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Writing in the Age of RaceFail

Nomad - Ivy
Recent discussions and debates generated by RaceFail '09 and its most recent iteration of Mammothfail have got me thinking a lot about my own mistakes and carelessness when it comes to trying to understand, and be responsible about, issues of race (as an author of fantasy and science fiction, that is).

I want to be careful about writing this post because it's easy to get derailed into "Why you should feel sorry for me because I'm white and dealing with racial issues is so haaaard" or "So this is why you people of color need to cut us white folks more slack," both of which are, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. Nor is this post about me patting myself on the back for not being like Those Other White People Who Don't Get It, because even now I am one of those White People Who Don't Get It and to some extent always will be.

What I mean by that is, I frankly have no idea what it's like to be discriminated against, patronized, and thoughtlessly left out or even downright negated on account of my skin color and cultural background. I can try to imagine what that would feel like, but imagination is all I've got – with all the errors and omissions that kind of guesswork inevitably implies. I still have a lot of reading and thinking and most importantly listening to do before I can even begin to appreciate where all my blind spots and thoughtless prejudices are, let alone how to address them and make them right.

So I will just say this.


I read Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child a couple of weeks ago, and I enjoyed it. Having been made a little more aware of racial issues by RaceFail '09, I was especially pleased to see that there were at least two characters of color in the book who had significant positive roles in the story and appeared to be three-dimensional human beings rather than stereotypes.*

But to my shame, I never even noticed the absence of Native Americans in the story, let alone thought to ask myself why they weren't there.

Now that the omission has been pointed out to me, and I've read the discussion that started what's come to be known as Mammothfail, I see the problem, and I think it really is a problem. I can understand why many people are upset by the narrative choice Ms. Wrede made to exclude Native people from the settlement of North America in her alternate-historical fantasy world.

I share Pat Wrede's stated dislike of the usual stereotypes about Native Americans (i.e. either bloodthirsty, warmongering "Injuns" who threaten the white settlers as in the old Westerns, or mystical Earth children from whom the whites learn New Age spirituality and ecology a la Disney's Pocahontas). I can understand Ms. Wrede's desire to avoid either one of those traps**, and imagine the weary feeling that might well have come over her at the thought of getting tangled up in race issues and historical wrongs, when what she really wanted was to talk about things like magic and mammoths, and do it in a setting that was not (huzzah) the usual western European quasi-medieval fantasy default.

So to avoid all that by proposing a world in which North America was never settled by Native peoples—I can see why it might seem like a tempting way out of the problem, with no racial prejudice or offense consciously intended. (After all if the Native people weren't exploited and abused by the white settlers because they were never here in the first place, doesn't that sound like a good thing?)

But.

There are a lot of issues and talking points involved in the whole RaceFail debacle that I'm still struggling to get a handle on. But one thing that I can appreciate is the desire of non-white F&SF fans – not just African-Americans, but Native people and Asians and other racial groups as well – to see people like themselves in the fiction they love. I remember reading one woman's essay of how reading A Wizard of Earthsea and realizing that Ged and Vetch were red-brown and black-brown respectively was a tremendously powerful moment for her, because all the fantasy she'd read and loved up to that point had led her to feel that magic and adventures and heroism were all things for white people, not people of color. (ETA: The essay is "Shame" by Pam Noles; thanks to handyhunter for finding the link.)

So if there are people of color reading fantasy, why aren't there more people of color in fantasy? Why does it seem easier to minimize or leave them out? No doubt sometimes this is the result of conscious racial prejudice on the part of the author or publisher, but more frequently, I think, it's because the majority of successful fantasy authors are white themselves. It's all too easy to default to your own skin color, and only think of including characters of other races when looking for ways to tell your secondary and tertiary characters apart ("My heroine can't have friends who all look alike, so I'll make one of them black!"). Or sometimes, as in Patricia Wrede's case, the author has thought about including characters of a certain racial background but discarded the idea as bringing up too many problematic issues and overcomplicating the story they'd like to tell. Easier to just leave out that particular group altogether…

And yet easy is not always the same as right. And sometimes it's better to try and fail than not to try at all.

