Thoughts on #DiversityinSFF & pedestals & the Generic White

Cover for 'Coded Messages'

"Not sure why #DiversityInSFF is so hard? What makes writing a story about a creature that exists in myth only easier? #dontgetit"

--Libertad Tomas.


A conversation on diversity in science fiction and fantasy (using the #DiversityinSFF hash tag) is taking place at the moment at Twitter and other places. My first thought, when I saw the discussion, was one of incredulity.

This is 2013. Multiculturalism in SF/F dates back decades. Why are we still having debates over whether it's a good idea to have black characters on SF/F covers?

Personally, I slipped into multiculturalism long ago, without any special effort beyond saying, "I need some way to differentiate the people of these nations - oh heck, I'll give them different skin colors" and "I need a character who's supposed to be especially handsome - darn it, I am not going to create another good-looking white guy."

Though I don't normally think about whether I'm including minority characters in my stories - it's second nature by now - this particular Internet discussion caused me to mentally go through a checklist to see how I'm doing on the diversity front. Gender minorities? Check. Ethnic minorities? Check. Disabled people? Check and check for covering both physical and mental disabilities. Racial minorities? "Minorities" isn't quite the right word here, since non-whites form the majority in one of my universes. But yes, and they show up on my covers.

Sexual minorities? Don't make me laugh.

There are still areas where I could improve. I don't have nearly enough women in my stories - and no, it's not just because I write so many stories requiring male characters. Rather, I deliberately chose to write stories requiring male characters because I was avoiding female characters. I'm trying to correct that now. I've done a fairly good job of including middle-aged characters (while writing in a subgenre dominated by characters in their twenties), but there aren't as many seniors in my stories as there could be; I need to keep that in mind when it comes time for me create new characters. And because the Toughs universe came to me in bits and pieces - it originally started as a quasi-medieval setting, hence the dungeon - I didn't think nearly enough when I was creating it about how non-European influences would shape its various cultures. I'm having to backtrack there.

However, I've been writing multicultural fiction for a while now. Eighteen years, if you count only my published works. Over thirty years, if you count the disabled characters in the stories I wrote as a teen. Because of that, there are two particular multicultural issues I want to mention, because they often get overlooked in discussions of cultural diversity.


Issue #1: Positive portrayals of minorities

Others have said this before, but it's a point worth underlining: What exactly do we mean by "positive"? You may have sensed that this has been an area of tension for me, just by reading the blurbs of the stories I linked to above.

I once got myself in trouble by linking to this story at a forum listing literature about asexuals. I thought it was an obvious candidate for the list: the story of an asexual who gradually discovers that he's not aromantic.

But man, did that link cause me problems. Even though I included a disclaimer saying, "Yes, my protagonist is a mentally ill criminal, but many of the characters in this series are mentally ill and/or criminals" - even so, I got back responses along the lines of, "This guy isn't asexual. He's mentally ill." As though the two qualities were somehow incompatible with each other.

(These days, I would have to bite my tongue when responding to such posts, because I now identify as grey-asexual, and I've been hypomanic since childhood. But I guess people like me don't exist, right?)

Having grown up in an era when every frickin' gay person in mainstream fiction was portrayed as mentally ill, vicious, and/or doomed to kill themselves, I know how difficult it can be to encounter a minority character who's nasty in some way. But folks, true diversity means acknowledging the diversity within minorities. If a story or series contains lots of different characters of varying moral values, and some of the characters who are minorities happen to be on the nastier end of the moral scale, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. What would be a bad thing is if, amidst all these various character portrayals, none of the minorities were on the nastier end of the moral scale. That's called putting a group on the pedestal. Pedestals aren't good for women; neither are they good for any other group.


Issue #2: The Generic White

I began to feel uneasy when I read the various discussions of #DiversityinSFF and found these words being flung around as examples of what we need less of in SF/F: "generic white," "default white," "American," "English," "European," "northern European."

Understand: I sympathize with the general sentiment that causes people to use these words. I agree that SF/F is far too dominated by literature that defaults back to characters who are white American with European (usually English) roots. I'm all for exploring other racial/cultural paths in SF/F.

The problem I have is that these words are being used as though they all represented the same experience.

