Literary Racism?

The other day I came across a comment to the effect that authors who portrayed society where the majority of power wielders and decision-makers were white were in effect supporting racism. That’s a rather broad brush. If you’re writing historical fiction, fantasy or not, that’s the way the culture was. If you’re writing present-day or near-future fiction of any sort, that’s the way most cultures are and will be for at least a generation. Accurate portrayal isn’t racist, although glorifying or rationalizing existing racism certainly is.

In writing Isolate (and it’s forthcoming sequel, Councilor), I changed the “color” palate. Those of the aristocracy and older commercial wealth tend to have darker skins, whereas farm workers and lower-class manual workers have lighter skins. While I believe that would be the outcome in that society, it’s still “racist,” in a reverse way, but every culture in human history has had a way of “discriminating” against some group. Even animals do on occasion.

As I’ve noted before, the Roman Empire was far less race-conscious than American culture is today, but they discriminated, nonetheless, mainly by economic status. Slaves came in every color and so did people of wealth and power, especially outside of Rome, and even a number of emperors were not of Roman birth.

A similar problem exists for a writer with regard to gender. Like it or not (and I don’t), in the U.S., men, as a group, still tend to minimize women and attempt to keep them out of positions of power and to restrict their rights, and in the near future, for a number of reasons, it can’t and won’t change [even if the Supreme Court were to be drastically re-structured overnight and equal rights and pay legislation became law tomorrow].

That should be changed, and, in time, I’m hopeful that it will be, but to declare that fiction that doesn’t represent racial or gender “equality” as racist or gender-biased is unrealistic, because all societies “discriminate” in some fashion. Depicting a racist or gender-discriminating society isn’t by itself racism or discrimination, but endorsing or glorifying such a society is.

4 thoughts on “Literary Racism?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Sensitivities have causes; but beyond that, unless those with sensitivities focus on taking constructive actions rather than indulging feelings (however justified they may be on a large scale), there’s the risk that the feelings are not selective about specifics, but are broadly triggered by anything that fits their internal narrative.

    In other words, unless you’re in the “in” group of those who deal primarily emotionally with their sensitivities, you’re going to be in the wrong with them no matter what, even if you’re being careful in merely rational terms to avoid stereotyping, etc.

    Maybe what comes around, goes around (unfair both ways, of course).

    1. Postagoras says:

      Ok, this is BS. The idea that there’s some rational way to talk about this, separate from all feelings, would be wonderful, but not realistic. But what is possible is to have a discussion of an emotional topic without tantrums.

      Let’s take the “sensitivity” of dealing with racism in one way or another, EVERY SINGLE DAY. The target of the racism has to, in your words, take constructive action to… what? Engage in dialogue with the racists who will thank you for enlightening them? Um, no, that won’t work.

      But if you ignore the racist and go on with your day, pissed off, you are, in your words, “dealing primarily emotionally” with it.

      But OK, after a lot of thought, you come up with a constructive idea. How about teaching the history of the country in a way which shows the casual racism that was part of society in the colonies and the United States? Oh nooooo, omigosh, some white person’s feelings got hurt and they had a tantrum at the school board meeting!

      Maybe those white people should engage in constructive action, instead of all this emotional drama.

      Like, instead of a tantrum, have enough respect for other people to talk to them. But I guess that’s the problem with racism. Respect for others is pretty much not built in.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        No, constructive action means say to heck with anyone holding me down, I’m going to work hard and smart and get smarter until I break every dang glass ceiling I intend to. And put the energy into that rather than into being angry, because either one will stress you, but anger won’t improve anything. A sufficient example of delivering competitive or higher value will, eventually (not overnight, more like a couple of generations, except for those who are so stubborn they’re willing to harm themselves to continue to exclude a segment of the well qualified.

        I’ve seen people do that with relatively good outcomes compared to those whose skill was more gaming the system rather than delivering value. Not yet everywhere in every context and circumstance, but probably far more than are widely noticed.

        Contrariwise, destructive conduct will however unfairly not only reflect on the individual, but the group; indeed, although history may have different totals, presently most blacks are murdered by blacks rather than bad cops or rare white extremists, and in the last couple of years at least, more cross-race murders are by blacks than by whites (look at the varous FBI crime stats, they’re not that hard to find). (it’s true for most groups that most murders are within the group; and more often than not, it’s people that know each other to a degree, and not mass shooters or random acts of violence, although some turf wars are so careless that collateral damage is frequent)

        EVERY society in human history has to varying degree treated badly minorities – at least those non-compliant with social strictures – or those at economic or power disadvantage. All this western society must self-flagellate is not constructive action either. Probably everyone’s ancestors include both oppressors and oppressed (albeit the latter surviving long enough to reproduce), if you go back far enough.

        I have no objection to well-documented facts previously neglected or suppressed being added to histories, but in balance, there were also people better than they had to be, some remembered and many probably almost forgotten; and if near-worship of the white founders and their immediate successors is unbalanced, so is the radical deconstruction of what they structured (with some provision that major faults need not be permanent) and many people both free and non-free, celebrated and forgotten, built.

        We’re not perfect, but in really oppressive societies, self-questioning isn’t even ALLOWED (disagreeing with policies and customs is still effectively a death sentence some places), so I think that despite uneven progress, we’re still among the least worst. Nothing wrong with aspiring even higher, but anger and holding the privileged of today at least morally guilty of the offenses of their ancestors rather than just accountable for their own actions, don’t advance any constructive outcome.

        Except in isolation, tribal societies are obsolete. And for all its faults, western society presently has more pluralism and mobility than any other I know of.

        I’m not offended by angry people, but I’m sad that they’re not advancing their own or anyone else’s legitimate interests by being angry.

  2. Mayhem says:

    There’s a difference though between having your major figures being white and having no non-white characters at all and insisting it is that way because it is “historical”.

    The history we are familiar with is not a consistent narrative, and digging deeper we find that women of power and people of colour have been there all along, but their roles were minimised or erased by those who wrote later histories.

    At the end of the day, Fantasy authors draw from history to create their worlds, but if the world they create has no colour or role for strong women or variety in sexuality – that’s a failure as an author, because that author chose to make it so. Those things all exist in our world, and always have. Avoiding them is an often unconscious choice, but still a choice.

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