There is no simple answer or universal rule to handling race in fantasy (such as "You should always make sure to include at least one person of color for every two white people you write"), because every setting and every story is different. But I think that white authors like myself need to be aware of our ingrained prejudices and at least stop to think why the characters we create are a certain skin color or come from a particular cultural background. If all the people in our invented fantasy world are a light pink color, why is that? Do we really have a good logical reason for making it that way, or are we just being lazy? Are we stacking the deck to leave out people of other colors and races who would otherwise be there? Who are we leaving out of our stories, and what are we telling our readers as a result? Do we really want to make magic or heroism or authority or true love the exclusive province of the lily-white?

And then, of course, even if we aren't ignoring racial diversity in our stories we still have to watch out for pitfalls like cultural appropriation (Shogun, anyone?). We might be guilty of fetishizing and exoticizing someone of a different race, instead of treating them as an individual. Or we can play into obnoxious racial stereotypes like the Mammy or the Magical Negro or the Chinese Fortune Teller. Maybe we've resorted to clichés to describe the appearance of non-white characters (guilty as charged on that point. I'm thankful to Mitali Perkins for writing a post that drew my attention to the particular cliché I'd used, so I had time to change it before the book went to print). Some of these faults are more offensive than others, but none of them are good.

Writing racially diverse characters doesn't come easily to the average white author. It can seem daunting, and overwhelming, and scary, and it may be tempting to just back away and not even try rather than be accused of Writing Race Wrong. But is it really better to avoid the issue than deal with it? I don't think so.

I am no expert on racial issues, as many people who know me could tell you. I've only recently started thinking seriously about these things, and I've said stupid things in the past, and my first novel is full of whiter-than-white characters. I am in no way trying to set myself up as an authority here: that's not what this post is about.

But I am grateful to the fans of color who have spoken out about their reading experiences and the problems they've seen in the F&SF books they love, and called out us privileged white authors on our careless bigotry, and challenged us to be mindful of what we're doing, and listen to other voices besides our own, and apologize when we've screwed up, and resolve to do better in future (or at least not make the same mistake twice).

It's a challenge we authors have been given, and a humbling one. But it's a challenge I want to rise to, and I am trying to do so, one small (perhaps too small, but still better than nothing, I hope) step at a time. And I know other white authors who've followed RaceFail '09 and felt similarly challenged to include more racial and cultural diversity in their writing, as well as reading more books by authors of color and including more fans of color on their friends list. So even though the debate was very painful and frustrating for many of the people involved, good things have come out of it as well.

I hope the same can be said of Mammothfail, in the end.

--
* I did wonder a little whether those characters might fall into the "magical negro" category (not so much by virtue of them being literally magical, because that seemed to me a positive thing, but because they are both involved in educating and advising the white heroine as their primary function in the narrative). I am still undecided on this point, but anyway they're two of my favorite characters in the book.

** Though not so much the apparent belief that those were the only two options.

Comments

( 35 comments — Leave a comment )
sarahtales
May. 17th, 2009 02:57 am (UTC)
Great post, RJ, thank you. I have been following this whole thing with sad eyes, and you articulate the challenge beautifully.
the-walrus-said.blogspot.com
May. 17th, 2009 02:57 am (UTC)
OK, this is the first I've heard of Racefail. Where was all this going on?
rj_anderson
May. 17th, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC)
Links are in my first paragraph above, and Google has more if you're interested.
sartorias
May. 17th, 2009 04:41 am (UTC)
Nicely said, thank you.
dichroic
May. 17th, 2009 04:52 am (UTC)
I'm glad that Pat Wrede's book got called out; I only wish it had happened before it came to print because I think it might have been fixable. I've read (from someone who knows her) that her idea is that the migrations across the Bering Bridge never happened and so it's not that a race was erased, but that they descended in Asia instead. Having it in your head and having it on the page are different things, and the latter is what counts. So I can see both my fen of color are upset and that they're right and that Wrede intended no slight. But she made one, just as you can hurt someone physically entirely by accident. I doubt she's racist in the sense of harboring conscious prejudices; it's clear she (like most of us) is, in the sense of being blinkered by institutional prejudice into missing things we damned well should not have missed.

