There’s this thing some people say when folks complain about a lack of diversity in literature—they claim that if characters are not described, then any racism is in the mind of the reader. That we shouldn’t complain, because it’s our own fault if we imagine the characters as white.
People have thrown this argument out during pretty much every sufficiently long discussion of race in fiction that I’ve had, from when I criticized the lack of diversity in Redshirts or The Dresden Files to when I’ve spoken about it more generally. It’s almost a sure bet. In fact, someone brought it up on Twitter today in one of the discussions sparked by the excellent #DiversityInSFF hashtag.
Whenever people use this argument, they treat it as clever, a slick turnaround—”it’s not the author who’s racist, it’s YOU! You’re the one who’s imagining everyone as white!” And I want to put my head through a wall, because there is so much wrong with this argument I can’t even.
First of all, let’s talk about why diversity in media is important. Part of it is so that people, particularly young children, can see characters who look like them in heroic roles—but even supposing children in marginalized demographics haven’t been inculcated enough into the cult of our dominant media to imagine undescribed characters as looking like them (and I dare you to tell me it’s their fault if they don’t; I dare you), that is not the only reason for including POC in literature.
Media is important. Books are important. What we read, imagine, absorb—this is culture in its most potent form, and it affects us. It shapes our perceptions, it pushes at our worldviews. Can anyone honestly tell me the written word has no power?
When you put something out into the world, when you write a book and you offer it for people to read, you are impacting the culture.
If your book erases the existence of POC in favor of a white land of white heroes, what impact are you having?
If instead your book omits description and the vast majority of your audience defaults to imagining your characters as white anyway—which they will—the difference is academic. The images in your readers’ minds are the same as if you specified your characters’ monochrome paleness. Your impact on culture is the same. And make no mistake, it is an impact. White characters (or undescribed characters who default to white) are a choice, just as POC characters are a choice, and you are pushing the culture in one particular direction, just as a more colorful cast would push it in another.
But you know what? There’s another very good reason the “it’s the reader’s fault!” argument is just ridiculously silly, and that’s that it DOESN’T WORK.
You know how I know? I tried it. I thought, yeah, that argument is bunk, but there might be something to a tweaked version of it—that it might be be a Good Thing if I challenged my own default perceptions, if I made an additional conscious effort to imagine sparsely-described characters with more melanin in their skin, even in books that didn’t take place in strongly minority environments.
And what happened? I got smacked in the face for it, every single time. Because somewhere along the way, two chapters or twenty chapters or whatever later, the author would make a reference to the character’s milky skin, to paleness, to a reaction to the appearance of a darker-skinned character . . . and it was so totally clear that this character was meant to be white all along. That I had been meant to imagine the character as white. That the author had assumed I had been doing so.
The cognitive dissonance started ruining the reading experience. Books forced me to white as the default perception. And they’re doing it to everyone who isn’t trying such an experiment as well, even when we don’t realize it consciously, because any deviation from this happy equilibrium of white-as-the-default is so inevitably punished by the narratives when one so much as pokes one’s nose outside it.
I still try quite hard to imagine more characters of color where I can, because I’m stubborn, and I think it’s valuable for me to do it. The result of this is that I’ve found myself more and more drawn to authors of color and books with minority milieux, because then I can happily imagine every undescribed character as a POC and not be knocked down a few chapters later by the author’s assumption that I didn’t.