The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

On Stereotyping

The other day I became engaged in an argument at a friend’s party because some of the guests had decided to engage in some gender stereotyping that rubbed me the wrong way. Believe it or not, I was actually surprised when one of them pulled out the old “but we have to make judgments about people and how are we supposed to do that without stereotypes?” argument. I spend too much time hanging around the ultra-radical corners of the internet, apparently, because I thought this argument had fallen into disuse, but I assure you, it is still alive and going strong.

The main point that I probably failed to make at said party is that a stereotype is a concept about a particular group of people that has a broader – let’s say, macro-social significance. I’m not going to get into the Heap of Sand paradox, and thus we will leave aside for now the question of how many people, or what sorts of people, must believe something in order for it to be a stereotype. I’ll just give the perhaps unsatisfactory answer that in order for something to be a stereotype it has to be a socially recognizable idea held by a particular social group and applied indiscriminately to another social group. A more jargon-y way of saying what I mean is that stereotypes are a part of a kind of institutional knowledge possessed by a community of practice.

What stereotypes are *not* are judgments or preferences. In the exhibit “The Artist is Present”, patrons must step through a doorway containing a naked man and a naked woman.  Most patrons – male and female – turn towards the woman in order to pass into the exhibit.  Clearly, there is some kind of social phenomenon occurring here – people are making their decision using social information, that is, information about the people they are interacting with.  However, does this information rise to the level of stereotype?  I argue that it does not.  There is no stereotype of women being better to turn toward while passing through some people in close quarters.  Perhaps people find it less uncomfortable to face a naked woman than a naked man, but is this because of a stereotype about men and women, or does the judgment occur below the level of stereotype?

Really, we all know what stereotypes are.  We know negative stereotypes: men are violent, women are bad at math, asians are bad drivers, blacks are lazy, jews are greedy.  We know positive stereotypes: women are nurturing, men are logical, asians are good at math, blacks are good at sports, jews are wealthy.  For some, these stereotypes may seem unfamiliar, or outdated, or just plain wrong, but no one can deny their cultural significance, at least in America (stereotypes of course vary across cultures).

So when I am faced with a question such as “how do you decide who to sit near on a train,” I cannot help but feel that the argument is, on some level, disingenuous.  Of course, everyone makes decisions – conscious or not – about who to group near in public spaces.  Of course, some of these decisions are based on the kinds of unflattering grouping methods that we are all socially conditioned with – and it would be interesting to do a study on grouping on subways, for instance, to see if white people preferentially group with white people, etc.  Of course everyone evaluates threats, and some people do so on race and gender lines.  But, to take an example that was brought up at this party, if a woman evaluates men as potential threats because they are more likely to rape her than other women are, is this based on stereotype?  The answer is, of course not.

The reason, quite simply, is that “rapist” is not a stereotype about men – except, perhaps, in certain ultra-radical corners of the internet.  For most people in society, if asked to come up with five, ten, or even a hundred words to describe the stereotypical male, “rapist” would not be one of them.  Stereotypes, as a macro-cultural phenomenon, tend to be aligned more with the dominant power structures in society.  Thus stereotypes about men that men think of as hilarious – such as obsession with power tools, inability to ask for directions, etc – are allowed to continue whereas facts or statistics about men that men consider troubling are never really allowed to become stereotypes.  Thus, while the stereotypical criminal is male, the stereotypical male is not a criminal (at least not the stereotypical white male).

So when a woman sees a man and uses her judgment to say “this man has the potential to assault me in one of several traumatizing ways” this is not engaging in stereotyping.  When a woman sees a man and says “this man probably likes trucks and leaving the toilet seat up,” that is engaging in stereotyping.  The first is a survival skill; the second is a way of maintaining and strengthening the oppressive gender divisions within our society.

Now back to the issue of grouping.  I would argue that grouping is based on a paradigm of “us” and “them,” or “Self” and “Other,” that exists prior to, and in fact underlies and enables, the kind of social knowledge that makes up a stereotype.  If a stereotype consists of the identification of a socially recognizable group and the application of social knowledge to that group, then every stereotype presupposes the identification of a socially recognizable group – and I argue that for grouping to take place – in other words, for someone to decide to sit next to one person on the subway rather than another – mere social recognition of “sameness” or “difference” is sufficient without the application of any additional social facts.

In other words, not all socially salient knowledge is stereotype.


May 30, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Everyone’s a little bit racist

So, some windbag apparently came out and declared that if racism is inborn, then shouldn’t racism be perfectly acceptable?

Well, here’s the thing. Racism is not inborn. No, no, no. Racism, in fact, *can’t* be inborn, because biologically there is no such thing as “race.” In order to be racist, therefore, people have to – HAVE TO – be TRAINED to recognize a thing called “race,” TAUGHT to understand what its characteristics are, and SHOWN how to interact socially with people from other “races.” Race is a SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION.

