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Genres & Age Categories => Sci Fi & Fantasy => Topic started by: rbt on February 01, 2009, 06:38 AM

Title: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rbt on February 01, 2009, 06:38 AM
Hey guys, I was thinking about something and wanted your opinions. Why are there no black protagonist in children's fantasy fiction, or even modern fiction? People have said "A black protagonist would sell", but yeah, right... I've seen so much closet racism come out as a result of our new president, I dont know what to think anymore. Of course, many people wouldnt outrightly say that that's the reason they're avoiding the book (cause the main protagonist is black) the same way they wouldnt admit why they wouldnt vote for the new president. (Though their reason was obvious) Personally I think that skin color makes people look at a black protagonist as a "lesser hero". Not trying to wrap politics into my discussion, but I'll reference something I heard said about our new president before the election. When both parties were still running, a man said in an interview, "Anytime you have a "negro" running for president, he's not a first stringer. He's definately a second stringer..." In other words, the black candidate is not as good or qualified as the white candidate simply because of his skin color. No matter how educated he is.

So how about it? Are black protagonist "second stringers"? Do blacks in fantasy have to remain a sidekick because racism demands so?
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: nandini on February 01, 2009, 07:32 AM
THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, a brilliant and hilarious mg fantasy from last year, has a black protagonist. She's a girl, and ends up saving the world. So, I think this is changing ...
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: olmue on February 01, 2009, 09:06 AM
THE EAR, THE EYE, AND THE ARM by Nancy Farmer is admittedly more SF than fantasy, but it features futuristic kids in Zimbabwe. It won a Newbery Honor. Anne Ursu has a Greek mythology-based series where one of the two main characters is black. (Two cousins, one white American, one black British.) And I just critted a couple chapters from someone on this board who is writing a MG fantasy with African roots. To me it seemed like it would have a wide appeal regardless of race.

While it's true that there are far fewer heroes of color in non-contemporary/problem novel type books, I also think this is changing. Personally I'd love to read more books of all genres with a racially diverse cast where race isn't the issue. If you want to have a "mainstream" fantasy that happens to have black characters, I think you need to walk the balance between ethnic flavor and mainstream accessibility. (I don't mean you personally, rbt; just writers in general, you know.) And, the publishers/booksellers need to be able to see books with nonwhite characters not as just African American lit, but Just Plain Books. (I think that sometimes that is harder--the publishers and writers are okay with it, but then the bookstore sinks books into the AA section where kids looking for YA might not find them...)

But--I DO think it's changing. Everyone I know who's read Smekday, for instance, LOVED it, and I don't think anyone consciously thought about what race the MC was.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: xiaotien on February 01, 2009, 09:19 AM
i think there aren't enough writers of color
within the field. we do tend to write what we
can relate to often. i mean, protag notwithstanding,
even side characters can be multi-cultural. but often
isn't in contemporary YA fiction.

it's something to think about as writers.

but as a writer of color, do you HAVE to write
to "represent" your people somehow? i don't think
that should be the case either.

it's an interesting question.
but i didn't grow up reading of protags who were
asian-american. much less an asian barbie doll
when i was younger...
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rab on February 01, 2009, 10:07 AM
People of color in fantasy books are indeed few and far between, although we've been seeing more Asian protagonists (think of Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori). But there have been attempts to be more inclusive. For example, Ursula K. LeGuin's WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, pubbed in 1968, has a dark-skinned protagonist, Ged, and his close friend Vetch is described as "very dark of skin, not red-brown like Ged and Jasper and most folk of the Archipelago, but black-brown." The man who becomes Archmage is "black-skinned." Interestingly, a group of barbarian raiders seemed to be modeled on Vikings. They're called "a savage people, white-skinned, yellow-haired, and fierce." A couple of years ago, an execrable tv movie was made of the first two Earthsea books, and a white actor played Ged.

More recently, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's futuristic fantasy, THE SHADOW SPEAKER, is set in West Africa in 2070, and like her earlier fantasy novel, ZAHRAH THE WINDSEEKER, has African protagonists. Like Olmue said about SMEKDAY, things are changing, but v-e-r-y slowly.

Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: xiaotien on February 01, 2009, 10:18 AM
People of color in fantasy books are indeed few and far between, although we've been seeing more Asian protagonists (think of Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori).


i think this was the only book my editor
could think of that was comparable to silver phoenix
when she pitched to marketing.

and it's not YA?

and rab, don't forget dragoneye reborn! =)
that's new this year, and it uses asian influenced setting.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: JetGirl on February 01, 2009, 10:50 AM
Tamora Pierce has a black protagonist in her Circle of Magic series (Daja's Book).  And the sequel to it in The Circle Opens series, Cold Fire.  Those books are not particularly new, especially the first series.

IMHO, I think it occurs more than people may notice.  Spec fic has always been a place for commenting on society, so it more often has situations that are not the accepted norm.  And because spec fic readers are accepting of those situations, they don't make a big deal of out it that would garner a lot of press.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: GaryC on February 01, 2009, 10:53 AM
If I remember rightly, most of the major characters in the Earthsea books are if not black at least dark-skinned. This was something that Ursula Le Guin did deliberately - not heavy-handedly, but via the odd reference here and there.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Tyson McFrost on February 01, 2009, 11:47 AM
A very curious post indeed. (This board seems to talk about everything) I have not read any MG books that feature any protagonists who are black so I cannot reference anything. However, I can say this:

Rbt was accurate in his/her assumption that black people are considered 'second string' (where's inspired when you need her, she can help me on this) they are thought of as a lesser person simply because of the hardships that are entwined in their history. Colonialists used to consider them three quarters of a human and some people, to this very day, still hold this sordid ideal. The fact that most--not all--black people carry about themselves in such a "ghetto" fashion does not help to break this opinion either.

In retrospect, I did not make the character of my novel a black person, although he lives in a predominantly black country, because I did not want to play into the idea that because I am black, or part thereof, that I should write about a black person as well. I find this silly, I'm an artist I go where my heart guides me and I do not conform to the pro black political correctness "oh, we are always suffering" ploy of Al Sharpton and other black leaders of this kind.
If black people truly wish to rise then they should stop using the past as an excuse with which to shape the future. Yes, it is good to remember the struggles you have endured but it is also good to look toward the future as a bright--though difficult--road toward happiness and fulfillment. The past will always haunt you and people will always degrade you, but you have to look deep inside yourself and let your light shine trough; defy the odds and say to the world: "I believe, because yes, I can."

Black protagonists in books are few, but I believe that all this is changing. Whereas before it was considered almost taboo, nowadays (thanks to the interest in Obama) it may be a less difficult thing to accomplish.  :cheerleader Who knows, we might even see a black gangsta superman, who fights crime and his sole weakness is pot. :dr I'm sure my generation would love to read about that. Might even make a nice drug campaign ad, too.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: nandini on February 01, 2009, 11:55 AM
I love Earthsea and most of UKL's books. I particularly loved THE TELLING. She has an Indian character as the lead (it is futuristic SF) and she was authentic to the ethnicity in her details yet her story has a very universal appeal. It's hard to be a UKL (!!!) but I think the key is to have that universal appeal, irrespective of the background of the main character. At least I hope so. I would hate to think that in spite of a great premise/character/plot/execution a ms would be rejected just because of the race of the mc. I'm an optimist though! Call me a fool but I really believe it. There will be more of this in the future. Write it and they will acquire/buy/read. Tell you in ten years if that actually works!  
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rab on February 01, 2009, 12:04 PM
Xiaotien, I thought Tales of the Otori had been marketed for both adult and YA--the little versions that break up ACROSS THE NIGHTINGALE FLOOR into several parts are especially aimed at YA, aren't they? And yes, I should have mentioned my fave, EON! Would you include translations from Japanese, such as Nahoko Uehashi's MORIBITO: GUARDIAN OF THE SPIRIT? Also, I'm trying to remember whether Katherine Paterson's Japanese historical novels have a fantasy element in them or not, but I just can't recall them well enough. Lloyd Alexander's IRON RING used the history and culture of India as its basis, as did Suzanne Fisher Staples' foray into fantasy, SHIVA'S FIRE.

I'm glad that people are able to think of all these titles, and I agree with JetGirl that speculative fiction often challenges cultural norms. As GaryC said, Ursula K. LeGuin (the daughter of anthropologists who studied Native Americans, and who was writing about Earthsea in the 60's) purposely made her characters dark-skinned for that very reason (something I didn't notice when I read them as a teenager). On the other hand, when we can name almost all the YA fantasy titles that have people of color as protagonists, that seems to say a lot about how few there still are.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rbt on February 01, 2009, 12:58 PM
Tyson D. Mc Donald, I absolutely agree that you shouldnt write a black character as part of a "pro black movement. But I'd do it for no particular reason, or anything like that. And you guys mention Wizard of Earthsea? Are these characters supposed to be aliens? It seems like black characters have to be alien or monsters before they'll be accepted. Many times black aliens have to have a butt crack or a brand on their foreheads as well as other non human distictive features. So are these "dark skinned" characters supposed to be black humans? Just because some one is dark skinned doesnt deem them human. Sounds like they're alien, but I may be wrong. Please clarify
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: ello on February 01, 2009, 01:15 PM
Earthsea is fantasy set in a world of humans and dragons.

Similarly Meredith ann Pierce's Darkangel trilogy is set in a fantasy world filled with different skinned people, from mauve, white, blue, green, brown and black. A major secondary character introduced in the second and third books is described as black skinned.

I would love to see more multicultural books in general - not just in fantasy.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: xiaotien on February 01, 2009, 02:21 PM
rab, alas, i haven't read the series myself.
but what i saw, was in the adult fantasy section?
author may have more that is cross over?

and yes, the moribito book came out this year!
that was translated tho from a japanese book?

i loved the earthsea series! i know le guin was
very upset that they didn't use many actors of color
for the television remake. (i think she was more than
upset.) BUT it was the reason i found her books and
began reading them. now she is my favorite fantasy author!
or one of the top ones.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Tyson McFrost on February 01, 2009, 03:11 PM
Tyson D. Mc Donald, I absolutely agree that you shouldnt write a black character as part of a "pro black movement. But I'd do it for no particular reason, or anything like that.
Umm, I am not quite certain where this all came from but I was just answering your question. (Unlike some people who chose to avoid the crux of your query) I really don't care if black people or any kind of people are in books or not. I don't let this inclusion or lack thereof be a burden when I read. I don't really care what the character looks like, (unless they're a hot girl) I just read for the stories. It seems to me you're somewhat angry at it all. A topic like this is bound to be controversial, perhaps now you'll understand why it is seldom brought up--especially in novels and mainstream media.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Raynbow on February 01, 2009, 05:28 PM
I read a very interesting blog on this subject not that long ago. The blogger recommended not identifying your characters by skin color, unless you have a very good reason. That way, your readers can make the character into anybody they want. If you have a character with black hair, and your reader is an African-American, then they can see your character as black. If they're an Asian reader, they can see them as Asian, and so and and so forth.

