So, two years after writing what has been far and away one of the most popular things I’ve written on this blog, my review of “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr., I’ve finally collated what bothered me so much about race in the story. It starts off by getting the reader to overcome the mighty whitey cluelessness of the unreliable narrator on both race and gender angles. Tiptree brilliantly intervenes in misogyny from every angle you can take it, but the intervention in racism really falls flat by the end. It’s probably worth your while to go back and read that review before you continue on, but you should definitely do yourself a favour and read the story. It’s my favourite short story in all the world.
Initially, Fenton imagines the human bodies of his companions as play figures acting out his understanding of the relationship between white women and non-white men. Understanding the pilot, Estéban, as a noble savage, Fenton scoffs at the ‘handsome combination’ of features that constitute Estéban’s ‘classic Maya profile’. This marks an anxious attempt on Fenton’s part to classify Estéban as a sexualised and animalised other who will claim the white women.
What’s telling is that Fenton describes the white women he thinks Estéban will appeal to as ‘neutral-coloured’. When the story begins, before we’ve even met Estéban, in fact, Fenton describes the women as a ‘blur,’ ‘nothing,’ ‘zero’. The temptation is to read this as a comment on the invisibility of women. After all, that’s what the story is about. But I also read it as being about the invisibility of whiteness: whiteness is constructed as neutral, not something to be noticed, a non-quality.
Crucially, Fenton constructs whiteness as something threatened by Estéban’s racial otherness. Estéban’s background does not cause Fenton to imagine ‘Estéban’s mahogany arms clasping Miss Althea Parsons’s pearly body,’ as much as Fenton would like to think he’s a collected and accurate thinker. Fenton fails to realise that the threat is not inherent in Estéban’s background, but in Fenton’s own internalised schema of non-white animality. That racially-coded terms like “pearly” and “mahogany” are set up in opposition really speaks to this, I think.
All right. So far, so good, Tiptree. Fenton and Althea have a cosy little chat about how Mayans are a ‘very fine type’ of people. It becomes evident that Fenton was actually correct in one suspicion:
Just as I am about to suggest that Mrs. Parsons might care to share my rain shelter, she remarks serenely, “The Mayas seem to be a very fine type of people. I believe you said so to Althea.”
The implications fall on me with the rain. Type. As in breeding, bloodline, sire. Am I supposed to have certified Estéban not only as a stud but as a genetic donor?
“Ruth, are you telling me you’re prepared to accept a half-Indian grandchild?”
“Why, Don, that’s up to Althea, you know.”
Looking at the mother, I guess it is. Oh, for mahogany gonads.
It seems Fenton’s not the only one with the creepy, creepy racism.
The thing is, the set up’s great. We were in a real position there to swoop in and have Don’s racist assumptions turned around, just as are brilliantly turned around the ones that the women are shy, or nothing, or need saving. The point of the story is that Don doesn’t see any of these things about the women until it’s too late, and that the world doesn’t see women for what they really are. The point is that they’re as alien to Fenton as the aliens who they leave with at the story’s end. Except, these women are aligned with Fenton in a vital way: their whiteness, their privilege, their racism. They can all bond over the idea of the supposed sexual and racial qualities of their pilot. And it’s the white women who get a chance to speak and escape for the stars. Estéban’s still silently stuck in a swamp with a guy who sees him as animalistic.
In the end, the sexualisation and animalisation of the non-white character is what allows the white women to take what they want from Earth men – a child – and leave oppression behind. Their freedom is obtained by perpetuating the oppression of another. I love this story, I really do. It’s the one that made me a feminist. But I really can’t stand that ‘woman’ and ‘non-white’ are utterly separated categories, and that the latter has to suffer for the former’s benefit.