Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

The Default Reader Attitude

Posted by hyperpat on October 22, 2007

John Scalzi, over on his Whatever blog, comments again about his lack of racial markers for his characters in his novels, a certain ‘color-blindness’ that no one really paid attention to, until the point was made that the average American reader, faced with a lack of such markers, defaults these characters to ‘white’. At this point, John has indicated that he knew what color his characters were, but didn’t find this characteristic germane to his work, focusing more on the character’s social, economic, and educational background. With J. K. Rowling’s announcement last week that Dumbledore is gay, this has led to more comments about ‘out-of-novel’ announcements by the authors about their works, which has upset a few people who have had their conceptions about these works suddenly modified.

Which brings to mind several things:

1. Racial bias is, in the main, both unconscious and pernicious. As the song ‘You’ve Got to be Taught’ in the musical South Pacific indicates, it really starts at a very early age, as children absorb the attitudes (often never directly stated to the children) of their parents, and is reinforced by their peer groups and the general culture in which they grow up. And almost always, ‘different’ is equated with ‘not as good as I am’. This attitude is very difficult to eliminate once it is in place. As the American general culture is ‘white’ biased (and has been almost since Columbus’s time), this does mean that the default picture most have when reading about fictional characters is also ‘white’, absent any overt markers that the character is ‘other’. Does this then mean that authors have a responsibility to sprinkle their works with characters who are clearly marked as ‘other’, just to avoid reinforcing the concept that only ‘whites’ are deserving of being protagonists? Certainly not. Loading up a book with such racial (or sexual orientation) material, when it is not germane to plot or theme of the book, is a bad mistake, as it means that now people will be looking for why such characters were given such characteristics, and how closely they conform to the reader’s stereotype of how such people should act and talk, which merely deprives from the focus on what the book is really about, whatever that is. It is not the author’s responsibility to correct the reader’s mindset, it is the reader’s.

John goes into some detail about his high school years and the influence it had on his attitudes, where the school he attended was very racially heterogeneous, but quite homogenous in terms of wealth and class, to where he says that ‘people like him’ pretty much conform to that school structure. I’m not sure if that really holds, as the attitudes about such things seemed to be formed at a much earlier age than high school (not that I’m saying that his attitudes about this are anything other than what he describes – merely that they they were actually formed much earlier).

Nor can I say that my own attitudes are color-blind. I spent a great proportion of my very early years in England, Australia, and then schools in Michigan, West Virginia, and Ohio, and all of these places were very strongly ‘white’ both in composition and attitude (especially so at the time I was there). These formative years have influenced me – in general, I find (if I think about it all), that when reading the characters do default to ‘white’ in my head (so that it came as something of a shock when I discovered at the end of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers that Juan Rico was not white). And it is also somewhat ironic, as in investigating my genealogy I’ve found that I’m part American Indian, along with Irish, English, Scottish, French, and German (during the Civil War some lines in my family could not fight in the regular regiments, but had to fight with the ‘colored/mixed breed’ ones, as we had too great a proportion of Indian blood). But this is my problem as a reader; the authors should not be tasked with crusading for racial equality.

2. Political correctness is still running rampant throughout the discourse about many things in this country. While it may be of benefit to not use derogatory terms to describe any class of people, it has reached the point that no matter what you say, someone will take you task for being insensitive and Neanderthal for your statements. I mean, ‘height-challenged’ in place of ‘short’?! That’s taking it a little too far.

3. You take from a book what you see in it. It may not be what the author had in mind, but that’s actually immaterial. If the average reader’s vision is far different from what the author intended, it may indicate a failure on the author’s part to make clear what he was trying to say, but if the points of difference between author and reader’s view differ only in things that are not the main focus of the work, then the author should not be under any obligation to ‘correct’ that view, though he/she (more PCness) may wish to, as Rowling has done.

2 Responses to “The Default Reader Attitude”

  1. Peter said

    Have you ever read any of LeGuinn’s books? In her ‘Lathe of Heaven’ and ‘Earthsea’ books – she in a way deals with such issues. In LOH – at one point she creates a homogenized human-race. In the various Earthsea stories – she makes it clear that Ged and many other characters in the Archipelago are ‘non-white’. She does this quite well and smoothly I think. What I found interesting is that when the SciFi channel bought-butchered her works and produced a mini-series – they made all the Earthsea characters white! I supposed to make them more palatible to the general populace?
    I think LeGuin stands out – since she was confronting these ideas in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
    It has been 30 years since I read Starship troopers (I was a teen when I read it) – and if memory serves – Rico was from Brazil?

  2. hyperpat said

    Nope, Rico was from the Philippines. Though they apparently had a house in Brazil.

    LeGuin was definitely in the forefront in terms of using her works to promote both racial and gender equality. For her works, this kind of thing was germane to what she was driving at, and her method of giving her characters the appropriate characteristics was both subtle and overt (think The Dispossessed, where she has a race of hermaphrodites). You’re right, the SciFi channel production was butchery, and the decision to use all white actors was certainly driven by some producer looking at demographics and thinking that this story would only appeal to whites, so the characters had better be white. Ugh.

    Samuel Delany was also doing his best work during this same period, and once again his characters are far from all white, all male, or all heterosexual. SF can illuminate the problem of discrimination in marvelous ways.

    But when the point of the work has nothing to do with these themes, I think Scalzi’s approach makes sense – just don’t give the characters markers of these things, and let the reader fill in the gap. If the reader imagines the characters to be all white, well, that’s his problem.

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