Five Signs Your Story Is Racist

No joke, this is one of the only TOS Klingons not in blackface.

These days, most of us know not to use racial slurs* or say anything that starts with “some of my best friends are…” We can all go on about how important it is not to judge someone by the color of their skin, which is great, but it isn’t enough. Like sexism, racism is pervasive. It influences us, and by extension our stories, in ways we’ll never realize. As such, we must know what signs to look out for in our work, even if we’d never write anything racist on purpose.

1. All the Enemies Have Dark Skin

Huh, you think they might be the badguys? Huh, you think they might be the bad guys?

Few authors would intentionally write a protagonist who loves to kill people different than themselves, and yet we have a host of stories where the main character must fight their way through wave after wave of dark-skinned opponents. Each story has some kind of internal justification for this. The protagonist is an American soldier in Not-Iraq, or the evil wizard made all their orcs dark to symbolize eternal night.

After a while, the explanations blur together. The pertinent fact is that we have a lot of stories that cast large groups of dark-skinned people as the bad guys. This is most obvious in video games and films, where you can actually see what’s happening, but it pops up in prose as well. In the Belgariad series, for example, entire races of people are classified as good or evil. The Murgos in particular are described with East-Asian features, often with terms that border on racial slurs.   

In real life, far too many white people think they’re under attack by those with darker skin. We see this in the obsession with crime rates in largely black neighborhoods and the rejection of refugees coming from war-torn countries. The irony is that it’s almost always the other way around. For hundreds of years, up to and including the present, people who aren’t white have been far more likely to be on the receiving end of harm and oppression.

As authors, we have a responsibility to not reinforce this trope. It’s harmful to people in the real world, and it will cause future generations to judge us harshly.

How to Avoid It

The surest way out of this trope is to have a diverse cast. That will inoculate you against a situation where an all-white group of heroes faces down a dark-skinned horde.

There’s nothing wrong with having a non-white villain, provided it isn’t their non-whiteness that makes them scary. Lex Luthor from the Justice League animated series (JLA) is an excellent example. His threat to the heroes comes from being a billionaire businessman, which is far outside the stereotypes that make so many people afraid of black men. The JLA’s relatively diverse casting* also helps make sure Luthor’s villainy is never defined by his race.

In fantasy and science fiction, there’s no reason you can’t create diverse groups of space pirates or goblin raiders. When your story is set in the real world and involves a disenfranchised group, don’t play on their otherness to frighten the reader. That means not overemphasizing foreign customs and not describing innocuous elements of culture as threatening. For example, many Western storytellers portray minaret speakers as imposing and scary, blaring out words of oppression, when in reality they’re not any worse than any other forms of media.

2. Characters Play to Stereotypes

Chakotay holding dream catcher Dream catcher, huh? They have a lot of those in Central America?

Sometimes, stereotypes are obvious. Chakotay from Star Trek: Voyager is a walking pile of inaccurate ideas that white people have about Native Americans. He uses cultural trappings from various North American tribes, even though his tribe is supposedly from what is now Panama. He’s portrayed as peaceful and nonviolent, even though he’s a leader in the Maqui, a violent rebel group. He uses the cliche “a man does not own land” without any context.* These stereotypes could have been avoided with a little research or even a little thought.

Sometimes, stereotyping is harder to see. The writers of Daredevil probably thought it made sense to make the mob boss Nobu Yoshioka into a super-ninja, because Daredevil is a show about fist-fighting and they wanted a formidable villain. Unfortunately, that also plays into the stereotype of Asian exoticism and all Asian people knowing martial arts, especially since Nobu is the only Japanese person on the show.

Storytellers use stereotypes in place of real character development. Stereotyped characters don’t grow; they’re confined in a predetermined box. This not only makes for boring characters but also reinforces prejudice in real life. Even if the stereotype is something that some real person somewhere might do, it’s best to leave it out. Fair or not, minority characters are often judged as representatives of their group, which means making them well-rounded characters is even more important.

How to Avoid It

First, do some research to make sure you know all the potential stereotypes your character might face. For example, did you know there’s a stereotype that black people can’t swim? I didn’t until recently, and without knowing that I might have written a joke about a black character not being able to swim, unaware of the harm I was doing.

Second, focus on the character as an individual, not on the larger group they belong to. Chakotay is a former Starfleet officer who defected in order to join a criminal insurgency. That backstory is full of potential, and it’s all wasted because the writers were so busy trying to prove how Native American he was. A better strategy would have been to cast an actual Native American for the part and then focus on the backstory they established for him.

