Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Why Writing Colorblind Is Writing White (a rant)

As a writer, you may write colorblind. You may pull out all the color and race and cultural tags for every single one of your characters, and thereby prove that they could be of any race!

Sure. Let's go with that. Nobody in your book has a skin color, or any sort of physical description at all.

You really believe your reader's not givng your characters a physical description? You think that one of the first markers they make, after size and gender, won't be color? Pigment? One of the first things we, as largely visual creatures, fixate on in order to tell one person from another in a culturally diverse society (if everyone's the same color, no, we won't fixate on that as much; then it becomes about size and hair cuts and clothes, but if your society isn't monochrome, we're going to see color. Is your society monochrome?)

Come now.

Let's leave aside the fact that by ignoring a character's race, you're choosing not to deal with a lot of the potential conflicts inherent in a story where you have people of wildly different backgrounds coming together. And by "race" I don't just mean looks, either. I don't just mean pigmentation, though that's a marker we all fixate on because it's one of the most easily perceived, right there next to clothing choices (hence, burquas and veils, top hats for "gentlemen," wearing beards, turbans, kippahs, etc).

Clothing choices, of course, are *choices.* Cultural practices, except perhaps circumcision and tribal scarification, can be cast off by those trying to "fit in" with the predominate culture.

Permanenent things like color, hair type, any sort of ritual scarring or permanent body modification like footbinding, etc., cannot.

I'm going to say that again:

You can't take away these cultural markers, this indicators of uniqueness, of culture, of ethnicity, of "difference" (or "sameness" if the culture is in the majority). More than that:

You can't take away what these things mean within a society (barring long, long years of progressive work to change stereotypes or the actual political or social position of people who share these characteristics).

The great thing about being a writer who chooses to "write colorblind" is that you can totally wipe your hands of all responsibility. Just like this (I realize I'm being harsh on Scalzi here, but this pissed me off). I mean, you're not being racist. The world in your head is totally diverse! It's your readers who are racist if all they see is pale people (or dark people, or polka dotted people)!

Scalzi's situation may be unique, or made purposely unique, by the sort of world he works in. He says that in the Old Man's War universe, race doesn't matter that much. He seems to be positing that happy colorblind utopia we're all gunning for, and that a lot of people seem to think we actually live in ("Oh, ha ha, I just don't see race! Or gender! I just see people! I'm a humanist!" You're full of shit).

The problem with writing in "race-neutral" (what is that? Gray? Beige?) terms is you get the same problem you run into when you write in gender-neutral terms. As people raised in a racist, sexist, society, we're going to norm a lot of stories, a lot of people, as white males. There are certainly ways you can code this differently, and every reader brings their own unique set of indicators to the reading experience, but I think the vast majority of people are going to sit down and code your world in whitewash unless they get some indication that it's otherwise or they bring something non-majority to the table.

We have a default setting we've been programmed with, and it's the default setting we've been pumped full of since birth: stories about bands of white brothers, fathers and sons, heroic male conquerors, Columbus, rich white presidents, men of Science, great white male writers; the men who run the world are white. The important people are white. We're reading about important people, right? Unless we're reading some kind of hippie women's story set in some jungle where people don't speak plain English.

Am I exaggerating? Very slightly. Certainly we learn about women. Marie Curie (quick, tell me what time period she lived in? No?). Virginia Wolf. Indira Ghandi. The Girl in that movie. You know, The Girl in every movie? Come on, you know her so well. She's that *one* girl in *every* movie that's chockfull of 10 male main characters and a slew of male secondary characters and some female prostitutes for the drug scene. You know, The Girl.

But these are presented to us as exceptions. "Oh yes, there were these people too." (there was "the Girl). In February you learn, "Oh yes, there are these black people too." (usually it is "The Black Person," ie Martin Luther King)

To be honest, I still know more about Columbus and the heroic Pilgrims than I do about whatever tribe it is helped the Pilgrims not starve to death. No, I don't even know the name of the tribe (did it start with a P?), but I could tell you the ships the heroic pilgrims sailed on.

Sure, I could look it up, but I'm talking about knee-jerk knowledge, knowledge so deep it's become part of your subconscious, the stuff you learn by rote and exposure and have seen so much that it's become unexamined truth.

