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I have read through a lot of questions regarding questions of a similar nature, but all of the questions I looked at involved fantasy worlds that were removed from the "real world." In my novel, I have five main characters, who are essentially kidnapped by scientists, given superpowers, and they basically try to prevent the head scientist from taking over the world. I have one character (only two main characters are present in novel one) who is of mixed race (African-American and caucasian).

The question is, do I need to address the issue of racism in the world during my novel?

Typically I would assume yes, but for my story, the characters really do not interact much with people outside of the five of them because they are kind of on the run since the government is sided with the scientists. Occasionally they will have small interactions with the rest of society, but it is normally either unimportant, with governmental figures, or with family members. Within the five of them, it wouldn't come up because there are other troubles that they have each been through that come up more than race, which really doesn't impact my characters. (Edit: This particular character is the son of an African-American woman {though she passed away when he was young} and a caucasian man who is the head of an organized crime or mafia-type group. He has been through a lot in his life and he's been kidnapped by many different groups trying to get to his father. Just thought I should specify this)

Thank you for any help you can provide!!

11 Answers 11

47

Why do people seem to think that if a character isn't a straight white male, then the story must address homophobia, racism, and sexism?

When was the last time you saw a movie with a black actor that didn't "talk funny", and without jokes or antagonism related to race?

One of the things that made the original Night of the Living Dead movie memorable was that even though its main character was played by a black actor, there was nothing in the film that would have to be changed had he been white.

Casting Jones as the hero was potentially controversial in 1968: it was not typical for a black man to be the hero of an American film when the rest of the cast was composed of white actors, but Romero said that Jones simply gave the best audition. — Night of the Living Dead - Wikipedia

Making non-racist society the norm is not a bad way to go.

Similarly, I remember seeing a Columbo episode in which one of the characters was obviously gay. Throughout the entire show, no one commented about this, and it played no role in the plot. If you want to eliminate homophobia, that was the right way to do it.

Having female professionals, without referring to them as "a female doctor" or "a lady lawyer" or making an issue of their sex was a far more powerful method of eliminating sexism than was explicitly making an issue of it.

Sometimes (always?) the best way for an author to deal with ____ism is to create worlds in which it simply isn't an issue.

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  • 10
    I'm not sure why OP feels like he NEEDS to address the subject at all either. All art is arguably political to some degree, but artists have full control over how much of that politics is present in and relevant to their work. – user2647513 Dec 28 '19 at 21:26
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    I want to say this all the time! Talking about how X isn't an issue makes an issue out of X. Showing people where X could be an issue but simply isn't and is never mentioned is the best way! – CJ Dennis Dec 29 '19 at 0:14
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    It seems like cheating to use Night of the Living Dead as your example; viewers of that movie continually see the character's race without its being mentioned, but the OP can hardly manage that in a novel! (An example of a novel that does this might be The Hunger Games -- but many readers didn't realize that Rue and Thresh were what we'd consider black until the movie came out, so that's also an example of how hard this can be to achieve.) – ruakh Dec 29 '19 at 6:59
  • @user2647513 : I think I know because I've been in a similar boat. A lot of various online debate posts and advice posts around this issue sure seem to make it sound that way with things like "you have to know how racism works" (probably not the best example or best recollection but don't remember details offhand - could also have been something like that the characters are written "white" as being problematic or something like that) even in the context of fantasy writing which suggest it must then play a role in the world, otherwise why make such criticisms? – The_Sympathizer Dec 29 '19 at 12:07
  • (as said, can't really remember but I know I've seen stuff that has given me the exact same thought before) – The_Sympathizer Dec 29 '19 at 12:09
25

I don't think you do need to address it, you can just ignore it.

One example I can think of is the superhero-comedy movie Hancock, with Will Smith. He's black, and plays John Hancock, a black superhero (with amnesia).

He lives like a bum, dressed in rags, filthy, drunk, sleeping on public benches. He does fight crime, sometimes with a bottle of whiskey in his hand, but his frequent careless destruction of millions of dollars worth of property makes everybody mad at him. Despite all that, there is no racism made evident, not a word. Not even from the murderous criminals he is stopping.

He does get triggered into anger by a word: Being called a "psycho". But that's it.

You don't have to address racism if you don't want to. Hancock did not, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie.

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13

It's not enough to consider your character's present - you must also consider their past

People (and characters) are shaped by their experiences in life. Even if your characters are not dealing with racism during the course of your story, if they have experienced it in the past (and I dare say that any modern American of mixed heritage has experienced racism) it's going to shape how they react to their current events.

