Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Science Fiction and the Other

I've been reading Pam's House Blend off and on the past week or so, and it's been making me think. Her section on hair styles, specifically the implications of straightening or not straightening your hair if you have African hair, is particularly fascinating. Apparently there are people in the world who make a moral distinction between straight and curly hair. This shocks me a little bit. The idea that respectable, thinking people still care about race, still categorize people based on skin tone is almost unbelievable.

Believe it or not, it wasn't clear to me until recently just how prevalent racism still is. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, about an hour out of Seattle, and although my parents in many ways are religious nuts, the only categorizing I ever heard either of them engage in was Christian v. non-Christian, and even then non-Christians weren't worth less as people, they were the focus of Christ's love. I used to think that this attitude was pretty much normal for educated, intelligent people. I was aware that in parts of the country there were still people who thought African-Americans were stupid and lazy, but I assumed that no one took these people seriously, because they were obviously cracked.

Some of this, I think, was the area I grew up in. There wasn't the residue of hate from ages of slavery to deal with, and the racial divisions were based on less vitriolic things. Instead of there being this line drawn between white and black, there were many lines, most of which were really blurry, between white, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Thai, Native of infinite varieties, etc. So the biggest historical racial inequity was the genocide of the Natives, and even that was mostly accidental, through the introduction of diseases white settlers didn't realize they were carrying and so on. I remember being taught in school the story of the Whitmans, missionaries who began a mission in western Washington and ended up slaughtered after the tribe they were supposed to be saving ended up mostly dead from measles, as a parable of European arrogance and stupidity. I don't know why it was easier to demonize white missionaries than white slave owners, but it was.

The other major influence on my thinking about race, however, was my love of science fiction. By the age of 16, I read almost every science fiction book in my local library, and often read an author's entire canon by ordering books from the county library system. I was fortunate that the county I lived in included Seattle, which meant a ton of money for artsy things like libraries. A lot of it is a blur by now, but I remember at one point, I must have been 12 or so, reading a short story in this huge grey book full of great short stories from the whole history of science fiction. This particular story was written in the 70s sometime, I think, as a reflection on the civil rights movement. It was very simple: aliens had made contact with Earth and wanted to see how regular people lived, so they went out to restaurants and things. I believe these aliens were tall and blue and quiet. The story was told from the point of view of a waitress at a restaurant one of these aliens visited, basically speculating on what he felt and how he reacted to the people he met treating him with disgust. The message was, what's so special about us that we feel we have some right to treat them as though they're dangerous and untrustworthy and evil?

It's difficult to read science fiction for years and still hold onto us v. them thinking. The whole genre explores the idea of the Other and the Different and the Strange, seeking to know what these things are like. And after all, to know is to love, is to hate, is to be, is to eat... just ask Mr. Heinlein.

Which is why it's so striking to me to live now in St Louis, which claims to be the Midwest but really looks like the South to me in many ways. People here who are educated and smart and liberal still believe that black people are fundamentally different than white people. It's not correct to claim that black people are stupid or lazy or can't swim or are prone to violence, not really, but they are still an Other group. Its ridiculous. It really bothers me that not only can I not say that I wish I had a classical North African bone structure so that I could shave my head and still look beautiful, people who actually have North African bone structure still feel pressured to imitate 'white' hairstyles so that they're socially acceptable. I wish I could do something to change things.

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