I’m Not Racist, But…: On Race & Genre Fiction

I have to admit, I was a little hesitant in writing this post.

Race is an incredibly sensitive topic and it’s very easy to come across as either self-righteous or horribly misguided…especially when you’re a pasty Australian guy who’s so pale he’s practically blue. But I’ve had this idea brewing in my head for quite a while now and I thought it was best to express it. If that expression comes off as a little garbled or preachy-sounding, I hope you’ll bear with me.

Growing up a white, middle-class kid – and a boy, at that – I never had to search very far to see myself reflected in the fiction I consumed. From He-Man to James and the Giant Peach, there were white, fair-haired representations of heroism in plentiful abundance.

In fact, every main character in just about everything I read or watched contained a white male hero facing off against the threat of the day. Quite often he’d be aided by something as exotic as a girl, equally fair-haired, or perhaps a talking animal sidekick. People of colour, however, were few and far between…though sometimes they’d be included in a villainous capacity by especially dunderheaded storytellers.

As I got older, I started taking notice of race a bit more. My preteen brain was blown when I discovered that Spawn, the Image comics character created by Todd McFarlane, was a black man…or at least he had been before he’d been killed by his employer and resurrected as a soldier of Hell (long story).

Not only was Spawn black but so was his supporting cast, including the wife he’d left behind on Earth and the best friend who’d married her in Spawn’s absence. Though I’m embarrassed to admit it now, I was a little confused at the time as to why McFarlane, a white guy, would make all his main characters black. Didn’t that make it harder for him to relate to them? Didn’t it make them harder for him to write?

I also remember loving The Lion King around the same time, and being frustrated by the critics who denounced the racist and homophobic overtones contained in the film. How could The Lion King be racist? It was all about animals, not people! Of course, it didn’t occur to me that if you take a bunch of negative cultural stereotypes, apply them to your villain characters and get those characters voiced by actors of colour, you’re practically begging to be accused of racism.

It wasn’t until uni that I started looking beyond the surface details of plot and the knee jerk defensiveness of saying “It’s just a story” (four of the worst words to ever say about storytelling; stories are more than a series of events told to keep us entertained. Stories can be weapons. They can be balms for the soul. They can enlighten and broaden the mind. Stories are never just stories).

At uni, I learnt about post-feminist and post-colonial theory. I learnt to analyse the themes of a work, to look at it from angles other than the straightforward. But it was outside of uni – in fact, it was an essay I found online – that really opened my mind to the issue of race.

Shame by Pam Noles, written in response to the TV adaptation of the Earthsea books, is a deeply personal piece where the author ruminates on the depiction of race in science-fiction and fantasy. When I read it in 2006, it changed my world view.

Vanguard Prime doesn’t come out for another two weeks (July 25th! Bookshop near you! /shamelessplug) so the characters I’m about to discuss won’t mean much to anyone at this stage, but when I was creating them I kept in mind the story Pam Noles told about being a child desperately looking for a depiction of herself in the stories she loved.

Sam Lee is a 14-year-old kid whose sudden manifestation of superpowers forever changes his life. Invited to join the superhero team Vanguard Prime, he finds himself rubbing elbows with the idols of his youth. Those idols include Agent Alpha, the VP universe equivalent of Superman or Captain America.

When creating Agent Alpha, I initially went to the obvious place of picturing a white male with a shiny white smile and slick blonde hair. Very vanilla. Very predictable. Very boring. In this post-Obama world, wouldn’t the more interesting thing be to take the Superman paradigm and place an African-American in that role? And so Agent Alpha became, in his secret identity, Michael Malik Khalid.

And then there’s Sam himself. The name “Sam Lee” generated quite naturally. The thing that kept repeating in my head when I was trying to work out who the main character of the book would be were the words that Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, said about what made the world famous Wallcrawler so popular; that, beneath the mask, he could be anybody. Black, white, Asian. Anybody. It doesn’t matter.

As noble an idea as that is, it lasts about as long as it takes for Spider-Man to remove his mask…and then you discover that his name’s Peter Parker and that he’s another middle-class white guy (at least, that’s still the case in the mainstream Marvel universe. In the Ultimate imprint, Peter’s recently been replaced by Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Hispanic kid. When the announcement of this change was made, it was sadly met with a great many accusations of it being due to “political correctness”…I think the same people who use the excuse “It’s just a story” are the same people who rail against “political correctness”).

I wanted to offer kids from any background the feeling of inclusiveness that Stan spoke of when he talked about the notion of Spider-Man being “anybody”. Partly in tribute to the man himself, but mostly because of its ethnic ambiguity, I chose the name ‘Sam Lee’ for my main character. The majority of the book is written from Sam’s point-of-view, and beyond his clothes he never describes his appearance. Prose could provide the ambiguity necessary for any kid, anywhere, to place themselves in Sam’s shoes.

Of course, I couldn’t help but slip in a sly reference to what I felt Sam’s cultural background was…a reference that the editor who read the manuscript picked up on and asked me about when we sat down to discuss the book. That information would eventually be passed onto the book’s designer and illustrator; you can keep things as vague as you want in the text, but the reality of the situation is that you’re going to have to put an image on the cover, aren’t you?

Not one but two people close to me commented on Sam’s Asian appearance. They asked if that was an attempt to sell the book overseas, specifically to the Asian market or to manga fans. And I can’t think of a more perfect example of why we need more racial diversity in genre fiction, if not fiction in general, than that.

Not thinking about race is a luxury that’s afforded to white people because we’re the ones on top. We’re everywhere, and so are our stories. Try and subvert that, even just a little, and it results in consternation, if not outright hostility. You need look no further than the response to the mere suggestion of Donald Glover being cast as Spider-Man, or the actual casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor, or the racist rumblings about the casting of The Hunger Games film, as evidence of that.

I have one more phrase to add to the list alongside “It’s just a story” and “political correctness”. It’s “I’m not racist but…”. Is there any other phrase that’s more likely to preface a racist statement? The only way I can think of it being used in anything but a bigoted fashion is “I’m not racist, but I really think we could use some more ethnic diversity in this story.” Then I’d agree. And I’d probably get accused of being PC as a result. Not that I’d mind.


Published by Steven Lochran

Steven Lochran is the author of the upcoming Middle Grade Fantasy series PALADERO, as well as the teen superhero series VANGUARD PRIME. He lives in Melbourne with his wife, two cats, and an unreasonably large toy collection.

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