Like a typical geeky 90s kid, I grew up inhaling scifi and fantasy YA books, fashioning my NES controller into a belt to emulate Captain N, and revolving my schedule around any mediocre scifi TV show. I didn’t realize until I was older that most of the pivotal characters–the captains, the princesses, the superheroes, the predestined saviors–looked like me. Why should I think anything of it? Thanks to my annual MLK assemblies, I thought diversity meant a person of color was present to serve as an ambassador of their race.
Being oblivious to my own race was part of the privilege being white gave me. I wish I would have discovered Ursula K. Le Guin when I was younger. She was one of the earliest fantasy and scifi authors to have nonwhites star in her novels. She had difficulty getting publishers to accurately represent characters on her book covers because they thought featuring a person of color on the cover would hurt sales.
I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don’t notice, don’t care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being “colorblind.” Nobody else does.
I have heard, not often, but very memorably, from readers of color who told me that the Earthsea books were the only books in the genre that they felt included in—and how much this meant to them, particularly as adolescents, when they’d found nothing to read in fantasy and science fiction except the adventures of white people in white worlds. Those letters have been a tremendous reward and true joy to me.
So far no reader of color has told me I ought to butt out, or that I got the ethnicity wrong. When they do, I’ll listen. As an anthropologist’s daughter, I am intensely conscious of the risk of cultural or ethnic imperialism—a white writer speaking for nonwhite people, co-opting their voice, an act of extreme arrogance. In a totally invented fantasy world, or in a far-future science fiction setting, in the rainbow world we can imagine, this risk is mitigated. That’s the beauty of science fiction and fantasy—freedom of invention.
(On a side note, Le Guin says in the same article that she had difficulty getting publishers to accurately represent characters on her book covers because they thought featuring a person of color on the cover would hurt sales.)
Although I do wish I’d read Le Guin when I was younger, I don’t know that, as a child, I wouldn’t have been one of those oblivious readers. I’d been trained to ignore race until I hit university and realized my experiences weren’t as universal as I thought. I began noticing how race was portrayed in the literature and movies and video games that I enjoyed. So often a person of color (or woman, or person with disability, or… the list goes on) was included as a token, as someone who had made it into the white world. Scifi did this, too, and if any genre should be free of tokenism, it should be scifi. The freedom of invention Le Guin mentions is an ideal tool for showing, for inventing, other possibilities. And in scifi, the excuses for the same old white dominance get rather contrived than they do in fantasy. Globally, whites are not the majority. If the world were to move onto the galaxy, wouldn’t that be reflected in the people we’re seeing in stories and films?
I’ve role-played online since I was a knee-high, and was oblivious, like most privileged whites, to race in the scifi and fantasy games I played until a few years ago. Around the time I started university, I founded a play-by-E-mail role-playing club based on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsdawn. The story took place ten years after the planet Pern had been colonized, several hundred years into a future where humans dealt regularly with aliens, nations of old were long dissolved and humans had founded colonies across the galaxy. I had a hard time getting players to veer away from creating peaches and cream Britons and red-headed Irish-folk (it didn’t help the heroes of McCaffrey’s novel were Irish). Too many others, rather than writing characters of ambiguous lineage, empathized how exotic their “dark” characters looked–further enforcing the idea that white is the norm.
What was my gripe? Five hundred or more years down the road, I didn’t picture such a racial homogeny. Maybe it was the optimist in me hoping for a future without white supremacy, without white men (or the token woman or “minority”) continuing to be the picture of authority and normality. Role-playing is self-indulgent, and I certainly didn’t want to role-play in a world like that, I had real life. At the same time, was it wrong of me to ask players to play a character who looked different than them?
Submitted to the Radical Woman of Color Carnival: RadicalWoC1