Musings on Race in Fantasy or: Why Ron Weasley isn't Black

by Dan H

Dan has an Ursula le Guin moment.
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Last year (or maybe the year before, time flies doesn't it), the Sci Fi channel produced an adaptation of Ursula le Guin's Earthsea stories. It caused something of a furore, because most of the main characters were white. I mention this for two reasons.

The first reason is that the TV company, with typical mealy-mouthed style, insisted that they had practiced "colourblind" casting and in a stunning manipulation of middle class guilt, immediately implied that it was somehow racist to expect them to cast a Native American in the role, just because that was the real world ethnicity which most closely approximated that of the people of Earthsea. Obviously the white guy just happened to be the best guy for the role, obviously he stood out by a mile over the other contenders.

The second reason I mention it, though, was because when I read the books (many years ago now) I had completely failed to notice that Ged wasn't white. With the white middle class man's ingrained fear of being labelled a racist, I immediately constructed for myself very much the kind of justifications that the Sci-Fi channel had. "Oh well it's all about the character isn't it, Ged's character is the same whether he's black, white or whatever".

The thing is: it's natural for people to assume that a fictional character of unspecified race is the same race as them. Similarly I have a strong memory of seeing a picture in my year nine RE class of a depiction of Jesus from a church in China. Their version of Jesus, of course, looked Chinese, which broke a few of our tiny fourteen year old brains. Jesus is Chinese in China, black in Africa, Caucasian in England. He might even be Jewish somewhere, but that seems rather unlikely.

But there's another thing. I, yes, will generally assume that a non-racially-specific person is white. And I'm pretty sure that a Chinese person reading a book written in Chinese by a Chinese author will assume that a non-racially-specific person (who will probably have a vaguely Chinese sounding name and live in a fictional setting that looks pretty much like medieval China) would be ethnically Chinese. My girlfriend pointed out over lunch that, when she reads Haruki Murakami, she imagines all the characters as white, even though they're presumably mostly Japanese. It gets more complicated when you put minorities into the mix.

Put simply, I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that a black person living in England has the same luxury that I - and Chinese people in China, and Indians in India - enjoy. I, and I would imagine a great many other people who read the Earthsea books at a similar age to me, assumed Ged was the same race as me. I sincerely doubt that there are any black fantasy readers who made the same assumption about Aragorn when they read Lord of the Rings.

Currently, then, I'm in one of those horrible situations where I think there's a point to be made, but I'm not entirely sure what it is. It's one of those "individual instance versus general trend" problems. I don't think you can look at any single work of fiction and say "that character, right there, should have been black". It's all very well saying that non-whites are underrepresented in Fantasy, but that's partly just because ninety percent of fantasy is set in a world that's functionally identical to medieval Europe. Most fantasy worlds do have black people in them, it's just that because they come from the Hot Continent In The South. Indeed most fantasy worlds seem to assume the existence of exactly four races: White Anglo Saxon, Black African, Asian (the Asian culture will invariably be a vast Empire in the East, and usually look like Han Dynasty China, plus Samurai, plus ninjas) and Arab (the Arabic culture will be either very religious or very mercantile, or both).

In fact, the races that are the most underrepresented in Fantasy are - arguably - the non-Anglo-Saxon "white" races. A remarkable number of Fantasy settings include quasi-Venetian city-states, quasi-Roman empires and quasi-Spartan warrior cultures, who none the less manage to look remarkably like they were born in Colchester, nary a Mediterranean complexion in sight. I can just about accept a quasi-European world with no black people in it (Fantasy worlds don't have immigration after all). It's rather harder to accept a fantasy analogue of Florence in which nobody looks Florentine. (This weird omission applies almost universally in fact: when was the last time you saw a Roman Emperor actually being played by a Roman? Why when it is unthinkable for a white man to play Othello does nobody bother to find a Venetian-looking Desdemona).

Of course I might be making a fuss about nothing. As I say, it's easy for me to assume that everybody I read about is white (even when there's textual evidence to the contrary). I don't really have any evidence that Locke Lamora isn't Latino, or that the men of Westeros aren't Hispanic (the Dornishmen are, of course, Generically Arabic but like most fantasy worlds, Westeros seems to have an invisible line across the equator, with the people going from "white as milk" on one side to "coffee-coloured" on the other with no in-between). So maybe it isn't a problem with the genre, maybe it's a problem with me. There is, after all, nothing stopping me from imagining Robert Baratheon as looking like a Greek Cypriot, or Ron Weasley as being a black kid who just happens to have red hair. If I assume that a character of unspecified race is Caucasian, that's my look out.

The problem is, though, that if I am making the assumption that J Random Character is white, just because I am white, then it seems overwhelmingly probable that the white middle class writers of fantasy are making the same assumptions. And I think this is an issue. When JK Rowling was designing her boy wizard (and I really don't mean to single her out here, it's just a good, well known example) I'm sure it didn't even occur to her that Harry Potter could be a black kid, any more than it occurred to me that he would be. When she was designing Ron Weasley, she imagined a character that would be her ideal image of an honest, supportive friend, and what she wound up imagining was a boy with red hair and freckles.

And it's that more than anything else that causes the trouble.

The problem with "race" in fiction in general and fantasy in particular, is that it has two very distinct implications. The first implication is the social and political one " "black" and "white" carry tremendous social connotations in the real world, and that bleeds over into created worlds as well. The second implication of a character's race, though, is much more prosaic. A person's race affects what they look like.

Well, duh.