These are historic holes, ways we view the world, that have been shaped by race and cultural and power and gender. The race and gender and rich land-owning elite in charge (I recently learned that some of the first US taxes were lobbied heavily by landowners on a number of everyday goods in order to keep the government from taxing land) determine what we care about and what's important. We can fight against that, and learn more, and question everything, but we have to fight those unexamined truths every goddamn day.

I would love to ignore all of this stuff. I would love to pretend it didn't exist. I would love to say it's easy for me to write a matriarchal society where every single secondary character's pronoun comes out smoothly and easily as "she." I would love to say that I don't have to keep a running tally of how many times I try to use the word "pale" when describing main characters who really don't get all that pale(r), or that I don't have to keep a check on how many characters in my primarily brown-and-black world end up disturbingly pale.

Yes, it gets easier to do, over time. You code new paths through. You make new realities.

But first you have to question and breakdown and challenge the old ones.

And you're not going to do that by shrugging and telling yourself you're just writing a monochrome world.

I suppose, of course, I could just ignore everyone's hair type and skin color and cultural practices and pretend they live in a whitewash world where everyone is colorblind (which really means "Everyone is white."). But if I ignore that, I ignore the history of these people. I ignore the struggles that they have with one another and with other people; other cultures. I ignore historical disputes and historical differences. I ignore the fact that certain foods are taboo to some people and loved by others, so they can all eat happily together without commenting on it. I lose conflict. I lose richness. I lose truth. Nobody thinks somebody else is going to blow up a building or try and mug them or must be a member of the ruling class based entirely on the food they're eating, the way they wear their hair, or the color of their skin.

Perhaps it's easier to write a world this way, no doubt. No doubt it's a much easier world to live in. But it feels to me like a very fake sort of world, a very lackluster, colorless world.

42 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

That Girl said...

I agree with what you are saying and I dont know the work of the guy you were ranting against but I did want to say that I am truly colorblind.
Not in the sense that everyone else means it, though.
I am missing whatever part of people that makes it easy for them to sort appearance. The people I believe look alike make most people go - wha?
I listen to far more tv than I watch because if I watch sometimes I cant sort out the characters.
Especially between white people, the ethnic group it appears I come from. Which could be because they are the majority of characters on tv.
My friends used to make fun of me over the faux pas I have made. When I was 19 someone pointed out my best friend my whole life was Chinese. I was shocked and I actually corrected them.
I also once asked my high school friend why she was making Japanese food for dinner ("Cause Im Japanese. Duh."). Although I grew up in a multi-color, multi-ethnic household I am more than positive I have plenty of unenlightenment inside me.
So maybe some writers arnt going for white, they just dont notice.

jonckher said...

Well put, i think that the default of white, male, western and middle-class is very true (covering race, gender, culture and class). However, how possible is it for a white male western author to do anything but write from that POV?

I've read many examples of authors out there in SFF land who do attempt to write from an asian/oriental perspective (or world based on asian cultures) and I have been alternately amused and offended by the stereotyping. More so, I've been concerned that those stereotypes are being perpetuated.

I really dont need to read another inscrutable face/honour-saving asian character.

I would have much preferred if they had actually tried to write non-racial characters even if it defaults to white - at least it defaults to white and leaves room for alternative readings.

But I do sympathise with white middle-class western male authors - it can often be a case of damned if you and damned if you dont.

Anne said...

Those last two paragraphs pretty much say what I was thinking as well. Writing "colorblind" is easy and flat. Even in a world where no one is judged (evaluated) by thier skin color, they would still have cultural/familial differences that would color thier reactions and interactions. Writing 3D characters, instead of plot points, is time-consuming and difficult. But he or she who tries is much the richer for it.

I understand the sympathy spoken about by the previous poster, but I think the remedy is observation and wide-ranging investigation. If your main character is, Russian, let's say, then you better well know some Russians, visited Russia, or at least have read Russian literature, history, and/or philosophy. Get inside the culture or let it get inside of you. Figure out which points you're going to keep and which you're going to adjust because your character met a French exchange student when she was fourteen or your character was always fascinated with stories of the American West. Writing a character that is a representative of thier race or culture (stoic Asian guy) is as much a shortcut as the "color blind" world.

Thank you for this powerful and well-written post.

A.R.Yngve said...

