For white readers, when the race of a character is vague or unspecified, it’s assumed to be white. What else, after all, could a character be? We live in a white-centric world where everything around us is saturated in whiteness, where our heroes are white, where our entire worldview and framework is white. While nonwhiteness is recognised as a vague quality that exists somewhere, it’s not central to our understanding of narratives and our own environment. Within fiction, we retreat to what is comfortable and known – thus, authors are forced to spell out the race of nonwhite characters and people of colour in order to make sure the reader understands what is going on.
With white as a default and nonwhite as Other, fiction reinforces already extant social divides. Not necessarily on the fault of the author, who is merely forced to work within a system that existed long before she set pen to paper or hands to keyboard, but through that of society, which privileges whiteness as default. Thus we end up in a world of science fiction where everyone is white, fantasy where Cinderella is white as snow, contemporary fiction where the streets of Los Angeles and New York City are oddly, uniformly, mysteriously, white.
When we speak of the need for diversity in fiction, this is one of the things we speak to, of the need to break down this constant in fiction. But it’s also about pushing barriers and bringing on the unexpected, which is why I have a special affection for fiction that challenges dominant notions about race even further by flipping assumptions about skin colour and social positions, class, power, and race, forcing the reader to reconsider the notion that paleness somehow conveys superiority, and that darkness is an illustrator of lower worth.
Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots is one such example, a totally flipped world in which whites are slaves and indentures, while people of colour are the dominant members of society. Unlike the horrifically racist Save the Pearls, Blonde Roots is a commentary on social attitudes about race and the slave-owning era in England (where it’s loosely set, with considerable variance). It’s about wild, pasty-skinned tribespeople brought in hand by an enlightened, dark-skinned people – and about the desperate emulation of Black traits, a desire to pass as Black.
It’s a sharp, incisive, and at times deeply painful debut novel that explores the Transatlantic slave trade from an entirely new angle, challenging the reader to think about the history of slavery, and race, from an entirely distinctive perspective. Her book is designed and calculated to make white readers deeply uncomfortable, and it does, in a glorious, clear, wonderful way that makes it impossible to avoid certain truths of our collective past.
She could have set out to write a straight book about the slave trade, and I suspect it would have been amazing, given the astounding voice and writing power she demonstrated in Blonde Roots, but instead she decided to flip the narrative, bringing something new to the discussion. She forced readers to think about the long history of dehumanisation and exploitation and horror involved in slavery, and not in a way that suggested it would have mattered ‘more’ if it happened to us as white people. Blonde Roots doesn’t set out to make itself more relatable and comfortable by flipping the dynamic. Instead, it makes the reader more uncomfortable.
Likewise, N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood series explores a world in which social power, class, and status is signified by race, but not in a way that readers would expect. Darker-skinned people are more respected and hold more power, while those of lesser status have pale skin, and are viewed with suspicion. The entire society and class structure of this series is incredibly complex and very artfully written, and race is written right into its foundations. Again, the narrative here challenges beliefs and attitudes about race, but also about history.
Whites like to assume that white has always been right, and that white people have always enjoyed a position of higher class and social status by virtue of our skin. But what makes us so confident and sure of that? Are we so sure that history has always favoured pale skin and treated us as honoured members of society? Are we so confident that whiteness has always been a desirable social trait, something people will give up anything to achieve?
Here in the West, of course, many traditional narratives privilege white skin – but not all, and not all Western cultures were dominated by white communities. While white children may be taught from an early age in school and society that they’ve always enjoyed a unique position in the world, that’s not actually the case, and racially-flipped fiction challenges that in a way that’s innovative, sharp, and demanding. Readers who think that assuming everyone is white allows them to avoid conversations about race in text and in their own lives are forced to confront racial issues in the pages of the books they read and love, and fiction becomes an incredibly powerful tool for talking about race.
There are some who might make the mistake of thinking that fiction doesn’t matter, that this is just about books and imaginary worlds and no one really cares, these things don’t reflect on reality, but they’re wrong. Acutely, intensely, painfully wrong. Because fiction is about very real, palpable things all around us, including race, power, privilege, and oppression. The very fact that people of colour and nonwhite people need to be explicitly identified in fiction so they aren’t erased is a telling reflection on the racial conversations many are not willing or ready to have – but should be.
