Race in Popular Culture

by Robinson L

Robinson L is valiantly undeterred by Racefail.
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I recently reviewed Michael Crichton's 2004 novel State of Fear on my livejournal account. The review got me thinking about the depiction of race in contemporary popular culture. The result: this essay.

First off, I should establish my credentials. When discussing issues of power, privilege, and oppression, it's important to know people's background, where they're coming from.

I'm a straight, white, Anglo-Saxon male, early twenties, nondisabled, not rich but with a good whack of class privilege. (“Middle class” is a loaded term and completely misused in the modern vernacular and I avoid it like the plague.) I've lived all my life in the United States. I'm about as privileged and overprivileged as they come.

The following essay comes from that background plus a half dozen years of eclectic anti-racism work (mostly theoretical) which hasn't quite gotten me to the point where I know how much farther I still have to go.

Disclaimer: I began writing this essay before Racefail 09—as it has come to be known—had really gotten started. In fact, I never even heard about Racefail until the essay was almost finished, except for the polishing. This is not in any way a direct response to Racefail, although it may be relevant to issues therein.

I think most of us would agree that mainstream Western popular culture has come a long way from the blatant xenophobia of the early 20th Century, but it's arguable whether Western media has become less racist or differently racist. For myself, I incline toward the former view. Nevertheless, I would point out that while execution by guillotine may be more humane than hanging, drawing or quartering, it still isn't a positive institution. Racism today may not be as virulent as it was ninety years ago, or even forty, but it is still very much alive—it's just gotten subtler.

Token Minorities and Racism Without Race

In State of Fear all the protagonists are white, except for one token minority sidekick who is almost irrelevant to the needs of the story.

As an isolated case, this proves very little. But pick up another Crichton book and you will find much the same. In fact, if you pick up any modern mainstream Western book, I'd venture the chances are something like twenty-nine out of thirty that the protagonists will be all white, except maybe for a token minority sidekick.

The overwhelming majority (much greater than, say, the majority of actual white people in the United States) of US novels and Western novels are whites' own adventure stories, which people of colour are kindly allowed to tag along for and occasionally to provide some assistance in, like Lando Calrissian in the original Star Wars trilogy.

If you've got the right sense of humour, it can be highly amusing to watch white Western authors try to make out they're totally progressive on race and not racist at all … while still writing books with all-white main casts because, y'know, those are the really interesting stories.

Since these authors can't be bothered to write main characters who are people of colour, and rarely can be bothered to include race relations in their main storylines (despite the fact that issues of race are quite often the elephant in the room that no one wants to mention) they often resort to confronting their open-minded white protagonists with more racist white minor characters and having the protagonists tell off the racist jerks. Or they include a rant against racism in general, without depicting any specific manifestations.

David Brin's original Uplift trilogy presents some interesting material in our study of race in popular culture. The main character of the first book, Jacob Demwa, is actually part Cherokee, and he tells a story about Cherokee dispossession and oppression by the early United States, including “populist” President Andrew Jackson. And unlike Joss Whedon blatantly breaking the narrative of his stories to point out that “this is the author sending a progressive message about an -ism” (sexism rather than racism in Whedon's case), the story of Cherokee dispossession actually has a textual justification for being included, even if one might argue that it was somewhat contrived. The couple other important human characters in the first book, Sundiver, are all presumably white, but when it comes to race in the first Uplift trilogy, this is actually David Brin on a good day.

The second book in the trilogy, Startide Rising, has a more open discussion of racism … among different breeds of neo-dolphin. (I should probably pause here to point out, for the benefit of anyone who's never read the books, that Brin's series is science fictional, and the “uplift” title refers to the process by which sentient species enhance nonsentient species into sapience.) Humans have, of course, grown out of racism among each other by the time of this book.

Dolphin racism in Startide Rising basically comes down to a bit of dislike and resentment among the self-proclaimed “superior” dolphins, with none of the systemic discrimination which has marked real-world racism since its inception and which is now the main bastion of racism, overt racial violence having declined over the past forty years. To his credit, Brin at least points out how such racist feeling can develop into outright violence, even murder.

However, perhaps more interesting than dolphin racism in Startide Rising is the story of Charles Dart, the only chimpanzee member of the Streaker's crew. Dart's backstory is that he was a brilliant paleontologist, but that as a teacher, he was continuously scorned and overlooked by human students. This parallels the experience of many people of colour who rise to high positions in predominantly white Western culture: without malice, often without thought, ingrained racial stereotypes steer white people away from them, and cause whites to assume they are socially inferior.

Startide Rising relates Dart's initial confusion at this state of affairs. After all, humans claim to be anti-racist, don't they? Why, they even have a few neo-chimpanzees (a very newly Uplifted species) on their Terragen Council. It is at this point that Charles Dart learns about the concept of tokenism: accepting a few members of a given racial group (one, if the overall group is small enough, or sometimes even if it isn't that small) into a larger group, and then expecting those “tokens” of said racial group to represent the group as a whole. (Members of the dominant group—often white and also often male, heterosexual, nondisabled, nonpoor, etc.—are never expected to represent that group as a whole; they only ever represent themselves as individuals.)

This mention of tokenism is exceptionally ironic, as Startide Rising includes perhaps the archetypal token minority: Emerson D'Anite.

Of the seven human crew members of the Streaker, five have multiple chapters from their viewpoint and at least one subplot all their own. Admittedly, Toshio has a Japanese-sounding name, but that's the only hint we're given as to his ethnicity (which often implies race, though they're not the same thing). If he is indeed Japanese, then he still appears to share a culture with his white shipmates—a culture which is clearly influenced most strongly by present and historical Western culture. More on that later.

That leaves two human crew members: Hanness Suessi and D'Anite, both engineers. It's been a while since I read the book, but I remember Suessi being very much in the background; possibly the character didn't even have an “on-screen” appearance.

D'Anite is the only character whose race is explicitly mentioned. In the short bit of description D'Anite gets during his introduction, the narrator helpful informs us that he's black. This same narrator completely fails to provide the same details when describing the other six humans on board, including all five viewpoint characters. But then again, in a book written by a white author in a culture whose face in popular media is overwhelmingly white, whiteness is assumed unless otherwise specified. (In the third book, The Uplift War, the narrator again takes pains to point out that a random scientist is black. The only other time race as it applies to humans is mentioned is when the book discusses the possible American Indian ancestry of the main human character, Robert Oneagle. Since said ancestry is uncertain, we can infer that it isn't obvious judging by appearance alone. Again, Occam's Razor tells us what is obvious going by appearance alone.)

I think we can safely assume that D'Anite is the only person of colour aboard the Streaker. He has one memorable scene of vaguely mentorly banter with one of the viewpoint characters, and after that, if he's mentioned at all it's only doing engineer stuff. The textual equivalent of one of those extras working control consoles and other pieces of equipment on the Enterprise, while Scotty or Geordi is getting the actual work done. Oh, yeah, you're a real hero of racial equality, Mr. Brin.[1]

Rationalizing Tokenism and Bullshitting the Audience, or You Fail African History 101

Another innovative approach to the problem of race in Western fiction can be found in Connie Willis' 1997 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog. The book takes place fifty years in the future, by which point, humankind has invented time travel, and the Oxford history department routinely utilizes it to study the past.

Willis uses the time travel device to play with various historical settings. In To Say Nothing of the Dog, her setting of choice is Victorian England. She also introduces a historical “danger scale” running from one to ten.

The main story of To Say Nothing of the Dog involves the main character in a Wodehouse-esque series of misadventures in the Oxford area of Victorian England. Early in the book, Willis introduces a minor character—the only one whose race is given—a mathematician named “T.J.” Lewis. At one point, Lewis explains that he cannot go back in time because “all of history is a ten (most dangerous) for blacks.” Since the time travel department is presently under the control of a tyrannical, micromanaging neo-aristocrat, T.J. adds that it's the first time his skin colour has ever come as an advantage, suggesting that racism is still alive and flourishing in 2050s England (which seems depressingly likely).

I know I've already gone on a couple long tangents in this essay, but permit me to pause here for a minute while I unpack the incredible amount of disturbing implications attached to this one brief exchange.

This “history is too dangerous for black people” line is a pretty obvious attempt by Willis to excuse her use of all-white main casts. Her other characters are all either time travellers or residents of the past, so of course they have to be white (there's an obvious flaw in that logic, which I'll get to a little later). We readers know, of course, that if Willis really had any interest in writing people of colour she would find a way to do so, so we correctly identify this argument for exactly what it is: a cop-out.

But if you stop and think a little, the specific argument Willis uses is not just a cop-out; it's completely frakking stupid. I would be shocked if Willis did not acknowledge the 400+ year history of black suffering, much greater than the collective suffering of whites.

I can accept that statistically, throughout recent history, it's been more dangerous to be black than to be white. To go from there to implying that all of human history has been more dangerous for blacks than London in the middle of the Nazi blitz (a level eight danger, as I recall) is nothing short of ludicrous. I ask you, the entirety of human history as a sort of Shark Island Extermination Camp for black people? Seriously?

At this point, I feel it behoves me to point out that I'm not trying to single out Willis for this kind of stupidity. Racist Western ideology does not acknowledge the fact that racism as we know it today is not an eternal fact and was probably invented only a few hundred years ago. More insidiously, dominant white Western culture only acknowledges people of colour in chronicling oppressive race relations.

In the United States, historical treatment of race relations is better today than it was before the civil rights movement, but it's sill very Eurocentric. Since we've been on the subject of blacks I'll point out that the best-known features of African American history in the contemporary U.S. are slavery, culminating in the Civil War, and segregation, culminating in the civil rights movement. The most well-known African Americans in U.S. history are known specifically for their part in battling white racism: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.

I'm not saying it's bad to remember and honour these heroic freedom-fighters, nor to remember and deplore the evils of slavery and segregation. The problem is that these are practically the only things white-dominated U.S. culture remembers about African American history.

Sure, it remembers a few black entertainers, and a very few politicians, litigators, and social scientists (all of the above suitably integrated into dominant white culture, more on that later). But what it doesn't remember so well is ordinary day-to-day life for an average black person. Day-to-day life that to this day includes a sizable amount of racism, but is not defined entirely by racism, any more than (to pick another group whose robust history is pointedly ignored) the life of an average poor person is defined entirely by classism.

It also ignores the distinguished history of black people living in Africa which before colonialism and the slave trade was not substantially more dangerous for them than living in Europe was for white people.

So it's understandable for a white woman like Willis to fall into the trap of assuming the whole of black history is nothing but Shark Island-esque suffering. But even so, that's only if you assume she wrote down her first, culturally-informed notion of black history without stopping to think about it for three solid seconds, which is just lazy.

You'd also expect someone as interested in history as Willis to know better, but that points out yet another problem. I said earlier that since the main action in Willis' book takes place in a historical setting, of course all her characters have to be white. That's not quite true. What I meant is that the main action takes place in a specific historical setting where it would be highly incongruous to have people of colour playing a major role: namely, upper-class Victorian England, Oxford vicinity.

I don't exactly condemn Willis for writing a story which takes place in white, upper-class Britain. It's just as legitimate a location for a story as, say, a Victorian slum or farm, or a slave ship. My problem is that I suspect “white” and “upper-class” were Willis' default decisions. I'm convinced that if the thought of locating the story in any of the numerous nonaristocratic social contexts of Victorian Britain even entered Willis' head, she immediately dismissed them because there weren't any good stories there.

In doing so, Willis is both buying into and perpetuating the prevailing myth that there is no real black history, no real poor history, no real non-European history for that matter. (This is one area where racism and classism intersect: the insistence on basing stories around Victorian aristocrats is inherently classist, but since historically there have been very few upper class people of colour in Western societies, it is also racist.)

I know this is highly speculative: I don't have an actual magic door into Willis' specific psychology, but ultimately, for the purposes of this essay, it doesn't matter. Whether or not my observations apply to Willis in particular, they do apply to the wider culture. Even if Willis has considered all this, she still ended up going with the all-white-cast-except-for-token-black-guy-set-in-Victorian-era-Oxford angle.

And believe it or not, this sort of passive racism is often the best case scenario.

Cultural Demonization

People who've read my review of Crichton's State of Fear may recall that the lack of any main characters of colour other than the generic sidekick was not the only problem the book had regarding race relations.

While there were not other protagonists of colour, there were several antagonists. Not just antagonists who happen to be people of colour, but island natives who in their hatred of all things Western want to go back to the old ways—including cannibalism. Keep in mind that “Western” in this context translates as “white Anglo-Saxon.” “Western culture” means a culture of white Europeans and Euro-Americans. People of colour can become part of such a culture, but it isn't a culture by them, for them, or about them.

Anyway, the island natives in State of Fear are villainous because they're backward, primitive natives who eschew all Western civilization in favour of homegrown barbarity. Meanwhile, more enlightened native peoples want nothing more than to leave their squalid, oppressive villages (which did not at all become unlivable partly on account of past and present Western imperialism, oh no), and immerse themselves in Western education, Western technology, Western advances, and, most importantly of all, civilizing Western culture.

This, at least, is the impression one gets from State of Fear, and seen from this angle, Sanjong represents the ideal person of colour: apart from his name, he has fully internalized Western values and thus become civilized. He is now worthy to fight on the side of good—though only, of course, as an adjunct to the white Western heroes.

I know Crichton is merely attempting to subvert the liberal “Big Bad West vs. victimized Third World” binary Uma Narayan criticizes in her book Dislocating Culture. However, unlike Narayan, Crichton merely reverts to promoting the colonial “Western = good, civilized, non-Western = bad, uncivilized” paradigm which the “Big Bad West versus victimized Third World” narrative is in revolt against. This is not exactly a step forward.

Several months ago, I wrote a positive review of the 2005 American thriller The Interpreter. However, since reviewing State of Fear I've been forced to reexamine my thinking about the movie.

What I've realized is that the villains of The Interpreter were not just people of colour, but an African dictator and his minions. This in itself is not a problem. As Narayan points out, it's good for Westerners to exercise extreme caution in criticizing other cultures, but that's not the same as saying we shouldn't criticize them at all. There's nothing inherently wrong with First World cinema depicting Third World dictators as villains.

Who does The Interpreter depict as heroes, though? The local resistance to the dictator is crushed halfway through the movie, leaving only one force to oppose him: the heroic defenders of Western civilization.

Sure, it's supposed to be the United Nations who are the heroes, an organization of the world's countries coming together to bring a tyrant to justice.

But who does the movie focus on? Who exposes the dictator's plot for the World Court to indict him? Who spends the first hundred-and-twenty minutes trying to foil the villain's plans/dodge his assassins?

Let me give you the run-down: First and most prominently is Silvia Broome, the white African woman who left her country's armed resistance to the dictator's rule to become an interpreter at the U.N.. She lives in New York, speaks with a British accent, and appears to have pretty much abandoned her former African culture. While there are a few noteworthy exceptions to the latter case, on the whole I think it's safe to say that Silvia is largely Westernized.

And the other heroes of The Interpreter who do most of the legwork? Tobin Keller, Dot Woods, Doug (interesting that they didn't come up with a last name for him) and all the others are either white Westerners or Westernized people of colour, all of them American, members of the Secret Service and New York Police Department.

From a geopolitical point of view, the story is one of the United States—the supreme Western power—rescuing the helpless Africans from their own backward, repressive culture.

I don't have a problem as such with Westernized people of colour in stories set entirely within Western nations. People of colour who have lived for generations in the United States—especially descendants of African slaves, whose culture was brutally suppressed by the slave trade—are likely to be largely acculturated to mainstream white culture (although they're also likely to have a few important cultural differences from their white neighbours).

From a cultural point of view, the problem with State of Fear and The Interpreter is not that they depict Westernized people of colour in heroic roles. The problem is that it shows heroic Western whites and Westernized people of colour bravely defending the human race from villainous, expressly non-Western people of colour.

In a society as steeped in racism and cultural imperialism as the United States, subtext such as that found in The Interpreter is depressingly commonplace, but it's striking that you can find it in such an obviously progressive-minded movie.

But it's also telling that even such a progressive movie as The Interpreter contains such patently racist, imperialist messages. It's equally telling that even now, in 2009, we can have a violent controversy in the science fiction/fantasy community over the depiction of people of colour and cultural misappropriation.

What is this telling us? That clearly, we've got a long way still to go.

[1]According to sources on the internet, D'anite plays a bigger part in the sequel trilogy, Uplift Storm. It's entirely possible that this second series is much better when it comes to depicting people of colour than the original, which would be a point in Brin's favour, but it doesn't do much for Uplift as a self-contained trilogy.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 10:00 on 2009-06-15
Interesting article, though I have to take you up on one point:

I don't exactly condemn Willis for writing a story which takes place in white, upper-class Britain. It's just as legitimate a location for a story as, say, a Victorian slum or farm, or a slave ship. My problem is that I suspect “white” and “upper-class” were Willis' default decisions. I'm convinced that if the thought of locating the story in any of the numerous nonaristocratic social contexts of Victorian Britain even entered Willis' head, she immediately dismissed them because there weren't any good stories there.

Could you go into what basis you made this call? I think it's tremendously difficult to say whether an author chooses a particular setting because they couldn't think of a good story in an alternative setting, or they chose the setting because it best suited the story they wanted to tell.

