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Monday, 22 May 2017

Race, Representation, and White Saviours

This picture of Fagin is a silent comment on the 'progress' made in discussions about inclusion.

Inclusive writing appears to be all the rage these days. All sorts of advice is available to the aspiring or established author as to how to represent people from different races, sexual orientations, and socio-economic brackets, in a 'sensitive' and 'inclusive' manner. I suppose this reflects the recent discussions around cultural appropriation and controversies surrounding various authors presuming to write, with greater or lesser success, from within a skin colour which was not their own.

As an ethnic Chinese in a majority white country, I have personal experience of the impact of representation and inclusion, having been brought up in the long, long shadow of Bruce Lee, Fu Man Chu, and Charlie Chan. So why is it, then, that the idea of creators making deliberate efforts to include me makes me so uncomfortable? Sticking with the idea of the representation of ethnic Chinese, there are a few aspects of this whole culture of affirmative action which are highly distasteful.

First of all, the whole idea underpinning the concept is fundamentally racist. The assumption that my skin colour dictates the shape and nature of my mind is no different, in essence, to the kind of social Darwinism which informed much of the racial hatred and prejudice of the twentieth century. The idea that Chinese people exist in some kind of ethno-cultural quarantine zone which can only be explored with special sensitivity training strikes me as a rather stupid and counter-productive inversion of the whole concept of pluralism. The point of a pluralistic society is that difference of any kind, while interesting and potentially productive of corporate advantage, should be largely irrelevant. For difference to be elevated to the status of some kind of sacred cow is simply moronic - it misses the entire point and purpose of key liberal values.

I'm aware that much of the model for 'sensitivity' and 'inclusiveness' is driven by ethnic minorities themselves, but this is, if anything, even more offensive. The belief in some sort of yellow, black, orange, or rainbow privilege speaks to a belief in the fundamental difference of these people, which is all kinds of wrong. Common courtesy dictates that we not deliberately offend each other, but common sense equally dictates that packing a given segment of society in victim grade cotton wool is offensive in itself.

And then there's the whole idea of patronage. The strong implication of all of this effort is that I should be somehow grateful. Look at all the effort those lovely white people are making to ensure that I feel included. Which is also deeply unintelligent - whether it's positive or negative, division is division. Also, anyone who's ever been picked for a team because the teacher has insisted that the fat and the uncoordinated should also be given a go, understands exactly what this kind of treatment feels like. My ethnicity is not a disability, and even if it were, simple courtesy demands that I not have it thrown in my face in a patronising manner.

I was once asked whether I included 'diverse' characters in my writing, and whether I thought this was a good thing to do. My response was that people, and types of people, occur in my work for the simple reason that they occur in the real world. Because all fiction, regardless of the height of its brow, depends for its validity in the reflection of some sort of truth. If any author is unable to understand a person as a person, regardless of their ethnicity or their walk of life, they simply have no business writing them. This isn't political, it's a fundamental principle of art.

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