“Give Me The Banjo” 2011

I like a lot of different kinds of music. Different styles for different moods. In general, though, I like my piano lively instead ponderous, prefer fiddle music to violin classics. And a fine trumpet player has always moved me. While the banjo doesn’t catch my breath in the same way, I always thought of it as a fun instrument. Quick and clever, requiring a lot of skill and dexterity–I appreciate the technique. Plus I grew up with a fair amount of bluegrass; one of my mom’s best friends was, and still is, a bluegrass fiddler (you can watch a video of her band here).

So when I saw that “Give Me The Banjo” was streaming on Netflix, I threw it on. I am a sucker for both documentaries and American music history. Background music, I thought, while I got other things done. It turned out to be too good to half-watch, and I ended up putting everything else aside. 6 minutes into the movie, it was clear that they meant to truly explore the banjo’s history, with this introduction:

You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation–all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo. – Greg Adams, Ethnomusicologist

Then straight into clips from a minstrel show. Blackface. Newspapers proclaiming a “Much-Admired Nigger Melodist” was playing. The white Southerner, Joe Sweeney, who learned the banjo from his black neighbor, and then took both the knowledge of how to build one and his neighbor’s music with him to New York. Turning an African folk instrument into a white American musical staple. “Elevating” the instrument with fancier building designs, reinventing the music into the new “classic” style… purposely reminding audiences that they’d stolen from the people they considered themselves better than, with a style of music they called “Coon Songs”… This look at the past is simultaneously embarrassing and enlightening.

The interviews with experts–historians, musicians, and banjo builders–along with photos, songbooks, and recordings of the popular musicians from different eras, make this a documentary worth watching if you care at all about musical history, or the racial and cultural history of the US. (Even if the banjo itself doesn’t matter to you.) Steve Martin gives excellent narration, and they’ve got an impressive breadth of interviewees. Find the movie here: Give Me the Banjo (83 min.)

Wishing Never Changed A Damn Thing

I haven’t posted about the ongoing SFWA controversy in depth because I looked at the initial outcry, and the immediate response of some SFWA members, who stood up in the Forum* to say, “This has to change,” and I thought we were making progress. Over the course of a couple of days, the President made a statement, the previous editor stepped down, and a task force was formed to revise the Bulletin into a publication we could be proud of. I felt that if I publicly agitated for change the way that I was doing so privately, it would further distract from all of the great work that SFWA has done and is doing, and it would imply that the matter wasn’t being handled internally–and that wouldn’t have been true.

I’m proud of the changes we’ve made lately, which include not only moving to a higher standard of both content and writing in our official publication, but also creating guidelines for the official @SFWAauthors Twitter feed (which reposts member blogs), expanding the volunteer database, creating an archive project to collect historical materials, and more. I’m happy to see dozens of people step up and say, “I’ll help make this better,” by offering suggestions, volunteering their time, and being part of the discussion. I am most satisfied that when I stood up and took on tasks that needed doing–I answered questions about editing and magazine management even as the discussion turned to defending the old and attacking the new, I asked for volunteers for the next phase of the Bulletin, created and curated a list of those names and suggestions for the task force, and I wrote the first draft of a diversity statement for the Board to consider–there were people who didn’t just leave me to do it on my own, as I’ve seen in other organizations. Rachel Swirsky supported my efforts, Jim C. Hines ran his red pen over the diversity statement to help cut it down to a more manageable size, Cat Rambo and Mary Robinette Kowal stepped in to keep the conversation calm when it threatened to get negative, and a dozen people emailed me privately to encourage, ask questions, and offer their own opinions. I appreciate all of that.

But I was wrong when I thought I could do my part quietly, and things would get better from there.

For every good thing we’ve done to improve SFWA this month, there is another jackass trying to take it away. In our private space (which cannot be quoted from) I’ve had certain people not just disagree with me but were deeply offended that I would dare to tell them things must change, even when I’m saying that based on the obvious outpouring of sentiment from members and non-members alike. I’m allowed to express an opinion, sure, but I’m not well known enough, not “Big Name” enough, to decide anything. I’ve been told I must want something, that I’m only complaining about the previous iteration of the Bulletin because I wanted the old editor fired so I can take her job. I’ve been accused of being involved in a plot of force out the old guard of SFWA. I’ve been dismissed for being a woman, because that fact somehow explains away my opinions as emotional, and therefore ignorable.

