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.


  1. It bears mentioning that Steve Englehart also created an alien race of sentient plants named the Cotati, which tickled me immensely a few years later when it turned out to be a town in California. I suspect you're exactly right about the town of Killawog being the source of his inspiration.

    (N.B.: halfway between Killawog and Elmira is the town of Candor. They should probably watch out for a visit from Brainiac.)

    I find it hard to credit Steve wouldn't have known the connotation of "wog" back then -- he's a pretty well-read guy -- but it may well be that he never thought anyone would go out of their way to look for a hidden message in it.

  2. RAB, ditto. My guess is if you'd asked him, he would've said something like, "Oh, right" and then wondered why you were hearing a slur in the name. It would be like hearing a racist implication in "carpenter's jig" or "blackjack." If I made up a name like Brevanig, would that be racist?

    I also don't see how anyone could think Kilowog was a parody of black folks, but I haven't seen the movie. Maybe they play him like Jarjar Binks. (But I doubt it.)

  3. After I, admittedly, rudely told her she was wrong, she then said, "Honey, thank you, but you're way out of your league here." Which I took to mean, "Shut up, you white, straight, man! You can't talk about race!"

    Maybe that wasn't her intent, but, then again, I can guarantee you no one on the Green Lantern production team intended for Kilowog to be a stereotype. So maybe I'm reading into her words the wrong way, but she is surely reading into the movie and character the wrong way. Hell, if they had racist intentions for him, he wouldn't have been one of the highest ranking Lanterns in the Corps, and Michael Clarke Duncan surely would not have played him.

    Her argument is wrong on every level, but instead of opening her eyes to see the facts, she's made up her own truth and has closed her mind to any counterpoint. Worse, she shuts them down as she did me.

  4. I too believe racism is a huge part of the world and would love for it to be eradicated, but to assume it's everywhere is, on some level, racist. What I mean is, if a person of African descent assumes I'm racist because I'm of European descent, that's racist. So, in a weird way, believers of that theory are proving themselves right because they're living proof of it.

    That said, I don't want to dismiss her claims when something is actually racist and oppressive. But her holier-than-thou attitude and refusal to even discuss the topic without shutting people down makes me not want to listen to her.

  5. That is the dumbest thing I have heard this month outside the US Republican presidential candidate debates.

  6. Michael, Much of the tragedy of Antiracism Theory is antiracists are completely right that racism still exists and is a horrible thing. And it's why I keep saying Nalo's a damn fine writer--in her art, she's observing rather than assuming. If it helps, give her a pass on the subject the same way you'd give a pass to a good person of a religion that isn't yours.

  7. Wog is in an insult in the UK and the British Commonwealth. Nalo is from Canada (and it is right up there with Nigger, as one of the very worst words you can say to a black person).

    This is a Hollywood movie made for export. Just as brand names check their meaning overseas, someone might have checked this one.

    Nalo and I are "wrong" because we put a UK/Commonwealth interpretation on the word, not because we are seeing illusion.

    The commonest misunderstanding I see USians make in this regard is when they are in the UK and someone asks them for a fag.

  8. I would boycott this because I couldn't physically comfortably sit through it, the name has such strong connotations. To me it is 100% wrong, no debate would ever shift my opinion, because I have heard how "wog" has been used to hurt, even from members of my own family (who play the "it was of a different time" card. Not so different to "it was in a different country." And no more acceptable.)

    As a reminder, it's the marginalised group who get to decide if something offends them. Other people don't get to decide what should and should not be taken as offensive.

  9. PS. I do suspect the Scientologist use of "wog" is racist; Hubbard was a sailor who would've had plenty of chances to hear the word used insultingly, though being an American, he may not have known the insult was racial.

  10. The canonical usage is, of course, from Joe Orton's last and greatest play, "What the Butler Saw", when Dr. Prentice explains his absence from the room by saying he was elsewhere "designing white golliwogs for use in racial trouble spots".

