Diversity is not Narcissism: A Response to Felicity Savage

AmazingGhost14

Amazing Stories has done it again.[1]  They’ve run an article so blatantly offensive that I feel honored to get in on the early wave of responses to it.  Brace yourselves, italics are coming.

Felicity Savage’s opinion piece is about diversity in science fiction, although it’s slightly dissonantly titled “What’s the Trouble With Selfies? Speculative Fiction and the Mirror Effect.”  She argues that the calls for increased racial and cultural diversity in speculative fiction have resulted in a shallow, PC species of literature, which isn’t really that necessary.[2]

“…the call for diversity is usually interpreted with deadly literal-mindedness as a call for more characters who are female / black / Asian / what have you. Why are we all so keen to see ourselves on the page?”

The first sentence could be interpreted as a stand against the token-izing breed of diversity that pats itself on the back for including a random and insignificant character of color.  Ok, cool.  But then—why are we all so keen to see ourselves on the page?  Savage believes it’s the product of the narcissistic obsession with selfies and seeing our own reflections. I feel differently.

Perhaps diverse worlds and characters are important because literature as a constructive space is fundamental to our definition of human-ness.  Or maybe because of the unsubtle psychological damage wrought by literal centuries of reading only white, straight, mostly-male faces.  Or maybe because the dominance of white worlds has systematically denied non-white and non-cisgendered people’s very existence, and divorces them from their own identities.  Chimamanda Adiche, the brilliant and also out-of-control gorgeous Nigerian author, sums the entire problem in her TED Talk: she says that her first stories had little white children as the heroes, who drank ginger beer and talked about the cloudy weather, because the only literature she’d read was British.  There were no stories about upper-middle-class Nigerian girls negotiating complex, modern, and intercultural worlds.  She had to write them herself.  That process is, I suspect, a little deeper than a teenage girl pouting her lips in the mirror.

But stick with me, because the rabbit hole goes deeper and dumber.  Savage next talks about the awkwardness of enacting those politics in the real world:

“Pity the poor black fan who can’t attend a convention without people touching her hair or asking her to teach them about negritude. But also spare a wee drop of compassion for the straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male! He’s lectured on his lack of diversity, told to read more stories about and by people with diverse perspectives–and yet when he tries to approach them in real life, it all too often … doesn’t end well.”

Yes.  I always respond super well to calls to pity the straight white male, especially when he’s trying super hard, guys, and nobody seems to like him.  First, being white and trying doesn’t automatically earn you secret brownie points that tell people of color to be cool, man.  Second, experiencing a tiny, momentary glimpse of racialized dislocation or rejection does not earn you even a “wee drop” of my compassion.  As a white person, I enjoy a constant and comfortable majority, wherein thinking about race is an individual choice.  It’s not required.  It’s easy to see myself as the un-raced default for humankind.  I don’t happen to think it should always be that easy for me.

And, finally, the clincher:

“Nothing is gained by mapping our fragmented ethnic and sexual identities onto our fiction with the fidelity of a cellphone camera photo. Well, nothing except approval from the right-thinking crowd, which, I admit, can be quite the headrush.”[3]

Kamala, the new Ms. Marvel and first Muslim superhero in the US.

The new Ms. Marvel: a teenage Indian-American Muslim.

Nothing is gained, she claims, except a little left-wing headpatting.  And little things, like the potential for a young Nigerian or Nigerian-American to see herself made into a post-apocalyptic heroine in Who Fears DeathOr for a Muslim computer-nerd to see himself in Alif the Unseen.[4]  This is not nothing.  It’s not selfie-culture.[5][6]  It’s the final frontier for speculative fiction.


[1]  By “again,” I’m referring to Paul Cook’s little gem.  Although this one takes the cake.

[2] For some reason, she also seems to make a distinction between literary fiction and science fiction.  On diversity, she pleas, “But please let’s leave this stuff to lit-fic, shall we? Dissection and interrogation of contemporary identities is exactly what lit-fic does, and it does it well. Speculative fiction does not…” Hey, Ursula LeGuin called.  There’s no punchline, she’s just pissed.

[3] Savage closes the essay with a rather limp argument that the real goal of science fiction is to explore diverse species, which teach us what it means to be human and blur the divisive boundaries of race.  This argument skates lightly over the extremely problematic aliens of the early sci-fi era who were basically stand-ins for dehumanized other races, and fails to explain why a non-white character couldn’t be the major representative of humanity dealing with other aliens.  White is not the default human.