OK, so Mammothfail has diagnosed a root cause. In my business, the next step is to take immediate action (don't know what that would be in this case, perhaps an apology and/or revision of later editions?) and a systemic action to prevent that failure and similar ones from happening again. I think that's what you're doing, and the people raising funds to send fen of color to Wiscon, and the people namechecking to raise awareness of readers of color.
handyhunter
May. 17th, 2009 05:05 am (UTC)
What do you mean by dogpiling and what ugly things were said about Wrede and by whom?

Also, racefail is still ongoing; mammothfail is just another cycle of it (even racefail09 was just another cycle of it).

Is this the essay you mean? Shame by Pam Noles
rj_anderson
May. 17th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC)
Yes! That is the essay, thank you SO MUCH. Will add link post-haste.

And you are quite right about racefail being an ongoing thing, it's only that Racefail '09 and Mammothfail were my first personal exposure to many of the issues and complaints involved.

I've also deleted the first ETA as it seems to have been an unnecessary caution and also gives a wrong impression of the character of the discussions taking place elsewhere.
handyhunter
May. 18th, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)
Ah, okay.

Have you seen this post too? It's similar to Noles' essay. Looking for clues by Nalo Hopkinson
rj_anderson
May. 18th, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)
Wouldn't you know, the site's down? I'll keep checking back over the next few days, though. Thanks.
sarahsan
May. 17th, 2009 07:48 am (UTC)
Not sure, but do you maybe mean Le Guin's own response to the Earthsea adaptation, A Whitewashed Earthsea?
rj_anderson
May. 17th, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
Nope, it was definitely an essay by a fan of color, not by LeGuin herself (although her response is good too). But I'll keep looking.
lady_schrapnell
May. 17th, 2009 10:06 am (UTC)
Great post. Thank you.

I did wonder a little whether those characters might fall into the "magical negro" category (not so much by virtue of them being literally magical, because that seemed to me a positive thing, but because they are both involved in educating and advising the white heroine as their primary function in the narrative).

I wondered about that too, but on the whole decided mostly not. I can see the point about Miss Ochiba and Wash's primary function, but on the other hand, there are so many serious and wonderful depictions of teachers and the job they do in children's books of the 19th and early 20th century that this seemed to fit that pattern. I'm thinking of teachers in the later Little House books and the Anne of Green Gables books, for example. It seems fair enough for a great teacher's primary function to be to teach the protagonist, and the kind of magic she taught being a bit more comprehensive fit nicely with the kind of freedom that can come from being in a lower-status position. (In the eyes of the college/university teachers, of course! As for example, seen in extreme form in William's father's disdain for the kind of magic William would learn in just regular school.)

The scene towards the end in which Eff insists that Wash call her Eff, as he's always had the children call him Wash gave me more pause, but then I remembered that the lecturers at the college call all their students Mr -- too, so I'm even less sure about that one.

It is difficult, but as you say, better at least to have written two strong characters of colour and maybe have them not perfect, than to have had them only in the background to provide the labour she said was going to be more needed given the lack of Indians' 'prepping land for human occupation'. (That horribly unfortunate phrase was probably not intentional, but ...)

brightfame
May. 17th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
A thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing your views on this.
shveta_thakrar
May. 17th, 2009 04:44 pm (UTC)
Rebecca, I am glad to hear you say all this, because one of the things driving us writers and readers of color mad right now is that we seem to be preaching to the choir, and everyone else is tuning out, saying it doesn't affect non-POC. And we run the risk of alienating potential readers by speaking up "too much."

Here're a couple posts that discuss exactly this:
http://nojojojo.livejournal.com/178060.html
http://nojojojo.livejournal.com/178799.html
lady_ganesh
May. 17th, 2009 06:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you for your post. I do want to say that having a diverse cast is-- or should be-- more than just wanting readers or potential readers to have characters that look like them, because that phrases it as altruism. And altruism is nice, but let's talk about the other reasons to put people Who Are Not White in your cast.

