The really important thing to be was yourself, just as hard as you could.
– Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
I am Australian and I am white. This combination makes me feel very uncomfortable bringing up the subject of racism on the pretty basic principle I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I’ve never been sworn at on public transport because of my skin colour, or treated like a potential terrorist because of my accent. I’ve never been told to go back to where I came from. Sure, I’d love to see more female protagonists in books, TV and movies, but at least I can find representation of people like me.
This is privilege. I never asked for it, but I have it anyway. It is not something I am ashamed of, but it’s something I do have to be aware of, and my recent internet reading – from the Star Trek whitewashing issue to discussions like this one on Sarah Rees Brennan’s Tumblr – has made me realise it’s probably something I should talk about.
The Australia I live in was founded on slavery. British criminals were transported to the other side of the world against their will to colonise a continent that was already very much occupied. The ‘law’ was established by the people who had the most guns, which meant the military representatives of a distant government that didn’t much care about what happened to anyone once they were off British soil.
Because the indigenous population had not yet come up with a slew of ultra-efficient ways to kill each other or a version of civilisation that included demolishing large tracts of the natural environment, their rights were not so much trodden on as crushed into smithereens. They were classified as animals by ‘law’ – I will continue using that word in quotation marks until it GROWS UP – and subjected to the usual range of disaster that befalls the invaded, from slave labour to rape to massacre.
And it actually got worse. At a time when Australia was meant to be growing into a real country as opposed to a imperial prison colony, life as an Aboriginal Australian was hell. You couldn’t vote. You couldn’t lay legal claim to land your ancestors had been living on since before recorded history. Your children could be taken away and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it.
Things are better now. Frankly, it didn’t take much. Acknowledging the indigenous population of this country as human beings was a good start. Every Australian citizen over the age of eighteen can vote now, regardless of race; an official government apology has been made to the victims of the Stolen Generation, and some land has been returned to its traditional owners. But legal equality is a completely different matter from social and economic equality, and we’re a LONG way off from that.
I have been aware of this history for most of my life, in the same way I was aware of the Roman empire and Viking invasions in the northern hemisphere – it happened, it was awful if you were unfortunate enough to be there at the time, the planet moved on. You see, that wasn’t the Australia I lived in. We were better than that. I saw gorgeous artwork by indigenous artists exhibited in art galleries, saw displays of their experience of history in the state museum, heard Aboriginal activists talking on television. All those terrible things had happened, but we had collectively learned from our mistakes and moved forward to Better Things.
Yeah. I’m such an optimist.
It’s been a long time since I really believed my country was at that point. Since I started reading newspapers, really. Hearing about incidents of racism, though, is still like getting little electric shocks – spikes of pain to that bright-eyed optimist who lives inside my head. Really? This happens in my Australia?
Even that awareness didn’t prepare me for hearing that a black American woman was worried that she wouldn’t be safe in my country.
Her name is N.K. Jemisin. She is an acclaimed fantasy writer who was recently Guest of Honour at Continuum in Melbourne and she made a speech there about the issue of race in speculative fiction. It’s generated a bit of buzz, both positive and negative, which is how I heard of it. I’m glad I did. It made me think, which is always a good thing. It also reaffirmed her position on my Authors I Must Read list, because anyone who can be that fierce and funny and articulate in one speech must be superb in a novel.
Many of the points she made are ones I’ve seen discussed before: that diversity is still seen as a revolutionary thing by a lot of people and is being actively discouraged within the genre in a multitude of ways. What she did was put all that in the greater context of history, both Australian and American, the imagination-defying ways in which our societies have failed non-white people, and the ways in which they are (or are not) trying to make amends. Jemisin calls for active attempts at an official Reconciliation within the science fiction and fantasy community. It’s a wonderful idea. And as I said, it makes me think.
I do not feel responsible for the actions of those first white settlers, who are not even my ancestors; I do not feel guilty or apologetic for living here, in the country of my birth, despite the cost at which it was built, because this is the only version of Australia I have ever experienced and Australia is my home. But I have to be aware of that cost.
I want my Australia to be the place that I once believed it was, where equality isn’t an illusion that breaks if you look at it directly. I want my Australia to be a place where anyone of any race feels welcome and safe. I want speculative fiction, my favourite genre, to be the same – a safe space for everybody.
The point of science fiction and fantasy, for me at least, is to reach for the horizons only imagination can find and do our damn best to make them real. This genre has introduced me to Time Lords and mutants, vampires and goddesses, goblins and giants – how can human diversity in fictional worlds be so hard? Seriously, how do we do think we’re going to cope with meeting aliens if we can’t cope with other human beings?
Basically, I want things to get better. And that starts with saying so.