Where I went wrong (this time)

Posted on March 8, 2009

I don’t know how many regular readers of this LJ are following the current online discussions about racism in scifi and fantasy. (If you aren’t, magicnoire has a very good summary here.) I’ve been reading this with great interest, and sometimes sadness, at the recognition of how badly scifi and fantasy writers have often let down nonwhite readers, and how much pain this has caused, and how resistant some other people are to having this conversation.

What’s worst, for me, is my own recognition of how freakin’ white the EVERNIGHT series is. I think of myself as an anti-racist person, as somebody who is fairly aware and who tries to do the right thing, but the first time I sat down to write an original YA fantasy, the characters who poured out were mostly white. (There’s Patrice, Dana and Raquel — and more peripheral characters such as Mr. Yee and Eduardo — but as much as I love them all, none of them is truly at the center of the action. I hope to God they aren’t “sidekicks,” but I have to admit they’re closer to that than to being main characters.)

I did this without meaning to. I did it without racist intent. And in a more perfect world that had ample, realistic portrayals of people from all different races and backgrounds in its fiction, one book like this might therefore not matter. But when there’s a larger pattern being created — a pattern that pretends people of color never have their own adventures (within fiction), or that they aren’t out there reading and watching (beyond fiction) — each tile becomes part of the pattern. And I hate that my first series fits into it so well.

All I can do is promise that no other series I write will ever be a part of that pattern.

Writing more characters from different backgrounds than my own* will be a challenge, and no doubt I will find new ways to go wrong in future. But I’d rather go wrong while trying than by not trying. Meaning no harm isn’t enough; we have to work to do better.

*besides being vampires, obviously

56 Responses to “Where I went wrong (this time)”

  1. savyleartist

    I don’t think you should feel bad about it. Authors write not only from their imagination but from experience from what their used too. If it’s done with out intent then it means nothing 🙂

    • admin

      Although I agree that it’s natural for people to think about their individual experiences first, I don’t agree that this is the end of it, or that the actions we take without intent are meaningless. I mean, I didn’t go to boarding school in Massachusetts or at any point dabble in vampirism; EVERNIGHT may connect to my real experiences in some ways, but in many others it does not. And if I was able to stretch enough to imagine the Modern Technology class, why didn’t I think more about the fact that Evernight Academy’s students would naturally be from all over the globe?

      (In its earliest years, yes, Evernight would’ve had to have been a primarily white school if only to avoid attracting attention as “different” in 19th century New England. But today, I feel sure its student body should be far more diverse than I have so far portrayed it.)

      Basically, what I’m saying is that it’s not enough to mean no harm. I think we need to question what we’re used to, and ask why we’re used to it, and whether we should be used to it. I know you are trying to be kind and supportive, and I very much appreciate that, but I still want to face up to what needs fixing.

  2. Anonymous

    Speaking of different backgrounds. How come Spain already has Stargazer on the market, and we have to wait until Friday? 😉

    • admin

      So, it IS out in Spain! I was wondering.

      And you *should* have to wait until two weeks from Tuesday, unless your bookstore is being rather sly —

        • Anonymous

          Don’t worry. I don’t do the online discussions thing.

          As for your original purpose of this post. I too I’m guilty. I do have a secondary character of hispanic background, but it isn’t really mentioned because it isn’t important to the story. The two main characters are white because they are of Norwegian descent, which is important to the story.

  3. Anonymous

    It’s really weird but I know I do this to without even meaning too! 🙁 It’s just what I know and I don’t mean to do it but just being white makes all the people in my head white to! I dunno why But I’ll definatly try and be more aware of it cause I know theres diffrent cultures waiting to be written about and I’ll love them just as much as any other charicter! I just have to find um first! 😛

    • admin

      I think a lot of us do it. Being aware is the first step toward getting past it, though! You could definitely ask your librarian for some books she or he might recommend that capture your interests and show some different points of view.

  4. Anonymous

    See, I really don’t think it’s racist — it’s easier to write what we know, if a black person, or a Chinese person or whatever other race wrote a story where the main characters were the same race as they were, no one would even think twice about it or accuse them of being racist.

    I can’t stand racism but I don’t think the race of a characters in a story counts as racist unless you seem to be deliberately stereotyping/excluding/singling out a particular race of people in your story (e.g. making all the antagonists black or something)

    I write because I enjoy it, I write whatever pops into my head and however I see my characters is how I write them — if I stopped to worry about whether I was representing all races of people so I wouldn’t… I dunno, offend people? then that would kind of take some of the fun out of writing for me. In one of my stories the main character is Chinese, and I didn’t think about it, I just wrote her that way cause that’s how she was in my head. If I see as character as being a certain race in my head, then that’s what he/she will be, I won’t try and force my imagination to change just so I won’t be considered racist for writing more of one race than another.

