Tuesday, 6 April 2021

White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

 2020 was the year of the Black Lives Matter movement.  But I was inspired to read this book by a personal experience.  Some time ago....2018? I had a conversation with a friend about sexism and racism.  During this conversation I told him a story about myself, a story about a time when I had acted in a racist way.  

He refused to accept that my actions had been racist.  "That's not helpful" he finally said the third or fourth time that I challenged his resistance.  His refusal puzzled me. When I learnt about the concept of white fragility, I wondered if it could provide some insight.

White Fragility was written by a white American woman who does diversity and anti-bias training.  Fundamentally it's about how anti-Black racism manifests even amongst 'liberal' whites in the United States, and how those liberal whites resist awareness of their own racism. But while elements of her discussion are specific to the American context, the basic discussion of white racism and white defensiveness about our behaviour are more broadly applicable.  

Here are some quotes, and what they taught me.

"...we have been taught that racists are mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race; racists are immoral. Therefore, if I am saying that my readers are racist...I  am saying something deeply offensive; I am questioning my reader's very moral character."

"The simplistic idea that racism is limited to the individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. "

Okay, that is a light bulb moment:  that's why my friend couldn't accept that I had acted in a racist way.  When I said that I had been racist, I was acknowledging that in the situation that I described, my discomfort had led me to take actions that had a negative impact on a group of people of colour.  In doing so, I had made a mistake that I was embarrassed about, and that needed to be corrected.  My actions had a racist impact.  To my friend, me saying that I had acted in a racist way was factually incorrect -- I had not intentionally acted in an unkind way -- and so I was unjustifiably identifying myself as an immoral person.

Which brings us to: 

"emphasizing intentions over impact...privileges the intentions of the aggressor over the impact of their behaviour on the target. In doing so, the aggressor's intentions become the most important issue.....minimizing the impact of racism on people of color."

Yes, I had not acted intentionally to disadvantage those students because of their race.  Nevertheless, my actions had done so. My actions were racist. I didn't have the words to explain this to my friend, who resisted the idea that the impact of my actions was more relevant than my intentions.  He resisted centring the perspective of the students of colour.

"Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deepest challenge -- the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias. This defensiveness is classic white fragility...."

Ah, another light bulb moment. My friend was getting defensive (on my behalf, no less), because he does not recognize that racial bias can be unconscious. 

And then one more quote, from Diangelo's sarcastic rules for giving feedback about racism to white people without triggering white fragility:

"1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.  

"If you insist on breaking the cardinal rule, then you must follow these other rules:

"2. Proper tone is crucial -- feedback must be given calmly.  If any emotion is displayed, the feedback is invalid and can be dismissed."

I feel that second point (of 11 in total).  I was having this conversation about sexism and racism in the first place because I had called out this friend's sexism.  He asked to meet to discuss my comments. The end result:  I left the meeting in tears, feeling at fault, having apologized....because I had gotten angry.  The conversation became about my anger, and not about his sexism. 

I don't know what it's like to be Black, or Indigenous, or to have any of the multitude of other identities of colour. But I know how that one feels.  I understand white male defensiveness, white male fragility.

So, reading White Fragility helped me understand a situation I've mulled over many times since I experienced it several years ago.  Maybe this understanding will help me deal better with similar situations in the future, by preparing me for defensiveness and by giving me words to help discuss it.

But reading White Fragility with this incident in mind was also a hindrance. The parts of the book that resonated most with me were the parts that illuminated this experience, an experience where I "come off better" than my friend.  Alas, despite my recognizing and addressing my racism in this one specific case, I can't claim to be without racism, and I can't claim to be without defensiveness about it.  I would probably have been better served had I paid better attention to other parts of the book. 

For example, why am I so uncomfortable talking about myself or my friends as being white?  I've actually lowered my voice when saying the word 'white'.  Why?  Because in white society it is polite to pretend to be colour-blind?

"A white participant said....'I don't see race: I don't see you as Black'. My co-trainer's response: 'Then how will you see racism?'.....If she were ever going to understand or challenge racism, she would need to acknowledge this difference. Pretending that she did not notice he was black was not helpful to him in any way...."

Or is it because as a white person, we believe that we are all individuals, and not members of a class? 

"Whiteness rests on a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm......White people find it very difficult to think about whiteness as a specific state of being that could have an impact on one's life and perceptions."

"...a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race -- 'just human'. .... To say that whiteness includes a set of cultural practices that are not recognized by white people is to understand racism as a network of norms and actions that consistently create advantage for whites and disadvantage for people of color.  These norms and actions include basic rights and benefits of the doubt, purportedly granted to all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people."

