This is something I was going to do on my own blog, as a followup to an earlier post on ways to describe characters of color in fiction. But since a) I was coming up short on something to write about for this week’s Magic District post, and b) this is International Blog Against Racism Week* (IBARW), I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.
I’m a Harry Potter fan, if you haven’t guessed it by now from my repeated references. I’m such a fan that initially I only wanted the British versions of the books, so the first one I read was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I did this because I found it suspect that the publisher had changed the name for the US release to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, completely ignoring the alchemical history that the original title evoked. If they were going to change something like that, I reasoned, who knew what else they would change?
So when I later got the US version and compared the two, I wasn’t surprised to see that a number of words and lines had been changed. Most of these changes were minor, for example clarifying Britishisms that USians might not have picked up on, like using the word “sweater” in place of “jumper”, since in the US a jumper is a kind of girl’s dress. But in several places I noticed a more curious difference. For example, at one point the character Dean Thomas is explicitly stated to be black in the US version — a line which doesn’t even exist in the UK version.
Now, note: Dean is described in the UK version in ways that strongly suggest his race, but it’s subtly done. His dredlocks are mentioned repeatedly, as is his love of a particular soccer (sorry, football) team which is known in the UK for having a lot of black players and fans. There are other clues. But somewhere along the way, some US editor for Rowling’s book decided that US kids just wouldn’t pick up on the clues, and decided to add that line to make it clear.
I can understand why that editor made the decision. Americans know diddlysquat about British football teams, for one thing. Also, some cultural characteristics are racially ambiguous. I’ve known lots of white people with dredlocks, for example (though this is a separate discussion, because even the name “dredlocks” is a culture-specific thing that has been co-opted by outsiders). My problem, however, lies in where that added bit of description was applied, and to whom. Basically, Dean Thomas got text labeling him as black, but there’s never a line pointing out that Harry or Ron or Hermione, etc., are white. The same subtle cues are used to convey their race — the Weasleys’ red hair, for example, or the (predominantly white) section of London where the Dursleys live. But these are just as racially ambiguous (I’ve got red hair at the moment, and I’m black), and the editor didn’t feel the need to add a line clarifying these characters’ whiteness.
Thus we see an example of the racial default at work: the inescapable fact that in any Western society, no matter how multicultural it might be in actuality, most people in it will assume that any character who’s not described otherwise is white. The editor is to be commended for realizing that this tendency to “default to white” exists in USian readers… but the particular method he or she used to address the problem feels almost painfully heavy-handed. Worse, by treating the characters of color so differently, the editor adds to the problem by implying that whiteness is “normal”.
Personally, I prefer Rowling’s method of dealing with it. She didn’t label the white characters white, or the black characters black, or the Asian characters Asian, etc. She drops broad hints about all of them, from culturally-distinct surnames like Patil and Chang and Granger, to culturally-associated styles and foods (braids, sari, Harry’s love of the quintessentially-British treacle tarts), to more subtle cues like Dean’s football preferences. But she does this equally for the white characters and the characters of color. No group is treated as “normal,” or by exclusion/emphasis “abnormal”.
Rowling took some flak for this in the US, though the problem was actually with her US editor, and apparently along the line someone got the message, because later books in the series stop labeling the characters of color in this way. (I think… I haven’t read all the US versions.) But I say all this just to illustrate a problem.
Because so much of fantasy takes place in settings that in no way resemble the real world, featuring species that in no way resemble human, fantasy writers often have trouble dealing with regular people. This is something that, I think, isn’t as much of a problem for mainstream writers, because they can simply describe the world around them and come up with a reasonably accurate representation of humanity. They can also fall back on the plethora of real-world terms used to describe human beings, racially and otherwise. But using these terms makes no sense if you’re dealing with a world that doesn’t share our political/cultural context. You can’t call someone “African American” if your world has no Africa, no America, and has never gone through a colonial phase in which people of disparate cultures were forcibly brought together, thus necessitating the term in the first place.