    I’m not a professional writer, so it’s probably different, I don’t need to worry about lots of people reading my stories but I definitely don’t think that Evernight would be considered racist just because the main characters are white.

    I think that if writers did try to insert characters of all different races into their stories just to appease readers and so they wouldn’t be accused of being racist then chances are they may end up offending people anyway if they write the wrong thing, or have the character do the wrong thing and people would say it was racist just because that character happened to be -insert race here-… I know that this isn’t really the same thing, but I know that it bugs me when I see non-British people (I’m British), write a British character into the story and the character ends up being a walking, talking stereotype for every cliche for British people there is and I think that would be the same with race — it’s the whole it’s easier to write what you know thing.

    Not that it’s wrong to stray from what you know and write something different (haha, like vampires), but there’s nothing wrong with not doing it either, it doesn’t make someone – or what they write – racist, just because they didn’t take the time to make sure they covered every race in their story.

    I actually think it’s more racist to say that the characters shouldn’t be white, if people don’t think there is enough stories out there with the main characters being a particular race, then the solution would be to go write. If they have a problem with it, then they should write what they want to see instead of complaining about the fact that other people aren’t writing the characters how they would want them to be.

    Most of the main characters you see in sci-fi/fantasy stories also happen to be young, does that make them ageist? Who is to say old people can’t go on crazy adventures? Female writers tend to mostly write from a girls perspective, does that make them sexist?

    I think that people throw around the word “racist” too easily (same with sexist, like if an author writers a character who is a bit of a damsel in distressed they get accused of being sexist for having a male save the day and the character is “anti-feminist” or whatever). In the dictionary racism is defined as:
    1. a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
    2. racial prejudice or discrimination

    Not having X amount of characters of a certain race in a story doesn’t fit either of those catagories, unless it was deliberately done to exclude a certain race of people, which you clearly didn’t do, you just wrote what poured out of your imagination, and there is nothing wrong with the fact that the cast was white. If someone Chinese, or Native American etc. had written the same story, chances are the main characters would’ve reflected their race too.

    • admin

      I am not arguing that every author should check off boxes on a quota chart. That turns people into check-boxes. What I am arguing for is thought. As I suggested above, Evernight Academy should have an extremely diverse student body. It doesn’t. I worried so much about having people from different times that I never sat down and questioned my automatic assumption that most of them would be white. It’s a failure of imagination, and similar failures of imagination result in the publishing scene we’ve got now, where characters of different races and backgrounds are pretty severely underrepresented.

      Like I said before — each individual tile in the pattern was created with no planning or malice, but when you end up with a pattern that’s as distorted from reality as the one we’ve got, it’s time to start thinking consciously about who we represent in our fiction, and why, and actively trying to do better. We can’t trust our subconscious, I’m afraid; that’s the level on where this kind of thing is the most insidious.

      • Anonymous

        Ah, okay, I see what you mean… but like you said, it’s a failure of imagination, not racism. That’s the part that bugged me about the whole online discussion thing, the fact that it was being called racism when none of the writers of those sci fi/fantasy stories were being hateful or prejudice or deliberately descrimitating against non-white people.

        Oh and I didn’t mention this in my last comment, but I do think it’s awesome that you want to explore different backgrounds and things and work them into your writing. My little – okay, long – rant before was more aimed at the subject in general, not at you. 🙂

        But for the record, I totally didn’t see Evernight as being distorted from reality, when I read it I pictured a diverse student body – I mean, there’s only so many main characters but there was a school full of people, even if other characters who weren’t white weren’t the focus, it didn’t mean they weren’t there and doesn’t everyone do that anyway when they read? They picture the story how they want to see it, it’s like… I don’t know, take Twilight for example, most of the girls that read it saw themselves as Bella, they projected themselves onto her even if they didn’t have the same race or the same age or the same hair colour as Bella does in the book, the authors imagination is only part of the story, they tell us what happens and then it’s left to the readers imagination to picture it how they want to (in Evernight, I don’t think you described him this way, but in my head Balthazar was mixed race).

        I guess it’s kind of different for things like movies and TV shows though, it’s not like books where you get to picture what you want.

        • admin

          We could have a long debate about how to use the word racism, whether it is only a matter of hate or can apply to an error of omission, but it’s not really the debate at hand. What matters most is that we need a broader range of viewpoints represented in our fiction, so that maybe our imagination doesn’t fall back into some automatically white space.

          it would be fascinating to weigh how/whether people are able to read themselves into books, despite racial/cultural differences, in a way that TV, movies and other visual media don’t fully allow. I think a lot of people in publishing believe that, while people of color can read themselves into a white character, white people won’t read themselves into characters of color. (Hollywood certainly believes that women will be interested in male lead characters, but that men are not interested in female leads, for instance.) My gut says this isn’t true, and I hope I am right about that. Hopefully we’ll see more books that give readers the opportunity.

