Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Problem of Racism in Reenacting

Someone's feelings will get hurt. 
Someone will be insulted. 
Someone will take offense.
You'd better because it's cause for hurt, insult and offense.

1821  Public House in London, Crookshanks

I got suddenly & quite surprisingly upset this morning about an article on hidden racism in Goth circles, which you can read here (it's quite good).  I didn't get upset because of the Goths, I got upset because in my own dear social circle racism is positively rampant (let's not even broach the issue of sexuality, they aren't ready for the science).  Sometimes it's hidden, sometimes it's all out in the open for the world to see... probably depends on the weather & how much is left in the flask.

You see, Reenacting has a Racism Problem.

I know, News Flash, right?
But to me, it was a surprise.  I just (innocently & obliviously) figured that black people just didn't want to reenact a painful and difficult time in American history and so naturally gravitated to earlier or later time frames, like the SCA or Civil War era.  In part, this may have some truth to it, but there were truly shining moments for black Americans in the 1600's-1800's and we lose something beyond measure by ignoring that history.  We lose an entire cross-section of our society.

Then in 2011 my eyes and ears got opened.  Not pretty.  What I had taken as bad jokes in poor taste -for years- turned out to be comments & commentary that were said in all seriousness.

"Come over here and sit with the White Folks where you belong."
"I hate the N----s."
"It were the Africans & Hitler what spread AIDS"

countless others...

Then, in 2011 the call went up.

"White Power!"

It traveled from the man in front of me, down the roadway, skipping tents here & there but always carried on; some voices I knew and some I didn't until it'd gone from one end to the other like a shock-wave through camp, so many I lost count and for days I could hear that echo.

My heart broke that day.

You see, there are hundreds of good, honest, loving, accepting people in reenacting.  Many of them are very dear friends who would welcome anyone with a genuine interest in the hobby.
And then there are These Guys.
You want to come play with them?  No?  Neither do I.

Really, it only takes one or two turds to empty a pool.  We've got a mess of diarrhea floating in the shallow end.

I thought the sexism was bad, but quite frankly, having grown up in this hobby, wading through the opinions of Misogynistic Mountain Men is a minor annoyance; and they all know I'll gut them in a heartbeat if they put a hand in the wrong place... but somehow being threatened on a generic gender level with a bit of sexual harassment isn't nearly as shocking as realizing that these people, many of whom I truly like, could and would actually hurt someone for the color of their skin.  They actually, actively Hate people based on skin pigment.

Why am I so surprised?  I grew up hearing the n-word... though as it fell out of use my memory faded...

Because somewhere along the line, I got the idea that people were better than this today; that society's heart had changed, become kinder.  I found a nice pair of rose colored glasses & slipped them on without noticing.

Well, a couple years ago the glasses got cracked.  The Headphones of Happiness got removed & I hear you now.

So, when my friends ask me "what camps are you coming to? we miss you," I have to think long & hard about where I'm going and who I'll visit with.  I'll always wonder if your voice was one that was raised in that horrible call.  I can't see you through the veil of history anymore; I'll always wonder if you carry your modern (if outdated) ideals, prejudices & attitudes with you into this pretend past.  I'll always wonder if you hate me because I have the brown eyes and black hair of my possibly less than Lilly-White ancestors. 

So the next time a group of school kids comes through camp and asks the painfully obvious question "where are all the black people?" you'll have to ask yourself if you are going to tell them the cold, hard truth or give them a spoonful of sugar with the poisonous lie. 

It's a hard pill to choke on, Ladies & Gents.  To think that those of us who love history with such a burning passion would purposely exclude an entire race of people who contributed just as much as our own ancestors to the building of this country... A very hard pill to choke on indeed.

Note: There are a few black reenactors in the 1640-1840 scene, and I give them all the credit in the world. They are braver than I am, that's for sure... though I've never asked if they sleep with knives too.


Krista said...

Wow. I have never heard or seen this side, I have been a part of this lifestyle on and off since I was a little girl, that's how I met my husband, growing up. I am 43. However, for some reason, I am not surprised, in some areas. Our club is very small and would hate to isolate anyone showing showing true interest.

Gail Kellogg Hope said...

I've had a few years to process this, and I think that the WP call was partially location, we were about 10 miles from NC in VA. I'd never heard that in NY or PA, and no hint of it in New England. The more subtle racism that happens in the clubs I played in then is also likely a geography thing. I'm almost exclusively in Appalachia, which is beautiful and wonderful and almost entirely white America. It's not outright, but there is a steady undercurrent.
Another factor is that like tends to attract like, and that particular event was the last straw of my participation in Rendezvous. It wasn't always like that, and it's not like that everywhere, but it is/was enough like that in the groups I played with that once I noticed I couldn't unnotice.

Another factor, and this is HUGE, is that reenacting is really a white man's hobby. We play an idealized version of history to begin with, and we can only maintain that illusion by ignoring all the people who had less than ideal lives. It's one thing to play the part of a camp follower in a prearranged skit at a Rev War reenactment, but when you actually get treated like a washercookwhore (new favorite term of mine), it's no longer fun. As people abandoned Rendezvous due to economic reasons, the people who were left in that particular circuit were the heavy partiers, the drinkers and the "Raww America" racists because they LOVE white history above all else. My friend Jane told me she didn't see that in the social set she knew. It may not have been there, or we may have just played with different people, or maybe she just didn't see it.

There may have only been a few bad apples, but when they ooze all over you, it tends to spoil the event. I don't think it's a few. I think it's a real problem across the board and until we change the context of events, and actually get some reenactors who have other skin tones, it will continue to be a problem. As the demographics of the area don't favor that...

I play SCA now. It's slightly more inclusive, and there are better opportunities for interesting personas for everyone. They acknowledge the fantasy elements, and they are even written in to the policies (no Inquisition, no plague).

If you love reenacting, stick with it. It's a great hobby and I made some life long friends. Totally worth it. Me pointing out a problem should not diminish your enjoyment, but I do hope that reenactors as a whole can work to shift the focus of events a little (however we choose to do that), and support/encourage/invite personas that aren't standard white American to come play. I'm convinced we'll be richer for it.