[4] I really feel I should have been clearer on my first version of this post that diversity in SFF isn’t just for the readers of color to “see themselves.” It’s also for me, to see people not-myself, because it’s a) really good for me, b) about damn time, and c) often associated with some really thoughtful and intelligent speculative fiction.

[5] I also failed here to talk about what selfie-culture may or may not be (hint: not meaningless narcissism).  Luckily, there are other blog-fish in the sea.  Go read Natalie Luhrs’ piece at Radish Reviews.

[6] I also did not know how Felicity Savage felt about foul language.  Might I rather maturely add: Fuck all this dumb shit.  Who the fuck is seriously anti-diversity in the twenty-fucking-first century. 

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29 comments

  1. Thank you for putting into words everything that was going through my mind when I read that essay; I’m still too flabbergasted by the sheer amount of privileged ignorance it contained to even begin to write a coherent response.

    I found the comparison of wanting representation in fiction to the supposed narcissism of selfies to be particularly tone deaf, since selfies as a radical form of self-expression and reclamation of online space has been a HUGE topic in feminist and social justice circles this past week. If the author had done the tiniest bit of research on the matter, she would have learned this. http://hyperallergic.com/95150/the-radical-politics-of-selfies/

    1. Oh, I absolutely agree! And I just felt too scattered and rattled and horrified to get into all the problems: the fact that there is no such thing as purely imaginative politics-free literature; the fact that representation is crucial to our self-identities and confidence; and the fact that a selfie is a form of self-representation that’s never been possible on this scale before. It’s just. Too much. To the point that I kind of think I should have let it rot in its dingy internet corner.

  2. Unbe-freaking-lievable! As a white woman who lives in a rather diverse area, I always notice when a story is overpopulated with whites because it’s so unrealistic. Besides, fiction has always acted as a model for an ideal society (or, in dystopic fiction, a model for what we want to avoid) and my ideal society is diverse and complex. Thanks for the rant!

    1. But there’s so, so much more! There’s layers, here. And for every one of these nonsense articles, there should be a dozen to set the record straight.

      For instance–I should have made it clear that diversity isn’t just “for” the readers of color. It’s for ME, too. It’s takes me into other cultures, places, and skins in the most immersive and powerful way possible. It’s…kind of a big deal.

      1. Well, I did Tweet a bit about the whole “touching people’s hair” thing, which is something I’ve never understood. Wouldn’t you fall into creep territory if you randomly tried to touch anyone’s hair, or if you asked to do so? This has never been something I thought of as “socially appropriate,” regardless of race.

        Likewise, when she talked about things going bad for white guys when they interact with PoCs, I was utterly perplexed. I’m a white guy and cannot think of an instance when interacting with someone who isn’t a white guy went poorly because I’m a white guy. It seems to me if your interactions with people who aren’t white guys doesn’t go well, then maybe there’s something wrong *with you.* You’re doing something that turns those other folks off. And if you figure out what that is and decide you don’t care, then you really don’t deserve any sympathy, since you’re doing it to yourself.

  3. Um, I am a white cis male who wants to see more black / Asian / female etc characters in the fiction I read. So Felicity’s premise is nonsensical.

  4. Wow, this piece is so biased towards the view of someone who lives in their nice clean predomnantly white world. I don’t ageee with everything Felicity wrote, but a lot of this post is just as ridiculous. But of course, you won’t post my comment. #challenge

  5. Being pedantic, the upcoming new Ms. Marvel isn’t the first US-based Muslim superhero. At the very least, she was preceded over at DC by the most recent Terran Green Lantern, Simon Baz.

  6. I love the bit about science fiction being about exploring what it means to be human–as long as it’s only focusing on a fraction of humanity. I can’t help but read these sort ‘do we really need to promote diverse narratives?’ type essays as a panic response to a perceived future in which they no longer see themselves in the media. Why are we all so keen to see ourselves on the page, indeed.

    1. I knooooowww. She, who sees herself on the page LITERALLY ALWAYS, wishes people would stop caving to their narcissistic desire to see themselves on the page. Like, god, I just want to read about aliens vs. humans, and can we all just agree that humans are white.

  7. I loved the links you included to diverse spec-fic. Anyone have more suggestions? Let’s prove these people who say only “white spec-fic” sells wrong with our dollars.

  8. Alix wrote: “fails to explain why a non-white character couldn’t be the major representative of humanity dealing with other aliens. White is not the default human.”

    Yeah, what I got out of reading the Savage article was, “SF/F should always be about white guys facing off against monsters, and anything else is PC bullshit.”

    As a friend of mine said earlier today when commenting on certain factions of the sf/f world, “Have these people looked at a calendar? Are they simply unaware that we’re about a dozen years into the 21st century?”

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