Is White Fragility the definitive book on racism? No, of course not, particularly not for white Canadians. The book is American in important ways. Is it a useful book for white Canadians to read even so?  Yes, I think it is. Diangelo speaks directly to white attitudes about racism and to white defensiveness about racism. In doing so, she helps make them more visible, and therefore more addressable.

Monday, 8 March 2021

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 Pages: 771 pages

As I read The Goldfinch, I couldn't help but feel that smothered within its pages was a really good 400-500 page book.  

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

 My last entry was about time travel novels.  This book IS time travel.

In 1933, an 18 year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor walked from the Netherlands to Constantinople, beginning his journey by more-or-less following the Danube River across central Europe.  More than 40 years later, in 1977, he began publishing an account of his journey. A time of gifts is the first volume, telling the story of his journey as far as the border of Hungary.

Although the book was actually written in the 1970s, it takes you immediately back to 1933: the 1933 of inherited privilege, the weight of English and European history, actual Nazis, lost marshes full of birds and frogs, and lost villages surrounded by Romas and occupied by studious Jews, friendly peasants, and faded but welcoming aristocrats.

Fermor was the son of a senior official in the Indian colonial government, expelled from a long succession British Public Schools before spending a long year of intensive private tutoring meant to prepare him for entry to Sandhurst and thus a career in the military.  A time of gifts reflects this privileged background: Latin and French phrases are not translated -- everyone reads Latin and French, don't they? -- obscure bits of British history are taken as given (everyone knows the romantic story of Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, no?), and it is only natural that one should be taken up by the smart young set in Vienna, or that the British consul in Munich would spot you 5 pounds when a misfortune deprives you of all of your funds -- your father is Someone after all, and one one does what one can.

In other words, A time of gifts captures in words a world that has vanished, in the style of the era that it describes.  It's a well-loved book that's considered a classic of travel literature, or at least, it's a classic young man's adventure story.

It's not a book that I loved.  In the words of a couple of GoodReads reviews "It’s windy, self-satisfied, lifeless, and dry" or "It was meandering and musing and fascinated, all without actually being interesting". Not for me: witnessed by the fact that I began this review 7 months ago, and then completely forgot to finish.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Time travel

(Version control by Dexter Palmer, The future of another timeline by Annalee Newitz, and Recursion by Blake Crouch)

Who would have thought that there would still be so much life in the time travel story, after so many years, and so many books?

It's easy to understand why time travel stories are still being written. We all have regrets about some of our past actions, we all wonder "what if". So much of our every day lives, so much of our current world seems very contingent on chance, on arbitrary choices, on circumstances.

But 125 years after H.G. Wells, is there really anything new to say?

Version control, The future of another timeline, and Recursion each try to do so in their own way.  And amazingly, on some level each of them succeeds.  They all feel fresh.

Future is the most conventional of the three novels...or rather, it has the most conventional take on time travel. Like Zelazny's Roadmarks, it posits the existence of a class of time-travellers who go back and forth in time, altering what they find, remembering pasts that no longer exist, and meddling in events in an attempt to align 'reality' with their memories. Unconventionally, and in complete contrast to Zelazny, the heroine is not a loner, is not a flaneur.  The heroine is a member of a revolutionary feminist cadre whose meetings always begin "I remember a time when abortion was legal in the United States".

Version control reads more like literary fiction than genre fiction.  Perhaps it's because Palmer deals with themes not typical to SF (such as how everyday life feels to millennials).   But it's a time travel story: one protagonist is a physicist who is researching and attempting to build a "causality violation device" (NOT a TIME MACHINE, so sensational. Seriously!)  The twist is that in the world of the novel, if the past changes, everyone's memory of the past changes too.  Somehow Palmer manages to stay in the POV of characters immersed in this world, while making it clear to the reader what's happening.  Very skilfully told.  Ah, also with insights borrowed from past SF greats. As per Octavia Butler, why would a black American want to travel into the past?  As a black person, are you going to enjoy visiting 1850s Mississippi?  Or 1950s Mississippi for that matter? The present is challenging enough.

In Recursion, time travel is performed using a special secret device.  You can only travel into your own past, by accessing particularly vivid memories that you have mapped ahead of time. Twist: you must die in the present to send your consciousness into the past, and then you must live your life forward from that moment to the time of your death. You are free to change the world. You do not die again when you reach the point in time where you "died" to return to the past.  BUT: everyone remembers the original past, all of the original pasts, when you once again reach the moment of your death.  So if you flee to the past on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 to prevent the Twin Towers from falling....you might succeed. But at 9:41 am on Sept. 11, 2001 everyone across the world will suddenly simultaneously remember their fall, while seeing the buildings still standing and everyone who died in them still living.  Yes, this is disturbing.  If you change the past in ways that only affect your personal life and personal connections, the woman you didn't marry might remember the child she didn't have, and might even commit suicide as a result.  But when you change history...well, society doesn't react well to millions and billions of people having dual memories.

