White people really need to stop writing about white people.
There’s this crazy movement in fantasy literature right now, and it’s about exploring the diverse populace that make up each and every world writers create. And for some reason, white people keep writing only about white people. Oh, there may be a token character, or an offset of society (usually not fully-fleshed out and left a bit vague) that supports the notion of racial equality in the world, but the larger portion of writers are wearing some frost covered snow goggles.
It seems like many authors out there on the verge of finally plunging into the diverse array of individuals that should infiltrate every aspect of worldbuilding. They ride the proverbial fence and count non-existent chicken eggs, continuing to craft worlds full of beautiful protagonists with intricate histories, personalities and love affairs.
And usually, they’re all white. They’re all They’re mostly psycho-normative and I’ll bet almost all of them are men.
Why? Why is it that white, male writers (let’s be real, that’s who I’m talking to here) seem to view the populace of these rich, vibrant worlds as being decked in a double-dipping of whitewash? Why is it that books like Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea were first printed with white characters on the cover, despite almost all of her characters being distinctly not white? Why is it hard to imagine that characters like Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen are multi-racial because the book covers and movies that depict those characters show them as plainly white? Why was there an uproar—or even a whisper—when the leads of the new Star Wars movie featured no white men?
The most common answers are
often the most frustrating. Let’s try and contain the rage while we explore a few of the more deviously disguised examples:
- “The world I’m building has historical roots in a European based setting. At this time in history there wouldn’t have been as many POCs (Persons of Color) in the culture.”
While this may seem like a viable mode of reasoning upon surface examination, it does little to consider what else is being taken for granted as having existed in this fantastical world. In a Q&A session with #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Malindo Lo writes, “We don’t have to create fictional worlds that are exactly like the real one. We can imagine a world in which it is normal to be non-white or LGBTQ+. I dare say that would be a better one.” Tolkein, in writing The Lord of the Rings, used his home nation of Britain as an geographical scaffolding for the lay of MiddleEarth. Rowling’s Diagon Alley finds itself smack dab in the middle of present day England. Historical Europe, for all the white people that have ever walked its manure-covered cobblestones, never once saw a single dragon. Nor one spell cast from the hands of a crotchety old man intent on infanticide. There was never any magical train, any underground secret warlock lair or witch’s broom shop. So, if it is plausible to include these things, which have never existed in any place in history, then it must follow that this same plausibility extends to POC and LGBTQ+ individuals.
- “I don’t know anything about that culture/I only write about what I know.”
This is another of those answers that looks fine at a glance, but leaves you feeling greasy, like you just overpaid for a used dishwasher. While it is true that the safest and easiest topics to write about are those you know and experience every day in your life that doesn’t make it “OK” for this to become a mantra for excuse. What it really means is that as a writer, it is our duty to be informed about and acknowledge the diversity that exists in life. If you don’t know the correct terminology to use when writing about different groups of people; if you only are aware of a culture through the stereotypes that you have been exposed to, please, go and do some research. Challenge the ideas that were placed in your mind before you had developed a filter to weed such prejudices out. Be aware, however, that cultural
appropriation is real and happens often in writing. Again, inform yourself. Learn new things and ask questions about cultures you don’t understand. Have respect for the history and legacy of each culture you include, and take great care not to offend the people of it.
“There is no race in my story. Society has eliminated it all.”
This one could be the most misleading of all. It seems like this author has considered the idea of race and chosen the righteous route of racial elimination. And if you have a solid backstory that supports why race was eliminated, that acknowledges all of the different stages society would have had to advance through to reach such a pinnacle, that understands how cultures are absorbed and appropriated, then good. You’ve done your job and you’ve done well. And you are among the few. Most often, this is used as a lazy step up the rungs of the worldbuilding ladder. Rather than consider what impact racial relations and interactions would have on the inhabitants of their world, many authors simply deem race to be “not a problem.” All of the characters in their books are of the same race, and the same color, which goes undescribed. The inherent problem here is that the norm associated with fantasy literature has developed itself to revolve around being “white.” In an article on writing diverse fantasy and science fiction, Anne Leonard writes, “Whiteness, in other words, is more than a physical trait; it is a social construction that has been used to determine who has the upper hand in relationships based on unequal power. Once one begins to consciously think of whiteness in those terms, it becomes a lot easier to be aware of one’s own whiteness and to think about how to represent a person of color in fiction.” In an oversimplification of race, culture, identifying features, complexion and hair type and are all forced to pick a single defining color and stick to it. By removing the color associated with characters, many readers mind’s will pick up on the white influence of the author seeping through and identify the character as such.
Finally, this is not to say that all white writers are stuck in the same worlds that were created in the minds of Tolkein and Asimov. There is a surge, and a very necessary one, in the attempt to create more racially and culturally diverse fantasy and science-fiction for an ever-growing reader base. Writer’s like Kameron Hurley and Danika Dinsmore are introducing characters into their writing that shatter the tropes and molds cast by their predecessors. These women and many others are striving to reclaim the literary forefront.
As writers, we cannot sit back and expect someone else to be the author that includes racially diverse, non-normative characters in their writing. We cannot continue to perpetuate a vicious cycle of white men reading about white men as written by white men. We have to open our eyes to the beautiful, vast array of different personalities, preferences, and lifestyles that have been tucked away like some ugly memory. Diversity exists everywhere in the world, it’s time it inundated our writing as well.
By: J. Zeiders