When I read this blog, I was trying to decide whether to go into more detail about what one of my main characters look like. To me, he had always been mixed (His mother is black and his father is white), but in my ms, I described him only with curly black hair and green eyes. I decided not to take the advice of this blog and I added in his race. I did this because it's also true, that if a majority of your readers are white, then they will automatically assume your black haired character is white. I didn't want that.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Tyson McFrost on February 01, 2009, 05:36 PM
Precisely. You should not let race or its epithets define your novel--unless that is your intention. Most people aren't into the drama that that topic brings and children can care less what the character's skin color is. (They are so innocent and pure, they're the best people in the world. Makes you wonder how is it they mature into such monsters sometimes.)
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rbt on February 01, 2009, 07:43 PM
In retrospect, I did not make the character of my novel a black person, although he lives in a predominantly black country, because I did not want to play into the idea that because I am black, or part thereof, that I should write about a black person as well. I find this silly, I'm an artist I go where my heart guides me and I do not conform to the pro black political correctness "oh, we are always suffering" ploy of Al Sharpton and other black leaders of this kind.

Tyson D. Mc Donald, this is where my response came from. But I wasnt trying to be funny. I was just answering YOUR question like you did for mine. And no, I'm not upset. Never said I was.

I read a very interesting blog on this subject not that long ago. The blogger recommended not identifying your characters by skin color, unless you have a very good reason. That way, your readers can make the character into anybody they want. If you have a character with black hair, and your reader is an African-American, then they can see your character as black. If they're an Asian reader, they can see them as Asian, and so and and so forth.


Raynbow Gignilliat (aka LeFay)  I dont get something. You have an excellent point, but just as they said about the Earthsea characters- why is it that if the character is black skinned or dark skinned in the book, mainstream America replaces them with a white character? And children may not care what color a character is but parents do. Racism is passed down by parents. Parents can also dictate what book a child buys. I've been in book stores and libraries and heard parents tell children to put a book back for there own reasons and agendas instead of letting the child choose for themselves. Who's to say they wont do the same if the MC is not white? If they teach the child that it's not okay to accept a book with a MC that doesnt look like them, the same way that many did regarding our new president- then what? Personally, I dont care what color the president is, and I really didnt get all whoopdie-doo over the fact that he's black (technically, he's not all black, but if he was, I still wouldnt care) But even with him being crowned the "first black president", I've seen so much racism that people SAY isnt alive today. But it's alive and smoking. If this kind of ignorance exist in a presidential election, dare we be foolish enough to say it's not everywhere else? I find that most racist people are uncomfortable accepting someone of a different race, in a dominant role. That's why the new president brought out the true feelings of many "whites", because they've held that authoritative role for so long, it scared and upset them at the though of it changing. And people do fear change. Many of them felt that no matter what the president could do for this country, they simply did not want a black man to lead us. They'd rather see the country fall than to see someone in office trying to make a difference. And they were telling their children to view it the same way. Some had their chidren calling the man a "monkey" for hypocrites sake and this is uncalled for! Many STILL wont accept the notion of a black president whether he's in office or not.  Dont get me wrong here, I'm not angry. I'm just addressing the issue. I'm not "pro black" or any other prejudice label. My sister in law is white and I love her! But I do feel that a person should have the right to make the MC any color they want if Hollywood can change them in film adaptations. My question is the underlying motive of WHY they change them.

The bottom line is that this issue is there and people act like it isnt. For example, in comics- Why was Superman white? Why is Batman white? Why is every mainstream superhero white? And it's been this way for decades. There are very few heroes of other races and most of the black ones have to be monsters. (Spawn or Blade) And name me ONE children's book where the MC is black and it sold well with the likes of say... Eragon. Now as much contraversy that I've heard over that series (people saying he stole his material from other writers) do you honestly think that book would have sold if Eragon were black? And do you honestly think that Hollywood would not have changed him to a white character? It probably wouldnt have made it to film. Would A Series of Unfortunate Events been a household name if the MCs were black or another race? And would anyone have cared if Edward and Bella were a love story about a black girl and black vampire in the Twilight series? The author talked about how "beautiful" Edward was as a vamp. Would he have been so incredible if he were black or another race?
A writer should have the right to make his MC any color they want, but nobody just like in real life, just like in the presidential election, nobody should have the right to say that that MC is not good enough to be a hero just because they dont look like them. Nor should they judge them based on that merit, but unfortunately, they do
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mswatkins on February 01, 2009, 07:46 PM
I do like to know what a character looks like, and their skin color is part of that, but it's only so I can see them in my minds eye.  But caring that their a specific race isn't an issue, unless it's supposed to be, but that's for the writer to dictate.  

In the Twilight series it is important that many of the characters are Native American, but it's not important what race the Vampires are. 

As for black MC's not being represented in most fantasy's, I have no idea, other than culture.  Martial arts stories are typically full of Asian characters; I see traditional fantasy as European story telling and with that it's mostly white characters.  I'm not trying to cause any issues, just trying to actually address your basic question. 
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: xiaotien on February 01, 2009, 08:13 PM
I read a very interesting blog on this subject not that long ago. The blogger recommended not identifying your characters by skin color, unless you have a very good reason. That way, your readers can make the character into anybody they want. If you have a character with black hair, and your reader is an African-American, then they can see your character as black. If they're an Asian reader, they can see them as Asian, and so and and so forth.


this is so interesting. i've had this discussion
over at sfnovel as well. writers  were surprised
when i said unless told otherwise somehow, i ALWAYS
assume characters are caucasian.

it's what i grew up reading.
it's what i grew up watching.

why would i think otherwise?

so alas, that blogger's theory does not work with
me as a reader.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rainchains on February 01, 2009, 08:25 PM
What about Robert Salvatore's Drizzt D'Orden? He's a black elf and he's my favorite elf character ever. He comes up against a whole world of prejudice in the series because he is a dark elf and dark elves are supposed to all be evil. He has a very hard time gaining acceptance and forcing people to look past his color.

And for what it's worth my main character in my Highlights fiction contest story last year for future stories was an 11 yr old black girl in space.

rainchains :horse
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rbt on February 01, 2009, 08:52 PM
What about Robert Salvatore's Drizzt D'Orden? He's a black elf and he's my favorite elf character ever. He comes up against a whole world of prejudice in the series because he is a dark elf and dark elves are supposed to all be evil. He has a very hard time gaining acceptance and forcing people to look past his color.

And for what it's worth my main character in my Highlights fiction contest story last year for future stories was an 11 yr old black girl in space.

rainchains :horse

Is this black elf the main protagonist, or just a side arm to a white elf? And did you win the fiction contest?
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rainchains on February 01, 2009, 08:57 PM
He's the main character with a bunch of white sidekicks- a dwarf, a human girl, and a barbarian guy. Oh yeah and a halfling. Drizzt's main sidekick is his magical black panther that he can call up at will.

And yes I did win the Highlights contest and I never thought of my heroine as a second stringer.

Oh and I'm white and didn't write my story for any particular race breaking reasons.

rainchains :horse
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: olmue on February 01, 2009, 09:23 PM
I found a list on line of some multi-ethnic fantasy (children's) here: http://chickenspaghetti.typepad.com/chicken_spaghetti/2007/11/i-asked-for-sug.html (http://chickenspaghetti.typepad.com/chicken_spaghetti/2007/11/i-asked-for-sug.html). I second Lionboy. As far as I understand, the book did very well in both the US and England (where it was originally published). The other books people have mentioned--I think the point about them is that they are 1) well-written, and 2) while the ethnicity of the character is of course an important part of their makeup, it isn't the sole issue of the book. Even if you have a book about slavery, if it succeeds I think it will be because it is about a character doing something, ie, it is a plot/story, rather than lots of words about an Issue.

My impression of film is maybe the opposite of rbt's (unless I misunderstood)--it seems that Hollywood is more likely to take a white story and diversify it a bit than to make everyone a blanket snow white. (They diversified at least two roles in Twilight, for example--and nobody can say that that film is suffering!). I know--minor characters are not the same as the hero. But I guess the (admittedly limited) films I've seen seem to be moving in a positive direction.

I think there is unfortunately a lot of sad history that can explain why there has been a dearth until now of books with nonwhite heroes--but with regards to the present, I guess I feel excited rather than hopeless. I'm seeing more and more regular books with a multiracial cast as opposed to the MR elements being confined to Problem Novels of the Ghetto, and I'm glad. (Problem novels not being my genre, regardless of race...)
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Bracken on February 01, 2009, 09:27 PM
I'm a little confused about what's happening in this discussion, but I just wanted to throw in my two cents:  I personally believe the issue of race in fantasy and the lack of black characters goes back to the roots of high fantasy.  If you think about it, most fantasy up to this point has been based in the medieval European tradition/Norse tradition a la Tolkien.  It's not so much that it was an intentional oversight, I think, but something that's based in the history of Europe.  It's an intuitive thing, almost. You see a lot of white characters in these stories because that's what most writers associate with castles, crusaders, the saxons, druid magic, and so on and so forth.  

But! I also think it's very important to acknowledge that this is something that's been improving over time.  As fantasy writers start to break out of the medieval European tradition (like xiaotien has with her novel) and explore other cultures you'll start to see more diversity in the spread of characters.  In my first novel, the characters are predominately white, but it's because they come from a small, fairly homogenous country.  In my current WIP, however, I've been a lot more sensitive to the idea of race, but I'm not including it for the sake of including it.  My characters are diverse because they span an entire continent, and it's what the story calls for.  This kind of diversity is also present in shows like Avatar, which is insanely popular with kids and even adults.

Quote
it seems that Hollywood is more likely to take a white story and diversify it a bit than to make everyone a blanket snow white

Unfortunately that's EXACTLY what happened with the Avatar movie.  Most of the fans are in an uproar because they cast all white kids as the main characters and didn't honor the multiculturism of the show at all.  
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: olmue on February 01, 2009, 10:03 PM
Okay, the Avatar thing would annoy me, too. (Like I said, movies are not my forte...) I guess it happens both ways?
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mswatkins on February 02, 2009, 04:30 AM
I'm a little confused about what's happening in this discussion, but I just wanted to throw in my two cents:  I personally believe the issue of race in fantasy and the lack of black characters goes back to the roots of high fantasy.  If you think about it, most fantasy up to this point has been based in the medieval European tradition/Norse tradition a la Tolkien.  It's not so much that it was an intentional oversight, I think, but something that's based in the history of Europe.  It's an intuitive thing, almost. You see a lot of white characters in these stories because that's what most writers associate with castles, crusaders, the saxons, druid magic, and so on and so forth.  

