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Dear White Feminists
It was real.
Hey, way to be a feminist! I am distressingly relieved to find that you support and are working for gender equality. It's not the sort of thing one can assume, although I really wish it was.

However, your Aunt Betty would like to pass on a hint-- a piece of advice: beware analogy.

"But, Aunt Betty!" you are saying. "How can we communicate without using analogy? It is the fruity yogurt desert in which we coat the bitter pills of Advanced Concepts to make them easier to swallow!" Analogies are helpful, when you take something everyone has experienced and use it to help people understand something they haven't experienced: "the shock of realizing he was evaluating me as a sexual conquest was like finding a piece of lego with my instep."

However, for some reason, white feminists seem to find it irresistible draw analogies between racism and sexism. Trust your Aunt Betty, who has been down this primrose path. Don't do this. I know it seems like a good idea, since, naturally, everyone agrees that racism is bad, and both are oppression. However, let me present to you a typical example:

I use Stross as an example because I don't know him at all, and his is the most recent example I've come across, not because this is a particularly egregious example. The other day, Charlie Stross linked to a an article by karenhealey, and declared himself prepared to make sure all of his fiction in the future met the Bechdel test. I was so smitten that I truly wished I liked his books, and am quite willing to give them another try. However, in the course of this post, he included the phrase: "If movies and TV objectified people of colour the way they do women, the only reasonable conclusion one could draw would be that a concerted propaganda campaign was under way to return us to the unquestioned institutional racism of the 1950s."

For the record, movies and TV unquestionably do objectify people of colour in the exact way they objectify women, since roughly half of all people of colour are women.

I do not accuse him of racism. But in that one sentence he manages to imply that A) racism is less of a problem than sexism because B) reasonable people everywhere recognize racism (but not sexism) and C) work to eliminate it. This in the very post where he introduces the Bechdel Test as a useful way to judge the gender representation in a work. For those not familiar with it, in order to pass the Bechdel test, a work needs to have 1) more than one named woman, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something other than a man.

Think. What is the last work you remember that had more than one character of colour talking to each other about something other than the (white) protagonist? You can probably think of examples that would pass, but I imagine you can think of far more that will fail. Many media properties have only one non-white character, who plays a subsidiary role, and may even get killed off in the first season. I would guess far fewer properties would pass this test than Bechdel's.

I imagine Stross chose to use the racism analogy not because he thinks racism is acceptable, but because he finds it deeply unacceptable and wanted to associate that with sexism as well. However unintentionally, he ended up conveying that he doesn't think about race very much, when he does, he considers it of lesser importance, and it is primarily important as a yardstick against which other causes can be measured and found greater. Probably not what he intended at all, however, he is a writer, and I judge his words.

"But Aunt Betty!" you are saying, "my analogy is well thought out! It is brilliant! It illuminates many things and shows--" And then I interrupt you. Listen to your Aunt Betty. Don't do it. Unless you have personally experienced both, you cannot compare them. (Oh, and in my dialect the phrase 'reverse racism' means 'please ban_set me', so don't even go there.) Racism is the lived experience of real people, not an abstract 'ultimate evil' to be invoked to provoke horror in the audience. People who have been injured by racism do not deserve to have their experience used to prop up your cause.

Fighting sexism doesn't require you to step on the faces of people fighting racism. Sexism is bad. Racism is bad. Don't give either ammunition.

(The theme of this IBARW is intersectionality, and I am trying to put together a post on this difficult topic, but this is what came out instead. I hope I can get the other out too.)

ETA: Dear anyone I ban, I am a white, cisgendered, middle class female. Please feel free to lower your opinion of those groups according to my behaviour.

I am so swamped that I may have to pass on posting this time, but I plan to make a linky linky post! This is an excellent post. Unfortunately, white feminists have been making the analogy between gender and race since at least the 1970s (it was a major rhetoical device in a lot of that era's writing), and it's distressing that white feminists (or anybody else) is still doing it. I wish that those who make the analogy would stop, and I think your post is an excellent one for people who do not know the history and problems of the usage.

I think it's telling that it's only since the 1970s, when it became at least not a bald-faced lie to assert that of course racism and sexism were similar, but sexism was worse.

Somebody did the cross-comparison schtick in an amazingly offensive and faily way to me in my journal the other day and it took me several minutes to comprehend that no, really, that was actually the real point she was trying to make, I wasn't mis-reading it. Striving for a more equal world: do it less badly, please.

Your point about many stories not passing a racial equivalent of the Bechdel test is a very good one, and one I'll make an effort to keep in mind when I'm writing fiction myself in future.

