Difficult Topics: Racial Bias

I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching lately about diversity in fiction, primarily fantasy novels, and especially my own creative works. This is a very sensitive topic, and I genuinely do not intend any offense, but I have always believed that some problems only get solved when light is cast upon them.

Diversity and race is something that I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with all my life. If any of you have been long-time readers of this blog, you might remember a post I did on perceptual bias eons ago. Here’s the link, if you want the full version, but the short of it is, our experiences influence the way we see the world, and the ingrained assumptions and associations we make can only be changed if we find, examine, and challenge them. I’m about to challenge a few of my own biases, and maybe yours, too. I expect that it will be painful for me, and I honestly don’t know, writing this, if I will ever hit the publish button.

So let me start by saying that I grew up in a very rural, very backwards, very White Anglo-Saxon Straight Protestant corner of Appalachia. My entire school system had four African American children, one Jewish girl, and a Jehovah’s Witness. That was the extent of cultural diversity when I was growing up.

And my family was anything but progressive on the issues of race and cultural diversity. My friend Katie wasn’t allowed to come to my 7th birthday party because my mother insisted that “black people leave an odor.” In 1984. Yeah. That backwards.

Despite all that, I remember making such a clatter anytime someone in my family said the N- word (which was pretty often), that eventually they all just stopped saying it, at least in front of me, so I would shut up.

When I was a teenager, despite being a welfare kid with a functionally illiterate, abusive single mother, I managed to be an academic achiever. I was sent to the Governor’s Scholars program at a university for a whole month. I lived in a dorm with other 16-17 year old kids from across the state, and while the group was still predominantly white, I was exposed to a host of new ideas, new cultures, and new people. I ate it up, but it ended up eating at me, too.

I’d gotten the family to stop spouting some of the epithets they were so fond of, but the racism remained deeply ingrained. My mother found out I had a bit of a crush on the doctoral student who was in charge of my program and threatened to hang me “until you stop twitching” if I ever brought home a “colored” boyfriend. By then, the balance of power in our relationship had shifted, and I no longer feared her, but what she said really, truly bothered me, not because of her intent, but because I hadn’t even considered the idea seriously. Erik *dreamy sigh* was 6’5″ of ebony stud (and 8 years older than me and completely uninterested in dorky teenage girls), but aside from looking, the idea of him as a romantic prospect never entered my mind. I found an assumption that I hadn’t even realized was in me, and I challenged it.

I became the kind of person who strove to see every person, regardless of skin tone or facial characteristics, as completely equal. I made a point of treating people as if we were all the same. Looking back on that now, I see how immature my new-found enlightenment was. Rather than embracing multiculturalism and diversity, I simply convinced myself that the only difference between me and a person of color was the color. Black people were just white people + Sharpie.

I did mention this was going to be painfully honest, right?

As much as saying that now makes me cringe, I think that point of view was a necessary step in my own evolution. Today I believe that diversity doesn’t mean ignoring the differences between people, but rather honoring them. I understand that there is no common experience between all people of a particular race or ethnicity, including my own. Race doesn’t define individuals, but the experiences they have had because of their race and the cultural biases they have endured, positive or negative, do influence who they are. I believe diversity lies in recognizing both cultural identity and individual identity.

As much as I try to distance myself from the attitudes that were prevalent where I grew up, they are still part of my history, part of my experience. My exposure to that level of prejudice and my strong response to it are a large part of what informs my attitudes toward race and my perceptual biases today. I strive to make sure that my biases (and everybody has them, it’s the nature of the beast) do not control me. I said to someone not long ago that cultural and perceptual biases are inevitable, but that acting out on them isn’t. I try every day to make that my reality, partly just because I think it’s the right thing to do, and also because my beautiful son is growing up in a world full of insidious, negative bias, of unconscious privileged and prejudice, and I want to show him how to identify and overcome all those things.

And that’s what brings me to this moment.

Well, that and the fact that I just finished writing a novel that doesn’t have a single non-white character in it.

~~

I read everything as a kid. Everything. I sent off for my first Harlequin subscription at the age of six, while my mother was sleeping off a party weekend. Those little cards in the middle of the book were great. Nobody ever minded that my handwriting looked like a six year old’s. (And don’t worry about the sex thing. I saw my first pornographic movie at age five; it was already too late for me. You could say I didn’t have a model parent.)

I was voracious. I would read a cereal box if nothing else was handy, but my deepest love was for fantasy. I loved dragons and knights, codes of honor, heroes standing against a tide of darkness. I loved an underdog, the simple person who turned out to be the only man alive who could defeat the bad guys and save the day. I loved elves and dwarves and gnomes. I loved paupers who became princes and princes who gave up everything for love.

And when I was growing up in a house with dirt floors in backwater Appalachia, with only the public library and the school library to read from, all those fantasies featured white heroes. Most of them featured damsels in distress. Robin McKinley’s Hero and the Crown was the first story I remember that showed me girls could be heroes, too. Stephen Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need duology was the second.

I genuinely don’t remember a single character from the fantasy novels I read as a kid who wasn’t pale skinned, with western ideas and mannerisms. Maybe my library weeded out the books with culturally and racially diverse protagonists (I read the entirety of the SF&F section) but whatever the case, they were missing, along with protagonists who were LGBT or disabled. I didn’t even get around to finding a book with openly gay characters until Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, and I stumbled into those in college.

Which is not to say the books were culturally one-note. Far from it. The worlds I explored between the dust jackets showed me cultures of pure imagination, each weighted to skew the status quo. They showed the full spectrum of social ills and wonders, from slavery to feminine equality, from prejudice to acceptance. The human (and sometimes non-human) condition is a glorious and terrible thing.