In one of my early (unpublished) novels, I assumed that race -- and racism -- is still on people's minds, only it has followed the development of genetic engineering. When humans are genetically altered to live in hostile environments on colonized planets, they automatically become "Those People" in the eyes of Earthlings.

So: Earth people look down on Martian colonists and call them "Hairies" or "Gorillas", while Martians retort by calling Earthlings "Pinks" or "Unborns"... and both Earthlings and Martians are suspicious of cyborgs.

One can and should use "race" in SF... just keep in mind that prejudices are very elastic and probably evolve over time. Plus ca change... ;-)

Kameron Hurley said...

That Girl - I've heard of something like that before, actually, about people who literally can't distinguish faces, or whose brains sort people differently. I'd think you'd use some other thing to recognize people like height/build and clothing and voices (similiar to the way I'd do it without glasses).

Anne- I think writing any character who's "really different" from the author and their background is hard. And I think that's *good.* Writing in general is hard, too, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. And yes, a lot of it is research and talking to people and doing your best. It's very important, as noted in the post and you touched on too, to note *other cultural markers besides skin color!* in fiction, particularly SF/F where you're often "making up" culturals and/or histories. There's a long history of bloody racism between the English and the Irish, afterall.

jonckher - I think that telling a white male writer that all they can "safely" write about without ire is white males is like telling a black woman she can only write about black women and a young rich kid that she can only write about young rich kids.

I would much rather be lambasted for getting something *wrong* than for not even making an attempt at all (and you better bet that, yeah, I'll try my damnedest to make all of my people whole, complex people and not stereotypes. As a writer, I also view *that* as my job).

Douglas said...

Color may matter to your writing. It may give you great tension. Great conflict. Great characters.

But I think you're just trotting out your own pet peeve and trying to make it ours.

I can't recall the last time I read a book where a character urinates, defecates, farts, burps, hiccups, or sneezes...until it was part of the story. Unless Bob being black or white gets me from A to B, I don't give a crap what color he is.

And even if you do tell me what color, height, religion, or gender he is I don't pay much attention. I'm not one of those readers that 'pictures' stuff. Bob is literally those three characters to me b, o, and b. Plus all the dialog.

Every time I read about writing I run across the instruction that you should always be advancing the plot. If you show me a gun hanging over the fireplace on page one you better show me a dead body on page two; if you show me a white/black/blue guy on page one you better show me why that matters on age two.

Kameron Hurley said...

And I absolutely agree. What I'm saying is, pretending it Really Doesn't Matter avoids a huge swath of potential and actual character conflict and plot twists that could, indeed, hinge on or be affected by age, height, gender, religion.

Ignoring your characters and who they are takes away from your story; it doesn't add to it.

Scott said...

Similar to Douglas, but:

I think in the world we live in now, it's touchy to write a book with race that isn't a book about race. And yes, many books about race need to get written, there's a lot of cultural ground that needs to get covered.

But maybe this book isn't about race (there is no actual referent). If you want to say that every book ought to be about race, you need a different rant.

A story is supposed to tell us something, Douglas says "a story," I think sometimes other stuff too, but not all of those things are about race, gender, or class.

As a final note, taking a story about race (Earthsea) and making it into a story not about race (SiFi network) is maybe a good way to make people interested in the race-issue upset.

Jackie M. said...

Is that white guilt? I can't write about non-white people because I'm white, and I'll get in trouble with the non-white people for trivializing/screwing it up?

Kameron Hurley said...

Earthsea is not a book about race. Books with people in them who are described as a darker shade of pale are not, by default “all about race,” just as books with women in them aren’t “all about gender.” They are books about people. With complex histories and conflicts.

Saying that the only way you can write a book that isn’t “all about race” is to pretend that nobody has a race is, pardon, a bit chickenshit.

And yes, Jackie: that would be white guilt.

Jennifer said...

Yes, I think that is white guilt.

In high school and in college, I got told repeatedly that only a person in X group could really understand the perils of X group. Only people with horrible names were allowed to make fun of other people with horrible names (I am not making that one up), stuff like that. I got yelled at by my entire writing class in college because I'm white and had an Asian female narrator. I don't even know if they had objections as to my execution so much as all I heard was, "You're white, you aren't allowed to do that. All you'll do is be offensive to Asians."

So I had it embedded in my brain that "If you're white, you cannot write about the experience of a non-white character. No matter how many (X group) friends you may have, you will NEVER understand their experience, and DON'T TRY because it's worse to offend them than to leave them out."