Third, add traits that directly counter a stereotype. Nobu could easily have been a threat to Daredevil without falling into the ninja trap. Instead, the writers could have given him a broadsword or made him a master of savate.* Those changes would have made Nobu dangerous and also played against stereotypes.  

With a little effort, you’ll find it easy to remove stereotypes from a character, and they’ll be more interesting for it. If the stereotypes resist all attempts at removal, it may be time to redesign the character from the ground up.

3. Minority Women Are Fetishized as Exotic

K'Ehleyr isn't pleased with this nonsense. K’Ehleyr isn’t pleased with this nonsense.

Ah, intersectionality, my old friend. While minority men are often treated as dangerous threats to be dealt with, minority women get cast as objects of desire. Naive writers try to spice up a romance line or sex scene by emphasizing the otherness of a woman of color, almost always for the benefit of a white protagonist.*

In real-world settings, women of color are sexualized by their race. Asian woman, Japanese or not, are put in the author’s idea of a geisha role. Latinas and black women are often portrayed as more sexual than whites, and this causes a terrible backlash when women of color assert their sexuality on their own terms.*  

Spec fic writers sometimes try to disguise this behavior with alien or fantasy race trappings. Star Trek has a particularly bad habit of talking about Klingon women in terms of their sexual appetites. The parallels are all too obvious, especially when so many Klingon are played by minority actors or white actors in skin-darkening makeup.

When a well-meaning author uses exotic otherness in a romance, it diminishes their characters. Instead of a romance based on how characters relate to each other as individuals, we’re left with the most shallow of interactions. Instead of showing us why a protagonist is falling in love, the story focuses on stereotypes that erase what’s special about the love interest.

How to Avoid It

Remember, character comes first. If you want a romance line involving a woman of color, great, but it has to be about her as a person, not what others expect her to be. This is basic writing advice, but it’s easy to forget when so much of the media that’s come before features the exact fetishization we’re trying to avoid.

Casual hookups follow the same rules. Women of color are as likely to be interested in a one-night stand as anyone else, and when such an encounter is important enough to include in your story, it should be about what the characters get from each other. Otherwise the scene is just gratuitous and should probably be cut.

4. The Only Minorities Are Non-Humans

Jaffa are technically human, but they still needed to go to another planet to find a black guy. Jaffa are technically human, but they still needed to leave Earth to find a black guy.

When authors include non-human races, be they fantasy or alien, it’s usually to draw contrasts with the humans in the story. Most of the time there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it leads to both humans and their non-human counterparts being simplified down into homogeneous groups. You can guess what tends to characterize the homogeneous humans.

In The Way of Kings, most of the story focuses around the conflict between a powerful human nation and the Parshendi, a non-human race. Based on cover art and description,* the humans are exclusively white. Meanwhile, the Parshendi are often described as having very dark skin.

On one side of the conflict, humanity is represented exclusively by white people, and on the other, a race of non-humans with dark skin. The lack of diversity among the humans is even more puzzling because the author, Brandon Sanderson, went out of his way to establish that the human society divides itself into classes by eye color. There was no reason not to include other forms of diversity.

Science fiction isn’t immune to this either. In Stargate SG1, almost every character from Earth is white, while the Jaffa and Goa’uld host bodies are much more diverse. Even though neither Stargate nor the Way of Kings fall into direct stereotyping, they reinforce the idea of humanity being white by default and people of color being a strange other.

How to Avoid It

When writing non-human races into your setting, resist the urge to dumb humanity down. It’s true that you might not have time to do an in-depth cultural study of your humans when there are elves and dwarves waiting, but you probably have more room than you think. The Mass Effect universe is filled to the gills with aliens, but the designers still had plenty of room for diversity among the human characters.

Remember that you don’t have to justify diversity. Some authors think that if they want a black man in their epic fantasy story, they need a long backstory to explain him. Not so. Fantasy exists in a world of your own making. It can contain as much diversity as you like.  

5. Minority Characters Have Nothing to Do

Hoshi and Travis hang out in the center, united in boredom. Hoshi and Travis hang out in the center, united in boredom.

Some stories remember to include minority characters and then leave them to waste away. Nowhere is this better exemplified than Star Trek: Enterprise. There’re a lot of white people on the bridge, but two exceptions are Hoshi Sato and Travis Mayweather. At least the writers will treat these two characters well, right?

Nope! Neither of them have anything to do. Entire episodes go by with Travis saying nothing but the occasional status update. He’s the helmsman; surely it wouldn’t have been difficult to give him some cool lines during the show’s many space battles? Hoshi is treated even worse. She’s the ship’s translator, a super important job, but her few plot lines mostly focus on how she’s afraid of everything. In one episode, just for a change of pace, she’s sent on a mission to find a cake for Reed’s birthday while the ship is getting attacked by aliens. That’s how valued her character is.

Meanwhile, the show lavishes time on Captain Archer and Commander Tucker, mostly so they can be racist against Vulcans. It’s unclear why the writers thought they needed a story about Archer’s dog getting sick or Tucker getting mystically impregnated by an alien,* but they could have used that time to develop other characters instead.

Even though Hoshi and Travis are in the main cast, they’re shoved so far into the background, you could sometimes be forgiven for thinking they were extras. Enterprise is an extreme example, but this problem is all too common. Including diverse characters is great, but they have to matter to the plot as well.

How to Avoid It

When you add more diverse characters to your story, make sure you’re actually interested in them. Travis and Hoshi got pushed aside because the writers were more invested in other characters. If you find yourself bored with the minority characters, there’s a very simple solution: Make them more central to the story.

Instead of trying to carve out diversity on the edges of your story, put it front and center. This is when switching the race, gender, sexuality, etc. of a main character or two can come in handy. If your story only has room for three characters, you don’t try to add in two minority characters over that limit. Instead, you make the original three more diverse.

None of us want to be racist, but that isn’t enough. We need to make a conscious effort to eliminate the racism that creeps into our stories unbeknownst. As with sexism, it isn’t a task we’ll accomplished overnight, but it’s something we’ve got to keep working on. Our stories will be better for it.

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  1. Stephan

    I usually love these articles, but could you please at least read The Way of Kings before you critize it?

    Straight from Coppermind (Sanderson wiki) about Parshendi: “Their skin has either a marbled pattern of black and red or white and red, although the white and red is more common in Alethkar.”

    And on Alethi: “Alethi are modeled on half Asian and half Hawaiian people, and according to Brandon, picturing Alethi as looking east-Indian works very well.”

    • J

      Exactly. Thank you for pointing that out

    • Elda King

      Just to add to this, the “Alethi tan” and their darker hair is often described and is considered the beauty standard.

      People from Jah Keved, like Shallan, have clear skin, but are still not white in the traditional sense. Pretty much the only “white” people in Roshar are the Shin, as all other have eyes with Epicanthic folds (and various other features).

      The only reason to imagine a majority of white characters in the Stormlight Archives is because of our socialization to default to it (especially in positions of power), as pretty much all actual descriptions contradict it. Not even parallels to European cultures would indicate an all-white cast, as the peoples of Roshar often mix inspiration from various sources.

      • Passerby

        Just to clarify, Epicanthic folds happen among white people too. Unless you consider Poles or Hungarians as non-white :V

    • Jordan

      The thing that annoys me about this is that the book makes it clear the Parshendi are not black, but mixed coloured marbled skin, yet fanart tends to draw them as dark skinned with red armour.
      This gives the impression that Sanderson has created a race that is black and either near-mute slaves or primitive warriors. Leading to accusations of racism whe not its the fans not the writer who have assigned them the skin colour and therefore the fault of the stereotyping does not lie with Sanderson who is an amazing writer and has done a fantastic job of diversifying the cast of the stormlight archive.

  2. Tyson Adams

    Often the easiest way to diversify is write/cast against stereotype. I’m thinking of The Librarians here where they cast Australian John Kim. He’s just Aussie. Not Asian Aussie, he doesn’t throw boomerangs, no other associated nonsense. In other words, people are just people.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I keep meaning to check that show out. Is it any good?

      • Sara Baptista

        Sure it is! But be aware that is not serious and have a touch of comedy
        Tyson Adams, Good point! “He doesn’t throw boomerangs” he will someday ?

      • Tyson Adams

        Oren, I enjoyed the show a lot more than the TV movies. The movies were too cheesy-stupid for my liking. The show still has some cheese, but it works better. From the same team that made Leverage (one of my favourite shows), so it was always going to be fun. I haven’t bothered tuning into the second season though.

        Also, I’m no longer receiving notifications of comment replies. Only saw this in the sidebar.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          I do really love Leverage, so I’ll check it out. As for your issues with the subscription, we’re looking into that. It seems to be an issue with all commenters, hopefully we’ll get it fixed soon.

