This article at Black Skeptics reminded me of a time I discouraged a young black woman from continuing education in a white male dominated field. Was I an avowed racist, a neo-nazi or Klan member, a talk radio fan? No. I considered myself progressive, caucused for Kucinich, and tromped around my school with an army jacket that said “FUCK BUSH” in sharpie on the back.
So how did I come to this terrible action, one I now look back on with clear eyes and utterly revile? I didn’t consider race and gender before I opened my ignorant mouth. I wasn’t being cognizant of the differences between us and the way that changed the ramifications of my words, and that allowed hidden prejudices to slip out.
The scene: I was attending a sheisty diploma mill that – at best – prepares one to enter the sheisty and lo-fi video game industry, while promising starry-eyed youths that they could some day work for Disney or Pixar. You know the kind of place. “Can you draw the pirate? You might be an artist! Make a bank full of money in the glamorous entertainment industry!”…
I thought I was cooler than that. I was in the top three or four people for drawing skill in my high school of two thousand. I believed the jobs would go to the people with the best talent coming in and arrogantly assumed I’d be hot shit there.
And I didn’t embarrass myself. I wasn’t the best in the school anymore, but in a few classes, I still was the coolest in the room. In the more important technical classes, I’d be more slow to get the technology than many others, but one of the lines of BS they used to tell us is that “traditional art skills are the hard part, a studio will be willing to help train someone who has those down.”
They charged us obscene tuition and gave us industry salary information that was years out of date to justify that. “Why look, the average video game artist in 199x made 75 k a year!” By the time I graduated, unpaid internships of several months or more were standard, and the typical starting salary was a third less than I was able to make as a security guard.
But I was never the type to do my homework, and still thought I was in control of my destiny. And more relevant to the issue at hand, I thought my art chops made me the master of that domain.
In my design class, circumstances led to me talking with this shy, quiet African American lady. She was young and had an uncertain optimism that was heartbreaking. Whatever we were talking about, she ended up showing me some drawings she’d made of Mickey Mouse – obviously hoping I’d say something encouraging.
Well, Mr. Expert thought, she is clearly someone who drew the pirate. If she thinks she has a chance in a place with hundreds of original artists who have been practicing more challenging fare than that for years before coming in, she should save her money and get out now.
I told her and while I can’t be sure that I am to blame, she stopped coming to that class and I never saw her again. This hurts me now, and I dearly hope it hurts me more than it hurt her, but I have no way of knowing, and I fucking doubt it. I did a very very bad thing.
The truth, as I have learned since then: People who applied themselves and learned the technical skills had a decent chance of getting a video game industry job – especially if they moved to California – with scant art skill. It might not be much, but it is waaay better than flipping burgers. And as far as art skills, new artists advance much faster than old hands like me. Even if all she knew how to draw coming in was Mickey Mouse, the sky was the limit on her potential and she could have graduated near to my level of skill – possibly better in many ways.*
And did I at least save her money, per my magical intention? Maybe a few bucks, but once the Income Based Repayment program was introduced, that excuse was blown out of the water. Currently, I am in crushing poverty and I don’t pay a dime. The most generous graduated repayment program offered before would have me paying $451 a month by now (or, in practice, defaulting on the loan completely). On IBR, I only have to repay what I can, and if I stay good with that for twenty years, the balance is forgiven. And so it would have been with her, even if she hadn’t become gainfully employed.
So it was for nothing. And why did I do it? Would I have said the same thing to a man? To a white man? I can imagine yes, but the fact remains that I never did say that to a white man, and I did say it to her. The fact remains that industry is overrun with the shittiest flavor of white dudes, strutting around the cubespace with replica assault rifles, or playing FPS while barking homophobic slurs and misogynist epithets and rape jokes, saturating games with racist stereotypes and objectification. No significant change in sight. No one like her in the room to make those fuckheads think twice with her mere presence.
Did I, on some level, not trust a woman to be capable? Or a black person to be intelligent? Why can I attach those adjectives in those ways so easily? What would my score be on Project Implicit?
Even if my intention was pure and not at all racist or sexist, the status quo being white male domination means that I should damn well have considered treating her differently. If the world is to change for the better, people like her need to be encouraged and helped a lot more than people like me who have the system stacked in our favor at every turn.
And that is, I think, the take home lesson. It is extremely difficult to check biases if you are not even aware of them. But an easy way around that in this situation – in the unlikely circumstance that I find myself there again – is to just consider who I am talking to, and if they are in an under-represented group, check my ass before I speak.
And to not assume superiority on the basis of the superficial. My art was shiny and hers was shaky. In four years, my art would be much the same. What could hers have been? I did a very bad thing. Damage was assuredly done. That makes me a part of the problem.
*I am certain there are millions of women and people of African descent who are far better artists than I will ever be, but this person would have been working up from Mickey Mouse in the space of a few years. Still, that should tell you how fast beginning artists improve. I think it is possible for a new artist to become better than me (25 years of practice) within several years of starting, depending on natural strengths and discipline, while someone more experienced will often have calcified habits and improve hardly at all in the same span of time. It’s never too late to learn if you’d like to. I do not recommend art school though, at the current tuition rates vs. job market. Maybe my next post will be about how to become a professional artist without student debt – things I wish I had known!