Thoughts on Racial Diversity in Fiction

And when I began to write…I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. And they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow. We ate mangoes. And we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to….

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books, by their very nature, had to have foreigners in them, and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.
“The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Adichie

Ever since I started writing with the aim of someday becoming a published author, I have become more and more aware of the lack of racial diversity in the media I consumed. It’s not that I was ignorant of the fact the people who look like me in movies, tv shows, video games, and books were almost universally 1) illegal immigrants, 2) gang members, 3) domestic workers, or 4) nonexistent.

It was just that, until I began to write, it didn’t occur to me that I could change anything. That racial diversity in science fiction and fantasy would become my–for lack of a better term–soapbox.

In 2009 I began writing Drifters, my very first (and since abandoned) urban fantasy novel. That summer was a summer of controversy in the YA lit sphere, and the furor centered on the whitewashing of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. All the wonderful essays and commentary on the subject–and all the righteous indignation that I felt–prompted me to take a closer look at my own work in progress.

I thought I had done pretty well. The main girl and sole POV character was white, yes, but her best friend was black, and the plot-important girl she’d be making friends with was Latina (second-generation and bilingual). There was also a good half-Japanese, half-white guy (who would die, sadly). I’d even made the main antagonists white. (I’d been patting myself on the back for that one.) Surely I had done my part in representing minorities in my work!

But I realized that, despite these sincere efforts, the majority of the time would be spent on my white heroine and two white boys (one a love interest). While the minority characters were important and competent and great support for my heroine, the story didn’t belong to any of them. They weren’t going to be the people who went through dramatic character arcs or made the crucial decisions at the climax.

I realized that if I wanted to create a racially diverse book I needed to make one of my two heroes a minority. (I will be frank and admit that at that point it never occurred to me to make my heroine a minority. I have since rectified this position in subsequent works.)

But when it came to deciding which boy to make black, I got stuck. One of the guys–the non-love-interest–was going to die by the two-thirds mark, and while he would still be a key character and active participant in the story (huzzah for ghosts!), he would still be dead.

I can’t kill the one black guy, said one part of my brain.

But black guys aren’t love interests, said another part of my brain.

I don’t know how long I sat there in front of my computer, sick and ashamed and reeling at what I had just thought.

But I do know that when I came back to myself, I pulled up the love interest’s character bio and began changing it.

But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story. When he didn’t say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn’t say anything else.
“Shame” by Pam Noles

Last Monday I read part of Captain Awkward’s essay (link below) to my roommate, Mary Beth, and she asked me flat out if Nate (her POV character in our collaborative work) being white was a problem. The question took me by surprise, and I managed to cobble together a response that probably didn’t make much sense. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m going to try to answer again.

It’s not that the main character being white is a problem in a given work. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about the deliberate erasure of people of color in our media.) I’m not saying we need to stop telling stories about white men, and I certainly don’t advocate getting rid of all the white people in our fiction to “make room” for minorities.

What I’m trying to say is that when you pull back for a big picture view of our media–film, tv, books, web comics, video games, etc.–the overwhelming number of characters are 1) white and 2) male. The next best represented group is 1) white and 2) female. For a quick and dirty visual representation of this, take a look at the movie posters for the top ten movies of the year:

Top Ten Grossing Films of 2011 (as of 10/24/11)

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. The Hangover Part II
  4. Pirates of the Caribbean
  5. Fast Five
  6. Cars 2
  7. Thor
  8. Captain America: The First Avenger
  9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  10. Bridesmaids

Thor is the first movie on that list with a PoC character on the poster in a prominent position. And it’s not until we get to #11 The Help (which deals specifically with the Civil Rights era) that we get a movie poster with more than one prominent minority on it.

(As a fun side note, out of the top ten, only Transformers, Fast Five, Thor, and Bridesmaids pass The Bechdel Test.)

Having only seen two movies on the list, I can’t comment on whether or not any of these films were intentionally–or, more likely, thoughtlessly–racist. What I can tell you is that I was dreading the inevitable demise the two PoC commandos in Captain America and was pleasantly surprised to realize they both survived. (I went through the same reaction to the best friend’s survival in Green Lantern–though my experiences watching that film and the aftermath are worthy of their own post.)

I was horribly disappointed when X-men and Cowboys and Aliens totally failed in that regard. Storytellers, it is a problem when the audience can pick out who is going to live and who is going to die simply by the color of the character’s skin.

So, the first time I did this exercise, I didn’t know that it would turn into a lesson on racism, sexism, and every other kind of -ism. I thought it was just about casting. But now I know that casting is never just about casting, and this day is a real teachable opportunity. Because if we do this right, we get to the really awkward silence, where the (now mortified) students try to sink into their chairs. Because, hey, most of them are proud Obama voters! They have been raised by feminist moms! They don’t want to be or see themselves as being racist or sexist. But their own racism and sexism is running amok in the room, and it’s awkward.

The students aren’t stupid or malicious or evil for automatically slating the actors they way they did. They aren’t doing anything that casting directors don’t do every day. They are just reflecting the world they’ve seen on screen since they were born, the one where white men with strong jaws are the default human and everyone else is “other.”
“Step into My Film School! The Importance of Casting in Breaking Open Movie Stereotypes” by Captain Awkward

If you’re a writer or other media creator, try this exercise. Create two columns, and label one white and the other people of color/multicultural and sort all of your significant characters from your current work into the appropriate column. If you have been at this writing game for a while, do this for your last three projects. (If you are not a writer, grab a few movies or books at random.)

Then by the characters’ names indicate 1) whether or not they have a POV scene, 2) if they are a primary or secondary character, 3) if they are good, neutral, or evil, and 4) whether or not they survive the end of the book.

Now take a step back and look at what your columns are telling you.

Perhaps you’re a lot better at including significant PoC characters than I was when I was writing Drifters. If so, I commend you, and I encourage you to keep writing because I want to read the stories you produce–especially if they are speculative fiction.

If, perhaps, your columns were sobering, don’t despair, and don’t be discouraged. I’m not trying to shame anyone; assigning blame or guilt is counterproductive and isn’t my purpose. With very rare exception, I don’t think that the writers, casting directors, filmmakers, editors, publishing houses, or any of the thousands of people involved in creating our mass media are intentionally being racist. Sometimes our biases are unconscious, and we don’t become aware of them until someone else points them out.

So consider this little essay a gentle reminder. What you do next is up to you.

Further Resources

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Racial Diversity in Fiction

  1. I am so glad you wrote this. It was beautifully personal and instructive at the same time.

    I remember a few years ago when you wrote about your struggle over writing a white main character but having a Latino last name and the expectations placed upon you. I struggled with how to comment on it and then you took it down because the silence was deafening.

    You don’t know it, but from that point on I started to pay a bit better attention to the color of my characters and what I might ignorantly be saying about them. I’ve also gotten a lot better at paying attention to the messages inside the media.

    I think you have an excellent point and I’m really glad that Stacey Whitman retweeted this. I hope lots of people read this and take a frank look at what they’re writing and reading and make the effort to change.

    1. I’m so glad you read it and that you found it instructive. And I’m relieved to hear that you remember that essay–really, the lack of response there was what scared me off the topic for a long time. It pleases me to know that it did have an impact on you.

      I had some traffic, which was exciting! And even some comments, which was even more exciting. Huzzah, someone besides me, my immediate family, and my friends actually took the time to read some of it! (Mmm, validation, how it makes for a happy Audrey.)

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