The OF Blog: Whitewashing diversity

Monday, January 19, 2009

Whitewashing diversity

Today marks the 23rd celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Almost 20 years after his assassination in Memphis in April 1968, MLK is perhaps the most well-known and influential American of the 20th century that never held a political office. His "I Have a Dream" speech often is cited as being one of the greatest and most inspirational speeches of American History. Forty years after his death, the American public elected a biracial senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, to be the 44th President of the United States. Tomorrow, he will be inaugurated with the largest crowd ever in the history of such events (estimates run as high as 3 million people attending, up from the approximately 500,000 people at the largest recorded inaugural celebration). These events have been held up as a symbol of the diversity that the United States claims to cherish, E pluribus unum and all that jazz.

But in many corners of American (and global) society, "diversity" is a threatening world. It signals the collapse of the belief that one's own worldview is THE worldview to have. It hints, when it doesn't shout from the mountaintop, that there needs to be a stronger discourse between elements of society that have a mutual distrust of each other. It can mean admitting that one's understanding of history is flawed at best, propagandistic at worst. Considering the ramifications of this can create a vertigo-like effect for so many. Is it no surprise then that so many would rather just pull the blanket over their heads and hope that such discussions would pass them by?

Recently, I made an observation about SF/Urban Fantasy covers. Instead of focusing on possible sexism (my personal thought was that it was a very mild form of sexism, one that both genders participate in on a regular basis, but that perhaps is a column for another time?), I instead noticed the ethnicity being portrayed. Almost without fail (and in those rare cases, the women portrayed were of Middle Eastern or Native American heritage), the images were of fair-skinned, usually very thin Caucasian young women.

Although I didn't say it in that post, I remembered an article by Pam Noles called "Shame" that articulates well so many of the issues surrounding literary (and cover art) representation of non-Caucasians (I refuse to say "minorities" here, since in large parts of the world, non-Latino whites are just as much of a minority as others, and the use of that term "minority" can carry negative connotations). Out of the many fine points that Noles makes in her essay, there is one part, a citation from an interview with Ursula Le Guin that sticks out:

"I think it is possible that a good many readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don't notice, maybe don't care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being 'colorblind.' Nobody else does."
Sometimes it is jarring to realize that one's perceptions of the world are not universally held ones. What is "fat" to one will be "voluptuous" to another. What is one person's kink will be another's vanilla. What we presume to be "true" often turns out to be but one more interpretative model of separating the appealing from the unappealing. It is that sense of diversity of opinion, that people differ not just in skin tone, facial features, or hair coarseness, but also in how they view the world, how best to achieve goals, how individuals and groups fit into these goals - all of this can make for a bewildering mix. It can lead to, as Le Guin notes, certain groups that dominate the means of cultural discourse (OK, I know this is appropriating elements of Marxism, but this schema is a good one for this topic) to the point where other possible viewpoints are so submerged as to become "invisible" in the sense of Ralph Ellison's protagonist in Invisible Man.

Others have been confronting this issue lately as well. This past week, there was a post started on the Westeros forum asking for suggestions for dark-skinned leads in SF/Fantasy works. The discussion that ensued was fascinating. In particular, there were a series of exchanges involving MattD (Matt Denault) that I think gets to the heart of the matter, so I will quote a bit of what he said inside that thread:

It can be nice for us hetero white boys as well...there's something to be said for fiction that lowers the wall of the other a bit, helps establish that while there may be aspects of being the other that we can never understand, there are also aspects that we can share. That doesn't mean that real differences between people and between beliefs/cultures/value systems don't exist, but I think that one reason that the other tends to be demonized is that it can be hard for many people to believe that humanity can have such a wide range of beliefs and values, and yet all still be equally human. But it is so.

Also, so much of the difficulty everyone has with race relations is getting a handle on race vs. culture vs. personal traits: how to be aware of the possibilities for difference while not making assumptions about any given individual. I have to think that encountering as many well-written portrayals of believably human non-white, hetero, male characters and their different experiences and concerns can't help but be a good thing in that regard.

I think science fiction badly needs to have a conversation with itself about diversity...because the implicit message in so much of this sort of science fiction is that diversity is bad, that everything would be better and we would all be morally superior if we could just all act the same [1] and treat race the same way we do haircuts. And this may be true; certainly diversity -- pluralism rather than toleration -- is difficult to maintain, puts strains and stresses on a society. But I wish there were more SF authors using the speculative possibilities of fiction to examine the pros and cons of diversity. What do we lose in these future worlds that have no need for the concept of the other: what are the implications for the ways societies grow and solve problems; what are the implications for the arts; how does that impact the inner life of people?

[1] That is, like us WASPs.

Matt's sentiments correlate very strongly to my own evolving opinion. Too often in the SF that I have read (perhaps a couple hundred of books over the years, so it is very possible that I might not have read the right sorts of SF), way too often are the issues surrounding diversity/Otherness presented from the dominant culture's point of view. While many SF authors over the years have taken great pains to avoid the "White Man's Burden" point of view dominating their stories of First Contact, all too often the notion of "discovery" that creeps into these tales is that these Others (perhaps analogues for Africans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, etc. in US society today?) is that these "discovered" peoples (aliens) are ciphers, are often dangerous or at least potentially threatening, and that too often there isn't a concerted effort even to "understand" these alien groups.