In general, in fact, I think it's almost always healthier for people to tell the stories that they want to tell, although ideally people will take a look at their output occasionally and seriously think about whether there's representation issues. I can see that many demographics and societies are under-represented in fiction, but I don't think it's helpful to scold people when they write about the "wrong" sort of protagonist or setting - it's much more helpful, to my mind, to praise people when they do write about the sort of hero and milieu that have been seriously underserved, and to recommend said authors passionately.

If nothing else, I don't think directly challenging authors to write about protagonists outside their own demographic is necessarily going to make those authors less racist. I can think of nothing worse than Robert E. Howard (to take an extreme example) trying to write a story about a black hero; the man simply had so much baggage that a trainwreck would be inevitable. The exercise can help if it prompts authors to seriously think about race issues and representation and to properly research other cultures, but they should be doing that anyway if they are addressing race at all.

I'm also mildly uncomfortable with the idea that every creative work necessarily has to become a political battleground. I don't think it's a moral failing to occasionally read/write a story that's about sheer escapism and doesn't invite the reader to seriously consider real-life social issues; obviously it can be jarring when such stories betray actual prejudice or tokenism on the part of the author, but at the same time I can watch, say, the new Star Trek movie and enjoy it as a harmless spectacle without picking it apart.

As far as black history in To Say Nothing of the Dog goes, it's difficult for me to judge without the context of Lewis's comment - could he have been being sarcastic or exaggerating? Could he really have meant "all of history which the time travel department is interested in sending missions to"? If the time travel is under the control of a meddling, racist aristocrat it makes absolute sense that the department completely ignores black history - Willis might in fact be making a point about real-life history departments having a Eurocentric view of history.

State of Fear gets worse and worse the more I learn about it, though.
Rami at 10:36 on 2009-06-15
I was going to say something about your interpretation of Willis, but Arthur's already said most of it.

I think there is also, however, a point to be made in that when a lot of people speak of 'history' they're talking about their geographically specific history -- so history classes in Welsh schools, for instance, spend a good deal of time on Welsh history and only mention the independence of Bolivia in passing. This is exacerbated by the colonial baggage and navel-gazing common to Europe, but I don' think that's the root cause. So I have no trouble thinking that perhaps Willis, like most people, simply didn't think of history outside her continent when penning her lines.

I do want to say something about how you saw The Interpreter, though. I think the seeming Westernization of the main character isn't really that big a deal -- the fact of the matter being that, as apartheid clearly demonstrated, southern African whites were and to a large extent still are a separate cultural group. (I suspect, for instance, that her accent was meant to be South African or Zimbabwean, which hasn't changed much from the colonial British).

What I do think is a big deal, and why I don't like the film, is that it is in a very neo-colonial neo-imperialist way generically demonizing an African dictator and glorifying a resistance fighter while blithely ignoring all the associations armed white resistance has in the not-too-distant past.

I think it's pretty obvious The Interpreter was meant to be a thinly veiled allegory for oppressed Zimbabwean whites and the terror of Robert Mugabe, but I think it was handled clumsily by people with a hearty helping of white American middle-class privilege...

Welcome to FerretBrain, though, and thanks for the thought-provoking article :-)
Rami at 10:39 on 2009-06-15
@Arthur:
I'm also mildly uncomfortable with the idea that every creative work necessarily has to become a political battleground.

I agree with the general concept but, and I don't mean to accuse you of insensitivity here, that's a lot easier to say if you're in the ethnic / racial / cultural majority.
Arthur B at 10:46 on 2009-06-15
I think it's pretty obvious The Interpreter was meant to be a thinly veiled allegory for oppressed Zimbabwean whites and the terror of Robert Mugabe, but I think it was handled clumsily by people with a hearty helping of white American middle-class privilege...

It doesn't help, of course, that the situation in Zimbabwe has moved on since then; the experience of the white minority has sort of been forgotten in the popular consciousness now that the entire population is suffering, so the allegory the film was trying to set up might go over the head of audiences who have become used to reports of Mugabe being horrendous to everyone, not just the farmers.
Arthur B at 10:56 on 2009-06-15
I agree with the general concept but, and I don't mean to accuse you of insensitivity here, that's a lot easier to say if you're in the ethnic / racial / cultural majority.

No, you're right, this is why I say it can be jarring when stories that are meant to be escapist fun betray prejudice on the part of the author. Writers who want their work to be treated as lighthearted, noncontroversial entertainment have to bear the burden of ensuring that what they write is, in fact, lighthearted and noncontroversial, a trick which is more difficult than it sounds.

(This hinges, of course, on minority writers having as much chance of being published as people in the demographic majority. If the people writing escapist fiction are exclusively white that's clearly a problem, but it's debatable as to whether the problem lies with the authors drowning out other voices or the publishers overlooking minority talent.)
Rami at 11:09 on 2009-06-15
can be jarring when stories that are meant to be escapist fun betray prejudice on the part of the author

Well, I don't think this is limited to stories that are meant to be escapist fun, although I do agree that's where it's most likely to really annoy me :-)
Arthur B at 11:21 on 2009-06-15
I wasn't limiting the jarring effect to stories that are meant to be escapist fun, but I do find it's where it's most jarring. If a story's meant to explore Serious Business then there's the expectation that the author will have points that he or she wants to make, and I as a reader can at least be ready for that with the understanding that I might or might not agree with the points being made, whilst there is no sound more unwelcome than an axe being ground somewhere you didn't expect to hear axes being ground. ;)
Andy G at 11:40 on 2009-06-15
I think something that can enjoyed as escapism can still ALSO be approached on a more serious level - especially as there always are going to be cultural assumptions of one sort or another in the text that can be challenged or discussed. Doing this isn't necessarily to say that the author as an individual is especially biased and awful, because OF COURSE people write out of their own cultural background (that's what they do when they just try to write the best story they can). It's more about engaging with the wider cultural concepts as they appear in the text.
Andy G at 11:41 on 2009-06-15
P.S. Apologies for excessive caps. How do I do italics?
Rami at 11:44 on 2009-06-15
no sound more unwelcome than an axe being ground somewhere you didn't expect to hear axes being ground

Ah, sorry, I think we are slightly at cross-purposes here -- my point was more to do with less-than-consciously prejudicial attitudes and portrayals. So, for instance, a Howard-imitator writing a lighthearted Conan-ish romp and completely failing to see the significance of the swarthy desert-dwelling 'barbarians' he's spliced in as his sorcerous villains.
Rami at 11:58 on 2009-06-15
How do I do italics?

I've added this to the IAQs, and put up a commenters' guide :-) In HTML, you basically put an <em> before a word or phrase you want to italicize, and a </em> after.
Arthur B at 13:26 on 2009-06-15
Ah, sorry, I think we are slightly at cross-purposes here -- my point was more to do with less-than-consciously prejudicial attitudes and portrayals. So, for instance, a Howard-imitator writing a lighthearted Conan-ish romp and completely failing to see the significance of the swarthy desert-dwelling 'barbarians' he's spliced in as his sorcerous villains.

Ah, well that as always comes under the author's responsibility to assess their own text and seriously think about what biases may be showing, and to listen when people raise legitimate complaints about their work and change their approach accordingly, which I don't think escapist writers are excused from.

That said, the distinction between Racist A (the closet Klansman) and Racist B (someone who sometimes parrots the biases of their culture without thinking) isn't one that people always make in these discussions, which I suspect is one of the driving forces behind the racefail controversy. If I say that an aspect of a writer's work is racist, and don't clarify what you mean by that, then I'm not being clear whether I mean the author is acting like Racist A or Racist B, and if I go so far as to call someone a racist most people naturally assume that I mean Racist A, which is the more condemnatory accusation, since it implies direct malice rather than cultural myopia. Meanwhile, everyone happily condemns Racist A and declare that, because they aren't like Racist A, they can't be racist, when in fact anyone can act like Racist B at any time. The potential for needless drama is infinite.

This is why statements like "Everyone's a little bit racist" are dangerous. It's true in the sense that there's a little bit of Racist B in everyone - nobody is free from their own cultural background, after all - and we can forgive B's occasional slips so long as B understands what they did wrong. It's not true in the sense that we aren't all secretly Racist A inside, and it can't excuse A-like behaviour.
Guy at 13:43 on 2009-06-15
Regarding "The Interpreter", my impression when I saw it was that the script had been written with a black woman in mind as the lead/title character, but that for one reason or another (grubby commerce/racist studio executives/inability to get the film made at all until Nicole Kidman put her hand up) the character had been re-written at the last minute. In any case, the result is that you get the Mississipi Burning problem; while ostensibly an anti-racist film, the overwhelming subtext is that racism is a problem to be resolved between racist and non-racist whites, with a side-role for non-whites either as passive observers of the process or, in the case of "The Interpreter", as villains.
http://alexey-rom.livejournal.com/ at 15:02 on 2009-06-15
I ask you, the entirety of human history as a sort of Auschwitz/Gaza Strip for blacks? Seriously?


For mid-21st century blacks who would need to fit in there? Most of it would be pretty bad. Note that it may also be a political decision. As for African history, I agree with the previous commenters: the department is probably simply not interested in sending missions there, given its general understaffing, underfunding, etc. Note that much of European history -- all of Middle Ages, for a start! -- is in the same boat.

My problem is that I suspect “white” and “upper-class” were Willis' default decisions.


My own assumption would be that Britain was default; since she wanted to have Wodehouseian-Jeromian adventures, “upper-class” is necessary; and Victorian upper-class England happens to be white.

In her time travel series: Doomsday Book is set in a village during the Black Plague, and All-Clear is during the London Blitz (so are two short stories and a segment in To Say Nothing of the Dog). Neither are particularly aristocratic contexts. So I really don't see how you can believe
I'm convinced that if the thought of locating the story in any of the numerous nonaristocratic social contexts of Victorian Britain even entered Willis' head, she immediately dismissed them...
http://alexey-rom.livejournal.com/ at 15:22 on 2009-06-15
I just actually checked.

“Lady Schrapnell came and took everyone else. She would have taken me, but the first two-thirds of Twentieth Century and all of Nineteenth are a ten for blacks and therefore off-limits.”
...
“I know, sir. I pointed that out, also the fact that the entire past is a ten for blacks.”


Given that he starts with pointing out a specific time period as being ten for blacks, it seems to me that the second ten may be an editorial mistake (presumably for eight or nine). It is also something Jones tells Lady Schrapnell to avoid being press-ganged, so it may be a white lie. (Though "the fact that" counts against this idea.)
Jamie Johnston at 19:36 on 2009-06-15
Interesting stuff.

I must say, Lewis' comment about "all of history" does sound to me (not that I've read the book or anything) like a white writer trying to be all righteous about race rather than something a black British mathematician in that scenario would actually say. He isn't a historian, so one can forgive him for having the incorrect impression that the whole of the Euro-American past is "a ten for blacks", but it would be quite surprising if it simply never occurred to him that "the entire past" includes the history of Africa, whereas that's exactly the sort of unexamined assumption a white person would make.

The reason I say it's incorrect to think of the whole of the Euro-American past being "a ten for blacks" is that there's no evidence I can think of that blacks would have found the Roman world any more dangerous than any other non-Roman people. Not that an Oxford historian would think of that: they tend to think of History as going back only as far as the early middle ages, before which there is only Classics. :)

On a different note:

racism is still alive and flourishing in 2050s England (which seems depressingly likely)


... says L. I'm not sure one need be so depressed, actually. Not that racism will be entirely gone from Britain by 2050, but I shall be genuinely surprised if there's still any significant level of black-white racism among non-posh city-dwellers under the age of 60. The synthesis of Afro-Caribbean British youth culture and European British youth culture is already so far progressed in London's less affluent layers that discrimination between black-skinned and white-skinned members of that generation would be as ridiculous as discrimination between blue-eyed and green-eyed ones. The process is less advanced with British teenagers of South Asian and East Asian descent, and with teenagers of all kinds in the countryside and small towns; but since urban youth culture tends in Britain to become the general popular culture of the next generation, 2050 may not be ludicrously unrealistic.

What there will be, in spades, is xenophobia; but that's another kettle of fish.
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2009-06-15
L. Robinson is valiantly undeterred by Racefail.
(Funny thing: Before I figured out that Kyra provides the taglines, the one I came up with read: "L Robinson is characteristically late jumping on the Racefail bandwagon.")

Welcome to FerretBrain

Thanks, Rami. I've actually been hanging out here for a while on OpenID, but I thought "L Robinson" would make a better Contributer moniker than "Arkan2."

I want to start out by saying that although I'm working from a few specific examples here (and occasionally getting perhaps a bit too personal about the authors' choices) my main aim is not to criticize those works of fiction specifically, but rather to use those examples to illustrate some more overarching trends.

I do have some issues with Willis which are specific to her (and I'll get to those in a minute), but my point is that I think that for Western writers and Western audiences (not even necessarily white Western, you understand) white, Western, and some amount of class privilege are the accepted defaults.

It's possible Willis put just as much real consideration into making her protagonist a person of colour or a setting that was more open to people of colour as what she actually went with. It's equally possible that she put just as much consideration into the option of having a female protagonist as a male one.

However, most white Western male authors with any siginicant degree of class privilege, which is to say most Western authors, would not put as much serious consideration into having a protagonist of colour as one who's white. Even today, most wouldn't even put as much serious consideration into having a female protagonist as a male one.

The cultural assumption in the US at least is that unless a story is specifically dealing with racial issues it will have an all-white cast except for one or maybe to token minorities.

To put it another way, the expectation is that unless you are specifically trying to be political, you will write stories predominantly about white people.

Often this is incongruous given the setting (more often when you switch from the race lens to the gender lens), but sometimes you could make the counterargument that "It would be unrealistic to have many people of colour in that setting." But what I was trying to point out in the essay is that another cultural expectation is that (again, unless the writer is specifically trying to be political) a story will be set in a context where you wouldn't necessarily be surprised to see a white majority. (E.g. Victorian England, Oxford area.)

I find the very assumption that a Western mainstream book, movie, TV show or what-have-you must be political to have more than a token racial minority cast (or be set in a context where even racism couldn't defend a majority white cast) deeply racist. My intention is to condemn that assumption, not the many authors who have failed to escape it.

I'll grant you prejudice, Arthur, but if you want to talk about tokenism, the new Star Trek is an excellent place to start. Tokenism is still racist, but it's also so prevalent that I can't really blame white Western writers and directors for employing it under normal circumstances. (I actually do take exception to Star Trek|| for that, because for me, one of the key points of Star Trek has always been its at-least-somewhat-succesful attempts to be progressive, sometimes even radically so.)

I don't single out Uplift and To Say Nothing of the Dog just because they employ tokenism. I single out the former because the author actually brings up tokenism and racism in another context, and the latter because it draws attention to its own tokenism and offers a quarter-arsed excuse for being tokenistic which is if anything even more racist than just being tokenistic in the first place.

The meddling arisocrat in question only recently made a donation to the history department and started micromanaging it, and I didn't get the impression she was supposed to be racist, Arthur.

It is possible that T.J. was lying to get out from under her thumb, or was exaggerating/being sarcastic, or that his comment was supposed to be interpreted as "all of history which the time travel department is interested in sending missions to", but I certainly never got that sense from reading the passage, and in instances like this, the burden is on the author to convey that impression to the people who aren't reading closely for those racial nuances.

I ask you, the entirety of human history as a sort of Auschwitz/Gaza Strip for blacks? Seriously?
For mid-21st century blacks who would need to fit in there? Most of it
would be pretty bad.
Bad yes, but we're not talking about bad. We're talking about worse than the London Blitz. We are talking about constant danger of immanent death, regardless of specific context. Hell, Birmingham Alabama was not a good place for black people to be during the first half of the 20th century, but do you really expect me to believe that even at its worst, it was significantly more dangerous for a random black person than London in the middle of a bombing raid?

Thanks for the quote, Alexey, but I don't think it was an editorial mistake. I think he said "ten" and meant "ten." Neither lady Schrapnell nor Mr. Dunworthy have any problem sending Ned, his companions, or that guy in Fire Watch into a level eight situation (the Blitz), and given what we're told of Lady Schrapnell, I'm guessing she only back down from "ten" because ten means "absolutely not allowed under any circumstances whatsoever" carved into the White Cliffs of Dover.

You've got a point about her other stories taking place in the the Blitz and other places (haven't read Doomsday Book, I'll take your word for it). But I guess what I really meant is that she writes in contexts which are familiar to white Western audiences. (I guess a Victorian farm or slum wouldn't be so much of a stretch at that--just because I haven't read Dickens doesn't make him any less mainstream.) A village during the black plague, too.

But a community with a high percentage of people of colour? Unless it involves slaves somehow, that's not what one generally things about when they think about Europe before, say, 1900. Which is primarily why, I believe, Willis probably didn't even seriously consider locating any of her stories in one.

Rami, you've got a point about people writing their own history because that's what they know more about. (I believe Willis is actually American, or at least has lived in the U.S. for long periods of time, but it is her history if not necessarily her continent.) But I suspect she doesn't know much more about the history of people of colour in Europe than I know about the the history of people of colour in North America, apart from big things like slavery and segregation. This is in itself a problem from a racial standpoint, though totally understandable. If I chose then to go ahead and write an historical novel set in the US not relating to slavery or segregation and did not think it necessary to consider the history of people of colour in that historical and geographical setting, that would exacerbate the problem (although, again, it would be understandable given my general social context).

Hmm, I don't remember getting Guy's imperssion that the main character of The Interpreter was supposed to be a black woman originally, but maybe. If so, it might make some things even worse, though, such Keller talking Sylvia out of shooting the dictator in the end.

I didn't think of The Interpreter as a movie trying to deal with racism, so I didn't so much mind the white protagonists and black antagonists. It wasn't till I looked through the cultural lens that the movie got disturbing.

I didn't mean to make a big deal out of Sylvia being Westernized. I just threw that in for completeness sake, because I'm talking about race and culture specifically, and she was a white African at one point.

Huh, I don't know any details about the situation in Zimbabwe, so I took it as an allegory of Mugabe being an arsehole to everybody, not just white Africans. (I appreciated the fact that both resistance leaders were black--if either of them had been white too ...)

I actually got a lot of good things out of State of Fear (well, a few), but yeah, there were some aspects to it that are very disturbing.
Finally (ye gods, I'm actually coming to the end of this comment), Arthur makes an excellent point with the Racist A and Racist B archetypes. When I talk about racism these days, I'm pretty much talking about Type B unless specified otherwise, because that's by far the more prevalent and destructive. But you're right that most people don't think about it that way, and in that kind of situation, as you say "The potential for needless drama is infinite."

That's encouraging news about the integration of youth cultures in London, Jamie. Obviously, I don't know as much about England as most of the people here, but I do know that on this side of the pond, racial discrimination is so systemic that it would take a major upheaval (more than just better integration of cultures) to overturn that completely. Whether or not such an upheaval is likely to happen in the next 50 years is open for debate, but I feel there's a strong possibility that it might not.
Arthur B at 22:42 on 2009-06-15
Rami, you've got a point about people writing their own history because that's what they know more about.

To play devil's advocate a bit: the advice people always give to new writers (and it's a pretty effective bit of advice) is "write what you know", and people will always know the culture they grew up in far better than they'll know anyone else's. The solution to a lack of white protagonists in popular fiction isn't to convince white authors to write about black characters; that treats the symptoms, but not the disease (and on those occasions when said white authors carry their biases over into their black protagonists the results are ugly). The solution is to get to a point where minority authors make up a representative proportion of the people producing work in the genres in question. Of course, a white author can try to write from the point of view of a black protagonist, but you can't expect them to actually speak for black culture, because then you get rather embarrassing consequences - in fact, you get what you complain about in The Interpreter, where racism is a problem to be solved by nice white people shouting down nasty white people.

So my question is this: does the lack of black protagonists in a particular genre betray a lack of black authors being published in it? And if that's the case, what do we need to do to get some diversity on the bookshelves?
Shimmin at 22:57 on 2009-06-15
I'd really like to have seen the "danger scale". I mean, even travelling back in Britain, most people would be well out of their depth within a hundred years or so.

Appearance would be a big problem - even with appropriate clothing, modern hairstyles wouldn't fit, so in their modern life, the historians would have to keep their hair in various ancient styles, tailored to the period in questions. Many people would also be so tall and healthy-looking, with modern diet and medicine, that they'd attract attention instantly.

Then there's behaviour. Most importantly, language, which changes fairly rapidly, and further back in history, was even more region-specific. So the historians would need to master the dialect of each region they visited, in each period they visited it, to fit in. They'd still be spotted as outsiders.

Also, historically, people tended to do things. So if you weren't a crofter, or a smith, or a fletcher, people would wonder how you earnt your keep. If you were supposed to be too rich for that, you'd have to fear robbery, murder or kidnapping even more than normal; and you could expect questions from those people who knew about the rich and who they were.

Because they'd be conspicious (and they'd presumably be taking notes, or observing things, which is suspicious) they'd probably be hauled before the local mayor, sheriff, chieftain, prince or insert title here, to explain themselves. Law is complex and ever-changing. They might be had for vagabondage, or begging, or as likely runaway serfs, or for failure to provide two days' service to the Earl, or trespass, or wearing textiles or colours, not suitable for their status, or insubordination. All kinds of minor laws or rules of etiquette (probably impossible to research - people didn't record these things) could land them in trouble. They'd almost certainly have you for spying if you were going around taking notes.

But basically the point I'm belabouring is that history is bloody dangerous. It's full of wars and robberies and bandits and violent street gangs and rabid dogs and the Black Death and infected water supplies and tribal warfare and battles between students and townsfolk (in Oxford). I'd think ethnicity was not your major concern.
Viorica at 00:19 on 2009-06-16
but if you want to talk about tokenism, the new Star Trek is an excellent place to start.


In all fairness though, they're pretty much stuck with the original cast. And the original cast was all about tokenism. I know some people have taken Spock's arc in the new movie as an allegory for the problems faced by biracial/bicultural children, but I suppose that depends on the viewer. *shrug*

Not that racism will be entirely gone from Britain by 2050, but I shall be genuinely surprised if there's still any significant level of black-white racism among non-posh city-dwellers under the age of 60.


Seriously? I'm not British, so I don't know what it's like, but even if outright hatred is gone, there's still the more subtle forms that this essay is all about.

I think that part of the reason so few white writers write about people of colour is that they can't imagine doing it without addressing racism somehow, and they don't want to/are afraid of addressing racism, so they try dodging the problem altogether by having an all-white cast. Except of course that all they've managed to do is further the problem.

(. . . and then when people actually do try to give PoCs a fair representation, they get screwed over anyway)
Sonia Mitchell at 01:02 on 2009-06-16
Congrats on your first article :-) You make some very interesting points - I've not read most of the books you discuss so I can't comment much on them, but it was a good read.

there's no evidence I can think of that blacks would have found the Roman world any more dangerous than any other non-Roman people - Jamie

The Emperor's Babe by Bernadine Evaristo is a really interesting novel about a black woman living in Roman Britain. Aside from being in free verse it's a pretty light read that borders on being chick lit, so it's nearly mainstream. A few more novels like that being published would be no bad thing.

An interesting part of the author's note credits a book for opening her eyes about the ancient history of black Britain, which she hadn't really known about (Evaristo herself is black).

does the lack of black protagonists in a particular genre betray a lack of black authors being published in it? And if that's the case, what do we need to do to get some diversity on the bookshelves? - Arthur

I'd say that's a big part of it. I notice at least one publishing house has a scheme to actively recruit members of ethnic minorities, which may have an effect several years down the line when those recruits are in a position to be commissioning (which is definitely not to say that they are the only ones who should/would want to commission work from minorities).
Dan H at 15:24 on 2009-06-16
The solution to a lack of white protagonists in popular fiction isn't to convince white authors to write about black characters; that treats the symptoms, but not the disease


I think you're dead wrong here, actually.

So my question is this: does the lack of black protagonists in a particular genre betray a lack of black authors being published in it? And if that's the case, what do we need to do to get some diversity on the bookshelves?


To get some diversity on the bookshelves, we need to convince publishers that their primarily white readership will read books about black people.

To do *that* we need to get people to realize that a book can have a non-white protagonist without being about race.

To do *that* we need to get people to realize that "white" is *not* the default and that a story can, in fact, be "just about sheer escapism" while still having a non-white protagonist.

To do *that* we need to get white authors to write about non-white people. We need to get people to realize that you do not need a *reason* to make a character non-white any more than you need a *reason* not to. We need people to see that the choice is not "do I write a book about wizards or a book about black people" but rather "what race are the people in my book about wizards".

If white people can't be expected to *write* about black people, they can't be expected to *read* about black people, and if they can't be expected to *read* about black people, how can publishers be expected to publish books about black people?
Rami at 16:26 on 2009-06-16
we need to get people to realize that "white" is *not* the default

Yes. This × 100. We're never going to see real diversity on the bookshelves until non-white characters are as commonplace as non-white people.

Sure, a lot of white authors are going to get it wrong. Lots of them, doubtless, are going to get defensive when people point out their mistakes. But I think those are probably both inevitable and essential in actually getting past racefail and doing it right.
Andy G at 16:27 on 2009-06-16
To do *that* we need to get people to realize that a book can have a non-white protagonist without being about race.


I think that before you get to that stage, you have a stage where you have non-white protagonists and it IS about race. You don't persuade the white readership to read books with black protagonists by persuading them that those books aren't about race; you persuade them to read books that are about race (the hidden assumption is that they won't read books about race, based on the belief that e.g. books about race are not entertaining, light reads).
Arthur B at 16:27 on 2009-06-16
If white people can't be expected to *write* about black people, they can't be expected to *read* about black people, and if they can't be expected to *read* about black people, how can publishers be expected to publish books about black people?

To clarify my point: obviously, white authors should feel free to write about black characters and vice versa. You are probably right that too many authors take "white" as a default option, and this is a habit people need to break themselves of. In the case where an author's writing about sheer escapism then there shouldn't be any issue, so long as the author doesn't actually casually drop racist ideas left and right because they're Robert E. Howard and can't help themselves; if you're just writing about minority characters and aren't making a statement about a minority culture, then there's absolutely no problem.

(It strikes me, in fact, that these discussions would go a lot better if we avoided using the term "people", because that can mean "characters" or "culture" equally.)

I think the difficulty white authors have here, however, is that it isn't just their decision as to whether their story is about race, just as it isn't solely JK Rowling's call as to whether Deathly Hallows is about how brave and noble Harry Potter is. I think because race is such an emotive subject, and because authors with their hearts in the right place don't want to upset readers, they often feel unable to write minority characters for fear of, well, arguments like this. And to be fair, if a white author did write a story they intended to be about sheer escapism, and if they did happen to include a black protagonist, and if the portrayal of said protagonist was completely racist and horrible (because, say, the author is Robert E. Howard and he simply couldn't help himself), there would rightly be a shitstorm about it, and race would very much enter into the equation.

I suspect that you are correct that many - probably even most - white authors don't write escapist stories featuring black protagonists because they just treat whiteness as a default. But I suspect that there are also authors out there who don't write light-hearted escapist stories about black protagonists because they don't trust themselves not to fuck up, and/or they don't trust the audience not to take a different interpretation of what they have written. I suspect that if this fear is acute enough to prevent white authors actually writing about black protagonists, then it's probably based on a sound foundation (if you can't trust yourself to write about women you probably do have issues about women), but the only way through the impasse is to encourage white authors to bite the bullet and go ahead anyway if they're contemplating writing about black protagonists, and to rake them over the coals if they fail.

A thought experiment for authors: design a cast of six characters, but don't come up with any demographic-specific details about them - just come up with a list of personality traits for each of them. Then randomly assign genders, races, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations to each of them. If you think some of the personality traits you've assigned to a character are inappropriate for the demographic traits you've randomly assigned to them, you might want to look at why you think that.
Arthur B at 16:37 on 2009-06-16
We're never going to see real diversity on the bookshelves until non-white characters are as commonplace as non-white people.

Is this actually the aim, or is the aim just getting the incidence of non-white protagonists more or less equal to the incidence of non-white people in the cultural context in question? I think the ideal should be for fiction to accurately reflect the culture it describes; there shouldn't be a 50/50 white-nonwhite split unless you're actually writing about an area where that sort of split exists. (On a global scale, of course, about 1 in 5 protagonists should be Han Chinese...)

Of course, if you're not dealing with real-world demographics, then all's fair.
Rami at 16:57 on 2009-06-16
cultural context in question

Associated with non-white characters are non-white cultural contexts, of course. How about writing novels set in the kingdom of Mutapa or Mughal Empire rather than Elizabethan Shropshire?
Viorica at 17:46 on 2009-06-16
I think part of the problem is that most Western people are more familiar with Western history than they would be with African or Asian history. I could name all of Henry VIII's wives by the time I was twelve, but the most I know about Imperial China is that it was once ruled by the Tang dynasty.
Arthur B at 17:59 on 2009-06-16
Well, there you have a chicken and egg problem: to write a decent story set in the kingdom of Mutapa an author would need to properly research the place, but it wouldn't occur to many authors to research the kingdom if they hadn't already heard of it and were interested enough to try to write a story set there. And if not many people are writing about it in popular culture, it's going to be more difficult for people to hear about it in the first place.

Which sort of steers us back to the history departments: a great way to encourage people to write fiction set in cultures they haven't heard of is to make sure there's decent, accessible, engaging non-fiction readily available about the place. It doesn't help that many libraries (which you really need to use for research, even in these proud Internet days) have a bottom-up approach to history: a public library will usually have a really decent local history section describing things in fine detail, a fairly extensive collection of work on national history, and a "world history" section which can only ever hope to give a vague overview of the globe. I think the Internet can help a lot these days, especially if local history buffs worldwide make a big effort to get information about their area online, but it can't do everything.
Robinson L at 20:02 on 2009-06-16
@Dan and Arthur:
Really, I think you're both right. They both need to be done. Even when we do have more writers of colour in the business, that doesn't totally excuse white writers writing completely token--there's plenty of female writers out there, but that doesn't mean that a lot of male writers still need to learn to write better female characters.

It seems to me we should be working on both simultaneously.

Obviously, writing about other cultures is also important. The last section of the essay is all about how current cultural representation in modern Western mainstream is ... problematic. (It's also a much dicier proposition, but I not, I submit, impossible.)

Funnily enough, the next essay I'm working on is about just such a book, although since I'm woefully unfamiliar with the culture in question, I can't really assess how good a job it does.

Shimmin, Willis does handwave some of that stuff by giving the History Department its own hairdresser and costume-maker and these audio lessons to teach its agents manners and customs. You're right that realistically, this wouldn't cover everything, but I'm prepared to let my willing suspension of disbelief stretch that far.

But I think the general point you're trying to make is that (apart from a couple very specific temporal and geographical locations in history), time-traveling at all is likely to be a lot more dangerous than what colour your skin is when you time-travel. I agree with that.

Re: Star Trek||: In all fairness though, they're pretty much stuck with the original cast.
Personally, I would've been happier if they'd ditched the old cast and started out with a clean slate. They could've found some other strong element (perhaps a theme) of the old Trek to justify calling it "Star Trek." (Having to put some real mental effort into making it Star Trek, they might've come up with a plot with fewer holes than a cosmic sieve and more twists than a 3rd grade rollercoaster.)

Congrats on your first article :-)
Thanks Sonia!

we need to get people to realize that "white" is *not* the default
I think I've been trying to say that. Thanks, Dan.

Ooh, thought experiment. I'm not sure if I could actually make it work without assigning gender at least in my head, but it'd be interesting to try. Good one, Arthur.
Shimmin at 07:21 on 2009-06-17
I suspect...white authors don't write escapist stories featuring black protagonists because they just treat whiteness as a default. But I suspect that there are also authors out there who don't write light-hearted escapist stories about black protagonists because they don't trust themselves not to fuck up...


I suppose there may also a kind of "optimality" going on. Typically, if you want to write a story with protagonists who aren't like you, then a) you've got to do a lot of research over and above the effort of writing the story, and b) you'll probably make mistakes.* So it seems to me like you would need a good reason to not make them like you - either you need it for the story, or you're interested in that kind of character already, or you think it would make the story better. At the same time, there's a kind of trade-off - does the increased coolness of the story outweigh the effort of research and extra attention to character? Also, will your story end up being not as good as it would have been had you made the character like you? Because that's a real risk. And if writers are pressed for time (and indeed need to keep money rolling in) then the longer they spend on research, the less efficient they are. So, another YSMCWASM then..?

*Of course, if you're totally making up the culture, race, species etc. of the character this is less of a concern, at least if you do it consistently.
Dan H at 09:58 on 2009-06-17
I think that before you get to that stage, you have a stage where you have non-white protagonists and it IS about race.


I see where you're coming from, and I do appreciate that I'm engaging in a certain degree of doublethink here.

Obviously if you write a book with a non-white protagonist, people are going to pick up on that and make it An Issue, and if you have a white protagonist they won't.

The thing is it *is* in fact still an issue. A white character does not have "zero ethnicity". Writing about white people makes a statement about race, just as much as writing about black people does. It's just a statement that most white people can comfortably ignore.

To put it another way, race is not an "issue" - it's people - and the only way to ignore the "issue" of race is to ignore the fact that non-white people exist. This is tremendously easy to do and, for a white person, has no particular drawbacks. But it's not neutral.
Dan H at 10:17 on 2009-06-17
Which sort of steers us back to the history departments


Is it just me, or is this all getting a bit Yes Minister? I mean, what you're basically saying here is that the underrepresentation of non-white people in fiction is not the responsibility of the people who write that fiction, the people who publish that fiction, or the people who read that fiction, but the responsibility of the Ministry of Education.

And of course it doesn't stop there, because we're never going to teach African history in British schools because the Daily Mail would have a *fit*, and the Daily Mail would have a fit because the people who read the Daily Mail are kind of racist, and they know what sells newspapers.

So we wind up with a situation where we can't take any action to combat racism until we have eliminated racism.
Rami at 11:01 on 2009-06-17
a great way to encourage people to write fiction set in cultures they haven't heard of is to make sure there's decent, accessible, engaging non-fiction readily available about the place.

