Race and Fandom

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See also: Dark Agenda, International Blog Against Racism Week, Ironic Racism, RaceFail '09, Racebending, Chromatic Recasting, Chromatic Vision, Kaleidoscope Fanwork Exchange, MammothFail, Social Justice
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Contents

Problems in Canon

Race and ethnicity has been an issue in the canons of fannish source texts for almost as long as fandom has been around. Because most entertainment is created and produced by white males, particularly in Hollywood, it tends to reflect the mindset and experiences of the majority of its creators.

Black man dies first

Even though the black man dying first in films is a recognized problem, and even derided,[1] it still seems as if black characters (and Asian, and native, and characters otherwise not coded as white) are killed off or written out in proportionately higher numbers than their white counterparts.[2]. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which had been an almost frighteningly white show up till then) added a beautiful professional black man in 7th season, an LJ community called deadbrowalking: the people of color deathwatch[3] started up almost immediately. Although Principal Robin Wood inexplicably did make it to the finale of Buffy, the community still actively "awaits the inevitable" in other shows.[4]

Stereotypes

When not killed off, characters from marginalized groups can be written in stereotyped ways. Need a drug dealer? Black man. Need a lawyer? Hey, this isn't an ethnic part. And don't even try to be the protagonist. In Angel the Series, Charles Gunn's gang background was stereotypical. Later in the series, he became a lawyer, not through the traditional avenue of study, but rather due to magical intervention!

cartoon showing Uhura from the early 1970s by Alan Haney

Shows set in "white world"

Many shows, perhaps due to being filmed in areas they are not set in, whitewash the setting. Roswell, for example, seemed to be one of the whitest towns in the Southwest, and Angel's L.A. seemed to be almost entirely devoid of people of colour, outside the occasional (often demonic) gang.

Whitewashing

In media fannish terminology 'whitewashing' is the practice of erasing characters of color and replacing them with white characters; or, portraying a character as white who is established in canon to be non-white. This is also a serious issue in cosplay, concerning the question of whether white fans should be allowed to play non-white characters.

Book covers

[Will come back and fill this bit in later ...something something Justine Larbalestier's Liar [5] [6], something something Jaclyn Dolamore's Magic Under Glass, [7], Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix [8]]

Fantasy author Martha Wells describes how the main character in her novel Wheel of the Infinite was affected by whitewashing:

When my fourth novel Wheel of the Infinite came out in 2000, I found out later that the cover artist Donato Giancola had to argue with the publisher to get the cover printed with the protagonist's real skin color, the way I had described her and he had drawn her. They wanted to show her skin color as gray rather than brown, and some covers were printed that way. I didn't find out about this until much later, since the authors' copies I received all had the correct skin tone. (I thought the gray Maskelles I saw occasionally were printing errors.) [....] When the book came out in paperback, the publisher reversed the cover image, so the white-skinned secondary male character was on the front and Maskelle was on the back. [9]
Original cover for A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ruth Robbins.

Ursula K. LeGuin writes this about her Earthsea characters, who are nearly all brown or black:

I had endless trouble with cover art. Not on the great cover of the first edition—a strong, red-brown profile of Ged—or with Margaret Chodos Irvine's four fine paintings on the Atheneum hardcover set, but all too often. The first British Wizard was this pallid, droopy, lily-like guy — I screamed at sight of him.
Gradually I got a little more clout, a little more say-so about covers. And very, very, very gradually publishers may be beginning to lose their blind fear of putting a nonwhite face on the cover of a book. "Hurts sales, hurts sales" is the mantra. Yeah, so? On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a betrayal—a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader.[10]

Casting choices

Often when a book, comic or manga is adapted for film or television, a character who used to be of color will be 'whitewashed' and played by a white actor. The movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender famously cast only white actors for the four main characters, then relented to fan pressure and cast one actor of color... as the bad guy.

In Roswell High, the series of books by Melinda Metz, the heroine is Liz Ortecho, of Spanish descent; when the books were adapted for the tv series Roswell, Liz' last name was changed to "Parker" and she was played by a white actress.

In a non-fannish example, Joanne Greenberg's landmark novel I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, about a Jewish girl who loses her mind and is committed to a mental hospital, was whitewashed when it was made into a feature film by Roger Corman in the 1970s. Deborah Blau's name was changed to "Deborah Blake", cast a non-Jewish actress in the part, and all mentions of her Jewish heritage (a major plot point) were removed, along with the fact that anti-Semitic bullying was part of what drove her insane. Greenberg said later that the film producers erased Deborah's Jewishness because "they were terrified."

