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.

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