In short: I'm terrified to have a non-white character now.

I'm not remotely defending myself or saying that what I do is right here. I know it's Not Okay (but then again, I think I'll get my ass kicked no matter what I choose at this point). I'm just saying that may be where some people other than me are coming from as well.

Kameron Hurley said...

Jennifer - I totally sympathize, as I remember at least one writer in a workshop I was in getting lambasted because "I KNOW lesbians, and LESBIANS don't act like THIS!" To which another critiquer responded by saying about another character, "You know, I know straight people, and STRAIGHT people don't act like this other character."

What you get with the whole "white people can only write white people" thing is: Women can only write about women. Men can only write about men. Poor Indian lesbians living in Detroit can only write about poor Indian lesbians living in Detroit.

What it also does, I believe, is work in service of an already dominant or predominately white discourse. It's bad enough that white writers (yes, like me) have the priveledge of having their voices heard more than those of others, but to then use that voice to completely ignore and shut out every other voice but those from a white, middle class background like yours?

Reprehensible. Dealing with the complexities of life, of the real world, of people, by totally ignoring them is lazy.

You can't change your background or your race or the way the world views you and the priviledges the world gives you because of them, but you can try and do something positive and not-lazy and real with them. You can write about the real world.

The world is not gray.

Jackie M. said...

And again I'm unhappy with that definition of white guilt. To me, "guilt" an emotion associated with the acceptance of responsibility; the definition above is fundamentally about the shirking of responsibility.

"White privilege" seems much more straightforward. "I think you're just trotting out your own pet peeve and trying to make it ours" --there's a comment informed (or rather blinded) by white privilege: No, we can't force every white writer in the world to share our despair at the gross racial inequity of the world as it is currently protrayed by the media. And refusing to share in our "pet peeve" is not inherently, actively racist.

It is, however, an attitude which is fundamentally privileged, because it is a luxury which remains inaccessible to non-white writers: persons of color can't just shrug and ignore the whiteness of mainstream media, because every time they turn on the television or open a book, there's the unconscious discrimination, the silent omissions, the disposable black character slapping them in the face again.

Annie said...

Into my favourites list this goes.

Kameron Hurley said...

Jackie - people (OK, lots of white people) just seem to be better able to owe up to "White guilt" as opposed to "White privilege." The former makes us sound like we're suffering for our privilege and the latter admits privilege. It's a lot harder to say, "Yes, I benefit from privilege" than to say, "Yes, I benefit from privilege... BUT I FEEL REALLY BAD ABOUT IT."

Like that makes any difference.

And yeah, you know, feminism, that whole idea of treating women like they're real people? That's just a "pet peeve" too, you know. You can't expect every white male writer to go around writing women like they're real people in his books. I mean, his book *isn't about politics.*

Um.

Books are about people. People and the way they interact. The ways people interact are radically affected by race, gender, background (including culture, heritage, education level, geography, etc).

They just *are.* Pretending they *aren't* is a way of, yes, shirking the whole issue.

White guilt is when you throw up your hands and say, "I'm priviledged, sorry, and there's nothing useful I'm going to do with it cause you all just hate me! I'm the *victim* here! Let's talk about how hard this is for me!"

You know what? The person who cast the final vote granting women suffrage?

Was a man.

A great many people involved in the abolition of slavery?

White folks.

(this is not, in either case, to deny the primary actors in these movements which were spearheaded by the oppressed group, but it points out, importantly I think, that just because you come from a place of privilege doesn't mean you're exempted from doing the right thing. In fact, I think you have even *more* responsibility. That's what having privilege is)

Paula said...

Re Douglas's comment: I'm not sure I believe that every word in a book should advance the plot, if by "plot" you just means what happens. I do think every word should advance the story or whatever word you want to use to describe the whole gestalt of plot, characters, setting and theme. It's not strictly relevant to the plot to know that hobbits have hair on their feet and build houses with round doors, or that Elizabeth Bennet has brown hair and Jane has blond or whether Will Stanton has two or three sisters. But it helps them to be more real people and it helps us to bond with them and to see how they fit within their worlds.

Elaine said...

I think the argument that not mentioning race is the same as showing racial equality is simply untrue. Does the author use gender identifiers in his or her fiction? If so, is he trying to say that there's still sexism? No? Then what is the difference?