More recently, I have seen a growing trend toward diversity within the genre, coupled with an infuriating tendency for people to whitewash characters of color where they do exist, ala The Hunter Games movie.

I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I used to, simply because nonfiction feeds my own work so much better, but what I have read hasn’t left me completely hopeless. Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains stars a gay protagonist. Mercedes Lackey’s The Serpent’s Shadow features a protagonist who is bi-racial and female. Lots of books have added characters of various racial identities as secondary or minor characters. Still, the books that touch on the subject with grace and genuine thought seem a small minority in a largely homogenous playing field.

Which brings me to my problem. I have been struggling with the issue of adding more racial diversity to my own fiction. It wouldn’t be that hard to add in a handful of side characters who have dark skin. Change a description here, a mention there, viola! But somehow, that doesn’t seem honest.

I find a good number of those books that offer token diversity suffer from my own former trouble. They seem to believe the best path to diversity is with a paint brush. White people + sharpie, which works about as well as American people + accent or modern people – technology. If the only feature that differentiates your character from the pale skinned characters that surround him or her is a bit of ink/paint, that’s doesn’t really seem to honor diversity, particularly in cultures that are otherwise very Earth-like. Tokenism by itself is a whole other kettle of fish, of course.

My recently finished novel consists of people who are all one race because it’s a relatively small population, set in an insular community in a moderately temperate climate that hasn’t had any “fresh blood” in a couple hundred years, plus one guy from the outside, who must be able to blend in for the book to make any sense. As much as I would like to be able to assemble a more diverse cast, this story demands the conditions that it lives within, and those conditions, along with what we know about evolution and human genetic diversification, demand the cast that I’ve assembled. I have plans for a sequel, where the world outside that little bowl of mountains is explored, and racial and ethnic diversity, as well as how disability fits into the world my protagonists created in the first book, play a big part, but My honesty and integrity won’t let me pay token service to a topic as central to my understanding of who I am and the moral code to which I hold myself.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a book my mother would be proud of, by any means. Two of the four main protagonist characters are gay, one of them openly, and the themes of being different and struggling with sexuality are definitely explored. Another is an atheist in a polytheistic world, though that is much less central to the plot. There are a handful of kick-ass women in empowered roles as well, and the topic of treating women as incubators is touched on, though you couldn’t really call this a feminist piece. Still, you won’t find any dark skin or almond-shaped eyes between the pages of this one.

Does that mean this book is a failure? Unfit to be read? Of course not. Neither are the books of those hundreds of authors I’ve read over the years who have avoided the topics of race, ethnicity, and diversity altogether.

Please don’t mistake me. I am not making apologies for my story. I don’t believe in muses or the hocus pocus of mythical writing mojo, but I am humbled by the unflinching honesty I have found within those pages about topics that are important, wide-ranging, and relevant to our modern world. I love the characters and the narrative because they tell the truth. More importantly, they entertain. Fantasy as a genre is about entertaining. Regardless of the importance of its themes, a book that entertains is successful, but I believe fantasy is also growing.

What was once a vehicle for pure escapism and speculation for a predominantly white, predominantly protestant market has grown up to address some of the toughest issues to face us today. I hope that I can continue to learn and grow with the genre, and that the genre continues to evolve into a body of literature that embraces diversity and honors genuine multiculturalism on many levels. I hope that body of literature doesn’t forget that its most basic foundation is to entertain.

~~

I said at the beginning of this post that I wasn’t sure if I’d ever hit the Publish button. Well, after two days of waffling, I’m going to.

I said that the honest in my book humbled me, and I meant it. It humbled me enough to put this post out there, despite my reservations and fears. I hope that those of you who read this post and make inevitable judgments about my upbringing, my personality, my intentions, and my book will keep in mind that I’m just a person, inherently flawed, but doing the best I can.

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4 Responses to Difficult Topics: Racial Bias

  1. LJCohen says:

    I am so glad you posted this. It echoes what I’ve been struggling with in my own work and the themes of the entirety of Conbust from last weekend. If we don’t continue to examine our biases, nothing will change.

    Well said. Very well said, indeed.

  2. Great post, Lisa, and thanks for it. I especially liked this: “cultural and perceptual biases are inevitable, but acting out on them isn’t”. I’m doing a series on pretty much exactly that over at my personal development blog (howtobeamazing.com).

    I’m a New Zealander of completely British descent, but in my current work in progress all the people are brown. It’s not something I make a big thing out of, but after all, most people in the world are brown, more or less. Some of them are also tribal, but mostly they are “civilised”.

    They’re kind of in a postcolonial (or at least post-abduction-and-slavery) situation vis-a-vis the Elvish Empire, which was a bit like the Roman Empire and a bit like the British Empire and, occasionally, a bit like the Third Reich. So the pale people are the Other and the resented historical oppressors. Again, that’s not a main theme, but it’s in there. Part of how I’m stretching my own perceptions and putting myself in the place of, well, a lot of people around the world.

  3. arizela says:

    Thanks, Lisa. I often work through difficult topics like this in writing and whether or not to share that process and the writing that comes out of it have always been something that’s weighed on me, particularly with writing that involves my so-called childhood. Nice to hear that it wasn’t entirely wasted.

    Mike, sounds interesting. I think a lot of my limitation in this situation is because of writing “organically” and not doing a whole mass of world building prior to starting the write. I’m exploring a more structured process, but haven’t quite gotten into the swing of it yet. Let me know how the book goes.

  4. I hadn’t thought of the white + sharpie problem, but I suspect it infects my writing. This needs pondering. Thanks for bringing it up!

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