I'll be halfway through Vol. III of JS&MN by then, I wonder if that's something I could get a topic out of or if my shallow historical knowledge would make it dangerous. There's always the Bujold rant, but I'm not sure if there's any interesting generalizations or insights out of it. Discworld's too big a topic, and I'm not sure if anything there speaks to me more than anything else. Hmmm . . . *wanders off, contemplating procrastination opportunities*
The friend I was with was shopping in the grocer's across the street and I was quietly seething at everything they were doing - when they started playing Jerusalem I commented that it was like Springtime for Hitler In Germany come to life and that they'd have been better off with Wagner.
They were leaving as we came out of the shop and I realised that 8-10 of them had surrounded a young black woman who was sitting on the wall. Apparently they had demanded to know if she was English. She was holding her own, but she was one small woman surrounded by 8-10 racist thugs, all but one of them male. I just though 'Oh, Hell' and walked into the middle of it, gesturing with my crutch and saying 'There's none of you ever more than 5 seconds away from becoming a minority and being attacked in the street by people like you.' I certainly didn't calm the situation, but I diverted half of them on to me, and I had the chance to tell them that I despised them, that I particularly despised them parading in front of the memorial to people who died fighting against everything they stood for, and that if they really love everything England stands for then they should emigrate ;)
It went back and forth for about five minutes, with amongst other stuff the Britain First woman (ETA: who I've now identified as their candidate and deputy leaderr Jayda Fransen) trying to claim mosques were centres of terrorism, but a couple of them (they'd be the really dangerous ones) realised that being seen harassing a slight young woman and a disabled guy probably wasn't the image they wanted (though it's the only one they'll ever have) and they beat a retreat.
I imagine they'll claim they weren't harassing anyone, but that's belied by how upset their victim was afterwards (and kudos to her for standing up to them).
One of the people who came up afterwards (and if I have the right guy he's a local folksinger who writes some absolutely haunting stuff about social deprivation in Medway) commented that the UKIP supporters and the England First thugs had been being very pally with each other earlier - takes one to know one, I guess....
I'd been thinking about Pastor Niemoller's prayer while I was watching them, I guess I passed.
On arriving at the airport, everything went smoothly so we ended up with a fair bit of time. We decided to have an early dinner and went to Chili's one of the restaurants on the concourse. Airport restaurants do everything they can to maximize space and that often means it's difficult for people using wheelchairs to get into the restaurant. But here, we spotted a table and headed towards it. It was a table for two and was set between two people our age. A man finishing his meal and having a glass of wine on one, a woman placing her order for food on the other.
When we got to the table we realized that if I turned my chair toward it, I'd block the passageway behind me. If we pushed the table in such that that didn't happen, There would be no where for Joe to sit. The fellow drinking the wine silently picked up his stuff, plates, knives, glasses, bottle and moved to the table beside him that was empty. Joe then was able to use his table to push next to mine and sit behind it. We were in and comfortable.
We thanked him, he waved it off.
On the way out we paid for his glass of wine. We both wanted to thank him, not for what he did, but for how he did it. He never, even once, made any kind of indication that this, which was a bother, was a bother. He just made space for us as if that was the most natural thing to do.
Shortly after we left, I went to the gate and spoke to the gate agent, there was something I wondered if he could do for us. It would make the flight more comfortable. I'm not going to tell you because, well, I don't have to tell everything do I? He was a nice, quiet man, who double checked and said that he thought that what I was asking was doable. Later when we were waiting he wandered away from his desk for a second and then gave me a very private 'thumbs up' reassuring me that all was well.
Again, I wanted to do something simple because of how he did what he did. Again it felt like he did this because it was natural for him to be kind. I couldn't think of what to do but when I found myself heading down the ramp towards the plane and saw him walking up towards me, I stopped him. I looked at him seriously and said, "People aren't alway s kind to me, but today you were very kind, I want you to know that I appreciate what you did and how you did it." He brushed the compliment away and I reached out and touched his arm, "No, I'm serious," I said. I could see that he knew that I hadn't given an empty compliment, he nodded seriously. "Thank you," he said, "I don't get nearly as many compliments as complaints, I appreciate it."
I got on the plane ready to fly home.
I didn't feel much like reading on the plane so I spent much of the flight home thinking about what the world would be like if kindness became everyone's first response to a situation. Then, after that lovely fantasy, I began to think about what I would be like if kindness was my first response to a situation. It would change me, and I would like myself better.
I got off the plane ready to try kindness.
Our previous sexy Halloween costume mockery was so popular (30,000 likes!), we thought we’d offer you another. This one is from genius comic Gemma Correll. Lose hours on her site like I did. I dare you to click.Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.