That said, it’s equally illogical to populate your fantasy world with only one flavor of human being, which is what far too many fantasy stories default to. Granted, many fantasies take place in confined cultural spaces — a single small kingdom in a Europeanish milieu, maybe a single city or castle within that city. (But how did that castle get its spices for the royal table, or that lady her silks? What enemy are the knights training to fight? Even in the most monochromatic parts of the real Ye Olde Englande, I can guarantee you there were some Asian traders, Sephardic or Ashkenazic Jewish merchants, Spanish diplomats or nobles partly descended from black Moors, and so on.) I get that lots of countries on Earth are racially homogeneous, so it makes perfect sense that some fantasy settings would be too. But whiteness is the default in our thinking for Earth-specific cultural/political reasons. So while it’s logical for fantasy realms to be homogeneous, it’s not logical for so many of them to be homogeneously white. Something besides logic is causing that.
So. It’s a good idea for all fantasy writers to learn how to describe characters of color. And I think it’s a good idea to learn how to describe those characters in subtle ways, since they can’t always rely on Earth terminology. Now, doing subtle description increases the chance that the reader might misidentify the character racially — and to a degree, I think there’s nothing you can do about that. You’re working against a lifetime of baggage in the reader’s mind. But you can still insert enough cues so that when combined, they’ll get the idea across.
Below are some examples from my own writing in which I feel I’ve done this. As before, these aren’t necessarily the “right” way to do this, nor are they by any means the only way. They’re just my way.
Oh, and unlike in my first post, I’m going to provide some commentary with each. And there will be fewer of these, because this post is already too long. =)
In the mornings, Adele girds herself for the trip to work as a warrior for battle. First she prays, both to the Christian god of her Irish ancestors and to the orishas of her African ancestors — the latter she is less familiar with, but getting to know.
OK, this is a real-world setting, so I cheat a little here and use Earth-specific terminology (Irish, African). I’m noting it as an example, though, because a determined person could still see this character as white if she chooses. She’s clearly part white (though the “whiteness” of Irish Americans has fluctuated over the course of US history), and on some level we are all Africans. But I didn’t call her capital-B black, or describe her skin and features. There are a few other subtle clues in the story — her diction in lines of dialogue, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where she lives (Flatbush) — but these are things only people familiar with the real-world setting would pick up on.
He knelt before the dais that held Dekarta’s chair, his waist-length red braid falling over one shoulder to curl on the floor… I was surprised to find that he was even paler beneath his clothing, and his shoulders were covered in faint spots, like those of a leopard but smaller and random.
An example from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, taken from two very different scenes to demonstrate that clues sometimes need to be layered/overlapped. Paleness is a relative thing, after all; I am paler than my father, not as pale as my mother, and all three of us are black. In this case the narrator is herself dark-skinned — this has been established earlier in the story — and most of the story’s characters are pale in comparison to her. But that could simply mean that the “he” being described is a lighter-skinned brown person. The critical clue, I think, is the mention of freckles. That’s racially ambiguous too; light-skinned people of every race can have freckles. But paired with the earlier mention of “his” hair being bright red, I think this gets the idea across.
It fell to the mayor’s daughter, Atlehina Delgado, to escort him. From the first she was skeptical, for Turner hardly looked the savior. He was a thin brown man with a quiet manner and a noticeable slouch. “I’ll see the stone first,” he said when Delgado met him. She had never heard an accent like his, slow and thick as oil.
This is from a story set on a colony from Earth on another planet, centuries after Earthlike racial distinctions have ceased to have meaning for them. However, they retain the genetic and cultural legacy of the original colonists, including surnames like Delgado. Delgado’s not specific to any single racial group; the etymology is Portuguese, and thanks to colonization there are Delgados among people of Hispanic ethnicity, African descent, European descent, etc. Later in the story, however, I describe Atlehina as having long black hair. It’s still ambiguous, but I’m hoping to suggest that she’s Latina.
I’m trying a more subtle trick with Turner, though I’m not sure it works. I do explicitly mention that he’s brown, but he could be a white guy with a tan. However, I mention his accent. Now, after several hundred years on a colony world I know their English will be as incomprehensible to us as Beowulf is to modern Americans; they’re not really speaking anything we would understand. But Turner’s using dialect of some sort, which Atlehina notices. I’m hoping that, coupled with Turner’s brownness, this will send a big hint that he’s a black guy.
So. Those of you who are writers — care to share your own examples? Please feel free, in the comments.
* This is actually the fourth IBARW; there have been hundreds of posts on various topics over the past few years. If you’ve got a few hours to kill sometime, check ‘em out.