Is “Race” About Appearance or Culture?

Ari Marmell commented on an essay by Saladin Ahmed about the portrayal of race in A Game of Thrones (both the show and the books), and while I don’t have anything to say on that specific series, the topic of racial/cultural representation in fantasy fiction is one I worry about.

First of all, when mentioning the portrayals of race and color in fantasy fiction, it is odd to me to skip what I have frequently heard as the third seminal fantasy series that everyone should read (in addition to Lord of the Rings and Narnia): Earthsea. Admittedly, I don’t read as much fiction as I used to (my reading time is mostly split between science, current events, and RPGs), but a large part of why I (a white, straight, middle-class male) I have loved them—and a lot of Le Guin’s other work—is precisely the cultural diversity. Off the top of my head, IIRC the only white folks in Earthsea are also the closest that series comes to having a “villain race” (though even they are more nuanced than that, ’cause it’s Le Guin writing). [Apologies if I’m forgetting something–it’s been years since I last read the books.]

But enough of historical and existing fiction. On to the topic of how one should portray races and cultures in fantasy fiction.

One respondent to Ari’s post was concern by authors that they can’t portray people of other cultures authentically. But what I immediately think when I read that is: do ethnic/cultural traits and physical/appearance traits have to go hand-in-hand in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction? Isn’t that the real point of the “fantasy doesn’t have to conform to reality” argument [when it’s not a veil for something else, at least]? So, yes, someone like me writing a believable, consistent, non-stereotyped young gay woman who grew up in a Mumbai slum? That’s intimidating and scary, and I’m as likely to get it wrong as right. But could I invent a fantasy culture, drawing on any number of real-world and invented cultures, whose people look like Yoruba? Sure! I would think even that change–that the default-assumption appearance is something other than mostly-European-ancestry USian–would be a significant improvement.

Thoughts from those of a non-white/non-US background? Do you need to see familiar cultural tropes, or do familiar appearances do something to address the imbalance? To what degree are you concerned by the lack of historical cultures in your fantasy? Or is it really just the ethnicities that “need” to be there? Or is borrowing non-white appearances and not the real-world cultures historically associated with them even worse than just ignoring non-whites?

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