Latina or white? Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt

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This is another case of author bullying. I’m running a little late on it, but after a recent comment on File 770 that someone with a Puerto Rican grandmother isn’t a real Latina, I’m going to check in. I would have questioned the comment on File 770, but I’ve been censored by Mike Glyer again. Presumably this means he supports the statement and doesn’t want it challenged.

The controversy is about the novel American Dirt, written by Jeanine Cummins. This is what Oprah Winfrey called a “heart-wrenching” novel about a Mexican family’s efforts to escape from a drug cartel and cross the US border. The novel was recommended by Oprah for her book club and then promptly met by trashing on social media as “brownface” and cultural appropriation by a “white” woman. Cummins revelation that her grandmother was Latina did nothing to stop the furor. This generates some interesting questions. First, what is the definition of Latina? Second, why is someone ¼ Puerto Rican identifying as white? And last, is the issue of #OwnVoices and/or cultural appropriation valid in this case?

First, the definition of Latina: Jim Crow laws would define anyone with a drop of Latin blood as Latina, but these laws are now (supposedly) defunct. However, Native Americans currently use a definition called blood quantum to assess eligibility for tribal membership. According to this principle, someone with ¼ ancestry is considered fairly close, and therefore would be eligible for membership in all but the pickiest tribes. So, a similar analysis suggests that having a Puerto Rican grandmother should definitely qualify Cummins as Latina.

Okay next, why hasn’t she been embracing her heritage and marketing herself as a Latina writer? Research suggests that certain ethnic groups embrace separatism and victim politics, while others opt to work within the system as it is. The US has a long history of immigrants that assimilate into the “white” race. This is, of course, easier for more-or-less light-skinned European types. Although Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants faced initial racism, they fairly quickly assimilated into the white structure of the US. Trying to force other groups to assimilate (i.e. Native Americans) gave the process a bad name in the 19th century, but this remains a highly successful method of “becoming white.” US residents have a very flexible attitude toward culture and skin tone, and as it turns out, Latin immigrants expect to become white within two to three generations. According to Pew, about half of US Hispanic/LatinX residents mark the “white” box, stepping up to assume white privilege. Plus, the number changing their response from LatinX to white has been increasing lately, presumably as the benefits of minority status drop off and family affluence increases. So, does her identification as white erase Cummins’ Latina ancestry? How do you erase something like that, anyway?

And last, is this a case of “brownface” and/or cultural appropriation? One of the problems with knee-jerk, mob-action bullying campaigns is that they don’t investigate the facts before exploding on social media. Presumably Cummins feels a real connection to the Latin immigrant story, or she wouldn’t have felt compelled to write a heart-wrenching novel about the issue. Everyone might have considered shutting up and apologizing when she announced her Latina heritage, but instead they opted to double down and disparage her credentials as a real Latina. Cultural appropriation? Well okay, maybe, because her heritage isn’t Mexican, but you could easily make a case that being Latina is qualification enough; discuss the crime and drug trafficking problem in Puerto Rico, and count the number of Puerto Ricans that migrated to the mainland US after the last weather and corruption disaster. How closely are we going to split hairs on this issue?

Review of “Obsolescence” by Martha Wells

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This short story is based in the Murderbot universe, and appears in the anthology Take Us to a Better Place, released by Melcher Media on January 21, 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Jixy is an administrator at Kidland Station, somewhere in space. She is first alerted to a problem by screaming children, and finds, to her horror, that Greggy seems to have had a terrible accident. It’s a messy cleanup job, and worse, it looks like some of his components have been stolen. Greggy was a retired exploration rover, an early version of a human-machine construct, who was working at Kidland Station in a second career as a teaching assistant. Suspecting that Greggy might have been attacked by an unauthorized visitor, Jixy puts the station in emergency mode and orders a search of the module. It’s a scary situation, as everybody remembers stories of raiders that attack people to steal their prostheses and augments. Can Jixy find whoever is responsible before they strike again?

On the positive side, this story follows up on information we’ve gotten from Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series. One reason that Murderbot tries so hard to blend in with the human population is that it’s concerned about being identified as a rogue construct without any rights, which would be fair game for a chop shop gang. Murderbot also mentions the exploration rovers as an early example of human-bot constructs. Generally these were people who had suffered some highly debilitating accident and were offered the chance for reconstruction to help establish the first bases on Luna and Mars.