True, but considering how hard it is to find accessible, engaging non-fiction about anything I don't know how much that'll help. I find it hard enough to find non-fiction I want to read about politics, for instance, and I spent lots of my degree reading academic journals about the topic so my standards for "engaging" and "accessible" are pretty low.

I suppose there may also a kind of "optimality" going on.

Oh, absolutely -- it's a pretty simple tradeoff between doing something with your characters' background (and possibly being lambasted on the Internet for it) and using that energy for something else (e.g. getting your book out the door quicker).

I think there are certainly things the community can and should do -- like giving more kudos to authors who are brave enough to try anyway, although it's a tricky balance between that and gently pointing out where they could do better. Perhaps we should expect and actively encourage Racefails, because without failing there's no forward movement.

But I don't think introducing an African history curriculum in primary schools with the ultimate aim of producing adults familiar enough with it to want to write books set in medieval Africa is going to be all that helpful.

Of course, if you're totally making up the culture, race, species etc. of the character

This is where I think it could and should make the most difference -- SF and fantasy authors can very easily have non-white protagonists and characters (although they don't tend to) and focus on the aliens / elves / whoever.
Arthur B at 11:18 on 2009-06-17
Is it just me, or is this all getting a bit Yes Minister? I mean, what you're basically saying here is that the underrepresentation of non-white people in fiction is not the responsibility of the people who write that fiction, the people who publish that fiction, or the people who read that fiction, but the responsibility of the Ministry of Education.

I'm not saying anything that even resembles that; what I'm saying is that the lack of popular nonfiction in a field contributes to the lack of popular fiction dealing with the subject matter - and on the flip side, histories of previously-unfashionable subjects that end up gripping the public imagination can create a market for fiction about those very same subjects. We wouldn't have had The Da Vinci Code without The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail - actually, that's a pretty good example, because it's a case where a popular history book (albeit one from the conspiracy fringe) ended up inspiring an insanely successful story, which in turn prompted an explosion of fictional and nonfictional interest in a heresy which by any measure had infinitely less impact on Christian history than, say, the Christological debates of the early Church councils or the Lutheran Reformation.

Of course, this only applies to historical fiction; writing about a racially homogeneous modern-day Britain is a distortion of facts which you can check simply by looking out of your window.

So we wind up with a situation where we can't take any action to combat racism until we have eliminated racism.

No, we wind up with a situation where we can't eliminate racism unless we take action to eliminate it in all fields, because racism in one particular pursuit (historical nonfiction, say) feeds racism in related pursuits (historical fiction, in this example); this is why cultural biases are so difficult to root out in the first place.
Rami at 11:56 on 2009-06-17
No, we wind up with a situation where we can't eliminate racism unless we take action to eliminate it in all fields

Which is absolutely true and very nice-sounding, but where do we start? I think it's rather easier to start in fiction than in non-fiction, personally -- less research absolutely necessary, more sales to provide incentives for the authors, etc.
Wardog at 11:57 on 2009-06-17
Can I just point that the Internet has *already had a racefail*. Do we really need to have our own?
Rami at 11:59 on 2009-06-17
By the way, congrats on your choice of topic, L. Robinson! In two days your article's leapt to 10th most-commented-on!
Arthur B at 12:10 on 2009-06-17
Which is absolutely true and very nice-sounding, but where do we start?

Surely the only answer to that is "Wherever the opportunity to act arises"? I mean, obviously fiction authors and publishers have the most ability to counteract racism in fiction, but surely everyone has a responsibility to tackle it in their own field, and surely successes in one area resonate elsewhere? You can't tackle "the beginning" of racism because it's a feedback loop, you just have to break the links wherever you find them.
Jamie Johnston at 18:54 on 2009-06-17
A thought experiment for authors...
- Arthur

That links with something I've had in mind reading these comments, which is how all this relates to writers working in dramatic rather than narrated forms. Writing a script you have an interestingly different set of options (or at least different angles on the same options). You can studiously attempt to avoid making any decisions about the skin-colour and even, to a limited extent and depending on the type of story and setting, the cultural background of all the characters, and leave it to the vicissitudes of casting; or you can have in your own mind an idea of the demographic characteristics of your characters and write their dialogue and actions in that way but say nothing about it in stage directions, leaving it up to the director to pick up on the details or not; or you can stipulate the characteristics in notes and stage-directions. And even in the second and third cases you know a director may well decide to cast it colour-blind or the director and actor together may consciously reinterpret a character's culture and colour.

And then, of course, matters are even more interesting for the writer of a radio-script.


On the topic of publishing and such, another thing to consider is the (translation and) publication of books written by and about ethnic-majority / cultural-majority people in parts of the world where the ethnic and cultural majorities are different from ours. Of course that still runs up against the problem of publishers thinking white British / American readers won't buy such things, but it does to some extent provide a work-around for a shortage of good manuscripts that fit the bill (if such a shortage exists). And that in turn has the potential to make it more natural for white British / American writers to think of writing such characters themselves.

I suppose I have in mind analogies with smaller cultural leaps like the fact that most British singers of popular music automatically sing in (approximations of) American accents because almost every genre of popular music comes from North America, and the fact that American writers of fantasy invariably think of it in terms of (approximations of) medieval European culture because the fantasy genre comes from Tolkein.

Of course to some extent that whole phenomenon tends to work the other way, in that the novel is a European invention and many non-western novelists adopt western assumptions along with the form (in particular I was struck to hear Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the radio the other day saying that until she read Chinua Achebe it never occurred to her that novels could be about non-white people).

Er... I don't quite know where I was going with that, but there we are. Something to add to the conversation.


Can I just point that the Internet has *already had a racefail*. Do we really need to have our own?
- Kyra

I can't see any immediate danger of fail, but rest assured that if I do I'll be among the first to retire from the conversation. :)
Rami at 20:14 on 2009-06-17
most British singers of popular music automatically sing in (approximations of) American accents

I'm not sure about this, but I think that might be almost as much to do with the enunciation necessary to sing clearly -- most English accents I'm aware of aren't super-clear.
Jamie Johnston at 20:34 on 2009-06-17
Would it be unhelpfully flippant of me to contrast Bob Dylan with Julie Andrews?

To be serious, yes, there are non-cultural reasons too, like the fact that North American vowels are generally better for long notes and that the British insistence of pronouncing the letter 't' as 't' rather than 'd' makes for hard sounds that interrupt the flow. But clarity of enunciation I'm not convinced about. In particular the North American singer has the very serious problem of being almost unable to distinguish between 'can' and 'can't'.
Shimmin at 22:14 on 2009-06-17
To be serious, yes, there are non-cultural reasons too, like the fact that North American vowels are generally better for long notes and that the British insistence of pronouncing the letter 't' as 't' rather than 'd' makes for hard sounds that interrupt the flow.


I have to say I'm not really convinced, because for one thing singers of other languages don't have a problem. Mandarin, for example, has no voiced stops like 'd', and a different vowel inventory. Gaelic singing manages vowels that sound quite alien if you're not used to it. Also, it's very much a genre-based phenomenon - British classical singers (where clarity tends to be important) tend to sing in something like RP, and folk singers usually keep their accents very distinct, whatever they are. Only "popular music" seems to Atlanticise, so I think it really is just part of the style.
Rami at 22:30 on 2009-06-17
British classical singers (where clarity tends to be important) tend to sing in something like RP

Ah, I didn't know that -- I've not heard many British classical singers.

singers of other languages don't have a problem

Hadn't thought of that - Bengali pop singers do sound decidedly odd with Western-influenced backing music, though I'd always assumed that was the different stress pattern the melody imposes.

Having thought about it, Jamie, you're probably right in that most pop singers are to some extent imitating their influences, so on balance they're likely to come out sounding American-ish.
Dan H at 23:50 on 2009-06-17
Surely the only answer to that is "Wherever the opportunity to act arises"?


Nice in theory, but a lot of the time the answer winds up being "whenever the opportunity to act arises, but not right now".

For example, you say:

I mean, obviously fiction authors and publishers have the most ability to counteract racism in fiction


But most of your comments on this article argue the exact opposite. Your suggestions for how to address the underrepresentation of non-white people in fiction have been for more non-white people to write fiction, and for there to be more popular histories about non-white cultures written. The idea that regular authors should actually consider having non-white protagonists is one you continually dismiss ("I don't think it's helpful to scold people when they write about the "wrong" sort of protagonist or setting," "I don't think it's a moral failing to occasionally read/write a story that's about sheer escapism and doesn't invite the reader to seriously consider real-life social issues," "The solution to a lack of white protagonists in popular fiction isn't to convince white authors to write about black characters," and so on).

If fiction writers and publishers are the people most able to combat racism in fiction, does it not follow that they have some level of responsibility to, well, do it?
Arthur B at 00:33 on 2009-06-18
Your suggestions for how to address the underrepresentation of non-white people in fiction have been for more non-white people to write fiction, and for there to be more popular histories about non-white cultures written.

I'm not seeking to let authors off the hook, I'm pointing out that they aren't writing in a vacuum and that there are factors outside of writers and publishers that encourage the status quo within fiction publishing. "Racism in fiction" isn't some isolated phenomenon that's completely isolated from racism in the rest of society. You are correct that the most direct and effective single way to tackle racism in fiction is for authors and publishers to try to stop being racist. But if we knock down the other factors that support the status quo in fiction and keep encouraging authors to do what needs to be done then things will progess even more quickly. And surely that's of benefit?

The idea that regular authors should actually consider having non-white protagonists is one you continually dismiss

I could say that the idea that the "regular author" is a white person is one you continually promote, but I'm going to put that aside.

("I don't think it's helpful to scold people when they write about the "wrong" sort of protagonist or setting,"

I stand by this: I think praising and encouraging people when they get things right is always going to be more effective because people have an irritating tendency to turtle up when you accuse them of casual racism. Obviously when people grossly mishandle race issues they should be called on it, but I don't think that we should tut and roll our eyes whenever a white author publishes a book about a white protagonist and sigh over another missed opportunity.

It's always more effective to save the rhetorical molotovs for when you can actually build a decent case against an author. The fact that one particular story by an author happens to possess a white protagonist or be set in a male-dominated society, to my mind, isn't enough by itself to justify accusations of bias; if an author never gets around to writing about a non-white protagonist, then you can start making the case that they are defaulting to whiteness, but by definition you can't really tell whether a writer is defaulting to a particular kind of protagonist or setting until you get more than one data point. (Of course, if you can actually cite stuff in the text that's indicative of bias that's a whole new deal.)

"I don't think it's a moral failing to occasionally read/write a story that's about sheer escapism and doesn't invite the reader to seriously consider real-life social issues,"

You will note in my later comments that I say that if authors actually do want to just write something light and not make race a big deal, the onus is on them to try and make sure that race does not, in fact, become an issue surrounding their work. I will be more explicit about this, since it seems necessary, and say that this means authors of lighthearted escapism need to master a very difficult trick: they ought to try and make sure their fiction is properly inclusive (because if it isn't then the audience will notice, and then race/gender/whatever demographic isn't being included will become an issue), but at the same time they need to be careful that their fiction doesn't become about how inclusive it is. This is a trick that should in principle be easy - scatter diversity liberally, try not to draw too much attention to it - but it's surprising how often people fail at it.

"The solution to a lack of white protagonists in popular fiction isn't to convince white authors to write about black characters," and so on).

I stand by this. I think convincing authors to write about protagonists who are not like themselves is generally healthy both for the authors and for the state of popular fiction, but at most it can only ever be part of the solution, not the solution.

Again, while I agree that it is the responsibility of authors as a whole to take the lead in tackling the issue, you can't place the responsibility entirely on their shoulders. We keep letting the publishers off the hook in this discussion, and I'm not convinced that's a smart idea. The point I was trying to make with the discussion about nonfiction is that it is vastly easier for authors to broaden the range of their writing if the culture surrounding them supports it. The history angle came up, after all, when Rami asked why UK authors are always wittering on about Elizabethan Shropshire and never show much interest in the Mutapa Kingdom or Mughal Empire, and I pointed out that authors would be vastly more likely to write about the latter if they've actually heard of the places in question in the first place (through popular history writers promoting the subject) and if they actually can get decent research materials on the places in question.

Yes, we could get to where we needed to be simply if authors took on the entire burden of getting us their themselves, but can we at least agree that we'll get there a lot sooner if the barriers to doing so were lowered?
Arthur B at 01:19 on 2009-06-18
To clarify the above a bit, so there's absolutely no confusion: obviously, authors bear sole responsibility for what they write, and if they are actually biased and it's pointed out to them then it's a grave moral failing of them not to make the effort to change.

At the same time, we can't pretend that they're writing in a vacuum; just as authors have a responsibility to make their writing diverse, everyone else in the equation has a responsibility not to make that process more difficult than it needs to be. This means that the audience needs to loudly champion diversity, call out authors when it becomes clear that they're being biased, and support the authors who do it right, both by heaping praise on them and by buying their books in the first place. Publishers need to recognise that the audience wants diversity, and that it's in the interest of their bottom line to provide it. At the end of the day, it's down to the authors to do the right thing, but if they're confident that doing so won't wreck their pocketbook and earn them scorchingly awful reviews, they're much more likely to actually do it.

As for the Mughal Empire and other real world cultures that just don't get mentioned in the public discourse, both nonfiction and fiction authors have a responsibility to redress the balance.
Andy G at 10:36 on 2009-06-18
most British singers of popular music automatically sing in (approximations of) American accents


This is something my mum commented on when she worked with primary school kids. I think it's a variation of the phenonmenon mentioned in the article you posted to in your LJ (was that THE Racefail post) where Indian kids would write stories using über-British names for the characters. I don't think any language is inherently any better for singing, any more than it's inherently any better for poetry or literature.
Rami at 11:01 on 2009-06-18
if they are actually biased

I'd say they almost invariably are -- pretty much everyone is, and part of that is thanks to, as you say, contributing factors like the fact that everyone in Britain will have been taught about Churchill but I don't think many will have been taught about Netaji Subhash Bose. Jamie's pointed out that even African writers are subject to such biases.

But I think that those kinds of biases are so ingrained and so systemic that we don't really know for sure how they're formed and we won't really have a shot at fixing them until we've been through a couple of decade-long iterations of attempts at change. Not that I think we shouldn't do so -- we absolutely should -- but I think to change the face of genre fiction it's more useful to focus more closely on authors and publishers.

Publishers need to recognise that the audience wants diversity

I think you're kind of arguing against yourself here because if we recall an earlier discussion about implicit bias, then actually there's a pretty good argument to say that Western audiences don't want diversity (especially not in the North of England), and that's why publishers aren't providing it.

Admittedly, that's an oversimplification and a rather shortsighted way of looking at the situation, but I think the point stands. It is something that can and should change and I think more audience support for publishers who get it will help that.

audience needs to loudly champion diversity ... support the authors who do it right

Yes, absolutely, and the audience needs a culture of constructive criticism so that authors who have tried and failed are lauded for their effort and encouraged to try again and do it better next time.

I think we've said all there is to say on this, though, and I suggest we call a halt to avoid impending Fail.
Rami at 11:02 on 2009-06-18
On the other hand, apparently there is a non-cultural reason for accent shift when singing...
Arthur B at 11:18 on 2009-06-18
I think you're kind of arguing against yourself here because if we recall an earlier discussion about implicit bias, then actually there's a pretty good argument to say that Western audiences don't want diversity (especially not in the North of England), and that's why publishers aren't providing it.

I think the point I was making in the previous discussion isn't that Western audiences don't want diversity so much as that when diversity isn't present, they often fail to recognise it. Which is where the critics need to play their part.
Andy G at 11:59 on 2009-06-18
On the other hand, apparently there is a non-cultural reason for accent shift when singing...

I'd say that applies more to trained classical singers though, where the training deliberately eliminates individual differences. I'm amazed how well people with hopeless German are able to pronounce things entirely correctly when singing in choirs. But accents are much more clearly heard in other types of songs - pop songs (which is where people sound particularly American), folk songs, etc.

I guess a more local example would be the degree to which, say, Scottish/regional accents can be clearly distinguished in British pop music, as opposed to generic bland.
Dan H at 12:29 on 2009-06-18
people have an irritating tendency to turtle up when you accuse them of casual racism


This is true, but I think you're approaching the point from the wrong direction. You seem to be saying that this is the fault of the people making the accusations, not the people doing the turtling.

One of the big, important ideas to come out of Racefail was the idea that this is Not About You and Me.

Because we live in a white-dominated society, any discussion of racism will focus more on the effect of *accusations* of racism on white people than on the effect of racism on non-white people. Everybody agrees that we have to speak out against racism, but not if it means hurting the feelings of a white guy.

It's always more effective to save the rhetorical molotovs for when you can actually build a decent case against an author.


You're making a fundamental mistake about racism. Racism is not a problem caused by individual people being very racist, it is caused by large groups of people being slightly racist.

If I write one book, and it's about a white guy, and you write one book, and it's about a white guy, and Kyra writes one book, and it's about a white guy and Sonia and Viorica and Jamie and Shimmin and L. Robinson all write books, and they too are all about white guys none of us can *individually* be accused of bias, but the net result is eight books none of which have a non-white protagonist.