To me, the better solution to showing racial equality is to describe characters of different races and backgrounds working side-by-side, just as you might show gender equality by depicting women in positions of power along with the men (and more than one woman...I agree, the token female in fiction isn't doing much in that respect).

This is of particular interest to me as a writer, because as I've grown both as an author and a person, I've thought more and more about this issue. Because science fiction has been dominated by white writers, because sf movies and television shows have been largely filled with white actors, I think a lot of readers subconsciously assume a character is white if he/she isn't described otherwise. When I started writing my serialized sf novel, Exile's Burn, I didn't assume that the readers just somehow magically knew that you could have a black (or, for that matter, female) captain in the universe I had created, so I described her as such. The same for the Afro-Chinese hero, or the black pilot and navigator. I also tried to stay away from using the "default" setting by making sure I also described the skin tone of white characters. I don't know how well I succeeded, but at least I tried to correct what I see as a problem in sf.

walt said...

Your argument reminds me of those theologian who assert that atheism is just another form of religion.

Douglas said...

@kameron: Well, from the looks of the site, I'd say feminism was more than a pet peeve. :)

@paula: as for advancing the plot, I'll happily submit to 'contribute to the gestalt'.

My main line of thinking is that as a reader I understand why an author added anything to the book: to advance the plot, to characterize the scene, to illuminate the theme, to set the tone, whatever.

As an author--please, no laughing--I don't see why this cause has to be my cause or anyone's that doesn't want it to become theirs. Which is what I infer from the post title.

If integrating literature is your thing, great; go for it. It just doesn't have to be mine--it really doesn't.

Jackie M. said...

Douglas: Sure. No problem. As long as you understand that your attitude is privileged, and that it might engender some degree of resentment in unprivileged persons of color.

Kameron Hurley said...

Yeah, you may want to think real hard about where that line of thinking's coming from. When the whole world's tailored toward you and people who look like you, it's a lot easier to say it doesn't have anything to do with you.

If you were consistently excluded from participation in the world of literature, of stories, of comic books; if every book you picked up was geared toward somebody not-white and not-male and made the assumption that you and all of its characters were hispanic lesbians, you might think a lot more about it.

B. Durbin said...

So— where are you from?

I say this because I come from a part of the country that is apparently more colorblind than most. I thought my graduating class was default white until I looked at my yearbook and calculated percentages. When I moved to Denver a coworker was telling stories about trying to tell a friend how to ask for her at a warehouse and how she told him to ask for the Asian girl. At my reply of, "But how would that help?" she said, "Oh, right, you're from California."

I'm not saying it's hunky-dory here, but my city is considered integrated instead of diverse— the neighborhoods are mixed and mixed-parentage instead of split along racial lines. After a while (or if you grew up with it) you just don't notice.

I mean, it truly didn't register with me that some of my friends were of Asian descent (especially the British one), or Indian, or whatever. When I lived in other states people got used to me suddenly realizing that somebody was black, or Hispanic— usually after I had known the person for months. "You got a scholarship from the NAACP? Wh— oh."

And I'm an artist. Theoretically, I should notice this right away. But what I really notice is not that somebody's black but that their skin is about the color of a mocha latte, and their eyes are green. Yes, I've seen that.

So this whole "writing colorblind" thing doesn't bother me in the least. It's closer to the way I think anyway— the people around me think alike not because they're white but because they're geeks.

Kameron Hurley said...

And my question would be: What's your race?

If you grow up in Southern California and you're white, you tend to have the priviledge to "just not notice" because nobody's making assumptions about you based on your race; you're part of the "invisible" race that is white, and it's a lot easier to pretend it doesn't matter, when, really, to you it doesn't.

If you're profiled, if you're assumed to be a mugger or poor or lesser or illiterate or ignorant or a threat because of existing stereotypes - stereotypes that we're all fed, in this culture - then you're going to notice it a lot more.

It's like sexism or any other ism. Until you get slapped in the face with it when somebody imposes their worldview on you, when they remind you you're a part of some weird secondary class, then it's your priviledge not to notice.

Just because you don't have to notice doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and doesn't mean the world operates that way.

Wish it did, it's true.

