Friday, November 18, 2011

scifi antiracist silliness: Nalo Hopkinson and "Killa Wog"

This tweet appeared today:
 Nalo Hopkinson Watching Green Lantern. Michael Clarke Duncan's character is named...Killa Wog? WTF?#ohnotheydidnt #racefail
It's being retweeted by folks who see racism everywhere they look. But they're demonstrating a great deal of cultural imperialism. To wit:

1. Kilowog is a character created by Steve Engelhart, a US writer. In the US, few people know that "wog" is an insult; it's not part of this country's racist vocabulary. As Wikipedia notes, "In the United States, "Wog" is simply short for Pollywog, the navy term for sailors who have yet to cross the equator in the line-crossing ceremony, and has no racial associations."

2. While the inspiration for Kilowog's name doesn't seem to be on the web, DC Comics' offices are in New York, so the name may've been inspired by the town of Killawog, NY. Which, by the way, was not named because they "killed a wog" there, but don't let me stop anyone from accusing a town of having a racist name.

3. The character was previously voiced by Henry Rollins, who is white.

I like Nalo. She's a fine writer. But in this case, the racefail is all in her philosophy.

ETA: I just bolded and italicized "has no racial associations" for the sake of folks like Ithiliana who seem to have trouble reading. In The Heart of the Maze - The OED entry on "wog" n1 and n2, she uses the Oxford English Dictionary to establish that "wog" is racist in UK countries, which I hadn't noticed anyone disputing.

I think the problem is that devout anti-racists believe English-speakers are the same everywhere. Perhaps they don't grasp that there are many dialects—when a Brit wants to "light up a fag", do they accuse her of wanting to burn homosexuals alive, or do they understand that she wants to smoke a cigarette?

I also wonder if Ithiliana thinks "niggardly" is racist, and whether she accepts the OED's verdict there. Ah, well. Everyone's entitled to a foolish belief or two.

ETA 2: I just realized that Ithiliana's reference to "white male" illustrates something at the heart of racism and sexism in disagreements: the ad hominem argument. It's characteristic of identitarians: they don't have to answer points made by a heretic or an outlaw or a barbarian simply because they're not "one of us."

ETA 3: Ithiliana's brought up another bit of handwaving. Sure, golliwogg is problematic, but it ain't the same word as polliwog. The crucial question: are there any examples of US racists using "wog" as an insult where average Americans would be expected to recognize it as a racist insult? Among the many things anti-racists don't understand: context matters.

ETA 4: Constance Ash, aka al_zorra, has chipped in with the observation that some members of the US ruling class who had a fetish for all things British used "wog." It's true, but hardly relevant; I sometimes use the Ojibwe word "mia" for "good enough," but that hardly means "mia" is now a US term. And, yes, those Americans who read a lot of British literature know that "wog" is a racial insult in countries ruled by Britain after the US Revolution. Readers know a lot of things that are irrelevant when talking about common use. The real question stays very simple: is "Kilowog" a racist name for a scifi character created by Americans and voiced by a black American actor?

ETA 5: This just occurred to me: Kilowog's name is a false cognate, a concept that ideological antiracists may not recognize.

ETA 6: I'm beginning to wonder how reading works for antiracists. In the comments, gryphonsegg wrote, "How and why did he go from "This character's name has phonetic similarities to a slur which the original creator might not have been aware of at the time" to "This slur isn't really a slur or at least isn't used as a slur anymore even if it was ever a slur to begin with, which it wasn't because REASONS"? I mean, what is even the point of that? I understand why some people get defensive about the possibility of a beloved canon perpetuating racism, even if I recognize that the defensive reactions are usually wrong. But this looks like he's decided to get defensive about the possibility of anybody or anything ever having been racist."

Where have I said it's not a slur anywhere or never was? It's a slur in the UK and its former colonies. Hmm. Maybe this is related to their trouble understanding that things are different in different places.