December 17, 2009

Tell Me a (Political) Story

Terrified Tabetic is getting a bit cynical, it seems. Commenting on PZ Myers' commenting on Making Light's commenting on Boing Boing's commenting on Peter Watts' experience at the U.S.-Canadian border:

I am completely unsurprised that border guards would rough someone up and treat them disrespectfully. I am also unsurprised that another arrogant white dude seems shocked that people are mistreated by law enforcement officials.

The ennui, it burns.

TT, you're not shocked by the treatment Dr. Watts received. I'm not shocked by it. PZ's not shocked by it. Nobody who's paying any attention to the world around them is shocked. Some of us are still outraged, as we've been outraged all along.

Isis, on the other hand, is amused.

Many of us in the blogosphere quietly chuckled because this thing that happened to Watts, horrible and unjustifiable as it is, happens to brown people all the time. And it generates no outrage.

Now, as someone who wrote about Dr. Watts' situation last week, I've got a couple things to say on the situation. First, my reaction to the news was not shock. The only surprise for me in the story was that the U.S. border patrol was stopping people leaving the country.

That didn't stop me from using the story to draw attention to the problem. This is a pervasive problem, not just at the border, not just for white (although I just had to look that up to be sure), Canadian science fiction writers with doctoral degrees in marine mammal biology. In fact, like any pervasive problem, I'm well aware that it's going to have a disproportionate impact on the "invisible" people--ethnic and religious minorities, the poor, the uneducated, people with mental and physical disabilities, people with unpopular political views.

However, because I have close ties to the online science fiction community (and Dr. Watts participated in last year's run-up to ScienceOnline), this was the opportunity that got pushed across my screen. I grabbed it, hoping to push it into another sphere and make people who haven't been paying attention as outraged as I am. And yes, I looked at it and chuckled to myself, "Yeah. Just try to do your oh-they-must-have-been-asking-for-it-cause-they're-somehow-scary dance on this one, jerks. Time to face up to the fact that this problem can bite you too."

I don't like the fact that the vast majority of people are empathy-challenged. I'm doing what I can to change that, to get people to understand that different doesn't equal wrong doesn't equal not entitled to the same basic rights. I want a world in which no one needs, as Isis said, "some white patrons to show them to the majority culture."

That is my goal, but in the meantime, I'm not a purist. If somebody hands me a political sledgehammer for use on one of those pervasive issues, I'm going to use it, because the vast majority of people can't be moved to political action by anything short of that. I'm going to use it even if it exploits something in society that I hate, because it is still a "real injustice" and because, even if the sledgehammer is of the majority culture, that doesn't change the fact that most of the injustice happens to minorities.

Zuska compared PZ's post to the news coverage for a missing white woman, but I don't think that's quite the right analogy. Ryan White was the face of AIDS research. Gay men largely stopped dying from the disease. Minority homeless people benefit from the snow-white appeals for Christmas donations to shelters. Who stands to benefit from the enforcement of due process and a curb on the arbitrary exercise of nonexistent police authority? Everybody who isn't already too powerful to have to worry about it. It's cynical as hell, but it's doing something.

That brings me to my second point. Terrified Tabetic noted that he had a friend, Mohammed, who experienced similar problems. I asked (responding to cynicism with the same, I'm afraid), why this was the first time he was telling me about it. Isis talks about brown injustices being shunted aside, but she doesn't provide any stories.

Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that either TT or Isis isn't walking the talk. They both do. But what they're both doing in this situation is responding to white-guy story with minority-inclusion critique, and critique just isn't as powerful as story.

Dr. Watts is a science fiction writer. That means that unless he's very, very good--in terms of sales, not writing--he's squeaking along moneywise. For a pasty guy, he's not very powerful. There's no good reason for his story to be noticed over any other pasty guy's. In fact, the press was entirely uninterested.

However, Dr. Watts knows Cory Doctorow, otherwise known as Boing Boing (yes, I'm simplifying slightly). Doctorow wrote a short narrative piece on Dr. Watts' ordeal. Boing Boing made sure that plenty of people saw the story, and it stuck and spread. It spread successfully, in part, because the people passing it on were also storytellers and because Dr. Watts' own version of the story is short, bitter and shows why his work is award-nominated.

