Sunday 18 September 2011

R is for Race in SF

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.


Djibril said...

Thanks for this powerful post, Karnythia. We'd certainly recommend anyone submitting a story to TFF to take your suggestions into account.

I asked on Twitter what people who'd like to see more POC represented in SFF what advice they'd give to writers and publishers. Some early responses:

effjayem (Farah Mandelsohn) said: "Look around. Represent the West as it is, not after the English Defense League/Aryan nation have committed genocide."

Eithin (Sam Kelly) said: "I'd like to see more use of linguistic code-switching and even polylingual texts. Rivers of London does it quite well."

kevmcveigh (Kevin McVeigh) said: "I'd ask 'why would you not want to represent people fully? Research people as you would technology.'"

(On Eithin's point, I suggested a multicultural variant on the Bechdel test, in which stories include words spoken in a language other than English, both by and to someone who doesn't care whether any Anglo-monoglots understand them or not. Maybe we need a comic strip to kick this off...)

Anonymous said...

Great post, I love sci-fi and have to agree with the stereotypical typecasting in the genre being the same as what we see on TV and in movies - the white folk always are the prominent characters (I'm white myself, but still do think it is a fair representation!) - after all look at who is now the US president... if that's not a powerful role model what is?! Writers need to think about this and act on it. I have recently started writing my own characters for a planned book and my female lead is an Asian Girl, with a Black American guy as the male lead...

Deirdre Murphy said...

I'm surprised and saddened to see so few comments here. Of course, the best way to get comments is to outrage people, and you said this so beautifully, I have trouble imagining anyone outraged at your words. (Outraged along with you is still a form of agreement--and there's a reason Facebook has a "like" button. If you say all that your readers think needs saying, they often don't bother to say anything at all.) I do hope that you will inspire writers to do better at showing people of all colors as just people, capable of heroism and villainy and everything in between.

Susan said...

Well, I wrote a long comment, but my computer ate it, :).

It is very easy to not notice the lack of minority characters when you are a part of the dominant paradigm, but once you start to notice it, it is pretty glaring. I find it increasingly odd to see representations of just about any group of people with only one black person and a few women, and a bunch of white men. I particularly hate when a character of color in a book or cartoon is cast with a white actor in a live action film, but what I have been noticing lately is backgrounds. When you show a crowd scene at a public venue and they are largely or mostly white, that just seems so bizarre to me. Where does that happen?

Malindo Lo has been talking about this on her blog: It is a very good point that a greater representation of minorities will almost certainly lead to a broader picture. When writers view a minority character as standard, and a real character, they are not as easily able to fall back on stereotypes. And, I think that the portrayal of a minority character with stereotyped characteristics is not always a problem, if there is an acknowledgement that it is a personal trait, not a straightjacket that all people in a group must display, if that makes sense. Some stereotypes are offensive and don't really apply, but some are based on reality. A lot of Hispanics are Catholic and come from larger families, for instance--but not all of them do.

Susan said...

Also, I am somewhat offended on a completely nerdy writer/reader basis by the kind of stereotyped character you are talking about--what on earth is interesting about writing the same character everyone else does? Characters of color that are barbaric and villainous, or that have a naive, earthy wisdom? My god, that has been done to death! Do something new and interesting!