. I don’t think you want to say “strange fruit” casually in a discussion about race.
Otherwise, I appreciate what you wrote in your comment.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 24, 2014 @ 9:49 pm
Well, I’ll have to try it now, won’t i? 🙂
Which reminds me – I need to get more crumpets from Trader Joe’s so I can do PB & nutella crumpets for breakfast.
February 24, 2014 @ 10:01 pm
Just to clarify my points in return (because I think we are actually fairly close in concept), when I say the ingredients are the same, but the spices are different, I don’t think people are interchangable. No more than you could take any finished product and create a different product from it. So siopao could never become a ham sandwich. However, you could have taken a person from one culture and raised them completely in another culture and ideally that person could fit in as well as anyone else in that culture. Now the key word there is ideally. I worked with a young lady from Texas whose parents were from Bangladesh. Culturally, she says she is American with a touch of Bengali. Now, I feel everyone really should celebrate their own heritage and appreciate everyone else’s (each culture has its own pros and cons).
Be careful as well when you say white culture, you have many examples of a white culture defining itself as separate from another white culture (Irish vs English, Scots vs English, English vs everyone). In America, it is easy to forget that as many people identify as Heinz 57 (coming from multiple nationalities).
Mainly I feel there is a commonality among all people, things we can recognize and appreciate across cultural lines. Physical comedy tends to transcend cultural, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Chan, Roberto Benigni. Also, empathy for others’ pain seems to be universal. No group seems to be so isolated as to be completely alien to any other group. Rather than trying to improve on John Donne, let me just refer to him:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
February 24, 2014 @ 11:42 pm
This is a wonderful post. Thank you for writing it. Heading over to your blog now to check out the other wonderful things you have no doubt written!
February 25, 2014 @ 12:07 am
Biologically, race doesn’t exist. For that matter, biologically most of what we consider ethnicity doesn’t exist, although there’s more of a genetic component — with our genes so mixed, though, it becomes largely moot. “White” is a catch-all phrase that encompasses some kinds of albino coloring through to people whose skin is medium brown and hundreds of different ethnicities. In the U.S., the census counts people of Arab ethnicity as “white” (and they may very well be pale skinned,) and they had to come up with the awkward category of non-Hispanic white because of the tangled history of classifying Latinos. Parents with darker skin may have a lighter skinned child and vice versa. The ways that we assign race are frequently fully random when it comes to actual skin color.
But as a cultural concept, a social concept that humans created, race and ethnicity are very real things, with very real and defining impacts on people and on societies, positive and negative. So when a person says “I don’t see color,” they are saying, “I don’t see your culture and I’m going to pretend it and its history don’t exist.” It’s used as a way to try to wipe out culture and diversity; it’s a political tool for keeping “visible” minorities in western cultures (sometimes only visible by their name or an accent, etc.,) particularly Northern America, from being able to bring their culture, their history and their personhood into the main channels of society and education, while the illusionary monochrome culture of “whiteness” maintains a conceptual, and thus real and physical, political hold on not only the western world but a good chunk of the rest of the world as well.
I never heard the phrase “I don’t see color” until I was older and paying more attention to politics. When I was growing up, different cultures and diversity were things that were supposed to be celebrated by all, explored and allowed for people to own. The phrase was “people of color” and it meant that their cultures had importance, their voices deserved attention and their histories needed to be known. Granted, this was more of a hope and ideal than a reality in society, but it was a cultural hope. Which is why it’s been relentlessly attacked.
I can’t swear that “I don’t see color” came originally from the authoritarian right wing in western cultures, but it’s definitely been co-opted by them in the last few decades for two main purposes: 1) to systematically deny the institutionalized discrimination against people of color in the society, no matter how many statistics show its very real and wide spread existence, and thus advocate against policies and laws that eliminate or lessen that discrimination; and 2) to wipe out long-standing educational programs in schools that celebrated and explored non-white cultures and history as part of both the society and the student body, on the grounds that it is somehow divisive to teach anything but “white” history and culture, erasing anything not white as not useful to the ideal of the society. So yeah, basically if you are saying “I don’t see color,” you’re saying, “let’s talk about white people some more!” It’s an extinction event. And it is something that is “taught” because the idea of multiple identities is much harder to control in a society.
So it’s a brave thing always, an important thing, to talk about this tangle of identities and the impact that its had on real lives. I appreciate everybody who has been talking about their identities and those cultures here.
Links: Tuesday, February 25th | Love in the Margins
February 25, 2014 @ 11:10 am
[…] I Don’t See Color – Michi Trota – Trota writes a great examination of being Asian in a majority-white culture and struggling with internalized white supremacy. […]
February 25, 2014 @ 11:13 am
I find your perspective interesting. I am a white woman, married to a black man with two “mixed race” daughters. I can see how the identification with white can be damaging, particularly as my older daughter enters adolescence and all of the self image issues are magnified by the lack of appropriate role models who look like her. Self-image includes image. I wonder where the middle road is. I don’t want her boxed it by any stereotypes, black or white. Ultimately the damage is done because a person feels that they need to deny a part of themselves in order to fit in. For me not seeing color means not assuming a person fits a stereotype because of their appearance. I have the luxury of being able to identify with characters based on internal similarities, without feeling that I am betraying my heritage. I would like for my daughters to be able to do the same.