I recommend all of these books.  Each of them is an engaging, well-written story.  But they are all of them interesting too for what they say about society, about human nature, and about memory.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

The future of another timeline (a review of Trouble and her friends by Melissa Scott)

Reading Trouble and her friends made me nostalgic.  Remember when we thought that Usenet would evolve into an entirely different world that was separate from, but connected to our own?  When we visualized it as a place of abstract shapes and arbitrary physical laws, a virtual frontier where outlaw crackers would battle through corporate Intrusion Control Entities (ICE) for data or for valuable code?   Remember when we thought the internet would be "Cyberspace"?

As I was reading Scott's book, I was reminded of the title of Annalee Newitz's latest book:  The future of another timeline.  Trouble lives in the future of a timeline not our own.... the future as imagined in 1993 or so, a future where you visit cyberspace by plugging a cable directly into your augmented brain.  A future that is an oddly hopeful dystopia where dispossessed kids can develop world-shaking skills, and world-shaking reputations.

I wonder if Scott is ever nostalgic for that future too? It seems so remote from us now.  The internet is ....just so ordinary.  It's out-of-date websites that local businesspeople don't have the access or the skills to update with their COVID-19 opening hours (if any). It's corporate news sites, struggling to find ways to gather the money to do journalism. It's advertising tracking you through your days.  It's working from home, doing yoga from home, having video calls with your pet. It's the crazy uncle you used to only have to talk to at Christmas posting offensive political memes on your Facebook page.  It's community and an excuse never to talk to anyone directly, all at the same time.

Unless you're William Gibson (who scares me), we suck at predicting the future.

And all of that is a digression from saying that Trouble and her friends is a well-imagined world with engaging characters, an interesting plot, and interesting ideas.  Why haven't I read more Melissa Scott?  I need to scare up more of her books, and visit more of her past futures.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Grocery Story by Jon Steinman

The full title of this book is Grocery Story: the promise of food co-ops in the age of grocery giants.

I bought this book in my local food coop.  The author was there with a table one Saturday, flogging copies to shoppers.

The author is very dedicated to food:  local food, empowering farmers, empowering eaters, growing diversity in the food economy. He spent a decade creating a weekly podcast on food issues, helped organize a collective that put grain grown by local farmers directly in the hands of eaters, and served on the board of the Kootenay food Co-op in Nelson BC for a few years.

He wrote the book as an expose of the state of food economy and the enormous power yielded by food retailers on consumers and on the entire supply chain.  Farmers and food manufacturers can be bankrupted by the fickleness of huge monopolistic chains who contract for a supplier's entire production, and then renege on their obligations, leaving farmers with huge quantities of unsellable food.  Manufacturers are universally forced to pay retailers tens of thousands of dollars in "shelving fees" in order to get their products stocked....only to have those same retailers copy their products by issuing cheaper "own brand" versions, undercutting their business. Whole Foods required a small-scale chocolate manufacturer of the author's acquaintance to provide days of volunteer labour annually to take her turn managing the entire chocolate section of every BC store: removing all products, cleaning shelves, and restocking in exchange for the privilege of selling what she produces the rest of the year. 

The solution?  Well, Steinman points out that until well past mid-century, anti-monopoly laws controlled the concentration of ownership of grocery stores.  But the days of government acting in the interest of communities or of consumers is well past.  Today Steinman advocates food coops as a way for consumers to take direct power over what they eat, and as a way to create the food economy that they want to participate in.

Steinman means the book to be inspiring:  he even ends with a call to action, telling readers that they can found their own coops, join existing coops, and participate in a food revolution.

But the stories he tells about coops .... are mixed.  He discusses the history of food coops, mostly in North America, focusing on the wave of natural food food coops founded in the 1970s. He talks about the history of his own Kooteny coop, including the story of the recent-to-eater grain collective sponsored by that organization.  And he talks about a new wave of food coops founded post 2008. 

The two "modern" coops whose stories he tells in some detail, both founded in "food deserts" in American low income communities....failed, no more than 3 years after they opened, despite the huge amount of fund-raising and organizing that went into their creation.  After a roaring start, the Kootenay grain coop shrank....Steinman seems forcedly patient at the lack of commitment of members who found that they couldn't manage to mill all their own flour and then use it to make all of their own pasta and bread.   He doesn't talk about how many of those 70s era coops are still thriving, and why...I know that some are barely hanging in there, and many have closed.

