Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Use of racial slur in the Dresden Files

In the Dresden Files, one character, Ebenezar McCoy, uses a highly offensive racial slur to refer to an American Indian. (Specifically, the i-word.) From this, we can reasonably deduce that the character, McCoy, is either grossly undereducated on American history, or else a racist. Given that the character, McCoy, is a few hundred years old, and probably alive during the time period when European invaders were slaughtering and enslaving American Indians routinely, the latter seems far more likely.

Oddly, the character insulted, Listens to Wind, of an unknown tribe, doesn't seem to do much about it. Although he seems pleased when the main character, Harry Dresden, uses his proper name, or at least the English translation of it, rather than the racial slur, he really doesn't do much about standing up to McCoy.

It is unclear so far why he doesn't. Did McCoy save an American Indian village? If so, he might qualify for what I call the Huckleberry Finn defense. Huckleberry Finn, a fictional character created by Mark Twain, was racist and is, as would be expected, a racist himself, a least in the beginning of the book. However, as he journeys upriver with an escaped slave, his heart ultimately wins out over his upbringing, and he aids his friend and his friend's family in escaping slavery. Since actions speak louder than words, many readers feel it is appropriate to forgive Huckleberry for using the highly offensive n-word. Not everyone agrees.

"It's not just a word," said Clark, the guardian for her granddaughter. Both are African American.
"It carries with it the blood of our ancestors. They were called this word while they were lynched; they were called this word while they were hung from the big magnolia tree.
"That word, in the history of America, has always been a degrading word toward African Americans. When they were brought to America, they were never thought of as human beings in the first place, and this word was something to call a thing that wasn't human.
"So that's what they bring into the classroom to talk about. I just think it's utterly unconscionable that a school would think it's acceptable."

The only other possibility I can think of is that the character, Listens to Wind, is too traumatized about the genocide of his people to bother fighting about it. The events in the book "Turn Coat" would seem to support this.

For example, in the words of the injured character, in the book Turn Coat,
"Once, I watched the tribe I was expected to guide and protect be destroyed, Harry Dresden. I did so because my principles held that it was wrong for the Council or its members to involve itself in manipulating the politics of mortals. I watched and restrained myself, until it was too late for me to make a difference. When I did that, I chose who would live and who would die. My people died for my principles." He shook his head. "I will not make that mistake again."
With that much trauma and regret in his memory, it's conceivable that Listens to Wind simply doesn't have the energy to expend fighting about racial slurs.

In any case, Jim Butcher brought up a serious topic by introducing a racist character. Although things have presumably improved, compared to where they were a couple hundred years ago, racism continues even today. I hope to see the story of Listens to Wind play out in future books, and I hope to see McCoy get his comeuppance.

For the readers who are unfamiliar with the history, of the i-word and why it is offensive, the Europeans came to the Americas as conquerors. They killed and enslaved the American Indians. While they did it, they called them the word in question, and a few other names. When people do such horrible things, it creates a cultural memory that far outlives the lives of the people who lived in those times. Insults and symbols used in that time gain a terrible power to hurt people by reminding them of those things.

The horrors perpetrated against Californian tribes, such as the Chumash and the Kumeyaay, were particularly appalling.

For help figuring out what you should call American Indians, this article may be helpful.

In my experience, tribal name is the best, but, if you aren't sure which tribe the person belongs to, most seem to prefer "Indian". To avoid confusion with Indians from Asia, you could say "American Indian". A couple seem to prefer "Native American", and most at least don't seem offended by it, but I did recently meet one who thought "Native American" was offensive, and although I'm not entirely sure why, it's probably safest to avoid it. The i-word and the r-word are off the table for historical reasons. Also the s-word.

It's also technically possible that McCoy is ignorant of the history of the word, but, given his age, that seems highly unlikely. That's a doubt better reserved for children, young people, and people who have only recently learned English.

A look online reveals I am not the only blogger to have noticed the use of the i-word. However,  I'm a bit confused about how defamation law works exactly. (Is it true you can be sued just for linking to possibly defamatory content? And for that matter, where is the line between fair comment on a matter of public interest and defamation?) However, in open response to the other bloggers, it seems unreasonable to me to declare an author racist for having a racist character or characters. How can we ever hope to explain to people the horrors that have historically, and even today, been committed against other people because of their race without books that contain racist characters?