It's not about individual authors being accused of bias, it's about bias which *demonstrably exists* in a body of work created by *thousands* of individual authors, all of whom share responsibility for that bias.

You will note in my later comments that I say that if authors actually do want to just write something light and not make race a big deal, the onus is on them to try and make sure that race does not, in fact, become an issue surrounding their work


Yes, and the best way for them to do that is to not put any black people in it. We've already established that you can't criticize white authors for choosing not to write about non-white people, so the best way to make race "not an issue" in a purely escapist piece of fiction is to conveniently ignore 10-25% of the population.

The history angle came up, after all, when Rami asked why UK authors are always wittering on about Elizabethan Shropshire and never show much interest in the Mutapa Kingdom or Mughal Empire


I don't want to speak for Rami in this, but I *think* the reason he brought up the Mutapa Kingdom and the Mughal Empire was as a way of highlighting the fact that you can *always* come up with ex post facto justifications for why a particular author just *happened* to choose in *this* particular situation to write about white people.

Historical fiction? I just don't know that much about non-European history, and it *happens* that Elizabethan Shropshire is what I'm really interested in writing about.

Fantasy? Well what draws me to fantasy is that it's connected to our *mythic heritage* and my cultural background is western, so naturally I'll draw on western imagery.

Science Fiction? I didn't want to present a society where racism no longer existed, but I didn't want to write about racism, so I had to make my protagonist white OR in the future there isn't any racism, so the fact that my protagonist is white doesn't matter OR this book is about its central SF idea, not about the colour of the main character's skin.

Literary Fiction? Well ultimately I needed to draw on my real life experience, and I didn't feel I could speak for black/South Asian/whatever culture.

Romance? It's vital that the reader be able to put herself in the position of the heroine, and making her non-white would make it difficult for the majority of the readership.

Crime? Well I couldn't write a gritty urban story with a black protagonist without making race an issue, and I didn't want race to be an issue.

Horror? See: Fantasy. Horror draws on mythical ideas, and the mythology I wanted to draw upon was western in origin.

And then of course there's the "I didn't want race to be an issue" argument and the "it would be tokenistic" argument and of course the "are you saying I'm a racist" argument.

Currently, non-white people are underrepresented in popular fiction. Everybody agrees that something should be done about this, but everybody believes that it is up to somebody else to do about it, because every author believes that *they* are writing about white people because the story demands it.

The people who cast the SF channel Earthsea or the live action Avatar *really did* believe that they were practicing "colourblind" casting. They really believed that the white actors they cast in the key roles were "better" for those roles than the non-white actors they turned down.

Racism *is not* something you can conveniently put in a box and set on fire. Racism is perfectly nice people making perfectly reasonable decisions which somehow always come out in favour of guys like you and me instead of guys like Rami.
Arthur B at 13:10 on 2009-06-18
Currently, non-white people are underrepresented in popular fiction. Everybody agrees that something should be done about this, but everybody believes that it is up to somebody else to do about it, because every author believes that *they* are writing about white people because the story demands it.

I agree that this is a problem, as is the fact that individual acts by a dozen different authors can amount to a collective bias, which is something I hadn't considered.

In fact, I agree with pretty much all your post.
Rami at 13:33 on 2009-06-18
the reason he brought up the Mutapa Kingdom and the Mughal Empire was as a way of highlighting the fact that you can *always* come up with ex post facto justifications

Just to add to this -- yes, that's pretty much where I was going with it.

I think it's also worth pointing out that I hadn't even known the Mutapa Kingdom existed before I looked it up: I'd just assumed there must have been some kind of major political grouping in that part of the world roughly contemporaneous with Elizabethan / Mughal times. The fact that it only took a couple of minutes of searching on the Internet to get a somewhat detailed and accessible article does indicate that if someone were interested, they could quite easily write fiction set in a historical / geographical context they didn't know very well. Sure, they'd probably get lots of it wrong, but we'd be happy they tried!
Dan H at 16:36 on 2009-06-18
think the point I was making in the previous discussion isn't that Western audiences don't want diversity so much as that when diversity isn't present, they often fail to recognise it


Actually I think it's stronger than that. I think Western audiences *genuinely* do not want diversity, and the problem is compounded by the fact that we *think* we do.

There is no way that "Haresh Patel and the Philosopher's Stone" would have been an international bestseller. I doubt House would be in its fifth season if the good doctor was played by Morgan Freeman.

I cannot put my hand on my heart and swear that I would have loved Buffy as much as I did if she had been played by a black woman.

If I see a book in which the main character is non-white, there is a part of my subconscious that immediately files it as "minority interest". I don't consciously try to avoid books with non-white protagonists, but if a book *does* happen to be about a black person, I immediately mentally file it as "a book about black people" when what I really want to read is "a book about wizards and swordfights". The fact that a book could be about wizards and swordfights while still having a black protagonist genuinely doesn't occur to me, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't occur to a lot of writers either.
Arthur B at 17:24 on 2009-06-18
I think the general public can embrace stories with non-white protagonists, but you are correct to the extent that we don't do it nearly often enough. The two most popular examples I can think of in SF/fantasy are Red Dwarf and Earthsea. In Earthsea Ged isn't white, but his skin colour is absolutely irrelevant when it's the dragons and the evil stones and his own shadow that are the problem. In Red Dwarf, Rimmer is a smug cock who is convinced that he is socially superior to Lister, but their racial backgrounds never become an issue. Granted, Earthsea is a bit debatable, since lots of people (including the SciFi channel and some cover artists for some editions) don't notice that Ged isn't white, but Red Dwarf is in a visual medium and SF/fantasy audiences love it.

On the other hand, I think you do have a point in that it's less clear whether the audience would have embraced the Earthsea books or pre-apostasy Red Dwarf to the extent that they have if they weren't very very good indeed. It's an open question whether people would rank them alongside books/shows of a similar quality if they were merely "good" or "OK".

(Also, House would be brilliant with Morgan Freeman in the lead role. The only thing more devastating than having Hugh Laurie calling you an idiot is having the voice of God calling you an idiot.)
Andy G at 17:36 on 2009-06-18
Would this be a good point to fling The Wire into the ring, as I know various people here have been watching it recently ... that's interesting here because it was written by white middle-class men but has been praised for its portrayal of a largely black cast, and it's also been claimed that its low ratings were due to audiences being put off by the number of black characters.

(On the other hand, of course, it very much IS about race, and is not a genre show.)

It's something that slightly undermines my intuition that white writers in a racist society are less likely to be able to represent non-white characters well - either they'll underrepresent them or miswrite them cringeworthily if they do attempt "fair" representation. I don't know whether this latter option is a painful necessary stage that comes before good writing about non-white people by white authors (someone made a similar point here about the 60s portrayal of Uhura), or whether that's always going to be the exception unless society as a whole changes?

It just seems to me to be a bit of a Rubrik cube situation - it isn't really a question of cosmetically changing one individual element, lots of elements have to change together: a society in which non-white authors are better represented across different genres would also be a society in which white authors could write non-white characters better.
Rami at 17:45 on 2009-06-18
I think Western audiences *genuinely* do not want diversity

As I said above, I think it's possible and even probable that white Westerners don't actually want diversity. In which case forcing it upon you is initially going to be something of a lost cause because no one will write or publish books that won't sell. How many people in the ethnic majority are going to be self-aware enough, or give enough of a damn, to ignore that bit of their subconscious that doesn't really want to read a book about people who aren't like them?
Niall at 17:49 on 2009-06-18
I think the general public can embrace stories with non-white protagonists, but you are correct to the extent that we don't do it nearly often enough.

Yes. My examples were going to be Slumdog Millionaire and Deep Space Nine, the former of which almost certainly benefits from a perception of being something exceptional, the latter of which benefits from having a pre-established and loyal audience.

Within sf, it's been bothering me that the Arthur C Clarke Award is on its longest-ever streak of male winners. (1987 to 2002: 8 male and 8 female winners. 2003 to present: all men.) There's never been much racial diversity among shortlisted and winning authors, and that hasn't changed. But intriguingly, the gender diversity of the protagonists of the winning books hasn't decreased, and if anything the racial diversity of the protagonists has increased; the protagonists of the last four winners are an Indian-Irish woman (Song of Time), a black British man (er, Black Man), a white man (Nova Swing) and a central Asian woman (Air). And all of them seem to have been broadly popular decisions; the last unpopular one, I would say, was when Iron Council won, beating ... River of Gods. I'm not quite sure what if any conclusions to draw from this, but I'll be interested to see if it's a pattern that continues.

And you didn't ask, but for a book about wizards and swordfights with a multiracial cast I'd be interested to know what people here made/make of Acacia by David Anthony Durham.
Arthur B at 18:30 on 2009-06-18
As I said above, I think it's possible and even probable that white Westerners don't actually want diversity. In which case forcing it upon you is initially going to be something of a lost cause because no one will write or publish books that won't sell.

I think it's a difficult point to debate unless you look at the publishing situation in other countries. How well are minorities depicted in fiction published in, say, Japan, or South Africa, or Brazil, or India? I suspect that ethnic majorities in general, wherever you happen to be, tend to reinforce a publishing culture that is biased towards them because they like to read about people that resemble themselves. Are white Westerners especially stunted in our ability to identify with people not of our ethnic background, or are we just one example of a shitty global trend? And if there are places where people have just about managed to get it right, what can we learn from them?
Shimmin at 19:42 on 2009-06-18
I think the majority-default thing is even broader than that. For example, if you read a story and the characters' backgrounds are not explicitly stated, what accent do you imagine them having? Unless there's a definite pointer elsewhere, I imagine them speaking Southern Standard English. I don't even speak SSE myself, but that's still what I default to. I don't think I've ever randomly assigned people as Brummie, or South African, or Canadian (yes, I'm sure those countries have more than one accent, but I wouldn't recognise them). Or do you imagine people as wearing glasses if it's not mentioned? Almost everyone I know or see wears glasses, including me, but again, I wouldn't imagine characters as speccy without prompting.

(Of course, there is a weird thing where it's actually fairly difficult to convey a non-Standard accent in written English, which presumably doesn't help authors.)
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2009-06-18
Currently, non-white people are underrepresented in popular fiction. Everybody agrees that something should be done about this, but everybody believes that it is up to somebody else to do about it, because every author believes that *they* are writing about white people because the story demands it.

I agree that this is a problem, as is the fact that individual acts by a dozen different authors can amount to a collective bias, which is something I hadn't considered.

In fact, I agree with pretty much all your post.

Seconded. Excellent comment, Dan.

The people who cast the SF channel Earthsea or the live action Avatar *really did* believe that they were practicing "colourblind" casting. They really believed that the white actors they cast in the key roles were "better" for those roles than the non-white actors they turned down.
I've been meaning to make a comment about this for months now, but have never found the right opportunity. Thanks for obliging.

A couple months ago, my philosophy professor told the class about James Avery, best known as Will Smith's uncle on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. According to my professor (and this isn't even mentioned on his Wikipedia page), Mr. Avery is a great Shakespearian actor, has performed Shakespeare in the park with the likes of Patrick Stewart, and would like nothing better than to continue doing Shakespeare.

... Only problem is, at 60 he's too old to play Othello, and there aren't any other roles in Shakespeare specifically for a black man.

Then we look at Earthsea and Avatar on the one hand, and on the other Star Trek and a ton of superhero movies and other re-boots. In all cases, the "best actors for the job" always just so happened to be white, regardless of the original character's skin colour.

Why, it's almost as if there were some sort of "selective colour blindness" going on ...

That said, I really don't think the problem is with resistance to women or people of colour or other marginalised groups (except maybe queer people) on the part of the white Western majority.

Niall has some good examples, and certainly Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman (totally agree with you about Morgan Freeman as House, Arthur) and even Whoopi Goldberg prove that black main characters can draw in the white Western mainstream. Sure, they're all usually Westernized (see "Cultural Demonisation") usually the only person of colour of any standing within the movie (see "Token Minorities and Racism Without Race," even Ben Sisko was often a victim of this). But I would think that after getting mainstream whites to accept a person of colour as the main character, rectifying the racial-minority-who-has-"transcended"-race and tokenism problems should be relatively easy.

I'm not saying that the white mainstream would not be totally resistant to stories about magic or romance or in depth character studies or mysteries or political thrillers or whatever that happen to star people of colour--just that I don't think they'd be as resistant as some of you have suggested. And I think if the white mainstream does prefer white protagonists to people of colour, that may at least partially be because the entertainment industry has fostered that expectation in them.

It's like my argument in the Boobs With Superpowers discussion, back before it developed into a deconstruction of gender in Lord of the Rings. I questioned whether fantasy games and movies include ubiquitous amounts of fanservice because that's what their young, heterosexual male customers feel entitled to, or whether those young, heterosexual males expect ubiquitous fanservice because movies and games have been pushing it on them for decades. (I dunno the html to link specific comments, but it was my first comment to that article.)
Dan H at 23:38 on 2009-06-18

As I said above, I think it's possible and even probable that white Westerners don't actually want diversity.


Or at the very least, we can comfortably live without it. And sorry for using "westerners" to mean "white westerners". Fail.

How many people in the ethnic majority are going to be self-aware enough, or give enough of a damn, to ignore that bit of their subconscious that doesn't really want to read a book about people who aren't like them?


That being the big problem, and the reason that for all my self-righteous internet posturing the ball is really kind of in my court. The tragic thing is that I'll probably just retreat into my comfort zone and stick with my lighthearted, escapist books that pretend that non-white people don't exist.
Viorica at 00:02 on 2009-06-19
The people who cast the SF channel Earthsea or the live action Avatar *really did* believe that they were practicing "colourblind" casting. They really believed that the white actors they cast in the key roles were "better" for those roles than the non-white actors they turned down.

They might very well have- at first. But the fact that people raised an outcry and their reponse was to a.) Cast all the villains as non-white, and keep the white heroes, and b.) Loudly proclaim that wthey wouldn't listen to any more complaints pushes it into the "deliberate racism" category for me. Especially when I look at someone like JJ Abrams, who worried over casting John Cho as Sulu because Cho is Chinese and Sulu's Japanese. If a successful Hollywood director is capable of concerning himself with these issues, the Sci-fi Channel casting people should certainl be able to.
Dan H at 08:58 on 2009-06-19
But the fact that people raised an outcry and their reponse was to a.) Cast all the villains as non-white, and keep the white heroes, and b.) Loudly proclaim that wthey wouldn't listen to any more complaints pushes it into the "deliberate racism" category for me.


It's certainly unacceptable, but I think it's important to recognise that it isn't *deliberate*.

If somebody doesn't think they're being racist, and somebody turns around and says "hey, you're being racist" the natural response is to say "no I'm not, you are". Again, it comes down to the Big Important Thing About Racefail, which is that guys like me (and the guys who cast Avatar) need to realise that race issues aren't about letting us feel good about how totally non-racist we are, they're about not treating other people as second-class citizens.

Again, not defending them or saying they're anything other than casually racist douchebags, but I think it's important to recognise that they themselves would be *mortified* at the suggestion that they're being racist (I mean, some of their best *friends* are probably ... yeah you get the idea).
Arthur B at 09:51 on 2009-06-19
I think Dan is correct that the Last Airbender casting people probably didn't think they were being racist, and were probably very surprised when they were accused of being so, because M. Night Shyamalan is writing, producing, and directing the project. "We can't be being racist," the casting people think to themselves; "a non-white person is in charge of the whole process, after all, and he wouldn't sign off on a racist decision, would he?"

Sadly, it kind of looks like he has.
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2009-06-22
As I said above, I think it's possible and even probable that white Westerners don't actually want diversity.

Or at the very least, we can comfortably live without it.

Now that, I'll agree with. I don't think most whites are so racist that they'll avoid anything that features prominent characters of colour, but they probably are racist enough not to feel deprived if they never see any.

Cast all the villains as non-white, and keep the white heroes
Not in Earthsea; in that they kept everybody but the Magical Negro and the blink-and-you-miss-him torturer white.

Exactly, Arthur. It's not only white people who can do things which are racist against people of colour, any more than it's only men who can do something which is sexist against women.

Having just recently caught Iron Man on DVD, I suppose I should point out, sort of in counterpoint to what I said in my last comment, that they have cast Samuel L. Jackson as canonically white Nick Fury in the Marvel superheros series.

However, this may not be so revolutionary, as the Ultimate Marvel version of Nick Fury was actually modeled on Samuel L. Jackson. So there is a sort of textual precedent. (Does it strike anyone else that books and comic books seem to have an easier time being progressive when it comes to race/sex/sexual orientation etc.?)

Another possible mitigating factor: He's freaking Samuel L. Jackson. As far as I can tell, none of the white actors replacing canon persons of colour in Earthsea or Avatar are anywhere near as prestigious.
Arthur B at 22:38 on 2009-06-22
However, this may not be so revolutionary, as the Ultimate Marvel version of Nick Fury was actually modeled on Samuel L. Jackson. So there is a sort of textual precedent. (Does it strike anyone else that books and comic books seem to have an easier time being progressive when it comes to race/sex/sexual orientation etc.?)