          Interesting that you saw Balthazar as mixed-race! He’s a New England Puritan, though. And I am glad that you saw the school as diverse, and I hope to make that a little clearer going-forward.

  5. violaswamp

    Thank you; I appreciate this. I did get the impression that the general student body and faculty of Evernight was diverse, but the main characters are, as you said, white. By itself this isn’t a big deal; as part of a pattern, it starts to have a wearying effect. I’m glad you’re aware of this and willing to let this awareness affect your writing.

    • admin

      There should be more student body diversity than there is, though I am glad it read a little bit better on the page than it looked in my head. And the main characters shouldn’t be as uniformly white as they are. I am hoping to be a lot more aware of what I’m doing in this vein from here on.

    • Anonymous

      I also saw them as diverse. When I read in a book that there’s a crowd of people, I don’t visualize it as a crowd of only white people. That’s not the world I live in.

  6. marinarusalka

    It’s scary how easy it is to fall into these habits of thought, isn’t it? I was kind of appalled a couple of years ago when I looked over the slash stories I’ve written and noticed the lack of canonical female characters in them — even female characters I liked and happily wrote gen and het about. Even though I identify as a feminist and have followed many discussions about gender issues in slash, I still fell into that pattern.

    So I’m not gonna tell you that you’re totally fine and have nothing to worry about. But the fact that you noticed the problem and want to fix it is a damn good thing.

  7. mythusmage

    Let Me Just Say

    I hope you can implement your decision fruitfully in an upcoming work. If you’d like a good example of culture clash, read Karen Miller’s Godspeaker Trilogy.

    I start with the fact we’re dealing with people. At the core our behavior is human behavior, culture and society can only alter that so far. Culture can affect how you deal with the world, but one’s understanding of others can change.

    Once started an urban fantasy short. concerning an attempt to kidnap, rape, and murder a small child. I made the child and her parents blacks for one simple reason, they are black. Father is also a computer thaumatologist, while Mother is a stay-at-home mom because she wants to stay at home, keep the house, and raise their daughter. Black culture in that world is not really touched upon because the story’s too short to get into it. I can say that Father knows some pretty powerful mages and wizards, a couple of whom are honorary uncles. Mother has puissant friends of her own.

    What it comes down to is, delve into culture as much as you have room for, and as much as it requires for understanding of the narrative. And always remember that no matter how deep your research and how faithfully you recreate a society or culture, somebody is going to call your work fraudulent, hateful, and racist. Said critic most likely a white girl taking a black studies class and pestering the White House with “requests” for magical Obama sperm so she can have “The One’s” baby.

    True Story

    I once saw a black man get on the bus I was riding. He was intoxicated. My reaction to his intoxication was, “Yetch.”

    So he came over and explained why he was tipsy. Basically a bad week with crap from people of all sorts, most of which revolved around him being felony black. You know, public blackness, driving while negro.

    I listened, he listened, and we had a nice chat until his stop came up and he got off. We got along in the end because we listened. Were more people to try listening, try understanding where the other guy is coming from and treating them as worthy of respect, we’d have a lot fewer problems in this world.

    • admin

      Re: Let Me Just Say

      I don’t think it’s fair to assume that any person raising questions about racism is some caricature of a white progressive. And while it’s true that the first reaction to any writing criticism (about race or otherwise) is pretty kneejerk (NO I did not mean that shut up shut up SHUT UP), it’s better not to leave your response there. You might find that a particular reaction is not illuminating — but you might find that it is genuinely valuable.

      You are right that listening to each other is the first step, and treating each other with respect is the best goal. And thanks for the recommendation! I will definitely check out the Godspeaker series.

  8. cali_arab

    Well, I think that it’s difficult. Ok, in Spain, there are not a lot of non-white people, so I can tell you that it might be hard for a Spanish writer to create a main character with a Spanish background being black.
    I am a non- racist person, too. (Hell, I am a social worker! so, you can’t be racist to work as such). And even if all this may seem a bit unfair, I don’t think authors do it on purpose. Really.

    I think that it’s like when you dream. You dream about faces and places that you know, even if in the dream they appear as something different. Writing is the same. You write, unconsciously, about all that you know.

    I hope I have made sense…I’m not that used to write so serious in English…lol.

    • admin

      I can see that there are going to be different elements to this in different cultures. But I think there has to be more that what we do not on purpose — I think we have to try, on purpose, to do better. You see what I mean?

  9. sparkymonster

    All I can do is promise that no other series I write will ever be a part of that pattern.

    Thank you. I feel like I’m starving for images of POC in SFF books. I would adore being able to curl up with a vampire book and see POC in it (and not as the first person to die, or criminals).

  10. amy0819

    You need to check out TITHE, VALIENT, and IRONSIDE by HOLLY BLACK. She does a real good job of giving different races their turn in the spotlight. She even has gay teens in her books. They are great stories. I was never offended by anything in these books.