Aughhghg. It keeps on popping up! In otherwise sensible peoples' stuff! And if it was going the other direction ("Here is a thing I have experienced, maybe this other thing I have experienced is like that, and I should empathise!") it wouldn't be so bad, but it's always "Hey, this thing I haven't experienced means you should agree with me!", I was just thinking, after reading someone else's post, that the Bechdel Test is really important because it highlights the 51% of humanity that is often objectified and ignored (especially in the genres I like). Then my brain said, "Yeah, it works for women's experiences but not necessarily for other under-represented characters because there's not as many people of colour as there are white people, unlike women and men."

WTF, brain?

Thanks for this post. I have kicked myself soundly in the white privilege.

You know that globally, white people, are, I dunno, making shit up now, 20%? I mean, it depends on what you mean by white, but. (If the world is six billion, and India and China together are three billion…)

But I totally sympathise with how one's brain sometimes thinks incredibly dumb things. Personally, I don't trust 'em.

That is a dose of special fail, right there. Yes. Thank you, Aunt Betty.

It could stand to be more special, really. I think across it pretty frequently.

For the record, movies and TV unquestionably do objectify people of colour in the exact way they objectify women, since roughly half of all people of colour are women.

Also there's this tendency in shows like SG-1 and SGA that non-white people get to be the less developed exotic aliens that run around in loin cloths, whereas white people get to be either the less developed fauxmedieval/renaissance fair aliens or the more advanced aliens. I mean, I don't remember there being a single black Ancient featured ever for example (though maybe I have forgotten and there was one somewhere)... but then they wear flowy white robes, and ascend into glowy white light, so it really would break the theme they have going there if any were black.

Yeah. SGA doesn't do so good with how they portray stone-age cultures. Stone Age means brown, right?

A+ post, would read and fist-pump and make thinky faces again.

Very well done. I think it's pure ego when writers try to make examples of expeiences they personally have never had in that way, but often many of us do it without thinking. You explain things very well, and anyone who still doesn't get it after reading thing is, in my opinion, just not paying attention. Maybe we should have our own version of the test to judge POC content in works. :)

Very, very good post.

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Bizarrely, SG-1 (for all its skanky race issues) passes the Betty test too, since Teal'c and Bra'tac talk to each other, not to mention Teal'c talking to various other Jaffa of colour.

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The theme of this IBARW is intersectionality, and I am trying to put together a post on this difficult topic, but this is what came out instead. I hope I can get the other out too.

I'll look forward to another post but this one is more than good enough for me. Thank you. :-)

It all boils down to none of us really knows what the other experiences until we go through it ourselves. I'll never know what it's like to be anything other than a (very) white female. People who claim to know another's experience are just blowing steam out their butts. And they're lacking either empathy, emotional intelligence or perhaps even situational awareness.

Sexism, racism, and other -isms are one person's way of invalidating the experience, or even existence, of another. And their all wrong. We as a society would be better off without them.

Well, I think we can use analogies, you know? "Hey, maybe that time I was trying to talk and all the dudes in the room couldn't hear me is kinda like what it might be like to a Black person in a room full of white people?" But going the other direction is DANGER, BAD ANALOGY, DO NOT DO THIS.

I love you *so* much. *delights in knowing someone who both gets it completely right and articulates it so very well*

Don't give me too much credit, I'm afraid my first impulse is always "White people, stop embarrassing me!" rather than "Must fight social injustice!"

This was gorgeous. It drives me nuts when this happens -- not just in feminism, but with gay rights activists and all sorts of equal rights groups. I want to hit them on the head sometimes. Great essay, and I'm going to be x-posting insanely.

It makes me nuts too, as evidenced by the fact I actually posted this.

Shouldn't it be "the series' dominant race" rather than "white", especially with the rise of anime outside Japan? Although then you run into even more problems given that there's hardly any people who aren't assumed to be Asian in anime, but hey.

I don't watch much anime, and don't really feel qualified to comment on it.

So we're going to use a checklist instead of looking at characterization or plot again?

Are you huffing glue? Either respond to stuff I actually wrote, or I'm going to conclude you're a spam-bot and delete your comments.

As a white feminist (linked here from elsewhere), I salute you, madame. I very rarely come across an LJ entry that makes me laugh and think at the same time.

What is the last work you remember that had more than one character of colour talking to each other about something other than the (white) protagonist?

The (few) shows I love that pass this test are all dramas that also specifically tackle racial issues within the narrative, either in an ongoing way ("The Wire"), with a single powerful story arc ("Friday Night Lights" S1), or because two of the main characters are women of colour ("The L Word").