It's my understanding that the actually approached him when they were brainstorming the Ultimate Marvel version of Nick Fury and asked if they could use his likeness, and he gave the thumbs up on the condition that he gets to play Nick Fury in the movies.
It's certainly unacceptable, but I think it's important to recognise that it isn't *deliberate*.


The racism was accidental. Probably. The studio/producer/director became aware of the fail during preproduction shortly after announcing the culturally appropiated cast. When they chose to do nothing to correct the racism, it became deliberate.


"We can't be being racist," the casting people think to themselves; "a non-white person is in charge of the whole process, after all, and he wouldn't sign off on a racist decision, would he?"
Sadly, it kind of looks like he has.


Looking at how M Night Shyamalan's movies portray race, it's hard to ignore the deafening, thunderous fail. And I'm including 'Lady in the Water'. MNS, who grew-up in the states, is the sad, ironic product of Hollywood's institutionalized racism and has internalized it. So much so that his cameos are always tremendous douche bags.

It took me a while to figure that out. I've been a fan of all his movies except for 'Lady in the Water' and was excited to hear he was attached to 'Avatar: the Last Airbender' movie. I thought, "YES, it's not Chris Columbus!"

Wah. Wah. Waahhh. Oh well. I still plan to loudly call out "racefail bullshit" (or something like that) when the trailer ends prior to the crap Bay movie that I'm getting gifted to see.
Cast all the villains as non-white, and keep the white heroes
Not in Earthsea; in that they kept everybody but the Magical Negro and the blink-and-you-miss-him torturer white.
Exactly, Arthur. It's not only white people who can do things which are racist against people of colour, any more than it's only men who can do something which is sexist against women.


What do you mean by the statements regarding who commits the racism and sexism?
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 04:38 on 2009-06-24
Dan, you said that the solution to the lack of people of color in popular fic (sf and fantasy, in particular) was to get white people to write it. I beg to differ. It's not that I really disagree - obviously, the default human shouldn't be a white man, if only because we European types are the minority on Earth as a whole. So, if you're going to write something half-way realistic about, for example, Earth in the future, you need to have a variety of "speaking parts" for people of color. And that's certainly a writer's responsibility. I do agree with you there. But I'm a librarian as well as a writer, and it does seem to me that today's consumers of pop culture are not very adventurous. They often want more of whatever they are used to - and I'd say the current "Trek" movie is a case in point. I have a lot to say about that, and *not* because it's a good or fair homage to the values of classic Trek. But that's another essay. The point is that we somehow have to get people to *read* - and watch, and become fans of - works starring people of color. If there is a market, writers will work to fill it, and, unfortunately, the market for a certain type of SF is deeply conservative. I think that has to change.

The other thing is that we should actually notice and celebrate when writers do something fine in this regard. Ursula LeGuin is still the gold standard, as far as I'm concerned, but how many non-American adults have even heard of "House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer? Three of the most sympathetic characters, including the protagonist, are Mexicans. And it's just a very, very smart book. Stories like this should be read and applauded; that they are "kid's books", and American, shouldn't keep non-American adults from reading them.

Another case in point - why was DS9 generally the least popular of the Treks? (I personally think it was the best.) And why didn't people make more of that excellent episode, "Far Beyond the Stars"?

I guess what I'm saying is that Harry's whiteness did indeed contribute to his popularity, and, as a white woman, I find that a shame. How do we get readers to be more adventurous? How do we get kids to accept Hari Patel, rather than Harry Potter, as a protagonist?

But things are getting better. Slowly, but I really do think they are getting better. More books with a greater variety of protagonists are being published, and read.

My pov as a writer - racefail just scared me. Because I am actually in the midst of writing sf about three kids of color, and I am trying hard not to even think about all the ways I could get it wrong. I have to get it written first. Then we'll see if anyone wants to read it.
Viorica at 04:55 on 2009-06-24
how many non-American adults have even heard of "House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer?


*raises hand* Haven't read it, but it was in a lot of book order catalogues when I was younger.

The whole no-CoCs/no market for CoCs thing is a bit of a catch-22. Publishers assume that there's no market for nonwhite characters because none have been successful, because none have been published, because publishers assume that they won't make any money . . . and aound, and around, and around it goes. And another problem is that so few books are *well-written*, it's especially hard to find a book about nonwhite characters. For instance, I recently tried reading Kate Forsyth's The Gypsy Crown just for the opportunity to read about the Rom experiences in Cromwell's England- but the writing was so poor, I ended up putting it down.
Shimmin at 06:47 on 2009-06-24
I was saying just last night, this discussion has motivated me to start looking for books with more diverse protagonists, but my brief lunchtime rifflings in the library suggest it's quite genre-dependent. So there seems to be a good few books in General Fiction with nonwhite protagonists, but I don't like most general fiction, which is a bit of a limiting factor. Sci-fi and fantasy, not so many (maybe because of the heavy European/PanCeltic tendency of fantasy?) so I don't read about them much.
Dan H at 12:47 on 2009-06-24
Dan, you said that the solution to the lack of people of color in popular fic (sf and fantasy, in particular) was to get white people to write it


Sorry, that was an overgeneralization in response to the suggestion that the solution to underrepresentation of non-whites in popular genre fiction was for non-white people to write it.

You're absolutely write, of course, that what gets written (and, more importantly, published) is a direct result of what there is a market for, but the key point is that we can't view the representation of race in fiction as something that white people (both writers and their audiences) don't have to think about.

I'm not a writer, but the reason that Racefail scared the hell out of me because it made me realize how easy it was to turn around and say "well yes I understand all that, but it's not a problem with *me*".
Arthur B at 14:22 on 2009-06-24
You're absolutely write, of course, that what gets written (and, more importantly, published) is a direct result of what there is a market for, but the key point is that we can't view the representation of race in fiction as something that white people (both writers and their audiences) don't have to think about.

I think the point I was trying to make earlier is that, whilst white people (and, globally, majority communities everywhere) do have a responsibility to not pass the buck and do their bit to make the situation better, at the same time they shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that racism can be eliminated simply by the action of a bunch of white people. The idea that white writers can unilaterally solve the representation problem a) implies that there's no need to encourage audiences and publishers to pay attention to published non-white authors, and b) lets publishers off the hook when they pass over books by non-white authors for spurious reasons.

To put it another way: if we had a situation 5 years down the line where the protagonists in popular fiction are absolutely, wonderfully, sparklingly diverse, but at the same time a disproportionate number of popular fiction authors are still white, we've still got a problem. It would be a great place to get to, but it still wouldn't be sufficient, and if we declare the problem "solved" at that point the old bias would just end up creeping back in. Racism is like mildew; if you leave it festering anywhere, sooner or later it ends up spreading.
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2009-06-24
Huh. I know Samuel L. Jackson gave his blessing to having Ultimate Nick Fury modeled after him, but I didn't know he'd stipulated that he had to play Nick Fury in the movies. Good for him.

What do you mean by the statements regarding who commits the racism and sexism?
Sorry, I was skipping to a slightly different topic when I said that. I was replying to Arthur's comment that yes, The Last Airbender can still be racist even though a person of colour (Shyamalan) is in charge of the project.

it does seem to me that today's consumers of pop culture are not very adventurous. They often want more of whatever they are used to - and I'd say the current "Trek" movie is a case in point. I have a lot to say about that, and *not* because it's a good or fair homage to the values of classic Trek. But that's another essay.
I'd like to read it. It sounds like you have many of the same complaints I do about the movie. (/shameless plug)

The other thing is that we should actually notice and celebrate when writers do something fine in this regard.
Oh, I agree, although as a white person, I'm probably less well equipped to point out those instances where writers get these things write than when they clearly get them wrong.

Don't think I've ever heard of "House of Scorpion" or Nancy Farmer, but I'll be sure to check them out.

My pov as a writer - racefail just scared me. Because I am actually in the midst of writing sf about three kids of color, and I am trying hard not to even think about all the ways I could get it wrong. I have to get it written first. Then we'll see if anyone wants to read it.
Best of luck. I'm in a similar boat. (Would be pretty much the same, except I haven't yet started on the projects I have in mind.) Still, the way I look at is that it's better to try and fail, or try and succeed for the short term while looking horribly backward in the long term (think the original Trek) than not try at all.

I suspect that once again, Arthur and Dan are coming at the same problem from different directions, and they're both right but not addressing the whole issue, and both trying to clarify their own points in relation to the others'.

Yes, we need both more white writers writing people of colour, and we need more writers of colour getting published as well. (And we need them writing multiracial casts, also. As with Arthur's point, more writers of colour getting published would be good, but if the story's casts are still overwhelmingly white, problem not solved.

Oh, and this line:
Racism is like mildew; if you leave it festering anywhere, sooner or later it ends up spreading.
Love it.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 03:59 on 2009-06-25
I think you're right about Arthur and Dan coming at the same problem from different directions. And you should definitely read Nancy Farmer - she is perhaps most famous for "The Ear, the Eye and the Arm", an SF novel set in 22d century Zimbabwe. It's terrific. I have to admit I was uncomfortable at how the English tribe was shown in it - a bit stereotyped, perhaps? - but I wasn't very uncomfortable. For the rest, it has an intelligent and sympathetic young protagonist (Shona tribe), three terrific detectives, and a very energetic plot that has some resonance. Farmer's just a good writer. She's not the stylist Le Guin is, and is not as subtle, but she's still very good.

As for my novel - I am making up the culture, so I don't really see how I could offend anyone, but you never know. The best you can do is to try to write believable and complex human beings (or people, as the case may be.) You can find the first few pages on my blog.

And I'm thinking I need to get to that Star Trek review! I wrote an initial one - that's again on my blog - and I did enjoy it while I was watching it. But the more I think about it, the more I dislike it, and I think it fails, pretty seriously, on a couple of levels even while succeeding on a couple more. Going off to write said review now-
Rami at 10:29 on 2009-06-25
Nancy Farmer - she is perhaps most famous for "The Ear, the Eye and the Arm"

I knew I'd seen that name somewhere before! If that's the kind of standard that House of the Scorpion lives up to then I'll definitely have to read it! It is, as you say, simply terrific.
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2009-06-25
The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm? I remember that book. Don't remember thinking terribly well of it at the time, but it's been a while. I suppose I shall take another listen at it.

I am making up the culture, so I don't really see how I could offend anyone
Well, yes, but we don't make up cultures out of thin air. Not in my experience. We look to the world around us for inspiration. So it's still possible, but from what I know of you, I have faith that you're taking due precautions.

I think I would like a look at that. And your movie review. When you say "blog" do you mean as opposed to "livejournal"? Because if they're there, I didn't see them. (Admittedly, I haven't been through all 177 entries.) Please link?
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 01:23 on 2009-06-27
Um - well. Yes, I do mean my livejournal. (I have another work-related blog, and sometimes cross-post between them, but this is where I generally journal online.) I am still working on my second thoughts about "Star Trek", and it'll take me awhile to finish. My first thoughts are right there on the first page! For the rest, you can find the first two chapters of the novel easily enough by clicking on the link "original fiction", but the first chapter (which was initially a prologue) is here:

http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/15814.html#cutid1

However - you don't like Nancy Farmer. (I agree with Rami; I think she's terrific.) You aren't impressed, it seems, by a lot of what I like, so I should think you might well be critical. What do you think of Michelle Paver and Megan Whalen Turner?

In any case, I am not looking for heavy-duty criticism right now. I am just plugging onward, trying to finish this. It is already far longer than anything I've ever written in my life. And I'm not making a big issue of race at all. It's just - the kids are brown. Why shouldn't they be?
Robinson L at 15:01 on 2009-06-29
Thanks for the clarification and the pointer Mary J, I'll be sure to check them out.

Re: Nancy Farmer. Oh, I wouldn't say I disliked her, only that I don't remember finding her particularly engaging. But that was only one book (which can't really establish a pattern) and it must have been around a decade ago. I've been reevaluating a lot of the stuff I read back then, so why not Farmer?

Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure I've never encountered either Paver or Whalen Turner but their on my (extremely long) reading list now.

I am just plugging onward, trying to finish this.
Yes, in my limited experience, it's best just to churn through and then go back and re-edit so as to make it coherent, and you don't want to get sidetracked along the way.

And I'm not making a big issue of race at all. It's just - the kids are brown. Why shouldn't they be?
Yes, so far that's been my attitude towards my protagonists of colour.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 05:05 on 2009-07-08
Just wanted to let you know I've got the review up. It doesn't quite say everything I wanted to as clearly as I'd like - I don't think - but it gets at some of my problems. I'd be interested to know what you think.
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2009-08-03
Nancy Farmer update.

So, a couple days ago, I finished listening to The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. It was about as good as I remembered.

I would compare it to the works of Lloyd Alexander or Neil Gaiman in that it tells a pretty good story but I never really got swept up in it. The characters just sort of sit there without ever really engaging the reader. Not this reader, anyway.

With Alexander and Gaiman the effect appears to be chronic. I hope the same doesn't hold true for Farmer.

Next up: Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 04:11 on 2009-08-04
Wow! We do have very different taste, I guess. I liked Tendai and Rita quite a bit, and the three detectives tickled me. I do see what you mean about Lloyd Alexander - he draws his characters in broad strokes - but I liked Taran and Eilonwy, probably because I came across them as a kid. An adult, reading these books for the first time, would probably find the characters cliched.

I hope you enjoy "The Thief", anyway. And you really should give "House of the Scorpion" a try, if only for the plot and the scientific and moral issues involved. Chances are the characters won't grab you, though they did me - (

In any case, I'll be interested to hear what you think.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2009-08-15
Second update. Finished listening to "The Thief" a couple days ago and - Warning: spoilers to follow.

... So, the first 80% of the book was pretty dull. I liked how the relationship between Gen and the Magus developed, but there wasn't much more to hold my interest.

It got better after the surprise twists, because it's nice to be able to look back at a story and say "oh, so that's what was going on" especially if you never suspected things were anything less that completely straightforward at the time. I do think she went overboard with the surprise revelation bit when she made their young companion the King's heir, though.

So good ending, but dull build-up.

"House of the Scorpion" is going to be a bit trickier, as my library system won't allow holds on the only audiocassette version they own. I can get it on playaway or the original format, but either way it will take me a considerably longer time to get to it.
Arthur B at 15:56 on 2009-08-15
Could this be a consequence of the audiobook format, though? I can see all sorts of ways in which hints that all is not as it seems might be more easy to pick up in the printed word than in spoken audio.
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2009-08-18
I can see all sorts of ways in which hints that all is not as it seems might be more easy to pick up in the printed word than in spoken audio.
That's always a possibility. I suppose if I wanted to be scientific about it I'd find some way to gauge my ability to predict plot twists on audiobooks as opposed to hardcopy. Not that I'll probably ever bother ...
Jamie Johnston at 21:19 on 2009-08-18
You'd need a scale for measuring predictability. What would the standard unit be, I wonder?
Arthur B at 21:23 on 2009-08-18
I nominate the "Brooks".

For calibration purposes, The Sword of Shannara rates at 1 TeraBrooks.
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2009-08-19
For calibration purposes, The Sword of Shannara rates at 1 TeraBrooks.
Yes, but is that hardcopy or audiobook?
http://orionsnebula.blogspot.com/ at 05:37 on 2009-12-26
Robinson,

I'm game to give your challenge a try, but struggling with how to begin. What do you mean by "design a cast"? Do you just mean, think up 6 people who could exist in the same genre? To me, a "cast" implies some thought to their interrelationships.

I thought about appropriating characters from one of my story ideas, de-gendering them (several have indeterminate gender atm anyway) and using them, but it's *really hard* to actually write a plot that doesn't depend on race or gender at any point.

I'd love if you could elaborate on how to approach this--this kind of thing has been much on my mind of late. I'm outlying a story with two protagonists, and no matter what combination of genders I try it seems to have unfortunate implications.
Robinson L at 15:02 on 2009-12-26
Orion, do you mean this one?

design a cast of six characters, but don't come up with any demographic-specific details about them - just come up with a list of personality traits for each of them. Then randomly assign genders, races, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations to each of them. If you think some of the personality traits you've assigned to a character are inappropriate for the demographic traits you've randomly assigned to them, you might want to look at why you think that.


... Because that was Arthur's challenge, not mine, but let me see if I can help anyway. I think it's probably best to start fresh, not with an existing story/story idea (it's only a thought experiment after all, you don't have to write the story which comes out of it).

As for the cast ... well, you could do that, including interrelationships, and see where it goes. You could decide two people fall in love, and then if it turns out later that they're the same sex and twenty years apart in age, so what?

However, I could see how thinking about those relationships could bias you towards certain demographic positions before you've completed the exercise, which could be troublesome. In that case, I don't see why you couldn't define the "cast" purely by their role within the story, and let the interrelationships come in later. If you find you're having too much trouble coming up with six distinct roles for six indistinct characters you could always go with the standard Five Person Band cast (complete with Sixth Ranger, of course). See how that works.
Arthur B at 20:54 on 2009-12-26
For what it's worth, the point of the exercise wasn't to come up with a workable cast of characters for a story so much as it is to challenge the preconceptions of the person doing it. Interrelationships weren't something I was thinking of when I was talking about assigning personality traits, especially since personality traits would often end up defining those interrelationships in the first place. I was thinking more along the lines of things like "passive", "forceful", "roguish", "puritanical", stuff like that.

