Comments on Dan H's Musings on Race in Fantasy or: Why Ron Weasley isn't Black

Dan has an Ursula le Guin moment.

Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 00:49 on 2008-03-15
The amazing thing about the racial mix in Earthsea is how many people completely miss it, despite le Guin's valiant efforts in throwing out evidence pointing towards it. The only other author I can think of who's played with people's cultural stereotypes in this way is (big surprise coming here) Gene Wolfe; in The Book of the New Sun you need to pay attention to notice that Severian lives somewhere near where Buenos Aires is in our own time, that the Commonwealth it is a part of is South America, and that the Maoist-flavoured despotism threatening the Commonwealth exists in North America; the average fantasy reader (in the Anglo-American world, at least) is going to tend to assume that Our Hero lives in the northern hemisphere and that slogan-spouting Maoists are Chinese.
Guy at 04:34 on 2008-03-15
I remember it coming as quite a shock to me when I read Wizard of Earthsea to discover that Ged was dark-skinned. I'd already formed a picture of him in my mind and it was disconcerting to be told that this picture was wrong. It did make me think about race in fantasy worlds, though... later I read an essay by le Guin in which she said she did this deliberately... the idea being to try to secure the reader's identification with the protagonist before letting them in on what that protagonist looked like. I think maybe the reason fantasy worlds tend to be so ethnically homogeneous is that they're mostly seen as (and used as, probably) an escapist outlet and we don't like difficult social questions in our escapist fluff. I imagine a similar racial mix can be found in Mills and Boon novels, for example? I think le Guin is one of those fantasy (and sci-fi) writers who is intent on doing more than providing formulaic escapism and showing what the genre is capable of extending to... it's a shame there aren't more like her. I think escapism is great, but I'd hate to think that was all the fantasy genre had to offer.
Dan H at 10:08 on 2008-03-15
As I say, I can actually forgive fantasy for not handling race well, because it's actually very hard to do well, and I can certainly forgive purveyors of light, escapist fantasy for not dealing with complex real-world social issues.

On the other hand it kind of does bug me that - say - JK Rowling has an all-white cast saving their 99% white world from all-white villains and then gets praised for (a) her sensitive handling of the issue of racism and (b) her amazing courage in having two black characters who never do or say anything, and a character who is revealed to be gay in an interview (and was therefore Never Able To Find True Love Or Happiness Because of His Unnatural Predelictions).

Look! It took me all of three posts to turn this into JKR-bashing!

The ethnic makeup of Westeros also seriously confuses me. Why do the blonde people live two miles north of the black people? Why?!
Guy at 12:01 on 2008-03-15
Very crisp edges on the ozone layer?
Sister Magpie at 16:45 on 2008-03-15
I've always felt a little lucky that I didn't read Earthsea until after the TV movie came out. I didn't see the TV movie, but I read the complaints about this, so I went into the book knowing what Ged looked like in the book. If I hadn't it's quite possible I would have overlooked it the same way. Which means the best I can say is that I'm willing to make the effort to keep non-white characters non-white--which isn't much!
Arthur B at 16:55 on 2008-03-15
More likely the mighty efforts of the stalwart warriors manning the Kingdom's defences against the marauding hordes of dark people. :(

Actually, let me nominate David Gemmell as someone who can, when the mood takes him, handle racial issues fairly well, or at least not appallingly badly. Even in Legend, his most black-and-white clash-of-cultures novel, he takes pains to make sure that both the Drenai and the Nadir civilisations have a mix of admirable and disreputable qualities, and there is genuine cultural mixing at the borders between nations; he even hints in The King Beyond the Gate that the Last Great Hope for Peace is not, in fact, the decadent, played-out, and European Drenai, but the vibrant, young and vaguely Mongolian Nadir.

Then again, you do have Pagan as the Token Awesome Black Dude in The King Beyond the Gate, but I half-suspect that Gemmell introduced him simply because his publishers pressured him to and he was fed up of having his manuscripts rejected; he manages to make the dude reasonably three-dimensional and interesting later on. More importantly, he manages to make the dude three-dimensional and interesting in a manner which doesn't hinge simply on him coming from a vaguely African culture, but engages with him as a human being with very human flaws that, like all of Gemmell's heroes, he strives to overcome. At the end of the day, I suppose that giving characters from diverse races and cultures a similar treatment without stripping them of any distinctive cultural identity is the best that fantasy authors can hope for.