I agree completely with this.  I do not think it's racism as much as traditionalism.  I don't think many writers, especially writers for children, would consider one race less important than another.  Writers are typically more open differences because it can make for a captivating story. 
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: nandini on February 02, 2009, 05:43 AM
 My characters are diverse because they span an entire continent, and it's what the story calls for.  This kind of diversity is also present in shows like Avatar, which is insanely popular with kids and even adults.

Unfortunately that's EXACTLY what happened with the Avatar movie.  Most of the fans are in an uproar because they cast all white kids as the main characters and didn't honor the multiculturism of the show at all.  

Hmm ... I thought Dev Patel from Slumdog was playing Prince Zuko ? I would be seriously upset if M Night Shyamalan picked an all white cast!!! It's an ASIAN fantasy.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 02, 2009, 06:03 AM
I disagree that it's a bad thing to write a black character as part of a "pro black movement".  I think there is nothing wrong with deliberately writing your character as black in order to increase cultural awareness and to bridge the gap in literature. I think that little black (and other minorities in this country, of course) girls and boys would do well to see protagonists that look like them and act and think like they do.  It raises self-esteem and gives them the confidence to believe in themselves.  Imagine what it would be like to pick up a book and automatically know that the people in the book don’t look anything like you, and that beauty, when described, is completely counter to everything you see when you look in the mirror.  Whether you believe it or not, the repercussions of slavery still exist…where people feel that if your skin has a darker tint to it, that you are somehow a “second stringer”.  These types of attitudes were perpetuated by a deeply rooted desire to feel good about enslaving human beings and treat them as dogs.  If they possessed some sort of inferiority, then, why, it was completely okay to treat them as such. 

I for one see absolutely nothing wrong with writing books to strengthen the black race.  I also believe that the majority of that strengthening should be directed at children since this is when we first learn about and adopt our identities. 

There is so much more I’d like to say, but I won’t…
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 02, 2009, 06:09 AM
In other words, the black candidate is not as good or qualified as the white candidate simply because of his skin color. No matter how educated he is.
So how about it? Are black protagonist "second stringers"? Do blacks in fantasy have to remain a sidekick because racism demands so?

Yes, I think I'll say a little more...

To be honest, this kind of statement from people should be laughable.  Completely and utterly laughable-- but, I can't lie when I say that this type of sentiment ENRAGES me.

I am willing to bet that the people who share this sentiment can barely enunciate a proper sentence.

As a superbly educated black woman, I feel that this type of ignorance should be ignored (hey, maybe that's why ignorance and ignore seem so similar!).  It's not truth.  It's an attempt for one person to feel better about themselves and their lack of___ (fill in the blank).  It works the same way with overweight protagonists (although this is changing too) and any other taboo topic in our society. 


As it relates to books, typically only minorities purchase books with minority main characters.  This is because people of the major race have no need to identify with minority characters (whether attributed to racism or just a lack of interest).  If a minority wants to read, we have to read what is out there.  There is very little choice for us.  If a majority wants to read, the sky is the limit.  The same things goes for black movies.  Very rarely do you see throngs of white people in the movies trying to watch a Tyler Perry flick, but hordes of black people come out to see any number of movies without a single black character in it.  And because of this, black books/movies simply do not make as much money (as compared to our white counterparts).  Because it doesn't make as much money, the publishers don't publish as often.  Because they don't publish as often, black protagonists are underrepresented.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mswatkins on February 02, 2009, 06:28 AM
I would doubt, seriously doubt, that people who believe blacks are "second stringers" read much fantasy, specifically MG/YA fantasy, or read much of anything for that matter.  So no, I don't think racism plays a real part in this at all.

Like I said before, I believe it's traditionalism instead of racism.  Fantasy is very popular right now, and a story filled with African mythology could be very interesting.  But it's like all other storytelling, it comes down to the story itself and the writers ability to tell it. 

Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mswatkins on February 02, 2009, 06:51 AM
As it relates to books, typically only minorities purchase books with minority main characters.  This is because people  of the major race have no need to identify with minority characters (whether attributed to racism or just a lack of interest).  If a minority wants to read, we have to read what is out there.  There is very little choice for us.  If a majority wants to read, the sky is the limit.  The same things goes for black movies.  Very rarely do you see throngs of white people in the movies trying to watch a Tyler Perry flick, but hordes of black people come out to see any number of movies without a single black character in it.  And because of this, black books/movies simply do not make as much money (as compared to our white counterparts).  Because it doesn't make as much money, the publishers don't publish as often.  Because they don't publish as often, black protagonists are underrepresented.

This is a solid point.  Several years ago a black actor (I wish I could remember who) said that there is a difference between black movies and movies with black actors.  Up to that point I had never thought of it that way, and the he made a great point. One that was very true and has stuck with me.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: ello on February 02, 2009, 07:02 AM
msw - I don't think your question is offensive - but I do think that it is a type of stereotyping and generalization that we would like to avoid. Individuals have such varied tastes and race is an added dimension to their makeup - but you must think of each person as an individual.

However, you raise a very good point of how most of publishing and Hollywood works. They want to make money so they look for these types of generalized statistics to help market their books and films. Only women buy fiction. Only men watch action and horror films, etc. And because publishing and Hollywood is still mostly white, the generalizations don't change alot - but they have been changing to meet the marketplace and that is what we all must focus on. They are slow to change but it can happen. Look at the explosion of Latino culture - a direct relation to the recognization of the the Hispanic American sector as a major consumer.

And while it pains me to hear of minority characters being changed to white in a film (always happens to Asians for some reason) I understand that usually it is a market and money issue that they are working off of - not racisim. That said, I wish they would take a chance on a minority lead for a major blockbuster. But that time may not yet be here.

However, in Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman's character in the book was actually an Irish man. That's why his name was Red. In the book he had red hair. In the movie he is asked why his name is Red and he says I don't know, maybe cause I'm Irish. That cracked me up!
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mswatkins on February 02, 2009, 07:26 AM
ello - I removed the question, even though you agreed it was not offensive.  I in no way want to upset anyone on this site.  You have all been so helpful to me while I've been a member.

As for Shawshank Redemption - I love that line, I laughed when I read it because I remember the scene so well. I have not read the book, I just thought it was dry humor at its best. 
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 02, 2009, 07:34 AM

However, in Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman's character in the book was actually an Irish man. That's why his name was Red. In the book he had red hair. In the movie he is asked why his name is Red and he says I don't know, maybe cause I'm Irish. That cracked me up!

I never thought much of the Red nickname because a lot of black people are nicknamed Red based on their complexion.  For some reason, a lot of lighter skinned black people get the nickname Red.  I think it's from either their skin or hair color.  Morgan Freeman isn't what I would consider light-skinned, but that's the reason I didn't think much of it.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Rachel on February 02, 2009, 07:36 AM
Hmm ... I thought Dev Patel from Slumdog was playing Prince Zuko ? I would be seriously upset if M Night Shyamalan picked an all white cast!!! It's an ASIAN fantasy.
It looks like Jesse McCartney was offered the role of Zuko, and until two days ago, it was still thought he would take it, but a schedule conflict came up, so it was offered to Dev Patel. If the other cast members listed on IMDB are correct, Aang, Katara, and Sokka will be played by white actors.

I disagree that it's a bad thing to write a black character as part of a "pro black movement".  I think there is nothing wrong with deliberately writing your character as black in order to increase cultural awareness and to bridge the gap in literature.
I agree.

I would doubt, seriously doubt, that people who believe blacks are "second stringers" read much fantasy, specifically MG/YA fantasy, or read much of anything for that matter.  So no, I don't think racism plays a real part in this at all.

Like I said before, I believe it's traditionalism instead of racism.
I disagree with this. All kinds of people read fantasy, and all kinds of people read.

I've listened in on similar discussions relating to writing science fiction/fantasy for adults. There were some who felt, very strongly, that unless there was a reason for a character to be black (or anything other than white), there was no point in doing it at all. The same argument was used to discuss female characters. Everything defaulted to white male unless there was a reason not to, and they actively discouraged other writers from doing otherwise unless the plot specifically called for something else.

I'm not saying it's racism for a book to have an all-white cast. But I don't like arguments that end up dismissing the lack of other races and cultures. I think it's important to recognize when there is a lack of characters the children feel they can connect with. It's got to be frustrating to never read about someone who looks like you being the hero and doing cool magic and saving the world.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 02, 2009, 07:43 AM
Just an FYI, my mc is a black girl (with brown skin) and is about to inherit special powers from an African Tribe she is a descendent of.  I've always wanted to see a black mc superhero.  The only one I know of in the movies was Storm (X-men) who was actually African in the comic book.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: ello on February 02, 2009, 07:45 AM
msw - you didn't have to remove the question, it was fine! But I do appreciate your sensitivity to the issue!

inspired - I think most people wouldn't catch that unless they read the book - I mean novella - and realized it was tongue in cheek because the original character was written as an Irish man.

And Rachel - Don't remind me of the devastation I suffered at hearing how the whole Avatar Asian world was being cast with white actors. I don't think there was a scheduling conflict for McCartney - I think the producers realized that they might actually have a colossal failure on their hands if they didn't recast their darkest and most complex character. It is so incredibly sad that a show that celebrated Asian and Inuit cultures has been completely recast into a white mold. It was bad enough they did it to the Earthsea movie but now to Avatar? Katara and Sokka are supposed to be inuit - what they couldn't find Native American actors? The kid who is playing Sokka was apparently quoted as saying "I guess I'd better get a tan!"  :hairpull

Ok I'll stop now.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 02, 2009, 07:47 AM

inspired - I think most people wouldn't catch that unless they read the book - I mean novella - and realized it was tongue in cheek because the original character was written as an Irish man.