As for the geographical inaccuracy explained by the other bloggers, it seem more likely to me that Jim Butcher was unfamiliar with Chicago. Although, I have known people to make mistakes about identifying dangerous neighborhoods even when they did live in the city. I think familiarity has a lot to do with it. And there are real dangers in being in a place where you don't know how to fit in. If there is only one mugger in the neighborhood, and you walk through it dressed differently than everyone else, looking around like you're nervous or afraid, it is probable that the single mugger will target you. Thus, people often overestimate the danger of neighborhoods they are not familiar with, which can turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The solution is to look confident, but aware, and dress appropriately. (And if it's dark, carry a fork or a pepper spray or something.) In doing so, I have been reasonably safe in many places where my less confident friends would not have been. That said, there are things that can make a neighborhood really dangerous, like a meth lab. (This looks like a balanced, informative blog post about the argument which occurred: http://jadedmusings.dreamwidth.org/622848.html )

Oh, and apparently this was also discussed on twitter. I suppose if I'd seen that, I might not have been so surprised to find people defending racial slurs on Jim Butcher's fan website. Although, Jim did offer to continue the argument on his website, so that is a bit confusing. But Jim Butcher wasn't involved in the argument I had on his website, so I guess that explains it.

I'm reasonably confident I can link to twitter legally.

(Note: Please do not make any reply that might be illegal in Germany in response to this post, at least not on my blog. I'm not familiar with the specifics of German law, but I understand that racism is illegal there. Given that I might want to visit or move there some day, and have no desire to anger German authorities, I will delete any response that I am afraid crosses the line. Besides, that stuff is offensive anyway. However, racist comments appear to be tolerated on Jim Butcher's fan forum, so if you wish to defend racial slurs, you might voice your opinion there. Readers are opposed to racial slurs, or genuinely curious about why they are offensive, are welcome to post here, but warned that they may be censored should they choose to voice their opinion on Jim Butcher's fan forum. Great job, people. First time I've ever been banned from anywhere on the internet for being anti-racist, while others were allowed to defend racist slurs. That'll be one I can brag about to sane, non-racist people on the internet for years to come! Back to the rules on my blog.... Comments which could be construed as possibly defamatory against Jim Butcher, on the basis that I don't want to be sued. Please remember that although Mark Twain portrayed racist characters, his message was an anti-racist one.)


  1. It ironic that I obeyed the rules of the fan forum better than the involved moderators. In the terms and conditions, I recall there being something about respecting both United States and international law. Many countries, including Germany, and, since someone mentioned it, Switzerland, have laws against racism, albeit the law is stronger in some countries than others. (Unlike the United States, where racist speech appears to be generally legal until it rises to the level of a clear and present danger, with the exception of specific situations, like at work or in school.)

    Ordinarily, websites with user-generated content can claim they are not responsible for said content, but that argument is greatly weakened when editors exert editorial control by censoring the person fighting against calling people by racist slurs while not so much as scolding the people fighting in favor of doing so. In doing so, the editors in question took the side of those fighting in favor of the use of racial slurs against people.

    That is not to say that I expect everyone to know the history of said racial slur, which is why I spent the time to explain why it was offensive. However, persisting in defending it even after said explanation, denying genocide is, and furthermore taking offense at the explanations is, in fact, racist.

    It is a somewhat moot point, legally speaking, so long as the website and all the editors are based in the United States, other than that they did express a desire to follow international law in the terms and conditions.

    Not that I would care if the terms and conditions actually stated the true practice there (that is, that the terms and conditions stated that defending racist slurs regardless of international law was okay and fighting against them was disallowed). I'm not going to betray my ideals and every American Indian friend that I have to conform to the expectations of people who are still stuck in the 18th or 19th century. That's not what I stand for.

    I was banned doing the right thing. Which is somewhat ironic, given what's written on the tombstone of the protagonist of the series in question.

  2. I saw that thread. Im afraid to say anything on jimbutcheronline.com cause I enjoy discussing the books there and i don't want to be banned, but its weird because most moderators ban you for being racist not the other way around. I actually didn't know injun was racist until reading you're explanations, but after reading about the California genocide stuff I see Jim's books differently. Actually because of reading the Dresden Files I thought it was OK to say injun but fortunately I don't have any Indian friends so no one got offended lol. I hope your right and Jim explains it in future books so people like me don't think its OK.

  3. Hi Anonymous! Glad to help you see the light. Please feel free to discuss things on my blog that you would be afraid to mention on the fan forum. (Within limits, of course.)

  4. I am guessing you mean the "Wish list for GS (spoilers)" thread? I looked on Google and that came up.

    It is disturbing that a number of the fans used the reaction of Listens To Wind as justification for "injun" being acceptable, but totally freaked out when you talked about what real life Native Americans think about it. Native Americans are real. Listens To Wind is not real. What real Native Americans think about the use of the word "injun" is a lot more important than what make believe ones do.