To use a simple example: Upon escaping kidnappers using the powers they gained during experiments, a black person is (in general) going to be much less inclined to call the police for help than a white person would be. The revelation that the police are siding with the kidnappers and declaring the escapees to be dangerous monsters will be much less shocking for them, because that experience is very much inline with their community's previous experiences with authority.

Now, obviously I am speaking in general, and this doesn't necessarily apply to your characters specifically. But it is something that you as the author need to examine. For each character, you need to ask "How has this character's experience been different from my own, and how will that make their reactions differ from what mine would be?"

You don't need to explain or explore these root causes in the story if that's not what the story is about. But understanding them will help make your characters feel more unique and more realistic than if you failed to consider their past experiences when designing their personalities.

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13

If racism is a component of your storyline, then mention it to whatever degree it's a component of your storyline.

Otherwise, never feel compelled to bring something in "just to bring it in". You are never burdened with addressing any societal issue you don't want to address, and if you do want to address it, then it by definition is part of the story.

But an incidental unimportant side reference to something as potentially flammable as race just "because"? No. If you don't need it, don't bring it.

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10

It's not necessary at all.

A little over 50 years ago, Gene Roddenberry produced Star Trek. Of the main cast members, two were very much White Americans, one was black, one was Scottish, one was Russian (in the middle of the Cold War!), one was Japanese, and one was non-human, and this was all treated as perfectly normal and never remarked upon in-universe. And it became a massive success, spawning one of the biggest franchises of all time.

A little over 25 years ago, Haim Saban & co produced Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Of the five Rangers, three were white, one was black, one was Vietnamese, and partway through the first season they introduced Tommy, the Sixth Ranger, who was later explained to be Native American. These characters were portrayed as not only teammates but friends, people who always hung out together even for civilian activities, and being of different races from each other never mattered. About the closest anyone ever came to mentioning race as being something significant in any way was when Tommy's story arc involved a Native American spirit quest, and one point when introducing a new Ranger, an asian girl, she's shown using karate to fight off a monster. Someone asks her where she learned that, and she says "my ancestors invented it!" That's about as far as the show ever went in acknowledging race at all; I can't think of a single time throughout the franchise when anyone's been hated or discriminated against because of their ancestry or the color of their skin. And it was a massive success, spawning another one of the biggest franchises of all time.

There are other examples, but those are ones that should be familiar to pretty much everyone to one degree or another. They show that it's perfectly possible to have a story with a multi-racial cast, without the story caring about their races, and have it turn out well. If you don't want to talk about racism, don't write a story about racism. Just write a good story, and people will enjoy it.

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    I'd argue that the fact that Roddenberry depicting people of different races working together without it being A Thing, at the same time a man was running for president on a "Segregation Forever" platform, winning 5 states, was in fact hugely addressing race. It was at the time very transgressive. This is not 1968, and doing the same today leaves a completely different message. – T.E.D. Dec 30 '19 at 16:18
  • Note the original pilot had a female first officer too, but the focus groups just couldn't accept it, and the network rejected it. Star Trek went pretty much to the limit of what was socially possible to do in late 60's broadcast TV. – T.E.D. Dec 30 '19 at 16:52
  • @T.E.D. Really? I've never heard that before; I heard that the original pilot got rejected for being "too cerebral" and they ended up accepting the second one for being more "interesting" and action-oriented. – Mason Wheeler Dec 30 '19 at 18:43
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    @Lorendiac - And that's the thing, this wasn't a depiction of everyday life at that time; it was well and truly Science Fiction: A speculation of what a different society could be like, and indirectly a commentary on the (then) current one. – T.E.D. Dec 30 '19 at 19:59
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    @T.E.D. Looking back, I see that in my previous comment I said "there were previous few examples" when what I thought I had typed was "there were precious few examples." But yes, Dr. King's point was the same as yours -- Star Trek was assuming that someday ordinary human beings wouldn't even feel the need to comment on each other's racial heritages, because it didn't matter any more. No one ever made a speech about Uhura having "benefited from affirmative action" or anything like that; they simply took it for granted that she'd had the same opportunities as anyone else. – Lorendiac Dec 30 '19 at 20:28
3

A novel doesn't have to address every problem with society.

A good novel has something it is trying to say (besides being entertaining) but you shouldn't try to shoehorn a treatment of every social injustice into your novel. You'll have some theme you are trying to express, and if you try to squeeze in everything else you'll end up with the point of your novel being buried in all the other stuff you included because you felt you had to.

