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.