    I guess that's why they're called fans. They get so fanatical about the author. Which is why it's important for authors, especially popular ones, set a good example. Whether by accident or design, Jim Butcher has apparently failed to do that. If Jim Butcher meant to make a statement about how calling people "injun" was actually bad, he should have done so in the same book he introduced it.

    But better late than never. I hope you are right and he does fix it in a later book. Personally, given what I have seen, I don't think I want to read the series. Of course, I do not read much urban fantasy in any case.

    1. A descriptive term from an earlier age becomes a racist slur later. Try calling an African American a Negro and see what happens (I am not responsible for the bills from your upcoming stay in ICU).

      One hundred and fifty years ago Injun was just a back country pronunciation of Indian. Now it is a slur.

      To say that a character that saw the American War of Independence is a racist because of the archaic use of a word, despite his obvious affection and respect for the character in question, is absurd. Those two characters are friend and allies of long standing. Which is why Listens to Winds replied by saying that the "Fat Ignorant Hillbilly" should refer to him as "Native American Joe". It was a comment by both of them (and Jim Butcher) on the changeability and development of language over their very long lifetimes.

      Today's slur is tomorrows badge of honour. The day after it is a curse again.

  5. I don't appreciate the implication that everyone on Jim Butcher Online is an evil racist. I think you are the ones being prejudiced against Jim Butcher fans!

  6. Hi Applepie! I see what you mean. Good points. And how are you today?

    There are a lot of good things about the series, like the theme of courage, so it would sort of be a waste if Butcher didn't cover the topic of American Indian culture with proper respect, sooner or later, preferably sooner.

    Hello second Anonymous. So far as I know, no one has implied any such thing. That would be a part-to-whole fallacy. In any case, I don't see anything wrong with being prejudiced against supporters of racist slurs who are so small-minded that they can't even tolerate listening to another viewpoint. It's one thing to be prejudiced against people for choices they have made. It's completely different to be prejudiced against people for a condition of their births, or else something that has happened to them. In any case, it's not as though Jim Butcher fans are an oppressed minority.

  7. That's why I don't go to fan websites. Whenever you try to have a serious conversation about racial issues, they just try to find some excuse to shut you up. Their complaint about 'Touchy Topics' is just another variation of the tone argument. If they really didn't want 'Touchy Topics' to be discussed, they would have banned all those racists defending the slur, not you.

    It sort of reminds me of a mini version of RaceFail '09.

    They may as well just write that people of colour aren't welcome on their forum, unless they hide their heritage. At least that would be honest.

  8. P.S. You should write a blog post about the Earth Sea Trilogy. It was really great to read about people of colour in those books. I actually felt included in fantasy for a change. Ursula K. LeGuin deserves credit for that.

  9. FUCK YOU ANNA! There, how does that make you feel? Jim has every right to be upset when people treat him like that, and you're a troll not to leave him alone already!

  10. well i think "fuck you" is going to far, but i have to agree with the trolling part. the mods are not unreasonable. i'm sure they'd let you back if you would just admit you are wrong and apologize to everyone. it really would be worth it, if you are telling the truth that you think there are good things about the series. you will find a lot of fans who agree with you on that. but calling the moderators racists is not helping your case.

  11. Hello Jessica! I hope you feel more welcome on my blog than you do on fan forums. I didn't realize this sort of thing had happened often in the past. That said, I'm talking about a blatant racial slur, not subconscious stereotyping or something subtle like that. It really isn't the sort of thing that's controversial in sane company. I've even met a few of those white nationalist people who consider themselves above racial slurs -- not that they can't find other ways to be offensive. So it was a bit of a shock.

    Hello fourth Anonymous. Why in the world would I want to betray my American Indian and Hispanic friends for people I hardly know? This has become a matter of honor.

    Dost one action (that we know of) in favor of racial slurs a racist make? That one's debatable, but racism really is a scale, not a pure good/pure evil thing. As I once heard someone say, there's a huge difference between committing genocide across Europe and not letting someone into your golf club. Or was it a country club? In any case, I would say it certainly qualifies as putting a toe over the line.

    And why ever would I want them to unban me? You do realize that's how I've been promoting my blog. "Hey! Guess what? I just got banned for being anti-racist! And I didn't even go to a skinhead forum. It was this fantasy fan forum...." I mean, whichever moderator or moderators decided to ban me handed that to me on a silver platter. I suppose I should thank him/her/them. Hey banning moderator(s)! Thanks for the publicity.