    • AndrewR

      He’s a criminal (Australian stereotype) and a tech genius (Asian stereotype). Not really casting against stereotypes so much as combining them.

      • Tyson Adams

        Hadn’t thought of it like that. Probably because most people don’t regard the criminal stereotype as anything other than a joke.

  3. Stanley

    These are great tips for making sure we as authors are being mindful of what we’re writing and how they can ‘Anglosize’ a book.

    I do have one nit pick, though. ‘The Belgariad’ demonizes the entire Angarak race, regardless if where they are from. Eddings then spends most of the sequel series, ‘The Mallorean,’ knocking down those walls that were put up. It’s a nice example, where the main character meets these ‘evil’ Murgos and Malloreans and struggles with his own hatreds. Regardless of how wrong it was in the first series, I would have loved to have seen props for him breaking it down, too.

  4. Cooke

    I’m glad I found this article for a couple of reasons. First, I am 100% cognizant of white privilege and my place of privilege because of it (I am white.) Secondly, my current WIP has a more diverse cast than I have written previously.

    For example, the criminal defense attorney in the book is African American and while she is a secondary character in this book, she is a main character in the next. I want to create an exceptional character and I am doing my best to avoid stereotypes without sacrificing aspects of her character that speak to her human experience. She is not simply a character who happens to be black, but a woman of color with a voice that is proud, strong and powerful in her defense of others.

    My question comes from another character (two actually) who are Mexican American. Both of them work for one of the main characters on her ranch in southern Nevada, modern day. One of them is the housekeeper and cook. The other (her son) is the ranch foreman. Mom is an immigrant, having come to America (legally) as a young adult. She has an accent and is incredibly motherly to the ranch hands and even her boss. She is much older than the rest of the cast, to which I attribute her “mother hen-ness.” Her son, on the other hand, was born in the US, has no accent and while he does work for the MC, he is in charge of the ranch. He isn’t in a subservient role.

    My question is this: If we cast our characters into certain roles based upon reality in this world (a Mexican woman with little or no education arriving in the US in 1960 may likely find work as a maid or in some other domestic capacity not because of her race, but because she speaks little or no English and has little education) are we being inadvertently racist? Or are we being practical? She wanted a better life for her son, and worked hard his entire life to provide for him a bright future. He grew up on the ranch and ultimately worked his way up to foreman. Would his position in the ranch be racist in any way?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks for your question, Cooke.

      So, to be clear up front, I’m not the supreme arbiter of what is an is not racist, especially as a white dude myself. That’s why the post is about signs, not guaranties.

      The mother character does sound to me like she might be setting off some stereotype signals, based only on your description. Obviously plenty of people are motherly and work as house keepers, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but that’s also the standard image we seem to have of immigrants from Mexico and other countries.

      If you’re worried about that, my suggestion would be to give her some role that plays directly against stereotypes. You say she came to America without a lot of education, fair enough, but what if at some point in her past she discovered a gift for numbers, and now she’s the ranch’s accountant? Working ranches certainly need someone who’s good with numbers, and that doesn’t have to reduce her motherliness.

      Anyway, that’s just my thought based on your description, not having actually read your story. The most important thing you can do is develop the characters in question the same way you’d develop anyone else, like human beings.

      • Krssven

        It sounds more to me that he is reflecting actual historical accuracy rather than succumbing to stereotypes. The key is in what time period this work is set in. If it’s decades and decades ago, then he’d have to work hard to put immigrant Mexican-Americans in ‘realistic’ occupations for the time. Set this in a more contemporary time, and those problems are less pressing. A comparison would be setting a story in suffragette-era Britain but making the female protagonist the head of a bank when women were generally deliberately blocked from such positions, or having a black protagonist in the deep South not encounter racism.

    • Beccolina

      I ran this by my husband, who is Mexican-American and grew up as a migrant farm worker. From his view, there isn’t anything racist about the scenario you describe. It is stereotypical, but not necessarily negative or insulting. Problems would happen if the character becomes a cardboard cut-out–nothing more than a brown face and a few Spanish phrases. So, make her a well rounded character, with likes and dislikes, virtues and vices, like any individual. Remember that someone who comes from a different culture doesn’t live for years in a new country without picking up new ideas, preferences, etc.

  5. Amy

    Generally a decent article with good points.

    One nitpick, the actor who plays Chakotay is, in fact, Native American. His tribe comes from Mexico, but are still part of the native population.

