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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Friday, 20 March 2015

"The First Rule of White Club...": Tokenism and White-Washing

Hello hello!

I haven't been able to drag myself off to Fifty Shades of Grey yet, but my blog is starting to get a layer of dust on it, so I'm here to throw a few posts at you until I can make that happen. (What can I say? I'm usually up for a hatewatch of something like this, and I promised to do it, but I'm really not crazy about the thought of spending thirty bucks on tickets to watch Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan assault good taste and fumble through BDSM horrifyingly.) So instead, let's talk about diversity in writing--especially the dirty side-door policy of cheating at diversity through including tokenism.

Tokenism: is it a problem?

The first rule of white club is that you don't talk about white club. The second rule of white club...well. I'm extremely happy that privilege barriers are breaking down, but as much as this is starting to happen in speculative fiction, there's this safe zone that people are still orbiting. Maybe it's just that I've been spoiled by amazing writers, but between finishing The Night Circus and some of my other reading-around, a particular issue has stuck with me. When a cast features some diversity, but those characters are relegated to sideline roles--should the book get a pass? A lot of authors are lenient on this, but honestly, I'd say no. Fair criticism is part of art, and so is going outside one's comfort zone. Sure, it's fine to start off writing about characters you're comfortable with, but particularly for those of us who are white and born with various kinds of privileges, insulated by our birth-assigned identities, we need to push outside those zones eventually and try to write well-rounded characters. It's not just a matter of equality: it's a matter of technique and pride in the craft. But how do you write diversity?

A challenge to not read white, cis male authors for a year went around recently, and a lot of people lost their minds. I'm not here to talk about that, but I WILL leave this and this here for you to have a look at. The first is a link to Asian speculative fiction authors; the second, a quick sample of some black female writers of spec fic. Considering that there's over 137 authors on these two lists alone, that should give you an idea of just how many sci fi and fantasy writers of colour actually exist--not only do they exist, but there are a lot of them. If you still haven't ventured outside that shelf of sci fi classics, people other than Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler do exist. They exist now. They are writing awesome books. Go read them.

People of colour, people with disabilities, and queer people are not there to be checked off on a list to prove that your book is politically correct. If you're going to incorporate them into your stories, actually incorporate them. It's no different than doing any other sort of research. If you spend five hours looking up London architecture, you can spend half an hour making sure your Latino characters don't flirt with every girl on the block and talk in exaggerated Spanglish.

Seen here: an author you should read. 

The fake PC fight

This could really be an article of its own, but it's heavily linked to what I've already mentioned, so there's not much point. As a mentor of mine put it, '"I don't want to offend" is often code for "you guys are never satisfied". We need a Fuck That checklist for creators. "If the only time you describe a skin color is for the 'ethnic' types, fuck that. If the black sidekick dies, fuck that. If the woman is put in sexual peril for no fucking reason, fuck that."'

The thing is, he's right. Why is it that diversity, even tokenism, are considered 'going out of your way'? It seems like white voices fighting over (fake) free speech and (fake) sensitivity drown out the concerns of actual people of colour who are affected by the issues.

Why is this still a discussion point at all? If you can put five hours into researching cafe' food in London, you can spend half an hour learning about the South Bronx or immigration processes. It's entirely possible to just write 'normal' PoC and have them fit into a story. All characters' lives should include a mix of the good, bad, and ugly.

Murakami's kind of an easy pick, but he's a really good writer. This collection's particularly good.


The discussion tends to go in a certain direction immediately.

"What if I want to write about these characters?" Okay, but why do they have to be white?

"But that's how I envisioned them." Okay, but your imagination doesn't exist in a decontextualized bubble.

"I didn't want to go into racism and sexism and other isms!" If you include rape, social dynamics and fighting, or other forms of conflict, and you mention other characters' backgrounds, why are you leaving out the 'ethnic' characters' backgrounds?

"But I have my gay character come out to the MC!" Does his coming out make a difference? If the coming out doesn't make a difference to the plot, and has no consequences, your gay character is effectively being used as an ethical crutch for your MC. If it has no consequences, than why have the character be in the closet in the first place?

"Won't it distract from my storyline?" Is your storyline so fragile that you can't throw in a line here and there of dialogue to enrich the backstory, or subtle hints in descriptions of characters and rooms, without ruining everything? If your main character is so uninteresting that you're worried fleshing out background characters might ruin them, maybe your main character needs some work.

Behold! More research material!

How to fix it

Give the minor characters a careful scan. Do your white minor characters get all the attention and do all the talking? Do you talk about the backstories of your white characters, but not the people of colour? Are the people of colour disproportionately poor and unfortunate? Do the people of colour act in ways that are at all stereotypical, or speak in different ways than the white characters? Does a person of colour die to save a white character or to underline how serious things are?

Of course, I have to end this with some recommendations for some other favorite authors already doing it right--Minister Faust and Zig Zag Claybourne both tackle diversity issues really well, and Katie de Long proves that you can have your intersectional feminism and romance and get eaten out, too. A couple of webcomics I've been losing my mind over, Nimona and Strong Female Protagonist, also tackle inclusion quite a bit. Again, you don't have to sacrifice your awesome story to talk about these issues. If anything, diversity adds nuance and depth to a story. It opens up new possibilities. Diversity saves us all from boredom and repetition, issues that have plagued fantasy and science fiction for years.

Ultimately, a good story will only be richer for this stuff. Sure, it's daunting, but you can start with short stories featuring protagonists outside your comfort zone, then work your way up. Worried about how to describe a character's skin tone and what kinds of backgrounds characters can have? Trying to figure out how to write a white central protag and still avoid tokenism? Research. At the end of the day, this conversation matters for so many reasons, and if you come at it with sincerity, there will be a lot of people eager to help you.

What are your questions about writing diversity? Let me know in the comments. Let's get talking.

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Leave your comments, rebuttals, and vehement agreements below. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

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