Michi Trota (@GeekMelange)
February 25, 2014 @ 11:26 am
That is the ideal sense of “not seeing color” and this is, ultimately, how we want people to treat each other. I don’t have kids, but I have nieces and nephews who are multiracial and I also would really love for them to be able to embrace all sides of their heritage in order to create the identity that *they* want for themselves, without any pressure to assimilate or discard bits and pieces because they want to “fit in.” Being aware of these things is a really wonderful thing for you to do in order to help your daughters grow into identities they will be happy and comfortable with.
I think Arinn’s comment above captured the issue perfectly:
I honestly think most people feel similarly to Arinn, so yes, finding a way to say “I won’t treat you any differently because of the color of your skin, but I also acknowledge that the color of your skin has affected your experiences and how other people & society have treated you,” is what we’re striving for.
I don’t know if you had a chance to read the other essays in the series so far, but Charlotte Ashley’s “Princess Problem” and Mark Oshiro’s “Parched” also provided some really great food for thought on finding that balance, too.
Jim C Hines series on Equity
February 25, 2014 @ 2:53 pm
[…] I Don’t See Color – Michi Trota […]
February 25, 2014 @ 5:25 pm
I think you’re right, KatG. “I don’t see color” is a nice idea, but it’s been turned into such a right-wing authoritarian white phrase that it’s basically a dog-whistle code at this point. Stephen Colbert uses it as a satirical punchline in poking fun at conservatives. Even if you mean it sincerely, it’s gonna sound like “I don’t wanna hear about how prejudiced my world view is, I expect everyone to Act White!”
So I think we should say “I see color, but I try not to let it affect my judgement.” Urgh. Not as snappy, is it?
February 25, 2014 @ 8:34 pm
We ran out of desert late one night and resorted to matzoh and cool whip. I can’t recommend it as anything other than a vehicle for cool whip, but it worked for us.
February 26, 2014 @ 2:19 am
I want to see color. I want to see lots and lots of it in SFF, but I will admit that it isn’t easy to be sensitive and inventive at once.
My second novel’s heroines are a Korean-American adoptee raised by a Chinese-American mother and a mixed-race Vietnamese-American woman. I made those choices consciously, because Reasons, but the plot does not in any way hinge on their ethnicity. Halfway through writing it, I wrestled with the idea of whitewashing them because I was concerned that I couldn’t Get Things Right.
The possibility of being labeled cliché or culturally tone-deaf frankly still terrifies me, but I kept Naomi & Serena as I originally envisioned them. Why? Because the first book in my SF series stars a scruffy white guy and his white male sidekick, and I am Not Male. When I was growing up, everyone including my own father told me that women couldn’t write believable male characters, so in the end I decided, why not double-down?
The other main character in book 1 is a tough, ambitious Hispanic Catholic woman. Also not like me. (At. All.) Her ethnicity and religion are not central to the plot. (and in fact are not explicitly mentioned.) So why choose it for her? Why NOT? is the only answer I have. It’s all part of her character.
This world is full of diversity and conflict. The future will be too. Race and culture won’t be the only things I get wrong in my fiction, but I will do my best to include more than my own experience. I do research. I talk to people. I have a vivid imagination. Whether that’s enough…well…that’s up to readers to evaluate.
February 27, 2014 @ 12:17 pm
Hollleeeee crap. This says so much of what I want to say and I want other people to say. Standing O.
Tricia and the ForceCast Talk Diversity « fangirlblog.com
March 2, 2014 @ 11:01 am
[…] in the Galactic Empire. Although it’s not directly tied to Star Wars, I would like to point out another piece on Jim C. Hines’ blog written by Michi Trota, an Asian-American woman who discusses the […]
AMAZING News 3/2/14 - Amazing Stories
March 2, 2014 @ 11:02 am
March 9, 2014 @ 4:36 am
Sorry if my tone was difficult to read. There was nothing casual or flippant about the use of the phrase. I write a lot of horror. And I went to university in Tennessee, and studied historical archaeology and forensic anthropology there. The history of racism and violence is unavoidable in my discipline in general, but especially in that part of the country.
When I say “a dark tree with strange fruit”, I’m specifically referencing the song, and invoking its ugliness. I’ve always been moved by the refusal to be silenced that it represents.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Today’s Edition of Squee: Being Published on Jim C. Hines’s Website | Geek Melange
March 21, 2014 @ 7:26 pm
[…] diversity and representation in science fiction/fantasy (SF/F), and today, my entry in the series, “I Don’t See Color,” went live on Hines’s site. Here’s a teaser of the first […]