Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Is it racist to mention skin color?

by Rob - March 25th, 2008.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

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

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