The television miniseries adaptation of Earthsea was castigated by author Ursula LeGuin for whitewashing and tokenism:

My protagonist is Ged, a boy with red-brown skin. In the film, he's a petulant white kid. ... Race, which had been a crucial element, had been cut out of my stories. In the miniseries, Danny Glover is the only man of color among the main characters (although there are a few others among the spear-carriers). A far cry from the Earthsea I envisioned.[11]

Perhaps due to the activism, awareness campaign and widespread discussion of the issue by many fans when the The Last Airbender casting was announced, post-Avatar whitewashing is now discussed on many mainstream media blogs, often while highly anticipated movies are still in the casting stages; for instance, the news that Natalie Portman had been offered the part of Korean character Somni-450 in the movie adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was often cited as a classic example of whitewashing. [12] (Korean movie star Doona Bae ended up being cast as Somni-450.)

Many media blogs also commented critically on the casting sides for Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, which called specifically for a Caucasian actress, despite Katniss being described in the books as a mixed-race character who does not resemble her blonder, paler mother and sister. [13] [14]

Racebending

[Something here about racist reactions to actors of color being cast as canonically-white characters-- the rumor of African British actor Paterson Joseph being cast as the 11th Doctor on Doctor Who, or African British actor Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor, etc.? [See also fan response to Afro-American actor Larry Fishburne playing Perry White in Man of Steel.] [See also the casting of Afro-American Kandyse McClure as Sue Snell in the 2009 remake of Carrie.] [See also response to Ultimate Spiderman II in which an alternative universe Spider-Man is part Afro-American, part Hispanic.] [Are the Perry White and Sue Snell castings choices of "these characters are black" or simply "played by a black actor"? Similar questions were raised around Tim Russ playing a Vulcan on Star Trek: Voyager, until Word of God announced that Tuvok himself was supposed to be black; there are different races of Vulcans as there are different races of earth people.[15]

Racebending can also be a fannish response to whitewashing.

Appropriation

Another problem is appropriation. Firefly came under quite a bit of criticism for its use of Chinese culture and language while including few if any visibly Chinese characters, eventually even leading to protest vids being created about the issue: Secret Asian Man [16] and How Much Is That Geisha In the Window? [17].

Some sources take a more metaphorical approach to race, which is not without its pitfalls. Harry Potter seems to be a homily against racism, but it also seems to advocate racial segregation. The Stargate Universe often uses actors who do not read as white to play the aliens.

The Magical Negro

Another frequent misuse of race in fannish sources is "the magical negro"[18], a term popularized by director Spike Lee.[19][20][21] The magical negro serves as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. Although he has magical powers, his magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white, usually male, character.

The "magic" these characters possess is not necessarily of the variety one would expect to see in works of fantasy. It is often some type of amorphous mystical knowledge or even just home-grown, folksy common sense. Outside of fandom, it is common to apply the term "magical negro" to obviously non-magical characters who otherwise fit this description (self-sacrificing or at least extremely wise and experienced mentors who exist only to help the white hero).

The shows Lost, and Heroes (especially 3rd season) are among many that have been criticized for this trope. Some fans cite Whoopi Goldberg's performances in Ghost, where she plays a Spiritualist medium, and in Star Trek: The Next Generation where she plays an infinitely wise 700-year-old barkeeper. [22][23] For film, Constantine is also regarded as guilty of this trope, with Midnite being the wise 'keeper' of the balance. Casting black men as God (for instance, in the Bruce Almighty films) is considered "magical Negro" by some analysts.[24]

Media Fandom

"I have received letters that broke my heart, from adolescents of color in this country and in England, telling me that when they realized that Ged and the other Archipelagans in the Earthsea books are not white people, they felt included in the world of literary and movie fantasy for the first time." Ursula K. LeGuin

Most participants in media fandom are women with some higher education, disposable income, and leisure time. Fandom also tends to perceive itself as primarily white, and fans of color[25] can be marginalized. [26][27]

Many source texts focus on young, attractive, able-bodied white characters, and even when a canon includes characters of color, those characters often receive less fannish attention.[28] Some white fans have described themselves as frightened of writing characters of color in case they make mistakes that might offend fans of color. When race fail flaps happen, this fear is magnified. While this may be a legitimate fear, the result is the same: fewer fanworks with characters of color.

Sometimes, when fans do write about characters of color, they write about them in offensive ways[29]. They may also use offensive language to describe white characters or theoretically race-neutral situations.[30]

Other times when fans write about characters of color, they uncritically amplify mistakes the fannish source is making in regards to race (discussed above), rather than confronting and challenging them.

