[child|writing] The Child asks about skin color in genre fiction

A few weeks ago in San Francisco right after my Green reading at Borderlands Books, I got into a conversation with a Filipino-American fan about the presence (or absence) of dark-skinned heroes in F/SF. He was thanking me for writing Green as a South Asian, and talking about his sense of identification with such characters.

Yesterday, (who is ethnically Chinese) sidled up to me (who is ethnically Anglo-Saxon) and asked , “Why did you talk to that man in the bookstore about people’s skin color?” (She’d been listening in at the time.) This from a person who so far in life has rarely commented on her own racial identity, or anyone else’s. She appears to view the world with a surprising racial transparency, at least heretofore.

I said, “Well, that’s a subject which is difficult for some people.” I went on to explain that a lot of science fiction and fantasy is written by white people, with white characters, and this makes many readers uncomfortable because it doesn’t give a place in those imaginary worlds for Asians, Africans, Arabs, South Asians, Native Americans or other people of color.

She then wanted to know why we said “white”, “black” and so forth, when clearly I’m not white. In fact I’m sort of a meaty pink with pale highlights. Her friend D— isn’t black, he’s a rich, dark brown. And so forth. This question of “color” is an observation she’s made before, one of her few long-standing comments on race.

So we talked about labeling for a little while, and about how writers and artists can show the entire world in their work if they try to. She finally said, “Okay,” and wandered off.

I doubt I’ve heard the last of this — in fact, I hope not — but it was definitely a challenging conversation, in a very low-key way. Trying to get it right both for her sake and for my own progressive sense of social justice, all while staying honest and direct, is a delicate process.

5 thoughts on “[child|writing] The Child asks about skin color in genre fiction

  1. dawn says:

    I didn’t even think about the race of SF characters until someone commented in a review on Green’s Asian characteristics. I thought of her as Selistani — not human. I didn’t apply color to it at all, except that she says she’s darker than the northerners. That could mean anything.

    I can appreciate these kinds of distinctions, but I also like to think outside the box when it comes to SF writing and not think of characters in human terms. I think we can be so egocentric in that way.

  2. Qristina says:

    Most people tend not to think outside the box though. They’re interminably entrenched in their own “coloredness”… whatever that is. It comes so natural to us as beings to pigeonhole, separate, compartmentalize *everything*. So everyone and everything is tidily shuffled away into its place. “White”, “black”, “Asian”, “housewife”, “student”… ad nauseum.

    So much SF/F seems to think it neatly transcends this system simply by being SF/F. Alas, it does not. Ethnicity is implied–whether with words such as “darker” or “lighter”… or explicit use of color words. When you get down to it, even the green non-humans are separated from the blue non-humans…

    It’s tiresome, and one of the reasons I don’t read as much SF/F as I’d like.

    Ever seen a black or Asian faerie? I know I haven’t…

  3. dawn says:

    I might have seen a black or “Asian” faerie. I’m not sure. I was too enamored by their cool wings. 😉

    Seriously, though, I know what you mean. I guess that’s the loveliness of books. I get to apply my own ideas to the characters, especially when color, shade, or ethnicity isn’t designated (beyond their planet, nation, etc.).

  4. i remember having a similar conversation. it was me (ethnically african american) and my bi-racial son (blonde-haired though he is). i think we both left the conversation more confused about the idea of race than when we started.

  5. Ieva says:

    Hmmm. I, on the other hand, think that people have been overdoing the “political correctness” in fantasy lately, trying very hard to bring in “tanned”, “brown” or whatever folks. “Yellow people” not that much 🙂 I just skip over that part, unless having a different skin color really matters to the plot/character development. (Just like I don’t care much about designated eye color or such.)
    Living in a mostly pink-colored environment with occasion solarium-victim, I naturally imagine people either pink or as solarium victims.

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