    During his audition, he actually ended up arguing his way into the part. He was told he did well, but that they were looking to cast a Native American. He argued that he was Native American and Mexican.

    To me, this detail actually adds to your point. The producers were looking to get their diversity cred from simply casting an actor with a particular background, but did not know or care enough to actually know who fit the background. If this is representative of the attitude towards Chakotay, one can easily see why the character was a messy mash-up of Native American clichés. Also, the source material from TNG that set up Native Americans as they exist in the Star Trek universe was similarly bad about cliché, but is important to some of the background development that would have improved Chakotay as a character.

  6. Krssven

    While I don’t deny that racism exists in fiction, I find these examples extremely weak in proving the ‘we’re sometimes inadvertently racist’ argument. I laughed out loud when you used a picture of Uruk-Hai to illustrate the ‘don’t make your antagonists dark-skinned’ point. So the bad guys can’t have dark skin, period? Even when they’re monsters? This is bending over backwards to be PC.

    Diversity among casts has now swung so completely in the opposite direction that it’s now common to see anachronistic multi-race casts even in settings where they have no reason to be there. The most glaring example was the BBC’s ‘Merlin’ series, where in Arthurian England several thousand years ago, we have mixed-race and black handmaidens (complete with cockney accents, just to rub the ‘look! We’re so PC we recruit minority black actors from London!’ message in just a bit harder). If a work has a race of red, green, yellow or white-skinned people as antagonists, so what? Like you claim, character matters more. I don’t care whether a character in NCIS or Stargate is white, black, Asian, middle eastern or any other extraction – I care if the character is relatable, believable and whether I can understand their motivations. That’s where shows like NCIS triumph whether others just wheel a procession of characters of different ethnicities in front of the camera to tick all the demographic boxes.

    This type of article reminds me of the sexism arguments from 20 or so years ago, which by the time anyone really noticed wasn’t even an issue anyway. Female characters even in the 90s were becoming far less cliched and far more fleshed out. It only still seems to be an issue because writers like Joss Whedon STILL get asked ‘why do you write such strong female characters?’ ‘Because you keep asking that question.’

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Point of order: Medieval Europe was actually a far more diverse place than we’re often lead to believe. NPR did a piece on it a while back. It also seems a stretch to say that Merlin is supposed to take place in any “historical” setting.

      • Ssatkan

        Krssven has a point, though. Sometimes I watch a show and think: “This cast was just chosen to demonstrate ethnic diversity.” Doctor Who for example seems very keen to make a point about ethnically-mixed couples. I get the impression every white person in Britain has a black boyfriend or girlfriend, and certainly vice versa!
        Choosing people just for diversity is a little weak. It’s a fine line, though, because it’s totally legit to have a team of characters mirror the diversity of the population they come from.
        I’m a little in the middle here. For instance, including a black character into a medieval setting would make this person and his/her skin an issue. Yes, there were black people in Europe in the middle ages, especially in Spain, given their history, but very few people in what is now Germany or Britain would have just accepted a black person without noticing how he/she is different and “doesn’t belong” there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the story, but it needs to be adressed.
        I guess the bottom line is: All in all I agree with your article, but I would warn the readers not to annoy their audience with it.

        • NelC

          > “This cast was just chosen to demonstrate ethnic diversity.”

          Well, no, not just because of that. Presumably they were also picked because they have enough talent to sell their performances on a middling-popular TV show, they show up on time, hit their marks, remember their lines, and can do all the other things that professional actors do to make a living.

          Also, bear in mind that the casting was probably done in London, which is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and, being a sci-fi show, there’s no particular need to conform to whatever anyone thinks is “realistic” — something which often turns out to be more “normal-istic”.

          Now take US shows, or at least the shows that get exported to the UK: ever since Kirk kissed Uhura, US productions have seemed strangely reluctant to show any couples of differing race. I can’t remember the last time I saw an African-American of either gender paired with a European-American of either gender on a broadcast network. Strike that, I can: Six Feet Under, David Fisher and his boyfriend. But that was over a decade ago. If there have been more, they do not seem to be as common as real life. Are you sure that you’re reacting to a diversity that does not reflect reality, and not to a diversity that does not reflect the TV you’re used to?

          • Bronze Dog

            Deep Space 9 had Jadzia/Worf. Firefly had Zoe/Wash. Those are just a couple examples off the top of my head, but I’ll be paying closer attention to that topic. No point patting ourselves on the back if we don’t maintain the effort.