  11. John, a great line. I missed it when I saw the play 'cause I didn't know bout golliwogs then.

  12. "Do you think Americans should call polliwogs "tadpoles" instead? Should US sailers stop calling newbies "wogs"? Should plumbers find a new acronym for Water-Oil-Gas equipment? "

    Actually, yes. On learning the words hurt some people, that's enough reason to stop using them. No other justification required.

    It is however clear from your posts that you are not open to changing your opinion on this - neither am I, so debate seems futile.

  13. Emmzzi, interesting. What do you think of "woggle"? Should that be changed, too?

    Please keep in mind no one is saying anyone should call anyone any name other than those they choose for themselves. We're talking about whether Kilowog was given a racist name.

  14. What really makes me shake my head about this is that the item in question isn't even actually being used as a *word*!

    It's a *syllable* in a name rather than a discretely constructed element--since the name isn't "Killa Wog" as in "first name, last name", but "Kilowog".

    Following the logic, words like "hornswoggled" and "sniggered" are now deeply and racially insensitive, since if you strip whole other parts of the word out, then there's a bunch of letters that make an insult!

    If we're doing that in the name of being inoffensive, I think the term "mishit" must be removed from the dictionary because there's a swear word in there. And "crevasse", not only is there a swear in it, but you can HEAR it!

    Filthy language like that must be removed from the vocabulary of civilized people to avoid upsetting people who are offended by hearing anything that even sounds like a curse word.

    We must sanitize our media, too! References to underage sex, to homosexual behavior, to drinking! They must all be removed.

    There's a pathology to notions like that, Will, that rationality just isn't going to overcome. People are invested in being self-righteously offended by things; if they were forced to admit the issue is with them, and not with the world...they might have to do a lot of uncomfortable personal growing and tolerance of Others--easier to demand everyone else change, to push everyone else around to ensure your own comfort zone is never threatened--the very same, in fact the *exact* same reasons you can't reason someone out of religious stupidity and demands.

    But that's the intellectual poison of post-modernist deconstruction for you: it's all Jesus Toast (ie: if you see Jesus' face in your toast/interstellar nebula/whorls on a tree/lump of excrement, it really is Jesus' face! It's a miracle, praise the Lord!).

    No, it's just *you* seeing patterns that don't reflect anything actual. That's on you, not on other people. Unfortunately, the far-left, much like the far right, likes to make anything that's on them be on everyone else. Rather than they avoid peanuts, ban peanuts entirely; rather than they not watch an 'unGodly' movie, ban the movie; rather than not name your kid Jesus, ban naming kids Jesus.

    (PS: for fun, here's some other words we can no longer use! dizzy, bloody, muppets, Nancy, scrubber, cow, nip, dog, blessed, pig...)

    Anyways, this is all "pool is RACIST!" stuff -- ie: because you hit a black ball into a hole to win it is OMG CODED RACISM! Jesus Toast.

    The kind of leftism that gives leftists a bad name; the kind that claims to be about healing, tolerance, and personal growth, but that is about as much about those things as Christian dominionism is about family values, charity, and love. Authoritarianism--the desire to control and force others to live by your rules and precepts--runs rampant and underpins both.

  15. Raven, I've been thinking about doing a post about academics, 'cause living in academia leads to this kind of silliness. The Cultural Revolution was a disaster (insert objections to totalitarianism here), but I do understand why Mao thought, "If only we could get the academics out in the real world...."

    I will remember Jesus Toast Logic.

  16. I realized this morning I'd better qualify this bit, since I've seen (repeatedly) in the past just how much trouble these folks have with contextual meaning, and how they like to twist things around and take things out-of-context to villainize dissent(ers):

    "Filthy language like that must be removed from the vocabulary...we must sanitize our media, too!"

    and etc. isn't a statement of belief on my part--ex: I don't think references to homosexuality should be banned or kept hidden--it's a showcase of the kind of thinking the following point about the pathology of that kind of thinking is discussing.

  17. Emmzzi, another question: Would you tell the Navajo to destroy or hide anything with a swastika? The swastika is an ancient symbol in many cultures, but by your argument, the creator's intent doesn't matter.