Monday, March 13, 2017


This was a very interesting discussion, and I was really glad we delayed it so we could have a more diverse group of discussants. Thank you to everyone who attended! Che Gilson, Morgan Smith, and Sarah Kaplan have attended my show before. Kate Johnston and Sumiko Saulson were attending for the first time, and I want to offer them special thanks for adding their insights. I also want to thank Sumiko for her patience in sticking with us when our Google hangouts connection was being unreliable.

Colorism and racism are not quite the same. We discussed colorism because we wanted to look at biases that exist between different skin tones within racial groups across the globe as well as issues like whitewashing, and even consider how the use of color shows bias in storytelling.

Bias against darker skin tones shows up in a lot of places in fiction. Discussants mentioned that we have seen things like the whitewashing of Ursula K. LeGuin's world of Earthsea when it has been adapted for TV or film. We have seen how the racist internet blew up when the character of Rue in The Hunger Games was cast as Black. More complicated situations arise when you look at things like The Girl With All the Gifts. In the book, the teacher is black while the child is white. This choice turns the usual teacher-as-savior trope on its head. However, the movie reverses this, and when the zombie child gets called a monster, etc. that contributes to the trend of horrible insults aimed at Black people.

I remarked on an article I had recently read talking about how diverse stories tend more often to end in tragedy, and how we need to move away from this and have more diverse people allowed just to be heroic.

Skin color and culture are not congruent.

The essential content of colorism is the idea that the lighter you are the better. Black gets associated with bad and scary, and white gets associated with good and waifish. There is a continuum, not just categorization into black vs. white. Even thesaurus dictionaries are full of these word associations that impute bad meanings to darker colors.

On some level, it makes sense for early hominids to be afraid of darkness because of the dangers of the night. However, there is no necessary logical link to tie that to skin colors in human beings.

In Europe in the middle ages, freckles and tan were associated with field labor, and thus to be avoided because people wanted to be seen as members of the leisure class. A similar thing happened in the caste system in India, where pale people were higher caste and darker people worked in the fields.

When you are working with people of diverse skin colors, it's worth asking "How do I describe people in ways that aren't food?" Particularly if you are working in a secondary world, it's worth doing some work to avoid this, because of the intimate/vulnerable connotations that come with food descriptions.

Even Jesus was whitewashed.

So, when we write, do we push back against the culture of colorism? How do we do this, and where? We can use non-food descriptions that have more positive connotations. Or we can try to dissociate skin color from real-world value judgments in the culture of our secondary world. In my Varin world I try to do this, but it requires an extensive amount of work, both to dissociate the traditional values and to reassociate skin color with a different cultural significance.

When you are writing, the choice of skin color for your protagonist is political. Say you are writing a story with a dominant woman and a submissive man, the impact of the relationship on the page will be drastically different if the woman is white and the man black vs. if the woman is black and the man white. We have to be very careful about the choices we make in this regard.

We talked quite a bit about Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry wanted to protect audiences from actual race on one level. He had blue and green races. The green women were sexualized, and so it's possible to ask whether they represented a stereotype of black women. However, in representation of actual women, he put Uhura on the bridge in a position of power and respect. He had the episode of the society where people had black and white faces and talked in this way about the arbitrariness of color distinctions. He also featured the first interracial kiss on TV between Kirk and Uhura (in our live discussion we made an error and spoke as if it had been Spock and Uhura).

One of the things we can do in science fiction is to engage people's metaphorical sensibilities in a helpful way to make people examine their own expectations and biases. But we can and should do more.

It's all too common to have a large group of white characters and one black character. Kate asked, "Where are the inversions of that?" She wants to see all black characters and one white character. So far, we are not seeing all the possible stories.

In stories, you can use societal stratification and dig into how society treats visual difference as a reflection on how people deal with particular differences.

We spoke about colorblindness. Colorblindness seems to have been the idea that the 1970's considered ideal when it came to anti-racism. However, it is deeply problematic because of the way that it erases people's culture. It essentially amounts to a form of strict cultural assimilation, allowing people to assume that another person's background is the same. However, you can't erase the cultural history and trauma associated with appearance. It doesn't make sense to assume everyone is going to be white and able-bodied, "unmarked" or congruent with the default cultural power narrative. Ignorance of other cultures is only safe if you are powerful.

We talked about fiction plots where a black person dies and that brings the white people happiness. This happens in Uncle Tom's Cabin and in The Stand (as well as other contexts) and is deeply problematic.

People internalize the bias that surrounds them. The colorism bias happens within communities of color as well as across them. It appears in the US and Europe, but also in Asia and many other places in the world.

When we are writing, we need to think about what words we can use to describe skin color, because there are already many which are associated with particular cultural groups, time periods, etc. "High yella" for example refers to a particular color but is very American Black and has a raft of connotations. There are complex terms for skin color differences within a community. When people use words they have heard but don't have deeper knowledge of the context and implications, it's wrong and can be harmful.

In the days when white Americans enslaved Black people, having more white blood meant that you would be worth more money when you were sold. This has had lasting implications for the complexity of Black identity, especially for light-skinned folks.

As an author of science fiction, you can write futures of color, but who will publish them? We're seeing some improvement on this front, but there's more progress to be made. The same can be said about cover images.

There are a lot of amazing Black writers out there, and you should seek out their work! They include:
Nnedi Okorafor
Sumiko Saulson
Maurice Broaddus (Link to our discussion last week)
Malon Edwards (Link to our discussion here)
Nalo Hopkinson
Nisi Shawl (Link to our discussion here)
Octavia Butler
N.K. Jemisin
Tananarive Due
Kate Johnston
(This is a sadly incomplete list, so keep your eyes open!)

This week on Dive into Worldbuilding we'll be talking with guest author Alyx Dellamonica about her forthcoming book, The Nature of a Pirate. I hope you can join us!