It's basically a bit of navel-gazing designed to prompt people to challenge their preconceptions - if you're surprised that character X, who has personality trait Y, happens to be gay/straight/black/white/whatever, then it's worth thinking about why that happens to be surprising to you.

For what it's worth, it's probably easier just to take the Five Person Band cast and then randomly assign race/gender/sexuality/culture to them, and see where that takes you. But again, it's not a tool for writing stories, it's a thing to do to help you discover your preconceptions. There's no a priori reason why anyone from any background couldn't fill any of the roles in the Five Person Band.
Melissa G. at 21:06 on 2009-12-26
Actually something like this happened to me recently. I just embarked on a new writing project, and I was thinking up my large cast of characters starting with personality traits and such rather than names so as I started naming them, I realized that in my head they were all white. Which led me to go "Eep!", and then I started randomly assigning race and religion and such to try and diversify. And if not for all the articles I've read recently on sites like Ferretbrain, I probably wouldn't have caught that, and I would have been writing another story about a bunch of pretty white kids. Yipes. It was pretty shocking to me, but I'm glad I was able to realize it and stop myself. Making your characters whatever you are seems to be somewhat instinctual unless you're making a statement about race or religion, and I'm glad I was able to learn that. And now I'm working to diversify my characters more without defining them by their race/religion/etc.
Frank at 22:09 on 2009-12-26
I'm working to diversify my characters more without defining them by their race/religion/etc.

But a diversified cast of people/characters are defined by the experiences they have because of their race/religion/culture whether it's the ignorance one has due to their privilege or the victimization one receives because of their skin. If that character background is left out, it would seem the story is more token than diverse. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. Look at Dean Thomas and Cho Chang (though not Albus Dumbledore as his sexuality, while suggested to the more astute reader, is not canon.) :)

There's also nothing wrong with an all white cast of characters; read The Lord of the Rings.
Melissa G. at 22:34 on 2009-12-26
If that character background is left out, it would seem the story is more token than diverse.


Oh, of course the characters will have a sense of identity related to their race/religion/etc, but it's not the ONLY thing that identifies them. That's what I meant by that. And, yes, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with a cast of all white characters at times, but in a story set in a modern day suburban high school, it seems somewhat irresponsible not to try and include some diversity.
http://baihehua.livejournal.com/ at 23:14 on 2009-12-26
But a diversified cast of people/characters are defined by the experiences they have because of their race/religion/culture


I actually have a small problem with this, which mostly has to do with the level of specificity. I can completely agree that race, religion, etc. are defining attributes for characters in stories set on Earth in our space-time in the past, present, or not-too-distant future. When stories are set in other worlds, however, the importance of things like skin color and religion can vary from extremely important to not important at all.

I'm not at all trying to suggest that it is okay for fantasy books (being the most likely to be set in other worlds) to have all-white casts. Human beings come in a whole range of skin colors and skin color is very important to us (whether or not it should be is a whole separate argument). Therefore, human characters in stories should reflect the diversity of human beings on Earth. Readers (all of whom are human beings, to my knowledge) need to be able to connect to the fictional characters they read about, so if those characters are human, they should represent the whole spectrum of humanity. None of which means that skin color (or other attributes) has to be important for the character, but it needs to be included for the readers' sakes.
Frank at 04:28 on 2009-12-27
I actually have a small problem with this, which mostly has to do with the level of specificity. I can completely agree that race, religion, etc. are defining attributes for characters in stories set on Earth in our space-time in the past, present, or not-too-distant future. When stories are set in other worlds, however, the importance of things like skin color and religion can vary from extremely important to not important at all.


I agree.

But the title of the essay is Race in Popular Culture, and Melissa (whom I was responding to) was responding to the Arthur who had presented an exercise to challenge the preconceptions of Fb readers, hence the specificity. :)

However, since you brought it up, I wonder how easy/hard it is for fantasy and sci/fi writers to neglect or ignore race/religion/culture in their humanoid characters. I can see that it would be easier for those issues to be absent from a writer's horned-horse or alien-bug character.
http://baihehua.livejournal.com/ at 05:24 on 2009-12-27
I understand where your assumptions of context were coming from; what bugged me was that the statement by itself did not address those contextual assumptions. :-)

I'm sure neglecting to mention race or ethnicity in fantasy/sci fi varies in difficulty depending on the story(and that it's easier to bypass when your characters are alien bugs or even cats). That said, I can't think of any interesting fantasy or sci fi books in which no mention is made of any of the humanoids' races/ethnic backgrounds. We tend to like characters better when we have some idea what they look like, and that often gives away their racial/ethnic heritages.
http://orionsnebula.blogspot.com/ at 19:20 on 2009-12-28
Since we're now in story-time, I hope no one will mind if I post my current dilemma. Maybe stating it aloud will help things.

So I have two characters, A and B. A is insightful, compassionate, and quick-witted, but also timid and fastidious. All in all, traditionally feminine. B is fearless, driven, and powerful, but also bitter and rash. Overall, traditionally masculine.

The plot is this: A is cajoled/coerced into embarking on a quest for a magic McGuffin with which s/he's supposed to cure a plague and then conquer the continent. B is A's mentor/bodyguard, and resents the power A is coming into. At the last minute, A rejects the quest and runs away to settle down on a farm. B takes up the quest and retrives the item.

This is supposed to be a "happy ending" in that A is where A is happy, and the quest succeeds anyway. A possible sequel would have B make a mess of things with B's newfound power, requiring A to intervene with tact and wisdom to help put things right.

No matter what genders I assign, there are pitfalls.

Male/Male: No major female character.
Female/Male: The story is about a stereotypical man and woman, and the happy ending becomes a woman retiring from adventuring to let the men do men's work.
Male/Female: This one works up until the sequel, when the bitter, power-hungry woman needs help from a man to straighten things out.
Female/Female: Besides being harder for me to write, this one compares a feminine hero favorably with an unfeminine one.

I'm sure I'm missing something obvious, but I'm going round in circles on this one.
Arthur B at 19:23 on 2009-12-28
Sounds like part of the issue is only having two characters of any importance. Who's doing the coercing in the first place?
Arthur B at 19:32 on 2009-12-28
Double-posting, because I spotted another issue: you haven't decided firmly whether to have a sequel or not.

Please don't do that. We don't need yet another Robert Jordan on the market. Either decide that you definitely intend to write a sequel, and plan accordingly, or just plan to write a self-contained story, and if there happens to be room for a sequel at the end that's a happy bonus (or a sloppy job of providing closure, but let's be optimistic). If you really like the idea you have for the followup story, why wait for the followup when you could tell both stories at once?

Part of the problems you outline with the gender pairings come down to this. The Female/Male scenario is only problematic if the action you describe in the sequel does not occur. The Male/Female scenario is only problematic if a sequel happens.

More thoughts:

- Why does it have to be A that pulls B fat out of the fire in the first place, rather than some other tactful, wise character? A's happy ending, as you present it was being able to abdicate their destiny and find their own way in life. To force them to go back and clean up the mess in the sequel undermines that horribly.

- The way the plots seem to be structured, "bitter and rash" seems to be a fatal character flaw - it makes B screw up the quest - but "timid and fastidious" doesn't seem to be so bad. Is this intentional?
http://orionsnebula.blogspot.com/ at 20:17 on 2009-12-28
Arthur: I'd be happy to send you a more detailed outline which discussed the other characters. There's a royal heir involved who is the financial political sponsor of the operation, and a scout/guide type kid who's there so A has another kid to be a foil. (A is ~15, B is 20 ). But I don't want to clutter the comment thread with a lengthy synopsis, in case Robinson is still using it. B's superiors assigned B to the mission at the heir's request.

Then there's the antagonist, a rival magician, and a couple of political figures with brief appearances.

Re: Timid and fastidious. I should maybe have written "cowardly," but that seemed to judgmental. Maybe "fearful and conflict-averse" would be better. It's part of why A needs B's help in the first place, since A can't/won't do A's own fighting, and it's why A abandons the quest, so in that sense it's equally disabling.

But yes, I do like A better which is part of what makes assigning genders difficult.
Arthur B at 20:45 on 2009-12-28
Hmm. There's not much more I can add without this turning into some sort of plot clinic, and I'm certainly not qualified to handle such a thing. But for what it's worth, since you don't have much sympathy with B, maybe a solution could be to de-emphasise B and promote someone else to co-protagonist status? If B's going to end up the antagonist anyway it makes sense to set things up so that A doesn't have to be all on their lonesome, and if you have a scout thrown into the mix to be a peer to A then it seems to make much more sense to try to treat A and the scout on equal terms than it does to give A and B equal consideration.
Melissa G. at 22:27 on 2009-12-28
Also, don't know if this helps, but as long as the characters are 3-dimensional and well-developed, it's okay for them to have "traditional gender traits" in my opinion. For example, just because the character is both a girl and is non-confrontation/doesn't like to fight doesn't mean she has to be a bad representation of women. It just means she's a woman who doesn't like confrontation and fighting. And that's perfectly fine; women like that exist. As long as she has admirable traits and we like her, that part of her isn't likely to bother anyone. At least, that's my opinion.

So, I guess, go with your gut as for their genders, and just make sure they're well-rounded and developed strongly. I've found characters that should be total Mary Sues, but the way they are represented in the text makes me able to accept them (whether it's because the text acknowledges their flaws or because it shows her to be wrong at times, etc).

So...yeah, don't know if that helps, but that's just another aspiring writer's opinion.
Shimmin at 00:31 on 2009-12-29
(Not really in a position to give advice, but hey)
The first thing that springs to my mind is actually this paragraph.

A is insightful, compassionate, and quick-witted, but also timid and fastidious. All in all, traditionally feminine. B is fearless, driven, and powerful, but also bitter and rash. Overall, traditionally masculine.

Really? I'm not trying to be contrary, but when I glanced at that I had exactly the opposite picture. A was the quiet, collecting-and-arranging fussy sort of man, the kind who bustles around keeping to themselves but has a lot of idea what's going on. B was basically Lady Macbeth.

I'm a little bit wary of people that young having very developed understanding of others (at 15?) or permanent bitterness.

Presentation is also an issue. If A is fearful and conflict-averse and draws back from the quest, is that made out to be bad, ignoble, undutiful, etc. and a selfish act? Does A gain a new perspective on the situation and decide the goal isn't worthwhile, or that a non-violent philosophy shouldn't be compromised? Does A actually lay aside an unworthy goal in favour of one that's more fulfilling, self-assigned (not by some noble) and otherwise empowering (whether "selfish" or not)? Or does A give in to fears of personal danger, or selfishly give up a worthwhile quest in favour of a personal goal, or think someone else is better, or they're unsuitable for the quest - which I'd suggest make them seem weak and are non-empowering? But dislike of conflict (especially violence) is not necessarily weakness!

Now B. Is B bitter for a good reason, or is it excessive? How bitter is B, and how does that manifest itself? E.g. do they hate the other sex or some other group; are they just generally cynical; are they self-destructive; are they resentful or someone or some group or some circumstance? What kind of rash is it made out to be - thoughtlessness (which can be a stereotype of either gender), or impulsiveness, or conclusion-jumping? Does it manifest as putting B in danger, putting others in danger, actively hurting others (e.g. instant dislike) or what? Does B use their drive constructively? Are they driven in an obsessive way, or relentless and disciplined and iron-willed? What are they driven to do, or think? It might interplay with gender stereotypes. I also wonder what you mean by "powerful" - strong? a weapon master? charismatic? has social authority? lots of magic powers?

Also, I hate to state the obvious, but maybe their personalities would change a bit in the course of this quest - in which case both the end of this, and the possible sequel, would be affected. B might work out some personal problems, for example, or lose the lust for power, or learn to be cautious. And would they need someone to step in and sort them out, or would they seek advice to solve the sequel problems?

Oh, one more thing - why do you say someone conquering the continent is a "happy ending"?
Andrew Currall at 09:37 on 2009-12-29
Also, don't know if this helps, but as long as the characters are 3-dimensional and well-developed, it's okay for them to have "traditional gender traits" in my opinion.

I agree very strongly with this. Never allowing female characters to be "traditionally feminine" is just as bad as always making them so.
The problem with this two-character situation is a special (and extreme) case of the general problem with portraying diversity in fiction. Any given story will have a limited number of characters and situations, and therefore cannot portray a fully diverse situation, and is therefore open to acusations of sexism/racism/etc. on some level.
It's absurd, for example, to accuse a book with two male protagonists of sexism because it fails to have any major female characters (and it's equally absurd to object to it on the grounds that it has only two major characters- there's nothing wrong with that), and yet, if 80% of such books fall into that category, there is clearly a problem. I don't see a simple solution to the dilemma.
Jamie Johnston at 18:52 on 2009-12-29
There's also nothing wrong with an all white cast of characters; read The Lord of the Rings.

I'm tempted to trawl through it now to see how many of the characters are actually described as being, or can reasonably be inferred to be, white. But I'm too lazy. Would be mildly interesting, though.
Andy G at 20:43 on 2009-12-29
I'm tempted to trawl through it now to see how many of the characters are actually described as being, or can reasonably be inferred to be, white. But I'm too lazy. Would be mildly interesting, though.


I think you'll find a great many villains are referred to as "swarthy".
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 22:23 on 2009-12-29
Yes - but, as has been said before (and not by me) (1) this was written by an Englishman who specifically set out to write a mythology for England. So, if most of his characters are white, it's hardly surprising. And (2) his two (or three, if you count Gollum) worst villains are emphatically white, and described as such.

That said, I think the films are more "racist" than the books. I missed the brown-skinned (described as 'swarthy') people marching in to defend Minas Tirith, and wish Jackson had included that scene. He also cast a couple of blonds for characters who are canonically dark-haired, and Legolas was blond in the movies, but not in the books -

Even so, point taken. These aren't perfect books, though I think they are very great and love them dearly. )
Andy G at 22:40 on 2009-12-29
I meant more that to me it's pretty clear that the main characters are all white, even if it's not explicitly stated that they are. Whether that's justified or defensible or not is a separate question.
Jamie Johnston at 22:51 on 2009-12-29
I meant more that to me it's pretty clear that the main characters are all white, even if it's not explicitly stated that they are.

Indeed, and I admit I was just feeling a bit contrary when I made the above remark. It's impossible to believe that Tolkein had in mind any but white faces on his principal heroes.

Nonetheless, I'm also mindful of Dan's recent remarks, which I found rather inspiring and exciting, about how good a result you can get by creatively filling canonical gaps with material that wilfully disregards the original author's clear intention.
Robinson L at 03:06 on 2009-12-31
Orion: But I don't want to clutter the comment thread with a lengthy synopsis, in case Robinson is still using it.

I'm not as it happens, although other people seem to be making use of it for another Tolkien discussion.

I actually meant to get back to the gender issues between your two main characters, I've just been busy. I also wasn't sure if it would be feasible for you to explain the issues; thank you for obliging.

There've already been a number of excellent suggestions, but for whatever it's worth I'll add my opinion.

Basically, I agree with Melissa G that you can make a lot of things work out if you write conscientiously. You can get away with quite a lot if you make it crystal clear that certain traits belong strictly to a character, rather than to their demographic status (sex/race/sexual orientation/age etc.). If you have one character who follows the gender stereotypes, you can counterbalance that by depicting positive examples of other characters who defy those stereotypes.

It'd probably also be helpful (from a characterization perspective if none other) to show aspects of your main characters which defy stereotype as well as aspects which conform to it. In my experience, we're all an amalgam of both.

Of course, there's always the option of making one of the characters intersex, but I suspect you'd find that even harder to pull off than both main characters female.

Like Shimmin, I'm also curious how “conquering the continent” is supposed to make for a “happy ending.”

As to Tolkien ... my writing teacher once told me that before the movies came out, her young son thought Frodo was black, and that one of the other Hobbits—Merry, I think—was Native American. Apropos of absolutely nothing.

Mary J: These aren't perfect books, though I think they are very great and love them dearly.

And I concur.
http://orionsnebula.blogspot.com/ at 17:07 on 2010-01-06
Mm. Too much playing wargames has me using "conquer" to mean "acquire territory," not "subjugate culturally different peoples."

What actually happens is more like a re-unificiation. Picture an Istanbul kind of place--a city leftover from a high-tech imperium, re-developing a technological edge over their neighbors and annexing them relatively bloodlessly to implement better economic tech.

Thanks for all the advice on characterization.
Shimmin at 22:34 on 2011-02-02
I finally got around to reading the copy of The Ear, the Eye and the Arm which I bought in response to the comments here. Or rather, I sat down and devoured it in one sitting. Personally I really enjoyed it. While I definitely see what Robinson means about the English tribe being rather stereotypical, I read it as very consciously done that way, along the lines that other cultures are often depicted in fiction and with a slightly mischievous feel. Especially as Farmer uses the book to gently educate the reader about Zimbabwean culture. It's not really more stereotypical than their portrayal in light-hearted English writing (Wodehouse? Pratchett?).
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 03:37 on 2011-02-03
Actually, Shimmin, that was me, and I'm the person who recommended the book in the first place. Glad you enjoyed it! I do think you're right that the English tribe is presented much the way the English themselves presented tribal peoples, and that it's rather tongue in cheek.

