Racial Diversity When Race Doesn’t Matter

PPW Write Brain African American CharactersTonight I am attending an event sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers on writing authentic African-American Characters. This Write-Brain is very timely for me, because lately I’ve been wondering a lot about how to make sure my stories don’t come across as white-washed. However, at the same time, I want to write a character whose physical characteristics such as skin tone don’t really matter.

Tonight’s presentation focuses on African-American characters. Presumably people with dark skin who live in the United States currently or sometime in the last couple of centuries. For most of my stories, I’m interested in writing characters who live in a fictional future world.

I’m looking forward to learning a lot, and I’ll share what I garnered from tonight’s event in another blog post later. Meanwhile, here is a SFQotD post from earlier this month, discussion the topic of race in fiction. This question had some very insightful responses.

SciFi Question of the Day from July 7, 2016:

When writing about an off-Earth human-colonized society, are the goals of 1) writing racially diverse characters and 2) writing so that race/nationality/skin color truly doesn’t matter… mutually exclusive? Can a SciFi writer do both when an image of the character may never appear on a book cover, illustration, or screen adaptation? #SFQotD

From the Public Post on Google Plus:

 Michelle Cameron

 Personally, I’d not even mention these characteristics. Our world is changing so rapidly, that any of these might easily geolocate the story as written in your nation/time. I probably wouldn’t even adopt gender-based pronouns.
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 Annette Holland

 You could reframe it as “racially diverse = characters from the human race that exemplify all of our diversity” vs “alien race that sees us as bothersome two-legged oxygen breathers”.
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 Ilyanna Kreske

 I believe that if you want a racially diverse cast you need to be explicit because otherwise the reader’s implicit bias will likely whitewash the characters.
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 Masha du Toit

+AmyBeth Inverness I think it depends on what you mean by “writing so that race… Etc… doesn’t matter”?

There’s a difference between believing that such things don’t necessarily define what kind of person a character is, and recognising that humans do, in fact, tend to be prejudiced or experience prejudice.

I think it all depends on what you are doing with the story. I could believe a story that doesn’t reflect our own racial and class divisions, but it would be more difficult to believe in a world where no divisions and prejudice exists.

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 Annette Holland

Why assume that all readers of sci-fi are white? Implicit/unconscious bias, yes, but if characters are vaguely described then anyone of any ethnic make-up will ascribe characteristics that look like the people around them.
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 Lisa “LJ” Cohen

This is something I considered when I started to plot out the first Halcyone Space book. I knew I didn’t want to fall into the trap of creating white/male as default for my characters. And I couldn’t imagine a space-faring future that was LESS diverse than the current society in which I live.

So I deliberately created characters from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds. BUT, I didn’t recreate the social stratification that society currently has that is so focused on race.

Instead, I played with status in different ways, using professions (the mixed-race sons of the space station’s physicians are considered higher status than the white daughter of the engineer) and geography (there are still haves and have nots on Earth, but it’s less related to race – Dev struggles with her place at University because she was raised in a post-flood settlement and is looked down on because of it.)

I also extrapolated forward from my own experience in terms of how much my characters might hold onto from their cultural heritages. My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They all spoke multiple languages and kept to their religious and cultural practices even as they learned English and settled into this country. My parents were born in the US and always considered themselves Americans. They could understand Yiddish, but didn’t speak it. Nor did they understand or speak any of the other languages their parents spoke. I neither understand nor speak any of my forebearer’s languages. My cultural identity is American.

It seemed logical that this generational shift would continue to take place as we humans move into space.

I can well imagine, however, a different scenario where specific cultural groups might use the opportunity of a space colony to create an enclave – kind of like what Quebec is in greater Canada. But given how interdependent colonies would be – especially in the beginnings of a diaspora – I would imagine that such isolated communities would not fare as well as more diverse and connected ones.

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So to give a more succinct answer to your question: No. Not mutually exclusive. And there is no doubt looking at the cover for book 2, that Barre is not white. 🙂
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Ilyanna Kreske

 +Annette Holland – I didn’t assume all readers are white. Unfortunately, studies have shown that unless explicitly stated otherwise, even POC readers tend to mentally imagine characters as white. This is one of the many reasons it’s so important to write diverse stories.