    • greg

      I’m not a fan of the BBC Merlin series, but as a somewhat related point, in Sir Thomas Mallory’s La Morte D’Arthur (written in the 1400’s), we have at least three dark-skinned knights, including Palomides the Saracen, who was badass enough to hold his own against some of the best knights of Camelot.

  7. Jesse

    Enjoyed the article. Do you think this issue is the reason the Orcs on The Hobbit were pale? Unlike those portrayed in Lord of the Rings who were all dark skinned.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I can’t say for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Also nice for the visual distinction, even though I found those sections rather forced.

      • Jesse

        Well, the entire trilogy was rather forced, so there you go.

  8. Mai

    Great article! If I may add, another problem I notice when it comes to minority stereotypes, and don’t see many people pointing out, is about people with albinism. There are very few people with this condition portrayed in stories, but the worst part is that it seems whenever the audience is introduced to a character with albinims (or, at least, remarkably white-skinned/haired as to look almost like so), this character is always a villain. To think of a few examples, the monk in DaVinci’s Code, the evil monk from The Princess Bride, the twins from The Matrix, the “Pale Orc” from The Hobbit movie… Is is just a coincidence the stories I happened to know show this “evil white” thing, or is this harmful stereotype really out there?

    • Cay Reet

      You have a point there … I can’t remember any character with albinism not portrayed as evil or at least bad.

      • Cay Reet

        Actually, today I was reminded of the first Detective Dee movie which features an albino character who is not a villain.

      • Mikki

        Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is… well, he’s an albino, and in his case, it’s not always clear whether he’s a hero or not; certainly, he brings a lot of death and destruction to those around him. I guess he sort of straddles the line. But he’s the protagonist of the stories, and I’d say he’s more of a tragic figure than a villain, what with having this awful relationship with a sword that sustains his life but needs to eat souls and all.

        Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird is an albino, I guess? (Or is he just super pale because he spends so much time indoors?)

        Geralt of Rivia, the main character of The Witcher franchise is an albino.

        In The Grey King, one of the The Dark is Rising books, one of the heroic kids is an albino, and he turns out to be the son of King Arthur.

        It does feel like heroic/good examples of albino characters are vastly outweighed the by evil and villainous ones.

        • Cay Reet

          Geralt and all other witchers are actually magically/genetically altered, he is not an albino in the traditional sense. The white hair is a side effect of the treatments they’re submitted to.

      • Kel

        Jeremy from “Powder”

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Well spotted. Even the Temeraire books do this, despite their focus on social justice. Although at least in this case Lien (an albino dragon who is a major villain) has sympathetic motivations and understandable goals.

  9. Mikki

    Love the article.

    I do feel the urge to nitpick about one particular detail, though — Nobu’s an Asian guy who knows martial arts, yeah, and he fits the trappings of that stereotype, BUT in that particular instance, he doesn’t know martial arts because he’s Asian, it’s because he’s a high-ranking representative of the Hand, an Asian ninja organization that is an integral part of Daredevil lore. Or, to put it another way, he’s not a random Asian mob boss who just happens to be a ninja because obviously all Asians are ninjas.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that whole setup doesn’t have its problems, I should perhaps add, but I think the context does matter. (And granted, said context may not be obvious based on the first season of Daredevil, but it’s been a part of the comics since 1981, and they were building up to the Hand being a major element in season two.)

    In any case, again: love the article.

  10. Justin Scott

    Hi, love the article, but I need to be slightly nitpicky here.

    Nobu from Daredevil is actually a slightly modern spin on Hironubu Yoshioka, leader of The Hand syndicate of ninjas. They’re a recurring villain in the Daredevil universe. His Japanese stereotypical behavior is because he’s either based on or actually is a Samurai from the Ashikaga period.

    Considering the other people with backgrounds based on ninjutsu are Daredevil, Stick, and Elektra and one of those is a dark skinned woman and two of those are pretty white guys – they aren’t afraid of having ninjas who aren’t Japanese. They could probably have more Asian characters who aren’t ninjas, but it’s a little unfair to call it racist.

  11. Sleepless in Arabia

    It is, of course, true that loudspeakers on mosques aren’t “imposing and scary, blaring out words of oppression”, but anyone claiming that “they’re not any worse than any other forms of media” has plainly never lived with one pointed at his or her bedroom window.

    “Idiot box” or not, at least my tv has the courtesy not to turn itself on at top volume at 4 a.m. every $%*&@^# morning.

