White Privilege and Fiction

As some of you know, my partner and I are working on a rather large work of fiction set to start releasing today, February 1st, 2012 at The Keep (/end self plug!) It’s set in a custom made world with entirely new races, situations, economies, cultures, the whole shebang.

I’ve been feeling really good about it, about the lore and the story, about the characters, but walking back to work from my lunch today, I realized something.

So far, we have very few human characters, but of those that we do have, less than half could be considered non-Caucasian.

Yes. Me, who spends so much of her time thinking about and dreaming about diversity got caught in a slump of making characters based on my own personal experiences and of what I’m familiar with.

Where I live (St. John’s Newfoundland) there is a very small minority population, and most of them are students. There are very few non-Caucasian people at my work, and none that I’ve ever worked with on a daily basis. I have only once, in the last ten years, worked with a non-Caucasian person.

But it’s more than that. It’s a reflection on the media that I consume. Most of my favourite shows (Veronica Mars, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Game of Thrones) tend to have a handful of minority characters, but the vast majority tends to be Caucasian. Most of the background filler characters will definitely be Caucasian, and this may just come down to the fact that it seems like there’s just more Caucasian actors/actresses out there.

When it comes to other media, such as video games and books and movies, it’s usually the fact that if there are human looking characters, a lot of them will be white. Probably the majority. I’ve spoken before about how some games with excellent customization might have a dozen or more Caucasian shades of skin, they might only have one or two shades of darker skin.

So this is what surrounds me, and this is what shapes me. Background people in my world tend to be white, and background characters in my fiction tend to be white.

This isn’t right, though. It isn’t something I’m proud of, and it isn’t something I want to include. I want my fiction to be racially diverse because I want people to be accepting of diversity as the norm rather than the exception. And I want my story to be read, and understood, and enjoyed by people of a diverse background, and I want their to be a character that they can sympathize with.

I want it to be inclusive, and while there’s plenty of diversity in species and colours of skin, there’s still racial homogenization in the humans of the story. I still have a lot to learn in wanting diversity and thinking of diversity as being the default status. It just wasn’t something I was thinking about while writing, and that’s just not a good enough excuse for me.

I must be the change I want to see.


  1. Rafael says:

    A word of caution. If you’re modeling your fantasy world in the Western European middle ages, then you have to have a good reason for the present of a divergent cultural presence less it sounds false or worse post-modernist tokenism.

    • Anjasa says:

      That much is true as well, though I don’t feel I have such an excuse. The story is an epic fantasy, taking place far from our own planet. While it does take from our world, I don’t feel that racial diversity would reflect poorly on the work. There’s a lot more different species (elves, demons, orcs, half breeds, vampires, succubus, angels, sirens, etc.) but there is also humans, so I’d like to represent them a bit more openly.

      Going back over the work, it wasn’t as bad as I feared it to be, but I still feel it could use a bit more diversity in skin tone, even if races wouldn’t exist like we think of them in our world. Species would be far more noticible than skin tones within those species, I think.

      • Rafael says:

        Of course. After all the world’s makeup is your own. But as a non-white male I am weary of the tactic of “inclusion”. Better it fit the story than it should be shoehorned in. I had a similar problem with women in my second book, they came either as victims or monsters (of the black widow/Praying Mantis type). It really worried me, then several female characters emerged (on their own accord as I am a discovery writer) who I believe redressed the balance.

        • Anjasa says:

          I definitely see your point. It’s like those college pamphlets that have a person of a visible minority photoshopped in to make the campus seem more inclusive. That’s definitely not what I want to do.

          Truthfully it was more of a concern to me that I hadn’t been thinking about it or realizing it – despite having been blogging about how much I love diversity in games and media!

        • Amber says:

          Yes, this is what I was going to say. I am a minority, as is my husband, and we were raised in an “urban” area (aka. very few white people). But we don’t enjoy a movie/book more if there are a lot of minorities, especially if it feels forced or fake. We understand that if you’re in the US, there are more white people, so it just makes sense.

          I also don’t particularly enjoy people who are not minorities writing about the experience to “help” us when the presentation is misinformed (because that’s not who they are). Neither am I a fan of characters that act “white” except they happen to have dark skin. Basically, writing a well-rounded ethnic character is incredibly hard, and to do it well, it steals the focus away from whatever else you are trying to say. And honest question: if you’ve never been around a lot of minorities, how can you accurately write the differences? Just my 2 cents, I’d rather you write what you know. That will be an interesting book, and I can read about cultural/racial issues from someone else.

          I realize that in your case, the world is fictional. You can have whatever racial make-up you want. Still, will there every be a particular location where one race doesn’t dominate, in terms of population mostly, but even going into sociopolitical terms? Hasn’t happened yet, that I know of, which is why it feels “forced” when you see one of every species in Deep Space 9.

          Anyways, obviously, it’s your book so do what you want and love! This is just one girl’s take on it.

          • Anjasa says:

            Oh no, this is actually fantastic.

            I just feel so lost navigating this territory. I hear about people who just hate how everyone is white in all the books, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m adding to that collection.

            But I definitely agree that adding characters in just for the sake of political correctness isn’t preferable either.

            It’s very difficult to know what to do to help, while at the same time not disrespecting a group’s history and culture and stories.

  2. Thabo says:

    I am truly impressed that you think about these issues

  3. J. Keep says:

    It’s so easy to be ignorant of problems that don’t affect you, even for those who consider themselves aware and compassionate.

    I notice it in myself. Growing up and spending the bulk of my life poor working class or underclass, I notice now that my sympathy for the plights of people currently less fortunate than myself waned a bit. My problems have slowly been sorted out through a grueling life, and perhaps that hardened me against such sympathies for people still struggling with what I went through.

    More likely, I think it’s just a case of it being easier for me to ignore it because it doesn’t affect me. My generosity in helping those in need is less now than when I worried daily about having enough money to keep a roof over my head.

    So how’s that tie into the topic? Well, race and class matters aren’t the same, but they do tie in a lot. But comparatively, I just think it’s extremely easy for those of us with white privilege on our side to just turn a blind eye to racial matters, to pretend they don’t exist, or if they do that they’re not that big of a deal. Or, as some manage to do, convince themselves that it’s gone the other way and being a pale skinned individual brings the greater set of detriments.

    Personally I do my best to keep from thinking in such a self-obsessed manner on social issues. I try not to get lost only in those things which directly harm or benefit myself. But as I said, even the well intentioned can do it without realizing.

    • Anjasa says:

      I definitely agree, and think that’s why a lot of people who move out of certain places (whether it be a low income area in a city to the suburbs, or even from one city to another) often find their views assimilate to those around them. It’s difficult to force yourself to think about cultures that you’re not immersed in at all times, whether it’s economic based cultures, religious cultures, et.al.

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  6. Eden Connor says:

    I must be the change I want to see.

    That sounds like a very good tagline, Anjasa. With an awareness of our limitations we can bridge the gaps.
    Well done.

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  8. Gareth says:

    That’s what I like about British TV to be honest. In American TV, if you see a black guy as the main character, it’s a big deal. Something big is going to happen to them. They’ll be some sort of stereotype, and you almost never see black extras.

    Moving on to British TV, it’s completely different. The world they portray seems more diverse simply because there are random black people, and black people aren’t any more of a big deal or tokenised than white people

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