And if you don’t believe me, consider the fuss when Rue (hunger games) was cast as Black even though that’s how she was written. See also: staging Harry Potter with a Black Hermione.

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 Arlene Medder

 This is something I’m working on right now. I have a story off an accidental human colony (they were colonists, mostly, but not for this planet and not all headed for the same colony).

Part of what I do is pull from a wide range of languages for the names. I include references to appearance, ‘he kept his dark brown eyes on the dials’, ‘the light reflected dimly from her olive skin’, but I’m still working on describing people without resorting to the tired food and wood cliches. And without going medical (I’m still working on how to indicate eyes with an epicanthic fold without using the word ‘almond.)

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 Nathan V

Perhaps not mutually exclusive, but certainly tricky to handle. The majority of readers are likely to default to the predominant race of their homeland.

One thing you mentioned in another post was Hermione being black. The problem with that issue– not that I’m notabsolutely okay with a WoC portraying the character– isn’t just that the readers defaulted to Caucasian, but that JK did, too. Hermione wasn’t described in racial terms, but at the same time:

“Thomas, Dean,” a Black boy even taller than Ron, joined Harry at the Gryffindor table.

They all swiveled around in their seats and saw Angelina Johnson coming into the Hall, grinning in an embarrassed sort of way. A tall black girl who played Chaser on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, Angelina came over to them …

“And this is Kingsley Shacklebolt” — he indicated the tall black wizard, who bowed …

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 Annette Holland

+Ilyanna Kreske I’m a PoC reader and if only physical descriptors are given (non-blond stick straight hair, eye color that isn’t blue, button nose, etc.) without regards to race, I assume a person of mixed ancestry, such as myself and my family members, or, you know, Brazil. We’re all going to be brown one of these days.

I prefer writers who just write people. Racial identity in books brings along so much negative connotation, and if you are writing a future where mankind has expanded off Earth, why the heck are you bringing along all that hatred and bigotry. Humans are going to have to band together as one to deal with the aliens. Or what? Have ethnically segregated planets?

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 Arlene Medder

+Annette Holland
Thank you!
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 Mince Walsh

Like any conflict, bigotry requires two sides, one that is prejudiced, one that is not. Unless there is a conflict (even when referring to the past bigotry, or the bigotry of a distant colony) it does not seem possible to emphasize diversity unless you at least refer to the stupidities of the past.
Prejudice is conflict. While there appear to be some people who seek to isolate people by appearance or lifestyle, there is always someone who uses that to divide and conquer us, without which that prejudice would likely die out as that instigation is brought to light and snuffed. IMO the only way I can see this actually happening though, is if scientists could find a solution that suppresses negative emotions in the affected groups until they could acknowledge just how stupid prejudice is.
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 Annette Holland

You don’t have to emphasize diversity if you write a story that just is. Write people that interact with each other as people. It’s called character development. Conflict can come from defects in character. Defects in character are not related to ethnic make-up. One race. Human. Ethnogically diverse.
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 Annette Holland

Clarification +AmyBeth Inverness is this a human only world or will you be introducing non-humans?
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No aliens
They can be fun to write, and allow a POV character to look at the humans from a fresh perspective, but once you introduce an alien race the story tends to gravitate towards alien/human interaction and conflict.
I love Star Trek TOS but they used “Spock can save us! Vulcans have the ability to ____!”
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 Annette Holland

+AmyBeth Inverness Bujold is one of the best at writing diverse characters without making them all seem CIS/white nor being heavy handed on “this is a black person, this is an American Indian, this is an Asian”. Nathan Lowell does it fairly well too.
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From the Google Plus Science Fiction Community

 Gustavo Campanelli

All paths of life had a place in our little corner of the universe. And I didn’t think that mattered until I found out a conept called segregation in an ol book in our library. I never mentioned it to anybody, I didn’t want to expand this poison in our happy unity.
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 Big Fat Hairy Marmot

Since race doesn’t scientifically exist here on earth you could only include race if you were talking about off earth societies. Given enough time for genetics to drift in isolation, different planets/colonies,they might have time for sufficient change as to form “races” or “sub-species”
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 Jeff Sauri

Just because a book doesn’t have an illustration doesn’t mean the author won’t provide a description. When the reader can visualize the character, it helps to connect the reader emotionally.

