7 thoughts on “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, Part I: Princesses and the Brown Girl’s Dilemma (h/t Womanist Musings)

  1. Great read.

    You know, for the longest time I–a Thai girl, born and bred–only wrote fantasy and fanfic about, you guessed it, white people. My setting was a pseudo-European landscape. And I never really thought about it, or why I shouldn’t write characters who look a bit closer to me, or why I don’t set their stories anywhere I can recognize as culturally my own. No. I just dropped them in a vaguely Renaissance place, filled with green-eyed, red-haired and blue-eyed, blonde people and called it a day. Yeah, they were also straight and perfectly slender. It took me AGES to shake this off.

    • *nodnodnod*

      It’s the same thing with D&D and other fantasy roleplaying games, which borrow a lot from mainstream fantasy novels. It was so bad that I perk up and notice when it’s not like that.

  2. *raises hand* Yeah. When I was a kid and had aspirations towards being a writer…*coughs* I used to dabble at writing fantasy fiction. It took me a while to realise that I was mimicking and replicating the god awful racist literature that I was inundated with (David Eddings anyone?) and that most of my characters were pretty much Aryan poster boys. And that was when I wasn’t writing about holidays at the batch that I never went on…

    As an undergrad I stumbled my way into a creative writing course taught by Witi Ihimaera. (Outside of NZ, most people know him for Whale Rider – the novel that he wrote that was turned into a film). And he gave an alarmingly similar account of writing about Pakeha (white) people and their lives because as a child it hadn’t occurred to him that his own life and environment was worth writing about or *could* be written about.

    Adichie visited NZ and told us about her obsession with “lashings of Ginger beer” because of, you guessed Enid Blyton. So yeah. I do think that POCs often have that psychological burden to overcome – the predominance of the white imaginary that sits inside one’s head and crowds out your own imaginary – before can even begin to write.

    • Shit, even now I have a hard time imagining Thai buildings, Thai costumes (because I’m of a generation that grew up in non-traditional houses). Even when I am able to picture them, I haven’t the words to describe them in English because a lot of them are very specific, and I don’t want to resort to something generic like “skirt” (it isn’t) or “head-scarf” (Thailand, being a tropical country, doesn’t have much history with scarves). Lose-lose all around.

      I ended up going fuck it and have populated my fantasy novels with nothing but Asians, dark- and pale-skinned alike. White people have no place in my narratives and I doubt I’ll start missing them any time soon.

  3. Lately in my own fantasy writing I’ve been trying to ask these same questions: why is everybody white? What would it mean for these two characters to have different skin colors? How would one society react to being saved by someone whose skin was a different color than theirs?

    And suddenly you have all these new potential sources of conflict/cohesion and backstory and things you can do with your characters. It’s astonishing how much more interesting things get when you STOP assuming everyone is white.

  4. I admit that I do default to imagining that people are white, unless otherwise stated. But this is a subject I’m speaking of from a privileged point of view.

    Malinda Lo has a couple of interesting articles on her site about ethnicity in Ash, where she states she always imagined her heroines to be just like she is, but she left it open enough to interpretation.

    I think while the intentions might be good, leaving it open to interpretation does tend to mean people will default to white unless explicitly told otherwise.

    I’ve found even in cases of books where the heroines and heroes are people of colour it’s often the case that they get white washed on the cover. The cover is the first thing you look at, the first impression you get of a character, and usually it’s the main character that’s on there. No text description can make quite the same impact on influencing how a character is viewed. I find it infuriating.

  5. You’re not alone there, Raz — lately the cover whitewash has been getting a lot more negative press, at least in the parts of the book blogosphere that I frequent. Authors have very little control over the cover, much as we wish it were otherwise.

    And you’re completely right that people will default to white unless it’s made clear that the characters have color. Maybe in some magical future day, we can write characters with colorblindness? But I kind of doubt it.

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