Why I Write a Lot of Non-White Characters

The map above created and generously released into the public domain by daysleeperrr.
The map above created and generously released into the public domain by daysleeperrr.

I’m sure to get questions about this as time passes.

First, allow me to clarify one thing: I’m a white chick. In fact, I am probably the whitest girl you know. In middle school I was once asked if I was an albino. I have also been variously characterizes as “vampirically” and “tubercually” pale.

That being said, I’ve also had multiple online acquaintainces who, despite having full access to my profile pictures, said one day after years of online friendship “wait a minute – you’re white?”

The reason, I suspect, is that I write a lot of non-white characters. I also write about a lot of non-white issues. In these days of Sad Puppies, many people are likely to see this as a “politically correct agenda.”

My only “agenda” is to write an accurate future.

I myself had the startling realization in my late teens that, at that time, I wrote almost exclusively white male characters. The reason, in hindsight, is very easy to see: the stories of my favorite era of science fiction, the mid- to late-20th century, were almost exclusively by, for, and about, white males.

Isaac Asimov, bless his heart, was progressive for his time in having a few strong female leads. There was the female mayor of Trantor in one of the Foundation books of sci-fi renown, the precocious teenage girl who was a driving force behind galactic events in another, and Dors Venalibi who was the wife – and bodyguard – of the founder of his famed psychohistory.

But all of Asimov’s recurring characters, and all of his most famous ones, were male. And even at twelve I was savvy enough to wince when he had an “Easterner” (understood to be a character of Asian descent) apologetically explain to a white character that “yes, we’re still around.”

Arthur C. Clarke was in some ways Asimov’s reverse – he was unique in his time among writers in having several black characters in strong supporting roles, but he couldn’t even seem to write females as compelling love interests (which we now know may have had something to do with the fact that he was a closeted gay man).

So what’s a teenage girl to do, upon realizing that the demographics of the people in her own head are woefully unrealistic?

First, I started researching.

Any future for humanity was presumably going to involve all of the human race – how many people on Earth were actually Caucasian?

Only about 15% of them? Well, it was clear I was going to have to revise my estimates about the demographics of the movers and shakers of a global future. I made a point of reading news about the most populous areas of the globe today – not about the areas that happened to be closest to me.

Perhaps more importantly, I started reading more modern writers.

This was not strictly intentional. I simply ran out of mid-to-late 20th century science fiction. This is a somewhat ridiculous claim, of course, but after reading the Collected Works of Arthur C. Clarke and damn near everything Isaac Asimov ever wrote, along with every Hugo and Nebula award anthology from the period I could get my hands on, I needed new material.

I had the good fortune to look up the works of Greg Bear first. Bear, who had written my favorite novella ever in 1983, turned out to have become steadily more prolific in the decades to come. He also seemed to share my view of a global future, and oddly, wrote female protagonists more compellingly than men.

By the late 2000s I was able to read about Casseia Majumdar’s rise to become the red planet’s first president in Moving Mars; about detective Mary Choy’s quest to become prove the guilt or innocence of a black poet accused of mass murder in Queen of Angels. I was able to read about Doctor Kaye Lang’s efforts to learn about a virus that seems to threaten the future of humanity in Darwin’s Radio.

Another one of my favorite short stories from the late 20th was by Octavia Butler. She proved to be another gold mine. A recipient of the McCarthur Genius Grant, Butler accomplished the mind-blowing task of rising to success and indeed greatness in a field populated almost entirely by white men while being a black female in the late 20th century.

Through her I read of Lilith Iyapo’s struggle to reconcile humanity to the alien race who dominates our world in the future of Lilith’s Brood; in Parable of the Talents, I was able to read about Laura Oya Olamina, who fights to spread a message that may save humanity in an increasingly violent and unstable world. In Imago I was able to read about Jodas, a human-alien hybrid who is neither male nor female – and who humans resent because they are attracted to it (the pronoun the aliens comfortably use to refer to their third-gendered people in English), male and female alike.

The result? When I started writing again after college, I found that my writing was very different.

Two of my characters had spontaneously changed races. I now understand why; Chinwe (formerly Allie) had a story that made the most sense coming from the developing world – specifically, from Africa. Allie’s story had never quite seemed to work the way I wanted it to in the first place, and now I understood why; my white Allie had come from a culture of comfort and complacence, like the one that surrounded me every day. The story needed people from an altogether different background.

My age-old protagonist “Jack” was now half Indian (as in the subcontinent, not the Americas). This, too, made more things about his character make sense – his mother had immigrant’s dreams that powered him in a way that the unchanging comfort of his European heritage had not.

My first antagonist, Lorena – the only one of my strong female characters back in the day, a lady who had consolidated more power for herself every time I gave her a bit part to play – was now the product of a multi-national settlement, making her at least 25% Japanese.

Watching the way these evolutions changed my characters has been fascinating. Lorena’s children and her husband are still white; as is Jack’s father, and Chinwe’s charge (whose disappearance she is investigating).

But to have the full vitality of the human experience, my universe needed to incorporate more events and more human conditions than those limited to the white people of the U.S. and Europe.

I haven’t gone full-out Niven and made all my characters “flatlanders” of uniformly mixed race – that, to me, is just as uninteresting as having them all be white.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with stories about white characters. But let’s stop pretending that the logical course of science fiction is to depict only Europeans – among literary genres, it makes especially little sense for this one to be dominated by just one race.

Because science fiction is the art of the future. And there are futures happening in way more places than Europe and the white neighborhoods of North America.


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