(Which ties in, of course, with Dan's concerns about JKR. Sure, she throws in a few black and Asian kids in Hogwarts, but they pretty much never get a chance to do any of the cool stuff that the white kids do.)
Arthur B at 16:56 on 2008-03-15
whups, Magpie and I cross-posted "More likely the mighty efforts of the stalwart warriors manning the Kingdom's defences against the marauding hordes of dark people. :(" was a response to Guy's comment about the ozone layer.
Rami at 20:08 on 2008-03-15
It is really quite annoying how not that many fantasy series ever have an equivalent to South Asia ;-) but then, I'm a little biased...
Guy at 07:37 on 2008-03-16
Incidentally, I saw a bit of the TV series of Earthsea... and I think with a certain amount of harrumphing I could have accepted the racial changes, if it weren't for the fact that it was a badly written, badly acted, utterly generic "McMagic" blancmange with no real reason to have the Earthsea name attached to it.
Arthur B at 09:26 on 2008-03-16
Incidentally, does anyone know whether the Studio Ghibli version of Earthsea is any good? I know that le Guin was disappointed that Miyazaki gave the directing job to his son rather than doing it himself, but I also seem to remember that she isn't nearly as upset with it as she was with the SciFi channel version.

Of course, anime has its own problems with dealing with racial issues; in most of Ghibli's films all the human beings seem to be of exactly the same race, whereas when other anime studios try to do non-European, non-Japanese characters it doesn't always work well.
Jen Spencer at 09:48 on 2008-03-17
This is reminding me of Jazz in the Transformers movie. That hurt my brain.
Rami at 11:56 on 2008-03-17
Jazz in the Transformers movie
Oh, God, he really was just gratuitously ethnic, wasn't he? Just like in Not Another Teen Movie, which despite being a bit crap did hit the nail on the head with their Token Black Guy.
Andy G at 19:54 on 2008-03-18
Interesting sci-fi / fantasy comparison here - are there any fantasy settings with heterogenous societies? I can only think of Ankh Morpork in the later Discworld stories, where he is deliberately focusing on the issue. It seems to be a much more common feature of sci-fi - Firefly, Star Trek, the Foundation series etc. Fantasy is perhaps still taking a Tolkien world-view as a point of departure, rather than the modern world - whereas the visions of the future in sci-fi have changed along with the visions of the present?

More generally on all genre fiction - since sci-fi is only COMPARATIVELY progressive - perhaps it's also significant that the world-view in them tends to be much more white-centric in the assumptions on the part of the author and reader because we don't read from fantasy, sci-fi, detective stories, romances, thrillers from authors outside the UK and US? I can think of Night Watch from Russia and that's it. Even in Germany they tend to read just English fantasy / sci-fi.

Oh and a final thought that just came to me - what about the whole question not just of characters' appearances but their accents - isn't that quite revealing about our assumptions too?
Dan H at 10:56 on 2008-03-19
I think there's two distinct things to think about here actually. One is the comparative homogeneity/heterogeneity of the *setting* and the other is the application of the same principles to the actual *story*.

Ankh Morpok is "heterogeneous" chiefly in terms of its non-human races, and the presence of the odd Klachian. In this sense it's actually not much different to JKR's world (where we're told categorically that Dean Thomas Is Black). Firefly basically has one black chick, one Mysterious Old Black Dude (who skates dangerously close to what would call a "Magical Negro" at times) and that's about it. For a world where society is supposed to be fully 50% chinese, they run into surprisingly few Chinese people.

Original trek was well done by the standards of its day - it was massively tokenistic but it was the sixties for crying out loud. TNG was actually far worse (there's what, one black guy on board, and he's an alien).

Again, I'm not saying that there's anything *wrong* with white writers who write for mostly-white audiences in a mostly-white country in a predominently white industry writing stories where the protagonists are themselves mostly white. It's when they start making a big song and dance about how totally racially diverse they are it gets to me. Firefly does reasonably well in including a just-above-tokenistic proportion of non-white characters but when you remember that it's supposed to be set in a society where the chinese are actually a majority they start to be notable by their absence.
Andy G at 12:38 on 2008-03-19
Absolutely, I think that's a much clearer explanation of the qualification I was trying to get at when I said sci-fi was only 'comparatively progressive.'
Jamie Johnston at 11:01 on 2008-03-24
Very interesting stuff. I find myself wondering what is the best way for a writer to deal with the fact that his readers will make these assumptions.

