Saturday, 19 April 2014

On The Erasure of People Of Colour From Dystopian Fiction

I've been thinking a lot about the comments made by Noah co-screenwriter Ari Handel that have been circulating recently. Asked about the extreme whiteness of the cast, Handel said that the "the race of the individual doesn't matter." Presumably this was meant to be a defense:

"From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn't matter. They're supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Bennetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise."

Handel's comments were so completely bizarre to me because of how blatantly they reinforced the problematic idea that whiteness is a universal experience that everyone and anyone can relate to. He acknowledges that the movie is myth (and therefore a fiction they have created, over which they have total control) yet refuses to acknowledge that this does not in any way, logically translate into an all-white cast. His words reminded me of a little quote from novelist Kayla Ancrum I stumbled upon a little while ago while perusing a tumblr blog about women of colour in sci-fi and fantasy:

"Seriously guys, put PoC in your sci-fi movies, books, and tv shows. Seeing a film with none of them at all is actually kind of scary for me."
"It would be like you sitting down to watch a movie about a dystopian near future and there are absolutely no men and the plot doesn't address that at all. Like, literally wouldn't your first thought be that men were at some point eradicated completely by the women?"
"That is what we're pretty much forced to think about your entirely white fictional society. Maybe y'all herded us into death camps Maybe y'all just shot us all in the streets. All I know is there are none of us left and no one seems to find it suspicious or unusual."
"If you don't want people to think that about your work, then for the love of God, include us in your narrative."

It got me thinking. What does it mean that so many white authors and filmmakers find it perfectly natural to erase the presence of people of colour from their dystopian narratives? Forget addressing the issue of fleshing out actual minority characters, but literally just not including them at all?

Illustration by Ron Ackins
Illustraion by Ron Ackins
The usual argument here is that authors are allowed to create whatever characters and worlds they wish, and that they shouldn't be forced to be "politically correct" about their imaginations. In theory, I agree. But when we exist a world where racial disparities often dictate things like access to wealth, proper healthcare, proper education and fair treatment under the law, it's disingenuous to pretend that continuing to marginalize people of color in fictional venues is anything less than equally egregious. The fact that so many authors think that it's not a problem to completely omit the very existence of millions of people and cultures entirely when constructing a narrative, is a product of white supremacy and the attitudes and thinking that come with it.

I've seen it said that the reason many black authors gravitate towards futurism in their works of fiction is because it allows them to envision a different world where they set the rules and I can definitely see the appeal. With the ability to craft a narrative completely from scratch, science fiction is a way to create characters that reflect us, as well as help us explore a world free from the political constraints that plague us in the real world. It's why speculative fiction is so intriguing to me. At it's core, it's all about answering the question, "What if?"

To me, this is why I tend to lean towards Ancrum's thinking. If we're talking dystopias; worlds in which the theoretical apocalypse has already come and gone, and there are no people who look like me in it? I'm going to wonder about why that is. I'm going to wonder if that whiteness was intentionally constructed by the people who remain in that world. I'm going to wonder if the people like me were exterminated. There is, after all, a "historically accurate" precedent for that assumption.

When it comes to an author or filmmaker having free reign over their imagination, my concern about their inclusion of people of color isn't about trying to please everyone. It's about wondering what kind of thinking they live by wherein minority people simply do not exist, the issue is never mentioned, and the fact that they are nowhere to be found is nothing to be alarmed about. It makes me wonder about the kind of people they are that their race blindness is so severe that even in their minds, we're invisible. Or worse, that the only people they recognize as human, are white.

Personally, I think the lack of diversity in science fiction is particularly egregious because it's the one area where you can't claim "historical accuracy." Speculative fiction opens up possibilities that would never exist in the real world, allowing us to imagine scenarios that we could only dream of in real life. That so many of those imagined possibilities still include whiteness as the default, to the point of whitewashing characters originally imagined as non-white, is disheartening.

When you get to create a world completely from scratch, where you could rewrite the laws of gravity or the science behind genetics should you so choose, but your vision of all the people is still lily white? I really do find that worrisome. It bugs me that people are more easily able to imagine the existence of non-human intelligent beings, or interactions with a completely alien race, than that a protagonist might be anything other than white. It tells me that in the real world, we have a problem imagining the humanity of people of color. It tells me that as a culture we still see people of color as nothing more than bit players in the lives of white characters, if we even see them at all. Why is it that so many people find nothing problematic about the willful erasure of people of color from their visions of the future? Because there's a real and almost tangible problem with race if audiences can suspend their disbelief enough to accept that a fictional character can burst in to flames, repeatedly, at will, and not die, but not enough to accept that the same character could be black.

I don't think that we should force our way into meetings and demand that casts be more diverse, or hold authors hostage until they rewrite the features of their protagonists, but I also don't think there's anything wrong with continuing to hold people accountable for the prejudices they may display through their creative choices. I can't force anyone to recognize the implications of the message they send when they simply "forget" to write minority people into existence, but I can keep pointing out how those biases in fiction, in representation, continue to affect the way we interact with race in the real world.

In the same way that authors and filmmakers continue to question why they should include people of color in their narratives, I continue to ask:
What exactly is it do they think their stories will lose if they did?

10 comments:

  1. Bravo!

    The problem with casting all white actors and actresses in these movies is theasy message it sends, which that Whiteness is the norm, universal experience and other races are either not important to include or they aren't seen in the future. Thank you for pointing this out.

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  2. Thanks. I just really wanted to get at that question. Why do they think it's completely normal/acceptable to completely erase PoC from their visions of the future?

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  3. Noah co-stars Jennifer Connelly, whose mother is Jewish, as well as Logan Lerman, who is 100% Jewish. Surely they can play Old Testament characters.

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  4. Fantastic article! I was actually just talking the other day about how in Dystopian, and to a lesser degree fantasy/science fiction has a serious lack of POC as characters in these settings. It's the reason that I go out of my way to have a diverse cast of characters when writing, including POC as MC's. It's ludicrous that even saying that out loud sounds like a big deal, but I can only hope that more people start to realize that this is an issue and move to change it in their reading and writing. I find it even more troublesome in fantasy/science fiction where there are multiple new races (dwarves, elves, etc. etc.) which are white, or all humans are. But I digress, fantastic article, that I agree with 100%...I'm not a Person of Color, but that doesn't mean I whitewash in my reading or writing. *So many things to say, and no words to say them all*

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  5. Another excellent and thought provoking piece! I wonder, do you think the same issues apply to Game of Thrones or the LOTR/Hobbit series? What about the assumption that we can believe in dragons but not PoC in a fantastical/historically based feudal society?

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  6. Ethnic jews are not always the same as religious jews. Not the mention, those in the bible would not have been white passing.

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  7. WTF? They are ethnic Jews, you Holocaust denying piece of s--t. That's why Hitler tried to gas his grandparents. JUST SHUT THE F--K UP ABOUT THE JEWS.

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  8. Logan Lerman is the world's first GENTILE with the last name LERMAN. It is historic!
    Fuck that gentile motherfucker. He can go to gentile hell with the rest of the gentiles.

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