R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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Writing in the Age of RaceFail

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?)


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.
Tags: books, essays, racefail
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