Racial Diversity in Speculative Fiction

This article is by Anne Leonard.racial diversity

A current – and recurring – topic of conversation in the SFF writer/ blogger/ reader community is the lack of people of color (POC) writing and publishing in the field.  (This is also an issue in the literary community in general; here’s a recent post on the subject that appeared on the Book Riot website.)

People of color are underrepresented in SFF for a lot of reasons, but one which I see frequently mentioned is that books without diversity make POC feel excluded.  This creates a vicious circle – POC don’t read SFF, so they don’t write SFF, so there aren’t POC in SFF books, so POC don’t read SFF.  One way to break the cycle is for white writers to include more diversity in their own work.

Diversity issues extend far beyond SFF, of course, but speculative literature has a different stake in the conversation than a lot of other literature. Speculative literature is about what is not real. It therefore has a special capacity to imagine and examine alternative worlds, where race is not part of the culture in the same way it is in the societies we live in.  If you’re making up a world, you don’t have to comply with historical racial and ethnic diasporas.

Race in Fantasy Literature

In many ways, fantasy literature, which was overwhelmingly white/European for years, has taken on this challenge and become more multi-ethnic. A few books I’ve read recently that have people of color (POC) as main characters include Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic/ Cold Fire/ Cold Steel trilogy, Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, and N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon. This is a huge movement from the Tolkienesque epic fantasy with a group of white dudes going off to battle the Black Lord and his swarthy minions.

However, we still have those damn Black Elves lingering around, poking their dark faces into decent people’s business.  (They showed up most recently in Thor 2, with the first camera pan down to the evil Dark Elves landing on the character of Algrim/Kurse, played by a black man, not on the completely white evil Malekith.)

The black/white evil/good dichotomy is so ingrained in so many human cultures that it’s unlikely it will ever disappear. Humans are afraid of what happens in the darkness.  But even acknowledging that a trope equating darkness with evil is firmly fixed in fantasy literature, that trope should not be extended to characters. Making the bad guys all dark-skinned – or all the dark-skinned people bad – is racism. (It’s also not very interesting to have a culture or group of people who are uniformly evil, so I would add that it’s bad writing too.)

Adding Diversity to One’s Writing

But how does one move beyond this?  It’s a particularly difficult issue for people who want to avoid cultural appropriation but want to add a mix of cultures.

There’s no easy or right answer; writing is different for everyone, and what works for one person may fail miserably for another. But I submit that for the white writer who wants to be more authentically diverse and not stumble into appearing racist, the first step is becoming aware of one’s own whiteness. People who are members of a privileged group have to stop taking the privilege for granted if they want to effect change.

Here’s an example: most human beings are right-handed. The world is designed for right-handed people. The minority of left-handed people learn to adapt and live in a right-handed world.  But when a right-handed person picks up a tool designed for lefties and can’t use it – grabbing the left-hand scissors from the art tray by accident and watching the blades slide uselessly against the paper – the rightie gets a sense of what it’s like to be a southpaw.  Similarly, being forced by injury to use only the left hand shows a rightie just how much the world is not designed for a left-handed person.

Race is much more complicated and fraught with tension than handedness, of course, but right-handedness is a position of dominant cultural privilege, just as whiteness is.  Putting oneself out of place by something as simple as using the wrong tool is a way to recognize privilege for what it is and to imagine not having it.

Whiteness as a Social Construct

In Louisiana in 1857, a girl, Jane/Alexina Morrison, who had blond hair and blue eyes, was legally sold as a slave.  She later sued to be declared free because she looked white. At the time light-skinned slaves were more desirable property for working in the house than dark-skinned slaves; her whiteness, as Walter Johnson puts it, “might simply have made her more valuable.”

The below photograph of emancipated slaves shows several children who appear “white,” but were legally slaves:

This photograph of temancipated slaves was taken by Myron H. Kimball in 1863
This photograph of emancipated slaves was taken by Myron H. Kimball in 1863.

Whiteness, in other words, is more than a physical trait; it is a social construction that has been used to determine who has the upper hand in relationships based on unequal power.  Once one begins to consciously think of whiteness in those terms, it becomes a lot easier to be aware of one’s own whiteness and to think about how to represent a person of color in fiction.  It’s not only a question of character alignments, it’s a question of who holds the power and what are the (imagined) historical forces that led to these arrangements?  If the people in power are all white, then the story may not be really representing diversity even if there are POC in it.

To write one’s way out of a white fog is a challenge.  I’ve been thinking and writing about these issues for years, and my debut novel is still pretty darn lily-white. The only way to move forward, however, is to start.

Recommended Reading

Here are a few recent blog posts that discuss diversity (not just racial) in SFF.  They are worth reading if you are interested in the conversation:

Jane/Alexina Morrison’s story is told in an article by Walter Johnson called “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s,” published in The Journal of American History, June 2000, pp. 13-38.