Oh yeah, absolutely. 
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Rachel on February 02, 2009, 07:58 AM
And Rachel - Don't remind me of the devastation I suffered at hearing how the whole Avatar Asian world was being cast with white actors. I don't think there was a scheduling conflict for McCartney - I think the producers realized that they might actually have a colossal failure on their hands if they didn't recast their darkest and most complex character.
Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if that's the case (especially since McCartney's been training for the role for a while, so it seemed fairly set in stone until just now). And I saw that quote, too, gah!
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Tyson McFrost on February 02, 2009, 08:02 AM
Whoo, is it getting hot in here or what? You ladies are really heating things up! There is so much I want to say, so much people I want to quote. Inspired really put everything in perspective--as I undoubtedly knew she would. (Love you Dr. Murphy!) And there is no doubt in my mind that rbt, whoever he/she is, has an agenda regarding this issue, contrary to what he/she has said. However, eluding to what rbt has said earlier, the Green Lantern is a popular superhero and he is a pivotal member of the Justice League, as far as I am concerned, and this is a huge debate amongst us comic nerds, he is one of the most powerful superheros of all time and everyone seems to like him, regardless of his skin color. Spawn is very popular as well and he was created by a white artist.
It's not that these characters are less commercially viable compared to a white character, it's simply a matter of content. Have you seen the Green Lantern or Spawn in any new material lately? The answer is no, you haven't. And does this mean that they are second string? This too is also an astounding no!

We artists (which includes all of us writers) shape our characters based upon the content: the scenery, the world, the environment, etc., I've said this before but we go where our heart guides us. If it is we see our MC as a big red dog, then that's what we will mold him into. If it is we see our MC as an Arabian knight with Caucasian roots, then that is what our hero will become.
I don't remember who said it, but this member was right when they wrote that most fans of Fantasy are white. I don't think that a writer in their right mind will write a story simply because of this factor, but I know that Hollywood--to make a profit--will.

As a young man I don't understand any of this. If you cut a black or white person the blood is red, its not green or yellow. If you hurt a black or white person they will cry all the same. Tell them a joke they will laugh, Give them inspiration and they will try and reach for the stars. The only anomaly that logically divides us is our individuality--nothing more, nothing less. Racism is a fabrication of the mind, it is a facade spurred on by our fear of that which we cannot, or refuse to understand.

We may try to address the issue in our fantasy writing, but I believe that this sort of topic is best left for educational books. Do not forget that children can care less what the character in their favorite MG novels look like--I talk to kids all the time and many of them just want the action. (Except the girls though, cause you chicks are wired, you want romance--oh please! There are soap operas for that. :dr) And I understand that parents sometimes do dictate what it is their children read, but like I said, if you base a story around this factor then you lose out on the spectrum of audience in which diversification brings. 

(Edited because of two grammatical errors.)
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: NDM on February 02, 2009, 08:14 AM
If you think about it, most fantasy up to this point has been based in the medieval European tradition/Norse tradition a la Tolkien.  It's not so much that it was an intentional oversight, I think, but something that's based in the history of Europe.  It's an intuitive thing, almost. You see a lot of white characters in these stories because that's what most writers associate with castles, crusaders, the saxons, druid magic, and so on and so forth.   

Perhaps it's true that most published fantasy has been of the European tradition.  But this is not because the rest of the world does not produce wonderful fantasy.  Many other parts of the world have very, very rich histories of fantasy story-telling.  India, China, Japan, Parts of the Middle East, Africa, South America, as well as Native American story-telling traditions.  Many of these even pre-date the European traditions you've listed.  Could be that the reason so many European traditions have made it into print is because the keepers of the gates (publishers, editors, agents, marketing, publicity, etc.) tend to be predominantly European or of European descent and this is a tradition they identify with.

A topic like this is bound to be controversial, perhaps now you'll understand why it is seldom brought up--especially in novels and mainstream media.

This is an interesting topic.  And just because it may bring up tough issues and hit on sensitivities, does not mean it should not be discussed.  I love seeing the list of books I've never heard of (and furiously scrawling the names down for my TBR list).  I love seeing the differing opinions.  It's part of what I love about living somewhere where ideas and different views can be openly discussed without fear.

Still, regardless of the handful of books we can name here (and it really IS a handful), the point the OP made is a valid one.  There is a glaring dearth of diverse experiences, period.  But more and more people are becoming aware and more and more people want things to change, including (and it's a slow process) gate-keepers.  It's SLOW, I know, and many of us want it to happen way faster, but it is happening.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mike on February 02, 2009, 08:19 AM
Rachel beat me to it and already said a lot of things I was going to say... I admit I used to excuse myself from writing none-white characters by saying that since I never said they were white, they could be any race. But in my head they defaulted to white, and Rachel pointed out that off-hand descriptions I would use ended up describing their race anyway. Since then, I've always been explicit about skin tone or race, and I've found it enriches the characters in small ways, allows you to bring out nice details etc., even if race and skin tone are never a concern of the plot or conflict.

I also think it's not quite reasonable to say that the popular YA and MG books wouldn't have made it if they had non-white protagonists. Nobody really understands why some books just do well, and some turn into Harry Potter. There's just not enough books with non-white protagonists being written to say that they're not making it huge. Most books aren't making it huge. I'd like to think it's not impossible... these aren't YA/MG, but both American Gods and Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman feature non-white protagonists and were bestsellers, I believe. (At least I think American Gods does... I'm having trouble finding evidence now.) Which is just to say it's not impossible. A lot of people don't even notice if they're not looking for it, though really that just goes to show how ingrained the white-male-default-protagonist is in everyone's mind : (

 :moose

Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: xiaotien on February 02, 2009, 08:23 AM
just because it's tradition doesn't mean it's
something that doesn't need to be considered or
addressed.

do we keep with a male president to the end
of our days because it's "tradition"? or a white one?
(i'm using this just as an example. but you see
what i mean?)

i *don't* think that minority writers need
to be "representers" of their culture / race.
i think it's a huge onus and i think writing is hard
enough as it is. BUT if it is something they feel
they want to do, or feels natural to them, then YES
do it.

i think that non-minority writers, when writing
about san francisco or los angeles with an all caucasian
cast, should really think about that. it may come
natural in a way, but is it truly realisitc?

yes, tyson, we are all human and do we not all
bleed? but to me, that is an over-simplistic way of
seeing society. how many times have we been made
to check off the color of our skin boxes? we most
certainly categorize, for good or bad, it's there.

and how could we have forgotten OCTAVIA BUTLER?
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 02, 2009, 08:56 AM
just because it's tradition doesn't mean it's
something that doesn't need to be considered or
addressed.

do we keep with a male president to the end
of our days because it's "tradition"? or a white one?
(i'm using this just as an example. but you see
what i mean?)

i *don't* think that minority writers need
to be "representers" of their culture / race.
i think it's a huge onus and i think writing is hard
enough as it is. BUT if it is something they feel
they want to do, or feels natural to them, then YES
do it.

i think that non-minority writers, when writing
about san francisco or los angeles with an all caucasian
cast, should really think about that. it may come
natural in a way, but is it truly realisitc?

yes, tyson, we are all human and do we not all
bleed? but to me, that is an over-simplistic way of
seeing society. how many times have we been made
to check off the color of our skin boxes? we most
certainly categorize, for good or bad, it's there.

and how could we have forgotten OCTAVIA BUTLER?

dang, I really wish we could multi-quote. 

I just wanted to say that I don't think minority writers need to be representers of their culture, but I certainly don't think it's a bad thing.  Write what you know.  I know me.  I'm black.  I had cultural experiences that are probably very different from others because I am black.  I also had quite a few that won’t differ at all.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 02, 2009, 08:56 AM
Whoo, is it getting hot in here or what? You ladies are really heating things up! There is so much I want to say, so much people I want to quote. Inspired really put everything in perspective--as I undoubtedly knew she would. (Love you Dr. Murphy!) And there is no doubt in my mind that rbt, whoever he/she is, has an agenda regarding this issue, contrary to what he/she has said. However, eluding to what rbt has said earlier, the Green Lantern is a popular superhero and he is a pivotal member of the Justice League, as far as I am concerned, and this is a huge debate amongst us comic nerds, he is one of the most powerful superheros of all time and everyone seems to like him, regardless of his skin color. Spawn is very popular as well and he was created by a white artist.
It's not that these characters are less commercially viable compared to a white character, it's simply a matter of content. Have you seen the Green Lantern or Spawn in any new material lately? The answer is no, you haven't. And does this mean that they are second string? This too is also an astounding no!

We artists (which includes all of us writers) shape our characters based upon the content: the scenery, the world, the environment, etc., I've said this before but we go where our heart guides us. If it is we see our MC as a big red dog, then that's what we will mold him into. If it is we see our MC as an Arabian knight white Caucasian roots, then that is what our hero will become.
I don't remember who said it, but this member was right when they wrote that most fans of Fantasy are white. I don't think that a writer in their right mind will write a story simply because of this factor, but I know that Hollywood--to make a profit--will.

As a young man I don't understand any of this. If you cut a black or white person the blood is the red, its not green or yellow. If you hurt a black or white person they will cry all the same. Tell them a joke they will laugh, Give them inspiration and they will try and reach for the stars. The only anomaly that logically divides us is our individuality--nothing more, nothing less. Racism is a fabrication of the mind, it is a facade spurred on by our fear of that which we cannot, or refuse to understand.

We may try to address the issue in our fantasy writing, but I believe that this sort of topic is best left for educational books. Do not forget that children can care less what the character in their favorite MG novels look like--I talk to kids all the time and many of them just want the action. (Except the girls though, cause you chicks are wired, you want romance--oh please! There are soap operas for that. :dr) And I understand that parents sometimes do dictate what it is their children read, but like I said, if you base a story around this factor then you lose out on the spectrum of audience in which diversification brings. 


Well said. I agree with mostly everything you said. :yup

Oh, and I completely forgot about Spawn.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 02, 2009, 08:57 AM
By the way, I love this topic.  I think it's necessary to discuss.  When an open dialogue can be had, it works well to heal wounds and open eyes.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Bracken on February 02, 2009, 09:15 AM
Perhaps it's true that most published fantasy has been of the European tradition.  But this is not because the rest of the world does not produce wonderful fantasy.  Many other parts of the world have very, very rich histories of fantasy story-telling.  India, China, Japan, Parts of the Middle East, Africa, South America, as well as Native American story-telling traditions.  And many of these pre-date the European traditions you've listed.  The reason so many European traditions have made it into print is because the keepers of the gates (publishers, editors, booksellers, librarians, publicists, etc.) tend to be predominantly European or of European descent.

That's what I was referring to--published works, especially in Western Europe and the US.  I'm not sure that it's fair to say that the only reason this type of fantasy has been predominantly white is because of the "keepers of the gates," because I do think readers like the medieval European tradition and are looking for another Tolkien (my dad is one of those that grew up with Tolkien and it's influenced his taste in fantasy in a major, concrete way).  I do think that publishers are part of the problem, mainly because they see that kind of fantasy as a "safe bet."  You also have to take into consideration the fact that fantasy hasn't always been as popular as it is today, and there's a lot more room to play around (especially in YA) now that it has gained in popularity.  Many of the other YA Fantasy writers I know are playing around with a more global perspective, which is awesome news.  There's a lot to look forward to in the genre, and I have a feeling in five years you'll find a very diverse group of MCs leading the charge.