Now you'll have to let us know what you think of "House of the Scorpion" (hint, hint!)
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 03:37 on 2011-02-03
Actually, Shimmin, that was me, and I'm the person who recommended the book in the first place. Glad you enjoyed it! I do think you're right that the English tribe is presented much the way the English themselves presented tribal peoples, and that it's rather tongue in cheek.

Now you'll have to let us know what you think of "House of the Scorpion" (hint, hint!)
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 03:38 on 2011-02-03
Sorry for the double post, btw. It wasn't intentional.
Shimmin at 09:05 on 2011-02-03
Sorry! I scrolled up for a quick check, saw Robinson's name in a related post, and assumed that was the one I was looking for. Teach me to make posts just before bedtime.
Robinson L at 18:02 on 2011-02-03
Shimmin: Teach me to make posts just before bedtime.

I should say so; you had me scrolling through the comment thread for ten minutes yesterday saying 'Did I say that? I didn't - did I?' [smiley face]

If you loved The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, you'll probably like House of the Scorpion, too.

I read it over the summer, and my reaction was precisely as "meh" as it was to the former. Hey ho.

I'm also working my way through Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother, though (on audiobook! Read by Sir Ian effing McKellan!) and while I'm about as ambivalent on the characters, I feel like the story is progressing faster, which suits me just fine, and I'm really enjoying her world-building with the culture(s) of the Clans.
http://cammalot.livejournal.com/ at 17:11 on 2011-02-04
Just realized that I've had an ARC of "House of the Scorpion" in my basement for... not quite a decade, but close. This is ridiculous. I think I may be obligated to read it, after reading this thread. (I enjoy Gaiman; can't stand Alexander's "Prydain," but wish I'd read him as a child instead of as a thirtysomething. I remember loving "Lukas-Kasha.")
Steve Stirling at 05:59 on 2011-07-13
This “history is too dangerous for black people” line is a pretty obvious attempt by Willis to excuse her use of all-white main casts.


-- she's dealing with -English- history. For most of its history prior to the post-WWII period, England was as near all-white as no matter. There were only a few tens of thousands of non-white people in Britain in 1914 (out of 45 million), and that included transients and exotics such as Daleep Singh. Most of the rest were resident in London and a couple of other port cities, together with the odd Indian university student. You could live your entire life in most parts of Victorian England and never meet anyone who wasn't white.

It's not that visiting the earlier eras of English history would necessarily be -dangerous- for a non-white character, although as you go back further in time the likelihood of any obvious outsider getting mobbed and killed goes up(*).

It's just that they would, however accurately they were dressed and coached in language and customs, be hideously conspicuous. Everyone would notice them; children would stare, yokel jaws would drop, and curiosity would be intrusive. They might be able to pass as a visitor, but they couldn't blend in and their time would be taken up with explanations.

More generally, the sort of "diversity" we're used to is a product of the post-Columbian mass intercontinental migrations. Until then, it was rare for people of very different physical types to be present in any numbers in any given location, save for a (very rare) scattering of trading cities. The overwhelming majority of human beings lived in monochromatic environments.

Incidentally, it was those colonial and post-colonial migrations that gave rise to our concept of "race".

If in say, 1200 CE you'd started in Dalarna in Sweden and walked to Korea or the Sudan (around the Mediterranean), you would never have come to a "racial" frontier. People's average physical appearance would have changed, very gradually, as you walked from farm to farm and hamlet to hamlet, until by the time you got to Korea or the middle Nile you'd be in places where the locals were "Asian" or "Black". It was a cline, as is normal with widespread species of mammal.

The seaborne explosion of the West Europeans and the empires of sailing ships and muskets brought people from one end of the cline into contact with people from the other ends on a large scale for the first time, and the physical differences seemed so striking as to demand an explanation. Hence, "race".

(*) the English were an exceedingly xenophobic people for most of their history. Even in London, a cosmopolitan trading port, an obvious foreigner might well have children follow him and throw rocks or lumps of horse-dung as late as Tudor times. Out in the countryside until well into the Victorian period even English people from the next county would be regarded with suspicion, and someone really exotic would be in some danger of being set on and beaten or killed unless known to be under the protection of the local gentry.
Michal at 06:15 on 2011-07-13
It's just that they would, however accurately they were dressed and coached in language and customs, be hideously conspicuous. Everyone would notice them; children would stare, yokel jaws would drop, and curiosity would be intrusive. They might be able to pass as a visitor, but they couldn't blend in and their time would be taken up with explanations.


That sounds rather like what happens when a black person shows up in a Polish town. I wish that were a joke, actually.
Steve Stirling at 07:13 on 2011-07-13
That sounds rather like what happens when a black person shows up in a Polish town. I wish that were a joke, actually.


-- shrug.

I've been places in Africa where a muzungu gets equivalent attention. It's all what you're used to; I don't see why it should be thought odd that people react with curiosity to something they're not accustomed to seeing.

A few years ago some white guys were in a really, -really- remote part of Ethiopia, where no Europeans had been through for generations, and a local woman burst into tears at the sight of them.

It turned out she thought they had leprosy.
Robinson L at 22:35 on 2011-07-14
Steve: It's not that visiting the earlier eras of English history would necessarily be -dangerous- for a non-white character

Right, and I don't disagree with any of your racial history of England. But she does couch it in terms of "all of history" being "too dangerous" rather than "I'd be way too conspicuous." (One gets the distinct impression that Lady Schrapnell would've responded to an argument of "too conspicuous" with "then get creative and scoot" whereas she had back down for "too dangerous.")

My problem with this passage (apart from the unfortunate implications) is that it reads to me like Connie Willis saying "Oh, of course, I would include prominent character of color, it's just that ..." where if she really, truly, desperately wanted to do so, she could have found a way with a little ingenuity. (A few tens of thousands is a lot more than none.) It feels like trying to win anti-racist brownie points while still writing all about white people, which strikes me as disingenuous.
Steve Stirling at 17:54 on 2011-07-15
It feels like trying to win anti-racist brownie points while still writing all about white people, which strikes me as disingenuous.


I wouldn't have bothered. It's just silly bending over backward to send non-white people into an overwhelmingly white environment if you're trying to be inconspicuous.

Just as it would be dumb to send white agents into medieval Ghana, or Tang China.
valse de la lune at 18:12 on 2011-07-15
And yet there're tons of books about white characters set in medieval [insert exotic brown/yellow-people land here] places, or fantasy analogues of such. So...
Robinson L at 18:29 on 2011-07-15
It's just silly bending over backward to send non-white people into an overwhelmingly white environment if you're trying to be inconspicuous.

My point still being that she comes off to me like she's trying to pass herself off as a white anti-racist without doing any serious anti-racism work.

And yet there're tons of books about white characters set in medieval [insert exotic brown/yellow-people land here] places, or fantasy analogues of such.

Too true, and had Willis done the same in reverse, I expect she would've been subjected to a firestorm of criticism for her inauthenticity. Heck, I probably would have chimed in without even thinking about the parallels.
Arthur B at 19:07 on 2011-07-15
I wouldn't have bothered. It's just silly bending over backward to send non-white people into an overwhelmingly white environment if you're trying to be inconspicuous.

Unless, of course, it would be more silly to deprive the expedition of said individuals' expertise.

Most time travellers sent to the past are going to end up looking out of place sooner or later - if I were sent back to medieval Europe I might look the part in terms of skin colour, but I'm sure people will take note of the unusually tall man with bizarrely white, perfect teeth. A key skill of any time traveller has to be the ability to come up with a convincing line of bullshit to explain away any oddities which people are going to pick up. And ultimately, "I am a traveller from a distant land" is a damn good excuse for most eras because hey, how the hell is anyone going to disprove it?
Steve Stirling at 21:44 on 2011-07-15
And yet there're tons of books about white characters set in medieval [insert
exotic brown/yellow-people land here] places, or fantasy analogues of such.
So...


-- not when a sensible author is writing about a time-travel organization trying to slip people in inconspicuously.

If you're using a lone adventurer in a fantasy setting, that's one thing. But Willis' stories are about -historical investigators-.

They are, essentially, spies trying to pass themselves off as locals.

Eg., take Poul Anderson's Time Patrol series. The Time Patrol sends Manse Everard into settings where he doesn't stand out too much, or in which it doesn't matter.

When they need a specialist, they send someone of the appropriate appearance, or use their far-future medical skills to disguise people. Eg., the Indian historical specialist who Everard tags along with when they're investigating a Mongol intrusion into 13th-century America, or the one shown studying the inhabitants of pre-Columbian Peru.
Steve Stirling at 21:50 on 2011-07-15
if I were sent back to medieval Europe I might look the part
in terms of skin colour, but I'm sure people will take note of the unusually
tall man with bizarrely white, perfect teeth.


-- urban myth, there, actually. First, people in medieval Europe (or Roman-era Italy) were only an inch or two shorter than the average for the 20th century. The -average- height was lower, but the range of "non-obtrusively bizarre" heights was quite similar.

There's been a lot of variation in heights over time. 1776-period white Americans were the same average height as those in the 1940's. There was a sharp dip in average heights during the 19th century, probably due to immigration and environmental stresses.
Steve Stirling at 21:56 on 2011-07-15
And ultimately, "I am a traveller from a distant land" is a damn good excuse
for most eras because hey, how the hell is anyone going to disprove it?


-- by knowing something about the distant land, for starters. Not to mention little things like the fact that travelers often needed -permission- to wander around. There was a lot of restriction and bureaucracy in much of the past.

Eg., a black person in medieval England would probably be assumed to be a Muslim or 'Moor'. And might very well be attacked because of it, or if they were perceived as Jewish. They would certainly needed permission from someone in authority to be there, and would have to show the equivalent of credentials.

In the 18th century, the general assumption would be that a black person was a slave.

If you claim to come from somewhere so distant that nobody knows anything about it, you're going to attract a -lot- of attention. If word got around that a traveler from Cathay was present in, say, 1200 CE, the King would probably want to meet them.

The safest way to observe would be to be someone who could pass for a local (but not from the immediate neighborhood); this would require a lot of research and training (lanuage, for instance, and of course social customs) and would be easiest if you fit the predominant local phenotype.
Arthur B at 22:03 on 2011-07-15
Not to mention little things like the fact that travelers often needed -permission- to wander around. There was a lot of restriction and bureaucracy in much of the past.

Sure, but it's not like they had fast communication for most of the time. Someone turns up at the outskirts of the Empire with a perfectly reproduced warrant from Caesar stating that they're allowed to be here. It's going to be at least weeks before anyone's able to actually send word to Rome to check, during which time the traveller's going to have done their business and left.

If word got around that a traveler from Cathay was present in, say, 1200 CE, the King would probably want to meet them.

Which is actually bloody useful if you're specifically trying to infiltrate the King's circles.
Steve Stirling at 22:04 on 2011-07-15
For what being a "conspicuous stranger" was like, it's illuminating to read explorer's accounts of Europeans traveling through parts of Africa and Asia where Westerners were uncommon, in the early modern era.

First, you're always on show. People notice you; and they stare. You have to answer the same questions over and over and over again; people rub your skin to see if the color comes off, pull at your hair to see why it's that funny shade/form, peer into your face, ask your local guide if you're really human or some bizarre kind of monkey or possibly a devil. They try to lift bits and pieces of your gear as souveneirs, or just because you're a stranger and nobody will care if you're robbed.

Next, there's a fair likelihood of violent hostility. People can suddenly take offense for reasons you don't understand and try to beat you up or kill you. Conversely they may be suddenly friendly and you don't know if it's genuine or a ploy to take you off your guard.

For most of history most of humankind has lived in small, tightly-knit communities of people who are all related to each other.
Steve Stirling at 22:16 on 2011-07-15
Which is actually bloody useful if you're specifically trying to infiltrate the
King's circles.


-- however, the people in Connie's story were trying to pass themselves off as English.

If you're violently out of context for your setting, your life becomes about the way in which you're out of context -and not much else-.
valse de la lune at 22:17 on 2011-07-15
For what being a "conspicuous stranger" was like, it's illuminating to read explorer's accounts of Europeans traveling through parts of Africa and Asia where Westerners were uncommon, in the early modern era.

Yeah, it's illuminating how westerners of that era and western tourists of today are equally obnoxious, arrogant, objectifying and offensive.
Arthur B at 22:19 on 2011-07-15
For most of history most of humankind has lived in small, tightly-knit communities of people who are all related to each other.

But occasionally humanity has spawned sprawling, ethnically diverse civilisations in which people travelling from one end of the Empire to the other was far from unheard-of. The Roman Empire stretched from the border of Scotland to North Africa to the Middle East, with trade occurring between all regions and from places beyond. (Trade goods from India and the remains of people from sub-Saharan Africa have been discovered in Pompeii, for example.)

And as for genuinely insular cultures... why aren't the time travellers interested in any black ones?
Arthur B at 22:55 on 2011-07-15
-- however, the people in Connie's story were trying to pass themselves off as English.

But the specific quote Robinson was highlighting suggested that black people were more or less never sent back in time, regardless of the mission parameters.
Steve Stirling at 08:58 on 2011-07-19
But the specific quote Robinson was highlighting suggested that black people
were more or less never sent back in time, regardless of the mission parameters.


-- having read the book(s), I was under the impression that the Oxford project sent people back in time to, specifically, the past of Britain. They were investigating their own history.
Steve Stirling at 09:00 on 2011-07-19
Pyrofennec:


Yeah, it's illuminating how westerners of that era and western tourists of
today are equally obnoxious, arrogant, objectifying and offensive.


-- I'm impressed by your reluctance to indulge in stereotypic descriptions... 8-).

Have you actually -read- any of the traveler's chronicles I mentioned? Ah.
Steve Stirling at 09:17 on 2011-07-19
But occasionally humanity has spawned sprawling, ethnically diverse
civilisations in which people travelling from one end of the Empire to the other
was far from unheard-of. The Roman Empire stretched from the border of Scotland
to North Africa to the Middle East, with trade occurring between all regions and
from places beyond. (Trade goods from India and the remains of people from
sub-Saharan Africa have been discovered in Pompeii, for example.)



-- that would apply to the British Empire as well, pretty much. But in both the British and, even more, in the Roman empire, most people were peasants and rarely moved except when pushed by some disaster.

(Like Caesar's conquest of Gaul, when over a tenth of the population were killed, and another tenth sold into slavery.)

Incidentally, one of the interesting sidelights on the Roman Empire in Britain revealed by recent excavations along Hadrian's Wall is that the Romans (actually auxiliary troops, in this case) had an insulting nickname for the natives; "Brittuculi", "little Brits". Or freely translated, "wogs".
Arthur B at 10:40 on 2011-07-19
But in both the British and, even more, in the Roman empire, most people were peasants and rarely moved except when pushed by some disaster.

OK, responding to people's arguments when they can't argue back is kind of a dick move, but I wanted to respond to this point in particular because it's one I often hear from people in these discussions: most people is far from the same as being everyone, and doesn't change the fact that international trade (and, therefore, international travel) was a widespread and accepted fact of life in the Roman and British Empires.

Even if 99.9% of people still never stray far from the place they were born, when you're dealing with an Empire of millions of people, that 0.1% comes out to what is actually a fairly decent number of folks.
http://naava2448.livejournal.com/ at 11:07 on 2012-11-08
I found this article insightful and interesting. I hate to nitpick, but a single phrase here I found deeply problematic and liable to open a can of worms, so to speak. I'm talking about:

I ask you, the entirety of human history as a sort of Auschwitz/Gaza Strip for blacks?

The first issue here is not so serious, simply irritating. The tendency to have the holocaust as a yardstick for evil, is, I find, simple in the short term (since everyone knows what it is and how evil it was), but long term far more like to cloud an issue rather than clarify it.

In this case it's not wrong to compare certain periods of black history to the holocaust, since they certainly underwent periods of oppression, ethmic cleansing and genocide, but wouldn't it have been far better to point out examples from *black* history? Such as Belgian Congo, or, if you want to bring up a concentration camp, Shark Island Extermination Camp that was used during the Herero and Namaqua genocide in Namibia?

My second point is more contentious. Mentioning Auschwitz and the Gaza Strip in the same breath creates an implicit comparison and analogy between the two. Even though it is possible to say 'the inmates in Auschwitz and the Palestinians in Gaza are both oppressed' the situations in these two places are so different on so many levels that casting both in the same light is a serious misunderstanding both of the holocaust and of the Palestinian situation. Such a comparison is damaging to all involved.
Robinson L at 15:06 on 2012-11-09
Good points, both. Thank you.

I think your second point stands without need for further discussion. In regards to your first point, I think you're absolutely right that an example out of African history would be best.

I think to make my argument strongest, I want to be able to focus on a specific hub of extreme violence rather than something nebulous like, say, a plantation. I'm not sure if the Belgian Congo fits the bill - I'd have to research it further. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the Shark Island Extermination Camp, or any other specific examples which fit my criteria. Perhaps it would be best if I changed the wording to "death camp," for the moment, and then spend some time over the weekend doing a little research to find a specific example which seems fitting.

I'll start with the Belgian Congo and Shark Island Extermination Camp. If you have any other suggestions, I'll happily look into them, too.

Again, thanks for constructive feedback.
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