Race to the bottom

Because … race … low standards … representation …

Fuck it basically I wanna talk about diversity, representation and world-building, like about a billion other people have already done and continue to do. Which is fair enough, because it doesn’t seem to be catching on too fast.

Have an article to warm up with, then come back.

We’ve seen this before, right? “High Fantasy allowing dragons, elves and magic but not people of colour, people with disabilities or full-body armour for even cisgender straight white conventionally attractive women is bullshit!” And it is. Very much so. I don’t really care if a game is set in High Fantasy Poland as opposed to a totally unique and original fantasy world; there is no country on Earth that has been consistently populated by people of only one culture, ethnicity, race or colour. Ever. Some more or less than others, sure, but to the point where there is no diversity at all? Not a chance.

Also: it’s High Fantasy. You put whatever fucking real-world country on the end of that label you want; the word “fantasy” suggests something other than, y’know, “literal” or “historically accurate”, never mind that the history one may insist we be accurate with regards to was written by whoever had the power to dictate what would be put into the history books. History is written and rewritten all the fucking time; American schools are still having debates about whether it’s okay to teach the theory of evolution to children as opposed to creationism, completely leave out landmark historical moments like the Stonewall Riots, and seem to think that any kind of sex education curriculum made of up anything but sex-shaming and abstinence-peddling amounts to pedophilia or something. “Historical accuracy” means “regurgitating what you’ve been told is right by people whose sources you can’t trust”. Obviously I am being hyperbolic here, but hopefully you get my point: it’s a hollow, lazy, disingenuous argument from people who are only just smart enough to figure out that screaming “shut up” at people over the internet will not make them look like winners in anyone’s eyes, and thus they resort to appeals to authority in an attempt to mask their bitter, pathetic bigotry.

And again: HIGH FANTASY. What, what about that term screams “historical re-enactment” to anybody but the driest, most boring, conservative, closed-minded, direly unimaginative kind of person? Well, the article has a suggestion:

The real magic power of white heroes is that they can be anything without scrutiny—kings, detectives, space marines, assassins, witchers—while non-white heroes alone must pass the test of “historical accuracy.” Are they believably representative of the time period that influences the game’s setting? Do they need to be, seven centuries later? Are black nobles and paladins really too fantastical to exist, even in worlds of sorcery, wizards and unicorns?

Here’s the thing: sorcery, wizards and unicorns don’t carry the political power of race. But white people do. They carry the power of being so powerful that they’re invisible. This is hardly radical, groundbreaking social commentary I’m making here, but there are so many people who don’t get this, so for the record: when I say that white people are so politically powerful that they’re invisible, I’m talking about how race is only seen when it’s a race other than white – well, with the occasional incredibly ironic exception, such as when the casting for Rue from The Hunger Games came out, which is not even High Fantasy. It’s Dystopian Fiction or something; it’s a variety of Science Fiction. It has to do with science and people were still complaining about black characters being played by black actors.

Even without straying as far away from High Fantasy as Science Fiction (are they really that far apart?), we can look at Urban Fantasy, or at least the Urban Fantasy that anybody knows about, and see how fantasy fiction set in the present fucking day still has more white people than a Limp Bizkit concert. Harry Potter – which I’m going to count as Urban Fantasy and none of you can stop me – has, to memory, exactly five black characters: Blaise Zabini, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Angelina Johnson, Lee Jordan and Dean Thomas. (If anybody makes a joke about Sirius Black I will send you a Howler.) That’s the books, by the way; Prisoner of Azkaban‘s film adaptation had that random kid who kept saying pointless cryptic things, but we never learnt his name, and he never appeared in any of the films again – Alicia Spinnet was also black in the films, and if you’re saying “who the fuck was Alicia Spinnet”: exactly. Even those five characters I mentioned were never exactly prominent in the books: Kingsley gets to be Minister for Magic off-screen for a bit; Angelina succeeds Oliver Wood as Gryffindor’s Quidditch team captain for a couple of books and goes to the Yule Ball with Fred (and later marries George, eww); and Dean Thomas helps run that underground radio program in Deathly Hallows and gets to date Ginny for a while. There’s also Padma and Parvati Patil, which is nice in the sense that they disrupt the overarching stereotype of the world being divided into white people and black people that films are very comfortable to perpetuate, and of course there’s Ch … Ch … no. I can’t. I can’t fucking write that fucking name. You get the point, though, right? And then have a look at other popular Urban Fantasy stuff and the dearth of not-white characters in starring roles (I hate to give Jacob fucking Black any kind of credit but I guess he does count, at leas as much as Ch … nope can’t do it) and just try and talk about “historical accuracy”.

