Apparently the latest ‘jokey’ sneer about books with a range of racially, culturally, sexually diverse characters – when there’s no compelling plot reason for people having such differences – is to call this ‘adding rainbow sprinkles’. No, I haven’t bothered tracking this idiocy back to its source. Why waste my time? Anyone who thinks this snide soundbite is any kind of wisdom has clearly led a very sheltered, not to say blinkered and limited life. I doubt we’d have much in common.
For a start, they’ve never been in an ice cream parlour with small children. They really didn’t think this through, did they? Why do kids add rainbow sprinkles, caramel or strawberry sauce, chocolate flakes or chopped nuts to their dessert? All of them at once if they can get away with it. Because it makes things so much more interesting!
Plain vanilla is perfectly fine ice cream but it’s a one-note dish. And after you’ve eaten it the first time, you pretty much know what you’re going to get the next time. There’s only so much difference between premium brands using hand-picked authentic Madagascan vanilla and Sainsbury’s Own. So let’s see what happens if we add something else!
Why stop at putting something on top of plain vanilla? Take a look in the freezer section the next time you’re in a supermarket. Neapolitan. Tutti Frutti. Raspberry Ripple. And those are just the store brand flavours where a mix of different flavours is integral to the enjoyment. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have built a global corporation on expanding ice cream lovers’ taste horizons. Their ice creams have blueberries, cherries, brownies, peanuts, pecans, pumpkin – yes, really, I’ve been looking at their website.
Plain vanilla isn’t the whole or only story, any more than it’s the whole or only story walking down any High Street. We live in diverse and varied communities, whether or not those differences are instantly visible. Even I do, here in the depths of rural England, specifically the Cotswolds. In a district where school inspectors add notes to their official reports to highlight this is an area of very limited cultural diversity. Even here you’ll see black, brown and Asian faces when you’re out and about these days. Granted, not very many but their presence no longer turns astonished heads – which was absolutely the case when I first moved here thirty years ago. And there’s a Polish delicatessen now.
So why this ongoing insistence in books, TV and films that the white, male point of view is the only one there is and the only one that matters?
Cultural inertia. Everyday sexism. Institutional racism. Call it what you like, we all know it when we see it. And if things are going to change, we have to call it out and challenge it whenever we see it.
Intent is irrelevant. ‘We didn’t mean it like that,’ doesn’t matter. The small child in the ice cream parlour assuredly didn’t mean to knock their bowl of ice cream onto the floor when they weren’t paying attention. It still makes a mess that someone has to clean up. So we point out how the accident happened and encourage that kid to be more careful, so they don’t do it again. That’s how children learn. It’s not hard.
Maybe not for five year olds. Some older people seem to struggle. Let’s consider this week’s news about the new UK passport design with its ‘Creative United Kingdom’ theme, featuring William Shakespeare, John Constable, Anish Kapoor, Sir Antony Gormley, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Charles Babbage and John Harrison – along with Ada Lovelace and Elizabeth Scott. Seven men and two women. One person of diverse heritage. (Anish Kapoor’s background is fascinating.)
Institutional memory has evidently forgotten the bank notes row.
And how has Mark Thomson, director general of the Passport Office responded to criticism?
‘It wasn’t something where we said ‘let’s set out to only have two women’,” he said.
“In trying to celebrate the UK’s creativity we tried to get a range of locations and things around the country to celebrate our triumphs over the years, so there we are.”
Asked about the omission of female icons such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, he said: “Whenever we do these things there is always someone who wants their favourite rock band or icon in the book.
“We’ve got 16 pages, a very finite space. We like to feel we’ve got a good representative view celebrating some real icons of the UK – Shakespeare, Constable and of course Elisabeth Scott herself.”
The decision to include two women and seven men was signed off by ministers, and the figures included were a “good representation” of artists and designers, he added.
(via the BBC)
Which shows just how those people, primarily privileged white men, who are making key decisions which shape the cultural landscape around us, can miss so many vital points by such an astounding margin. Anyone with the relevant Bingo card can pretty much score a Full House before the end of that article.
Absolutely no one is saying this was done deliberately. But it still reinforces the thoroughly Victorian idea that history, culture etc are only about the great deeds of great white men. With women and visible ethnic minorities very much the exception. And apparently the Welsh who seem to be completely unrepresented in any of the images chosen for this new passport.
Which completely misses the point that these great white men were also the exception. Almost everyone lived and lives thoroughly unexceptional lives. What made the difference to people’s achievements historically was not gender or race itself but access or not to the opportunities which were inextricably tied to race and gender. Even so, women and those from minority communities still managed to do remarkable things. Feel free to flag up your favourite examples in comments.
