The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Aliens, Talking animals, and race

A good friend (and terrific human being and writer) Steve Perry suggested that the presence of anthropomorphized animals such as Dumbo's crows should be considered to represent black people in Disney's animation.  This is so close to another discussion I've had concerning Science Fiction that I  just had to comment.  The conversation goes pretty much as follows, and I've had it at every single convention where the subject has arisen:
Q: "Why are there so few black people in science fiction"?
A: Because we're not depicted in the imagery.  It's not about us--it's about the dreams and hopes and fantasy worlds of the dominant culture that created it.  And we're not there.
Q: "But in metaphorical form, you are represented as alien species"
A: Or as anthropomorphized animals.  But don't you see that you have just, exactly, precisely, placed your finger on the problem?  Whites are presented as human beings...or animals...or aliens.  As are Asians ("Mulan"...although admittedly it took some time to get around to it) or Native Americans (Asians, again.  "Pocohantas" anyone?).  But blacks are not represented as human.  We are alien.  We are animals.  And that is so spookily similar to the way we've been treated historically that I fail to find it absurd that this mental formulation, so universal in the white community, is the subconscious speaking its truth more directly and honestly than anyone realized.  It is SPECIFICALLY what I am referring to when I say that the rejection of sexual images of black males is a sociobiological, repressed fear reaction that manifests as a statistically predictable effect at the box office.  I've heard some say: "well, it might be uncomfortable to admit, but maybe we just don' black people physically appealing."  Well, that's interesting, but then why do we see so many examples (cinematically) of white guys boffing black women.  Or Asian women?  I've heard from several white women that "they just don't find Asian men appealing," but in every case, they didn't actually KNOW any.  So where did they get their impressions?  Media, anyone? 
At any rate, this comment about "anthropomorphized animals" and previous ones about "minorities represented by aliens" is, I think, incredibly revelatory of the deeeeeep psychology at work here.  We fear and loathe the Other, but are attracted to him/her simultaneously.  We have to control what we do not understand.  We have to think well of ourselves, so we justify the things we do to feel safe.  Slaves were NATURAL slaves (animals).  Blacks have higher incarceration/crime rates and live in poverty because THEY are different (alien).  This is completely natural human thought pattern.  I hate to think it, but it's possible that I would have been the exact same way, had I been born with such privilege.  I hope not.  But it's possible. I'm sure that, as a man, I'm oblivious to many things about gender privilege.  But considering that I was raised by my mother and sister, have lived with women most of my life, I suspect I am less oblivious to this than the average white person is to their prejudices, preconceptions, and self-justification.  After all, they may know and love a few black folks, but they can withdraw to a reference group devoid of melanin poisoning, where everyone's attitudes reinforce the cultural actions and history.  It would require an incredibly enlightened person to rise above that.  I am not at all confident I'd be that one in a thousand. 
But I can hope.

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