Sunday, June 5, 2011

Panel at WisCon (People of Color in Fantasy Worlds)

(1) So, recently David Bratman had an interesting post about the single fact about Earthsea that most readers miss: that Ged is black. I think this is because Le Guin fails to clearly signal this simple fact to the reader,* but David here does a good job of arguing otherwise by bringing together all the references in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA to characters' skin color:
What I found particularly interesting in this is David's drawing attention to the fact that Le Guin avoids describing Ged; a nice piece of subtlety, even though I think it backfired on her here.

(2) In any case, she avoided the misfortune of having been on the panel at WisCon David mentions and provides the link to, where one panelist (the talented Mary Doria Russell) sparked the ire of one person in attendance, who seems to have spent the rest of the weekend telling people that Russell had made racially insensitive remarks and trying to get people upset and outraged over what seems, from a distance, to be a perfectly harmless comment. Here's the offended party's description of the panel, along with her critique at the end of what upset her so badly:

(3) Despite the panel's general inconclusiveness and the outrage of the report's author, it's an interesting topic and I wd have attended if I still lived close enough to make it to WisCons. This was something that came up in D&D all the time, particularly among those of us at TSR in the early nineties who were trying to include as much gender and ethnic diversity into the adventures and boxed sets and sourcebooks we wrote and edited as we cd (particularly the art).

The problem is that acceptable terminology changes over time, so that "white" and "black" (which have the benefit of being universally understood) have been challenged and replaced by the more neutral terms "Caucasian" and "African-American". But in a fantasy world like Greyhawk or Mystara, there are no Caucasian Mts nor any Africa, so those referents are woefully out of place. The Forgotten Realms tried to address the problem by creating an area of African-style jungle called "Chult", but that solution itself was open to charges of tokenism (the Realms' Asia analogue, ORIENTAL ADVENTURES, was vast by comparison, as were its later Central-America analogue and Mideast analogue; only its Africa analogue was disproportionally small -- whereas in the real world Africa is the second largest continent, huge by comparison to Europe).

In the end, the problem wasn't solved so much as side-stepped. With the coming of settings like PLANESCAPE and later Third Edition it was simply assumed that the human population of those settings was racially mixed, with ethnicity no longer corresponding to culture -- that is, much more like post-modern America.

Ultimately, I don't think we ever found a good way to describe ethnicities in rpg products, and mostly fell back on the art instead -- though here too we quickly ran into difficulties (but that's a whole 'nother story).

So, I have no good solution. 'People of Color', the current acceptable term, will no doubt one day seem terribly quaint in its turn; I can only hope that by then people will look back on all this in mild disbelief that the people of our time were so obsessed by distinctions and gradations that no longer exist.

--John R.

*just as, in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, there's one scene in which she intended the reader to visualize the alien as a woman although she keeps referring to the character as "he" throughout. I think in both cases there's a disjuncture between what Le Guin sees in her mind's eye and what she conveys to the reader.


David Bratman said...

Ged isn't black: he's red-brown or copper-brown. Le Guin has elsewhere said he should look rather like an Amerind.

I don't think she makes a mistake by not emphasizing this. "Hey, look! He's brown! He's not white, he's brown!" No, that would only fall into the trap she's laying for the reader. It's the reader who assumes that, naturally, the hero must be white, who later notices that Ged isn't, who should be brought up short and think, "Why am I assuming that heroes are always white? This story isn't taking place in northern Europe." It's a healthy shock to the system. I think Robert Heinlein does something similar in one of his novels.

Jason Fisher said...

Most of the cover art on the various paperback reissues over the years have Ged depicted with white or pale skin. The publisher(s) obviously fell down on the job. And wasn't the actor in the miniseries about as white as it's possible to be, short of Casper the Friendly Ghost? Speaking as one of those who actually did realize right from the first reading that Ged was dark-skinned (but as David says, not black), I have always been bothered by this.

Anubis said...

About the WisCon panel:

I don't think it comes down to an attending person being upset. The person in question made it quite clear in her post that this was nothing personal, and she brought forward an argument to support her point. In my view, an adequate reaction to this would be to discuss her critique instead of playing it down.