Black or white is in the eyes of the readers

This is a re-blog of my post at The Writers’ Vineyard

Recently, book bloggers have been complaining that most high fantasy stories take place in the worlds resembling medieval Europe, or at least our imaginary version of it, and that most fantasy characters are white. “Give us more cultural diversity!” the bloggers and readers demand. “We want Africa, China, India, whatever… We want characters that are not white. We want different.”
While the facts the readers bemoan are correct, I don’t think there is anything to complain about. Furthermore, I don’t think we, writers, should do anything about it. The readers accuse us of discrimination, but in my view, the opposite is true. It’s the readers who see white guys everywhere, when in fact, by using a little imagination of their own, they can see anyone they want.
A writer writes what is close to her heart, her own vision of the story and the characters. She shouldn’t paint her characters’ skin in a color she isn’t drawn to. But when a reader opens a book, it’s like staging a show inside his or her head, with one spectator, the reader, and one casting director, the same reader. He can cast anyone he chooses for any role. It’s his choice.
Take Tolkien. If Aragorn had dark skin or narrow Asian eyes, would his behavior or his actions change? No. Tolkien wrote Aragorn as a great hero. The color of his skin was irrelevant to the story. I don’t remember exactly how much space Aragorn’s description takes in the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, but I’m sure it’s not more than a couple lines – in about fifteen hundred pages. Can’t the readers imagine him any color they wish? If they can’t or don’t want to, if they want to see him white, it’s not the writer’s fault.

Carlos Acosta in Swan Lake

Carlos Acosta in Swan Lake. Photo by Angela Taylor

Classical ballet has the right approach to the issue. When Giselle or Sleeping Beauty were first choreographed, the choreographers and the librettists envisioned the heroes white, although nobody specified the performers’ skin color. At the time, there were no other ballet dancers but white.
Now the situation changed, and the ballets changed with it. Chinese ballerinas dance Giselle (a French peasant) or Kitri (a Spanish girl), and nobody is surprised. One of the ballet superstars, Carlos Acosta, is a Cuban-born, brown-skinned dancer. His repertoire includes all the assorted ballet princes who were originally assumed white. The public loves him. The roles are cast according to skill levels. Skin color has nothing to do with it.

EagleEnGarde_smallIn my novel Eagle en Garde, my protagonist Darin is a white guy, because that’s how I see him. But I don’t force my vision on the readers. Like Tolkien, I used only a line or two of a verbal sketch. If any reader wants him black, please be my guest, disregard my short description. Imagine Darin a mulatto or an Inca or a Japanese, whatever you wish. His courage and wit won’t be affected, and the story won’t change. It’s up to you, the reader, how you see my hero.

 

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2 Responses to Black or white is in the eyes of the readers

  1. Widdershins says:

    I would agree with you except for one thing, we live in a society where, unless otherwise noted, the assumption is ‘white’. (and for good measure, heterosexual, and male)

    We as writers do need to look at our own assumptions and determine if we pass them on in our writing.

    If we read about a character with a gender neutral, vaguely Western sounding name, do we assume white and male? And heterosexual? Maybe not, if we’re aware and paying attention to such things, but if we’re just cruising through a story where do our assumed biases lead us?

    And then, with our above character, we subsequently discover our assumption to be wrong, we might be thrown out of the story, which is right up there at the top of a writer’s no-no list. (There’s huge amounts of well thought out commentary on gender and race on the interwebz. This example is one that occurred to me as I was writing my comment)

    Be subtle when describing a character, but not unambiguous. (unless ambiguity is what we deliberately set out to write, which is a whole ‘nuther kettle of kittens)

  2. Olga Godim says:

    You might be right about the reader’s assumption, if that reader is white. But if the reader is colored, and the description isn’t there, he might assume he reads about a character just like him. However that’s not what my post is about. What I wanted to say is that the story doesn’t change because of a character’s skin color. Skin color is like clothing, a surface attribute. Whether my heroine’s skirt is read or blue doesn’t affect the story (in most cases it doesn’t.) The same goes for her skin color, unless I’m writing about the American past and slaves, where the skin color becomes the point.

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