Depending on what else is going on in your novel, you have many ways of dealing with racism:

  1. Accept it as a part of your background - your imagined society hasn't managed to conquer it yet, just as our current society still has problems with it. This is more a thing to do when dealing with an imagined society that has its roots in our current day society.
  2. Have it be a non-issue in your imagined society - if your imagined society has no roots in ours, then there's no need to assume it will have developed racism.
  3. Have it be a solved issue in your imagined society - if your imagined society evolves from ours, you (as author) can declare racism in your future society to be a solved problem. Either just get on with the story on the assumption that racism isn't an issue, or insert some passing remark or reference about some point in history where racism was eradicated long before your story takes place.
  4. Just ignore it. Your characters could have as many different skin colors as a rainbow, and nobody in the story even mentions it. Don't use stereotypes for your figures, have all of your characters just completely ignore skin color.
  5. Make racism a part of your story - either by showing characters trying to eliminate it, or show characters affected by it. Maybe have a racist character learn to overcome their own racist tendencies, or have a racist end up on the flip side (make a racist become as member of a group that is discriminated against.)

It is your story. If you want to deal with racism, do so. If it isn't a part of your story, leave it out - or deal it a backhanded blow by having characters of all skin colors interacting without friction (caused by skin color,) but never ever mention racism directly. Antagonists should be known by their actions, not by their skin color.

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1

It's clearly seen that you are defining and introducing the characters you had created and included in your book by using their "races". Then it's out of your control to either include the issue of "racism" or not, of course on the side of the readers.

As the author, you don't have to discuss, bring attention or express your thoughts on racism and the situation of the society, especially in a fictional work; but you can't expect that nobody will argue about your writing on the issue of racism after you mentioned the racial properties of the characters.

If you want to exclude racism not only in your story, but also on the side of the readers, then you have to exclude all kinds of "racial" descriptions from your story.

Certainly, you will have addressed racism when you describe a character, who is the head of an organized crime group, as Caucasian.

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    This, yes: a book will be read by real people. Therefore it’s impossible for a piece of culture (a book) to not interact with the culture its part of, regardless of the in-universe setting. However, one error in this answer: “exclud[ing] all kinds of "racial" descriptions from your story” doesn’t exclude racism from a story, since it still had to interact with its readers, and readers are well aware of the “mysteriously race-free characters” trope as exclusionary. After all, think how these race-free characters would be cast in a film adaptation; the void is always filled by whiteness. – Robin Dec 30 '19 at 16:18
  • This was my thought as well. Since I don't want readers to picture all my characters as white (as is typical of readers) I wanted to try to provide descriptors at the beginning. – Shel77 Jan 14 at 3:47
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Everything that contributes to the story you want to tell needs to be included, and everything that detracts from your story needs to be excluded.

So if your story is about society or the personal experience of the hero, then racism is probably one of the things that are a part and belong there. But if your story is about superpowers and science, then you can exclude it and nobody will even notice. You even should exclude it in such case as it would only lead the reader down a trail of thoughts that leads nowhere.

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0

Assuming your main characters haven't been in a regular society for a long time, I doubt it is necessary, however since your characters will occasionally interact with the rest of society, maybe you can have them be criticized for their unnatural and "Freakish" powers? Just a suggestion, but other than that I don't think it'll be necessary. Then again it's completely up to you, if you want to add it then go for it. You can always remove it if it doesn't work. Hope this helped you : )

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0

It's Science Fiction, so depending on how far in the future this is set, we may assume that today's problems are totally irrelevant - but that in the future, there might be totally different problems. And that there will be people that are victims of systematic discrimination. But not because they are black, but for example because they are part of the garbage collection clan.

On the other hand, we are today not overly concerned with the fate of future garbage collectors, so you as the author and the characters of your story may show any amount of prejudical behaviour towards them.

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0

You are writing science fiction, right?

You could make a point of not mentioning human racism in any way, shape, or form, and thereby highlight how your fictional society differs from the real world.

This is a very good option if you are far in the future, or if mankind has contacted other sentient species. Of course a couple of centuries without racism should lead to plenty of mixed couples and children, anyway, so talking about race would be pointless.

If your story is set in the near future, in a world much like the real world except for a few, carefully introduced changes, it would be unrealistic if the world you describe is not racist. Much of the real world is racist, after all.

In this case, everyday racism will severely constrain the agency of your character.

Character 1: "Let's meet in the cafe at three o'clock."
Character 2: "Dumb idea."
Character 1: "Why not? It is out of the rain."
Character 2: "Look at my skin. You can wait there. I can't."
Character 1: "Doh."

Character 3: "Two men trailing us. Not very professional."
Character 4: "Let's call the police, let them try to explain that."
Character 3: "Here? Who do you think will get arrested?"

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