We had a couple of guys at work come back from a training session this week in the backwoods of North Carolina, and a couple of them were talking about how crazy fundie Christian it was, how there were these posters about running the company on Christian values, how the company literally owned the town, and they saw a total of one black person the whole time and how much it creeped them out.

When they asked another co-worker if he'd noticed it, the guy had shrugged and said, "Not at all. Didn't seem weird to me."

The guys who noticed the weird insular whiteness happened to be black and hispanic, respectively. The one who said it didn't seem weird at all was white. To the white guy's experience, it wasn't any different from his existing worldview, from the way the world ones; to the other guys, they felt like total outsiders, like they were visiting a place that made no provisions for them, that actively tried to shut them out.

So when white people say, "There's no racism and really, I don't notice people's race," that's all very well and good; but believe me, when you turn it around, when you're a part of the race that's considered "different" when *you're* the other, you don't have that priviledge anymore.

Anonymous said...

What if the author just doesn't have anything he thinks is interesting to say about race relations, and so doesn't put it in his work?

How can you reliably distinguish between that (seemingly) inoffensive behavior, and any of the other behaviors that bother you so?

Kameron Hurley said...

This is like saying, "So, why aren't there any women in your book?" and the author says, "Oh, I just didn't want to write a political book."

Umm... you mean, a book with people?

Because writing a book full of default white guys? Makes a huge political statement. That's fine if that's the one you want to make, but you better be real sure that's what you're aiming for.

Kameron Hurley said...

P.S. Note that you're also defaulting to the "he" pronoun when describing writers in general. Not all writers who do this are guys. Hell, not all *writers* are guys, but that's a default assumption we make in much of our language, isn't it?

Kate Nepveu said...

This is a manual trackback. I've linked to your post here and appreciate your writing it.

Barratt Miller said...

For the most part, I agree wholeheartedly with what you're saying, especially in regards to "exceptional women" and the context/social significance racical and cultural information provides. Contemporary western culture and history is focused on white men, rather than all the people who inhabit the world. I've done some undergrad research in feminist musicology. I ask most people to name a great female composer, and I get a blank stare in response.

But I can see where Scalzi is coming from in regards to the significance of race in science fiction novels. SF writers create the worlds in which their stories take place, and racial tensions may not exist within the realm of a particular story In The Matrix, for example, race in the traditional sense seems to be unimportant because humanity as a whole is fighting machines to ensure their survival. In that case, humans of every gender and culture come together as one race. The conflict is no longer man vs. man, but man vs. machine.

It would be completely different to write a "colorblind" novel about a woman living in the Deep South during the 1960s, a time and place in which race was EXTREMELY important. I think that there's a difference between creating a world in which tensions other than race drive the conflict, and avoiding the issue of race in a story in which race would be relevant.

I would hate to see people writing "black" characters or "Asian" characters or "female" characters (etc.), just because they were trying to be diverse. To me, that's just as bad as not writing about race at all. Diversity shouldn't be forced. It should come naturally. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case...which may or may not be the problem.

Bethany said...

Thank you for posting this. It's making me think about an issue with my work I thought was resolved, so that's always good.

I'm still trying to figure out how to write mixed-race (as well as mixed culture, religion, and language) as the default without constant heavy-handed reminders: Hey! Remember, most of my characters are not white! I've tried subtle cues, but I'm pretty sure those aren't going to work. Maybe the two-by-four is necessary.

Devin L. Ganger said...

I'll also point out that racism is a predominant form (but not the only form) of prejudice, and Scalzi's book do *not* shy away from dealing with prejudice on multiple levels. If you're yelling about Scalzi's writing and haven't bothered to read his books, then maybe -- just maybe -- you don't know what you're talking about any more than the white guy who's never had to deal with the negative effects of racism or sexism knows what he's talking about when he says his town is peacefully integrated.

And maybe, just maybe, there are those of us out there who have decided that the absolute best way to deal with racism is to act in the fashion that we want people to act in. At some point along the way of fighting prejudice, you have to stop making the distinctions matter. I don't want my kids thinking that the right way to be non-prejudiced is to focus on race; I want them to be so used to race not being an excuse for people to put each other down that they're shocked to their core when someone does make it an issue, when it does jump up and become divisive.

Kameron Hurley said...

And see, I think that maybe, just maybe, you're confusing "talking about racial tensions" with "mentioning a person's skin color the way you would hair or eye color."

