In Which Ari Gets Fed Up and Dives Into the Discussion

Most of what I post on this blog consists of fairly light stuff. If that’s all you want, well, this ain’t the blog entry for you. Come back next time.

Today, Salon posted an article by Saladin Ahmed, author of Throne of the Crescent Moon. (Which, BTW, you should go out and buy right now. It’s fantastic.) In said article, Saladin raised the issue of race in the Game of Thrones HBO series. You can read it here.

A lot of the responses are just plain stupid. Accusing Saladin of reverse-racism (untrue if you bother to read the article), claiming he called GRR Martin a racist (untrue if you bother to read the article), or just spouting their own racist screeds. I’ve no intention of addressing any of that. It speaks for itself.

No, I’d rather address some of the responses that sound a lot more reasonable–and that the people who espouse them probably believe are more reasonable–but which are just as problematic.

First, a quick primer on, well, me. I’m a straight, white male in America. About 99.99% of the time, I will never have any idea what it’s like to truly experience discrimination. That’s simply the way it is.

I’m also Jewish. And for about a year and a half in middle school, a serious rash of antisemitism tore through the popular cliques and made my life, and the life of several others, pretty much miserable. I do not–let me say that again, I do not–claim that that’s the equivalent of the true persecution that others have experienced. I’m not claiming an equality of viewpoint. In fact, the whole point of this is that, despite some tiny shreds of a similar experience, I’m coming at this from a very different place than Saladin, or Nnedi Okorafor, or any of the others who have written about this recently.

So, back to my point…

Let me paraphrase two of the responses I’ve seen to Saladin’s article. First:

"I agree with you, but there’s no reason to be so defensive about it."

Uh, what? If this was the only instance of something, then yeah, it might be advisable to let it go. But if it’s a pattern? If it’s endemic? Why the hell should people not be defensive about it? Why shouldn’t they speak up? It’s not like it’s changing on its own.

Try experiencing this sort of thing for years and not being a little offended by it–and reasonably so, I’d think.

But that’s not even the biggest deal. Here’s another response I’ve seen:

""Why is it absolutely necessary that novels, films, and TV conform to the realities of real-world culture, society, and demographics? Isn’t the whole point of fiction to create realities that don’t conform?"

Wow. Where to start?

I’ll start with this: I firmly believe that the person who wrote the response that I’m paraphrasing meant no harm. But it’s a position that attempts to reason from a mistaken starting point.

First problem: Our own cultural reality isn’t remotely integrated or equal, for all that it’s supposed to be. So let’s not pretend that this is the reality from which speculative fiction should differ.

Second problem: It’s really damn easy to say "It’s just fiction, it’s supposed to be different, don’t take it so seriously" when you’re not the one being marginalized across the damn board. When you’re not the one being told, over and over again, "We’re not going to tell/read stories about you. You’ll have to settle for reading about the guy next to you."

So, let’s look at those fantasy settings that supposedly combine humans of different ethnicities. Pick a fantasy series you like–any one–that includes both white/pseudo-European and non-white/non-pseudo-European characters.

Okay. In how many of them is the main character–or, if there’s a group of them, more than one of the main characters–of the latter variety?

I’m waiting.

(Some of you are already yelling out the names of series where that is the case. Well, yes. They exist; I’m not saying they don’t. But they’re rare as a bald wookiee.)

How many fantasies that aren’t set primarily or entirely in the Middle East (or a fantasy equivalent thereof) focus on an Arab as the main character? How many on a black character? A gay character? When they happen, odds are that’s the entire point of the book; it’s a gimmick (even if a well-meaning one) on which to base marketing.

Why can’t they just be there as more than a token?

Why does "It’s a fictional world, it doesn’t have to correspond to the real one" always leave out or marginalize the same people? Find me a fantasy–not a historical one, but one set in a secondary world other than Earth–in which the overwhelming majority of the characters are something other than white, with the white characters making only cameo appearances? Where’s the secondary-world fantasy that assumes everyone looks African, or Vietnamese, or Native American, or Indian?

If it’s not based on the real world, why is it the civilized peoples are clearly Western European knock-offs? Why do we assume that the default template is white/European until and unless there’s a story-based reason to do otherwise?

Again, sure, there are exceptions. Throne of the Crescent Moon, which I mentioned earlier, is set in a secondary world that’s obviously inspired by Arabia, but isn’t a direct port. But they’re far, far in the minority.

Some of you will cite sales. "Fantasies set in non-Western analogues don’t sell as well. Fantasies with black characters on the cover don’t sell as well. The publishers and filmmakers are just responding to the market."

Do people really not see the problem with that?! Are people really going to excuse behavior that is at best insensitive, and at worst downright racist, by pointing to other insensitivity and/or racism?

And by the way… I’m as guilty of this as anyone. There are few non-white characters in my novels to date. And you know what? That bothers me. I apologize for it, and I’m working on fixing it.

That shouldn’t be viewed as "an agenda." That shouldn’t be stamped "PC" and scoffed at. It should be viewed thus: Authors write about people, and hey, not all people look like me.

How about, instead of assuming that everyone who brings this topic up has an agenda, or getting defensive about how racist you’re not, stop to consider it from their side. Maybe they’re not calling you racist. Maybe they just feel like the genre they love as much as you do should love them as much as it loves you.

Think about it. And go buy Saladin’s book.

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