SF/F and Race

Last night at class, the conversation turned somewhat unexpectedly to the issue of science fiction/fantasy and race.  It was only slightlyunexpected, as, after all,  the assigned reading was “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois (1920) which is shocking by today’s standards not so much for its SF content, but for its liberal inclusion of what is now considered the “n-word.” 

“The Comet,” as well as other stories like “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi” (Tenn) and “World Well Lost” (Sturgeon), are part of my syllabus for my beginner class not only because they’re truly great stories, but, honestly, because I have a bit of a political agenda.   I want my students to know they’re not alone.  For me, reading science fiction in the 70s was a radical act.  It was one of the few places I not only routinely found gay and lesbian characters treated with dignity, but also women and people of color.

What was interesting to me about last night’s conversation, however, was that the times, they are a changin’.  One of the African-American students made a very compelling case that she actually prefers stories that don’t physically describe people in terms of race, because then, she felt, race no longer mattered.  The future was color blind.

I’ve heard this argument before, and I’ve come to understand it.  But, respectfully, it doesn’t work for me.

For me, I told my student last night, not describing a character’s race feels dishonest.  In SF/F there are so few ways to “write what you know,” that I feel I have a responsibility to be honest about human nature.  And, like it or not, we notice the color of people’s skin.  And, likewise, if I find myself having created a world populated by people who are all one race, I think I need to be self-aware of moments like that as a writer and confront them.  If my future only has white people in it, what am I saying about the future I’ve created?

Likewise, if I don’t say there are people of color in my future, is the reader responsible to imagine them there for me?  I mean, I certainly hope they feel free to do just that.  But I shouldn’t be surprised, however, if they don’t.

For me, finding myself in futures created by Sturgeon and others like Elizabeth A. Lynn, was transformative — as an individual and a writer.  I can’t imagine not passing that gift on.

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    There is a difference between being color-blind and not having color. Ursula LeGuin often describes her characters as having brown skin or dark skin but she doesn’t use labels like “black,” “white,” etc. And Neil Gaiman writes about characters with backgrounds that are clearly “of color” without going into specific descriptions of what they look like.

    I figure if people are still around in a few hundred years, the bell curve of human skin tones will be dark on one end and light on the other end, and the great mass of humanity will be somewhere in the middle.

    And maybe then we can all get along.

  2. 2. cindy

    if race is not mentioned in a book, i almost
    always assume the character is white?
    and i would assume that is what the author
    wants me to assume, too.

  3. 3. Stuart Clark

    Depending on how far your science fiction is set in the future, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that race is no longer an issue and there is simply one, homogenous, human race. As Karen mentioned in her comment, we are more likely to be shades of color than simply black or white.

    The only real race issues then come down to us (the humans) and them (the aliens).

    Cindy, I’m intrigued by your assumptions. I’m assuming you, yourself, are white. It would be interesting to see what different readers bring to their reading experience. Do black people assume characters are black if not explicitly stated?

    Interesting.

  4. 4. cindy

    stuart, i’m chinese american. =)
    growing up and reading fantasy and other books here,
    “white” was always the default character race
    for me. mainly because there truly wasn’t too many
    people of color in the books that i encountered.

    it’s changed somewhat since then, but unless
    a writer takes the time to explain to me (and
    subtle is fine), i will again picture the person as
    white. not like myself, alas. growing up as a minority,
    seeing few asian-americans on tele or in films or marketing…

    it’s sort of stuck with me. and i think it sticks
    with more people than you perhaps realize, esp
    readers of color who may have grown up not
    reading about people like themselves very
    much at all–within spec fic or beyond.

  5. 5. Mike Brotherton

    Well, I think the author is control of what hints they provide. There are readers who see themselves in the POV character, and those who see the author. Letting the reader chose means losing control unless there is a clear purpose to handing over that choice.

    But I like the idea of the color/gender/other blind perspective. Science fiction should be about something beyond the here and now, even if that’s impossible to achieve in practice regularly.