I’ve gotten emails about how I don’t understand real sexism, because I wasn’t around in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.** How if I were the editor, I would have made exactly the same choices, because otherwise I’d have lost my job. (Fact time: No, would have edited the material presented to me in a professional way, even if it meant losing my job. Because, standards, that’s why. Also, according to those in charge at SFWA, the idea that they’d have policed the Bulletin in a sexist and/or racist way is a totally unfounded rumor, and they’re working to prevent anything like that from happening.) I’ve been told I was making a fuss just to get attention, as if there’s nothing else about me anyone else would pay attention to. I’ve gotten emails telling me to shut the fuck up, telling me that I’m nothing and no one and need to go away while I still can, before I make too much noise, get too much attention, and then I’ll see what happens to women like me.

Because I commented in a private discussion about the need for stricter editorial standards. And did so while being a woman.

But at least I wasn’t making those comments in public, for the most part. And at least I wasn’t doing so while black. Because then this would happen:

Jemisin has it wrong; it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we simply do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious historical reason that she is not.

and

those self-defense laws have been put in place to let whites defend their lives and their property from people, like her, who are half-savages engaged in attacking them.

and

there is no evidence to be found anywhere on the planet that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support from those white males.  If one considers that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilized after their first contact with advanced Greco-Roman civilization, it should be patently obvious that it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do the same in less than half the time at a greater geographic distance.  These things take time.

and

Jemisin clearly does not understand that her dishonest call for “reconciliation” and even more diversity within SF/F is tantamount to a call for its decline into irrelevance.

All courtesy of Theodore Beale, writing as Vox Day. For those who don’t know, Beale is an active member of SFWA, and even ran for President this year. Though he repeatedly says things like women are ruining SF, except for those few who write like men, or women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, or women should be ignored entirely if they’re not attractive, not to mention his views on people of color (as evidenced above, and elsewhere in his public site), he still managed to get roughly 10% of the vote.

That’s the genre community for you, right there. But we ignore trolls like him, right? That’s what I’ve been seeing all day. Ignore him. Ignore his post. Don’t read the comments. Stay off the Internet for an hour until the unpleasantness passes.

You know what? Fuck that. Go read his post (it’s linked above). Read the comments. See the vile things that get said out in the open in 2013. See what happens when we speak up about it. Don’t hide your head in the sand and pretend it’s happening to someone else and you don’t need to worry about it. Hey, I’m white, what do I care, right? No, it doesn’t work that way. Nothing gets better when we pretend everything is at acceptable levels of okay.

Yeah, maybe it’s giving the trolls attention for a few minutes, and maybe people like Beale revel in the muck they create. But on the other hand, that’s a convenient excuse to ignore it, isn’t it? You can tell yourself you’re doing the right thing by taking away Beale’s power over five minutes of your time, but you’re also saying that you’re not willing to spend five minutes to find out how NK Jemisin is being attacked, how women and PoC are being characterized and treated in the genre community, and you’re not willing to get angry for five minutes.

But if we don’t get angry, what will motivate us to do anything about it? We can wish that things were different, but the truth remains:

Wishing never changed a damn thing.

Note: the wonderful Amal El-Mohtar posted a reasoned, polite, letter to SFWA, calling for Beale’s expulsion, and current President John Scalzi is matching funds for people donating to the Carl Brandon Society, or the Octavia E. Butler memorial scholarship.

ETA: Today and tomorrow, I’m donating 100% of the sales of Dagan Books ebooks to the Carl Brandon Society. See the list of books here.

* the private discussion board for SFWA members.

** For the record, I’ve been involved in the genre community since I moved to San Francisco at 18–that would be in 1991. I’ve been a fan of SF (never was much of a fantasy reader) and horror since I was a little girl. I read the Grand Masters of science fiction when I was a kid; I’ve got paperbacks of Heinlein’s work–all of his work–on my shelf now. So, I’m not someone who doesn’t appreciate or know the founding works of American SF. I went to cons and parties with some of those guys, 20 years ago, and if you want to know what sexism was like in genre in the 90s, I can tell you. I’m not coming to genre in 2013 with no knowledge of what happened before. I’m coming to it, well aware of its past, and willing to be here anyway.

When We Think Different is Brave

I use Pinterest for a couple of reasons. It’s a think-ahead, a place to put ideas for things I want to own, because I tend not to be an impulse shopper. I like to know that if I’m spending my money it’s on something I’ve wanted for awhile, not just to fill a void at that particular moment. I use it to collect book covers I like, so that I can be inspired when I’m designing. There are recipes for drinks and food, some of which I’ve tried. There are also reference boards, with links to info on types of shoes or knife blades or the fancier ways to knot a tie.

