Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

More on mentioning race in fiction

by Rob - February 8th, 2014.
Filed under: PotA, Star Trek, Writing.

I’ve written before about whether authors should feel nervous about specifying the race or skin colour of characters. My position is simple: you either do it for all characters or none; neither position is racist. What’s racist is only specifying it when deviates from some assumed norm — for instance, when books tell you if a character is black, but leave unstated that other characters are white, because, y’know, normal folk are white, so you only have to mention it when someone isn’t normal.

A fascinating example is the description of the character of Vince in Dexter. In the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter (an excellent book) by Jeff Lindsay, Vince Masuoka (as his last name is spelled in the book) is introduced as “half Japanese” — what the other half is is left unsaid, because, of course, it apparently goes without saying:

Sitting on an overturned plastic milk carton on the far end of the Dumpster, poking through a handful of waste matter, was Vince Masuoka. He was half Japanese and liked to joke that he got the short half. He called it a joke, anyway.
(In fairness to Lindsay, Darkly Dreaming Dexter is a first-person narrative from the point of view of the character Dexter Morgan, so the description of Vince is illuminative of Dexter’s character, not necessarily the author’s.)

In the pilot script for the TV series based on the book, though, scriptwriter James Manos, Jr., introduced Vince in a way I find more acceptable (slightly altering the spelling of his last name):

VINCE MASUKA (30′s), slight, half Japanese, half white, sporting a slicked-back “Don Ho” haircut, meticulously brushing for fingerprints around the exterior of a large green dumpster …

(C.S. Lee, pictured, the actor who plays Vince so memorably in the TV series, is actually Korean — born in Cheongju, South Korea, in 1971.)

Ah, well, even Starfleet Command is guilty of lapses in this area, as you can see in this screen capture from the Star Trek episode “The Menagerie,” in which Spock is referred to not once but twice as “Half-Vulcan” — the other half, of course, it goes without saying, is human. ;)

(There’s more from Robert J. Sawyer on this topic in the “Comments” section, below the following picture.)

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4 Responses to More on mentioning race in fiction

  1. A few additional comments by Robert J. Sawyer:

    They cut the scene from Star Trek 2009 in which Kirk couldn’t tell apart two Orion women; to him, all green-skinned women looked alike, even after sleeping with one of them — the producers realized in time that this made Kirk look like a racist jerk and so they cut the scene, although it was filmed. The scene would not have been funny if he’d mistaken another black woman for Uhura and it wasn’t funny when it involved green-skinned people, either.

    The scene in question: 11/05/07 Yellow Rev, Scene 152A:

    INT. ENTERPRISE – CORRIDOR

    Kirk comes down the hall, stretching his hand bandage — when he stops. Standing at the other end of the corridor, operating a DATAPAD is a familiar-looking GREEN GIRL. Guilt overcomes him. After a beat he moves to her. Awkward.

    KIRK
    Hey.
    (she turns to him)
    Listen, about what happened at Starfleet. The test and everything– I know it looks like I was… using you, or whatever. And I’m sorry. I really am. And… I just hope you’ll forgive me.

    She just stares at him for a long beat, as if she’s just pissed. But Kirk’s face changes… and then he says:

    KIRK (CONT’D)
    … you’re not Gaila, are you?

    NOT GAILA
    (pissed)
    No.

    KIRK
    (nods)
    Sorry.

    And he walks off.

    ======

    And what’s astonishing about how tone-deaf the writers were at this moment, the VERY NEXT SHOT, scene 153, is of Uhura:

    INT. ENTERPRISE – BRIDGE – CONTINUOUS

    Uhura at her station, scanning for enemy signals …

  2. Paul Dehn, who wrote all or part of each PLANET OF THE APES sequel, sometimes comes under fire, unfairly, for the scripts. He uses the word “Negro” in description (not dialog), writing in the early 1970s, when the word had been deprecated as a value-neutral descriptor in the US, although perhaps not yet in Dehn’s native England. But in fact his scripts, particularly for CONQUEST, are among the most racially astute and sensitive in the history of SF/F filmdom.

    And, in terms of aliens/non-humans, NOT being specific can kinda screw things up. The final scene of last classic PLANET OF THE APES film, BATTLE (spoilers!) — screenplay by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington; story by Paul Dehn — is supposed to convey a world at peace.

    Surely to convey that intention, the scene should have portrayed humans of various skin tones / ethnicity and all three apes genera (gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees), but as filmed although there’s a lovely diversity among the human children ONLY chimpanzees are present in the (to quote the script) “class of ‘integrated’ Ape and Human children,” which kind of dulls the point. The screenwriters weren’t specific enough, and others weren’t quite in-tune enough to get the point.

    Interesting, by the way, is the the little bit of description in the script that suggests WHY the child who is the final human to speak in the film series is black:

    ===

    We CLOSE to a little black human GIRL (descended from MacDonald?) rising to ask a question.

    ===

    David Gerrold got it right (using language acceptable in 1973) when he wrote the ending of the novelization of the screenplay thus (the final words in the book):

    ===

    The rapt faces of ape and human children stared back at him. Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, blacks, Orientals, and Caucasians. All together …

  3. Now, on the other hand, in the script for BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (page 37), Governor Kolp (a white man) looks at a security-camera monitor showing a human, a chimp, and an orangutan who have invaded his city. And here I think it’s totally unnecessary to say anything about the skin color of the human. The script:

    ===

    KOLP
    (watching monitor; tersely)
    The black man is the brother of my predecessor’s personal assistant.

    ===

    He’s the ONLY man on screen, and there’s no way the script would have said, “The white man used to be a teacher at the old academy” if it had been Abe (a white human character from the film) who had accompanied Caesar instead of MacDonald.

    Yes, this IS a film in part about racism (not nearly as much as CONQUEST was, but it IS dealing with the aftermath of slavery), but the spoken reference is unnecessary; it bothered me as a 13-year-old boy when I first heard it in the cinema, and it still bothers me 40 years later. :)

    That said, there’s a scene that was cut from the film but was in the script, and it’s got fascinating description; it IS, as I said, a film about racism and Reconstruction, and the script reflects that:

    ===

    INT. MACDONALD’S HOUSE – MACDONALD, TEACHER – NIGHT

    CAMERA SCANS a plain room with a crude fireplace; a mantel with a few fresh flowers in an “antique” Coke bottle, and a yellowing photo of Martin Luther King in a corroded frame. Above the mantel, an educational diploma from a Negro University and a third photo of MacDonald’s dead brother played by Hari Rhodes in CONQUEST. A table is set for three with a single candle, rusty knives and forks, and chipped enamel plates.

  4. I appreciate how this topic is of strong interest to you, please continue to help us all view race in fiction more concretely.

    And older post of yours I didn’t see linked above is here too for those wishing to dig deeper into the topic: http://sfwriter.com/2008/03/is-it-racist-to-mention-skin-color.html