One is readership, which as nojojojo points out in one of the above links can be potentially pretty darn big. And the other is just, you know, quality. You can't create a New World without any Native Americans without hurting the realism of that New World. You can't talk about a future with a one-world government without some people who aren't white and American around (see: Star Trek.) Your work will be better. It will last longer.

I try. I don't always get it right, but the only thing I think we can do is to keep listening, learning, and writing. Thanks for the post.

Edit: This was meant as a general reply to the post, sorry!

Edited at 2009-05-17 07:00 pm (UTC)
rj_anderson
May. 17th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
You're right; it's not about altruism, it's not about magnanimously throwing a sop to those Other Folk Who Aren't Exactly Like Me, it's about being a responsible and realistic author.
lady_ganesh
May. 17th, 2009 07:34 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly! And, you know, I think it is important that kids who are not white and pasty and European have role models, and characters who look like them, but there's a whole host of good reasons.
rj_anderson
May. 17th, 2009 07:52 pm (UTC)
Yup. And now watch me cap off this thread with a deeply insightful comment:

LOL I LOVE YOUR ICON.
lady_ganesh
May. 17th, 2009 07:53 pm (UTC)
IT IS MY NEW FAVORITE THING AND I AM USING IT ALL THE TIME.
skywardprodigal
May. 18th, 2009 12:37 pm (UTC)
it's about being a responsible and realistic author.

Exactly.
rj_anderson
May. 17th, 2009 07:50 pm (UTC)
Those are excellent thoughtful posts and I hadn't seen them before -- thanks for linking to them.
bondgwendabond
May. 17th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
This is a really excellent post.
kristin_briana
May. 17th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
It's a difficult line to walk, isn't it? On the one hand, it's frustrating to realize that there are so few racially diverse characters in literature (especially fantasy literature) today, but at the same time we don't want to throw in that one token black man or Native American or Hispanic character.

Thanks for sharing this. Beautiful and thought-provoking.
cindy_pon
May. 17th, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
thanks for posting, rj.
i do think that with silver phoenix,
i wrote a fantasy novel that i would
love to have read 20 years ago.

fantasy will always be my first genre love.
always.

but i grew up not remembering ever seeing
an asian character in a book, much less
as the protagonist.

i've read elsewhere that a writer would
choose not to say much about a character because
a reader will automatically assume the hero
is like herself. this isn't the case for me.
unless told otherwise, i *always* assume that
the character is caucasian.

it isn't easy and it definitely is a fine line.
but i think slowly, change is happening, and
it's important for us to all be aware as
writers and readers that there *can* be more
diversity out there in what we choose to read.
or write.

cheers!
rj_anderson
May. 17th, 2009 09:42 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting, Cindy! I found your worldbuilding in SILVER PHOENIX really fresh and interesting (and unpredictable, which is always a plus!) because it wasn't based on the typical Western European model we've seen so much of in fantasy. I love Elizabeth E. Wein's books about Telemakos for similar reasons (ancient Ethiopia as a setting for quasi-Arthurian historical drama? I am so there!).
psychic_serpent
May. 17th, 2009 09:52 pm (UTC)
I have to say, though, that two things about Wrede's words on the matter disappoint me greatly. First was the initial description of the book that spoke of there being no other humans here when "Columbia" was "discovered". The use of the word "discovered" in this context, as in all of the history texts in which it appears in this context, is the first problematic thing, because Wrede, like many people in the past, uses the word to mean "discovered by Europeans" when in fact the land in question had been discovered thousands of years earlier. We really must stop using the word "discover" in this manner; Wrede is certainly not helping phase out this misuse of language but her use of the word is also something of a red flag that starts really flailing wildly once she weighs in with other comments on the subject.

The other disappointment comes in her explanation of why she didn't want the indigenous people of "Columbia" in the story. Frankly, she is showing a massive lack of imagination for a writer, IMO, because all I can see is that by eliminating these people from her narrative she has closed off a plethora of potentially fascinating plot twists, from the magical animals being the indigenous people themselves (having the ability to transform into the animals in question) to the Europeans finding abundant signs of abandoned Mayan cities that may bode ill for them, since they could fall prey to the same creatures that devasted the native population, to discovering where the the native population have taken refuge from the animals and forging an alliance with them against the magical animals for the mutual benefit of both groups, even though it may be an uneasy alliance of people who are not at all familiar with each other (and which STILL does not need to fall neatly into "NATIVES=BAD" or "NATIVES=NOBLE" if she draws realistic characters who fall all along the gamut between those two extremes).