Now, thanks to the civil rights movement, intersectional feminism and humanity not actually being a homogenous amoeba of evil, there are of course people who do see white as a race, and point it out, such as the writer of the linked article, people like bell hooks, etc. As a half-Irish, half-Chinese person, I’m still trying to figure out my position in the incredibly complicated web of race, culture and privilege. I’m white-passing – sometimes anyway – and I think white, but the reality is that I’m not white. And I think that any person who cares about social justice is morally obliged to question and expand their worldview and the assumptions that we have about our identities.

And what better way to do that than through storytelling and the genre of fantasy?

Much as I complained about not being able to get into The Killing Moon, I absolutely loved the world-building. It would have been cool even if it had been set in yet another a generic faux-medieval Europe, but instead it was set in a high fantasy allegory for Africa, and all the characters were not only black, but different kinds of black. There were several cultures featured, only two or three of which really mattered and neither of their names spring to mind right now, but if the idea of even having people with black skin in a high fantasy world is outrageous, how about black people who aren’t all the same? Or, in other words, black people who are … well, people? And on the flipside, if you can have Rohan, Gondor and Dale all in the same universe, all populated by white dudes, why can’t you reasonably ask why the hell all of them are white? “Oh, well all the non-white people live in the South and are Servants of the Enemy.” Ah. That explains it. There are non-white people in Middle-Earth after all; I was worried for a second there.

Even the fucking “Black Numenoreans” are white people fucking hell Tolkien I know we’re all a product of our time but seriously dude

A Wizard of Earthsea also has a dark-skinned protagonist; I can’t remember if colour is ever actually mentioned for the other characters, but given that the book was written in the ’60s, is a staple of the High Fantasy canon and features a black lead character, we can at least consider it an era-appropriate win, even if the book is also, sadly, incredibly misogynistic, something that Ursula K. Le Guin herself regretted and later tried to make up for. Anybody who ever watched the horrendous television adaptation will remember that Ged was decidedly white, and not quite compensated for by having Danny Glover playing Wise Mentor Ogion, as black people in supporting roles to white leads are hardly new. Representation? Sure. But it’s still white-washing. Which is nothing compared to the Studio Ghibli adaptation; that at least had the excuse of being made by a Japanese studio, seeing as Japan is not a particularly diverse nation (which does not absolve it of racism; have fun learning about the Ainu people), especially compared to the United States, but it does nothing to change the fact that the source material explicitly states that Ged has dark skin. In precisely zero of the adaptations of the novel has that held true, and that is pretty fucking bad. Ursula K. Le Guin has done quite a lot of intentional de-whitifying in her work, as far as I’m aware, but she’s one of the few white authors to do so, and one of the even fewer fantasy authors who sells well by doing so.

The one kinda valid excuse for keeping one’s story white by default and not venturing into the real world is the fear of “getting it wrong”. Even the half-white, half-Korean Bryan Lee O’Malley had issues with representation in writing Scott Pilgrim vs The World, issues that he himself regrets. I can relate, being another white/Asian superbeing, to the struggle of seeing yourself as being anything other than “normal” – which, you guessed it, means “white”. I don’t know jack shit about my Chinese heritage; I do know about my Irish heritage and, I mean, the Irish do not exactly have a typical white-folks history in our homeland, but we are also sadly quite racist, so that part at least fits the bill of whiteness. And up until a year or two ago, I didn’t even really think of being half-Chinese as being the same thing as being non-white, and my trepidation of writing characters who were not white was fueled by my anxiety as a white person. Which, again, I’m not. I may as well be a lot of the time, but that’s a very different thing that I’m still in the process of learning about. My point is that ancestry is not the same thing as cultural insight. I am Chinese according to my ancestry, but I know about as much about Chinese culture and history as an actual white person. (Except for red packets at Chinese New Year. Y’all YTs are missing out.) And as a result, I do feel anxious about “getting it wrong” if I ever consider writing characters who are from a different culture to me, much in the same way I get anxious if I consider writing characters who are different to me in terms of gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, political views, etc.