Imbroglios

The "Tone" Argument

Discussions of portrayals of characters of colour are often heated and divisive, and make fans of colour feel less welcome in fandom. One of the reasons fans of colour feel less welcome after these discussions is rather than having their issues addressed, instead it immediately goes meta, and they are accused of having an offensive, aggressive, or oversensitive tone.

zvi termed this the "tone" argument and has written extensively about it.[31][32] "Tone," of course, also references "skintone," making "I don't like your tone," an even more problematic statement.

Personal Preference

Fandom Secret about Race
A Fandom Secret about unconscious racism in fandom. The fandoms referenced are Doctor Who, Miami Vice, and Psych.

Many fans defend their lack of interest in particular characters of color as a matter of personal preference. While, of course, this is a valid point about a given character, these "personal preferences" are often the same across many fans and many fandoms. It is common for large numbers of fans to "just happen" to not like or not create fanworks about any characters of color even when these fans are unaware of any racism or bias on their part.

The Fandom Secret on the right is an example of a fan noticing this trend in their own tastes. (Or, given the anonymous nature of Fandom Secrets, it may be a parody of these attitudes or an attempt to stir up wank or generate serious discussion.) The full text reads "I would have adored her if... I would have slashed them if... I would have watched this if... I'm not racist, at least I don't mean to be. I just can't seem to get past this." The corresponding photos are of Martha from Doctor Who, Crockett and Tubbs from Miami Vice, and Shawn and Gus from Psych. The fandoms for all three shows are well known for imbroglios about a prominent black character and his/her relative lack of popularity.[33]

This widespread pattern has led some fans to try to more actively incorporate characters of color in their fanworks. The challenges Dark Agenda and Chromatic Vision are examples of this type of effort.

Media cons, Slash cons

Conversations about race and fandom have happened in person as well. Escapade has had panels on Race in fandom; most notably, "The Absence of Color in Black and White Fanfiction" run by LadyJax and Coniraya, two fans of color, in 2006, "Identity Politics in Fandom" run by Kass and Nyssa23 (one white fan and one fan of color) in 2008 and "Becoming Better Allies: Consciousness-Raising for White Fans" run by arallara and smallbeer in 2009, about which arallara wrote:

[I]n this report, I want to both summarize the substance of the discussion in the panel and contextualize it in terms of how Sinead and I approached the panel and what our goals were. I hope very much that more panels like this will happen at cons, and more connections can be made among white fans who want to be better allies to the people of color in fandom. I want to talk about how I was thinking about my decisions as a moderator, and how I think things worked, because I'm really interested in people's feedback on how to keep having this conversation, differently or better where necessary.[34]

Buddy Cop Slash

Black-white duos have been a staple of the buddy cop genre in US entertainment since the 1980s.[35] Many fans have noted that while white-white buddy cop shows often generate large slash fandoms, canons with a similar dynamic and a black lead often have fandoms that pair off the white lead and one of the other white characters. That is, if they have any fandom at all. Fandoms/sources that are frequently mentioned in this context include Psych, Miami Vice, the Lethal Weapon franchise, ...

Science Fiction Fandom

Science fiction fandom, while skewing more male, is likewise a very white endeavor. Recent debates in the SF community, e.g. "RaceFail '09", have focused on a lack of published writers of color and offensive appropriation of African, Asian, Indigenous Australian, Latin American, and Native American cultures or histories as settings for stories.

The issue of race in science fiction fandom often has to do with which racial groups make it to the future and what historical landscapes serve as the templates for fantasy worlds. K. Tempest Bradford has written on how editors can and should elicit additional material about people of color or written by authors of color. The feminist science-fiction convention WisCon has had an ongoing discussion about appropriation since 2006.

