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The Colors Of The Universe

Is science fiction 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?
| Jul 1, 2015 | 13 comments |

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?

Diversity_1

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.

Exhibit A

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.

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Paul Lee
Member

Aliens in sci-fi as racial diversity is a big can of worms, because it can be more nuanced than simple xenophobia. Fantasy races, too. In white-dominated sci-fi and fantasy, themes about racial diversity can be made using other kinds of humanoids, sometimes even arguing vehemently against racism. Race is taken up in Battlestar Galactica from time to time with the Cylon element, but I think only one of the Cylons is black, if I remember. Does Tolkien get a pass on his Europeanism because he praised cultural diversity with his fantasy creatures and kingdoms?

The ideas about diversity and the value of all people can be there, but nonwhite audience members still don’t find themselves represented adequately. Then there’s the added problem of sci-fi and fantasy creatures often being nonhuman, which makes the analogy uncomfortable — though I think the better stories deal with that problem carefully but directly.

Pam Halter
Member

I agree, Mark. Our world is so wonderfully diverse, why shouldn’t our books be, as well? I’m reading The Icewind Dale trilogy by RA Salvatore, and his one character, Drizzt, is a dark elf who has black skin, lavender eyes, and stark, white hair. And he is discriminated against, yes, because of the color of his skin, but also the evilness of his race, which he’s broken out of. He’s a wonderful character with depth, and I adore him.

I’ve also heard at conferences that books with black characters on the front don’t sell. That makes NO sense to me. But it seems to be a firm belief that makes me sad and I’m not black.

Lauren B
Guest
Lauren B

One of the many reasons I enjoy Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Goldstone Wood books is the racial diversity. Her world has many countries and cultures that reflect Native American and Chinese cultures, not just European ones.

I think that in fantasy/sci-fi white writers have more flexibility to write about different cultures. The contemporary writer would be open to accusations of not getting it right, but in a fantasy world, that doesn’t apply.

Autumn
Guest
Autumn

As someone who is half white and half Latino, I think authors should write whatever fits their story and all that, and I think some sort of affirmative action for stories that feature certain races is just another form of racism. Same goes for authors. Stories should stand in their own.

I remember several books I read when I was younger that had non white protags. Lion Boy by Zizou Corder had a main char that was half white and half black, for instance. But If I recall correctly, it was written by a mother daughter team, and I think the author pic showed one of them was black, so it may have been a case of writing what they knew.

When I write I just let the races develop as they will. I often invent my own human races, and the diversity of them in the story depends on what will work and what I come up with. Even then, though, I tend to address racism through species interactions rather than human race interaction. The bitterness tends to be between many of my angel chars and my human chars.

As far as shows I’ve seen recently, I’ve kind of liked how it is in some anime. Many things may take place in Japan, and the main chars may be from Japan, but there is a sense of global scale as we see characters from Europe, the middle east, etc. Fate Zero and Death Note were a little like that.

An interesting thing about anime, though, is that many chars don’t look Japanese regardless of where thy are from. Sometimes it seems people care more about an interesting look for a char. Hence the pink haired and purple eyes ones. Though there seem to be some stereotypes, like the idea of blond being unnatural. In Fate Zero, Kirei hears a homunculus char described as having white skin, white hair and red eyes, and he says that doesn’t sound human. And I was thinking ‘She could have been an albino human…’

Paul Lee
Member

When I write I just let the races develop as they will. I often invent my own human races, and the diversity of them in the story depends on what will work and what I come up with.

I wish more sci-fi and fantasy writers invented their own human races. Far future science fiction — including most space operas — should naturally show people with multi-racial features, I think. New normals would even develop given cultural separation and enough generations — there could be a planet where most people have blue eyes and very dark skin. This would even make more sense for secondary fantasy, presuming a totally alternate fantasy world. But even if like Tolkien the fantasy world is a pre-historic Earth, tribal migrations and intervening cataclysms still leave the physical appearance and ethnic identities of the peoples open to creativity.

I think I’ve seen this approach from time to time. Sanderson does it in Stormlight Archive, and he even goes a little further to blur the line between human and nonhuman — some ethnicities have fantastic characteristics, but they’re not considered to be other “races.”

Janeen Ippolito
Guest

Good thoughts! I’m a white person who also had an upbringing that was more diverse, especially when I lived in urban areas. In addition, I’m trained in cross-cultural work, have taught ESL in urban areas areas as well as internationally (currently teaching at a camp out of country). For me, having diversity in my writing is a given. It doesn’t feel natural to have everyone be a certain ethnicity or race, even if I do understand that there are plenty of occasions and plots where that set-up makes sense, especially if the story is only set in a certain area. I just tend to find reasons for my characters to travel or interact with other races and pull a lot of tension and external drama from those interactions.

I particularly enjoy the interactions between races that often occurs in urban environments, and the cultural “layering” that occurs. I’m in a Francophone country, so all my students speak French, but they come from many different backgrounds and while French is the common language, many speak Spanish or Chinese or Arabic at home, and then are also learning English together. None of them could be defined by a single race or ethnicity, any more than any person could–but still, they are sometimes judged by that. Sort of like the white person who speaks fluent Chinese or the Japanese-born student who speaks French and identifies more with that culture. That push-pull is a fascinating dynamic, and one I explore in my novels, because I think it’s one that everyone can relate to. People all have their own tensions and unique issues to work through.

At the same time? That’s me. While I think diversity is great in writing and there should be more of it, I think whatever fits the plot should come first. Otherwise, it will come across as stiff and artificial (especially if the author isn’t comfortable with exploring and writing for different races or cultures).

HG Ferguson
Guest
HG Ferguson

Bravo.  Excellent post.  We are all made in God’s image — He has no color.  I’ve often wondered what “skin tone” Adam and Eve had — the same or wildly different? Given the Lord’s delight in making things diverse, I’d be not surprised if they were not the same “race” if you will.  The question is not what a person looks like on the outside, it is who they are inside and what they do.  The hearts of all men are corrupt outside of Christ, regardless of our color.  And for the record, I was born and raised in the deep south as a “white” person and I remember well the struggles led by Dr. King, who longed for an era when every man, “white” included, would be judged not by his whiteness or lack thereof, but by the content of his character!  This is what we should strive for in our stories when we create people who are not of our “race.”  They should live, breathe and be as real as we can make them, and let them as well be judged not by the color of their skin but by what they do, whether good or evil.  Thank you for reminding us that God did not choose to make us all the same culture or hue.  Let’s strive to follow His example as we sub-create, like children imitating our Father.  For such we are.  And ought to be.

Pam Halter
Member

Amen, HG!!  Well said.

Alassiel
Guest
Alassiel

In a purely fictional world, I don’t see why skin color matters (at least in books). It usually seems like obvious and clumsy attempts at diversity when a book includes token “minority” characters. For me, I’m not good at visualizing characters, so I often skim when I read physical descriptions and imagine them however I want to anyway.

What would be more important to me is having different cultures represented, people of different backgrounds and worldviews. I’m currently living in a very diverse missions community and am constantly amazed at how different Asian and Western worldviews are, and then the different cultures within those worldviews. It blows my mind realizing that thought patterns I assumed were inherent to all humans are just a cultural norm for my culture. More than superficial differences in eyes, skin, or hair, I’d love to see more foundational diversity in how characters think.