Let’s Talk About Human Nature

Let's Talk About Human Nature

Specifically, the Doctor Who series 3 episodes “Human Nature/The Family of Blood”.

Those of you who read my Chicks Dig Time Lords essay know a bit about how I feel about this episode, specifically Martha in this episode, but I’ll give a small bit of explanation and background for those who don’t.

In this two-parter, the Doctor runs away from the Family because they want to capture him and feed off of his Time Lord essence. So he hides the Time Lord bit of him in a watch (aided by the TARDIS) and hen goes to live as a normal human for a bit so that they can’t find him. The species the Family belongs to apparently have a short lifespan, so the Doctor knows if he can just wait them out in hiding, they will eventually die.

So the Doctor becomes human and hides out in pre-WWI Britain as a teacher in a rich boys school. Martha is his companion, so she has to hide out, too. So she gets to be his maid. Since he brought her along with him to this job as a teacher (I think the explanation was that she was his family’s maid) she focuses most of her energy on caring for him, but is also made to do work around the school. At one point we see her cleaning floors with another maid she’s become friends with.

Then, of course, the Family shows up, stuff happens, big adventure[1].

I have a lot of problems with this episode.

  • For a long time I wondered what possible justification the Doctor had for taking Martha to this time period and this place on earth when he had, oh all of time and space to choose from?
  • People have pointed out that the Doctor did not choose the time and place, the TARDIS dd. Well, TARDIS: wtf? Still not okay[2].
  • It’s yet another example in a long list of examples where Martha is put into the Mammy role. I might have let it slide except it happens so often it’s a damn theme, and that’s really problematic.

There are a lot of different strings tying this all together. To start, this episode was based on a Doctor Who novel written by the dude who also wrote the script: Paul Cornell. Apparently RTD liked the book so much he asked Cornell to make an episode of it. But the book was written some time ago starring a different incarnation of the Doctor with a different (white) companion. And thus the companion’s role was very different in the book.

By doing this episode during season 3 Cornell and the creative team introduced a tricky element that wasn’t in the original. They did address race more than once, and that’s good. But they only addressed race in the more surface, basic ways while letting other deeper issues stand.

This is more complicated by the fact that I really like the episode overall. It’s well-written and the story itself is interesting and the dilemma the Doctor faces in the end is crunchy and thought-provoking. I’ve found myself wishing many times since watching it that they’d done this episode with a different companion, because obviously there just wasn’t enough deep thought about race to do it the way they did without being super problematic. Or, that’s the way it seems from the result.

So what precipitated this post? Over on Tumblr I reblogged something from Karnythia about this ep where people expressed their frustration with it. It’s the part where the nurse that the Human!Doctor has fallen in love with is talking to Martha, who reveals she is a (medical) doctor. The woman then says: “Women might train to be doctors, but hardly a scivvy and hardly one of your colour.”  Karnythia points out:

“Black women had been training to be doctors in the UK & the US for almost 40 years at this point. Were there a lot of them? No. But there was a lot of coverage of the ones who did succeed. If she knew women were training to be doctors, then she knew some of them were women of color.”

Perhaps she would have, but the writer and the creative team apparently did not[3].

That gives me a whole other reason to be mad at this episode.

As I said in my Chicks piece, I don’t think anyone was being intentionally racist here and it’s clear that some thought was given to race when they decided to do these episodes with Martha. That’s a good thing. But when you’re dealing with something as thorny as this, you can’t just put some thought into race. And as many people have pointed out, there is all kinds of just on the surface or just under the surface problems with race in the new Doctor Who[4].

These episodes are a source of great rage because of the lack of deep thought about race. For me, the rage is informed by that and by the knowledge that it could be such a good episode if not for this stuff.

And it all makes me realize I need top hop on getting this book started with Karnythia.