Moreover, that was then and this is now. If we are serious about commitment to equality of opportunity in real life, we need to show equality and diversity in our cultural background noise. So that what was once considered so astonishing that people genuinely stopped in their tracks to stare, like seeing a black person walking down a Cotswold High Street, becomes no longer worthy of comment. It becomes just the way things are. So no one gets the subliminal message that access to and participation in any area of life is somehow simply not for them.
And to go back to ice cream, those who don’t like different flavours don’t get to sneer at the rest of us who enjoy them. I can’t actually eat anything from Ben & Jerry’s since I have a cow’s milk protein intolerance. That doesn’t give me the right to insist that everyone only ever eats the same soya iced desserts as me. Even with sprinkles and as many different flavours as I can find.
This piece owes a good deal to insightful comments on a Facebook discussion. My thanks to all those who contributed.
Regular readers will be well aware of my ongoing interest in female protagonists – as hero or villain (here and here, so when Alyx Dellamonica invited me to contribute to the ongoing discussion of heroines, over on her blog, I jumped at the chance to consider key female figures in my early reading.
I found myself searching out C.S.Lewis’s books on the old favourites’ shelf – which was not at all what I expected, since as and when the question of Lewis’s treatment of women comes up these days, I’ll generally shake my head with mingled regret and exasperation over The Susan Issue.
(And while you’re there, get to know Alyx and her work, if you’re not already acquainted!)
I’ve not blogged about the whole mess that’s been made of the Hugo Awards this year by overlapping cabals of the narrow-minded and entitled along with a clique of politically motivated, spiteful wreckers. I am extremely busy and besides, I’d largely be repeating the main points from this post on the Great SFWA Uproar of 2014.Why the SFWA Shoutback Matters
Also, a great many other thoughtful and engaged writers continue to explore the issues here. Two recent posts that I found particularly worth reading are
What’s the Point? Human Minds and Sad Puppies by Matthew M Foster, who shows remarkable level-headedness, considering this ego-driven exercise in malice and pique has effectively destroyed any chance of a posthumous Hugo for his late wife, Eugie More on that here.
BREAKFAST OF BULLSHIT: FUTUREPHOBIA, THE HUGOS AND THE INVENTION OF SF’S PAST by M D Lachlan – an emphatic deconstruction of the bogus arguments underpinning this nonsense – which have left so many of us utterly bemused and wondering just what SF these Puppy people have been reading and watching because their experience is light-years away from our own.
And now, back to my own work.
This looks really, really interesting! Wole Talabi tells us –
As someone who has been reading stories from foreign spec-fic mags since I was a young teenager, I’m very pleased to have my own story Crocodile Ark published in the first issue of this new African Spec-Fic Zine – Omenana – edited by Mazi Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu.
I know many Africans who have been trying to write spec-fic without any clear sense of the genre and its forms (I also tried to do it with my now defunct The Alchemists Corner column on TNC but I was undirected and the audience wasn’t quite right). Mazi and Chinelo have now taken a small but supremely significant step with creating Omenana; giving a place for all the scattered, isolated pockets of African writers that venture into spec-fic in their blogs, skirt it in their books, and occasionally publish it in other magazines, to converge on and call home.
Initiatives like this are absolutely central to enriching the SF&Fantasy genre with new voices and new perspectives. How often have you heard someone who’s drifted away from SF&F saying, ‘well, yeah, it got to be just the same old stuff coming round again…’ Honestly, it’s not about ticking political correctness and salving our liberal ‘Western’ consciences (yes, I do know Europe is to the north of the continent). It’s about finding genuinely new, different, exciting and thought provoking things to read. And along the way, learning that the view of Africa we see through the mass media is woefully simplistic, even when it’s not downright wrong (and often insultingly so).
So let’s get behind this! Click here for the pdf of Issue One! Trust me, you want to see that cover art…!
And look! A post that’s not about European VAT!
Oh, hang on…
This digital age is wonderful for giving a voice to writers like this – especially as new technology is enabling Africa to leap forward straight into online reading and distribution, which is so vital given the lack of infrastructure on that continent for transporting hardcopy reading material, from magazines to vital textbooks.
Digital… er, hang on, does that mean African writers are going to get caught up in all this awful VAT mess, if they’re going to try to sell digital downloads into Europe. Y’know, where most of their customers will be, especially for the Francophone countries…?
Shutupshutupshutup! Not everything is about bloody VAT, Jules, even if it’s taken over your life!
No, hang on. This really is a thing. So far we’ve been talking about how it might affect UK and US sellers and those from other more developed countries across Europe. It’s time we started talking about the impact on initiatives like this. It really matters.
So if you have any way to flag up this to organisations who can help us make a noise about the far reaching and damaging implications of these new EU VAT rules on initiatives in the developing world, please, do so.