ETA--I'm sorry, I'm not trying to make excuses for them.  I'm as upset about this as anyone, but I'm still trying to figure out if there's a root to the problem, or if it has many roots. 
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Lenzi on February 02, 2009, 09:21 AM
This kind of diversity is also present in shows like Avatar, which is insanely popular with kids and even adults.

Unfortunately that's EXACTLY what happened with the Avatar movie.  Most of the fans are in an uproar because they cast all white kids as the main characters and didn't honor the multiculturism of the show at all.  

WHAT? Ridiculous. My kids love the original show exactly the way it is, as do countless other kids. What the (word censored)?
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mswatkins on February 02, 2009, 09:30 AM
Fantasy should be played with, expanded on, and in doing so new traditions will emerge.  I think this is what fantasy is about, using your imagination.   There is mythology from around the world that is fascinating and could be very interesting if applied to a story.  And along with this we would have characters of different lands, skin color, and heritage as well.  

There is another fantasy thread (Magic Cliches) that discusses this very idea.  

I feel that if your character is of a minority race, then they simply are, it may be important to the story, or it may not.  It all comes down to the character and what the story is about.

Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: olmue on February 02, 2009, 09:48 AM
I realize that this is maybe not the best example because it isn't published yet and people can't go out and read it, but what inspired007 is trying to do is, to me, something I'd like to see much, much more of, and I'd like to see it marketed with the regular MG books and not off in a special interest corner. She's got a great MG fantasy with African roots and black characters that, to me as a white reader, is perfectly accessible and interesting (American MC, drawing on African roots for the fantasy element). I would guess that it would hold "exotic appeal" for both black and white readers for different, if overlapping, reasons--white readers because it's new and different, black readers because of a sense of ownership over the magic origins (much like a Russian-American reader might identify with a Slavic-based fantasy on a personal level). I think that kids' books is perhaps the place to start this. Kids aren't born with racial issues--they learn those things. (Actually, my 7-year-old, who can see a full range of color as far as I know, asked me a couple weeks ago what color she was--she might understand hue, but she didn't know where she fit on the race issue. Up until this point I don't think she had any sense of racial identity at all.)

Part of the problem is maybe in marketing. I remember a discussion a while back in a different thread with similar yearnings for multiracial books on a variety of subjects, not just certain genres. And one writer here was frustrated because she'd written general contemporary YA--Just Plain Books--and despite her and her publisher's attempts, her books got shelved in AA in the bookstore. Not only did white readers miss out, but black teens overlooked them, too, since it wasn't with YA.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mike on February 02, 2009, 10:29 AM
Part of the problem is maybe in marketing. I remember a discussion a while back in a different thread with similar yearnings for multiracial books on a variety of subjects, not just certain genres. And one writer here was frustrated because she'd written general contemporary YA--Just Plain Books--and despite her and her publisher's attempts, her books got shelved in AA in the bookstore. Not only did white readers miss out, but black teens overlooked them, too, since it wasn't with YA.
That's really frustrating. I think fantasy/sf books tend to not get that treatment very much, except for writers like Octavia Butler. Of course, that's only good for those writing fantasy...
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Tyson McFrost on February 02, 2009, 11:18 AM
I do think that publishers are part of the problem, mainly because they see that kind of fantasy as a "safe bet." 
You're absolutely right! That is one of the reasons we don't see multi-cultural books on the shelves. And I don't blame your father for being critical of fantasy nowadays, a lot of people think they can do what we do. They don't understand the time it takes to research and write our projects; perfect our writing skills, plots, characters, magic systems, maps, etc., Getting an agent is exceptionally difficult and writing a good query letter is a killer.

As for olmue. I'm sorry that writer's book got stuck in the AA section, (I have no idea what AA means) it seems as though she had a really good story.

As for inspired. Thanks alot I try my best to think before I speak. There's nothing worst than having to defend yourself for saying something dumb.

As for xiaotien. Referencing "we all share one blood" may be simplistic, but it is true--undoubtedly and irrevocably true. You cannot deny the power of that phrase.

As for everyone else. :dr You know me, I gotta say something to lighten the mood. Some people sometimes say "you don't have common sense!" How can you not have an abundance of something (i.e common sense) if it's common?  :moose
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: NDM on February 02, 2009, 01:18 PM
ETA--I'm sorry, I'm not trying to make excuses for them.  I'm as upset about this as anyone, but I'm still trying to figure out if there's a root to the problem, or if it has many roots. 

That's what I love: the questioning and challenging and probing.  It means everyone's searching for ways to improve.  That's the whole point in bringing up the tough issues.  So we can tackle them :).

I just realized I used the word "love," like, four times in two posts on this thread :duh.

I do agree with you on the "safe bet" thing.  I think publishers and agents are being forced to think about survival right now and they may certainly be turning toward what is tried and true.  That, sadly, does not always bode well for diverse voices and experiences.

But I do think that real change has to happen on the level where people have the most power to make decisions.  That's what I mean by gate-keepers.  As with television, where many shows have all-white or mostly-white casts (like the show Friends which was in NY but had zero characters of color -- totally unrealistic!), I don't think it's because that's what the public wants to watch.  Or at least I like to think not :P.  But people watch what is on TV.  They pick from what's offered.

With books, buyers can "vote" with their dollars, but in the end, people go to a bookstore and buy what's there -- they can't buy it if it's not there, or if there's only one book with a non-white protagonist and they're not into that particular book.  It's all about options.  And those get drastically reduced when the economy is not booming.

As I wrote above, I do think things are changing.  There are amazing people in decision-making positions who see that there's disparity and are actively engaged with their colleagues in creating change.  To me, that's SO exciting and hopeful.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Raynbow on February 02, 2009, 02:30 PM
Raynbow Gignilliat (aka LeFay)  I dont get something.

RBT, I'm sorry, but I read your entire post, and I have no idea, what didn't you get about what I wrote? All I wrote was I read an interesting blog, but chose not to follow their advice.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Raynbow on February 02, 2009, 02:34 PM
this is so interesting. i've had this discussion
over at sfnovel as well. writers  were surprised
when i said unless told otherwise somehow, i ALWAYS
assume characters are caucasian.

it's what i grew up reading.
it's what i grew up watching.

why would i think otherwise?

so alas, that blogger's theory does not work with
me as a reader.

There's another reason not to follow that blog's advice! My critique group had quite a lively discussion about that blog after we read it.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rbt on February 02, 2009, 02:38 PM
Raynbow Gignilliat (aka LeFay) , you misunderstood. I was saying that I dont understand the wrongs of the things that I mentioned afterwards as being acceptable. I perfectly understood your point of view.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Tyson McFrost on February 02, 2009, 03:03 PM
To tyson D mcdonald- No, I dont have an agenda. And you dont have to be snide and sarcastic when addressing me. Thanks

:oops I didn't mean to be snide and I'm sorry if I was, but the tone and the manner in which your organized the words in your posts led me to believe otherwise. Again, I'm sorry and I hope you forgive my remarks.

TyDM
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Verla Kay on February 02, 2009, 03:29 PM
I'm very pleased to see such a touchy subject being discussed so maturely by everyone.  Thanks for "playing nice" folks. Being respectful to each other and other viewpoints is the basic building block this entire message board is built on, and it's what keeps this a friendly and enjoyable place to visit for everyone.  Well done, all! 

:cop2 Verla Kay
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rbt on February 02, 2009, 03:40 PM
 :grouphug2

Hey, no prob man. Apology accepted. Guess I took you wrong. Sorry I got a bit snide myself. Maybe I should've worded my comments better. And sorry to everyone here. I dont want anyone thinking I'm a hothead  :flamethrower with an attitude. I'm really a nice guy, honest. :love Anyhow, you have some good points Tyson.  Again, sorry everyone.

 :! Bad rbt! Bad...bad, bad, bad!
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Tyson McFrost on February 02, 2009, 05:06 PM
Thank you so much rbt. Thank you soooo much. There is no need for you to beat on yourself, you brought an intelligent and worthwhile topic to the light, that takes courage and I'm certain not many people here would have done what you have done. (I certainly wouldn't)

I must admit I took you for a hothead and I am terribly sorry if my comments were a bit snide, I can't apologize enough. Forgive me ole buddy, ole pal.

Now that this is settled, wanna go grab a beer?  :drink
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: rbt on February 02, 2009, 05:29 PM
Now that this is settled, wanna go grab a beer?  :drink

LOL No thanks, I dont drink. But I'll settle for a good old friendship. A cool hundred thousand when your book sells a million copies wont hurt either. :yippee 

Just kidding about the cash. I do hope you sell a million though. Same to all here

 
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: dinalapomy101 on February 02, 2009, 05:42 PM
rbt -- great topic!

I got to see a presentation by author Mitali Perkins at a YALSA conference this past fall and she said some really eye-opening things about the races of characters in YA novels/movies/etc.  She showed the first mark-up of one of Ursula Le Guin's EARTHSEA covers -- and the character was white!  I think ULG pointed out to the publisher that the model on the cover was not what her MC looked like at all -- so they changed it to a darker skinned person. Not sure how much she had to fight for it, but still, weird that the cover of the white model even made it that far!

She also had some great insights on how teens just need real stories about people who look like they do -- without the book being ABOUT how they look.

As for the race of characters in fantasy, I don't read enough fantasy to make any good comments on it, but the make-up of teens in my library is so varied, including the teens who work as pages there.  I would LOVE to be able to show the teens with parents from Pakistan that there was a novel where that was the MC's makeup, but not what the book was about.  
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Jen on February 02, 2009, 09:48 PM
I've been watching this thread with great interest, but haven't felt like I really had anything intelligible to contribute.  But it's been such an interesting thread that I thought I'd post a couple of the things that have been flying around my mind anyway, even though I'm still somewhat unsure of most of it, just to see where you lovely people take it.

First, I've been pondering how so much fantasy and urban fantasy deals with the idea of being 'other' and the idea of prejudice and racism... but with race-as-in-species substituted for race-as-in-ethnic-group.  I haven't really come to any conclusions or *gone* anywhere with this line of thinking, but it did seem somewhat ironic that a genre that deals with this theme SO prominently (I mean, who among us COULDN'T list off a dozen books/comics/movies that dealt with the idea of discrimination based on supernatural category?) might actually be subbing in imaginative diversity for the real-world equivalent.  In other words, I guess I got to wondering whether fantasy authors might sometimes be less conscious of their worlds being white-washed (compared to contemporary writers), because part of them is saying "well, I've got vampires, werewolves, faeries, hybrids, elves, dwarves..."  Anyway, like I said before, this thought isn't particularly well-formed yet, but it's something I've been tossing around in my head, so I thought I'd toss it out there to see if anyone else had thoughts about this.