While it isn’t the sum of human existence, it is an example of something I’ve been pondering for a while.

I’ve noticed that a lot of writers curate collections of “characters”. Photo reference for costume, inspiration for writing–there’s nothing wrong with the idea, on the surface. I have boards of images for reference. I’ve been collecting one for my Mythos noir story, so that I can get the prices, clothes, cars, and buildings right when I write. Visual models are great for adding true detail to a story when you’re no longer (or never were) in that time or place.

The problem is, many of these boards are filled with women or people of color, and labeled things like “fierce female characters” (or “fabulous”, or “tough” or “strong”–something implying they’re acting in a way that the bulk of the population wouldn’t). When the images are of women in armor, appropriate (or not) to their native land, then okay, an armored up person of either gender, of any race, is pretty fierce. They’re ready for battle, and as long as we’re not talking about chainmail bikinis or something like this*, it’s a segment of the population I think we can rightly label as impressive.

But what about a woman wearing a traditional hat, the same as any other woman in her part of the world? How about one standing outside, smoking a cigarette? Or a little girl standing in front of a bed? How about a woman who is laughing, carrying a baby, or the thousands of other images you find labeled the same way?

What makes all of these women similar is that they are doing perfectly normal things, without being afraid to do them. And we think of that as “special” and “strong”, because we expect women and people of color to be afraid, to blend in, to be unseen and therefore not making a target of themselves. Anyone acting differently, even if it is to simply be themselves in an unflashy but unafraid way, well, we call that “brave”. We decide that it’s fierce and strong and bold. We mean it in a good way, don’t we? We’re proud of their courage, we salute the fact that they’re not just bowing down… but that’s because there’s still an expectation that they should.

It’s a tough situation because as long as there are people who oppress anyone who stands out, then it can take bravery to be different. But we shouldn’t be encouraging a world where that’s true. And we definitely shouldn’t be writing new worlds where that stupid idea gets perpetuated.

Start with this: stop collecting pictures of women or people of color under the banner of “brave”, if you don’t know their story. Instead, give them accurate labels. Write down the real reason that photo moved you. “Woman wearing a hat I would never wear” or “little girl wearing a dress that took her mother hours to make, far more than my mom would spend on me” or “I wish I was brave enough to wear those earrings without being afraid someone would laugh”. At least then you’re admitting what you really think, and giving yourself–and others–a chance to consider that truth.

Note: I left out the women athletes, actresses, artists, musicians, or activists–people who we know something about. Though it’s more accurate to call someone strong when you know their personality, my point was about incorrectly labeling images without context. You want to say Joan Crawford, Frida Kahlo, Sigourney Weaver, Octavia Butler, Hazel Ying Lee, Bessie Coleman, or Elsa Avila are strong? Yes, I’m sure that they are. But we know they accomplished things that most people–regardless of gender or race–don’t ever do.

*Not “viking woman”, as the tag I found it under said, but Skyrim cosplay. In case that wasn’t obvious.

Fuck You, Weird Tales

Dear Jackass Weird Tales,

I know you got a lot of criticism when you got sold to Marvin Kaye, and let go of Ann VanderMeer as editor, but it didn’t come from me. I was open to the idea that you were going to steer the fiction content of your magazine in a direction that harkened back to the older days of weird. More pulp, new pulp, and old pulp – less new weird interstitial strangeness.

Well, okay, I happen to love interstitial strangeness but I am an old-school pulp girl too. Bring on Cthulhu! I thought. I’m the woman that publishes Cthulhurotica after all. I have a subscription to Weird Tales and planned to renew it.

And then you had to defend Saving The Pearls: Revealing Eden as some sort of ironic anti-racist literary monument, when in fact it’s poorly-written fetishization of the black man that reads – seriously – as if it were scifi written by a white plantation owner’s wife in the 1800s, back when you were still warned not to get too close to the black bucks lest they be overcome by your white beauty and ravage you. (Here’s a good review of it)

It’s not just racist, it’s astoundingly, shockingly, absurdly racist. It’s cruel to defend such a book as simply being too complex for detractors to understand. It’s horrid to suggest that we should all read it more carefully, as if the fault lay in ourselves for just not “getting it”.

It’s insulting to people of color, who are portrayed as vile, evil, angry sex objects who all secretly want to love/fuck the pure white woman (except, of course, for the “black bitch” who’s jealous). It’s insulting to white people who date people of color because they happen to be wonderful people, not just an acquisition based on their skin tone. It’s insulting to women who choose their partners for anything other than social standing.