For Further Thought

Any recommendations for works of fantasy by POC or with POC (or other diverse groups)?

If you’re writing out of a European mythos, what are the challenges in overcoming reader expectations based on that mythos?

How can you use diversity (of any sort) to make your writing less cliched?

About the Author:

Anne Leonard is the author of the fantasy novel MOTH AND SPARK (Viking, February 2014) and  the editor of the first critical anthology to focus on race in speculative fiction (INTO DARKNESS PEERING, Greenwood, 1997). She is a licensed attorney but currently writes full-time. You can visit her website at anneleonardbooks.com.

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37 thoughts on “Racial Diversity in Speculative Fiction”

  1. Many of the characters in my story are based on the nation of Israel, so they have an olive skin tone. All of the others are white, but I could easily change this. I haven’t developed race all that much yet.

  2. I’m white, but with a very diverse family. I decided to stand several fantasy (and other fiction) conventions on their head when I created the world of my novel. First, it is based loosely on West African people – more in looks and in using Swahili to pull some of the “magical” words in (ie a “flying horse” is “kuruka farasi” which is Swahili for “flying horse”). The people are all dark complected, but I made up the cultural aspect based on what I wanted the world to be.

    For example, there are approximately equal numbers of same-sex marriages as opposite-sex marriages, and even a convention for same-sex couples to have children. Another thing that’s different is the women are the ruling sex, though not in a really repressive way. Their God is woman, therefore women are considered the “head” of the culture. They run politics, military, and households. Men are not treated as property, the way women have been through most of history, but are utilized for their natural talents – things that require strength and technical ability as well as being part of the soldiers in the military (women being the leaders, and also part of the soldiers).

    There is also an elite group, the magical people, who are all women. And these characters skin is all dark brown. There is an elf-like culture (Watu Haki = Fair Folk in Swahili) who are black – like actual black of your TV or keyboard – and considered the most beautiful of all the peoples in the world.

    The baddies are also brown, but lighter, but that’s only to distinguish the northerners, who are the “baddies” who aren’t even all bad, just a more aggressive people, and run by men. They have false gods, not the true God.

    Anyway, I just had fun creating a world where everything was different from the majority of fantasy worlds. The story I’m telling is not hugely different culturally from what any American would tell, but the overall culture is very different. If that makes sense.

  3. imo so long as we don’t see a non-white/hispanic/black fantasy author making waves, this underground norm will still keep persisting. As for me… well, I’m a Singaporean and I’m not even 1% white. Maybe this is why it’s far easier for me to try including the POC factor in my work. In fact, my main character is a POC.

    What I’m seeing here is a case of Your Holy Whiten-ness complex. Historically, whites were more well known for empire building even though the first empire in human history wasn’t white, i.e. the Akkadian Empire. However, it is without a doubt that in the BC era, empires were almost exclusively white apart from the Ottoman Empire.

    One major problem behind this dysfunctional syndrome lies in a sense of racial delusion where white people=real descendants of Shem. This was widely accepted many centuries ago until more recent biblical findings actually pointed them towards Japheth’s line. As it turned out, it was the Asians who are proven to be Shem’s descendants.

    What I’m trying to say is this: If we want to talk about racial superiority, religion amounting to self-worshiping cannot be excluded as that major factor. In fact, J.R.R Tolkien had to shoulder a major bulk of responsibility because 90% of contemporary fantasy hail from his influences. Even G.R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is heavily borrowed from the medieval Europe.

    One thing quite disturbing about Tolkien’s works lies in the whole white=good, black=evil being a product of his society back then. It’s not only Tolkien, so accusing him to be a racist would be rather mean unless we’re willing to say 99% of his fellow whites were also racists.

    However, I believe we’re more stuck in the middle ages mentality more than the maritime era much later. This is most likely down to our innate fascination towards mythology. European mythology tend to focus more on personal valour and this is exactly what epic fantasy is all about.

    In fact, I figure that 99% of fantasy authors in the market are either Americans or Europeans. Those of other ethnicity don’t really get any decent exposure on a global scale, so I believe this is also a major contributing factor.

  4. “The only way to move forward, however, is to start.”

    Thank you for writing this article, and especially for this little nudge of encouragement. 

    The main character in my first novel is a person of color (I am not). I had a lot of angst and worry about messing it up and hurting others with something that I intended to be a positive thing. But what I finally landed on was that it was better to try my best, and maybe fall short, than to cave in to my fears.

