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11 March 2009 @ 12:35 am
And while we're on the subject of wildly offensive ways to characterize evil, here are three quotes from Kevin Brooks Candy, a book published in 2005 (all ellipses and italics original):

"I stopped breathing. / The footsteps slowed. / My eyes fixed on the doorway. / A heavy hand appeared, parting the beads... / Then a head... / A skull of black skin. / Eyes of nothing, turning on me. / He smiled, grinning white teeth. 'Well, now... look at this.' / I forced myself to look him in the eye as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hands and stepped through the beads to stand in front of me -- solid as a rock, muscled and scarred, a huge black anvil of a man." (200-1)

"You don't know what you're doing. You don't know where you're going. You don't know why you're running down the stairs of a dingy old house, with a traumatized girl by your side and a slithering black razor-monster haunting your mind...." (210) [note: this book is realism, not fantasy, and the "black razor-monster" is Iggy, the same human black man as in the above quote]

"Iggy doesn't move a muscle. He doesn't fall, he doesn't flinch, he doesn't make a sound. He just stands there in the deadening silence, with the knife embedded deep in his throat... and his vacant eyes fixed on mine... and the gun still gripped in his hand... and something inside me is thinking distantly of stone-black giants and deathless souls and nightmare beasts that refuse to die... " (345)

Black man = evil. Black man = mythical nightmare beast. Black man = eyes of vacancy, no emotion.

misrule64misrule64 on March 11th, 2009 06:48 am (UTC)
I think, to be fair, that his eyes were vacant in the last example because he was dead.

I also think it must be really difficult to write a villainous character of colour without opening yourself up to this kind of criticism. Do you just avoid the mention of their physical appearance altogther? If so, you might as well not have them anything but white--which is a kind of back-handed patronising of minorities. And yes, I understand that some of the language here is problematic in context of him being black, but cuold you really have a skinny, physically unimposing villain? Tricky, however you cut it.
ex_gnomicut on March 11th, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
You describe villainy in other ways other than tired visual tropes, is how you do it. I get just as frustrated (if less angry) every time I read a book in which we know a character is evil because she is grotesquely wrinkled/has dead white skin and hooks for hands/extremely fat. A lot of books have a tendency to describe characters as evil by giving them extreme physical characteristics that are thought of as unattractive.

Admittedly, I thought we were in a time when "black skin" wasn't one of those physical characteristics anymore. But it certainly has been in the very very recent past, and clearly still is.

You can absolutely describe your villain as having black skin. But if your protagonist is going to focus on the blackness (and for that matter, the "grinning white teeth" which is part of a visual trope of blackness itself, and in this context, equally negative) than the text damn well ought to examine that recognition in the protagonist. It may well be that for the speaker, blackness is part of being a "slithering razor-monster", but the reader certainly shouldn't come away with that perception.

Why couldn't her fear of him have to do with large hands? Calloused fingers? Disturbingly sweet breath? Again, none of this is to say that you can't describe the man as black, but the text quoted above repeatedly uses blackness itself as a stand-in for evil, on a par with "deathless souls and nightmare beasts".
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Orphea Prouddiceytillerman on March 11th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
As gnomicutterance explains, it's not the simple fact that the villain is a black man, although even that fact alone should be considered critically, what with the sweeping cultural stereotypes about black men and violence. But in this portrayal, his blackness keeps getting mentioned. Over and over again. Just to drill into the reader that he's not simply a villain who happens to be a black man, he's a villain whose black-man-ness is essential to his villainness.

His eyes being vacant when he's dead refers back to his "Eyes of nothing" when he's alive. If that description hadn't been used earlier to show his lack of humanness, I wouldn't be counting it that way when he's dead.

A skinny villain needn't be physically unimposing -- a skinny character could easily be written as strong. A good writer needn't lean on cultural hate in order to portray a villain. The way this author uses blackness, the narration is saying that the blackness is part of the evilness. And that's where the racism lies.
misrule64misrule64 on March 11th, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC)
I don't disagree with any of the comments about the emphasis on the man's colour—of course it's deeply problematic and yes, racist in execution (if not intent, which we cannot know). I guess all I am saying is if you took out the reference to his colour, the rest are just typical physical traits of the villain (including the empty eyes). In context of his being black, they become ideologically disturbing, to say the least. Maybe what I am arguing here for are more interesting/less predictable/lazy ways of writing about villains generally, which may also help the writer avoid the associated trap of falling into offensive racial stereotyping of the kind you've identified here.
Rebecca Rabinowitz: House You Pass On the Waydiceytillerman on March 19th, 2009 12:20 am (UTC)
I agree that it's great to avoid lazy writing tropes, and I agree that lazy writing tropes sometimes fall down the slippery slope into ideological offensiveness; but I see too much ideological offensiveness in high quality writing also to feel comfortable sort of mapping them onto each other (the racism and the poor writing). Poor writing is no excuse, anyway.

The book that this post addresses is actually quite high quality, not poor or lazy at all, apart from the stunningly racist construction of evil.
(Anonymous) on March 18th, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
Found my way here from kateharding.net. Just wanted to say that when I clicked on the link, it just registered that I was going to a site with 'diceytillerman' in the name, and I thought, "The Tillerman series with racist imagery???" and then I cried out in despair (my coworkers did not appreciate this).

But clearly this is not the case and the world can continue on.

(My LJ name is 'imagynne,' but I don't log on from work.)
Rebecca Rabinowitzdiceytillerman on March 19th, 2009 12:16 am (UTC)
I'm happy to meet another Tillerman fan!

I wonder if anyone's written a race analysis of the whole Tillerman cycle (including Dicey's viewpoint of Mina, Mina's own viewpoint in Come a Stranger, and the construction of normative whiteness throughout the whole series). I've always wanted to read an article like that but never found one.
(Anonymous) on March 23rd, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
I've always wanted to read an article like that but never found one.

...Which means that you should write it, I believe. I for one would be incredibly interested in reading it if you did.

Rebecca Rabinowitz: Bea and Mr. Jonesdiceytillerman on March 24th, 2009 01:40 am (UTC)
I'd LOVE to write that article.

I hope you don't mind that I friended you -- I couldn't resist all the Boston things in your interests. :D (I'm in Cambridge.)