And it’s more than insulting to the teen girls it’s marketed toward. How dare the author try to teach children and young adults that they should want to be any version of any character from this disgusting tale?

Plus it’s bad writing. And, no matter how you analyze it, it’s not weird fiction, that thing you’re supposed to be getting back to.

I hope that she paid you, Weird Tales. I hope she paid you very well, enough to make up for my subscription (which you’ll never get again) and all of the other lost income from readers and advertisers. That’s the beautiful thing about living in a capitalist society, WT: you’re free to say whatever you like, and we’re free to disagree with you by choosing not to give you our money any more.

In closing, fuck you Weird Tales. I’m done.

– Carrie Cuinn

PS. For more, read NK Jemisin’s better post on the subject

Racism is Stupid

Recently a post about hipster racism has been going around, and if you haven’t read it, you should. The bottom line is that ironic racism is still racism, just slightly more likely to have dressed from a combination of products sold on Etsy.

Part of that is white people making jokes about people of color who they care about out of some idiotic belief that they must not be racist because they know/love/fuck/live with a person of color. *headdesk*

Racism, in all forms, is stupid, and everyone just needs to fucking stop it.

But, of course, I can say that, right? I’m a white person, so I’ve been protected by white privilege, so what would I know? To some extent, that is true. I am extremely white. I have red hair and freckles. I can’t even tan (though everyone else in my family does; it’s weird). My white privilege means that the one time I was pulled over by a police officer for blowing through a stop sign, I was given a warning. It means that I have walked through one of the poorest neigborhoods in Oakland, while on drugs, and jaywalked in front of a cop, who yelled, “Watch out for cars!”. At 3 am. It means that no matter how poor or uneducated I was (I lived in that neighborhood at the time, and worse ones after), people never told me that I couldn’t make something better of myself.

I’m not speaking as someone who was personally affected by a lot of racism. I am someone who got a free pass when a lot of other people I love and admire didn’t. So if I, who am not being repressed by racism, can tell you it’s stupid and useless and wrong, will that matter to you? Will it mean more to you than hearing it from a person of color?

To a racist, yeah, it will. How stupid is that?

But maybe you think that because I am so very white, it doesn’t really affect me, so I can say “don’t be racist” and it’s not that important. I’m just being trendy or something.

The thing is, racism does affect me, everyday, because I see it everyday, and it affects the people that I love.

My grandpa Joe was black. He and my (white, red-haired, Irish) grandma Helen loved each other very much. Before they both passed away, I got to see that, and it would become fundamental in shaping what I thought love was. The good kind of love that I’m still not sure I’m ever going to find.

Joe was kind and – normal. He wasn’t a “black guy”, he was my grandpa Joe, who just happened to be black. One of my nephews (I have more than one sister) has a dad who’s half black and half Chinese. Some of my best friends, including a guy who has been my friend, consistently, for 17 years, have been Filipino.

This fact doesn’t make me cool, or open-minded, or some kind of special. It just makes me not stupid. I’m not stupid enough to believe that human beings are divided by something as arbitrary as the color of your skin. We have grown to fill this whole planet, we have lived in a variety of climates, and some of us show the difference in skin tone that comes from having ancestors who mastered a certain spot on the Earth. That’s all it means.

This way of splitting up the world into groups, so that we can decide who we’re better than, and these jokes and comments and advertising and every other little way that we pass judgment on different colors of people … It’s all so stupid.

More than that, it hurts. It hurts me to see people that I respect being insulted or dismissed or patronized because they’re not white. It hurts those people who have to face prejudice every day for something they were born with. (No one gets to pick for themselves what color their skin is or who their parents are!) And it hurts us, as a global society, to still be fighting each other over this arbitrary classification.

So please, stop being stupid.

For those of you reading this and thinking, “Oh good for you, Carrie,” don’t. It doesn’t take much for me to take a stand on this, I know that. What you should do is to take a moment to redefine the people around you. All of those little labels we have in our heads? Rewrite them. Stop thinking of your black neighbor or your Asian coworker or the Hispanic woman in the PTA. And for fuck sake, stop describing people that way. Find another label.

Think of them as Bob who has the amazing rose bushes next door, or Jimmy who drinks four cups of coffee a day or Paula who’s allergic to dogs. Something about who they are as people. Because no matter what color you or I or anyone else is, we’re all the same. We’re all people.

Do that, and then I can start thinking of you as someone who isn’t stupid.

Please.