I attended Wiscon over the Memorial Day weekend. It was wonderful! I listened to and participated in discussions on many topics, including “The Arab/Muslim ‘East’ in Science Fiction,” “Anarchism in SF” to “Untangling Class,” “Dogmatic Rationalism,” as well as an excellent panel discussion “Multiraciality in SF/F,” and many others.
I’d like to write about some of what was discussed in the Multiraciality panel. It is often over-looked or at least it is not often mentioned in discussions of race and ethnicity. Sofia Samatar moderated the panel, and was joined by Claire Light (who proposed the panel, I believe), Alaya Dawn Johnson, Victor Raymond, and Daniel Jose Older (I think – his name is not listed in the panel description in the program book).
The description as written in the program booklet: “How are mixed race characters used in SF/F? Are they symbols of racial detente in the future, wish fulfillment, tool for getting magical powers into a character–or something else entirely? It seems to be a relatively safe subject in YA–is that because a multiracial future is pleasant to contemplate? Are there mixed race characters in adult sf/f who are more than symbols? What about authenticity?”
Someone on the Multiraciality and SF/F panel said, “What is Science Fiction but an opportunity to imagine futures for all of us.” (Oh, the discussion was so good, I did not write down the speaker’s name – just jotted down the great things I heard so I could listen better. Sorry I can not attribute this quote.) So when a novel, or a tv series or movie, has a multiracial character (and it is often just one, isn’t it? there’s rarely more than one character that is not completely of the dominant culture/ ethnicity), or a character of a race other than the dominant culture’s for that matter, and writes that character with a “cultural gloss” the author has lost the opportunity to represent a meaningful character with a meaningful multiracial identity. That creates, in effect, an erasure. And erasing differences, cultures, actual realities people live every day is a dangerous practice. “You don’t exist,” is what multiracial readers can understand from this. “You and your reality are not valid. No one wants to hear about it. And it’s not interesting or worth mentioning if it does exist.” And this message, this sweeping under the rug is what all readers (regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, class) and the culture as a whole hears, as well.
Even women of the dominant culture/ racial background have felt this erasure as well, not to mention the double erasure women of color have to contend with. After years of white men adventuring through the universe while women were relegated to passive, dumb support staff roles, we are finally seeing more women and girls as main characters. We’re reading about women in active roles, reading about girls out seeking their own adventures, out chasing dragons and making contact with aliens. Female characters are actually doing things in more of today’s stories – they’re out problem-solving, saving the world and the universe, creating and innovating, thinking and being, you know, human. For all of Tolkien’s excellent writing and story-telling, one would think the world was populated by men, one would think that adventures and the safety of the world rested on the shoulders of men, and that women were a barely existent species, an all but unheard of creature, rarely glimpsed, and when seen she is standing by her man or swooning after him.
Too often when a female character of a non-white race/ culture is described her racial and cultural identity is used for exoticism: it makes her hot and desirable to the white male reader. This is clearly problematic. It tells the reader that women are defined by and their usefulness is gauged by their attractiveness to men. The more exotic the better, up to a point. Too otherly cultural is not attractive.
Perhaps that’s why mixed race characters are often, to almost exclusively, one part “other” and one part white. As if no other combination existed. As if there wasn’t an extensive history of American Indian and African American marriages and unions in the history of the U.S. for example. This is often seen in Star Trek – there are (only?) half-alien and half-human characters of mixed species, and no (that I can think of) characters that are a mix of two or more “other” species. It’s as if characters are half-white so that they are understandable (understandable to whom, one might ask – why the dominant culture, of course) and not too “other.” This also makes it easier for the author to assimilate the multiracial character into the culturally dominant white paradigm, and not really touch on the character’s other culture except maybe to mention the smells of curry wafting from the kitchen, or borrowing mother’s sari/saree to wear as a costume to a high school dance (these were the only two non-dominant cultural references in a YA book whose female character was written as a mixed-race character).
One common counter-argument is that maybe these characters have a mixed race background but they identify with the dominant culture. But that’s not realistic and it is not factual as not everyone of mixed- or non-white culture wants to be or identifies with the dominant culture. And many people do not treat one another the same regardless of how that person may identify. So, to use the Harry Potter reference of Sofia’s previously mentioned “Race and Fandom” post, even if “Cho and the Patils were just English children of different ethnic backgrounds” who identify themselves by their citizenship and nothing else, every person they interacted with would not treat them as such. And in a population as large as Hogwarts, to continue with the Harry Potter example, not all children of non-white (here British) middle-class and mixed ethnic backgrounds would identify with the dominant culture. And magic certainly wouldn’t be based on and exist in this one culture. That would be like saying Nature is grounded in and responds to white American middle-class values. That would be absurd.
There are many cultures, many world-views, many belief structures that people identify with, live, believe, and embody. Mixed cultural identities and/or a mixed racial identities complicate and blur these boundaries and structures, and the discussion of race and culture becomes more difficult than it already was. But it is an important discussion. Please understand that this is an on-going discussion, that I have only touched on some major themes. Also, I am in no way an expert nor have I done extensive research. What I am is a person of a bi-cultural up-bringing, and though the cultures involved are both based on Western Christian belief structures (specifically German and American) it has been difficult for me to navigate. I don’t have any outward cultural markers that distinguish me visually as coming from another culture, so strangers probably assume I’m from the dominant American culture, though I’m not. I use this small less-obvious less-problematic mixed cultural up-bringing to inform my understanding of the need for fully realized multiracial characters in popular culture, including in my favorite genre of SF/F.
I do not want to read about “white-washed” worlds and futures. They aren’t and they won’t be. I read to expand my understanding of the human condition, to broaden my understanding of what people live and feel and experience. I read to experience or at least glimpse world-views and belief structures that I did not grow-up with and thus did not incorporate into the construct that is me. I want to transcend the limits of space and time and body, not narrow and limit myself. That’s the amazing expansive and enlightening power of literature.
Novels mentioned that “do mixed race well”: Samuel R. Delany’s Nova, Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Geoff Ryman’s Air, and the non-SF/F novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson.