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Archive for the ‘Assumptions’ Category

Why Writing Colorblind Is Writing White (a rant)

As a writer, you may write colorblind. You may pull out all the color and race and cultural tags for every single one of your characters, and thereby prove that they could be of any race!

Sure. Let’s go with that. Nobody in your book has a skin color, or any sort of physical description at all.

You really believe your reader’s not givng your characters a physical description? You think that one of the first markers they make, after size and gender, won’t be color? Pigment? One of the first things we, as largely visual creatures, fixate on in order to tell one person from another in a culturally diverse society (if everyone’s the same color, no, we won’t fixate on that as much; then it becomes about size and hair cuts and clothes, but if your society isn’t monochrome, we’re going to see color. Is your society monochrome?)

Come now.

Let’s leave aside the fact that by ignoring a character’s race, you’re choosing not to deal with a lot of the potential conflicts inherent in a story where you have people of wildly different backgrounds coming together. And by “race” I don’t just mean looks, either. I don’t just mean pigmentation, though that’s a marker we all fixate on because it’s one of the most easily perceived, right there next to clothing choices (hence, burquas and veils, top hats for “gentlemen,” wearing beards, turbans, kippahs, etc).

Clothing choices, of course, are *choices.* Cultural practices, except perhaps circumcision and tribal scarification, can be cast off by those trying to “fit in” with the predominate culture.

Permanenent things like color, hair type, any sort of ritual scarring or permanent body modification like footbinding, etc., cannot.

I’m going to say that again:

You can’t take away these cultural markers, this indicators of uniqueness, of culture, of ethnicity, of “difference” (or “sameness” if the culture is in the majority). More than that:

You can’t take away what these things mean within a society (barring long, long years of progressive work to change stereotypes or the actual political or social position of people who share these characteristics).

The great thing about being a writer who chooses to “write colorblind” is that you can totally wipe your hands of all responsibility. Just like this (I realize I’m being harsh on Scalzi here, but this pissed me off). I mean, you’re not being racist. The world in your head is totally diverse! It’s your readers who are racist if all they see is pale people (or dark people, or polka dotted people)!

Scalzi’s situation may be unique, or made purposely unique, by the sort of world he works in. He says that in the Old Man’s War universe, race doesn’t matter that much. He seems to be positing that happy colorblind utopia we’re all gunning for, and that a lot of people seem to think we actually live in (“Oh, ha ha, I just don’t see race! Or gender! I just see people! I’m a humanist!” You’re full of shit).

The problem with writing in “race-neutral” (what is that? Gray? Beige?) terms is you get the same problem you run into when you write in gender-neutral terms. As people raised in a racist, sexist, society, we’re going to norm a lot of stories, a lot of people, as white males. There are certainly ways you can code this differently, and every reader brings their own unique set of indicators to the reading experience, but I think the vast majority of people are going to sit down and code your world in whitewash unless they get some indication that it’s otherwise or they bring something non-majority to the table.

We have a default setting we’ve been programmed with, and it’s the default setting we’ve been pumped full of since birth: stories about bands of white brothers, fathers and sons, heroic male conquerors, Columbus, rich white presidents, men of Science, great white male writers; the men who run the world are white. The important people are white. We’re reading about important people, right? Unless we’re reading some kind of hippie women’s story set in some jungle where people don’t speak plain English.

Am I exaggerating? Very slightly. Certainly we learn about women. Marie Curie (quick, tell me what time period she lived in? No?). Virginia Wolf. Indira Ghandi. The Girl in that movie. You know, The Girl in every movie? Come on, you know her so well. She’s that *one* girl in *every* movie that’s chockfull of 10 male main characters and a slew of male secondary characters and some female prostitutes for the drug scene. You know, The Girl.

But these are presented to us as exceptions. “Oh yes, there were these people too.” (there was “the Girl). In February you learn, “Oh yes, there are these black people too.” (usually it is “The Black Person,” ie Martin Luther King)

To be honest, I still know more about Columbus and the heroic Pilgrims than I do about whatever tribe it is helped the Pilgrims not starve to death. No, I don’t even know the name of the tribe (did it start with a P?), but I could tell you the ships the heroic pilgrims sailed on.

Sure, I could look it up, but I’m talking about knee-jerk knowledge, knowledge so deep it’s become part of your subconscious, the stuff you learn by rote and exposure and have seen so much that it’s become unexamined truth.

These are historic holes, ways we view the world, that have been shaped by race and cultural and power and gender. The race and gender and rich land-owning elite in charge (I recently learned that some of the first US taxes were lobbied heavily by landowners on a number of everyday goods in order to keep the government from taxing land) determine what we care about and what’s important. We can fight against that, and learn more, and question everything, but we have to fight those unexamined truths every goddamn day.

I would love to ignore all of this stuff. I would love to pretend it didn’t exist. I would love to say it’s easy for me to write a matriarchal society where every single secondary character’s pronoun comes out smoothly and easily as “she.” I would love to say that I don’t have to keep a running tally of how many times I try to use the word “pale” when describing main characters who really don’t get all that pale(r), or that I don’t have to keep a check on how many characters in my primarily brown-and-black world end up disturbingly pale.

Yes, it gets easier to do, over time. You code new paths through. You make new realities.

But first you have to question and breakdown and challenge the old ones.

And you’re not going to do that by shrugging and telling yourself you’re just writing a monochrome world.

I suppose, of course, I could just ignore everyone’s hair type and skin color and cultural practices and pretend they live in a whitewash world where everyone is colorblind (which really means “Everyone is white.”). But if I ignore that, I ignore the history of these people. I ignore the struggles that they have with one another and with other people; other cultures. I ignore historical disputes and historical differences. I ignore the fact that certain foods are taboo to some people and loved by others, so they can all eat happily together without commenting on it. I lose conflict. I lose richness. I lose truth. Nobody thinks somebody else is going to blow up a building or try and mug them or must be a member of the ruling class based entirely on the food they’re eating, the way they wear their hair, or the color of their skin.

Perhaps it’s easier to write a world this way, no doubt. No doubt it’s a much easier world to live in. But it feels to me like a very fake sort of world, a very lackluster, colorless world.

This Probably Works Better When You’re Not Really Self-Conscious

As I expected, associating “Good” and “Vabbenif” happens a lot more quickly in my lizard brain, but then, as shown, associating the pale figure with *anything* was something I did a lot more than with the dark figure. Try it for yourself.

At least, I think that’s how I read these numbers (“0” was average. But… Um, I’m not sure what “average” meant. Anyway, this is what it said):

Good and Vabbenif=0.04
Bad and Vabbenif=-0.42
Good and Reemolap=0.213
Bad and Reemolap=0.164

(stolen from ABW)

On Magical Negros, Helpful Slave Girls, & Other Fantastic White Creations

There’s an interesting article up at Strange Horizons on the stereotype of the “Magical Negro” in fantasy fiction. Author Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu looks at this white-written type in the novels of Stephen King (Dick Hallorann in The Shining, Mother Abigail in The Stand, John Coffey in The Green Mile, etc). There’s some discussion about the problems facing lily-white genre writers (such as myself) trying to write more protagonists of color without falling into such stereotypes over at Vandermeer’s discussion board.

This is something that’s been bugging me for a long time in my fiction, particularly after I started reading up on my core feminist books. That’s about the time I started poking my head out of the sand and looking around at all of my assumptions. Trying to break them down, in real life and in fiction, has been one of the more difficult things I’ve ever tried to do (and I’m not so arrogant as to believe it will ever be done – I’ve been raised in and embedded with cultural symbols. I can be aware of my biases, and try and squash them, but they’ll always be there. I’m not stupid enough to believe they’ll go away if I just stop thinking about them).

Because I’m a white woman, I haven’t been as aware of the Magical Negro stereotype as I have been of the Helpful Slave Girl type in all the Conan novels. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the old Howard novels because I find them so incredibly non-PC that they become ridiculously funny. The sexism and racism are overt – there aren’t even any Magical Negroes. There are only Primitive Black Beasts and/or Savage Natives. The Magical Negro stereotype hadn’t come into fruition.

Interestingly, the Magical Negro type (as mentioned by someone at Vandeermeer’s board) sounds like an evolution of the “Uncle Tom” character. Uncle Toms, ironically, were created by people like Beecher-Stowe – they were to be sympathetic characters to convince white voters (still all men at this time) of the evils of slavery. They were to show that having black skin meant just that – having black skin, and did not negate a person’s humanity. When you’re trying to talk to people who’ve been hammered with the thinking that personhood is based on color/blood, Uncle Tom was a way of a white writer trying to show a white audience that a person’s color didn’t make them Evil.

Following from that, the Magical Negro (I think) is a white writer’s attempt at giving a character of color a viable place in the story – that of a character instead of a set peice. What Okorafor-Mbachu didn’t mention about Hallorann in The Shining was perhaps the most startling part about the actions of his character – he saves the white woman and her child. The white husband dies. The black guy runs off with the white guy’s wife and kid. After I read the end of The Shining, I actually flipped back to the front and looked at the publication date (1975). I was impressed that King had gotten away with doing that (especially in 1975). Sure, there’s no romance between the Magical Negro and White Woman, but hot damn, the black guy saved the day! You’ll note that in the Kubrick movie version, Hallorann dies and the white woman and the child go off on their own. A reading audience may have been ready for the leap of the black-man-saves-the-day, but not a movie audience. Unfortunately, creating a “type” of character – best intentioned as it may be – can backfire, particularly after everybody else starts picking it up and using it as shorthand.

