Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Write White People

Let me introduce [info]foc_u to you. I'll shamelessly rip stuff from the Redux edition for the next few paragraphs:

"It's where PoC all over speak up about how they feel about their fandoms, science fiction and fantasy, speculative or any other form of imaginative fiction which we love, but don't really see any parallels for ourselves within (because most of them are written by white people, with white characters). Yes, even Firefly, with its Chinese-speaking future, doesn't have a lot of Chinese people. We kind of fall short that way. Even I write white characters, because that's all I'm familiar with within my reading. I never came across a great science fiction story with an Asian character in it. You kidding me? The closest I got was Final Fantasy, and I never even played those games. Closer to home there was wuxia novels (fabulous fantastical martial arts stuff), and I couldn't read those because I can't read Chinese.

When you are a young PoC reading the mainstreadm scifi/fantasy culture, the first thing you learn is that big heroics and adventures and quests are for white people, and we're only sidekicks or mentors or prizes (I could say love interests, but "prizes" is a hella lot more appropriate word). That's not right."

And I do write a majority of white characters. I've only ever attempted to write characters closer to me in heritage three times: 1) a supernatural vigilante Malaysian girl who wore a pinafore (because that's the school uniform in Malaysian schools, and I found it easy and amusing to draw a superheroine who wore that while kicking villainy in the butt), 2) a brother-sister pair who were the only survivors of a village massacre, and 3) an embarrassing first attempt at NaNoWriMo (embarrassing not because I failed NaNo, but the subject matter itself was ridiculously angsty).

Oh, and then there was the one story I wrote for a CW class, about a graduating student returning home and finding herself alienated from her childhood home which had changed. This was because genre fiction isn't really liked in CW. So I didn't actually write stuff I wanted to write.

My current project is a Princess Series (yes, and actually I think it is brilliant) and she's white too. I angsted about it for a while; shouldn't she be of some other ethnicity? Aren't white princess over-represented already? Does she even need to be blond? Why is she blond? Can't I write a princess whose ethnic identity I don't even pinpoint with any kind of physical description of her?

I worried and wondered about this for a long while, then finally, I said (to no one in particular), "frig this. She's a natural blond, tans badly, and dyes her hair to disguise herself on a regular basis. She's been a white girl in my head ever since I first thought of her and I can always write another character with another ethnicity."

And whenever I do think about writing a character who's, you know, not pasty-white, my mind immediately thinks of cultural cues I can write in to indicate this. WTF? Why do I feel the need to make a distinction between any of my characters? Why do I immediately think "martial arts" when I think of an Asian character, and why do I think about "arid desert" when I think about a black character? And even if I do, are these bad ideas to attach to the character's skin colour? What's wrong with imagining these attendant cultural luggage alongside these characters?

This is how deeply we internalize cultural ideas about colour and race - white is mainstream and even if I were to imagine a PoC character, I'd still want them "mainstream" and somehow "accessible".

It's a frustrating conversation to have with myself.

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