This is going to be a long one so I’ll cut to the punch line: As a writer, think about the message you want to convey, who your intended audience is, and how that audience will receive your message. Then think about all the other people you would like to read your work but who aren’t part of your intended audience and how what you are saying will look to them.
This was originally inspired by the Racebending.com panel at SDCC 2012 and a quick question to N.K. Jemisin. There have been various blog posts since then that have added to it.
So let’s start with the panel itself.
To start, you can see the entire panel for yourself at http://www.racebending.com/v4/featured/watch-racebendings-2012-comiccon-panel/ .
Racebending.com started in 2009 as a reaction to the casting of only Caucasian actors for the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie. Since then they have continued to speak out for equality in visual entertainment. One of the co-founders, Marissa Lee, may have gained some notoriety during SDCC 2012 by asking Joss Whedon at the Firefly Reunion panel about the lack of Asian actors in Firefly http://www.racebending.com/v4/featured/frustrations-asian-american-whedonite/ .
The panel itself was one of the very first events at SDCC 2012 – 10:00 AM Thursday morning. The room was about half full. I am hoping that everyone there was actually there for the panel and not waiting for a later event.
The panelists were Marjorie Liu, David Gaider, Brandon Thomas, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Sarah Kuhn, and N.K. Jemisin. Collectively they cover comic book writing, novel writing, video game writing, and screen-writing. They discussed the issues they each face in their industry, both in terms of professional recognition and in terms of the characters/stories they are able to sell.
The overall feel from the panelists’ stories is that the major hurdle is the media executives and publishers who think they know the markets.
The biggest points for me were:
Marjorie Liu pitched an all female comic to Marvel with Black Widow, Electra, Mystique, and X-23. She was told that an all female super-hero team wouldn’t sell. Because, you know, Birds of Prey hasn’t been running for 13 years….
David Gaider said that one of the most popular mods for Dragon Age (which is otherwise known for it’s racial and gender equality) is to change Isabella from ‘swarthy’ to ‘fair’.
Sarah Kuhn said that she and other Asian writers were asked to change their last names (or pen version thereof) by marketing departments to improve marketability.
After the panel I had a question for N.K. Jemisin. I wanted to ask that if she thought it was important if for a novel in a high-fantasy setting to discuss race of characters. I asked Ms. Jemisin specifically (instead of the panel in general) because most of the panel works in visual media or real-world settings. My thought was that in a non-visual media and in a fantasy setting where there is no preconception of race, why bring it up? Her response was more emphatic that I expected, but as I thought about it some I got it.
Her general points were:
1. If you don’t give the characters race, then many of the readers will assume everyone is white. Either because that is what they are used to or because they are projecting themselves onto the characters. It has been shown that many readers will do this even if the character has been explicitly described otherwise (see Hunger Games).
2. Letting the readers white-wash your characters is the lazy way out. It does not help anyone and even compounds the issue by not taking a stance against it.
3. To keep things equal, don’t mention the race of only the non-white characters. Doing this only reinforces the assumption that white is the standard.
4. Particularly from a first-person perspective, your narrator is going to be noticing race so why are they failing to talk about it?
I had some thoughts about that last point. Like if the narrator is a newly sentient AI are they actually going to be noticing race or just lump all humans together? But I also realized some counter-points to that. While a newly sentient AI might generally lump all humans together, it would still be taking note of physical differences as well as how the humans behave according to those differences. And besides, that would be quibbling over the details of one specific point and failing to hear the message as a whole.
Basically, if you realize there is an issue then don’t avoid it, do something about it.
So that’s where I started.
Now let me slightly restate the issue as I see it: there is an issue in media that many things are written both from a white perspective and assuming a white audience. This issue is pervasive and often subtle enough that many things are either supporting racist assumptions by failing to counter them or even ending up explicitly racist while claiming not to be.
Obviously there is still a lot of blatant and intentional racism. That’s not what I want to discuss. The issue I want to address is when otherwise well-meaning people are racist without meaning to or necessarily even realizing it.
Here’s where I give a bunch of other blogs to read.
We’ll start with one really big example recently – http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/racism-revealing-eden-and-stgrb/
Even though the racism in that book is practically screaming, I’m going to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume she really didn’t get it. After all, that is the point of what I’m trying to talk about here – writers and writing that just doesn’t get it.
But if she really doesn’t get it is it still really so bad? Yes. Yes it is. And here is my favorite post about why – http://genderbitch.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/intent-its-fucking-magic/
Ok, you say, I get that that book is horribly offensive. But why are you telling me? I’m not like that.
I’m not saying that you, dear reader, are necessarily part of the problem. I have no idea who you are, where in the world you are, or even when you are reading this.
What I am saying is that it is quite possible, even easy, to be part of the problem without even realizing it.
To show just how prevalent this is (in case you don’t believe me) check out some of the links below:
Well, those were depressing. I get it, I hear you say. I could be part of the problem and not even realize it. What now?
Here are a few more:
Wait, those weren’t about race. Those were about women. And one of them was a wikipedia article! What does that have to do with the issue of race in media?
The connection is that the issues stem from the same problem.
And it keeps going…
To borrow a line from 12 step programs: the first step is admitting you have a problem. Here is the problem: most media (in the US at least) is aimed, intentionally or not, at the heterosexual white male. As a result, most media in the US either ignores, is offensive to, or supports the minimization of everyone else.
A school I used to go to had this line as part of it’s social honor code: We must consider the effects of our words and actions on others. That’s the next step. It’s a pretty simple statement on the surface but there is also a lot of depth to it. Don’t just think of how you would react to something. Try to think of how someone else would react to it. This is the tough step. We are all stuck in our own heads and it can be very difficult to imagine or feel how someone with a different background and perspective could be feeling.
I kind of like this blog entry from a white male writer in trying to handle diversity in his writing – http://heroinesoffantasy.blogspot.com/2012/07/writing-other-with-fear-and-trembling.html
The key points are to have empathy and keep trying. You may not get it right at first. As living beings we are constantly changing and hopefully growing and learning. So try, learn, and try again.
That sounds like a lot of work, you may say. What if I just want to write what I like without worrying what other people think about it?
That is entirely your prerogative. However distasteful some people find your work, there is still likely to be an audience for it. But don’t be surprised when someone is offended by your work or tells you that you are part of the problem.
So what was the point of this, then?
The point was to bring to your attention that there is a problem, if you weren’t aware of it, and to encourage you to think about it and to think about what role you want to play in it.
As a media producer:
Think about the message you want to convey
Think about who you are assuming your audience is
Think about how other people will hear your words and what they will think your message is
Think about how you feel about that
As a media consumer:
What message do you get from it?
How do you think other people would have interpreted it?
How does that make you feel?
The short form: Please, everyone and particularly media producers, examine your assumptions and perspective and try to think about how people who are nothing like you would view things. Be mindful.
Really, I think that advice should apply to life in general.
If you are reading this anytime near Sep 21, check this out – http://www.aartichapati.com/2012/08/tss-introducing-more-diverse-universe.html . They should have the full schedule of participating bloggers up on the 21st.