  12. Carly

    Sulu was an Asian character in Star Trek and was one of the people that worked alongside Chekov, who was Russian, while piloting the Enterprise.

    • Devlin Blake

      True. The original Star Trek was all about true diversity and equality. That was always Roddenberry’s goal; to show a glimpse of how the future COULD be. He even went against stereotype on purpose, making Sulu’s favorite sword a French foil, not an Asian weapon. Spock was even supposed to be a woman (his wife) but the network excs couldn’t have that.

      I am the biggest Trekkie of the ORIGINAL. Sadly, he died during the run of the TNG. When he did, I noticed the later franchises (and even the TNG episodes) grew much darker, more violent, and much less diverse than the original.

      RIP Mr. Roddenberry. You’re original is still what we should strive for in stories and life.

      • 3Comrades

        I still feel the original was a bit sexist (I mean women unable to captain star ships, rapey scenes, and whatever that eisode where they were worried Scotty would hate women for all time since one beat him up? Jack the Ripper one.)

        Also it was George Takei’s idea for the fencing sword, not Rodenberry’s.

        As far as diversity I think Deep Space 9 and Voyager managed fairly well in that regard, sometimes better than the Original. (even if how they showed Chakotay was absolutely cringe worthy)

      • Carly

        In the reboots of the original, particularly Star Trek: Beyond, Uhura proves to be badass.

      • Carly

        I never knew that it was Rodenberry’s idea, but, yeah. Sulu with a fencing sword? Not helpful in ANY mission for a Starfleet Officer of the Federation.

  13. Evin

    Thanks for writing these articles. They have helped me to realize that one of my own WIPs is actually a bit racist. To fix this, I have decided to make another character black, but I’m having trouble finding a good place to communicate this to the reader. The character is introduced in the first chapter and is relatively important so I want to say it right away. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m going out of my way to say it though because that would suggest that there’s something strange about being black. Do you have any advice?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey Evin, you’re very welcome, glad you liked the article.

      As I haven’t read your story, I can’t comment on the details for sure, but I have a question: why does it feel strange to describe a character as black? Would their skin color not be something the POV character would immediately notice?

      I suspect that it feels weird because we’re not used to describing a character’s race when they’re white, so describing them when they’re black, Asian, etc feels strange to us. So you might find it easier to casually describe your black character’s race if you did the same with your white characters.

      Alternatively, if straight up saying “this character is black” is what’s giving you trouble, you could just describe them as having darker skin and readers should get the message. Just avoid food metaphors

      I’m glad you’re willing to ask this kind of question. I’ve been there too, and it’s a challenge to change course.

      • Evin

        Thank you for the reply. The reason it’s so difficult that I forgot to mention is that my protagonist isn’t meeting this character, they’ve been friends for a while. And I didn’t casually describe the white characters’ race either; I in fact hate physical descriptions in general and stay away from them whenever possible, but in the case of someone’s race not matching what I know the audience will assume I suppose it’s necessary.

        • Cay Reet

          In this case, perhaps you can have someone they meet for the first time mention it? Being surprised, perhaps, because the protagonist hasn’t mentioned their friend is black before?

    • Cay Reet

      I’d try to simply work that into a sequence as a bit of description, not making a big fuss about it, just suggesting his/her skin is darker or something similar. You could also put it into a dialogue where it will fit or do something similar. You don’t have to outright say ‘I’m now introducing a black character.’

      What is your POV character’s reaction to meeting that character for the first time? What is the first thing they notice? Height, build, voice? It’s okay if it’s ‘hey, that person is black!’ if you also make clear that’s unexpected and why the POV character is not expecting it.

  14. Carly

    In CW’s The Flash, Cisco is Mexican-American, part of the main cast, smart, has badass powers AND makes pretty cool comments. Also, In the Star Trek reboots, it’s Spock (not Kirk) that has a romantic relationship with Uhura. And to make matters WEIRDER? Uhura’s in love with a half-human/half-alien hybrid. And, as far as Flash goes, Barry is currently dating Iris, who is an African-American AND part of the main cast, and not to mention a reporter. Also, in Supergirl, there are two black men part of the main cast. Martian Manhunter/head of D.E.O. and James Olsen, Supergirl’s former love interest/vigilante superhero, head of Catco Worldwide Media and best friends with Superman. Originally Jimmy Olsen was white. Back to Star Trek, originally, Asian people were enemies/comic relief, not so in Star Trek, since Sulu is co-piloting the ship WITH Chekov, and Russians were mostly portrayed as the enemy, but Chekov was an exception. And, combat wise, Chekov, Scotty, AND Bones would stink as a captain. Sulu would be OKAY, Uhura would be a better fit since she’s a lieutenant. Kirk is obviously captain, but if he was down, Spock would have to take the role, and Spock is not just a science officer, but a first officer to make it interesting. If he was just one of them, he wouldn’t be as interesting, probably, let alone capable