The thing is, while this anxiety can certainly come from a good place – not wanting to misrepresent marginalised groups, for instance – the end result is that we don’t make any progress with diversity or representation. The answer, therefore, is not to continue to shy away from it, but to go out of our way to consume media that is good at diverse representation – or at least has it – and if we do that, then we will inevitably get better at writing diverse stories, characters and worlds. I did say “better”, not “good”, and that is why even when we do get better we still need to actively seek out diverse media – if we care about diversity, which I hope we do – and if we do that, and keep doing that, and spread that habit to other people then one day, one day, white will no longer be normal, because how could it? If everybody knows myriad stories about all kinds of different people with all kinds of different identities from all kinds of different walks of life, how could white people possibly maintain their status as the status quo? They couldn’t. And the thing is, they wouldn’t mind. Speaking as somebody who at least believes he’s white, I certainly wouldn’t mind. I’d love it if I knew more stories about people I didn’t think I had anything in common with for incredibly superficial reasons and then came to discover that, actually, I had quite a lot in common with them because people are people no matter where they come from or what they look like. I’m already getting a lot of that as a man who’s devoted the past two-ish years of his life to reading, almost exclusively, young adult novels written by and about women. I think it’s a testament to the value of seeking out diversity that I can relate better to Georgina Kincaid than to John McClane: not only will we discover that our preconceptions about who we can and cannot relate to are often incredibly shallow, but that we actually relate better to some of those people than the ones we assumed we were the most similar to. Aside from Littlefoot and Bastian Balthazar Bux, I honestly don’t relate to a hell of a lot of male characters. It’s mostly female characters I find that I tend to resonate with emotionally. There’s a reason Tori Amos is my favourite singer/songwriter/general music artist person; my angst-ridden teen years got a hell of a lot more bearable when I found her stuff, because she spoke about experiences that, while often very different in their particulars, echoed the emotional phases and conclusions that I was going through like no other singer I’d ever come across. Her songs are incredibly gendered, but if anything that helps me to relate to the experiences she’s talking about, because I simultaneously learnt that gender isn’t as much of a cut-off point as I’d assumed and had to put in extra effort to appreciate the gender-specific details, which resulted in a heightened experience.

How the fuck did I get from The Witcher 3 to Tori Amos?

Storytelling, that’s how.

It’s just … it’s way past time. Like, waaaaaaaaaaaaaay past time that whiteness was demoted from “default” to “variety”, and that we got to the point where everything was variety. We aren’t there yet, nowhere near, and so long as there is any kind of status quo there will always be marginalisation. I don’t think we’ll ever reach perfect equilibrium, but I do think that decent balance and robust justice for all is definitely possible. We just have to be willing to work for it. We don’t all have to march in rallies and interrupt POTUS to make a difference (though props to those who do). We can do it by making a conscious effort to diversify ourselves, through the media we consume, the stories we seek out and the stories we teach ourselves how to tell – and then spread the word, both ours and others. Word of mouth. If it can work for Harry Potter, I don’t see how it can’t work for literally anything else. It just takes a bit of effort, but not even as much as you might think. The hardest part is probably going to be finding the stories themselves, and then trying not to be really self-conscious about the politics of it all when you start recommending shit to your friends, family and wider social circle, never mind whatever search terms you type into Google to try and find this “diverse media” I speak of. Sacrifices will have to be made, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be worth it.

In fact I am so sure it will be worth it that, once I get a handle on Masters (assuming I get in) and work out how to discipline myself, I’m thinking of starting some kind of book club type thing that is devoted entirely to diversity, the beauty of it being that I want to do it myself so it doesn’t really matter if nobody else wants to join me. But that’s something to work out later. For now, I need to go to bed so that I can wake up early and get this fucking Masters proposal written and sent away, then do all the infuriating Studylink shit, and hopefully have some time at the end of the day to get back to writing something I actually want to write.

 

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