Captain Benjamin Sisko of Star Trek Deep Space Nine
Obviously the title of this entry is an exaggeration. It’s also an obvious reference to Star Trek, a show that featured black people and other people of color. Uhura (played by the lovely Zoe Saldana in the JJ Abram’s reboot—she’s my future wife, she just doesn’t know it yet), Geordi LaForge, Benjamin Sisko, Commander Worf (I know he’s a Klingon, but he’s a black one!) and Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg’s character) are examples that immediately come to mind. What I seek to convey with this entry is that for all the strides forward in the inclusion department literature—and in particular science fiction/fantasy—has made over the years, there is still much more ground to cover.
Don’t get me wrong. Science fiction has improved tremendously in more recent years. But in many cases, people of color are relegated to supporting and peripheral characters (if they’re included at all). The television and film industry is notorious in keeping people of color in side roles and this is more apparent in science fiction and fantasy. Most high fantasy is based on European folklore, mythology and history, so it stands to reason that fantasy stories have a preponderance of white people and mythical creatures and races drawn from western European culture. Lord of the Rings is a great example—there isn’t one person of color in Middle Earth.
One does not simply put black people in Middle Earth
Unfortunately, the problem is bigger than just the small inclusion of ethnic characters in speculative fiction. The problem extends to the small number of speculative fiction authors of color and the lack of proper representation of minorities in speculative fiction’s readership. The question begs to be asked, do people of color even read science fiction and fantasy?
Well, the answer is obvious—yes, but the numbers aren’t as big as our white counterparts. The sad reality is white men are over-represented in speculative fiction, as authors, characters, and readers. Since one of the privileges of being white is NEVER having to think about race, unless one chooses to, people of color and issues concerning race rarely make an appearance in speculative fiction unless the author is a person of color. One theory concerning why people of color may not read a lot of speculative fiction is because they are under-represented and therefore feel left out.
Another obstacle is having one’s work labeled as Black Science Fiction or Afrofuturism (or Latino science fiction, Asian science fiction, etc.). These labels in and of themselves aren’t necessarily bad per se, but they make a distinction wide enough to turn most science fiction readers off. Again, most science fiction readers are white males and as already mentioned, the privilege of being white is being inconsiderate of race. So, if I pen a science fiction or fantasy novel in which the culture, characters, and situations reflect real world race issues that are pertinent to people of color, I run the very real risk of alienating my white audience, who may feel the work does not resonate with them. The double-edged sword is that a lot of current fantasy and science fiction does not resonate with many readers of color. It’s a sort of catch 22 situation. Another problem is that science fiction written by people of color isn’t even labeled as science fiction. It is usually labeled as black fiction or Latino fiction etc. Such labeling completely removes authors of color from the genre altogether.
I gotta tell you, as a kid, I went ape shit crazy when I saw a black captain in a Star Trek show. For me, it was the first time I’d seen someone of color in a commanding role and what’s more, he WASN’T a stereotype. Far too often, when a minority character is included in a science fiction narrative (or any narrative for that matter) he or she is a stereotype of some kind. Benjamin Sisko was a breath of fresh air for me. This is doubly so since Avery Brooks, the actor who played Sisko played a Shaft-like stereotype in Spenser for Hire.
Really George Lucas? Really?
Let’s keep it real here. Jar Jar Binks is a stereotype of West Indians. There, I said it.
So how do we fix this problem? How do we as readers and authors be more inclusive without feeling as if we have to conform to an overbearing sense of affirmative action with our literature? Why is it that science fiction and fantasy, which is literature largely about alienated and marginalized people, contains so little written by alienated and marginalized people? When science fiction does deal with issues of race, racial tension and including people of color, it is usually from a Eurocentric perspective that does not actualize the characters as being complete human beings or give credibility to the issues concerning race and racism. In many respects, minority characters included in science fiction narratives are tokens that are simply in the story just for the sake of inclusion.
Look at films such as Avatar. Io9.com’s Annalee Newitz wrote a review entitled “When will white people stop making movies like Avatar?” This scathing, and justifiably so, review accuses Avatar of being a “white guilt” fantasy. I’m inclined to agree. The lead character, Jake Sully infiltrates Na’vi culture by assuming an “avatar” of a Na’vi. There he is able to learn more about the Na’vi peoples, who are essentially giant, blue, cat-like Native American people complete with the stereotypical feathers in their hair and war paint on their faces. In learning more about the Na’vi, he is accepted among them and in this regard, a sense of guilt is assuaged. Moreover, he becomes their leader! Avatar is a film that explores the very brutal history of American colonization by European
Blue Native Americans. Dances with wolves with blue people. Good one, James.
immigrants against the Native indigenous populations. Newitz accuses James Cameron, the film’s director, of pandering to the white male desire to be accepted by marginalized ethnic groups, but never actually be a member of said group. So, in this sense Jake Sully can walk between both worlds. He has the privilege of his white existence, while enjoying inclusion in this exotic “other” world inhabited by the Na’vi. By the film’s end, the Na’vi come to embrace Jake as a “brother” and he even goes as far as to declare that the Na’vi remove the invaders from “our land.” Jake, seriously, when did it become “ours?”
When science fiction deals with race from a Eurocentric standpoint, it conveniently ignores the issues pertinent to people of color and in most cases, it presents race issues from a color-blind racist viewpoint as if race issues aren’t important, or only important to people of color and therefore our problem. This is particularly the case with futuristic science fiction in which if aliens are present, they are usually metaphors for people of color. See District 9 for example or Michael Resnick’s A Miracle of Rare Design.
I will leave this entry on a positive note. Science fiction and fantasy, and the overall umbrella from which both genres spring, speculative fiction, is growing. The genre is expanding and as a result, readers are seeing more inclusion. The new Green Lantern is homosexual, as is the new Batwoman. In Ultimate Spider-Man, the new Spidey is an Afro-Latino youth named Miles Morales. More marginalized people from various walks of life are being included in our stories. These stories are ones we tell, and ones that tell us. It’s about time they are as diverse as the people who read them. It is my hope that speculative fiction becomes more inclusive and so far, it’s getting there, but it’s a slow grind. To its credit, it’s come a long way, but to its detriment, it still has much farther to go.
Let’s get to work.
RONIN STAND UP!!