  5. My YA Fantasy novel Asgourer Awakes heavily represents an Asian Indian character – Ayan and at the also Hunter, a North American Indian. Both are set in a fabled realm and their importance to the plot is just as intictae as all the white characters. The second of my Indigo Morarty Series – The Hunting of Jörmungandr – King of the Lindwurm has a heavy Norse influence, but introduces a black voodoo witch doctor…both books mix legend/myth with reality and encompass the diversity of both here and there.

    This is a great article, thanks for posting.

  6. Most of the time I work with “exotic” settings where so-called “people of color” demographically predominate, but I like racial and cultural diversity in my stories. Even ignoring the social justice ramifications, cultural contrasts can inspire story ideas. Most recently I typed up a short story about an Arab character who stumbles upon the ruins of an ancient Black African civilization, which goes against his prejudices of African people’s cultural development.

    Ironically and perhaps unfortunately, interracial conflict (what some might call racism) recurs as a big theme in my stories, especially the one I just described. As much as I would prefer not to feel guilt over what I choose to write, I can see a lot of people of various colors discomforted by this theme.

  7. This is not an easy question to answer. On one hand, the majority fantasy authors are white. People write who and what they know. Also everyone casts heroes in their own Image. So the vast majority of fantasy stories are going to take place in quasi European locals and feature. A predominantly white cast; and their is no inherent malice and racism in this. What might possibly be racist is that when peoples from the south and east of quasi-Europe do show up they are often enemies or primitives in need of civilizing.

  8. @Genghistwelve cairnswritesmythicscribesSomeone gave me some good advice a while back when I had kind of typical monsters in my story. He said, “Why not just make up your own?” I mulled it over and said, “Yeah, why not!” So I’ve been trying to develop my own folklore while borrowing heavily from non-traditional fantasy creatures and races (Native American, African, Asian, etc.)

  9. Wow. I must say I’m impressed with this post. As a person of color and a fantasy addict I have often wondered why SFF is primarily white dominated. However as an aspiring author I have worked to create my own world which include racial diversity and I look forward too incorporating it more and more into my work. This blog post is a breath of fresh air for me!

  10. While race is a social construct, culture is not. The culture experienced by POC in the U.S. is not remotely similar to those in Africa and can be very different from we Caucasians, even when growing up in geographic proximity. 

    I have enough personal experience interacting with POC to know that I would never try to write an authentic POC based in the modern U.S. without massive input from my friends. We do not see the world the same, we do not speak the same. Even some aspects of our body language are very different. Not only would the character not be authentic, I could end up insulting the very ppl I was trying to include.

    So, while there is no reason fantasy works cannot easily include more diversity, merely painting the characters different colors in a homogenized society does not really show diversity. But, showing ppl learning to be more accepting of differences is what true diversity is all about. Where does that lead? Keep the discussion going. The very fact we are engaging in the discussion will, hopefully, attract more readers and writers of color.

  11. cairnswrites mythicscribes As much as European folklore has been mined to death, there are numerous cultures’ who have been barely touched

  12. cairnswrites mythicscribes Why unicorn? Why not abada? I’m bored of elves and fairies and werewolves. Why not Aziz? jengu? Kishi?

  13. @dj  Thanks for sharing your personal experience with us.
    It’s been a while since I’ve spent more than a few minutes in a large book store.  I didn’t realize that there was a “black section”.  While I’m sure that the intention in creating such a section was noble, it sounds like it has lead to a form of literary segregation. 
    Non-blacks are unlikely to visit a designed “black section”.  If books are relegated there, they are unlikely to ever connect with a larger audience.

  14. I did at one point welcome the “Black section” of bookstores.  After seeing this for many years, I now know that it severely limits Black authors access to the general population.  

    You are right.  Black authors’ books regardless of genre tend to be trotted out for the month of February then afterwards relegated to the lonely shelves in the “Black section” somewhere in the back of the bookstore. That is if our works even make into the bookstores.

    I recently met with a local librarian who said that my poetry books would be placed in the “Black book section” automatically.  I asked if I had a choice.  I was told no I don’t.

    This is the main reason why I have avoided, until recently, placing my photo on the cover of my books.  I don’t believe its fair to limit my access because I am Black.  My work is for all people not just my people.


  15. Hi Anne
    Great post, and one looking at something often ignored within SFF. 
    It feels sometimes that because we write something that isn’t real, it’s deemed as okay to portray lazy social, racial and gender-based stereotypes.
    The Malazan book of the fallen by Steven Erikson does a great job of throwing all those preconceptions out the window. One of his few genuinely good characters has skin as black as night! However, where I think he’s really successful, and where i hope more fantasy authors go in the future, is in making the characters far more complex that simple good and evil. 
    Not to sound too pretentious, but I think we have the same responsibility to create fully formed, complex people within our writing as other genres and when we do that, it becomes impossible to allow such simple concepts as race to determine whether someone is good or evil.

