I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy. Everything from the Twilight Zone to Dark Shadows to Star Wars to P.C. Hodgell to Diane Duane was a part of my life. And in some ways it saved me from a less than stellar reality, so I sought it out at every turn. Dragons, spaceships, fairies, quests, wizards, aliens...what's not to love about flights of fancy? Except the more I read/watched, the more I started to notice a theme in who played what roles. All too often characters that were sidekicks, or wise nurturers, or villains were also the only characters of color. They weren't leads, or at least not leads that lived for long. Especially if they were darker skinned, in which case they might not get much (if any) character development. There would be all kinds of little details about everyone else, but you'd hear about their skin color, possibly some strange/mysterious/scary customs and that would be it. Most often they were there to be conquered, or saved, or educated by the “enlightened” white leads. People of color couldn't be heroic, wouldn't be heroic, because they were ignorant, or weak, or some other such plot device that made the story all about the white lead's journey.
Oh sure, the Magical Negro, Sassy Latina, Wise Indian, etc. might die to protect the lead characters, but those deaths were what they were there to do. Usually the story treated their demise like a blip in the real hero's life, or as an additional impetus for the protagonist to defeat the villain. Stories were framed around the idea that valuable people are white, and everyone knew it. Occasionally, the stories would focus on the idea that the oppressed brown/red/yellow people really needed the white lead to come in, learn their ways, & then use them to fight evil. For some inexplicable reason the characters of color doing the teaching were never strong enough to win their own freedom from oppression. Or there would be no characters of color at all. Stories set in cultures clearly based on Egypt, or India, or Asia, but somehow all the people in an equatorial climate on a planet with multiple suns were pale skinned with straight hair & light eyes. Hmm, there's something wrong with this picture...what could it be?
It is alternately frustrating & enraging to read fiction that erases you, or treats you as nothing more than a convenient plot device. And yet, I still love SF/F even when I find myself critiquing it regularly. Growing up, I wanted to see a future that included people who weren't white if only to know that we had a place in the future at all. SF/F is the genre that's about making our dreams real, or as real as possible. Well, what happens when you're erased from those dreams, or trapped in the same roles that already exist? When you're oppressed even in fiction what message does that send? And yes, it's easy to say that representation in fiction isn't important. That it's just a book, a movie, or a TV show. After all it's not like you have to read it, or watch it right? Right. Except, what happens when there's nothing for you to read or watch? At least not if you refuse to accept that your only options for representation in popular media are variations on maid, whore, pimp, thug, & invisible.
Granted things are better in my personal universe these days. In high school and college I found writers like Octavia Butler & Samuel Delaney, and it was amazing. I've had the great fortune of reading things written by people like N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, etc. I've been able to introduce friends and family to their work. But, it's not enough to have a few writers you know you can count on. Among other things I'm a fast reader with a voracious appetite for new media, and options are a great and wonderful thing. Plus, there's the question of how the genre can evolve, when so much of it still focuses on the same imperialistic colonizing framework? We talk a lot about the craft of writing, but what about the politics? What about the impact? Race matters in our society. It is part of a problem that won't be solved by pretending not to see skin color, or ignoring history. We have to talk about it directly and indirectly, and that includes recognizing the importance for POC of being seen in the media as real people, and not just a collection of stereotypes.