Personal Essay: "Dancing in the Margins" by An Owomoyela
When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing POC voices, telling what it really means to be POC reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays about the experience of being POC in science fiction.
Personal Essay: "Dancing in the Margins" by An Owomoyela
Back when People of Colo(u)r Destroy SF! was first announced, I linked it to a dear friend of mine who responded that they didn’t know whether or not they’d submit. Because, although they came from a racial-minority background, although their life had set them to navigating the world through those experiences, although they worked with those experiences and found them important, they were still worried that perhaps they weren’t POC enough. And I found, in talking to others, that this was hardly a unique concern: There are a bunch of us that feel like there might, perhaps, be a bar that no one’s defined for us, and we might fall short of it. Are we really people of color? There is, we feel, a narrative about it. Do we find a place in it?
Quite a lot of the time, I want to say that race is largely bullshit. But it’s bullshit that is maniacally important to a lot of people, sometimes for sympathetic reasons, sometimes for absolutely asinine reasons, and sometimes because when something is important enough to enough people, then suddenly you live in a world where it’s an Important Thing. And Important Things have a way of affecting you, especially when those Important Things encode assumptions about you, and this is all a bit like turning out to vote: The discourse is made by the ones who show up.
And sometimes it’s important to show up just because you don’t feel you have a place, and feel that there ought to be one.
If you ask me, there are a lot of things that have affected my life more than my race. Asexual aromanticism, for one; that’s a doozy. Or the way in which I process language and communicate emotion. But the fact that race isn’t at the top of my list of concerns is, in a way, why I want to write this essay.
I want to write this essay for, to, and about the people who write themselves out of anthologies like this one because they don’t feel POC enough: because they’re assimilated into majority-white culture, or because they pass (or are passed) for white, or because they don’t have stories of oppression to tell. As though oppression is inextricable from living as a person of color. I want to write this essay because the conversation we’ve created around race needs to grow in so many different ways that if I can help tackle just one, maybe we’ll end up in a better place.
I want to write because it’s important to me to see writing into the edge cases. Because those edge cases, and the ways in which race/ethnicity/color/call-it-what-you-want is defined, is manifested, in different places, at different times, is a huge part of the mess about what it means to be white or not in our community—this community that I live in and write in, and which affects me, day to day.
(I attended a workshop on community diversity a while ago, and I got to talking with some of the other POC in the room. One of the things I noticed was that if you put us in a group, no matter what our racial background, we could go around the circle talking about times when the world reared up and stopped everything in its tracks just to give us a reminder that hey, we had race. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s your monthly/daily/hourly reminder that you’re not white. Just thought it would be helpful for you to remember that! It’s like using a computer infected with pop-up malware, except that the computer is your life.)
"Person of color" is a big, fuzzy, wide-ranging term, and that’s why it appeals to me.
An anecdote I often tell is how, growing up in Nebraska with one white parent and one black parent but generally exposed to and brought up in a middle-class, culturally white environment, I went to get a learner’s permit, and I had to fill in my race on the paperwork. At that time, they didn’t have an other or multiple or biracial field, so I marked down both black and white. A few minutes later, I was called back up to the desk because I could only fill in one of those options. And the interesting thing about the U.S. and its one-drop history is that I knew that an observer would not accept a designation of me as white; I was blacked, by default.
(Nowadays I more often see mark all that apply fields under race/ethnicity, but for a while there I noticed this odd transitory period where you could still only select one option, but one of the options was biracial or multi-racial. Which was only marginally better; it always made me think that people were very invested in classifying humans into purebreds and mutts.)
In college, I took a couple classes in African-American history and African-American religions, and I was astounded to see how little of my own culture and experiences I saw reflected in them. But that was because the African-American identity, as it was being presented in that slice of academia, was based in the culture that emerged in America and had its roots in slavery. Most of my classmates—and my professor—had their own family stories rooted in that long history. My father, by contrast, came to the U.S. for his postgraduate degree, and worked as a professor, and so experienced racism but also experienced a degree of education and economic security that is characteristically systematically limited for the African-American community. My classmates and I were all signified as black or African-American, but we had very few experiences in common if you approached it from that axis.
(That’s why I don’t tend to identify as black [I’m not; with a black parent and a white parent, surely I’m some shade of grey] or African-American; person of color is a broad enough category that it communicates something about me without necessarily also communicating a boatload of other assumptions.)
(But there are always assumptions, really.)
When it comes down to it, I also experience a heck of a lot of privilege in my life. The oppressive experiences I have pale in comparison to a heck of a lot that goes on out there. But my life is woven through with this experience of being forced to dance with my identity in terms of race/color/whathaveyou, and that dance is common to a lot of people. More and more people, I would imagine; more born every year.
And that dance is worth telling stories about.______________
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An (pronounce it On) Owomoyela is a neutrois author with a background in web development, linguistics, and weaving chain maille out of stainless steel fencing wire, whose fiction has appeared in a number of venues including Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and a handful of Year’s Bests. An’s interests range from pulsars and Cepheid variables to gender studies and nonstandard pronouns, with a plethora of stops in between. Se can be found online at an.owomoyela.net.