After reading Sikivu Hutchinson’s post, “Policing Our Girls, Taming ‘Topsy,’” on “The Feminist Wire,” I took a few moments to look through the various hyperlinks in the text. One hyperlink eventually lead me to a Harvard study about race and perceived innocence; conducted in February 2015, the study (which surveyed solely white women) found that at the young age of 10 years, black boys begin to be perceived as less innocent than children of any other race—regardless of age. Not only is 10 years the threshold age for black boys to be perceived as less innocent, but they are also “more likely to be mistaken as older,” and more likely to “be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.” Possibly worse, the study also found that when shown an image of a boy with a description of a crime he committed, subjects of the study overestimated the age of black boys by an average of 4.5 years, and found black children to be more deserving of blame for their crimes than boys of other races.
As Hutchinson asserts in her post, this unfair and uninformed stereotyping of blacks as less innocent than other races is especially problematic because “black preschool and elementary school children have the highest rates of suspension and expulsion in the U.S.” From their earliest days of public education, black children’s lives are shaped by the unequal structures of innocence set forth by white women (the subjects of the Harvard study). And because 63 percent of teachers are white women, being a black child in elementary school almost guarantees being judged harsher than non-black peers. In other words, the practical implications of the study are that black boys are more likely to get in trouble in school for things they didn’t do, and they are more likely to be punished more harshly for things they did do. Hutchinson reminds us that although the Harvard study only used boys as the subjects of perceived innocence, black girls also suffer from the same discrimination. Citing evidence from an NPR report on a government study on school discipline, Hutchinson emphasizes that Black girls are suspended from school six times more than white girls because “black girls are stereotyped as being “loud, unruly, ‘ghetto,’ and too outspoken.” Ultimately, Hutchinson argues that young black girls are not viewed with the same innocence as young white girls, and are therefore forced to navigate a much more violent world—a world where black girls are suspended from school for defending themselves against physical and verbal abuse from male students
Although education has not made its way into the Octavia Butler novels we have read thus far, the idea of innocence certainly pervades the characters of Wild Seed. Before I return to Hutchinson’s blog post I would like to contextualize innocence within Wildseed in order to illuminate some meaningful connections between innocence and indoctrination into violent structures of thought. Specifically, the theme of returning to child-like innocence is introduced when Anyanwu is brought to Thomas. The emotional and physical burden of Thomas’s failed transition renders him an impoverished man living in the woods, in near psychosis and close to death. Described as “rotting away while still alive,” and not caring about anything but his next drink, Thomas is very offensive towards Anyanwu, especially her black skin, and even goes so far as to call her a “dog,” and a “black bitch.” But Anyanwu, who has mothered dozens of children, takes Thomas under her wing, feeds him, clothes him, heals his wounds, and consoles him for the loss of his wife. Only after these motherly acts does Thomas become more accepting of her, apologizing for his racist slurs, and blushing not out of humiliation for being subordinated to someone he considered inferior, but blushing because of a sincere embarrassment for making racist statements that he didn’t mean. Thomas completes his return to child-like innocence by taking a baptismal dip in the stream, telling Anyanwu that he doesn’t know if she’s there “to conceive a child or turn [him] into one” (Butler 154).
As Thomas regains his innocence, Anyanwu discovers why Thomas was so hostile to her in the first place; Thomas was not offended by her skin color, but by Anyanwu’s reason for being at his cabin—Anyanwu and every other woman Doro chooses to mate with Thomas, “take [his] seed and leave [him] as quickly as possible” (Butler 155). Although Anyanwu has no choice, Thomas’s anger towards his ill-usage as a stock of DNA and his deprivation of emotional and physical intimacy manifests in racist language. He is not truly a racist, but has been indoctrinated into an aggressive structure of thought—which manifests in various forms of discrimination—by Doro’s breeding plans. (A similar indoctrination into aggressive/offensive thought can be seen in Fledgling: the humans chosen by the Silks to kill the Gordons are not truly racist, but they repeat racist rhetoric and language used by the Silks because they are being controlled by Silk venom, and thus indoctrinated into the Silk structure of aggression and discrimination)
The theme of returning to child-like innocence is expanded on at the end of Wild Seed when Doro pleads with Anyanwu not to take her life. After Anyanwu and Doro settle their hatred for each other and renew their intimacy, Doro begins his transition to greater innocence when he begs Anyanwu not to kill herself. As Anyanwu is about to take her life, Doro returns to a state of innocence, arguing that the human part of him is not dead and telling Anyanwu that “there isn’t anything [he] wouldn’t do to lie down beside [her] and die with [her];” Doro’s innocence is reflected in his wish to die comfortably with someone he cares about rather than build a society of immortals through a systematic breeding plan. Ultimately, the emotional trauma— which Doro has not experienced in many years—from Anyanwu arguing that Doro’s humanity has died, is what breaks Doro’s doctrine of viewing humanity as inconsequential, (a belief he was indoctrinated into by millenniums of emotionless murder he could not help but commit). Like an infant, Doro falls asleep on Anyanwu’s breast, “and at sunrise when he awoke, that breast was still warm, still rising and falling gently with her breathing,” and Doro is reborn (at least for now) a more innocent man who agrees with Anyanwu on a set of terms and conditions for his power (Butler 251).
In the context of perceived innocence, Butler’s work joins in conversation both the Harvard study and Hutchinson’s blog, and a commonality between those who are either perceived as less innocent, or—in the case of Wild Seed—those who regained a sense of innocence, is a lack of accepted cultural space. Sikivu touches on this point briefly without fully unpacking it because she is more focused on getting people to understand that this is not only a problem with black boys, but also with black girls. With this said, I think some more time should be spent considering this lack of cultural space and its consequences. Thomas loses cultural space because he is indoctrinated into Doro’s plot; he loses his autonomy and becomes isolated in the woods, living only for his next drink and having no cultural significance. Similarly, Doro, without a race of his own, creates an extensive, multi-millennium breeding project in order to create a species similar to him and find his own cultural space. An area of common ground between Doro and Thomas is that their inability to find their own cultural space caused them to resist against other people’s cultural norms—Thomas and his alcoholism and un-cleanliness, and Doro and his incestuous breeding program (abomination!). This resistance serves as an important juncture between Butler’s fiction, and the black students Hutchinson writes about in her post: black girls in the classroom are often seen as troublemakers because of their “nonconformity with notions of white middle class femininity;” their attempts to create a cultural space of their own are seen as resistant to the people with power in schools— the white teachers that make up 83% of educators. Although Butler does not address education in Wild Seed, she ultimately addresses an issue that plagues black girls in American schools. Thomas demonstrates how hard it is to succeed when nobody accepts you—and Doro clarifies that resistance is both criminal and punishable as such.