But actually, it's the cosmetic implications of race that wind up being the most important. It is considered absolutely and unambiguously wrong in the modern world to judge somebody by their race. It is considered totally okay to judge somebody by their looks, particularly in a work of fiction, where somebody's physical appearance is often expected to tell you something about their personality. Ron Weasley has red hair and freckles: the average reader knows instantly what that is supposed to imply about him. He's boyish, a little impetuous, but basically a good person. He has "hero's sidekick" written all over him. The problem is, having "red hair and freckles" effectively precludes Ron Weasley from being black, because very few black people have red hair (although it isn't unheard of) and black skin tends to freckle far less visibly than white skin.

Again, just to be clear, I'm not saying that JK Rowling is "a racist" but I am saying that when JK Rowling formed in her mind the image of a true and decent friend, she deliberately gave that person particular physical characteristics which she felt created the appropriate image, and those traits are traits you are very, very unlikely to find in a black person.

Try to write a description of a beautiful woman, and the odds are better than even that you'll make her tall and slender with long, golden hair. Chances are, you'll make her tall and slender with long golden hair even if you're more into brunettes. "Tall and slender with long golden hair" is our cultural shorthand for beauty - it's what Cinderella looks like, it's what Rapunzel looks like, it's what Laura Fairlie looks like, Sweeney Todd's dead wife and lost daughter are both "beautiful and pale, with yellow hair". Snow White's a brunette, but she's still got skin as white as snow. No writer would dream of suggesting that a black person couldn't be beautiful, but our "generic" idea of beauty is pale and blonde, just like our "generic" idea of boyish charm is a freckly redhead and our "generic" idea of a wise man is a white guy with a long beard and a pointed nose (I'll talk about noses more in a bit).

The "race affects how you look" issue is also another strike, I think, against the idea that I only assume that everybody in Fantasy is white because I'm a white man myself. When people talk about "race" they tend to just think in terms of skin colour, but of course it actually affects a whole lot more than that. I can't think of a single point in the Potter books where it explicitly says that Dumbledore or Harry are white (so you could argue that it's just my preconceptions coming into play), but race isn't just about skin colour. Harry Potter is famous for his messy, floppy hair (again, it's a characteristic that makes him seem more like "a regular kid" - or at least a regular white kid). Dumbledore, of course, has his long, pointy nose. Even if their skin colour isn't mentioned explicitly, neither of these physical characteristics are terribly likely to be possessed by a black man. There are exceptions, of course, but in general black people don't have "floppy" hair or pointed noses. All in all I feel confident that, when I assume a character in a fantasy novel is white, the author is making the exact same assumption.

I've just spent about 1700 words slating Fantasy writers for not including enough black people in their books (and certainly not including enough Latino or Greek people despite a great many settings looking a whole hell of a lot like Spain, Greece or Italy), but I'd like to spend a moment backpedalling. The thing is that what I said at the start, about it being natural to assume that a person of non-specific race looks pretty much like you still holds. If I was a Fantasy writer I am damned sure that I'd make my protagonists white, just because it wouldn't occur to me to do otherwise. If I had to write about a beautiful woman, you can bet your arse I'd make her tall and slender with long golden hair, because that's how I instinctively think of a "beautiful woman" looking (even though I do, in fact, far prefer dark women in real life).

The other problem with race in Fantasy is that, because it's not our world, you can't use nationality as a short hand. It's actually remarkably hard to describe many non-white races without resorting to (a) cliche or (b) rather dubious ethnic stereotypes. You can get away with it fairly easily in something set in the real world, because you can just say somebody is "Chinese" or "Azerbaijani" and either people will know what you mean, or they can look it up on the internet. In a fantasy world you don't have that luxury. This is probably why there are only four races in most fantasy worlds. Anybody whose race isn't described is white. Anybody who has dark skin is Generically Arabic, anybody who has very dark or black skin is black, and anybody who has a long moustache or does Kung Fu is Asian. Some fantasy worlds similarly include a quasi-Mongolian culture, who we know to look Mongolian because they have a close relationship with their horses. You might, if you're very lucky get "olive skinned" people (who are presumably therefore green) tending Big Fields of Ancient Wheat, but that's about your lot. Again however, I wonder how much more Fantasy writers can realistically be expected to do.

The simple fact is that the real world is unimaginably complicated. A fantasy series is praised for its worldbuilding if it contains more than six moderately well realised nations. The CIA World Factbook lists the real world as containing over two hundred and sixty. Similarly, while fantasy worlds may grossly oversimplify the concept of ethnicity, it would be impossible to do otherwise - just looking at the CIA world factbook again, we see (for example) seven distinct ethnicities depicted as existing within Albania alone (Albanian, Greek, Vlach, Roma, Serb, Macedonian, Bulgarian) while the entry for China lists eleven (Han Chinese, Zhuang, Uygar, Hui, Yi, Tibetan, Miao, Manchu, Mongol, Buyi, Korean). The complexities of real-world ethnic diversity are beyond even the most talented of fantasy authors, never mind your average Quest-and-McGuffin merchant.

In the end, then, the thing I find most upsetting about the appallingly whitewashed nature of most fantasy settings is that I can absolutely understand why they're like that. Even though I'm a thoroughly modern, thoroughly liberal man, even though I work in an international school am therefore able to feel smug and cosmopolitan because I know what people from Kazakhstan look like and have a reasonable chance of identifying an Azerbaijani accent I still, deep down, instinctively assume that "person" means "white person", and I can't ultimately condemn JK Rowling for giving her white protagonist a white best friend and a white mentor, and having them marry a couple of nice white girls and have nice white kids who they named after their dead white relatives. I know I'd do exactly the same.

The sad fact is that most white people don't think about race that much, because we simply don't have to. While this is arguably better than being actively racist it's still kind of a sorry state of affairs, and it's unbelievably pathetic that after all these years, Ursula le Guin is still pretty much the only person in the industry who seems to give a shit.
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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 tvtrops.org 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.
http://draxar.livejournal.com/ 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..."
http://keysersose.blogspot.co.uk/ 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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