Maureen McHugh mentioned that one of the reasons she chose a gay male protagonist in China Mountain Zhang was because she was tired of seeing the “Magical gay man” character who had to be sacrificed in order to save the protagonist. The old Conan novels do great things with the Helpful Slave Girl who Suddenly Appears before Conan, and is so irristitably attracted to him that she 1) doesn’t serve him the poisoned wine her master wanted to give to him 2) gives him a key to get out of his prison 3) tells him vital information about how to get out of the palace/destroy the beast/find the power center of the evil lord/magician/etc. Then she 1) runs off and is never seen again 2) asks Conan to take her with him, which he does, though she’s never again seen in other books.

The Helpful Slave Girl, like the Magical Negro and Self-Sacrificing Gay Man, is/was an easy shorthand. Writers are naturally lazy. If we can get away with shorthand, we likely will.

So, it’s a problem.

So, how do white writers (like me) move outside the box? I’m aware of these stereotypes, and after reading the SH article, started ticking off my recent stories and novels in my head, trying to find evidence of my guilt.

I was doing OK for awhile: particularly with Jihad, where the token White Guy is actually the only one of the gang with magic powers, but he’s just one of the cronies, not even a main character (I have effectively reversed this stereotype, though he won’t be sacrificing himself for anybody, and he’s not really all that magical. Well, Ok, he’s a low-level magic-user, but he doesn’t have any great Gandolph-like knowledge). Everybody else in the book is black and brown, and none of them is particularly gifted. It’s Firefly in the desert, with Islam, racial tension (between black and brown, not non-white and white) and it just so happens that yes, there’s a token whitey. My biggest worry is that I’m going to get offensive on the playing-with-Islam front.

I’m likely most guilty of the Magical Negro stereotype in the fantasy saga (To the Wall being book one), where Lilihin is a too-pale scullery drudge (everybody else in the country is tawny, and the country to the north is a mix of Greek/Arab culture shared by a race that’s tall and black). Unfortunately, her mentor ends up being from the Greek/Arab culture, meaning she’s nearly white, and he’s black.

Criteria of the Magical Negro as outlined by Okorafor-Mbachu:

1).He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.

Yep. Tiernan’s black. But no, the story’s main characters are 2/3 tawny.

2) He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.


3) He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.

No, I don’t think this will happen, unless his time is counted as a great sacrifice. The idea is that *he* needs *her* for something, not the other way around, though he tries to frame it that he’s in he best interests.

4) He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.

Uh-oh. He’s an outcast.

5) He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

Another Uh-oh.

I probably have a Magical Negro on my hands.

But. This is where things get tricky.

I’m writing a fantasy world as a white woman living in a hetero-patriarchy. I’m writing about fantasy cultures with fantasy racial characteristics, which include skin color. I’m also writing about fantasy social and sexual arrangements, fantasy customs, and including some fantasy gestures. Because I’m tied to this world, they’re all coming out of this world, being shaken and stirred, and vomited back out into something a little more different.

But I think they’re still going to be white.

I’ve done a lot of traveling, and I’ve tried to pick up as much as I can, but I think if somebody in another country picked up my book, they’d be able to tell I was white and American (much like someone picking up a Michael Moorcock book or a Mieville book would likely be able to tell they were from England, and had great affection for London). I don’t know that I have any solution to falling into stereotypes while writing, except that you need to be aware of them… and you need to start spending a lot more time with people who are very, very different from you.

Ideally, we wouldn’t have to question a character’s color, a character’s sexuality, as being significant at all. Yea. Right. That would be great. But we’re not there yet, and until then, we’ve got to look closely at our subtext. Whether or not I was consciously making Tiernan a Magical Negro, I’m more aware of how he could be cast that way, and I can take steps to alter him if necessary.

I’ve taken to interrogating many of my female characters as well, particularly after a reader said, “I thought the subtle misogyny in that story was interesting.”

Holy crap, I thought. I totally didn’t mean to do that. I was caught out again when I created a completely passive female lead for the fantasy saga, and had to go back and retool her. Again, when I first concieved the character I pictured writing her as very strong-willed. Instead, she came out like a rag doll. I’m working with pre-established notions about the way a certain “type” of person acts. Yes. Me. The crazy-wacky liberal feminist hippie. We all come from our own unique blend of cultural biases. We’ve all got embedded shit.

I was also caught out on a sudden short-hand assumption when a first reader asked me why, in the second section of my fantasy saga one of my characters had suddenly become “a slut.” Oops. It happened to be a gay male character. I had been writing quickly (about 5K-10K words a day), and went against the actual person I’d created in the first 150 pages and started to write a shorthand stereotype instead. Needless to say, I went back and rewrote those sections.

We’re going to approach projects with assumptions. I’ve been lucky in that I have really good first readers who tag me when I’m being lazy. I’ve started to learn how to interrogate what I’m writing a little bit better, and I’m hoping I won’t trip up as much.

But I know I’ll trip up. It’s a constant process writing and rereading and trolling through subtext. I won’t catch everything, but dammit, I’m trying.

Is that the best we can hope for?