I *love* the idea of race being a non-issue in the Sfnal future, but I think we'd still notice what color somebody's skin was, and we'd do it in the same way we talk about hair or eye color or any other feature.

To me, the most powerful way to show a world where race doesn't matter is *to show people of all sorts of different colors, backgrounds, ethnic types living and working together free of racial prejudice."

Simply "not mentioning" what a character looks like doesn't do that. What it does, sadly, is perpetuate the myth of the all-white universe of the future, because, based on our own sexist, racist culture, the vast majority of readers who soak up media full of white guys will assume many characters are white guys unless told otherwise (if we all defaulted to thinking that a character was a black lesbian, I think a lot more white male writers would see the "problem" with writing every character to default).

And, by the by, I have indeed picked up Scalzi's books and met Scalzi in passing. Like many writers whose opinions I argue with, I like Scalzi, insofar as I know him, quite a bit. Doesn't mean I can't disagree with him.

Dawn Firelight said...

Hi Kameron. I followed a link to your blog from Elizabeth Bear's blog. This is an interesting article - thanks for writing it - and I agree with many of the things you've said here. However, I would like to add that it's not just a matter of whether you do it or whether you don't. It's also a matter of HOW you do it. There are many writers out there who take the trouble to point out a non-white (and almost always minor) character's race, when he/she doesn't do so with the white characters.

Why?

Why is it necessary to say that character A is black when you don't mention that character B is white? Isn't that the equivalent of a white person standing in the middle of a street and pointing to a black person, saying: "Hey, look there! A black person! Woohoo!"

As a reader, I find this extremely annoying, especially when the characters' race isn't even an issue (if it is, then this is a moot point). Doing so implies that all the other characters are white and that the black person must be pointed out simply because he/she is black.

In this, as in most other aspects of writing, I think subtlety is the way to go. If you're going to mention Jane's blue eyes and blonde hair, then you should also mention Michael's dark skin. If you're not going to say anything about Jane's race, then don't say anything about Michael's race. And besides, race is more than just skin colour. A character who is described as 'black/Asian/ethnic minority of your choice' but whose other cultural characteristics (e.g. dress and speech), personality and psychology betray no hint of this is really nothing more than a white person painted a pretty colour. Which is even worse than not mentioning the character's race. (This is, of course, the flip side of racial stereotyping where all the non-white characters speak with a funky accent.)

If you're going to point out a non-white character's race simply to remind people how multiethnic you are, then maybe you're better off not saying anything. If you're going to have non-white characters who walk, talk and think exactly like white characters, then maybe you're better off just making everyone white.

Kameron Hurley said...

Dawn - and believe me, I absolutely agree... only noting a character's background if it's "not white" is just as stupid; but again, it does speak to the reader/writer default of "everybody's white unless I say they're not."

Ideally, that would be noted as it came up - people will pale, people will sunburn or darken, color and culture will be noted as they come up in the narrative - and that would *include* white culture.

Ideally, yanno.

mind-boggled said...

This is a good discussion but it also makes my head hurt. Come on people...why do things have to be so freaking complicated? If you're a good writer, your story should do a pretty good job of portraying life. REAL life. In real life, the world isn't full of a bunch of white people (white males to be exact). You walk into a grocery store and unless you live in a secluded suburb, you encounter many shades, religions, and even languages. Is it so hard to subtly introduce characters who are diverse? So you're not ready for an asian protagonist--how about the best friend? And you know, it wouldn't hurt to do some research about Asian food and culture to make your work credible (I mean you do research for other characters and settings don't you?) Is it so hard to create an non-stereotypical role for a person of color? Yes, you might get backlash (from people who are too busy being bitter to see that diversity is a blessing not an indictment) and potentially your work will be labeled "political" (ditto). But that's a chance that should be worth the taking. In the real world it's only natural to encounter people who are different than you, and being different is OK. You don't have to treat people who are different as "special"...they just ARE.It's ridiculous to say that a white writer can't write about non-white people. I'm not white and I realize that a lot of my characters are white--and I've never found a problem with it. So why is it such an impossible task for you? All of this just proves that as "non-racist" and "non-prejudiced" we are, we still have not learned to reach out and learn and appreciate other cultures. I bet you that if a writer spent time interacting with a culture different than their own, they'd have less of a problem writing about it. After all, if you just write based on [largely] your own assumptions and your own mental or cultural stereotypes (that we see on TV every day), you're almost guaranteed to have a cheesy, overdone, and just plain wrong outcome. I could go on but I'll stop here. I know someone will reply "but why should I care about other cultures when all I want to write about is a space adventure?" and you know, that answer is why we may never solve the problem.