On the not so positive side, this suffers greatly from lack of Murderbot. Without its wry observances, the story fails to generate anything much in the way of interest. The vision of Greggy floating in his own remains is somewhat horrific, as is the perpetrator, but otherwise, I’m not sure of the point here. That transhumans will get obsolete the way an old car does? Well okay, maybe so. It’s a bit short on details, too.

Three stars.

Review of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall

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This story was published by Clarkesworld Magazine in January 2020 and subsequently removed after the author felt unsafe due to responses from the SFF community. It was followed by an apology from publisher Neil Clarke to readers who felt it was insensitive. The story is fairly long, coming in at approximately 7750 words. For anyone who is interested, it’s still available to read in the Internet archive here.

Barb is a somatic female who has had her gender identity modified by the US military so that she identifies as a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic attack helicopter. Her gunner Axis, apparently a somatic male, has also been modified to identify as armament, and the two of them are harnessed and catheterized into a sort of marriage as pilot and gunner. They are now airborne to carry out a mission against a Pear Mesa Budget Committee target. They take out a high school of unknown strategic value in the Mojave Desert, but Axis hesitates over the shot. Barb has already detected signs of stress, and wonders if Axis is questioning their gender identity as a gunner. Returning from the mission, they are detected by a fighter jet. Barb initiates evasive maneuvers, but fails to shake the jet. How can they survive long enough to get back to base?

This is one of the sort of creative, artistic, postmodern works that seems to be popular lately, where the author writes about seeming unrelated issues and the work eventually comes together to produce themes and meaning. Gender identity as an attack helicopter is actually an Internet meme that was designed to cast aspersions, but Fall has developed it into a story. In this case, there are two well-defined, solid characters and a gripping and effective plot, where the Apache takes out the target and then has to deal with pursuit from the fighter jet in order to get safely home. I have no experience at all to help me judge, but the flight jargon here sounds authentic. Besides this, we get a dash of world-building, background on how the US government ended up making war on a credit union’s AI, and a lot of discussion about gender identity issues—what it was like to be a woman; what it’s like to be a helicopter, non-binary, gay, trans; Barb’s relationship with Axis, and various other issues. One passage equates sex with violence.

This is a fairly complex project. As an action-adventure fan, I was pleased with the adventure story, and also the symbolic romance between pilot and gunner and the equation of sex and war. I was also entertained by the absurdist world where the US ends up making war on a credit union. The gender identity element was harder to integrate, though, and I didn’t think it worked that well. Identity is more than just gender, so the basic premise of mixing gender identity with military equipment didn’t quite work for me. Although it wasn’t showcased, this is an example of transhumanism enforced by the military.

There were some questions about who Isabel Fall might be. I’m sort of with the faction that believes this is an established writer using a pseudonym. Although it was only briefly published, I expect this one might be in the running for an award next year. Recommended for the creativity and ideas.

Four stars and a half stars.

Review of Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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This novel is science fiction and #2 in the Skyward series, following the novel Skyward. It was released by Tor in November of 2019 and runs 461 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of Skyward, Spensa Nightshade has found that reality is a long way from what she’s always believed. Humans have been imprisoned on Detritus, guarded by the Krell, and Spensa has found she has cytonic abilities to hear and teleport ships through the Nowhere—the method her ancestors used to get around in space, which can be amplified by an unknown “cytonic hyperdrive.” As the humans have made advances into space, conflict with the Krell has increased. Human techs locate a video on one of the orbiting space platforms and, watching it, Spensa has a terrifying vision of delvers (inhabitants of the Nowhere). She screams cytonically and accidentally contacts an alien pilot, who hyperjumps into Detritus space. The ship is damaged by the automated guns on the platforms. Hoping to capture its hyperdrive, Spensa and her Skyward flight try to rescue the ship, but find there’s no hyperdrive aboard. The pilot is injured in the crash landing, but gives Spensa coordinates for Skysight, the center of alien government. Spensa and her flight leader Jorgen make a quick decision, and Spensa disguises herself as the injured pilot, then uses the coordinates and her cytonic ability to hyperjump there. She is welcomed by Cuna, a representative of the Superiority, and enters a training program to provide fighter pilots for the Superiority, supposedly to defend against the delvers. With the help of her ship’s AI M-bot and Doomslug, her odd pet that has stowed away, Spensa tries to navigate the alien politics and manages to make friends with various representatives of the “inferior” races Cuna has assembled into his fighter units. Spensa builds a spy drone from a cleaning bot and finally learns the secret of the hyperdrives. She gets caught with the drone, but there’s a coup afoot in the Superiority government. Can Spensa save Detritus, rescue M-bot and Doomslug and get away?