Additionally, it depends where the author wants to introduce conflict. Is the colony united against a struggle with an outside force? Then it probably doesn’t matter if the colony is diverse or homogeneous. If there is conflict between different factions in the colony, then race could be a valid basis, or they could use something else like status, profession, birthplace, whatever.

Ultimately, if the author develops a strong character based on something other than racial stereotypes, then the character should be interchangeable. For example, changing the gender of Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, or changing the race of Nick Fury in the Avengers movies.

Relying on the reader’s assumptions of race as a substitute for actual character development is just lazy writing.

 

 Jonathan Kelley (ViolatedGorilla)

When I write for the most part I don’t really think about the characters’ appearance. I tend to be focusing more on what is happening.

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 Charles Mills

 I gotta be honest, if you are trying to do one, then by definition you aren’t doing the other.
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 Michael Newman

Actually I would say all the problems of a society start over again from square one.. First you would have Prejudice and segregation and hopefully it would evolve into some kind of civil rights reformation and Renaissance period….. the first colonists are there with more people than anything else and without the luxury of resources from the Homeworld.. They are trying to terraform and start a colony.
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Michael Newman

 It isn’t some kind of space station.. If one religion or one ethnicity was more prevalent than the others, then you would begin to see problems.
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 JC Smith Hamner

It depends upon the premise of the story. If you go with ‘*2*’, you had better have developed a legitimate reason for the social evolution, and as such, should be a major part of the message of the story, otherwise it fails one of the pillars of science fiction by simply parroting an extant liberal ideal instead of exploring it.

The goal should not be diversity in and of itself, but if there is or is not diversity in the colonies, it should be something that is integral to the plot and its ethical implications.

Asimov, I think, handled this fairly well inNemesis by having the colonie*s* realistically be varied in their contrasting makeups, some being homogeneous (culturally and ethnically), some being more diverse. Homogeneity has its inherent internal functional efficiencies, and it’s important to understand these and their consequences within the larger context of societal growth and the consequences of majority rule and exclusion, and colloquial attitudes and apathy resulting from insularity.

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From the Speculative Fiction Writers Group on Google Plus

 Gert Sønderby

People get described all the time in books. Not eliding such traits as skin color, bone structure, epicanthic folds or hair texture will allow you to put all manner of people in your work. As well, wherever we go, we take our cultures with us. Often, living together, we then mix them (c.f. a Scottish fast food joint that sells Pakistani authentic curry – with battered, deep fried haggis. Yes, it’s real.), but there will be recognizable things in there. And yes, make sure to mention the skin color of any white people too, they’re not the default.

A case study: Naomi Nagata is a major character in the book series The Expanse by S. A. Corey. She is described as light-brown skinned, with almond shaped eyes, curly hair. She’s a Belter – grown up off Earth in low gravity – and thus has a large head and a slender, elongated body. Descriptions have featured mention of how her last name must imply Asian ancestry, but that the only outward sign was slight epicanthic folds in her eyes.

Other characters have various attachments to Earth cultures – one is quite clearly and explicitly Indian, another character is from Mars but descended of Indian parentage, and he speaks with a Texas-style drawl affected by his home region.

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 Sally Sue Ember

 In the West, no mention of ethnicity means presumably white.
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 Louis Doggett

Hmm, I think David Weber does that with his Honor Harrington series. By the various names, with skin color mentioned rarely but as part of the description or story, color doesn’t matter but you can tell its there.
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 Gert Sønderby

+Louis Doggett And occasionally he’s very explicit about it, driving home the point that yes, Queen Elizabeth of Manticore is, in point of fact, black. Or he has a scene (or was that Eric Flint’s? They collaborated on that one) where a professor explains American black slavery to an audience two thousand years later, using said queen and her highly decorated naval officer (and just as black) cousin as examples of people who would have been enslaved.
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 Louis Doggett

+Gert Sønderby Yes, he can be explicit about it but at the same time it doesn’t really matter to the other characters.
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From Facebook’s Public Post:

Jay Dias Jay Dias  Maybe have a look back through the Foundation series. It comes up in, I think, Prelude to Foundation and otherwise Asimov pretty intentionally avoids these kinds of descriptors.