And the second thought I had was that it seems like high fantasy in particular could maybe be an incredible opportunity for an author to write characters outside of their race, because I know that one thing a lot of writers struggle with is the fear of writing outside of their experience and somehow getting it WRONG- and maybe (?) the fact that high fantasy can literally be set in a different world could possibly enable someone who might be afraid of writing something that feels inauthentic in a contemporary setting to broaden their horizons?  If that makes any sense at all (still not entirely sure that it does, but I've been trying to make sense of this thought all day and thought I'd share).

Thanks again for all of the great discussion.  I've been really interested to hear what people have had to say, and I definitely agree that this is a hugely important thing to talk about.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 03, 2009, 05:04 AM
I've been watching this thread with great interest, but haven't felt like I really had anything intelligible to contribute.  But it's been such an interesting thread that I thought I'd post a couple of the things that have been flying around my mind anyway, even though I'm still somewhat unsure of most of it, just to see where you lovely people take it.

First, I've been pondering how so much fantasy and urban fantasy deals with the idea of being 'other' and the idea of prejudice and racism... but with race-as-in-species substituted for race-as-in-ethnic-group.  I haven't really come to any conclusions or *gone* anywhere with this line of thinking, but it did seem somewhat ironic that a genre that deals with this theme SO prominently (I mean, who among us COULDN'T list off a dozen books/comics/movies that dealt with the idea of discrimination based on supernatural category?) might actually be subbing in imaginative diversity for the real-world equivalent.  In other words, I guess I got to wondering whether fantasy authors might sometimes be less conscious of their worlds being white-washed (compared to contemporary writers), because part of them is saying "well, I've got vampires, werewolves, faeries, hybrids, elves, dwarves..."  Anyway, like I said before, this thought isn't particularly well-formed yet, but it's something I've been tossing around in my head, so I thought I'd toss it out there to see if anyone else had thoughts about this.

And the second thought I had was that it seems like high fantasy in particular could maybe be an incredible opportunity for an author to write characters outside of their race, because I know that one thing a lot of writers struggle with is the fear of writing outside of their experience and somehow getting it WRONG- and maybe (?) the fact that high fantasy can literally be set in a different world could possibly enable someone who might be afraid of writing something that feels inauthentic in a contemporary setting to broaden their horizons?  If that makes any sense at all (still not entirely sure that it does, but I've been trying to make sense of this thought all day and thought I'd share).


Thanks again for all of the great discussion.  I've been really interested to hear what people have had to say, and I definitely agree that this is a hugely important thing to talk about.
This is interesting to me...

I've always wondered if we as a county would do better if we were made to understand the cultures that live here.  What I mean is that as a child, I took classes in US History, but none of those classes portrayed what truly is our History.  There was very little about Native Americans(except that about how the West was won) and nothing at all to humanize slaves and their descendants.  It was all relayed in such a political and geographical sense that you never got a clear picture of what actually happened and thus, didn't get a clear picture of why our cultures exist as they do today.  I truly believe we should add these classes (AA history, NA history) to our curriculums.  That way we can foster an understanding towards all cultures/races.  Everyday we are taught in different ways to assimilate.  Observe and assimilate.  It's never the other way around.  The majority is never told to observe the minority race--which is why I guess there is the fear of writing inauthentically.  African American history is an elective at most colleges, but US history isn't.  Why isn't AA history considered a part of US history? Is it because it's dark and shameful? Well, there's a lot to AA history that is beautiful and wonderful and inspiring.  Off topic I know...but just throwing it out as  bait.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 03, 2009, 05:28 AM
I realize that this is maybe not the best example because it isn't published yet and people can't go out and read it, but what inspired007 is trying to do is, to me, something I'd like to see much, much more of, and I'd like to see it marketed with the regular MG books and not off in a special interest corner. She's got a great MG fantasy with African roots and black characters that, to me as a white reader, is perfectly accessible and interesting (American MC, drawing on African roots for the fantasy element). I would guess that it would hold "exotic appeal" for both black and white readers for different, if overlapping, reasons--white readers because it's new and different, black readers because of a sense of ownership over the magic origins (much like a Russian-American reader might identify with a Slavic-based fantasy on a personal level). I think that kids' books is perhaps the place to start this. Kids aren't born with racial issues--they learn those things. (Actually, my 7-year-old, who can see a full range of color as far as I know, asked me a couple weeks ago what color she was--she might understand hue, but she didn't know where she fit on the race issue. Up until this point I don't think she had any sense of racial identity at all.)

Part of the problem is maybe in marketing. I remember a discussion a while back in a different thread with similar yearnings for multiracial books on a variety of subjects, not just certain genres. And one writer here was frustrated because she'd written general contemporary YA--Just Plain Books--and despite her and her publisher's attempts, her books got shelved in AA in the bookstore. Not only did white readers miss out, but black teens overlooked them, too, since it wasn't with YA.

Thanks darlin'! :love
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: NDM on February 03, 2009, 07:07 AM
Jen, I've thought about that a lot.  I think fantasy and high fantasy DO lend themselves to honest exploration of power dynamics -- which is really the crux of discrimination based on race/class/gender/sexuality, etc.  When I was growing up, I knew tons of people of Color who were obsessed, I mean seriously obsessed with Star Trek.  The show was such a reflection of our world, without it being overtly stated.

I think it might be easier for a writer to authentically write about power and control dynamics when they write them from a place of personal experience.  For instance, with fantasy, a writer can write about a majority of vampires who oppress and constantly demean and humiliate an elf minority (just an example -- not based on any written work at all).  If the writer is a woman, she may bring into the scenes some of her own experiences of discrimination to give them authenticity.  Yet, someone on the outside, say a person of Color, could relate to the writing because they share similar experiences, but on the level of race.  Likewise, a gay man or lesbian could write a scene about being ostracized or brutalized for not fitting into defined roles, but make the characters faeries and werewolves, and SO many people who've had similar experiences, but on the level of race or class, would relate.

Since power, control, and access are the things "otherness" really boils down to, not putting a scene within the framework of the social structure we live in may free up a writer's mind to bring their own experience into the work.  But without worrying about things not being "authentic enough."  And maybe because of that, scenes come out truer and, um, more authentic ;D.

An aside: I do, however, also see the value in portraying contemporary social structures in realistic fiction and challenging them or re-creating them so that the reality is more equitable and just.

These are quick thoughts off the top of my head, so please forgive any incoherence :P.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: olmue on February 03, 2009, 07:21 AM
African American history is an elective at most colleges, but US history isn't.  Why isn't AA history considered a part of US history? Is it because it's dark and shameful? Well, there's a lot to AA history that is beautiful and wonderful and inspiring. 

When I was in college I used to catch the bus near the building housing the African American student organization. There were always events going on, and there were also classes like you're describing that I think met there. I really, really wanted to take one of those classes because I felt like it was a huge hole in my education, but it seemed to me at the time that the classes were all bound up in the organization/major/whatever. I didn't know if, as a non-major and as someone who didn't really qualify for the student organization, if I would be allowed to take the classes. (I'd run into that with other classes that were major-bound.) I found a similar situation when I lived in Charleston, SC, which is commonly considered the Ellis Island of black America. (75% of all slaves came through that port.) And yet, despite the local culture being DRENCHED in African influence, the buildings nearly all built by African Americans, the land shaped by those hands...you still had to go on a special AA tour if you wanted to know about it. (It wasn't all swept under the carpet--there's an awesome black arts festival, the Moja festival, that's very well attended by both groups--but I just wanted more, you know?) So yes, I agree that it should be more integrated within the regular history classes.

I agree with Jen that it can be very daunting to try to write characters outside of one's own ethnic group. So far my characters have been from all different backgrounds, because I write about the kind of environment I live in, which includes Americans, Germans, Arabs, Ghanaians, Tongans, Latinos, etc. At the same time, one of my greatest fears is to be slammed for writing inaccurately, to write a character in a way that offends someone because they are from X group (even though the same words or actions would maybe not offend if that character were white--because they would be seen as individual characteristics rather than a statement on ethnicity). I think that kind of fear sometimes limits writers into keeping within familiar zones, which can have the effect of making books all white, or all Asian, or all black, or whatever. So I agree that fantasy is a fantastic way to get out of that box. It's a great place to exchange ideas without the sometimes-limiting ties of race, religion, politics, or whatever other potential hot button you have. What Jen and Neesha said, basically. :)

(And as a complete aside, to answer a question several posts back--to do multiple quotes, open your reply screen. Then look down at the previous replies, and you'll see something that says "insert quote" at the beginning of each one. You can pick as many as you want to stick into the same reply. To trim off excess parts of the quote and use only the part you want, delete the text you don't want to quote that lies between the [ quote author = whatever] and [/ quote] thingies. Clear as mud?)
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Bracken on February 03, 2009, 07:50 AM
I truly believe we should add these classes (AA history, NA history) to our curriculums.  That way we can foster an understanding towards all cultures/races.  Everyday we are taught in different ways to assimilate.  Observe and assimilate.  It's never the other way around.  The majority is never told to observe the minority race--which is why I guess there is the fear of writing inauthentically.  African American history is an elective at most colleges, but US history isn't.  Why isn't AA history considered a part of US history? Is it because it's dark and shameful? Well, there's a lot to AA history that is beautiful and wonderful and inspiring.  Off topic I know...but just throwing it out as  bait.

I go to university in Virginia (I'm a History and English major), and so far, there hasn't been one class I've taken on American history that hasn't devoted a considerable amount of time to slavery or African American culture.  Granted, my school may be an exception, but it's something I've appreciated greatly.  This semester alone there were at least 3 classes offered on the subject,  or on the general idea of race (not to mention those that crossed over with the Black Studies department).  Whether or not it gets attention in an introduction to US History class depends almsot entirely on the professor (the generally *have* to teach the class, rather than *choose* to teach the large intro class--it's done on a rotating basis) and what they consider their speciality.  LIke I said, my school could be an exception, but there is a General Education Requirement for the entire school that asks you to take a history course outside of the European tradition, and most choose to fill it with a course on Africa or Latin America.  Obviously the system isn't perfect, but higher ed is also improving with time.

I like Jen's idea about the "other."  I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think she's right.  I've stopped myself in the past from writing characters from a different culture, mainly because I didn't want to offend anyone or get something wrong, but the idea of the "other" is still there, regardless.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Anne Marie on February 03, 2009, 07:52 AM
ASIDE:
Granted, my school may be an exception
Your school rocks.  Ahem.