    I do recall being stuck by watching that seemingly dumb Star Trek episode about the world where people were black and white on different sides, and how that mattered to them. It wasn’t dumb at all the first time I saw it.

    To me, just going to an SF convention is a reminder how the field is so accepting of the other in a way you rarely find in other venues in life, even in the 21st century that is blind, but only to some, about differences.

  6. 6. Nerine Dorman

    As a European African and having grown up during the apartheid years in South Africa, race is something that we were raised to be highly conscious of. In my own fiction, I like showing the diversity of the cultures when writing.

    For a lark, I wrote a SF piece about a Muslim woman running a halaal eatery on a moon base. It was incredible the amount of resistance I encountered from American readers.

    That being said, a Muslim author read the piece and commented that I had represented another culture convincingly.

    I’m so tired of stock-standard races and cultures. I have so much to draw upon and it’s fun bringing it through in settings that would ordinarily not reflect a non-Western perspective.

    It is important to help overcome racial and cultural stereotypes and as authors, we are often in a position to spark an interest in readers, to explore further and to let go of preconceptions perpetuated by the media.

  7. 7. lyda morehouse

    I was thinking about this conversation as I was falling asleep last night, and the thing I wanted to remember to say was this: back when I was a young girl in the 70s, it used to be understood that “men” and “man” were meant as “universal.” A woman was supposed to imagine herself when people wrote about MEN and MAN.

    Except I never could.

    Nor do I believe most women ever could, which is why there was such a push for inclusive language — saying “people” instead of “man,” saying “fire fighter” and “mail carrier” and all those terms that seem so NORMAL now, that when you find a book from twenty or forty years ago, it’s kind of shocking to read what now feels seeped in sexism.

    I think the same is true for race. Unless we say it, it’s not there. Race doesn’t become a non-issue so much as it becomes INVISIBLE.

    And I respectfully disagree with Brotherton… I think SF/F has always been about now. I believe our genre is transformative and subversive and it was episodes like that half-black/half-white one on Star Trek that made racism look as silly and stupid as it is. Given that when that show came out there was a race war happening in society, and the mere presence of a black woman on the bridge of a ship (even as a glorified receptionist) was RADICAL. I would submit that the idea of a woman carrying a gun into battle is STILL radical (as Uhura does in several episodes), given that woman are *still* not allowed to fight in combat missions.

    Anyway, my original point was that I think words can change the world. By consciously saying “fire fighter” instead of “fireman” we made room for women to take up a profession that was dominated by (and still is) men. I think by writing in people of color, we bring about a future for everyone.

  8. 8. Nicole Givens Kurtz

    I am published science fiction author and I am African American. My characters hail from a variety of ethnicities, but my protagonist is an African American female. When I write speculative works I do not set out to produce a “black sf” novel, any more than I set out to produce a “black fantasy” novel, etc.

    To quote Morehouse above “Race doesn’t become a non-issue so much as it becomes INVISIBLE.” Again, when I write Cybil, she’s doing her thing and people react to her as they would anyone else, because in my future, a cyberpunk one, where words are powerful and potent.

    Perhaps “invisible” isn’t the correct term–seamless. Though authors like the great Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson utilize race effectively in their sf works and those authors implore race as a centralized area of contention in their works.

    I think race does play a role in my books also, because I am an African American female and my perspection of the world is, excuse the pun, colored by those experiences.

    I think SF/F has always been about now and I have to agree with Morehouse. Series such as STAR TREK and even novels like Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451, discussed the issues plaguing their society at the times but in futuristic settings.

    And right now in our world, ethnicities matter and play a large role in who we are as people and that in turns shapes how we perceive our futures.

  9. 9. Jessie

    I’d like to comment that the central characters as written by women and writers of colour are influenced by their experiences and by their personal biases. It’s reverse snobbery to expect white people not to do the same.
    Secondly can I point out that I love the way Terry Pratchet deals with race and gender.

Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.

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