Monday, February 17, 2014

The "race card"

We don't usually talk politics in here, but bear with me. I have a point and a purpose. Before reading what follows, I'd decided to riff off Karin's fabulous post on diversity in fantasy fiction. While compiling thoughts for this post, I came across this:

Happy MLK, Jr. Day!
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card.

It is from February 20th, Sarah Palin's Facebook page. I don't care if Ms. Palin wrote that herself, or one of her many handlers thought it would be a great way to keep her in the news; whether or not those are her words, this is the persona we have been trained to know as fact. Her wording is both condescending and ignorant. Committing to racial division by putting those historically on the short end of the stick on the defensive? Egads, it is mind-boggling. That's like the bully yanking the kid he just knocked down to his feet saying, "Come on. I pushed you down five minutes ago. This is NOW, and now I'm helping you up. See? Even Steven." But in her completely idiotic way, she kind of makes a point (anti-point?) I want to make with this post, and that's this: When it stops being specifically about race, we've leapt over a huge hurdle.

In comments for Karin's post, we discussed Harry Potter, and the fact that for a modern work of fantasy, there were no characters of any color other than white in the major roles. How fantastic it would have been had there been, especially for children, to see themselves in those heroic roles! I won't go through the whole conversation, but it got me thinking. There were, among the minor players, other-than-white characters. What's wonderful, to me, is the fact that they were not white wasn't a point to be made. They were characters. Period. Kingsley Shacklebolt. Padma and Pavarti Patil. Dean Thomas and Lee Jordan. Cho Chang. Hogwarts is an international school. These characters did not seem forced but completely right.

HRB is doing the Ruins Excavation (woman of color archaeologist) anthology, and it's been getting positive response. The project was created specifically to focus upon a group so ridiculously unrepresented in fantasy and science fiction. No "race card," but a true celebration, and the hope that it will push forward a trend that stops being a specific goal, and instead a naturally occurring event.

Zihariel: Finder Artwork by
Thomas Vandenburg

I will admit, when I wrote Finder, I set it in a non-European setting for a reason. I wanted to diverge from the training I'd been giving myself in that pseudo-European world. What resulted was Zihariel, and with her a whole cast of non-white characters that carries through A Time Never Lived, Beyond the Gate, and The Shadows One Walks. I set out to be different, but ended up with what I hope are characters judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.

Fraeda: The Shadows One Walks
artwork by Annette Spurgeon

For now, there is an unfortunate need to make it a point to get racial diversity into our fiction. I look forward to the time it just is, no point to be made. There is a whole lot more to say on this subject, and I hope it gets said in comments; we at Heroines of Fantasy have a 500 word limit on our posts, and I've already gone over.
~Terri-Lynne

18 comments:

marybethbass said...

Then there are the incidents of writers creating non-white protagonists, that appear in cover art or in the movie versions as white. A few years ago a writer (I can't remember who) was upset that her dark-skinned heroine was white on the cover. I wonder how often this happens?

Terri-Lynne said...

Hey, Mary Beth! I believe the writer in question is Ursula Le Guin. Her character, Ged, from Earthsea is actually "a boy with red-brown skin" but was played by a white boy for the TV series.

I found this: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2004/12/a_whitewashed_earthsea.html

writerknv said...

Great post, Terri! And a timely one.

Zihariel is one of my favorite characters, because she is well-drawn, strong, interesting, and she is, more than anything else, just an amazing character. That she happens to be a person of color is fantastic. SFF needs more people of color represented, but not just as tokens, as actual, you know, people who exist in our world.

And that art-- is that your new cover?! It's fantastic!!

--Kim

writerknv said...

The writer Mary Beth refers to isn't Le Guin; I know exactly the argument that she's referring to, but I can't think of the writer's name, either.

Le Guin, however, has certainly made her feelings clear about the whitewashing of her Earthsea series, which was appalling. I didn't even watch it because Ged wasn't the character I knew from the books. If they were going to change something so fundamental, how else were the producers going to kill those beloved books?

--Kim

Terri-Lynne said...

Oh, dang! I forgot to caption the artwork. I meant to do that. I'll do it now.

Yes, that is the new cover for Finder, and part of the cover for The Shadows One Walks.

Thank you, love! One of the things I'm really proud of with both Finder and ATNL is that, for the most part, there is a huge cast of "non-white" characters but I didn't make that a blatant, "LOOK! THESE CHARACTERS AREN'T WHITE!"

Terri-Lynne said...

Kim, if you think of the book/movie, let me know. I'm curious!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thanks for another great post, Terri!

I love Tom's rendition of Zihariel for the new cover. He has such a gift for capturing the POWER inherent in certain women characters.

The worlds you write about are so beautiful and rich, and huge part of that is the cultural diversity. Can't wait to go back, by the way. When do I get my next beta read? ;)

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--if my "modesty is for suckers" motto didn't prohibit me, I'd be blushing. ;)

Thanks, love. That means a lot to me. The Shadows One Walks is coming along, though not as quickly as I wanted. Actually, I'm going to email you about this anyway, so I'll save it for there.

Shauna Roberts said...

Great post, Terri. I love your new cover.

Terri-Lynne said...

Thank you, Shauna! That Tom is amazing, huh??

SharonStruth said...

I loved this post, Terri. It got me thinking about how, when I read your books, I didn't stop to think about color as it exists in our world today. I just got lost in the world you created, accepting people for who they were and liking (or not liking them) based on their personalities and action. Honestly, when creating a world of fiction, I like the idea that the characters suit the story, rather than be their for simply their diversity. Forced diversity seems insincere.

This made me think of my Nana, who immigrated from Scotland. Even in the 1980's when she met my new roommate, she said "Is she polish?" I was astounded but realized her POV focused on people's nationalists. But I sure didn't care. And my kids even less than I ever did about people's difference. But differences sort of flow naturally into our culture. I guess when I read, I don't think about it.

Eric T Reynolds said...

Thanks, Sharon! I'm glad that is how you saw the characters.

You know, it's funny but you have a good point about your Nana. My grandparents, even my parents, were the same. Whenever I brough a boy home, the first question was, "Is he Italian?" And when my first husband introduced me to his (very southern) family, I was that "Eye-talian girl."

writerknv said...

Awkward... who's posting as Eric about bringing boys home??

Terri-Lynne said...

Hahahaha! That's me! I guess I was signed in to Eric's gmail account when I posted my reply to Sharon. Thanks, Kim!

Creepy and funny all at the same time, given the circumstances.

Terri-Lynne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here:

Had something profound, but it wouldn't take it. Great post Terri! I like it when stories get beyond color limitations. Do the characters breathe? Is the tale plausible? Is it true to itself?

Terri-Lynne said...

Mark here:
The sad part, for me, is that we seem locked in a holding pattern
where questions of color supersede quality writing. In this
deconstructionist world we work in these days, it feels like story as
I want to perceive it gets set against some arbitrary longitude and
latitude of correctness that has actually little to do with whether
the characters breathe with life or if the story rings true or
plausible. Why should gender, color or creed matter, then? And yet
lately I am beginning to think all three do matter, and far from being
a detriment, I think it is a sign that our genre has begun to figure
in the social-political landscape like never before. We aren't just a
bunch of folks asking interesting what if type questions. We have
reached the gravitas where some of our answers matter. Great post, Teri!

Terri-Lynne said...

Thanks, Mark. Good point--that these questions and their answers do matter says something about the genre. We're coming out of a "geek's only" sort of world into the reading world at large.