The Rowling approach of simply relying on them (and probably sharing them) and therefore not bothering to specify anything about a character's ethnicity unless it happens not to conform to them (e.g. Dean Thomas Is Black) reinforces the assumptions at least in as much as it doesn't challenge them. On the other hand, if a writer carefully specified the ethnicity of every character it would (1) get very tedious for the reader and (2) give the reader the impression than ethnicity is very important to the story, even if it isn't.

Then again one can do what Gaiman does in 'Anansi Boys', which is to wilfully ignore the fact that your readers are making these assumptions and just to write the thing on the basis that *you* know all your principal characters are black and your readers will figure it out eventually. That may in principle be a very noble way to go about it, in that it doesn't indulge your readers' unhelpful ways of thinking and in fact makes them feel they've been rather silly and faintly racist, when the penny finally drops, for thinking in that way in the first place; but it also means that at some point around page 100 your readers will be massively distracted from the story you're telling them by having to make extensive retrospective mental adjustments while feeling they've been rather silly and faintly racist. Which doesn't really make for a satisfying aesthetic experience.

P.S. Andy raised the point of science fiction from outside the Anglo-American sphere: I haven't read any, but I heard on the radio the other day that there's a big boom going on at the moment in Indian sci-fi. Might give an interesting angle on things, especially since (as has already been pointed out) fantasy and sci-fi tend to ignore the Indian subcontinent altogether because there's only room in The East for one civilization and it's usually Vaguely Chinese. at 20:50 on 2011-07-14
A very late comment, but one book that purposefully plays with this idea is Anansi Boys, where the majority of the main characters are black, and if I recall correctly, it mentions when a character is white, but not when they're black.
Cammalot at 23:50 on 2011-07-14
I adored the hell out of that book for just that reason. It felt... refreshing. :-) Basically everywhere else in life (in my experience of Western culture, anyway) the opposite is done. "A woman walked own the road" followed by actual detailed description, versus "A black man got out of the car." The end. (Not even "A man got out of the car; he was black..." at 16:41 on 2017-03-16
I had a similar argument with my writer chums the other day, and Harry Potter was the example we used as well.

Generally, fantasy writers treat white as default (consciously or unconsciously), and expect the readership to assume characters are white unless otherwise specified (again, consciously or unconsciously). That annoys me, so I have a somewhat petulant policy of mentally depicting all characters as black unless their ethnicity/race is actually specified.

Harry Potter actually deserves some praise for never specifying the race of characters, which is a thing a lot of authors do dp. Rowling implies ethnicity through character description, or with stereotypical "ethnic" names, but she never goes so far as to tell you that Hermione is white British or Dumbledore is Persian. This is better than when a writer tells you a character is black (when skin colour has no apparent significance to the story or setting). I assume this is a middle-class, white guilt thing where they feel it necessary to indicate there are indeed people of colour in their book, but it kind of backfires because they only mention a character's skin colour when they are not white, implying white is the default setting. It is also usually the case that these POCs are relegated to support characters, and the author has reinforced the fact that the protagonist is lily-white. If I was a non-white reader, I might have imagined the protagonist up to a point of matching my ethnicity. The lack of mention initially communicates that I can imagine what I like. But then this stupid rule about pointing out the brown people asserts the white-is-default rule, and that means my mental image must be wrong.

This issue also came up when reading the Kingkiller series, in that one of the characters is meant to be non-white, but it wasn't apparent to most of the readership because the character was described as "dusky" skinned, which could be used to describe anyone from Megan Fox to Grace Jones. Qvothe has the red hair, and the references to pubs and lutes imply a generic European medieval setting, but now there is this weird alternative problem where the description is so vague, it is basically pointless description except to imply everyone else isn't dusky coloured (and so therefore white). Qvothe himself has read hair, but is also from some cultural equivalent to Romani/Travellers. Fine, I think. Qvothe is black too.
Arthur B at 17:31 on 2017-03-16
Interesting to see this one pop out of the archives, seeing how, whilst Ron is still not black in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Hermione is.

I am with you on the utter uselessness of "dusky" as a description of someone's skin colour. So far as I can make out, it can apply to anyone who is not an actual albino.
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