Last week’s topic was sexism. This week’s is racism. I have the grim feeling I’m not going to make it out of January without offending somebody. Still, onward!
Specifically, as you would expect, I’m supposed to discuss racism and the genre of the fantastic. But most of the issues involved are issues for popular entertainment in general, and recent movies and TV shows have triggered controversies that illustrate them. So I’ll zigzag back and forth between our stuff and non-SF stuff as needed.
For white-guy writers like me, race and ethnicity, even more than gender, can feel like a minefield. (Yeah, I know, poor, poor pitiful us. But bear with me.) By that, I mean that writing about characters of a different race can feel like a game we can’t win.
Because we just can’t seem to please everybody. On one hand, some people tell us we shouldn’t even try to write about cultures to which we don’t belong, because we can’t possibly understand them well enough to depict them properly. But on the other, there are those who condemn us, if not as individuals at least in the aggregate, because our stories don’t contain enough diversity.
In my opinion, the latter criticism is more valid than the former. Good writers possess the smarts and empathy to understand someone from a different culture. That’s part of what makes them good, and it’s especially true of fantasists, or it had better be. Because if a writer can’t even credibly depict his fellow human beings if they hail from, say, Tibet or Brazil, how likely is it that he can serve up a believable creature from another star system?
And since we are capable of depicting people of other races and from other cultures, we should, when it makes sense to do so. It doesn’t always; “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” didn’t benefit from the inclusion of a black Merry Man. (It didn’t benefit from the inclusion of Kevin Costner, either.) But when it does make sense, our fiction gains in richness and power from incorporating more of the real world, and the inclusiveness conveys an implicit message about equality and brotherhood.
Or hey, that’s the theory. In practice, creators can discover it’s not enough to depict characters of diverse races and cultures while avoiding stereotypes of the minstrel-show variety. Somebody can still slam the writers in question for the prejudice or insensitivity allegedly implicit in their work. Spike Lee’s recent denunciation of “Django Unchained” as a trivialization of the horrors of slavery is a case in point.
It’s also criticism with which I disagree. “Django Unchained” is full of over-the-top gunslinger action and outright comedy. The bag mask scene is as funny as anything in “Blazing Saddles.” Yet the movie also depicts slavery as a monstrous evil, and Lee’s criticism begs the question of how much time, if any, has to pass before it’s permissible to use something inherently terrible as the springboard for an adventure story, humor, or anything other than the most somber and realistic depiction. Is “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (ask your parents or grandparents) a despicable work because it makes light of slavery in ancient Rome? I think not, and if not, what’s the cutoff between it and “Django Unchained?”
Clearly, any given work runs the risk of offending against good taste or being insensitive, and if it does, it’s fair to say so. But I disagree with Lee that any subject is inherently out of bounds for a certain storytelling approach. Done well, every genre can shed its own kind of light for its particular audience.
Other critics don’t come right out and assert that writers had no business trying to tell their particular stories in the first place, but they aren’t shy about telling us they don’t care for the results. Rachel Shabi recently served up an example of this. Her article “And the Winner is…Islamophobia” is a commentary on “Argo” and “Homeland” (also on “Zero Dark Thirty,” but because I haven’t seen that yet, I can’t pick at what she has to say about it.) Her argument is that these works tacitly convey the notion that all Muslims are terrorists, in their hearts if not yet in action.
I see where she’s coming from. But “Argo” is a single story, and its focus is the plight of the American diplomats in hiding and the effort to rescue them. It makes sense that the audience sees the Iranians through their eyes and the Iranians look scary. It’s good storytelling, and the suggestion that the movie should have spent time showing nice Iranians ignores the fact that no one tale can include everything. Writers must choose the elements that will create cohesive, compelling stories. That strategy, in and of itself, is not racist.
I can’t make the same argument with quite the same fervor about “Homeland” because it’s a TV show. There is more room for nuance and balance (however one cares to define the latter.) Still, at this point (I’ve watched all the way to the end of Season Two), it doesn’t seem to me that the tight focus on American intelligence agents versus Middle Eastern terrorists is manifestly racist. That’s just what the story is about. Now, one could argue that the series constitutes a tactic endorsement of US policy (and Shabi did that, too), but even if it does, that’s not the same thing as racism.
Turning to criticism of work in our own genre (I knew I’d get back eventually), if a writer is lucky (relatively speaking), a commentator may view his work with general approval yet still call him out for a certain element within it. As Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu called out Stephen King for using “the Magical Negro” in several of his novels. As defined by Spike Lee (I don’t know if he was the first to do so), the Magical Negro is a black character possessed of wondrous abilities whose sole apparent purpose is to assist a white protagonist even when that requires great self-sacrifice. Such characters arguably embody a racist fantasy of black subservience within the superficial appearance of empowerment.
I see some justice in that criticism, and certainly, even a stereotype that embodies some positive qualities can be dehumanizing. But in King’s defense, Dick Halloran, Mother Abigail, John Coffey, and his other Magical Negroes don’t come across as merely the same stereotype wearing different clothes but rather as individuals. And as a white-guy writer, I wonder where the exposure of this particular plot device leaves me. Should I resolve that in my fiction, no black character will ever be a mentor to a white one or altruistically risk danger or wield magic on a white character’s behalf? Aside from cramping my style, might that not be a kind of racism, too?
One criticism unique to our genre is that a particular fantasy character or imaginary race is a stand-in for a real one. Some people have charged that Jar Jar Binks is a caricature of a Rastafarian, while others have suggested that Tolkien’s orcs are his veiled depiction of people of color.
If any writers have in fact used fantasy characters to encode racism in their work, well, shame on them. But I think such charges are difficult to prove, and that those who make them may underestimate the complexity and, often, the sheer murkiness of the creative process. In other words, people shouldn’t leap to hasty conclusions about what writers have done and why. Much of the time, we don’t know ourselves.
Perhaps that’s part of the point of this somewhat rambling discussion, a plea for a little slack. Last week, I pointed out that one unflattering portrayal of a particular female character or depiction of a woman being abused doesn’t make the writer a sexist. The same principle applies to racism. The world’s a complicated place, every group is capable of both good and bad, and if a particular story looks at a negative aspect of a particular culture, that’s not the same thing as spitting at the culture or its members. (Unless the “negative aspect” is simply a racial slur.)
On the other hand, though, and really, more importantly, writers would be wise not to self-censor but to reflect on their work once in a while and consider what it conveys with regard to race. Because racial issues can be subtle, we should also be willing to listen when someone tells us something in our fiction is problematic. We needn’t agree, but we should hear the critic out.
If we do, perhaps our stories can occasionally enlighten as well as entertain. Failing that, we may at least avoid reinforcing anybody’s prejudice.