Story works. Story matters. Story is remembered in a way that arguments and reasoning aren't. Without story, we wouldn't have so damned many teenaged (of whatever chronological age) libertarians running around. Story is what I do all over this blog, whether I'm talking about science or politics or art--even when I'm making a logical argument--and that's what gives this tiny blog an influence entirely disproportional to its small readership (and by the way, I love you guys).

To bring this back to the topic at hand, Isis has a point about repackaging. Some experiences do get repackaged. However, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I took "Carrie's" parents' Facebook status updates--pure worried experience--and repackaged them and my knowledge that portion of the anti-vaccine movement that isn't motivated by profit into a story about the consequences of non-vaccination. I did the same thing with another friend's outrage on Twitter over not being able to get health insurance for his daughter. These aren't my experiences--I'm not even a parent--but I translated them into stories aimed at particular audiences, and the people whose experience I used thanked me for it. I got them heard.

Dr. Watts is not a brown person repackaged. He's an individual who had an all-too-common experience. If brown people's stories need to be repackaged, from personal conversations or as excerpts from blog posts or whatever, in order to be heard (and yes, they do), the situation isn't that different than that with the political sledgehammer. The need may be distasteful but it still exists. We can do that. It doesn't subtract anything from the original story to add more stories. And those of us privileged enough to be heard by the majority can tell those stories even as we work to eliminate the need for repackaging.

20 comments:

ERV said...

Um, I wrote about this happening to a Dark Skinned With A Scary Foreign Name guy months ago.

Isis/DM/Zuska didnt give a shit about this guy.

So...

Anonymous said...


Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that either TT or Isis isn't walking the talk. They both do. But what they're both doing in this situation is responding to white-guy story with minority-inclusion critique, and critique just isn't as powerful as story.


I am not sure that Isis walks the talk. Or fully understands the talk.

Greg said...

testing your comment system

Greg said...

OK, is this thing on? ... good.

I think we need to consider where this gets us. Where does the original news story get us, where does PZ's post get us, where does the critique of PZ get us, where does this post get us. And by "us" I mean humanity including any portion thereof.

I know these two kids who live in South Minneapoolis. They are very thug-like (according to the nomenclature of the present conversation) in that they insist on wearing typical urban 20 something clothing and they refuse to leave the house without their black skin on. As soon as the curfew times start (the curfews start at 7 and go to midnight, for different ages) the cops are legally able to stop them and search them with the assumption that they are 15, 17, 18 years old (though they look their age ... 19 and 21). These days it is routine for them to go to classes (at NAU, the one down at The Mall) by a bus provided by the county, because they are going there from the reform house instead of from their house. What did they do to get a room in County? They left the house with their black skin on. and stayed outside after the curfew for kids five years younger than they are. Stupid fuckers.

PZ's post does not help them directly but questioning the behavior of the police does, a little. PZ gets one tenth of one point. Telling PZ to shut up because he did not use Kliqueon approved language has disctracted us long enough this evening to go through two curfew changes. The Minneapolis cops are pissed right now because 20 recruits were laid off today by the mayor. The mayor is a boy from South. So there will be kids picked up in South and charged with posession of burgulary tools (their shoelaces) tonight, maybe a dozen. Maybe 20. For some of them it will be the thirty or fortieth time this year. Eventually they'll end up in County as well, no matter what else they were doing with their lives, or trying to, anyway.

Yay for the police. They are keeping us safe. From ourselves. While we blog.

Fuck us.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Abbie, nobody follows links any more. If you'd put "brown" in the title, or said "Chinese" in the post, it would have been fine. Otherwise, everybody is just assuming a post-doc is a white guy.

Anonymous, they walk the talk in that they explicitly point out the connection between policies that enforce a hierarchy and extra trouble for minorities. It isn't their main gig, but they do it.

Greg, I had dinner and picked up some groceries in those two hours. It doesn't help those kids in any way except that I live in the same neighborhood and help keep a couple of jobs here. I didn't even get the chance to give any police hassling anyone the hairy eyeball. I didn't see any. Luckily, it's winter, which means not even the cops want to get out of their cars.

ERV said...