Kameron Hurley said...

"real life" except when you're writing SF/F, and then you have to keep in mind this advice: http://yhlee.livejournal.com/864090.html

Because, to paraphrase, though race may not matter in *your* made-up world, it matters to your readers. You need to code your work the way you want it coded, because otherwise your reader will default. You've got to be aware of your audience and what you want to say.

Amy Sterling Casil said...

I agree, Kameron. Very well-said. This would be true regardless of the gender/ethnic/racial identification of the author if they are writing unexamined work. Because the automatic default is white western male -

I've thought this for years and worked hard to write more specifically for myself. So ya can see how far that got me.

CT said...

As a hetronormative white male of celtic extraction, I have to agree with you. And the lit on gender and identity that I've read agrees too. The funny thing is that we can attempt to write outside our race and gender but it is a form of identity tourism.

People who think they write neutral are just unaware of the more subtle plays of power in language. It is not the genders we write with our the descriptions of hair or skin colour, it is our sensitivity to the experiences we have had based on our race, gender, skin tone, cultural background, sexual orientation. As such, race isn't in the descriptions we choose but in the narrative structures we create. IMHO of course.

lydamorehouse said...

I totally imagined all the characters in Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR as white guys -- the only marker I picked up was the gay, Jewish best buddy. He also mentions Indians from India, as apparently they were victims in some previous war (or current one, or something.)

But that aside, I completely agree. This was one seriously awesome rant and something I believe but never managed to articulated as well as you just did.

Have you read CARNIVAL by Elizabeth Bear? I interviewed her for the Internet Review of Science Fiction (for which I think you have to subscribe, but it's free) and we argued this very point because I thought her racial markers -- some of which were very there -- didn't go all the way. (Apparently there are NO white characters in the CARNIVAL universe. I miss read that.)

The interview is here:
http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10370

Kameron Hurley said...

Hi Lyda - yeah, I enjoyed Carnival. It's a good romp. I did pick up on the fact that pretty much all the white people in Carnival's world were dead... It happened late in the book, and unravelled pretty slowly.

I didn't mind so much that she wasn't explicit. It's another one of those things where it's just a "fact" of the world, and so the characters are less likely to comment on it except when it comes up in historical discussions or has some immediate bearing on what they're doing.

Lenore said...

This is a thought-provoking post and I agree with just about all of it. Thank you!

On the subject of using non-explicit racial markers: iit seems to me to be a useful way to provoke self-examination in the reader. If readers assume that characters are white and are only forced to re-evaluate that assumption halfway through the book, it throws them into confusion, yes. They may have a different conception of a character (besides the visual) than they would if the invisible baggage that comes with race had been with the character all along. But that's good news, because readers will be forced to question why it is that the revelation made them uncomfortable--what stereotypes they would have relied upon to define a character that were taken from them in this case--and why they assumed whiteness in the first place. That could even also end up contributing to your writing, if one of your points is that, unlike in our society, this one is truly indifferent to color except as another visual trait. The vertigo experienced by the reader's realization and forced re-evaluation emphasizes the uniqueness of the fictional world.

Anonymous said...

I think the "Matrix" example is illustrative of an important distinction. It appears from the the move that race is no longer an issue. But no one's going to mistake it for an all-white society. People's cultural and ethnic backgrounds didn't collectively vanish (even some of the programs have specific ethnicity and culture).

Writing a book is different, in that your readers imagine your characters based on the information that you give. Knowing that most people think "white person" when you don't give them descriptors, throwing in some references to skin tone, hair, eyes, last names, or other similar features can be the difference between a story about a racism-free future society and one about an all-white one. If people look at other people, or worry about their own appearance, they'll notice things like skin color. Ascribing meaning and cultural value judgments, not necessarily.

Ashok K. Banker said...

Let’s talk about the Invisible Big Brown Bear in the Editorial Conference Room…

http://ashokbanker.com/2008/08/01/is-american-science-fiction-fantasy-racist-and-sexist-bigotted-and-culturally-insensitive-too/