Footnotes

  1. If you want a full synopsis, check Wikipedia.[]
  2. In the world of the show that is bad enough. But I find it to be handwavy and bull on the part of the writer/creators/whoever came up with this idea. It looks like they’re trying to absolve the Doctor of responsibility here, and that’s a dick way to do so. Plus, it doesn’t fly for the TARDIS, either, as it’s been well established by this point that it has a consciousness, too.[]
  3. Or there’s another explanation. I think we may find out.[]
  4. The classic episodes, too, of course.[]

Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #2

Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #2

The related post I promised.  (Also part of IBARW) To recap, Ashok Banker posted about problems of bigotry is SF/F field.  Said some very interesting and insightful things.  He also quoted me, Tobias Buckell, N K Jemisin, and Micole talking about the Sanders thing and bigotry in general.  He agrees with us, but has a quibble about our methodology:

Other American SF writers like K. Tempest Bradford have admitted that such bias exists, and have spoken out against it. Although their rants are invariably tempered with mention of the two or three SF editors they know and are working with who are definitely not racist or biased, because, how could they be, if they’re working with them? Punches are pulled, no doubt about it. And nobody seems to have the balls to really call a spade a spade–or, to use a less unfortunate turn of phrase, a white lily a white lily.

[…]

Writers like Bradford, Buckell, and others who have spoken out against racism are always cautious to do so in small measures, focussing their ire, often disproportionately, on individual cases like Sanders of Helix Magazine. This is understandable. These writers want to make a living in that field, and are undoubtedly afraid of antagonizing people they work with on a daily basis, or people they hope to work with someday.

No doubt, they also haven’t seen such bias openly exhibited by those fellow professionals and colleagues–not yet.

In a later response to me in comments (which I’ll post in full, below, as the first comment) Ashok went on to say:

I not only feel you pull your punches, I feel you don’t have the guts to name names and kick ass when it’s warranted, and the very fact that you’re still working within the field and associated with other professionals whom even you admit could be bigotted or racist or sexist in private, shows your naivete.

Just two weeks ago I had someone tell me that I go too far and write “crazy” things whenever I post about bigotry in the field. Also that if I would just moderate my tone a bit, people would listen to me.  The person in question was white, Ashok is a POC.  So essentially I’m too angry for one group and not angry enough for another.

I’m unsure how to feel about being the moderate here.  It’s so not me.

I have two reasons for bringing this up.  One is to record the exchange Ashok and I had on his blog, since the comments got shut down (yet were quoted from).  But the more important one pertains to the different ways people view what I and other anti-racist activists in SF do and how effective it is.

Most POC and women have experienced the phenomenon of pointing out some instance of racism or sexism and being dismissed, then having a white person or a man come along, say the exact same thing we just said, and receiving not only credit for pointing it out, but a positive reaction. Or, even more fun, being told that people would listen to us if only we were less shrill or angry (or other gendered or race-based adjectives) about it all. “Look at [white person and/or man]!” they say.  “He doesn’t go off the rails like you do!”

This is an oft-used tactic to dismiss what the POC or woman has to say, as Naamen educated us on in this post.  I mean, why be all angry about bigotry, particularly that’s directed at you?  Be sensible, polite, and reasonable about it so as to make the bigot comfortable, right?

If you buy that, stop reading right now.  In fact, let’s not talk to each other again until you’ve gotten rid of that notion, okay?  Because, seriously, the comfort of the bigot is not my concern, neither should it be yours.

I and other POC get this all the time from… well, I’ll let you guess.

As a friend recently had to point out to someone: yes, the word racist or sexist or bigot or related is very much a strong word that should not be tossed around lightly.  We know that.  Boy do we know it.  That does not mean we should hesitate to use it when that is what is going on.  No matter how twitchy that makes you, especially if the you is a person to whom a particular stripe of bigotry is not aimed. I’ve mentioned this before.

Even if you are a person who has experienced one kind of bigotry (for example: sexism but not racism) that does not mean you are completely immune to ignorance of how a particular bigotry works for other people. If you’re a white woman, even a feminist white woman who works hard for tolerance, you can still engage in or be blind to racism, unwittingly or not.   And one manifestation of that is by claiming you can’t listen to an aggrieved party because of their tone.

I’m used to that aspect of the discussion, but not so much used to the other side, wherein I am not being tough enough on the SF/F field. I’m not entirely sure what more I could say, what language I could use to make my issues with the racism and sexism of particular people and parts of the whole community clearer.  It’s certainly not easy for any author to say, “This editor and/or person in power is a bigot/engages in bigoted language or actions,” especially if the author is or hopes to work with that person. Because unless the author in question is a white man (and sometimes even if) there are repercussions.