So either they dont give a shit about 'brown' people and using 'RACISM!' to be attention whores, or theyre racist and dont give a shit about 'white' people.

Fantastic!

Stephanie Zvan said...

More likely, Abbie, they do care, but they're asking for more consistency from others than they're giving themselves.

Greg said...

... asking for a kind of consistency that itself is a bit problematic.

Cathy said...

What can I do about that Greg? Besides get pissed.

Jason Thibeault said...

"...they're asking for more consistency from others than they're giving themselves."

I can't say that I haven't seen them do exactly this in the past. On more than one occasion.

It's not that they are upset that only the "white d00ds" get attention, it's that they themselves don't notice when the very people they call out on a regular basis for not doing something about the margin cases, do something about the margin cases (e.g. Greg talking about endemic racism in Minneapolis). And they should be taken to task for this, but they're the ones that do the screaming excoriation, not "us". (Whoever "us" is.)

Frame of reference is everything, apparently. There are very few visible minorities around here, but the majority of them are in positions of privilege -- the trailer park in which my house is presently parked is full of "white d00ds", and the clinic in Wolfville has the one Indian I can think of immediately. Many of the professors at the university are of various descents. And I can't think of the last instance of any sort of endemic racism that I've seen or heard of, or even the last time any of the older folks said anything outright racist. This province isn't perfect, but it seems at least a hell of a lot calmer with less simmering below the surface going on than some areas of the States.

So, when I heard the news of Peter Watts getting roughed up at the Canadian border crossing, it played on my sense of the ever-ratcheting-upward paranoia evident on that border. I was terrified that something similar was going to happen when we crossed the border to visit Georgia last year for Jodi's sister's wedding, and I'm terrified that something similar is going to happen when we try to make CONvergence next summer. And I'm sorry that I felt only slightly more safe being white -- this whole instance proves to me that one shouldn't feel safe at all when those alarm bells are ringing in your head, just because you're the "right race" entering into a country with as many racial issues as the States.

D. C. said...

I think we need to consider where this gets us.

Asking about objectives and where our actions lead is just proof that you're part of the problem.

D. C. said...

It's not that they are upset that only the "white d00ds" get attention, it's that they themselves don't notice when the very people they call out on a regular basis for not doing something about the margin cases, do something about the margin cases (e.g. Greg talking about endemic racism in Minneapolis).

No cookies!

Greg Laden said...

U aaqbt ciijues!!!

Oh, sorry, fingers on the wrong keys.

I want cookies!!!

Stephanie Zvan said...

Not cupcakes made with chocolate and stout? That's what I've been making this Christmas.

Greg said...

I'm normally not that big on cupcakes, but anything made with chocolate and stout is automatically good.

D. C. said...

I'm normally not that big on cupcakes, but anything made with chocolate and stout is automatically good.

How about stout made with chocolate? (Young's Double Chocolate Stout: Mmmmmm.)

rystefn said...

I can't say anything about what it's like to be brown-skinned, or visually identifiable as a "minority." (I use scare quotes because I grew up in a city that's 80% Hispanic, making white people the actual minority locally.) I can easily talk about what it's like to be hassled by the cops, though. I can do so at great length. I can expound upon how they treat the "other" for hours upon hours, likening them to grade-school bullies given guns and told explicitly that the rules do not apply to them. I can sympathize with being attacked by thugs wearing badges because I've been there, and I'm honestly not sure why they didn't tack on a felony assault against an officer on top of it.

This isn't about race, and trying to make it about race takes attention away from the actual issue. Too much "authority" and not enough oversight encourages abuses and thuggery. This is a serious problem, and pretending it's a different problem won't make it better.

Oh, and yes, there are racist cops (border guards, detention officers, etc.), probably lots of them, and I'll readily concede that they often hide their racism and bigotry among the more general thuggery going on. Stop the abuse of power, and they won't be able to hide in plain sight so easily, will they?

Stephanie Zvan said...

D.C., chocolate stout is yummy (when done right), but my favorite is a good imperial.

DJ said...

Stephanie...
I can haz cupcake recipe?!?! :)

Stephanie Zvan said...

Here you, DJ:

http://smittenkitchen.com/2009/01/car-bomb-cupcakes/