This is a really condensed summary, of course. The novel has a great plot, full of twists, turns and revelations. The characters are very well developed, full of alien idiosyncrasies, and the action/suspense starts up right at the beginning, making this a pretty gripping read. Spensa operates by the skin of her teeth, developing into a leader herself within the assembly of misfits that makes up her new flight. The book also features a constant undercurrent of discussion about aggression versus non-aggression and how each one affects a particular society. The Superiority prides itself on non-aggression, for example, but has to draft alien pilots to do the dirty work of defense. Meanwhile, they suppress these “inferior” races, keeping hyperdrives away from them so they can’t develop economically. Humans are painted as the real bad guys in the picture for their highly aggressive and dominant tendencies. Meanwhile, M-bot is finding ways to work around the programming that keeps him confined and enslaved. Will that turn out to be dangerous?

On the not so positive side, Skysight doesn’t seem that alien of a place, and some of this seems a little over-simplistic, especially the way Spensa interacts with the aliens and the way she develops a method to deal with the terrifying delvers. M-bot comes across as immature and sulky, and we all knew Doomslug was going to figure in this somehow, right?

Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Are activists actually manufacturing racism/sexism/homophobia? (Part 2 of 2)

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In 2019 Ibram X. Kendi published his new book, “How to be an Antiracist,” where he looks at the effects of attacking ordinary whites as a method of protest and activism. According to Kendi, this is wasted effort, as it takes the focus off the real problem, which is the powerful elite that controls resources and creates political policy. As noted in the previous blog, about 10% of whites fall below the poverty line, and 70% more fall into the middle and lower socioeconomic classes. According to Kendi, these whites have little or no power to create the kind of policy and economic conditions that lead to structural racism, nor can they remedy the problem.

So if these 80% of whites have no power to establish or alleviate racism, why do minority activists continue to attack white men in a group as cause of the racism problem, for example? What are they accomplishing that encourages this behavior? The immediate result of the strategy seems to be an increase in White Nationalism among the powerless lower socioeconomic classes. The American National Election Survey found that unemployed white US residents without a college degree and with an annual income below $30K were more likely to approve of the growing white nationalist movement.

So, activists continue to attack this lower class of powerless and disenfranchised white males, even when it’s well known this increases solidarity in the form of White Nationalism. Do they really want to increase racist rhetoric and White Nationalism? I checked around, and found the answer is apparently “yes.”

In recent history, there have been a number of clearly manufactured racial incidents. As a random example, African American Eddie Curlin was recently found to be behind anti-black graffiti at Eastern Michigan University. In a more notable incident, Jessee Smollet was recently exposed in a scheme to manufacture racism and homophobia. Unable to find enough racism/homophobia in Hollywood to give a bump to his career, Smollet hired a couple of acquaintances to manufacture an incident. However, this was exposed by surveillance cameras, much to the embarrassment of all involved. Just strong activism is a known cause of backlash that results in increased racial rhetoric and activity, including violence. So, how does this strategy work? When White Nationalism and white supremacist rhetoric increases based on attacks against whites, then racial activists can point to it and demand redress as victims.

This strategy is actually recommended in activist literature. For example, here’s one quote on the benefits of backlash: “…hard-right backlash is a critical domestic factor that can help overcome…collective action problems, enabling…rights activists to find resonant frames, build internal solidarity, and win allies.” Here’s another on stroking the backlash: “By promoting and elevating the backlash against your seemingly noble agenda, you heighten the fighting instinct we have as humans, and tap into a feeling of victimization versus a feeling of purpose.”

The only problem is that this manufactured opposition also increases “real” racism, “real” racist incidents, and often gets people hurt or killed. Within the SFF community, it can result in the bullying of minority writers without the benefits of status and name-recognition, who then have a harder time getting published. This suggests the gains made by some minority individuals could well be at the expense of others.

So, should we continue to legitimize this kind of manufactured racism? Should we classify this strategy as a kind of racism itself? Or should we sympathize with activists and reward their behavior just in the interest of progressivism?

Who’s a Racist/Sexist/Homephobe? (Part 1 of 2)

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Following up on Klaudia Amenabar’s charges about sexism in Star Wars and a recent story by N.K. Jemisin on race, this seems like a good time to offer a discussion on relativism as it relates to racism, sexism and homophobia. In recent years, we’ve had several heated discussions in the SFF community provoked by statements from minority writers that look/feel like racism or sexism but aren’t defined that way. This is because of relativism in the way we define racism, sexism and homophobia. The current progressive paradigm is that racism, for example, is about oppression, so only members of an oppressing group can be considered racist. This means we should define comments about race (or gender/sex/sexual orientation) from oppressed minority persons as activism or protest, when the same statement, made by a white male (considered an oppressing group), would be considered damningly racist. This also means that minority writers have a free pass to say whatever they want about race, sex, gender and sexual orientation without repercussions, while white writers (the oppressor group) have to be careful of what they say.

This system provokes some interesting questions. If racism is relative, then should it be defined differently by locale and by who feels oppressed? If a school is majority black, for example, and has a black administration, should white students be considered a minority and given a free pass to say whatever they want? The city of Atlanta is majority black and has a black head of government. Are white supremacist statements made in Atlanta a form of protest, or are they considered racist because Atlanta is part of the larger US system? Ok, so then what about Zimbabwe? Not only is the country overwhelmingly black, but the government has a history of human rights violations against white residents. Are white supremacist statements made in Zimbabwe still to be considered racist, or are they protest? And last, what happens when whites become a minority in the US within about the next 20 years. Younger age groups (currently in elementary school) are already experiencing this issue, and it will become nation-wide as older residents die off. Will the definition of racism suddenly shift at that point?

We’re given to knee-jerk assumptions about racism, but the whole thing is pretty confusing when you start looking at the details. I’ll try to sort it out. First, should we rate oppressor status by population majority? Asians, it turns out, are the largest world demographic group with ~60% of the world population; whites and blacks are roughly even at about ~15%. The sex ratio is currently skewed slightly to male, maybe because of cultural issues in China and India, but remains roughly 50/50. Definitely white men don’t hold majority status world-wide, so majority/minority won’t work very well as a measure of white oppression of other races on a global scale.

Minority pie

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So, should we maybe equate oppressor status with wealth instead? When it comes to that, then we do see a worldwide distribution that skews heavily to white and male. About 55% of the world’s billionaires are white, 30% are Asian, and less than 1% are black. About 11% of the world’s billionaires are female. About 1% of the world’s population owns half the wealth, and the distribution of wealth leans heavily to the US and Western Europe.

Wealth Table

Source

So, if you equate wealth with oppression, then definitely white men are going to be the powerful oppressors both world-wide and in the US/UK. But, is this a statement that can be generalized to mean all white men are wealthy oppressors?

Let’s look at wealth demographics of the US population. By race, Asians tend to have the highest household incomes, then whites, Hispanics and blacks. About 10% of whites fall below the poverty line, and 20% fall into the upper socioeconomic class. That leaves 70% of households that fall into the middle and working socioeconomic classes with annual incomes somewhere between $10,000 and $100,000. So if we’re equating wealth with oppressor status, should the 80% of poor, middle and working class whites be lumped in with the upper 20% as racist oppressors? And what about the lowest 10% of whites that fall below the poverty line? Should apparently racist statements about this group by minorities be considered differently?

Review of “Randomize” by Andy Weir

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This is a hard SF novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Weir is an award-winning writer, best known for The Martian. The novelette runs 28 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

Edwin Rutledge owns the Babylon Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and he finds his IT guy Nick Chen has shut down the keno game. This is costing the casino millions of dollars, but Chen explains that the rollout of the Model 707 quantum computer has made it possible to analyze the pseudo random number system of the current game. Rutledge agrees to buy a new quantum computing system to counter this possibility, and sales rep Prashant Singh arrives to see to its installation. It should make the casino’s game foolproof, but Singh’s wife Sumi has a plan to crack the system. Can she carry it off?

On the positive side, this has a really solid hard SF core. Weir spends some time going through the issue of random number generation for the game and how this would change, given a really powerful computing system that could generate actual random numbers. It also illustrates characteristics of quantum particles that make for the creative plan the ultra-bright Sumi comes up with. It has a slight, humorous feel as the characters maneuver through the game, with something of a surprise twist at the end.

On the not so positive side, the personalities here are a little flat. There’s good description and color, but we don’t get much about their past or what’s going on in their heads, so they don’t really take on a lot of life. This might have been better at novella length so we could get to know the characters better, especially Sumi.

Recommended for geeks.

Three and a half stars.

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