Overall, the book has many ideas for improving coops, best practices from active coops, and a whole lot of passion for the ecological, economic, and practical benefits of local control of food. It just isn't inspiring in the way that the author intended. 

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese

These two books don't have very much in common, other than being the two novels that I have most recently completed. Why am I discussing them together?  Maybe because the alternate title for this post could be "Literary fiction".

I don't read much literary fiction.  Mostly I find it dull or I assume that I will.  I think of literary fiction as books about the boring problems of boring middle class people much like myself.   Who could possibly want to read that?

But in fact, that sort of literary fiction has been out of fashion since at least the 1970s.  You can read A portrait of an artist as a young man if you want to, but The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen or A gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles are a lot more au courant.

So why do I think of literary fiction as dull and/or simply unattractive, especially given that I quite liked both Underground Railroad and Ragged Company, and wasn't tempted to put either book down despite my new resolution not to waste time with books when they aren't working out?

Good question.

When I'm reading for relaxation, I want books that are both engaging, and predictable in certain prescribed ways.  If I'm reading crime fiction, I need to know that the heroine's beloved pet cat will not be harmed and that the villain will be brought to justice by the last page. If I'm reading "junk SF", I need to know that there will be a strong coherent plot with lots of action and adventure, relatively few inconsistencies, and an engaging protagonist.

If I'm reading for ideas, I want a novel that explores "what ifs" about society, human nature, or science. I want a novel that stretches my mind, and makes me think about what could be, what might have been, and why things are the way they are.  In other words, there's a reason why I never say "SciFi".  My best-loved genre is "Speculative Fiction", thank you very much.

Where does that leave "literary fiction"?  On the shelf, usually.  Literary fiction can be very unpredictable.  There may not be a  predictable story arc: in fact, there might not be much of a plot. Characters might be unsympathetic and difficult to empathize with.  If it's very literary, literary fiction can be dense and difficult to read.  Bad Things are very likely to happen, because this is Serious Fiction.  You are (or at least I am) constantly suspicious that there's More Going On Than Meets the Eye...which means that I feel like I really ought to be trying harder. 

In short, I don't try to read literary fiction for relaxation.

If I'm interested in reading something "harder"....well, there's lots of good SF that I haven't gotten to yet, and good SF seems to ask more interesting questions. 

All that being said....when I was trying to take out an e-book for my Christmas trip, I couldn't find anything that looked interesting that was available to download now. So I reluctantly defaulted to Underground Railroad, because I'd heard that it was based on the conceit that underground railroad for escaped slaves had been an actual physical undergroud railroad.  That sounded interesting....almost SF-like.

Underground Railroad reminded me why one wants to read literary fiction.  It is not dull.  It is not predictable (in the Bad Way of having a hackneyed plot and stale characters).  It is beautifully written.  It tells a searing story.  And while the novel might not be necessary reading for me, as a non-American -- I don't live in a society where I have a visceral need to be reminded of the realities of this particular horror because of the way that it continues to scar every day's social and economic reality -- it's still an important reality to understand.  I really enjoyed it, insofar as you can enjoy something like this or like Slave Narratives of the Underground Railroad (a nonfiction collection of stories collected from contemporary books, pamphlets, and newspapers, which I read in 2017). 

It inspired me to finally download something by Richard Wagamese, who I've been meaning to read since running across his obituary in 2017 (a sad way to learn of an author's existence).  Reading stories by and about Canada's indigenous peoples IS a visceral need for Canadians, given that the ongoing story of colonization is the equivalent Canadian scar.

Ragged Company is the story of four homeless people who band together as a "street family", and what happens when they unexpectedly find a lottery ticket worth $13 million.  It's not one of Wagamese's best-known books.  I'm also assuming it's not one of Wagamese's best: the characters are well-drawn, but the story doesn't move quickly and it's a bit predictable.  But it is an interesting read.  Three of the five main characters are indigenous, although First Nations identity and traditions are only truly important to one of them.  All of the homeless characters are deeply traumatized (which is something far more likely to happen to indigenous peoples here in Canada), and the point of the book is not so much the story of their unexpected good fortune as it is the story of how those past traumas have made them the people they are today, and what a path out of that trauma might look like.

It's a book that made me think:  not about the novel's structure or its literary conceits (which is the kind of question that Underground Railroad left me with), but about the people who surround me.  Who are the homeless people that live around Granville and Broadway?  What are their stories?

It made me see them as people again, not as panhandlers to be guiltily avoided or as a Social Problem personified. 

That's a valuable thing.

So, maybe I've been too hard on literary fiction.  Maybe I should be more open-minded. Maybe if I select the books I want to read, instead of having them selected for me (via a bookclub), I can actually enjoy and appreciate more literary novels.  Maybe I should start adding them back to my literary diet.