Speculative fiction can address issues of race without the baggage of contemporary depictions. It can show race and racial relations the way we want them to be, not the way they are. But all too often, that message gets hijacked, and the few protagonists of color that exist are stolen away. All of the examples below are speculative fiction, running from high fantasy to paranormal suspense. In all of these examples, the characters' race was a deliberate choice on the creators' part, whether to address issues of race in our own society or compensate for a lack of diversity or simply because it made their characters who they wanted them to be. And yet this very important element of the characters and the setting is deliberately erased and replaced by the producers or publishers to make them more generic, more bland, more interchangeable.
Earthsea in 1964, she deliberately made some 90% of her population people of color in order to break away from the medieval Europe stereotypes of fantasy. In Earthsea, those from the central archipelago have copper-red skin, those from the south and east have black skin, and those from Osskil have brown skin. Only Kargs are pale-skinned. The main protagonist, Sparrowhawk, has red-brown skin. When the SyFy channel made a TV mini-series of it in 2004, they cast everyone as Caucasian. Everyone except a few spear-carriers, the wise old mentor fulfilling the stereotype of the magical Negro and the originally white Tenar (who is now the hero's love interest because of course no woman could ever have any ambition beyond falling in love...but that's getting into gender in spec fic, as well). Ms. Le Guin criticized this and other aspects of the adaptation but was ignored by the producers. What I want to know is, how is it that in 40 years we've actually gone backwards?
the case of The Last Airbender. The four nations of the popular animated series are modeled after Asian and Native American cultures. While it is a fantasy world, they wear the clothes, eat the food, live in the houses, carry the weapons, and fight with the martial arts of our world's Asian and Native American cultures. The creators were open about the fact that the show was based on Eastern cultures and inspired by Asian mythology. And the show was popular! Its finale had 5.6 million viewers and it received plenty of awards including an Emmy. Yet when M. Night Shyamalan adapted the cartoon to the silver screen, he cast the three heroes as white. This was not coincidental; the casting call asked for "Caucasian or any other ethnicity", clearly giving precedence to whites. More insultingly, he cast the villain and the minor characters as people of color, leaving no doubt that he was aware of the show's Eastern setting. Apparently, you're only good enough to represent your culture if your character is evil or a spear-carrier. The heroes must be played by white actors, even if their characters are of a different ethnicity.
In 2009, Justine Larbalestier released Liar, a young adult book about a multiracial girl who struggles with compulsive lying. On the original cover, she was portrayed as white with straight hair. This would have been bad enough on its own, but on a book about a liar it changed the entire meaning of the text. Suddenly readers thought she was lying about her racial identity as well as everything else, and their view of the character was profoundly altered. The author went on record to say that Micah really is black and provided a picture of the black athlete she based the character's looks on. After the controversy started making news, Bloomsbury issued a half-assed apology and a new cover showing the model with curly hair and light black skin.
Less than a year later, Jaclyn Dolamore released Magic Under Glass, a young adult book about a dark-skinned girl from the Far East who is swept up in mysteries about sorcerers and fairies. The cover clearly shows a white model. Again, this would have been bad enough on its own, but this book was also published by Bloomsbury. Obviously Liar's whitewashing was not a one-time mistake, but indicative of a much larger problem in the company. After another scandal, Bloomsbury issued a new cover for this book as well.
Cindy Pon released Silver Phoenix in 2009, a young adult fantasy set in historic China. Unusually, the original cover was the one showing a clearly Asian model. However, no Borders would sell it and only a few Barnes & Nobles stocked it. The hardcover had poor sales because few consumers saw it on the shelves and that was because the people who decide what to stock at the major book chains turned down the Asian model. To appease them and hopefully get the book back out there, the publisher changed the cover for the paperback edition and the sequel, using generic Caucasian models. Publishers claim that they whitewash covers because "ethnic" covers don't sell. But Silver Phoenix never had a chance to sell. It was kept out of bookstores based on the decisions of a few company employees.
As terrible as whitewashing is in general, I find the genre of these last few examples particularly worrisome. These are young adult books, read by teens who are forming their identities and coming to terms with the society they live in. What message does it send when they walk down the bookstore aisle and see only white faces all around them?
Ari from Reading In Color says in her open letter to Bloomsbury:
I'm sure you can't imagine what it's like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color? It's upsetting, it makes me angry and it makes me sad. Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don't see them in your favorite books either. You get discouraged and you want to be beautiful and be like the characters in the books you read and you start to believe that you can't be that certain character because you don't look like them.And Pam Noles says in her article "Shame" about the whitewashing of Earthsea:
I do remember bursting out into tears on the living room couch when I understood what was going on. And the tears flowed again when Mom came home from work and I showed her the book while trying to explain. Sparrowhawk is brown. I think he's like an Indian from India. And Vetch is black like from Africa. There's a bunch more and they have real power. Not the girls, though. But still they are also the good guys. It's the white people who are evil. And Sparrowhawk is also Ged, and he's going to be the most powerful one of them all, ever ... a genre work showed me for the first time that my people can have the magic and be the heroes, too.And it isn't only people of color who are hurt by whitewashing; it damages our society as a whole. When we send the message that people of color aren't pretty or interesting, we send it to everyone, including white children. And when we limit ourselves to a single race's perspective, we lose so many others.
Daughter of the Mountains and being blown away by the setting. It was powerful, it was magical, it was nothing like my life. And then I learned Tibet was a real place; there really are prayer wheels, buttered tea and religions about karma and reincarnation. I thought I was reading the best fantasy book ever, but the author was simply showing me another culture. If the book had been about Monica and Peter instead of Momo and Pempa, it wouldn't have stayed with me for all these years.
In fiction, we're always looking for a new story and complaining when a book feels tired and cliche. There's an easy solution; pick up a book about another culture or even just about someone who looks different from you. Walk a mile in their shoes and see where they take you.
Last week I discussed Racism in Speculative Fiction and prior to that I discussed Cooties in Science Fiction.