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Race in writing

Over on Ficlets, John Scalzi has a very interesting interview with David Anthony Durham, the author of a new fantasy novel, Acacia.  I want to move to Fresno and have this guy for a Creative Writing teacher.

However. I have an issue with characterizing whites who do not make their worlds racially diverse as racists. It’s disingenuous to accuse whites of inadvertent (and not so inadvertent) racism since many whites live in a “white world”, and don’t really know the difference. For example, I live in Southern California. It’s a racially mixed bag. Lots of everything everywhere. So, how many friends of color, or any race other than white do I have? Like, two. Not because I avoid places where races mingle, I just don’t really make friends that easily, and I have to have some commonality to really open up to people (like comics or Star Trek). I’m sure I have plenty of commonality with people of all races, but the things I enjoy; scifi, fantasy, gaming, Rush concerts, etc; don’t pull much of a diverse crowd. It’s a lot of white males, and a fair portion of white females, with a small population of diversity.

So, according to Durham, I am racist, because I don’t live in the brown world he describes, and don’t write about it? He doesn’t live in the white one I am in, so maybe I should be offended that he isn’t just writing white characters. OK, well, of course not; I should be offended if he was JUST writing white characters, because, if you didn’t know, he’s not white. If he was just writing white characters, he would be selling himself short, and just writing to sell instead of writing to tell. (Hey, I like that. I’m using that again somewhere.)

But how many gay friends do I have? Almost all of them. I wonder how many gay people are in Durham’s novel. I wonder how many gay friends he has. (Well, he works at a university, so I’m guessing he has a few.) I wonder how many people are crippled in his book. I wonder if there are any people who have developmental deficiencies. I wonder how many women are in charge of armies, or ships, and are not just from a matriarchal culture, like the Amazons. How many polyamorous groups? And if any of these things are represented, are they negative or positive?

Most of my characters are clear. That’s because in many cases race is not important. Their race is whatever it needs to be to allow the reader to identify with them. I also include many gay characters in my writing, something that most writers don’t, and when they do, it’s generally as twink fairy-boys who flit around and lisp, or are conflicted by their desire for the hot prince who is in love with the hot princess (from a different kingdom, of course.)

You can’t write what you don’t know, and when you do, it just sounds stupid. Durham says that whites are a minority in the world. OK. But they may not be a minority where the story is set. Not having racially mixed characters is not racism, just like not having sexually mixed characters is not homophobia, or polyphobia. (It’s a word … now.) But pointing it out and using it to condemn an otherwise worthy writer, well, that’s just not being fair.


About paranoyd

I am a father, an aspiring writer, and avid gamer. I am also into horror and scifi. I'm currently the Adventure league Local Coordinator for my area, and I'm really into the new FFG Star Wars RPG system. And I love a good curry.


3 thoughts on “Race in writing

  1. Corby,

    You’re such a dork–I LOVE this banter. Makes me feel like I’m back in college in my Literary Critism class, the lone Creative Writing major (an a chick to boot) debating all the Political-Sci. majors (all boys, by the way). How in the killswitch’s-detonation-wire do I know more about politics and reality then they do? ME!

    “The privilege of the white person is that he doesn’t know he’s privileged:” does this even make gramatical sense? Did I threaten this dude with genocide in a former life? lol. And why did I just kill off the only black dude in my first chapter? Why, because I just killed off his white female counterpart–doesn’t she count? Oh, excuse me, my antagonist is brown; is that bad? He’s evil, so what, he’s the best character! His foil in a future book is brown too–do I have an agenda, or did the color just fall into palce because I didn’t care a whit about race? LOL: keep up the good banter.

    Posted by Meghan M. | September 21, 2007, 10:43 pm
  2. Paranoyd,

    I know you posted this a while back, but I’ve just come across it now and wanted to say hello. So, “Hello”.

    I’d also like you to know that you don’t sound the least bit racist to me. Please don’t suggest I’d call you that. I actually love the questions you raise and way you raise them. Believe me, I struggle to make sure I do better and better all the time with all sorts of diversity, including gender (By the way, there’s a gay character in Walk Through Darkness and two in Pride of Carthage – I didn’t have any that I’m aware of in Acacia 1, but I’m already correcting that in Acacia 2). Some of my best friends are gay, and I’m utterly and completely happy with that. They baby-sit my kids!

    Funny that you mention crippled characters, because I’ve just written one of the MAJOR characters for the future of the series as having a lifelong ailment. How many “women are in charge of armies, or ships, and are not just from a matriarchal culture, like the Amazons”? Well, between the first book and the ones to come my answer is “More than you can shake a stick at”. Women, in many ways, will define the future of this series, and I hope they’ll define them in ways that set my work apart from the norm.

    So, I guess I can’t answer everything at once, but it’s clear to me that we’d agree on many more things you’d imagine. I know you’re basing the assumption that I’d deem you a racist on the Scalzi interview and discussions after it, but you’re mistaken about how I’d judge you. (Actually, I don’t spend a lot of time judging people anyway.) I hope we can put that rest.

    That’s all for now. I wish you well. Hope you read my work. Thanks for participating in the Forum and for commenting on my blog. And big congrats on the baby. It’s a wild ride but so, so worth it!



    Posted by David Anthony Durham | November 21, 2007, 7:18 pm
  3. Greetings. I followed your comment on Scalzi over here. You seem to be concerned about race, and its ism. That is as it may be.

    Allow me to make one observation. I just finished S’s book, Android’s Dream. Did you notice that Creek’s race was never noticed or hinted at? He could have been anything.

    That’s what I think of race.

    You might think about giving me an apology.




    Posted by Jack H | May 20, 2008, 4:51 am

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