YOU MAY GO BACK ON TOPIC NOW.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Jen on February 03, 2009, 07:59 AM
The only history class I took in college was taught via Native American Studies...
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Tamilyn on February 03, 2009, 08:31 AM
Thank you, BlueBoarders, for this intriguing discussion. I've been in an internal dither about my characters and their races.  :eh2

My fantasy quartet features four kids from different ethnic backgrounds because the overarching storyline is that the four corners of the earth must come together......you know the drill. So race is an explicit feature of the plot. Each kid will get his/her own book...

...but in the back of my mind, I always hear Sherman Alexie's scorn and his call for a moratorium on white writers writing about Native Americans since he thinks they tend to exoticize, orientalize, romanticize, and spiritualize their characters -- not to mention that the contracts go to white writers when he believes that the contracts should go to Native writers who portray their cultures more honestly/authentically. In other words, Alexie worries that we're paying white writers to perpetuate dominate cultural myths about Indians and making Indian culture signify for white consumption....and Indian writers are totally left out of the loop.

So, I feel dishonest no matter what I do. A book with all white characters is not true to my neighborhood or my culture or my (white paternalistic) desire to reflect/create a diverse world.

But books about a Greek girl, a Hmong boy, a Lakota girl, and an Igbo boy make me wonder to what extent I'll necessarily write these characters from my own cultural assumptions and experience...and end up reproducing and transmitting cultural stereotypes and myths... eeks.

On the other hand, I take a great deal of comfort in Toni Morrison's faith in the power of the writerly imagination!!
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: GeorgiaW on February 03, 2009, 08:46 AM
I don't have an opinion on this as I have not been privy to this experience.  I can tell you however that in the books I am writing, I have lots of kids of many different races, bi-racial kids, etc.  That is how I grew up and that is what is reflected in my writing.  It is natural in my work and I really don't care if my characters are whatever race.  I do think however, that from a marketing perspective, publishers are going to steer main characters one race or another to sell books.  It has been interesting to be an African American woman who writes her main character who happens to be Caucasian.  My AA friends were all shocked that I was writing a Caucasian main character and I did not understand why that was.  They assumed I was writing an AA character and I just did not feel the need.  I always smile when people are amazed that the creator/writer for Grey's Anatomy is an African American woman.  It's like they cannot believe it and wonder why there are not more African American people on the show! Anyway - thanks for the topic.  I had fun weighing in.

Cheers-
Georgia
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: inspired007 on February 03, 2009, 10:32 AM
(And as a complete aside, to answer a question several posts back--to do multiple quotes, open your reply screen. Then look down at the previous replies, and you'll see something that says "insert quote" at the beginning of each one. You can pick as many as you want to stick into the same reply. To trim off excess parts of the quote and use only the part you want, delete the text you don't want to quote that lies between the [ quote author = whatever] and [/ quote] thingies. Clear as mud?)

Thanks for the tip!!

I go to university in Virginia (I'm a History and English major), and so far, there hasn't been one class I've taken on American history that hasn't devoted a considerable amount of time to slavery or African American culture.  Granted, my school may be an exception, but it's something I've appreciated greatly. 

That's great news!  My undergraduate school is a Historically Black College so our US History was acutally completely AA History, but my grad school offered it seperately and not as part of the US History.  My dh and I met while he was finishing his undergrad there and I was getting my Ph.D.

I don't have an opinion on this as I have not been privy to this experience.  I can tell you however that in the books I am writing, I have lots of kids of many different races, bi-racial kids, etc.  That is how I grew up and that is what is reflected in my writing.  It is natural in my work and I really don't care if my characters are whatever race.  I do think however, that from a marketing perspective, publishers are going to steer main characters one race or another to sell books.  It has been interesting to be an African American woman who writes her main character who happens to be Caucasian.  My AA friends were all shocked that I was writing a Caucasian main character and I did not understand why that was.  They assumed I was writing an AA character and I just did not feel the need.  I always smile when people are amazed that the creator/writer for Grey's Anatomy is an African American woman.  It's like they cannot believe it and wonder why there are not more African American people on the show! Anyway - thanks for the topic.  I had fun weighing in.
Wow, I guess this comes back to how we really are all individuals and have different perspectives and why we can't pigeon hole anyone into special categories just b/c of their race.  I liken it to a bell curve.  Most of the population of one particular culture with fall in that category, but there are always outlyers and people who don't follow the trend.  I personally only write black characters, but who am I to say that a black person must write black characters.  Do what feels true.  I can't lie, there's a series of books called Keena Ford, Trouble Maker of the Second Grade, and when I found out that the author was white, it threw me for a loop! I wondered about the motivation behind choosing the little black girl as her mc.  The books are obviously written for AA children (although I haven't read them yet).  I felt a little territorial even.  But then I thought to myself that maybe she's a school teacher and has probably observed so many wonderful things that children do and tried to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe she saw something unique and fresh that others couldn't see from so up close. 
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mike on February 06, 2009, 07:21 PM
A lot of writers (myself included, not so long ago) use the excuse of "what if I get it wrong?" But when you examine that, it's such a bizarre notion. How do you write, say, a  black man "wrong" other than to write a really flat character or to fall back on stereotype? Aren't those the exact same problems writers face every time we sit down to write any character, of any race or gender or occupation?

(I think it's also important to keep in mind how a character's experience has been shaped by their gender, race, profession etc. -- or lack thereof. A black character from our world might respond differently to the previously mentioned minority elves than a white character, even if the difference is small. A black character from a world where black skin doesn't carry the same history that it does in ours would react differently yet again. All of which is just another way to say that all the details of a character affect the way they think and feel, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large. As an example, if you read Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, you might notice that the narration identifies when people are white, but not when they're black. The mc is black, so he notices when people aren't. I didn't notice reading it, it had to be pointed out to me, and I thought that cool. I admit to using the technique to some extent when writing our Asian-American mc.)

Anyway, Sherman Alexie be damned, nothing good can come of empowering writers to be lazy : ) I think this is something we all need to at least think about, even if every book we write isn't diverse.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: mike on February 06, 2009, 07:42 PM
Having so blithely dismissed Sherman Alexie, I should probably still mention there's a very different approach to this topic which basically derides cultural appropriation  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation)by the majority culture. This is actually extremely pertinent to fantasy (whether you ultimately agree with the thoughts or not) where writers will quite often take the (sometimes sacred) stories of other cultures and use them for entertainment, or to add a little dash of exoticism, etc. Sometimes very little of the real culture is brought over -- only the fun costumes, perhaps.

When is it okay to borrow/steal another culture's stories and traditions for the purpose of entertaining the culture at large? Yet another thing to think about, I suppose... though as a writer, I don't think I'll ever really buy into any philosophy of thought that limits where I can get ideas. Still, worth mentioning, since it's a radically different POV than most of use here espouse, and quite a challenging one for fantasy writers (like me) who don't just want to keep rewriting Medieval Europe.

Sorry about the double post >.>

[Edited to fix link.]
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: olmue on February 06, 2009, 08:35 PM
I like your insight, Mike--to remember that no matter what group we are writing from or into, we're ultimately writing an individual, not a cardboard cutout that happens to look like X. Of course you want to do extra research when writing outside your group (I have been turned off by books with MCs supposedly part of a group, only they are full of glaring errors nobody in the group would ever do or say, I admit), but in the end--you're just writing one person, not a whole group.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: GaryC on February 06, 2009, 10:25 PM
Another example to add to my Earthsea one earlier - Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers wasn't published as a YA novel, but was apparently written as one. The protagonist is coloured (Filipino), something which is revealed via just one reference in the whole novel.

There's a distinction to be made here between fantasy set in a world of your own devising, and fantasy set in this world. If it's a world you've made up, there might be only one race and culture, but unless you're making a political point or being satirical, that does reduce your dramatic possibilities and I'd also suggest is a lack of imagination in worldbuilding. Even if there are no racial differences, there will be other differences between people, even if just between rich and poor.

In the real world, there's a balance to be struck between not reflecting it on one hand and overly PC on the other. I live in England, and it's well known which areas of the country have a large black and/or Asian population and which are mostly white, and you'd lack conviction to say the least if you ignored this. An example from my own experience: medicine is, at least in this part of the country, a profession with a large number of Asians, and Asian women in particular. I've had iritis four times, and each time I've been to the eye clinic at the local hospital, only one of the doctors I've seen there has been white (and he was formerly from the army hospital locally which closed down). All the others have been Asians, and a couple of exceptions from a total in double figures, and women as well. So if I wrote a scene with a doctor and wrote her as an Asian woman, I wouldn't be PC but realistic as far as I'm concerned.

However, in other contexts, you can be too PC. I'm all for ass-kicking heroines, but the opportunities for such are likely to be much reduced in certain Middle Eastern countries which subjugate women. I've never worn a burqa or a chador, but I suspect it wouldn't be easy to kick someone's arse while wearing one. :) That's not to say you can't have a heroine in such a society - although it's not fantasy, see Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel (and film) Persepolis for one example - but the parameters are inevitably different.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Karen K on February 07, 2009, 12:00 AM
Having so blithely dismissed Sherman Alexie, I should probably still mention there's a very different approach to this topic which basically derides cultural appropriation  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation)by the majority culture. This is actually extremely pertinent to fantasy (whether you ultimately agree with the thoughts or not) where writers will quite often take the (sometimes sacred) stories of other cultures and use them for entertainment, or to add a little dash of exoticism, etc. Sometimes very little of the real culture is brought over -- only the fun costumes, perhaps.

Yes, I agree that writers should be aware of cultural appropriation. As I'm currently studying linguistics at college, I've seen quite a few examples of how the concepts of race and gender affect and are reflected by our language. One thing that really sticks out for me is the idea of marked and unmarked terms. The unmarked term is the "default" one and draws on the dominant cultural ideology. The marked term, however, takes another word or two to distinguish it from the "default."

A good example: when we say "working mother," this implies that the "default" mother does not work. Same with "male nurse," which distinguishes itself from the "default" female nurse. These ideologies go deeper than stereotypes, even, since they're part of what we consider "normal" or "just common sense." To tie this back to the discussion at large, "person of color" is obviously a marked term, as are phrases such as "African American protagonist." The mere fact that we have to specify a character is nonwhite means that our default conception of a character, particularly a protagonist, is white. And by "our" I mean many/most Americans, regardless of ethnicity.

