“Can you be racist or sexist without meaning to be?” That’s Noah Berlatsky’s opening question in a piece on race, gender and art at The Atlantic, but I bet you already know the answer.
According to Berlatsky, people are unintentionally racist and sexist all the time because “prejudice” is our “default” position. For example:
The folks at South African game development studio QCF Design have a post which addresses this issue in some thought-provoking ways. QCF designed Desktop Dungeons, a role-playing video game. The game started out with more male characters than female, but as it developed through its Beta version, QCF decided to try to change that. They added female characters, but more than that they worked to make sure that “the women in DD’s universe [would] be adventurers first and runway models second”… In other words, the designers intended to be non-sexist, but that intent in itself wasn’t sufficient. They had to work at it.
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Like Desktop Dungeon, the Riordan books also show that, even with obvious good intentions, racism and sexism aren’t easy to leave behind. It’s true that Riordan includes heroes of many different backgrounds—but the central, most important heroes (Percy Jackson and Jason Grace) are white guys. Nor does Riordan avoid stereotypes. As just one example, Piper, the female lead in Lost Hero, is a daughter of Aphrodite and her power is charming people, while the two guys get more blasting, shooting, blow-things-up kinds of powers.
None of which is to say that Lost Hero or Riordan’s other books are horrible. It’s just to point out, again, that avoiding stereotypes or creating art that doesn’t lean on prejudice in one way or another is a struggle. It’s not something you stumble into just because you “don’t automatically see color in people,” to quote video director Jesse Lamar responding to the suggestion that his Pixies video had handled racial issues poorly. Nor can you avoid sexism simply by being “gender-blind,” to quote Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth responding to the suggestion that his magazine doesn’t do a good job covering comics by women or publishing criticism by women. If you don’t want to make art that’s prejudiced, then you need to take conscious, concrete steps to make sure your art isn’t prejudiced—like QCF did.
Here’s how this works: Did you create a game or write a book that had more male characters than female characters? You did? See, you’re an unintentional sexist because any lack of parity in any work of art is the result of your latent sexist attitudes alone. How about your painting? Do you tend to paint portraits of white females? You do? See, you’re an unintentional racist because the only reason you have chosen to paint white women is your latent prejudice against women of color.
You can’t just say you’re “color blind,” ignoring race and color in the name of treating everyone equally. No, you have to show that you’re not a bigot by making sure whenever you write, paint, sculpt, or create anything, all races and genders are equally represented without any hint of stereotype.
We’re all sinners, and Berlatsky’s not being manipulative or self-righteously humble when he confesses that “racism and sexism remain a big part of how you (and I for that matter) think and imagine.” “Change is hard,” my children, “but it’s only impossible if you insist that you’re already perfect.” Go and sin no more.
Listen, I certainly agree that we have a natural tendency to devalue other people for all sorts of things, not just color and race, but also religion, social standing, and even place. But lack of parity cannot always be reduced to bigotry (something conservatives in media and academia need to remember, too), and if it could, well, we’d have to admit that every single work of art is a testament of our unintentional racism and sexism.
Berlatsky also lets himself off the hook by focusing on forms of supposed discrimination that would be familiar to us: more men than women, fewer Latinos than whites. He doesn’t mention Chinese-Americans, Pols, or Samoans and completely ignores various invented genders. He might say that as long as there are some non-whites in a piece, it is free of racism, but is it? Isn’t this a rather Eurocentric definition of racism?