So, I came across this exchange at Writing With Color’s Tumblr.*
This actually reminds me of something that came up at the end of the Medievalpoc panel last WisCon…about dragons really “being white”. It couldn’t have been more of a total non sequitur, especially in that context, but it’s one of those conversations that does have a time and place. (Although it certainly was not then or there, leading moderator N. K. Jemisin to wrap things up quite nicely, thank you.)
And it has to do with the fact that readers will assign race to fantasy characters, including elves, fairies, and yes, even dragons, apparently. Which I believe has to do with cultural associations**, the whole “Western Medieval=White” thing. Even further, the whole white default problem in U.S. culture leads to the imagined anthropomorphized versions of nonhuman characters as white to an alarmingly ubiquitous degree. (And yes, I have certainly seen “human version” fan art of characters from The Lion King as white, so Finding Nemo isn’t too surprising to me.)
I’ve had to have some rather painful personal conversations with white writers who are near and dear to me, explaining that if you leave descriptions vague or blank, the reader will read these characters as white, no matter what you intended, as a general rule. (If anyone needs a citation for that, read ALL of Playing In The Dark by Toni Morrison at least twice and wait a minimum of one week before asking me anything.)
The White Default is too strong in our culture, and too strong in the genre, to write neutrally into the current situation. Also, a very, very, very important note for white writers: your race does, can, and will affect how your readers engage with your work. Writers of color generally don’t need to be told this, sadly.
The problem is too many white writers seem to want facts, figures, quotas, and step-by-step instructions on how to avoid being called racist, rather than, you know, just writing realistic and complex characters of color (and no, this isn’t necessarily directed at the asker linked above; it’s based on my own correspondence and experiences).
This is just… totally counterintuitive to me, because I always see these things couched in language that teems with desire to avoid something, general aversion, and trepidation. Which is also, you know. Depressing. One of my most fervent wishes is that these people would stop looking at writing racial diversity as “how do I avoid ‘punishment’” (which is a really messed up way to look at critiques in general and in this context actually quite horrible), and start looking at it like, “Wow, there are actually infinite possibilities out there!!" (Or even worse-those who claim writing more diverse characters into their fiction is "limiting" them…how on earth could that be MORE constraining than limiting yourself to everyone being white? It’s like someone who’s locked themselves into one room getting angry when I point out that there’s a whole house.)
That’s the thing, creative and artistic freedom comes with accountability for the choices you make. After all, freedom without accountability is tyranny; casting countless universes in your image and ONLY your image without any criticism allowed is tyranny. And that’s where we’re starting from. The only thing that can balance something so out of true is a big push from the opposite direction, which includes a healthy dose of criticism. After all, you can’t fix a problem you refuse to look at or acknowledge.
At the same time, I know that there are also writers of color who also struggle with avoiding stereotypes and harmful tropes in their work, with variable success. That’s the problem…racism is just so embedded in everything around us, it becomes a part of us. And that’s why it’s a constant process of unlearning, revision, and relearning. Speculative fiction is changing, and each and every one of us has the power to help shape what it’s becoming.
I think if WritingWithColor mods are willing to offer Colorful Critique Feedback Services, well, that’s a pretty damn invaluable resource. Do they speak for everyone? Of course not. Is everyone going to agree on whether your work is good or bad, harmful or uplifting, racist or not? Nope! No people or culture is a monolith. “but so-and-so said it was good!” isn’t going to count for diddly squat with such-and-such. Because, shock of all shocks, “people of color” are individual human beings with their own thoughts, opinions, and experiences. Some people will love it, others will be critical, and some will positively loathe it.
You want advice on how to write a ~diverse~ piece of Fantasy Fiction that no person of color can criticize, ever? My advice is: stop living in a fantasy world, and start writing one.
*I was going to reblog it, but I don’t want anyone else to feel obligated or implicated by my soapboxing.
** There are dragons, unicorns, fairies, elves, and other fantasy type creatures teeming throughout non-Western cultures, but that is a whole other Thing that does, in fact, involve conversations concerning the race/culture of the author, cultural appropriation, and ethical issues thereof.