I recently released a new novel. As I acknowledge in the historical note, this novel draws heavily upon English-American traditions. It has English-style boarding schools, it has 1910s English (and, as it turns out, English-American) schoolboy slang, it has English-American oystermen.

None of these are default. None of these are generic.

In a cycle of historical fantasy novels that has tons of non-white characters, I deliberately chose to write about a particular aspect of the State of Maryland's history: its English-American heritage. Since this is alternate-universe fiction, I could have erased that heritage from the series - I could have populated the Dozen Landsteads entirely with people of color, in the same manner that I chose to populate the Kingdom of Vovim with non-northern-European-descent characters: people of Asian descent, people of African descent, Native Americans, and people of southern European descent. (Just a side note here: "European" and "northern European" aren't the same thing. When my Italian-American grandmother was born during the turn-of-the-century period that I'm writing about, people of her ethnicity were as much a target for discrimination by fellow Americans as Hispanics are today.)

So my decision to write about English-Americans wasn't default. And it wasn't generic. It was a deliberate decision to write about a particular ethnic group that had played an important role in my home state.

I'm American. I lived a goodly portion of my childhood and adolescence in England. My parents chose to immerse me and my brother in various English-American traditions. So I'm aware that there's a big difference between "American," "English," and "English-American." (Also, a reminder? "British" does not equal "English.")

The United States is made up of a variety of cultural traditions, including a variety of white cultural traditions. German-American Marylanders (whom I'll need to write about eventually, because they're the second largest ethnic group in Maryland, after English-Americans) are not the same as English-American Marylanders. The two groups share a lot of the same European traditions, and they share (for the most part) the same skin color. But each group has its own history, its own culture, its own way of life. And none of these European-Americans share the exact same cultural heritage as Europeans. Nor do any these white Marylanders share the exact same cultural heritage as other white Americans. Put a white Marylander in the same house as a white Texan, and they'll have a cultural divide to bridge. (I can testify to that: I'm a Marylander whose adult foster son is Texan.)

The reason I dislike the tendency to label all portrayals of white people as "generic" and "default" is that writing about specific subsets of white people is actually a form of diversity in SF/F. As Charles Stross put it during the current conversation: "The biggest argument for #diversityinSFF - monocultures are BORING. (Even if the monoculture is your culture: still tediously unchallenging.)" Writing the Toughs cycle forced me to stop approaching my own ethnic heritage as a monoculture. The further along my research went, the more I was forced to acknowledge to myself that there's no such thing as a generic English/Canadian/Australian/American/etc. experience. I found myself having to focus more and more on American sources, and then, when I unexpectedly discovered - rather belatedly - that I was writing about an alternative version of the Mid-Atlantic states, I began zeroing in on the cultures of particular states, and then on the cultures of particular areas within states.

All of this made it easier, not harder, for me to include characters who weren't of northern European descent. I already had diversity within my northern-European-American characters; it didn't take much work to include characters of other cultures as well.

I'm not the only SF/F writer who has taken this path. When Guy Gavriel Kay, Diana Gabaldon, and Naomi Novik chose to write about English characters, it wasn't because they were incapable of writing (with varying degrees of success) about people of color. They wrote about English characters because they were (respectively) fascinated with early medieval England, wanted to explore the eighteenth-century struggle between England and Scotland, and wanted to write about an Englishman fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. These characters weren't generic whites. They were people of particular white ethnicities, dwelling in series (or, in Mr. Kay's case, a series of stand-alone novels) that had characters who were diverse in skin color and culture.

Writers can do this in futuristic settings too. I'm rereading Susan R. Matthews's Jurisdiction series, and what strikes me is the care with which she differentiates the various cultures of hominids, including the various cultures of white hominids.

And Tolkien, who's largely to blame for the current preponderance of fantasy tales drawing upon northern European mythology? He didn't set out to write about generic whites - quite the contrary. It was a particular set of cultures that enthralled him: northern European. He wanted to write about those cultures, not about a generic white culture.

So yes, let's get rid of generic whites. Let's get rid of default whites. Instead, let's have specific, deliberately chosen races and ethnicities, including white ethnicities. Let's move away from the idea of "white" as a monoculture. That idea was invented by racists.

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November 2017

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