Racial issues and tensions have always been a part of our world, but they’ve been getting a lot of press recently. Allegations of police brutality, riots in the streets, and a deranged white supremacist slaughtering churchgoers at a Bible study have turned up the heat and sent the American melting pot into a feverish boil. And since what happens in the real world is also often reflected in the worlds of our imagination, race and racism have also been showing up in popular entertainment. Several comic characters have had their ethnicity adjusted, to the delight and mortification of fans. These instances get media coverage because comics (and their TV and film adaptations) are hot tickets right now.
What about the speculative universe as a whole? It’s quite obvious that the realm of fantasy draws heavily on white European lineage because that setting inspires most of the stories. But what about science fiction, with its intergalactic tendencies? Is it as diverse as it should be? How diverse is “diverse enough” and who gets to say what the standard is? Should this even matter to readers?
Full disclosure: I am a white, middle-class American male and I can only speak from my own perspective. However, I spent my childhood in inner-city Queens where my family was one of the few white families on our block. My wife is Chinese and we have two mixed-race children. My profession is an ESL teacher for international students at a local university. All of this does not make me an expert on race relations but my experience has been diverse enough to give me at least some idea of life beyond a white middle-class upbringing, and this is why I feel confident in approaching this sensitive issue.
I am not a voracious reader of science fiction but it is my preferred genre and I can honestly say that I can’t immediately recall any (human) protagonist who was not white. I know there are stories out there with non-white main characters, but the fact is that science fiction is largely as white as fantasy.
It seems to me, again in my limited experience, that “racial diversity” in science fiction often means incorporating extraterrestrials into the story. The humans are white, and the non-humans are a different (and darker) color. The star of the story is usually a white male or female and the supporting cast will have an Asian and sometimes a black character (hardly any Indians, despite being the second-highest populated country in the world, or Hispanics, despite the fact that Spanish is the second-most widely spoken language in the world after Chinese).
Why? I can only speculate, but two major factors seem to be: A. the writers are white, and B. the readers are white. Writers create characters that reflect their own characteristics, and it’s not only white writers that do this. Look at books written by non-white authors and you’ll see that their protags are usually in line with the author’s own race. The psychology behind this is complex and ingrained, but that old adage – “Write what you know” – holds true here. Despite my racially diverse life experiences, all of the protagonists in my own books have been white. When I start a new book, it’s automatic in my mind that the character is white, and if he or she isn’t, I need to make a conscious choice about their race. I imagine it’s the same with most authors. No one should apologize for writing in line with their own race, but writers need to be aware of all aspects of a character and not take their race as a given.
Since the people who read speculative fiction are also largely white, writers and publishers are naturally going to cater to them. I saw a post on Facebook by YA sci-fi author Karen Bao. Her latest book features a female protagonist of Chinese descent, but the German publisher placed an attractive Caucasian girl on the cover. Did they think that audiences wouldn’t respond well if cover had shown an attractive Chinese girl, like the one in the story?
So what, if anything, should be done about this? Is some kind of literary affirmative action needed? Some people would say so, but that begs the question: how much? Should publishers stipulate a quota for non-white protags in books? You will find greater diversity in genres such as literary and historical fiction, but what about sci-fi?
Personally, I would love to see popular sci-fi stories set in places like the Middle East or Central America. South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp has produced some intense movies like District 9 and Chappie, both set in his native country, but those movies featured a largely Caucasian cast. How awesome would it be for a movie like City of God or Tsotsi to have a sci-fi spin? It would be great to see stories set in non-Western locations with local casts, but also be free of the cultural or religious statements that infuse most foreign stories that find their way to our shores.
Does a black or Hispanic or Asian reader browse the speculative shelves and lament the absence of stories about people like them? I’m sure that many do. Whose responsibility is it to give them these stories? No one’s. A writer should write the stories and the characters they feel compelled to write, but they should also be aware of the void that exists, waiting to be filled. Even though most speculative fiction readers are white, I do not doubt that they would also enjoy reading a story about a character of any race as long as it was well-written. We should not tip-toe around questions of race and diversity. We should celebrate the colorful identities God has given us, in our lives and in our books.