With such attitudes underlying so many SF/Fantasy texts, is it any wonder that perhaps this is one of several reasons that many ethnic groups inside the US don't feel strongly drawn to genre fiction? Who are on the covers? When humans appear, they are almost always fair-skinned. Whose standards of beauty are depicted for women? With the buxom but lithe fair-skinned, straight-haired thin females that appear to dominate the urban fantasy covers, other beauty types seem to be excluded. While the argument can and has been made that much of the marketing decisions are based on who buys the books, I cannot help but to wonder if that is a bass ackwards approach. After all, similar arguments were made throughout the 20th century (and to a degree now in the 21st) that US ethnic minorities "were not ready" to own businesses, that there was no need to have ethnic-centered publications geared towards their tastes, since there wasn't a proven market for such. The success of African-American venues such as BET and Ebony surely proves the falseness of such claims, no?

Perhaps there will be a day when SF communities will embrace diversity among its potential readership more readily than it seems to cast notions of diversity as being either far-off in the future or using alien analogues to represent the unease that some (not all, but some) SF writers (and fans) feel towards the issue of diversity. Perhaps then diversity will not be a whitewashed term, but instead will be embraced for all of its glorious differences and challenges to one's presumptions regarding life.


Elena said...

Since you introduced the topic a few days ago I've been lightly mulling it over a bit in my head, both as a reader looking back on how "other" is presented in books i've read and as a writer in how i might approach it.

one thing that has stood out to me is how little this genre has been used to explore the other in a truly speculative way, at least in my experience. what i mean by that is to take it completely out of the realms of analogs or allegories and present something where BOTH sides are so "other" to our point of view that it can be looked at more thoughtfully.

from the point of view of a writer, it is uncomfortable to consider putting racial markers like skin tone onto either side of a conflicting pair of groups, because of the obvious correlation that will be drawn (even using orcs as an example, people correlate that to darker skinned human, they were perverted elves, y'all). so if i make the dominant culture the brown skin, is that making me a white apologist? or giving my setting the flavor of an india being invaded by the british, or the middle east being invaded by christian crusaders? but if i make the "other" the darker skinned then i'm just another bigoted (intentionally or not) westerner assuming my culture's the one that should be written about. so it's a tough call. if you just make everyone one color and have cultural differences only, what color do you make them? if you choose fair skin, see above. brown skin, see above that to the white apologist. the best avoidance i've seen was a sharon shinn book where she made them blue and gold. kind of stymied the whole tension of relating race back to our society from the get-go.

urban fantasy (as in, our world + magic or magical beings) comes with a whole new set of tensions. if a white author who was raised in white culture chooses a protagonist from a different culture, there is a very serious risk of misrepresenting that other culture (unless it's a kid who was adopted into a white family or something which pretty much defeats the purpose). i would not be comfortable doing that because i wouldn't want to make mistakes with how i'm characterizing them and the cultural norms that they come from. so that might be part of it, too, not necessarily an intentional exclusion just a "writing what you know" thing.

on the whole topic, i wonder sometimes if the culture of political correctness sometimes leads to reading too much into things. i'm not trying to say at all that this is not a really valid point about the genre as a whole, but just that some of the examples i've seen used as "white man vs brown man = caucasion vs black/hispanic/asian/whatever" seem to be over-analyzing what's actually there. i tend to piss people off by being unoffended by nearly everything and i know that's an insensitivity i sometimes take too far, but...sometimes i think waaaay too much gets read into stuff.

anyway. sorry for the long ramble. thanks for posting this. if nothing else sometimes just sparking a dialogue is building the next foot of bridge.

Lsrry said...

Yes, those are certainly good points to consider. But I think what happens too often is that writers (and readers) are not willing to take chances because of a misplaced sense of sensitivity (after all, people aren't extremely fragile, or at least most aren't :P) as well as genuinely not thinking about just how wonderfully different all of us are.

I forgot to add this to the main post, so I'll add it here: books such as the anthologies So Long Been Dreaming and Dark Matter are must-reads for both readers and writers wanting to see how certain writers, especially those of color, approached tales of Othernesses. The results were something else, to say the least.

Elena said...

"But I think what happens too often is that writers (and readers) are not willing to take chances because of a misplaced sense of sensitivity"

IS it a misplaced sensitivity, though? I actually have very strong feelings about political correctness (as in, I loathe it) because I think it makes honest discussions difficult to impossible. And while maybe that's exactly your point, that maybe we should give people credit for being able to listen, I personally have no desire to be castigated for asking uncomfortable questions. Since I am part of the WASP machine, except for the boobs, and have been brutalized by PC nazis before. (This was in college, in not one but TWO different classes, long story short I got called an awful lot of really nasty names for questioning the validity of politically correct interpretations.)

but i completely agree that there are repeating themes of how the other is treated/approached in most SFF, and it is western-centric and exclusionary, intentionally so or not. Joe Abercrombie made a funny comment about putting your hand in the cereal box and pulling out maggots you hadn't realized had infested it when he was being questioned about misogyny in his books. the same analogy would probably apply to most writers whose unconscious xenophobia is pointed out to them. i hope.

Elena said...

wow, that came out very much like a "leave the status quo" and be part of the problem by perpetuating, didn't it? not how i meant that. more that, having thought of these issues already, i intend to address them subtly in my own work but hopefully in such a way that they can be thought-provoking WITHOUT being seen as a parallel to a piece of culture, past or present, from our world.

anyway...shutting up now... :)

Lsrry said...

The way I've come to see it is this: as with any discourse, there will be conflict (since there will be clashes in regards to understanding certain "coded" bits of communication, such as speech, attire, religious practice, food, etc.). One can 1) avoid all clashes as much as possible, huddling behind "comfort zones" within one's ethnic group, 2) take the clashes as being signs of pure hostility and build up walls against cultural dissemination, or 3) one can try to push on through the conflicts and perhaps work with another to build upon the emerging dialogue.

I prefer 3), although there have been times that I've been "burnt" before. It's learning how to grasp that hot potato with a bit more respect and caution that's the trick.

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