We need to acknowledge that race matters, and that it matters a lot. As wonderful as the notion of being “Colorblind” is, it accidentally (and sometimes even intentionally) minimizes the experiences people might have that are unique to them. As much as some people might like to believe otherwise, your skin color, ethnic perceptions, and gender have a profound and lasting impact on who you are. It’s not always fair, but it’s undeniable.
I used to believe that it was possible to write a character as “neutral” and still be true to them. I still do believe it, I suppose. Especially if it’s not particularly relevant to the story being told. Thor cast Idris Elba as Heimdall and Tadanobu Asano as Hogun the Grim. Both excellent choices, and while it’s always welcome to see more ethnic diversity in our stories (especially superheroes, who have been lily white for far too long), it would’ve seemed unnecessary for the characters to talk about it. Part of this is also simply because Thor, as a fantasy film, can get away with the idea that the Asgardians are past racism. The other part is that Heimdall and Hogun are only supporting characters. There story isn’t the one we are there to watch.
But the idea of colorblind casting, while noble in a way, is also a dismissal of the realities that shape our lives. Hancock had Will Smith as a black superhero who had been around, immortal, for decades. The question never really came up about how this might have affected the civil rights movement, and I can see how they might want to sidestep the issue. But at the same time, it seems like an unnecessary cheat. After all, Hancock didn’t have to be immortal. He could’ve just as easily been Smith’s real age. So why make him around for such fascinating and pivotal moments of history without even mentioning it? The truth is that the writers didn’t care about that. So they didn’t address it.
I get that. When I wrote Divine Misfortune, I didn’t even mention that Teri and Phil Robinson are black. I’ll admit that it’s a cop out, and just as I feel regret over my sometimes unpleasant treatment of Loretta’s weight in Gil’s All Fright Diner, I still wish I’d done something to acknowledge their ethnicity. Nothing too extravagant or distracting. In my worlds, racism exists, but in a less obnoxious form. Hey, it’s fantasy. I’m allowed. But I still should’ve mentioned it, should’ve included something to make it noteworthy, to say that as assimilated to white culture (for lack of a better term) as the Robinsons are, they’ve still had to put up with some inconveniences from being black.
Granted, we all have our problems. I don’t want to imply that white Americans have it easy. Just that, by virtue of our ethnicity, we all have different experiences. With my last name, I get more Spanish sales calls than most white folks, I assume, and having grown up surrounded by brown-skinned people, I hardly notice them as unique. That’s part of my background. It shaped who I was and how I look at the world. Heck, I don’t even speak Spanish, but I also don’t find it to be strange to hear. Less to do with my ethnicity than my geography.
And yet, when I was a kid I lived in Massachusetts for a year, and it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. My ethnicity mattered, and it was probably the first time it was a unique feature. I don’t doubt it affected how others treated me, along with other elements like being from Texas and being just a loner in general. My name, Martinez, shaped my experience, and while I didn’t get called names, I was definitely an outsider for many reasons.
I used to write as neutrally as possible with my characters, but as time goes on, I find myself compelled to incorporate those elements I once tried to ignore. When I wrote Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, I wanted Helen’s minotaurism to be important. Not her sole defining trait or even her most important one, but something that influences her. Being a young woman with minotaurism was also important. It wasn’t meant to be just a gimmick. Helen is seven feet tall, covered in fur, with a cow-like face. That’s going to affect her. It would be dishonest to expect otherwise.
To understand that, I had to understand what that meant. Like I said before, I don’t particularly care for racism in real life, so I tend to mute it in my books when it shows up. Helen has a couple of advantages. She lives in a world of magic, and everyone is pretty used to such things. However, I also wanted minotaurism to be unusual, even for this universe. In essence, it’s more of a very rare medical condition than an ethnicity. Helen’s ethnicity is Greek, though that’s overshadowed by the minotaurism. It’s also something she can’t hide. It’s obvious to everyone, and it’s the first thing anyone will notice about her. She knows it. She has no choice to accept it, but it’s still frustrating. Add to this that being that tall, super strong, and not a size zero are generally not things society values in women, I had this image of a person conflicted with many of the things she has to deal with.
Yes, Helen deals with them well because she’s been dealing with them since she was born. I wanted Helen to be well-adjusted, smart, capable. I didn’t want her to hate who she was or be ashamed of it. Sometimes, maybe a little embarrassed, a little self-conscious. Like we all can be. Helen is more than a minotaur, but being a minotaur has had a big influence on her. To write otherwise would’ve been a cheat.
Troy is Asian-American, and that’s had an effect on him as well. It doesn’t come up a lot because Troy is a confident, awesome guy. He’s so awesome that even racism isn’t likely to slow him down. But there are moments in the story, here and there, where it’s mentioned. Like when someone wanted to date him because she liked Chinese guys even though Troy is Japanese. Even his overachieving family is something of an acknowledged cliche. Troy is defined mostly by being nearly perfect, but I didn’t ignore his ethnicity. Not entirely.
The problem becomes a question of balance. I don’t mind colorblind casting in my protagonists. When Denzel Washington was cast as The Equalizer, it didn’t strike me as noteworthy that a black man was playing a character formerly played by a white actor. And I do think it’d be amazing to see more white superheroes recast as other ethnicities. I might even go see a Spider-Man movie where he was played by a black or Asian actor. Though probably not because I actually dislike Spider-Man with surprising intensity. I think the new Fantastic Four movie looks dreadful, but I am pleased to have Michael B. Jordan as the new Human Torch. And if the movie decides not to make a big deal about it, I’m cool with that. More diversity is always welcome.
But what if one wants to address it? As a Mexican-American, have I any right to comment on the African-American experience? Writing about minotaur women is one thing. I can’t screw that up too bad, but is it a minefield better avoided. All my stories feature female characters prominently (as both protagonists and supporting characters), and is it something I screw up? I’ll admit, most my women characters are like me in that they don’t know a lot about fashion and aren’t particularly feminine. Constance Verity (of my new trilogy) has spent so much time adventuring that she’s more comfortable fighting mummies than putting on makeup. It’s reasonable, and it certainly makes my work easier. But is it yet another cop out?
Honestly, it depends on how important you want to make it. Humans come in a startling variety. Perhaps the biggest disservice we can do is simply define anyone by a simple label. One of the easiest ways to do that is to introduce more diversity, acknowledged or not. I take every story on a case-by-case basis. I measure what the character needs, what the story needs, and what elements work. I don’t mind introducing some diversity simply for diversity’s sake, and I don’t mind drawing attention to it either. It all depends.
But it does matter. It matters to have more non-white, non-male characters in our stories. It’s good to just do it and not make a big deal about it, but it’s also important to make a big deal about it too. As a writer, I want to bring more diversity to my stories. Yes, I mostly do that by writing about moon monsters, space squids, and minotaur women, but if among all the weirdness, I squeeze in some real life diversity, that can only be a good thing. I’m at the point in my career where I’d rather screw up trying to be more inclusive than play it safe.
Because damn it, diversity matters.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,