The idea that she thought there were only two possible alternatives in her treatment of the indigenous people makes me wonder about her as a writer; her "solution" to what she sees as an either-or problem is not only facile but has ended up alienating a lot of readers and potential readers. It seems to me that while part of the problem with this book is an author who does not understand many issues of race another very big problem is whether she even has enough ideas to continue to write. That she didn't see any other way of solving her "problem" suggests that her creative well may be in grave danger of running dry.


rj_anderson
May. 17th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
the magical animals being the indigenous people themselves (having the ability to transform into the animals in question)

I would TOTALLY read that book. That is an awesome idea.
psychic_serpent
May. 18th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
Since I'm in the final throes of editing my werewolf novel I probably have people turning into animals on the brain. :) OTOH, I do think it could have been very cool to bring in all sorts of mythology about people turning into jaguars and other animals, skin-walkers, etc. It's not like that stuff isn't already part of the native folklore, which could have been another way of honoring the indigenous people instead of just eliminating them.
vdansk
May. 17th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
Race, gender, religion and general nerdness
When I was growing up, there were no female characters in fantasy and science fiction. That is not, of course, quite true; there were Galadriel and Arwen, and Heinlein's Podkayne--but in the vast number of books, female characters were props and window dressing--including in LoTR, thank you very much. Growing up in a family where gender was never an issue, I simply incorporated myself mentally into every book that didn't have a me-type character.
In my family, race was also never an issue. My father explained to me and my baby sister in our preschool years that there would someday be no white or black people, and everyone would be different shades of brown. When my siblings adopted African American, Asian, and multiracial children, it was never a big deal, nor could I remember growing up which kids were adopted and which weren't. I actually had the idealic childhood of the future that may never exist.
I learned that (many) others considered me a second class citizen for my gender only in medical school. Racial issues didn't really become comprehensible for me until Residency, when a friend described
vdansk
May. 17th, 2009 10:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Race, gender, religion and general nerdness
(continued because my laptop hates me) when a friend described seeing an African American dentist at the age of 13, and realizing in that moment that she could be a doctor. I had never in my life considered that there might be any path in this world that I couldn't achieve if I was willing to work hard enough.

Gender matters are better. I've had the privelege of raising daughters who've asked such questions as "Can boys be doctors, too?", and announced that they'd put their babies' car seats in the back of the rocket ship when they were astronauts. They don't see any difference in the cousins who are pale and freckled and the ones who are a dozen different phenotypes. The cousins--middle-class and educated--get discriminated against no more for their appearances than for their interests,beliefs, general nerdness, or perceived likely sexual preferences. But that doesn't mean that race isn't an issue, even for them.

We've come a long way, in many different areas. When it seems that we are just starting the climb, it is important to remember that this mountain begins on the crest of another...and that there will be another mountain at the top of this one.
rj_anderson
May. 17th, 2009 11:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Race, gender, religion and general nerdness
Agreed about the paucity of female characters (esp. strong ones) in F&SF 25-30 years ago -- which was one of the reasons I glommed hard onto Aravis in The Horse and His Boy (who was also a person of color, though I didn't pay much attention to that detail back then) and Jill in The Silver Chair and The Last Battle.

Thanks for your interesting comment.
oneminutemonkey
May. 18th, 2009 08:42 am (UTC)
Thank you for an amazing post. You've articulated much of what has been on my mind in a far better way than I probably could.
rj_anderson
May. 18th, 2009 11:59 am (UTC)
Very kind of you to say so, thanks.
daegaer
May. 18th, 2009 11:52 am (UTC)
Thanks for this post. (Here via the Dreamwidth linkspam community).
rj_anderson
May. 18th, 2009 11:57 am (UTC)
Thanks for commenting, and much love for the Edward Gorey icon. :)
( 35 comments — Leave a comment )