In the movement, though, not seeing race is problematic. Race is a socialrather than a biological concept but it does matter – it matters because it matters. In other words, if we do not see race, then we blame the individual for their immediate circumstances rather than acknowledging decades-centuries of systematic oppression. That’s not an approach I would carry forward into a series of books.

It has become passe to talk of the American “melting pot” as that’s Borg-ish. We don’t want to eliminate biological distinctiveness. The more modern goal is not assimilation at all but learning to value diversity. What do people bring from their various backgrounds and experiences that makes us stronger and more admirable?

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Bob 'Hawk' TurnbullBob ‘Hawk’ Turnbull  Humans are still basicall humans, think one would tend to try creating a new mix of what we were and what we’ve become due to the evolution of living in a different enviroment. Maybe even how they would react when exposed to old Earth enviroment (as visiting an Earth station or ship)
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Jay Dias Jay Dias  This might be a little deeper than you want to go but…

I see the danger of un-raced humans as coming from the biases of the writer. Ethnocentrism. The trouble is, they wouldn’t be un-raced, they would likely be white (unspecified). We write what we know; when we’re white, we write white people and assume once the “differences” are stripped away we would be the base-model human.

Not doing this would be really difficult. It would really require having a large number of experiences outside the usual field of our daily interactions and a lot of thought. In what way would each contributing culture add to the culture one is creating? In what ways will this be unlike a standard Euro-American society? what new values and behaviors will emerge that come from none of the contributing societies? What about bottlenecks – traits carried forward due to the small size of the initial founding population?

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Fatma Alici Fatma Alici  I may hit you up with some follow up questions about this. My SciFi background for my books has some unusual aspects. I worry about the actual real life validity of some of the ideas.

I feel to actually and heart sick to get into them now.

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AmyBeth Fredricksen AmyBeth Fredricksen  A couple of the Google Plus threads blew up on this one.
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Jay Dias Jay Dias  Did they? Flaming and so on or honest dialogue?
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AmyBeth Fredricksen AmyBeth Fredricksen  Almost completely honest dialog. Although a few days ago, the question on cultural appropriation… that turned nasty and I had to delete comments.
Jay Dias Jay Dias  hm.
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Don Branum Don Branum  How far in the future is this set? Because skin color has mattered for at least the last 500 years or so. What makes it no longer matter between now and the time in your setting?
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AmyBeth Fredricksen AmyBeth Fredricksen  The story I have in mind is only 100 years in the future, and close enough to Earth to get new arrivals every day.

But it’s interesting to ponder the generality… such as:

How long must a society be completely removed from Earth before it’s almost impossible to tell what part of Earth a citizen’s ancestors came from? (Because the gene pool just kept mixing…)?

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Don Branum Don Branum Probably on the order of generations to centuries, depending on the level of isolation and hardship. The smaller the group, though, and the more people are forced to work together, the faster those cultural prejudices will disappear.

Of course, that may give way to new prejudices, e.g., how Earthers are all rich, spoiled, and lazy.

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Jay Dias Jay Dias There’s this: people tend to sit closer to people most like themselves, when given a choice (“take this chair in that room and have a seat”). People with similarities tend to aggregate/congregate. Watch classrooms seat roughly by gender and ethnicity, beardiness, specatcledness and so on.

Such prejudiced are likely to proliferate into the future because that’s what we do: find people like us and favor them.

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Bob 'Hawk' Turnbull Bob ‘Hawk’ Turnbull  A century could produce ‘created evolution’ (adapting to some chararistic of the envoriment, like adjusting to low gravity) however would not be enough for natural evolutionary change. Look at the length of time it took from Neanderthal to Cro-magnon to modern man…
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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
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