What do I think? I really dislike it when people use ethnicity as the primary or sole description of a character. I remember seeing a sample query that described a character as "a Jewish boy," nothing more, and this offended many because of the idea that "Jewish" alone entirely describes a person. On the other hand, I can see how writers would want to purposely specify that their protagonist is not "default," just to snap readers out of their preconceptions. What I like the best: when a writer does it subtly or skillfully enough that race (or any other "nondefault" attribute) is both a part of the character and not everything that character is, if that makes sense.

Also, in my WIP, I'm switching the race of one of the main characters after having completely written the draft. I did this earlier with gender, changing a male protagonist to a female after several drafts. That way, I tried to bypass my own preconceptions about gender and race. Hopefully I succeeded.

Karen
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Hannah on February 07, 2009, 11:29 AM
This post is so long, everyone could have written a diverse sci fi or fantasy novel that doesn't offend anyone by now. Ha.

A good example: when we say "working mother," this implies that the "default" mother does not work. Same with "male nurse," which distinguishes itself from the "default" female nurse. These ideologies go deeper than stereotypes, even, since they're part of what we consider "normal" or "just common sense." To tie this back to the discussion at large, "person of color" is obviously a marked term, as are phrases such as "African American protagonist." The mere fact that we have to specify a character is nonwhite means that our default conception of a character, particularly a protagonist, is white. And by "our" I mean many/most Americans, regardless of ethnicity.

What do I think? I really dislike it when people use ethnicity as the primary or sole description of a character. I remember seeing a sample query that described a character as "a Jewish boy," nothing more, and this offended many because of the idea that "Jewish" alone entirely describes a person. On the other hand, I can see how writers would want to purposely specify that their protagonist is not "default," just to snap readers out of their preconceptions. What I like the best: when a writer does it subtly or skillfully enough that race (or any other "nondefault" attribute) is both a part of the character and not everything that character is, if that makes sense.

There's really no way of getting around that. It's like when I try to explain to friends, usually white ones (I am mixed), why affirmative action is necessary. No one seems to understand that it is possible to support affirmative action but still think it needs to be fixed. Affirmative action exists so that eventually it won't have to. Of course, it shouldn't only be about race but also about economic background, because an African American child whose parents make a million a year and who attended private school may not need as much help getting in or paying for college as a white kid with a single father who works three jobs, but still. Affirmative action strives to erase the need for affirmative action.

The same here, I think. It's terrible that everyone in this country thinks of a white protagonist whenever it isn't specifically described to be anything else, but that's why for the time being, it is necessary to describe a non-white protagonist as non-white. There are just better ways of saying it than "A Jewish boy" or "an African American girl." You can describe someone's skin color just because the protagonist thinks the guy is really hot, or you can mention how someone's braids swung out when she shook her head, or how she spoke Tagalog on the phone to her mother, or she couldn't go out with her friends that night because it was Diwali, or whatever.

It's also nearly impossible to think of a protagonist as non-white because white privilege kind of applies to non-whites as well, in that everyone is affected by it. I always refer people to Peggy McIntosh's article: www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf

I guess I think more of regular fiction with this issue, though, and it's both harder and easier to deal with this in fantasy, since you get to create the rules of your world when you're writing a fantasy or sci fi story.

This came up at my reading group last night when we were talking about this poem. Here's a link to a scan of it: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v202/ispeakchicana/horesampiona.jpg
We got especially stuck on the mention of the Indians and the Mongolians, and everyone kept talking about how they represent people of long ago who no longer exist, and I was taking Edward Said's
We talked about it for a good hour, and I was annoyed by it in a lot of ways, because it reminded me of when people say things like, "Gosh, I think Native American names are so interesting. If I were Native American, my name would be Girl Who Runs Like the Wind With the Sun in Her Hair." It's like people pretend to be interested and sensitive to other cultures, but they don't even understand how to name the culture correctly, dont' realize that the "culture" is actually many cultures that you shouldn't lump together, and they find one little aspect and attach it to the entire thing. Like, hello, the term "Native American" doesn't really mean anything, because not all people who are from a native tribe of the Americas are in the same tribe and they don't all have the same customs, not to mention there are other things that define a culture and make it interesting, not just that one little "quaint," interesting thing.

I'm not sure how well I explained that, but you know what I mean? And I think that's a dangerous thing in fantasy, because everyone feels entitled to grab from the European tradition, partly because, at least in the US, we're all taught that it belongs to us and it's the only thing that does, because we're all white, or should be. Since it's not a default to teach African American history, Asian American history, Mexican American history, or Native American history unless it's an instant in white history when white people clashed with another group through slavery or war or something, nobody knows enough about a lot of other cultures' mythology to be able to natural grab from them and almost assuredly be rather accurate. And I'm all about researching and taking aspects of whatever you find interesting to create a fantasy. After all, it's a fantasy, and as far as your readers know, you know nothing about anyone and this all floated out of your head. But I think the problem is that if people do want to be obvious and say that this fantasy has something to do with a Chinese myth or an Egyptian fairy tale or whatever, they are not faithful to the myth so much as they just draw out something "quaint" (like my names example) and almost insult the culture because of that. Mike said it better, but I'd just like to agree, I guess. It's a fine line to walk, but I think it's worth doing, because the more fantasies that are sensitive to other backgrounds, the more natural it will become, and then authors will be able to borrow from Japanese or Peruvian or whatever myth as easily as we do from European. Again, it's like affirmative action.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: xiaotien on February 07, 2009, 01:06 PM
i'm reading neil g's graveyard book right now,
and he described the girl talking to a bus driver
whose skin was even darker than her own.

this told me that both the bus driver and
the girl protagonist were not caucasian. easy as that.
i didn't find it offensive or obtrusive. i love that
neil g has added diversity in his book--as it should
be, based in london and all.

and i think he handled it fantastically in the
anansi boys.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Hannah on February 07, 2009, 01:42 PM
i'm reading neil g's graveyard book right now,
and she described the girl talking to a bus driver
whose skin was even darker than her own.

That's exactly how it should go.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: xiaotien on February 07, 2009, 02:37 PM
omg, i called neil a "she".

neil is def a HE. whoops!

and hannah, exactly. i DO need some small
indicators. i love diversity in a novel.
and NG handles it like a pro. LOVE the
graveyard book so far--i almost don't want to
finish it lest it ends...
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: GeorgiaW on February 10, 2009, 08:44 AM
Sorry 2 be away - but I was writing - LOL! And, sorry to start a sentence with an "and" and sorry to not use quotes when referencing other's comments. AGH! But I just wanted to say that like everything else that as a writer, when you write about something you may be less familiar with; like writing for a character who is not the same race or religion or even gender as you, you should research and make sure you get it right.

I don't understand why someone would hesitate or be surprised or even limit themselves to only writing for characters who are the same skin color or ethnicity as their own.  Would you not write a MC who is male as a female writer or vice versa? You may not even give it a second thought? But a different race? OMG you would NEVER.  That seems limiting and hey- why not? I say, free yourself from that limitation and go with it and research and ask yourself, why am I doing this because I don't think I can? Would I write a character that has a disability? Could I? Challenge yourself? Why not? I think this conversation will open up a lot of people's minds and hearts to the possibility that as a writer, you can and should allow yourself to write any kind of character and story your little heart desires as long as you are true to yourself.

At the end of the day, people are people.  Race aside, people all need the same things.  So when writing for people, write for people based on their basic humanity and not because of the color of their skin!

Cheers-
Georgia 
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Duskydawn on February 10, 2009, 06:37 PM
Oh dear.

Well, my debut novel has an overweight Latina MC, a wealthy Caucasian kid, a poor Caucasian kid, an Italian loner, a Native American guy from the rez, a Chinese theoretical mathematician, a Japanese transvestite, etc. I am cringing with what people *may* construe about my thoughts or qualifications of writing these characters but here's the thing: I am writing characters and being as true to them as I can be -- it's the best that I can do. (Admittedly this included a heck of a lot of research and a healthy dose of leaning on my background in cultural anthropology, gender studies, and hermeneutics as well as talking to lots and lots of people from diverse backgrounds!) Still, I would not say any one of these characters is in any way supposed to represent ALL people of the same race/ethnicity/sexual orientation, etc. That would be just as silly/insulting as if I only wrote about White, Jewish Liberal Women -- the identity that I guess I'd be "most qualified" to write -- and then claim that character somehow represented ALL W/J/L women, too.

Nuh-uh.

I'll confess, I'm nervous about what folks might think about my story/my characters/my personal philosophies/me just from reading this one piece of bizarre speculative fiction. Sure, it's nerve-wracking but also, perhaps, eye-opening because I believe that people ARE equal and that means that every character of every kind of social/economic/religious/racial/ethnic background has equal chances of being kind or cruel, good or evil, friend or foe, bully or victim, hero or villain and that is not often perceived as the case before someone shouts "Foul!" and waves a red flag. Equality means that, all things being equal, we have equal opportunity of being seen as...well...equal. We make our own choices and should be judged by our decisions and actions, not by the color of our skin or the way we pray.

I hope that I honor each of my characters as people in their own rights as I tell their stories (even if they don't share my exact identity characteristics...besides, I'm WAAAAY too old!) and that, by choosing to tell a story with racial diversity not being the "central theme," but merely a reflection of a modern teenager's reality, that young readers can appreciate the story and see a little of themselves in just about everyone on the page.

...which may be a bit much to expect from a dark, twisted paranormal fantasy about parallel worlds and mythic superheroes, but *eh* what can ya do?
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: andracill on February 10, 2009, 08:25 PM
And the thing is, having gotten a taste of duskydawn's book, she approaches all these diverse characters in such a way that all I see is their humanity (well...um...okay, since they're not exactly typical humans) -- but you get the drift.  I'd say that's what Georgia's getting at too.
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: nandini on February 16, 2009, 11:38 AM
Has anyone been following the discussion on Esme Raji Codell's blog (and others) about who should be eligible to win the Coretta Scott King awards? She argues it should be based on the content of the book not the ethnicity of the author. I would be interested in hearing opinions from blue boarders on the subject ...

http://planetesme.blogspot.com/2009/01/coretta-scott-king-award-dream-awaits.html (http://planetesme.blogspot.com/2009/01/coretta-scott-king-award-dream-awaits.html)

Apologies if this has already been discussed. If so, could you point me to the right thread?
Title: Re: Black protagonist and racism in fantasy?
Post by: Traci Dee on February 18, 2009, 12:14 PM
Hey Schmancer, I don't think an agent would admit to passing on a book because an MC was of a racial minority--it would smack too much of racism. But people don't have the same taboos about homosexuality as they do about racism (or sexism or any other -ism). Personally, I think a paranormal starring a gay dude sounds like good reading, but what do I know? Apparently I'm part of that fringe audience whose opinions don't matter. Glad your story ended well though as far as snagging a more 'with it' agent.