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
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
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
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
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
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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