    I'm not quite sure how you and other critics found my blog, not that I want you to feel unwelcome. Variety is the spice of life!

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  13. First you troll Jim Butcher, and now you tolerate a link to TPB! You are a disgusting person Anna!

    tiger, Jim Butcher deserves to be paid for the hard work he has done. If you don't like it, don't read it! Stealing is wrong.

  14. Hello tiger! That sort of link is a violation of United States copyright law, not to mention copyright law in many other countries. So, for legal reasons, it is necessary for me to remove it.

    The rest of the comment was fine.

    "So you thought Jim Butcher didn't have Listens to Wind respond to "injun" because Listens to Wind was torn up inside, and a bunch of other people thought Listen to Wind just wasn't offended?

    If Listens to Wind wasn't offended, then Jim Butcher did a really, really bad job portraying Native American people.

    But it is hard for me to say because I haven't read it, and I don't want to pay money for a book that might be heavily prejudiced." -- tiger

    Interesting thoughts. If that is so, then it is arguably better to portray ethnic people poorly than to forget about them entirely, but even so, it only takes a brief look in the dictionary to confirm that the i-word is, in fact, offensive. But it's not as if there aren't a lot of people in the world who joke when offended, hence the saying, "I only laugh just to keep from crying."

    In the United States and other countries that have copyright law, you can legally read the books for free by, for example, checking the books out from a library near you. (Please feel free to ridicule copyright law, should you choose to do so. Just please try to avoid breaking it on my blog, even if you live in a country that has no such law.)

    Hello dresdenfan! You may have noticed, when you posted, that I do not prescreen comments. Nor do I monitor them constantly.

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  16. Shecky is obviously racist. You should have noticed sooner.

    Just listen to the bastard.

    First he says: Okay, folks, to reiterate what Blaze has said, keep real-world touchy-topic opinions out of book discussions. We don't want to have to move this beyond simple warnings just because people can't stop themselves from trying to have the last word about imaginary beings.

    Already, he is diminishing your cause. I don't care if the characters are imaginary. Injun is offensive real world readers like me, you jackass.

    Then he goes on to clearly take sides in the argument: I was just about to say that male buddies tend to insult each other anyway as a sign of Male Affection Whut We Don't Talk About. :D

    Guess what, Shecky, I'm male too, and if you call me or any of my friends and injun, I ain't gonna take it as no sign of Male Affection. When you call people injuns, that's fighting words. Now, I'm nice, so I'd only yell right back at you, but there's people who ain't as nice as me who would punch you in the face for something like that. I'm not saying I support people who would punch you in the face, but if you called 'em an injun, you shouldn't be shocked if'n they do.

    And even after that, see how Jackass Extrordinaire Mickey Finn supports Shecky!

    I think if Shecky and Mickey Finn don't want "Touchy Topics" discussed on their message board, they should start setting a good example by banning themselves!

    But I'm a good Catholic, so Shecky, I'll pray for God to forgive you for your racism. I'll pray for you too, Mickey Finn.

    Thanks Anna. I know you don't got no Indian blood, so there was no reason for you to get as upset as you did, but I 'preciate it.

    PS, did I tone the above down enough for you?

  17. Anna,
    I stumbled across your blog and I personally believe you are very wrong on this matter. This is a joke that only old friends could make to each other. As mentioned Listens To Wind also refers back to McCoy as a "Hillbilly" and a "redneck". Its the same thing if only in reverse. McCoy doesnt go around insulting random people, He ribs his friend. My friends and I constantly do this (though along religous lines). McCoy, also being Scottish and a few centuries old also knows damn well what its like having his people being attacked and their lands stolen.

  18. Yeah, it's mentioned in the books that Ebenezer, and -only- Ebenezer, can get away with calling Listens To Wind "Injun Joe," by virtue of Ebenezer being old enough to have been around when it was "acceptable."

    Wizards, like any other people, get stuck in their ways, and 200+ years of habit is tough to break.

    It's something that Listens To Wind specifically allows Ebenezer to do, not his general reaction to anyone using the term. They're very good, very old friends, and as James Gordon mentioned, Listens To Wind fires back at him with "hillbilly and "redneck," terms that McCoy would be well within his rights to be offended by if anyone else called him that.

    Listens To Wind isn't too weary of his peoples' struggles to contest a racial slur, he's letting his old, good friend get away with using a term that Listens To Wind knows isn't being used out of malice.