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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