Ashok points out in his post that he doesn’t care about or want to be published in any American markets or with American publishers, thus he can say what he wants.  That’s fine.  But I don’t think it’s at all fair to dismiss those of us who do as being too afraid to speak out.  I can’t speak for Tobias or anyone else, but I am certainly not afraid to call a spade a spade, just ask Gordon van Gelder or Ron Moore.  I suspect that Tobias isn’t, either, nor are other authors of color in this genre.  Major example right here.

What you think of this push and pull?  Do I and other authors who speak out about racism, sexism, and other bigotry in SF go too far or not far enough?  Am I the moderate here?  (scary…)

Table of contents for Two Separate Issues

  1. Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #1
  2. Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #2

Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #1

In response to some of the discussion in the magazines that want more diversity post and the whole William Sanders thing, author Ashok Banker wrote a post about racism, sexism, and cultural insesnitivity in SF/F.  The post makes several good points:

Today’s Science Fiction and Fantasy field, while possibly bearing some strands of DNA from other countries and cultures intermingled in its genetic makeup, is undeniably dominated by American authors, particularly in America.

And a sizable majority of those American SFF authors are white. Virtually all of them are American. And I won’t even venture to guess how many are Christian.

[…]

Which itself begs the question: Why is a genre that’s always so proud of its ability to explore worlds unable to integrate the world into its fold? Why is American SFF publishing not representative of American society and culture as a whole? Why is this white enclave dominating the genre and the field?

[…]

If anything, the very imbalance in the racial and cultural composition of the field in America itself points to a deep malaise.

The recent attempts by some editors to claim that they’re open to multicultural writing, that they welcome submissions from women writers, that they look forward to international writer submitting work, is itself an admission that these were failings of the field until now.

[…]

So is American SFF racist? And sexist, bigotted, culturally insensitive, etc?

Well, I suspect a great number of professionals in the field might be.

Go to the post to read more.

There’s also some stuff in the post about how authors of color such as Tobias Buckell and myself “pull punches” and focus only on specific editors and not the community-wide problem.  I have a lot to say about that, but I think it’s a separate but related conversation.

Normally I would suggest we all go have a conversation about the race/gender/culture problems over on Ashok’s blog, but he shut down comments (the reason has to do with the stuff we’re not talking about here, which I will illuminate in a related post coming up in a bit).  Since we can’t talk about it there, let’s talk about it here.  It’s International Blog Against Racism Week, after all!

I’m particularly eager to have a discussion about how certain racist tendencies extend to non-American and non-European authors and the books they try to get published.  Justine, Ekaterina and I discussed the sad state of translated books in the US a while ago. I shudder to think how many of those few translated are from non-Western countries.  (my guess: not many)

It’s true that American SF is reluctant to embrace the whole world — why?  And what can be done to move toward fixing that?  Is Ashok correct that segregating international authors into just one issue of a magazine does nothing to help?

Table of contents for Two Separate Issues

  1. Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #1
  2. Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #2

I couldn’t have said this better myself

Critcizing “dogpiles” as inherently “moblike,” destructive, negative, and childish without considering the content which has evoked this response has the same in-built political and structural issues as the demand that oppressed, discriminated, or harassed groups moderate their tone before their objections will be considered. Both actions attempt to codify behavior while treating speech content as empty; they ignore power differentials; they treat actions or speech acts as if they take place in a vacuums free of social circumstances, historical knowledge, or political influences, rather than as if they are what constitutes or destroys communities.
[…]
To riff off Stephen Sondheim: polite language is not good, it’s not right, it’s just nice. And when nice is prioritized over right or good, it’s just another form of oppression. It’s just another attempt by those in power to attempt to maintain the status quo.
[…]
What these protests do is establish the limits of community tolerance. You may think whatever you like; what you may not do is take public action in our community space–whether virtual or actual–that perpetuates harm to members of our community.

Read it all here.

gives coffeeandink a standing O