Otherwise, I'm not sure anything else I watch passes, which is sad because I think I watch good quality TV.

Hey, I watch stuff that doesn't pass the Bechdel test. But better to be aware of the flaws, I think, then embrace a work uncritically.

Better, although rather more painful.

Excellent post. I know I used to do this very thing and it's very cringe-worthy just thinking about it. It's one of those things that makes perfect sense if you don't give it any deeper thought for even a second, you know?

Oh my god, yes. I can't remember specific instances, but I BURN WITH CERTAINTY that I was the one making other people facepalm, not too long ago. *writhes with embarrassment.*

Thank you for educating me on this, you are exactly right.

Here via metafandom

Thanks for this useful and insightful post. I'm thinking about some of my fandoms and how, when I want to explore issues around gender or ethnicity, I have to really look and scrape around. In that case, I usually fall back on Outrageous Fortune, which passes the Betty Test with flying colours. It's a NZ show, though, so it has virtually no fandom.

I don't think I've heard of it. (karenhealey assures me it's hilarious, though.)

Here via metafandom.

Oh, and in my dialect the phrase 'reverse racism' means 'please ban_set me', so don't even go there.
I think I love you.

You're very right about the results of mentally applying the Bechdel Test to more than women. Few of the examples I can think of off the top of my head are media I didn't read/watch for various specialized courses or at the recommendation of a professor. I'm sure some of the shows I watch do (I've seen a few listed in comments already), but I'm having trouble thinking of specific incidents. Mainstream movies are especially difficult--I've watched a lot of movies this summer, and the only one I can remember definitely passes the test would be the latest Mummy movie (which is problematic in a number of different ways).

Thanks for this post.

Comparing oppressions is tempting because it's easy to equate oppression with oppression, but the result is never pretty. At best, it's an unpleasant learning experience.

I've been around this block a few times, and I kinda have some expectations of a few of the common objections. But I've just run out of all patience with 'what about reverse racism!?!? This one time a Chinese man looked at me funny!'

Also, oh man, The Mummy. That's somewhere between tragic and hilarious.

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I'm sorry, I have CAPTCHAs turned on because I was getting so much spam from registered ljs accounts, but you're right, I ought to turn it back off since this has been linked.

And sure, go ahead and link it-- I didn't quite have the nerve, because he seems, you know, very well intentioned! I just face-palmed really hard when I got to that bit.

I love the Betty test! And you know there could be a second, advanced-placement test: do two characters of color ever talk to each other about anything besides the white protagonist OR how tragically oppressed they are? Maybe they talk to each other about, I dunno, fighting crime, or saving the universe, or their cats? Or would that be too high a bar to set?

Try the last seasons of JAG. There were three black people, one of whom was a regular, and the others semi-regulars. Very rarely was race or oppression talked about by any of them. And there were black people in several eps, as guests.

That was off the top of my head.

I can think of a lot of books that pass this test, but far fewer tv shows, blockbuster movies, or other media properties.

I can think of at least a few Marvel comics that pass this (several of the X titles at various points, for example, and Heroes for Hire), as well as Lost and Star Trek: TNG and Deep Space Nine and, oddly given the number of issues it otherwise has, SGA. I'm having trouble thinking of many other shows that do, though. Most of the prime time dramas I can think of have only one non-white character in their whole cast, or if they have two, one of them is a more minor character and the two rarely interact. The X-Files would be a definate "no," as would, I'm pretty sure, all the various CSI shows. Supernatural's got very few recurring characters other than the Winchesters, so it fails pretty much any test for anyone talking to anyone other than the "Sam & Dean talk to each other" test.

Oz passes, Deadwood and Rome and the Tudors don't - though it's not really applicable in the case of the Tudors because Renaissance England was severely lacking in non-Europeans.

Then there's the question of comics titles like Black Panther: if the series is intentionally focussed on characters of color and has a predominantly non-white cast, does/should that alter the way you evaluate it?

Ironically, the original Battlestar Galactica actually passes this test, but the new one, going by other people's comments, doesn't seem to.

Comedy shows seem to do better on this count than dramas, but with the exceptions of the Simpsons & Futurama, there are pretty much no sitcoms I'm willing to watch, so I can't give specific examples. Oh, except for Ugly Betty.

Renaissance England was severely lacking in non-Europeans

Depends on what you mean by non-European, but wouldn't there have been dark-skinned people from North Africa and Asia Minor in London in the late Tudor era? I mean, hell, Pocahantas ended up in London too, didn't she?


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