    • SunlessNick

      Iris maybe isn’t the best example as (unless season 3 changes), she’s a bit nothingy. But there’s also Joe, who Barry regards as a father figure on a par with his biological (and still living, for a while) father – faced with the chance to save his mother from death and father from prison, Barry saw losing that relationship as a huge deal – so much so he wavered about doing it.

      And Linda, a temporary love interest for Barry was Asian – plus, she and Iris had a refreshing lack of antipathy for each other (though that part’s more about sexism than racism).

  15. setanta-

    One  should avoid stereotypes because they make for lazy and uninteresting  storytelling. But the advice for avoiding unintentional racism is ridiculous.  The example the author gives of the black character who cannot swim is a perfect example. Filtering one’s writing through a matrix that will render it as bland as possible only creates pablum.

    Take the character of Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager. He is picked apart here for being a racist stereotype.  But the whole purpose of his character was to placate the mid-90’s conception of diversity.  Similar false efforts today will be trashed in another 20 years.

    Real art is a reflection of truth, not propaganda. And that is what one is writing when one curbs one’s creative instincts to adhere to an agenda- no matter how noble the objective. 

    Here is some alternate advice: write what is in your heart.  If what is there is good then don’t worry if others misconstrue your motives. If what is there is ugly then put it out there just the same and take your licks. Trade the checklist for self-awareness and have the courage to be who you are.

    • Adam J. Thaxton

      Chakotay, a diversity hire? As if. They didn’t ask any actual Native Americans to help round him out. They didn’t get a Native actor to play him. They didn’t specify his tribe. From day one, he was heavily criticized, and in response, rather than actually step up to their errors, the producers doubled down on their stereotypical portrayal.

      “Real art is a reflection of truth, not propaganda”

      How is truth determined if one is using “creative instincts?” What truths are we talking about, here? Can you give an example? Can you give an example of propaganda endorsed by this article?

      “to adhere to an agenda”

      How does one determine if there is or is not an agenda? What kind of agendas are we talking about here?

      “Trade the checklist for self-awareness”

      I’m pretty sure these “five signs” are intended to help you begin to acquire self-awareness by asking questions about your work. By all means, write what is “in your heart,” but never dare to not question it.

  16. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    A good article.

  17. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I removed a comment for blatant insults.

  18. Andrea

    My comment is a bit late, since this article is from last year, but I’d still like to post it.

    Chakotay is one of my favourite characters in Voyager, despite the cringeworthy stereotyping (it’s like they were trying to tick all the boxes: medicine wheel, dream catcher, vegetarian, spirit guide, storyteller…) I’ve always wondered if Robert Beltran actually protested at any point, or if they asked for his advice at all. Maybe I’m just naive, but it would make sense to ask the actor.
    But the episode about him coming in contact with his “alien ancestors” is something I’ve noticed quite a few times: the suggestion that any kind of profound knowledge or advanced skills of a non-white people, must certainly be alien. Aliens must have visited the Native American tribes to share secret knowledge with them, Egyptians didn’t build the pyramids, aliens did.. the Sumerians did not invent writing (and other things the Ancient Greeks have been credited with), those were aliens as well, or maybe the Sumerians were an alien race themselves… I mean, they’re all far-fetched conspiracy-type theories, but they’re still a symptom of white supremacy, and they’re easily used in fiction. Only the white, male, Enlightened person can apparently be clever and successfully practise science and philosophy.

  19. LiliesAndRoses

    4. What is the story doesn’t include human beings at all?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Then that particular point probably wouldn’t apply, though it still could if you have one group of non-humans who are pretty close to humans (say, elves) and white, while having another group that’s much further from humans and clearly reads as black or some other non-human race (say, orcs).

  20. kofybean

    I’ve been watching Stargate SG1 and I got to the Thor’s Hammer episode and I’ve already had enough. Really? I mean, I get that all the bad guys are dark skinned, and all advanced and benevolent races are white. Sure. Standard stuff. But why every minority token character thrown in there has to be some broken character that needed to be saved? ugh.

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