Whenever we criticise portrayal – or, more often, erasure in some media or other, there is always a backlash. Always some excuse why the depiction was totally ok or why the erasure is completely and utterly justified. Always. We could be arguing against a portrayal of an all white Tokyo or an all-straight San Francisco and there’d STILL be someone rushing forwards to defend the erasure. So I’m going to shoot down one of the defences – not that it’ll stop them but at least I can copy and paste a link rather than typing out the smack down all the time. Hey, I’m getting repetitive strain injury from this, I need some time saving methods!
So let’s hit a biggie: Is it Ever Appropriate to have a Completely Erased Programme/Book/Game?
This comes in many forms: my book is set in the outer Hebrides and no minorities live there (because we have better sense)/I’m writing my lived experience and I have no X friends/I don’t want to tokenise etc etc etc. So let’s tackle this and wrestle it to the ground and start with the core problem.
You do not write in a vacuum.
Maybe you had the bestest of best reasons why your cast is so white in bright lights we get snow blind and straighter than a damn laser, no, really, maybe you really really do have a good reason. But whatever that reason is is lost among a sea of media that is erased simply because of good ol’ prejudice. There is nothing differentiating your oh-so-reasonable erasure with the constant prejudiced erasure we have to endure every time we pick up a book, open a magazine, turn on the television or see a billboard.
And even if your honestly-totally-not-prejudiced erasure is still meant with the bestest of best intentions doesn’t mean that yet ANOTHER erased portrayal isn’t harmful – it still adds to the weave of erasure, it adds to the unrelenting message that our stories aren’t worth telling and the overwhelming feeling that we don’t belong, aren’t a part of this world and are the dreaded Other, to be hidden and avoided? Your magical intentions don’t change that your work is part of the unrelenting erasure out there – and yes, that sucks. Yes it sucks that you can’t create your appropriately erased and well intentioned piece of media without it slapping all us marginalised folk in the face, again.
Guess what? It doesn’t suck nearly as much as being those marginalised folk being slapped. You’ll survive and you’ll forgive us if we’re not exactly lining up to help dry your tears.
So let’s look at that location excuse. Yes you’ve tracked down demographic statistics and managed to find Whitesville in Straighttopia, go you. And that’s exactly what many of us oh-so-cynical marginalised folks believe you’ve done – hey, kudos for effort, most the erasers just take an all White, straight New York or Atlanta or London or Paris or Toronto or Vegas or LA or some other massive, diverse city and erase it, so at least you’ve gone to some effort in your erasure.
What? You’d never ever do such a thing? We don’t know that. We don’t know that you didn’t choose Arse-End-of-Nowhere Maine rather than Arse-End-of-Nowhere Missisi… Missiiisi… Louisiana because you thought you’d get away with your all erased cast. Why should we give you the benefit of the doubt – rule number… well some number, when interacting with marginalised people – we have zero reason to assume good things about you. We have every reason to expect the worst and regard you with our mean cynical eye.
Besides which, we’re there. Yes, in Arse-End-Of-Nowhere Maine, in the Outer Hebrides, we’re everywhere – there isn’t actually a guaranteed minority free zone anywhere on this planet. Unless you want to cast your fun, zany story in Antarctica or the bottom of the sea.
But, in the end, whenever you produce media that is all erased (or includes only tokens) you harm us, you demean us, you add to the culture of prejudice that rejects us – and yes, you’re going to get us saying mean mean mean things about you, Precious. And I don’t think there’s any way your erased media is going to avoid that.
So what’s the solution? How can you produce your “realistic” erasure without us being such big meanies? Cultural and societal shift. Sorry, that’s about it. If you want your erased work not to be a slap to marginalised people, if you don’t want your precious magic intentions questioned and if you don’t want to harm us – then we need to change the culture. Because erasure (and tokenism – which is mini-erasure and erasure by another name) will only be non-harmful when it is no longer the norm. When we can turn to your media type and assure that we will be consistently well represented then your all white/straight/whatever piece will be free from this damaging context and be free to be as erased as your little privileged dreams wish. Because it won’t matter – because it won’t be part of a grand context of excluding us.
Until that happens? Well until then, when you produce your super-erased media we will criticise it and your excuses won’t cut it. Deal with it – because we have to.