See Also

External links


References

  1. Black Dude Dies First, TV Tropes, (accessed 24 October 2008)
  2. See treatment of Rainbow Sun Frank's character Aiden Ford in Stargate Atlantis, for example.
  3. deadbrowalking: the people of color deathwatch
  4. The term "people of color" is used throughout this article, but this is considered a problematic term by many fans, both non-white and white. For a detailed breakdown as to why "people of color" is objectionable, see Afro-American female tumblr blogger factualwriley, On the Use of 'PoC', January 16, 2014.
  5. Justine Larbalestier, Ain't That a Shame (updated) Posted July 23, 2009. Last accessed October 13, 2011.
  6. Justine Larbalestier, The New Cover Posted August 6, 2009. Last accessed October 13, 2011.
  7. Jezebel, Magic Under Glass: The White-Washing Of Young Adult Fiction Continues
  8. Bookshop, i don't want to be this person. Dear Publishing Industry, stop FORCING me to be this person.
  9. Martha Wells, Martha Wells: Cover Art Posted June 5, 2011. Last accessed October 14, 2011.
  10. Ursula K. LeGuin, A Whitewashed Earthsea: How The Sci-Fi Channel Wrecked My Books. In Slate, Dec. 16, 2004. See also the Index of Earthsea Comments and Links by LeGuin and others about this issue.
  11. Ursula K. LeGuin, A Whitewashed Earthsea (accessed 23 May 2012)
  12. "When it was reported last year that the role had been offered to Natalie Portman, the Internet hummed with the sound of thousands of fans riffling through their paperbacks to confirm that Sonmi-450 was definitely, definitely a Korean character. The role had been, in Hollywood terms, whitewashed." Word & Film, Cloud Atlas Casting Coup: ‘Whitewashing’ Crisis Averted Posted September 12, 2011. Last accessed October 13, 2011.
  13. "Katniss' ethnic background is never spelled out in familiar terms in the story, which makes sense, given that it takes place in either an alternate universe or a distant-future Earth in which former countries' names have become obsolete. Still, she is indicated to be of mixed ancestry, and her dark, olive-colored skin is mentioned repeatedly. In fact, she describes not resembling her mother and sister, who have pale skin and hair and thus could pass for members of a higher class." Bitch Magazine, The Hunger Games Film Whitens its Warrior March March 21, 2011. Last accessed October 13, 2011.
  14. "The debate over Katniss’s on-screen ethnicity (or lack thereof) has raged in the Hunger Games fan community ever since a film adaptation was announced, owing to author Collins’ seemingly specific descriptions of the young heroine’s ethnicity. Described as having dark hair, olive skin, and gray eyes (in contrast to her fair-haired mother and sister), Katniss is thought by some readers to be of Mediterranean, Latin, Asian, or mixed descent." Movieline, Oh No They Didn’t: The Hunger Games Casting for ‘Underfed’ White Teenage Girls Posted March 01, 2011. Last accessed October 13, 2011.
  15. A similar Word of God Watsonian explanation existed for why there were two types of Klingons in the original series.
  16. '"Huh," I said to myself. "I wonder how you would do a vid about the lack of a character. It would be kind of hard to find shots of them. Kind of."' Shati, new vid - Firefly Secret Asian Man, posted 9 October 2008. (accessed 24 October 2008)
  17. Vid: How Much Is that Geisha in the Window? by Lierdumoa, posted 22 August 2008. (Accessed 24 October 2008)
  18. An Idiot’s Guide to the Magical Negro
  19. See Magical Negro on Wikipedia (Accessed August 26, 2010)
  20. Stephen King's Magical Negroes, page found 2011-04-25.
  21. Magic Negroes at The Black Commentator July 3, 2003, page found 2011-04-25.
  22. Three Vectors of the Magical Negro at LaughingBone blog for Sept. 3, 2005, page found 2011-04-25.
  23. Magical Negro at TvTropes, page found 2011-04-25.
  24. Rita Kempley, Understanding the Magical Negro. Editorial from DVRepublic, "the liberated zone of cyberspace."
  25. Link to FOCcing cabal goes here
  26. Pam Noles, The Shame of Earthsea. Reprinted on Infinite Matrix, 2006-01-04, page found 2011-04-25.
  27. Pam Noles, The Shame of Earthsea II: A Public Response. In And We Shall March, 2006-01-22, page found 2011-04-25.
  28. "When you add this issue -- so common that my fellow fans-of-color *all* have the same horror story to tell about one fandom or another -- to the undeniable fact that, in any given fandom *with* characters of color there will be *objectively* fewer fan-fiction stories written about them full stop..." Te, My *Other* Problem with Recent DCU Events Livejournal post, 20 September, 2006. (Accessed 18 October 2008)
  29. "The reason we feel this is important and such a sensitive issue is that all these hair jokes unintentionally propagate racism.…Chad is gorgeous and his hair is big and curly and beautiful, and we don’t need be people who would tell him otherwise. If you love him the way I do – or the way Ryan does – please don’t include petty hair insults in your stories." elvensorceress, A VERY IMPORTANT Note from the Mods, livejournal post to the idontdance community, 9 November 2007, (Accessed 20 October 2008)
  30. Dog Whistles and Insults zvi, Livejournal Post, last edit 31 July 2007, (accessed 20 October 2008)
  31. zvi, Tone: Let's approach this from the other direction, 31 January 2008. Accessed 24 October 2008.
  32. zvi, What I learned about tone, 8 February 2008. Accessed 24 October 2008.
  33. For an example of a canon interracial homosexual relationship (yes, you read that right) which the creators intended as offhand and not a hugely major plot point (although it became one for many fans), see Welcome To Night Vale.
  34. Escapade Panel Report - "Becoming Better Allies: Consciousness-Raising for White Fans", accessed October 31, 2011
  35. See Salt and Pepper on TV Tropes. (Accessed August 26, 2010)
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