Wednesday, March 5, 2014

White people

In case you haven't noticed, I'm a white people. Yep, white people is moi. You knew that, probably.

I write fantasy. Fantasy comes under fire--as it should--for frequently being set by white authors in situations that feature few to no people of color. And they cite "historical accuracy" to excuse themselves for never writing about anyone but white people. As if no one who was non-white actually lived in medieval times in Europe, or as if their presence is only acceptable if they are slaves or servants. Oddly enough, said white authors seem to think "historical accuracy"--even when it isn't accurate!--is a compelling reason to leave people of color out of their fantasy Europe, but they have no problem suspending disbelief for, say, allowing the presence of non-native animals, imaginary animals and pseudo-humans, and magic.

First off, I've never written a novel from the perspective of a person of color. I feature quite a few non-majority perspectives in my work and I don't feel particularly qualified to authentically cover that one, but as a white author I still try to make sure my casts are diverse enough without making a big unnecessary "point" out of it. I do have a webcomic that has five point-of-view characters and NONE of them are white, but three of them are aliens so in their cases that doesn't really count. (One of them is mistaken for a human person of color sometimes, as she hides in a disguise but sometimes people see her hands, and her skin is brown.) The other two perspective characters in the webcomic are Asian--well, one is ABC (American-Born Chinese; she and her sister were born of Chinese parents and spoke Mandarin at home, English at school), and the other is her daughter whom she had with a white man, so the daughter is half Chinese. To be honest, the daughter passes for white most of the time because she has light hair, but some people guess she's mixed.

Meri Lin and her daughter Amanda

Other than the webcomic characters, I have exclusively white protagonists in my active novels. My science fiction romance has a male protagonist, but Nick and his love interest Summer are both white. (Nick's best buddy is black, but it isn't a plot-relevant thing.) And my NA Finding Mulligan has a pretty diverse cast, but I worry a bit about how it will be received. Cassie, my protagonist, is white, and she has sort of another version of herself named Dia who is also white--and not only is she white, but she's this weird fairy-tale curly-haired blue-eyed white girl blonde, and furthermore, she's idealized and put on a pedestal. Cassie and Dia sort of share three love interests in the book (eh, it's complicated), and none of the love interests are white. And Cassie's best friend since childhood is Puerto Rican. Sometimes I worry that the choices I made for casting my book will be read as Diversity For Diversity's Sake, but I kinda resent that, considering when white characters are all you see, nobody seems to think you're making any kind of point.

Dia and Mulligan are a pretty dang cute fantasy couple.
Because of the Idealized White Girl thing Dia has going on, I do sometimes worry whether the supporting characters will be seen as fetishizing Other. And as another diversity issue, Cassie has a complicated relationship with her chronically ill younger sister and I worry about whether that will be read as problematic. Cassie has gone through life being scolded or treated like a horrible person if she expresses anything negative about her poor sick little sister, and I think she makes it pretty clear that she sees her sister as HELLO, A PERSON and not as just a pity bucket, but because my point-of-view character is the able-bodied one and her life is sometimes hard too, I worry that some people will mistake her perspective for an attempt to hijack disability narratives. In any case, I'll digress too much if I keep going on that, so back to the White People issue as it manifests in another one of my books:

Um, Bad Fairy.

The teachers and graduating class of West Belkin Circle, Spiral 88,
if there had been such a thing as Class Picture Day in this reality.
Those fairies are the whitest characters to ever white, aren't they?

To be clear, fairies in the book are a race, and they're a pretty distinct and tiny minority with little genetic variation. And though they have a weirdly respectable position in society, they're widely regarded as a servant class, though they are paid very well. But hey, I made this up. Why are they all white, anyway? And why are they almost entirely blonde? (The dark-haired tiny one has an excuse. She's part human.) There are four different wing colors in this picture. There are I don't know how many eye colors. Why not skin? Why'd I make those choices, anyway?

There aren't really any excuses. This story was my attempt to be more traditional than I usually am, what with retelling fairy tales set in an alternate version of a time period and setting I never have before or since and usually never would. I featured a LOT of tropes because I wanted to both lean on their popularity and basically give them the finger. But it still means that while invoking the fairy princess trope and laughing at it, I'm still indeed telling a white people story in white people land. Again. I lampshade it sometimes, but it's still there.

Despite that, I guess I'm not as bad as some fantasy authors for this. The protagonist of this story spends very little time outside her magic school so there's not much chance for interaction outside of Whitey McWhiteland, but it is clear that people of color exist in this world. Some nomads come through their lands to trade sometimes and I specifically say they have brown skin, and at one point my protagonist makes a special journey to talk to them for an outside perspective and gets advice from one of their elders. It isn't until the second book, though, that a major character who is a person of color gets the stage. I won't say who that is, but I have a doodle of her:

Kind of weird who this ends up being.
Still, though, with the way this turns out (I won't spoil it), you could definitely say Bad Fairy does not have much racial diversity. It's better than some, but not great, and being that I know all about how few people of color there are in fantasy, I kinda feel like I am one of the ones who should know better. And while I think it's cheap to throw in PoC as a Mandatory Diversity Thing, I also wonder why it didn't seem more natural to me that more people in this story weren't white.

I don't really have much of a point to this, though. I'm not asking for advice, or reassurance, or scolding, or really anything. I'm just pointing out that I'm a white author who tends to do what a lot of white authors do (to some extent), and I'm hoping that a) my books are not so lacking in racial diversity that they alienate non-white readers and misrepresent reality and fantasy as necessarily whitewashed; and b) the diversity that does exist in my books already isn't interpreted as tokenism.

Now for goofy fun, in closing, I am going to share some chibi avatars of my PoC characters. :)

BartGabiJamieLissa LeeMulligan
Meri LinTerrellTheresaZarryBaby Ivy


  1. inaccurate historical accuracy aside, that "diversity thing promotion"? It's pretty much a north america and a UK, thing, isn't it?

    Other places are not expected to include persons of colours in their fiction works. ex: the lack of diversity in the majority of anime. books from arabic and spanish countries. Chinese fiction works rarely include the sort of demographic diversity that is expected from american works. And saying that a bollywood movie is "all indian people" as a criticism is kinda funny. isn't it?

    your thoughts?

    1. Don't know. I know there are a lot of cultures more homogenous than the USA, and it isn't weird for their fiction to reflect that if it's set in their own country. But it's kinda absurd when people whitewash fiction set in areas that actually are more multicultural OR create fantasy worlds that have NO demographic diversity and insist it "has to be" that way because of perceived historical accuracy. (Their belief that there just were no PoC in spaces relevant to the story is usually because of how ridiculously whitewashed history is, but it also plays into how many white people assume someone is white unless it's specified otherwise.)

  2. I've heard of this referenced as the "Cultural Cringe". You can't have a minority character without it being interpreted as a response to the popular cultural perception. The very inclusion of minority is read as a "sensationalism" of the fact. I'd like to hope as the internet brings more cultural bleeding the backlash and accusation of including minority characters as drawing attention to or sensationalizing "otherness" will become less pronounced in our fictional spaces. And hopefully through that eventually our society. The more society does away with it's attitude of "otherness" toward minorities then the inclusion of white, male, heterosexual template character will lessen. How much that can happen though is the question. If we reach a point were a persons character is not assumed on their race, nor is their sex, orientation, and gender assumed to fit the commonly perceived default binary; then what will be assumed about them? Will we reinvent something else to other those around us? (I'm going to guess cyborg hate crime, or probably more class divergence)