Now, certain patterns of behavior may be inborn and the concept of “race” may be deployed in society to access certain inborn patterns of behavior in different circumstances. You can be taught, for instance, to access the “member of my group/herd” pattern around “white” people and the “member of a rival group/herd” pattern around “black” people – that is, once you’ve learned what a “white” person is and what a “black” person is, definitions which vary widely from place to place and time to time. Most people today probably don’t know what an “octoroon” is but it used to be quite important in this country (hint: Homer Plessy was one, and, in order to get arrested for riding in a whites-only car, had to *tell* the train conductor about his lineage, because that was how white he looked.

So, now that we’ve established that there is biologically no such thing as race and that racism, therefore, is inherently ridiculous, let’s talk about how and why everyone actually is racist.

Let’s consider the average white person who does not consider himself racist, and imagine him walking through a black neighborhood. Imagine that for a moment, now, answer: is he nervous? Is it okay for him to be nervous? Is it racist for him to be nervous?

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September 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Post-RaceFail: A Post-Colonial, Post-Modern Take

RaceFail is supposedly over, yet I seem to hear about it now more than ever.  The fundamental conflict that became known as RaceFail ’09 was over how characters of various races (sometimes called people of color or non-white people) are represented in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  Opinions can loosely be placed along a spectrum of how much responsibility one believes authors have to present diversity in their works, and, when presenting a culture not the author’s own, to get it right.  On one end were those who believed that authors should be more sensitive to issues of race, should include plausible, well-developed characters from various races and cultures, and should avoid using stereotypes in portraying these characters.  On the other end were those who argued that authors have no responsibility and that if fans want their cultures represented they ought to write their own work.

The work of Frantz Fanon suggests an answer that is slightly off this spectrum.  Rather than addressing the issue of the responsibility of the creators of the dominant or colonial culture, Fanon discusses culture as a revolutionary project in colonized society.  According to Fanon, not only should people whose cultures have been colonized or appropriated create their own work, but they must do so if their culture is to survive.  Fanon sees culture as dynamic, as constantly growing and changing, as something vibrant and alive.  When the colonial stamp is put on culture, it solidifies and ossifies, becoming, in Fanon’s words, “the dregs of culture, its mineral strata.”  The colonizers then cling to this snapshot of culture, denying the oppressed people the right to innovation, using the mineral strata of colonized culture to maintain the status quo, which becomes the frame of colonizer and colonized.

Fanon does not believe that mainstream, white, Western culture is an appropriate battleground for decolonization, partly because the cultures of the colonized peoples are marked and can be used to reify and reinforce the colonial structure.  Fanon advises that such culture should not be emulated or aspired to:

So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe?

That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.

Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different.  We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.

– Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

So what would Fanon make of something like I Didn’t Dream of Dragons?  A person from post-colonial India who wants to create a work of colonial literature situated in India but fails because he or she cannot reconcile colonial and Indian cultures?  I think Fanon would ask, why not create something new?  Why stick so slavishly to the rules of colonial and Indian cultures that you cannot create anything?  It is those rules that allow colonialism to function – yes, even the rule that a fantasy novel must contain a tavern, or the rule that no dragon has ever been to India – these are what Fanon was talking about when he referred to the mineral strata of culture.  These are the rules that will always separate, delineate, and mark various people.

Or, put another way, these are the power dynamics that create authors who can’t or won’t write good non-white characters.  Look at the issue of RaceFail from a Butlerian perspective: rather than asking why the authors in positions of power are insensitive to issues of race, we ask what the relations of power are that produce these authors.

Who are the authors of science fiction and fantasy, and how did they come to be counted as such?  In other words, what makes you an sf/f author?  As “I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” suggests, there are certain rules, or tropes, that can serve as identifiers of the fantasy genre: dragons, taverns, princesses, etc.  So an sf/f author follows certain sf/f tropes, certain general fiction tropes, etc.  The author writes a certain way, has a certain number of fans, is published by a certain sort of publisher.  Some of the RaceFail argument centered around whether non-writers even had the standing to criticize writers, which means that there’s even more potentially at stake for deciding who gets to count as an author and who does not.

All this is to say that there exists a certain cultural milieu in which a certain kind of work is demanded and some writers were selected to meet that demand, and so these writers can hardly be blamed for writing the kinds of stories that they are good at writing, that they love writing, and that made them successful.  We have to look at the cultural milieu instead.  Specifically, at what Foucault calls the vehicles of power – in other words, people.  It is people – readers – consumers – who decide what to buy and what not to buy, which in turn tells us who is a science fiction author and who is a fantasy author and who is a nobody who doesn’t count for the purposes of this discussion.  Foucault said that people are not only the vehicles of power, but are simultaneously its point of impact: it is the relations of power that tell people whose work to read and whose to ignore.  Everyone – writers, and readers – is involved in a group relation of power that is responsible for the representation of race in sf/f.

Foucault would say that it is not reasonable to expect the institution of sf/f fandom to offer significant hope for change.  Instead Foucault would rely on “insurrectionary knowledges” – particularly something like a genealogy of the culture of a colonized people – to offer alternatives to the institution.  Remember, the institution works by excluding some people, by placing people in unequal power relations.  Remember, the world of sf/f publishing functions within a capitalist economy.  Foucault and Fanon would probably agree that the only way to win is to play a different game.

June 6, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment