I’m not writing this to judge, but to understand. I was analyzing my own reaction to certain claims and try to see why I perceive a difference. And so, as consequence, why I don’t often agree with her reasons and arguments.
Take this hypothetical case:
- A writer presents a book to his editor/publisher. The protagonist of this book is a black man, and the editor says the book is good and will be bought, but then asks the writer to make the protagonist white, so that the book can reach a wider public and sell more.
This case strikes me as evidently racist and would trigger a real negative response on me. I do admit that I tend to care about the illegitimate intervention on the author’s will more than the racism embedded in it. But I do notice the racism and it disgusts me.
Take this other case:
- A writer writes a book where only white people are presented, or white people in dominant roles. A reader infers the writer is racist, and so he needs to be called out for what he truly is.
In this case the reader’s reaction doesn’t seem legitimate to me. If certain extremist groups “appropriate” the work of some writer it doesn’t directly mean that what they saw in this work is what the writer truly intended, nor that he agrees with their vision. Nor, obviously, he should be prosecuted for what others read in his work, and crimes done in his name. You can’t infer a claim by its absence. One can be blamed for foreseeable consequences, but not for what he couldn’t imagine. Call him stupid or naive, but that’s all.
A work that analyzes racial problems and that gives equal importance and treatment to different races can rightly be called anti-racist. But a work that does not rise these problems can’t be called racist because it doesn’t tackles them up-front and makes its position clear of suspect.
A reader may perceive racist undertones, the writer may have unconsciously embedded racist undertones in a book, for example by deciding its hero will be white, but you can’t loudly denounce this work as “racist”, as long there isn’t an explicit, proven racist message. That is deliberate.
There are various levels and there is surely merit highlighting the predominance of certain trends that don’t promote anti-racism. And so it’s good to draw the attention and sensitize the public on these themes. As Larry said, it helps to reassess and readjust how you perceive certain things that otherwise would go unnoticed. Help you being aware of them. But not noticing doesn’t mean endorsing. In most cases I guess it’s a simple consequence: if the majority of published fiction writers were black men, then it’s probable we’d get a majority of books with black men as protagonists. A statistic, cultural fact, not an intrinsic racist one.
Tolkien’s work is evidently not particularly sensitized about racial problems and sexism. But you can’t overturn that argument by declaring Tolkien was sexist and racist. It’s an accusation only based on inference, speculation and witch-hunting (suspect).