But I'm only a little bit of a coward, so I've been working on the latter by reading essays written by people of colour (PoCs, as they're being known) about their experiences as consumers of SF/F. (sparkymonster offers a link to them here, which I in turn got via sholio, thank you. sheafrotherdon, rydra_wong both have excellent information and commentary on the subject as well, and there are many, many others.)
It's miserable, heartbreaking stuff. I think the following quote (from catvalente, which I read in sheafrotherdon's journal) hits the essence:
Stories teach us how to survive. They tell us that our lives can be transcendent, that we can overcome almost anything, no matter how strange, that we can go into the black wood and come out again, that the witch can be burned up in her own oven, that we can find someone who fits a shoe, that the youngest, unloved child will find their way in the world, that those who suffer can become strong, can escape, can find their way into comfort and joy again. . . .
And when we see story after story that has no one like us in it, a book entirely without women, a TV show where white people speak Chinese but there are no Asians visible, a movie set in California without Hispanics, image after image of a world where everyone is straight, and when we are told that it's no big deal, really, there is no race in future societies, that it's not anyone's fault if all the characters are white, that's just how they are, in the pure authorial mind, that we have no sense of humor, that we are ganging up on people because we speak our minds, this is what we hear:
You do not have a right to live. There are no stories for you, to teach you how to survive, because the world would prefer you didn't. You don't get to be human, to understand your suffering or move beyond it. In the perfect future society, you do not exist.
I remember distinctly being a child--I probably wasn't older than five--and noticing that there were two children in my class who had black hair and beautiful dark, dark brown eyes shaped a little like triangles, and that Kahlil Azan (I will never forget that name, Kahlil Azan, I so loved how it sounded) had skin as dark as his eyes and hair. I remember noticing, but not attaching significance to it, the difference between seeing something as interesting or beautiful and seeing something as other. I didn't know how to think of these children as 'other'. They just were, the way I was or my sister was or anyone else.
I don't remember when I learned about otherness, but I do remember one day picking up Telempath by Spider Robinson and being shocked that the main character was black, especially because I knew Spider Robinson was white. I think I was in my early teens, maybe a little younger than that. I was an avid reader of Piers Anthony's Xanth series since the age of twelve, and I had already been so indoctrinated into the world of white privilege that I only became aware of the absence of characters of colour when I suddenly found one.
I was a scared, sad child, surprisingly ignorant considering the education and worldliness of both my parents. I was fourteen before I knew what the word, 'lesbian' meant. I had no idea that two of my drama classmates were gay. There was only one student of colour in my high school drama class; I didn't really think about it.
One time our drama class went on a field trip to the Stratford Festival to see Shakespearian plays performed by some of the finest actors in Canada. That year the featured play was "A Merchant of Venice". Since so much of the play involved anti-Semitism, the director chose to set the play in an era where slavery was also common, to showcase the general bigotry, I believe. There were two black actors in the cast, both playing servants in non-speaking roles. I think one of them moved a chair.
And during the intermission, the only PoC in my drama class turned to me and asked rhetorically, "Is that the only kind of role I'm going to get?" And I didn't know what to answer him, because at least at the time he was right.
I think I really started noticing the absence of PoC in my favourite genres after that, because of him. But it would take more years before I really understood what that actually represented. If you'd asked, I would have said it was just the author's choice, that if you want a truly equal society then individuals should be free to write about whatever characters they choose. I would have said that it didn't really matter because we're all the same, aren't we? I would have said, yeah, it's too bad, but there's no point in worrying about it, because nothing's going to change.
I didn't understand that it's only the privileged group that thinks like this, that it doesn't have to matter to us if PoC are represented or not, because white people are represented all the time. We can smugly talk about equality and authorial right and sigh about how this is just the way things are because we aren't the ones who are absent. In fictional media--I'd hazard that in any media--the default is white. If a person's skin colour isn't described, he (the default is also male after all) will be imagined as white. White, male and straight.
(I actually had a gay friend in high school (he told me, otherwise I would have never known), and I knew there was prejudice against homosexuals, but I don't think I truly understood what that meant either. Not until I became enmeshed in slash fandom, funnily enough. Though it's possible that my memory is failing me again and I'm doing myself a disservice. I hope so.)
I'm sure that this insidious, systemic racism isn't news to any of you, but it was to me. I got that there was a problem of a lack of representation (I wasn't so blind as to not notice that the lead and most of the main characters of every genre show I favoured were white), but I didn't get why it was a problem, not really. I thought it was lamentable and unfair, so I tried to do something about it by populating my novels with as many characters of colour that I could.
So, yes, I knew it was unfair. But I didn't know that it was a negation.
I get that now. I'm thirty-six. This revelation has taken far too long but at least I have it. And I always notice the absences now, and there are so many.
I can only name two television shows off the top of my head where the lead is black: The Unit (which I'm not even sure is still on the air) and CSI, though Lawrence Fishburne is a very recent addition to the cast. Ugly Betty stars an Hispanic, but I can't think of any shows where the leads are Asian, not even on the specialty networks.
It should be obvious that I love sci-fi and fantasy, so the Sci-Fi (soon to be SyFy) channel is of special interest to me. So far, its track record for having CoC (or even female leads) is absolutely appalling. The channel's treatment of homosexuals is even worse. thingswithwings has several gorgeous and heartbreaking essays about that here. SyFi's two newest series due out this fall have--possibly--two regular cast members of colour between them, out of a cast of at least six for one and (maybe) four for the other (though I think it's just three, all white). I won't even bother with wondering if any of those characters will be gay, because there's no point.
Interestingly, and sadly, when I mentioned out how there were no PoC leads in these shows, my husband told me that yes, he didn't like it either, but there was no point in my getting upset about it. Nothing is going to change.
He's right, of course. Nothing will change so long as no one tries to change it. But I'm wondering, if there were more books out there with CoC who were the leads, if there were more movies and comics and TV shows and video games, wouldn't it change? Right now nearly all the teachers at my son's daycare are either black or Hispanic. Both his babysitters were born in Mexico. This is the real world; this is normal. Why can't our beloved created worlds be normal like that, too?
So. I have decided that I will be the change I want to see in the world. I started with my novel Dauntless, though in retrospect I didn't do enough. I'm continuing by having at least one CoC--one cool, kickass, brave and good CoC--in as many possible stories, vignettes or novels I write from now on.
This isn't going to be easy. One of the essays I read (I've forgotten who wrote it or where it was, unfortunately EDIT: this is the essay, thanks to hammerxsword) talked about the CoC in Firefly. The same characters I'd seen as a smart, brave and loyal warrior; a gently sardonic, morally steadfast intellectual and an exotic, sophisticated and graceful courtesan, she saw as (to paraphrase): a fanatically loyal, gung-ho grunt who shot first and asked questions later; a foolish, narrow-minded religious cliché; and a whore. It's not just enough that CoC are present, but they have to be presented well. If you almost never see anyone who looks like you, I think it would hurt doubly if the few times you do they're in negative or typical roles. thingswithwings also writes about this. Antiheroes are another privilege of the already privileged, and I don't want to be part of the problem.
And yes, I have homosexual characters too, in case you're wondering. I will never be able to write something where everyone who might read it will be able to see themselves, but I can try.
I can try. And maybe if enough people try, then one day the way the world will be the way we want it to be.