The Significance

Published August 15, 2015 by swankivy

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I’m kinda disgusted to inform you this is an Actual Thing People are Saying. White is “normal”; anything else is obviously forced diversity, a political statement, or bowing to political correctness. White is viewed as the default for everyone, and if a character is not white, there should be a reason. Well, I disagree. (While attempting to laugh and cry at the same time.)

This is not to say that characters of color in novels should be presented as neutral themselves. “Color-blind” narratives don’t actually help. Making a cast “diverse” by writing them exactly like you would write a white character but giving them “ethnic”-sounding names and darker skin does not accurately reflect the experience of a person of color. Their color IS seen even if some of us white people pretend it doesn’t matter (or that THEY are the problem if they notice and are affected by racism or discrimination).

It should just be handled as a not-neutral, not-invisible part of their character, and while background characters can certainly be incidentally any color without comment, a realistic character will move through the world with an experience that reflects their race. That is also true if they are white. (And they may be able, in a world that DOES treat them like it’s fine to consider themselves the default, to “ignore” race in a way no one else can, while saying the REAL racists are the ones who claim there are still problems.)

This phenomenon also extends to LGBTQ characters, non-male characters, characters with disabilities and illnesses, and characters from non-majority culture or religions. The “OMG THE PC OVERLORDS ARE COMING TO TAKE OUR FREE SPEECH” crowd sees all of these deviations from “the norm” as attempts to force diversity where it doesn’t belong, in the name of creating an unrealistic, hippy-dippy, artificially diversified picture of humanity. But in reality, THE WORLD ACTUALLY IS DIVERSE, and the “mainstream” voices that drowned out the marginalized ones are actually the ones at fault for making this political.

I cannot speak for my friends of color, but I have certainly heard them tell me they’re sick of not having their own narratives in mainstream fiction–that they’re tired of being tokenized or fetishized while being relegated to having their works marketed to “certain audiences” should they dare to put themselves at the center of their stories (while “white” stories are marketed to everyone and presented as if they actually are neutral).

I can speak from a female perspective and a queer perspective, though. I am quite irritated that “adding a woman” to the cast is seen the way it is (usually acceptable only as a love interest, taken as a “feminist statement” if she is not designed to be “gotten” by a male character). Stories about girls and women are chick-lit, women’s fiction, “for girls”–even if they’re primarily mysteries, adventures, SF/fantasies, or thrillers.

I am quite irritated that if a story has a queer protagonist with a queer experience it’s whisked away to a queer section so we can just talk to ourselves, while if there’s a queer background character it’s usually comedic or strategically placed, and if there’s more than one queer in a story that’s supposed to be mainstream then we’re just pushing the gay agenda on people.

And don’t even get me started on disability, which is almost always either an opportunity for someone else to learn from the “inspiration” the disabled person provides OR an opportunity for the disabled person to find a cure or get rehabilitated as the center of their character arc.

My biracial character in the story referenced in the comic–who is one of three love interest guys, and the other two are black, while the protagonist girls are white–does not have a “reason” to be biracial,  nor do the protagonists have a “reason” to develop an interest in more than one person of color except that they happened to be there and that’s who they were. The character’s race is not irrelevant to him as a person, and they do discuss it occasionally in the story, but it is not the center of a story arc and it does not singularly define him.

Basically, if you asked me why my love interest is biracial but you didn’t ask me why my protagonist is white, I think you have some assumptions to unpack.

Here, have a couple cute doodles of characters from the book.



5 comments on “The Significance

  • These are the same kind of people who must have had a conniption about Crayola actually realizing how inappropriate it was to have “flesh” colored crayons, and renaming them. It’s a big world with too many kinds of people to try and say any ethnicity, gender, sexuality or creed should be the default.

  • “I am quite irritated that “adding a woman” to the cast is seen the way it is (usually acceptable only as a love interest, taken as a “feminist statement”

    I wish it wasn’t so, because I don’t want my character associated with feminism – AT ALL. I don’t want her to be praised or criticized or judged at all by feminist standards. She should be judged on whether shes entertaining and interesting, not how well she represents people’s politics. People get the idea that female characters who are leads and in charge must be a feminist statement because feminists themselves wont let it be anything but. People get the impression that its a feminist statement because feminists call such characters “feminist characters”, even if that was never the writer’s intention. Or they call the character “misogynistic” like they did with Bella Swan. So pick your poison.

  • This is perfectly written. In my teens, I used to worry about making my female protagonists black, because I suddenly felt a pressure to explain “the black experience” As a writer of color growing up in a relatively mixed neighborhood with minimal discrimination, I had no idea what this meant. I thought I had to make sure that the majority of my characters were people of color as well, so that there was enough representation to satisfy any of my readers looking for relatability. And don’t even get me started on my fear of “white-washing” my characters because they may have grown up in a middle class household, or lack some urbanized dialect.
    Alternatively, I worried that creating a white protagonist would mean that I was ignoring marginalized groups, and that I had some duty.
    Stupid societal pressures killing my good ideas….
    Fast forward to now, and I have successfully stopped caring. My current main character is black and a lesbian. Her best friend is a straight white male. Although part of the story touches on issues with depression in the black community, I don’t feel an overwhelming need to satisfy some cultural checklist to ensure I portrayed everyone correctly.

    **And I love this webcomic! I just found it yesterday and am binge-reading. Thank you!**


    • Thanks for the fantastic comment, Alyce! I relate so hard. Kinda sucks that when we’re being authentic, we’re always worrying that we’re being fake or someone will think we’re being fake unless we turn up the volume, and then it feels fake. . . .

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