Monday, March 24, 2008

Is it racist to mention skin color?

A letter I received today from a reader:
I just finished reading Rollback, Mindscan, and Humans, and while I enjoyed the stories, one thing seriously annoyed me. WHY do you insist upon identifying every character who comes upon the scene by their race and/or skin color? "A black man entered the room." "A white woman sat down." Why do we need to know this? To me, it smacks of racism on your part. What do you have to say about it?
My response:
I think it's exactly the opposite. To pretend that people don't have skin colors is to ignore the obvious, and suggests, to me, a suspect delicacy. It's silly to describe eye color and hair color but be so sensitive about skin color as to be embarrassed/scared to mention it.

If the police asked you to describe a person, you'd mention (or be prodded to mention) their race, hair color, eye color, height, and build. Why on Earth should we be afraid to mention any one of those when describing people in fiction? The police would not believe you if you said you noticed eye color but not skin color, but suddenly if you mention it in providing a description you're racist?

Now, what is racist is to assume that all characters are, by default, blue-eyed white males, and only mention how they deviate from that -- you will never, ever find an example of that in my fiction, although it's common enough in other people's writings.

Indeed, by portraying an ethnically diverse society in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character I am doing my part to fight racism; to allow you (or anyone) to complacently populate the future with people solely of your own race in your imagination would be a failure of social responsibility on my part. You can't help but see a multicultural future when you read my books, and I'm proud of that.

Also, you're unfair in your examples. These are samples of what I actually said, in Rollback, for instance:
  • Lenore looked to be twenty-five -- a real twenty-five, no doubt. Her orange hair cascaded down to her shoulders, and she had freckled white skin and bright green eyes.

  • A server about Lenore's age ... tall and broad-shouldered, with chocolate brown skin and waist-length blue-black hair.

  • Bonhoff was a broad-shouldered white woman of about forty, with close-cropped blond hair.

  • Coming toward them was a young couple: an Asian woman and a white man, the man pushing a stroller. Don was wearing sunglasses -- as was Lenore -- so he felt no compunction about looking at the beautiful young woman, with long black hair, wearing pink shorts and a red tank top.

  • The minister -- a short black man of about forty-five, with hair starting to both gray and recede -- entered, and soon enough the service was under way.

  • Dr. Petra Jones was a tall, impeccably dressed black woman who looked to be about thirty -- although, with employees of Rejuvenex, one could never be sure, Don supposed. She was strikingly beautiful, with high cheekbones and animated eyes, and hair that she wore in dreadlocks, a style he'd seen come in and out of fashion several times now.
So, I've got a black clergyman for a white family, a mixed-race couple, people of all races and both genders holding positions of authority and power, and none of them behaving stereotypically ... and you see racism? Puh-leeze. You might as reasonably accuse me of ageism for so often mentioning how old people are.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At March 24, 2008 11:32 PM , Blogger Scott said...

A well-reasoned and argued response. If anything, what you`re doing in your fiction is simply acknowledging the multicultural reality of modern-day Canada.

I've always admired your obvious effort to include fictional characters that truly represent the everyday complexity of modern society. Too many authors barely include ANY character descriptions, and seem lax in acknowledging that North America is not entirely made up of thirty-year old white males...

I absolutely agree with you about how it's strange to assume that all characters are automatically white, blonde and blue-eyed, and I agree that it IS necessary to point out what a character looks like.

However, I know that fellow SF writer John Scalzi has a character in one of his book who is not identified by gender; we don't know if the character is a male or a female, and Scalzi has argued on his blog that it doesn't matter, that HE didn't know if the character was male or female either, and it wasn't central to the relationship or the plot.

But given that in life we certainly DO gauge our reactions based on whether or not somebody is a man or a woman, shouldn't fiction replicate that reality as much as possible? (And besides -- what happens if they make a movie version?!?)

Here's hoping you keep depicting Canada's diverse inhabitants with your usual class and depth...

At March 25, 2008 6:34 AM , Blogger Mark Leslie said...

I knew it! You're an ageist! :)

In all seriousness Rob, great response to that reader's misunderstanding.

I'd never noticed how you'd identified your characters in your novels - perhaps because it all seemed to stem so naturally out of Canada's multicultural society.

Thanks for sharing this.

At March 25, 2008 6:39 AM , OpenID jamietr said...

Rob, I have read all three of the books in question, as well as, more recently, The Terminal Experiment and Factoring Humanity (all of which I enjoyed), and I have to say that I whole-heartedly agree with your approach to character description. What you are doing is painting a subtle picture for the reader, something that any good writer would do, providing enough brush strokes to allow the readers' imagination to fill in the details. We live in a diverse world, and your descriptions seem to me to be a realistic reflection of that diversity.

There is a place for ambiguity. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness was purposefully ambiguous about gender, for instance, and necessarily so.

But in the types of stories characterized by the books you listed--where the emphasis is on a near-future Earth--the subtle diversity you give to your characters provides a realism that is equally as powerful as the pop culture references you make, and I think that the stories are better because of this.

At March 25, 2008 12:21 PM , Blogger zafri said...

Well I just typed a long response that was somehow deleted. Oh well. In depicting Canadian society it is necessary to portray the huge range of ethnicities present in everyday life to remain realistic. The idea that the mere mention of race is somehow inherently racist is just plain wrong, especially since it is such an easily identifiable characteristic that help readers visualize.
keep up the good work!

At March 25, 2008 1:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Rob!

I'm so with you on this one! Your books DO represent a multi-cultural Canada!

At March 25, 2008 2:31 PM , Blogger Ed said...

That was a great response. Besides you don't want to spend too much time describing how someone looks. That would violate Zelazny's rule of three.

At March 25, 2008 7:13 PM , Anonymous don said...

All I can say is, is that, that reader person is another fine example of what it's like to have squirrels loose in your brain.

At March 25, 2008 11:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well frankly I do agree with the "reader". When the scene calls for a long and lean dark haired French-speaking Canadian female I am all over that.

At March 26, 2008 7:18 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Interesting piece of Star Trek: The Next Generation trivia. The character of Leah Brahms, introduced in the episode "Booby Trap," was originally scripted as "Navid Daystrom," a descendant of Dr. Richard Daystrom from "The Ultimate Computer" episode of The Original Series. But no one bothered to write down anywhere that the character was black, and the casting director, not knowing who Richard Daystrom was, cast a white actress to play the role.

At March 26, 2008 7:17 PM , Blogger Gruntled said...

Also interesting that it mattered. No?


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