  16. Good point, and in tales of adventure where fighting or stealth or magical powers are often what sets out our characters and have the readers cheering for them (it seems that all the main characters in SFF novels are so extraordinarily talented in some physical or magic skill) characters with a mental or physical disability are often overlooked.  Granted, it is hard to include them, because as said, this special talent or ability is what we want to create conflict and awe. 

    In Life II, I created a minor character who was deaf and used sign language.  A book I reviewed, Koolura and the Mystery at Camp Saddleback, there is a deaf pre-teen girl as one of the major characters.  

    As for minority characters, I did write a book called The Four Kings in which four wizards seize power over North America.  Since Mexico is part of North America, I made one of the four ruling wizards a Hispanic female who is from Mexico.  So it fit the plot perfectly and in the story in one chapter we see her visits her roots in a modern Mexican city and observe the sights and flavours of Mexico.

  17. Diane Tibert  I think the answer to your question is sadly, yes. The default assumption is of whiteness so as a strategy of inclusiveness ignoring diversity isn’t really successful. The outcry when Amandla Stenberg was cast as Rue in the Hunger Games movies highlights this. The pushback from some fans was all to do with their default envisioning of Rue as white – despite indications from the author that Rue was a young woman of colour. 

    As Anne points out above, race is a social construct that defines otherness and power and privilege with skin as the marker for all of this. As such I do struggle with your comment that it is all about character and nothing else.  How a person is perceived in society structures and shapes the opportunities and possibilities of their lives and tilts a situation or events. One’s character shows in responses to this reality but character alone isn’t a determining factor in success or survival.

    I think we want to beleive that we are all capable and able to manage what life throws at us – that we are survivors which is why we emphasis individual character at the expense of the complex worlds we live in. Perhaps reading a story with quests and worlds at risk waiting for an heroic character to act is a way of reassuring ourselves that we can take action ourselves but at what point is this narrow focus on character allowing other stories in all their messiness and complexity  to in essence be disappeared?

  18. I write in mostly SFF and often my variation of coloration goes off of location and environment.  A man in a fantasy novel from the far south (or north, depending on the global position) most likely will have a darker complexion than someone from where the sun doesn’t shine so much, like a European person, and that’s actually where I get most of the variation coming from is genetics and an evolutionary standpoint.  People who originate in an area close to the equator have a darker skin tone.
    People who spend a lot of time in the sun also have a darker skin tone, and for the same reason.  People who live where the sun doesn’t shine as bright have a lighter skin tone, and people who live where the sun never shines will have an even lighter skin tone.  Once magic gets involved though, all rules are thrown out, and it’s left up to the magic’s effects to decide the fate of their appearance.
    Take an elf whose family has lived in the tropical zone for as far back as their lineage can be traced.  Her skin color is going to be darker than say the man whose family lives in the temperate zone, but same goes for man who lives high in the mountains where there’s less atmosphere to protect from the ultraviolet light.  A dwarf’s skin tone may be as light as snow, constantly living beneath the mountain, and a cattle rancher will have the tell tale sign of a dark tan cultivated over years of riding over open plains in the dry heat.
    It has to be the easiest way to go about this subject in fantasy, by focusing on location and environment, particularly sun exposure, and other small genetic variations and whatnot, but unless its a major concern, my advice is to just let the characters become who they need to be.

  19. Many times when I write, I don’t give my characters skin colour or cultural backgrounds. They are who the are in the story. You might guess from their names (say Flannigan O’Leary would be Irish) but otherwise you are left with your own imagination as to what skin colour Mary Smith has. I write romance, contemporary and traditional fantasy.

    Also I assumed as a traditional fantasy writer that not all characters in a fantasy have white skin. For me, humans come in several colours, elves come in different shades of green, dwarves are a more earthly colour (dirt colour) and halflings are the colour of a tanned hide. But that’s just my understanding of them.

    My fantasies never have only humans, so there are many heroes and evils with various skin colours.

    But when I write about the humans in my fantasies, again I seldom name their colour. To me it’s not important. The strength and weaknesses of the character matter more. Anyone reading my stories can paint them any way they see them. It allows readers to identify with them easier if they create their own skin tone.

    Which brings the question: If skin colour of all the characters in a novel are never mentioned, is it assumed they are all white?

  20. Any recommendations for works of fantasy by POC or with POC (or other diverse groups)?
    Nalo Hopkinson, of course. BROWN GIRL IN THE RING is her earliest work, and her most recent work SISTER MINE.
    Also, the stunningly talented Karen Lord, whose novels THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS and before that, REDEMPTION IN INDIGO.

    Oh, and Tobias Buckell, both his Xenowealth series, and his newer ARCTIC RISING…

  21. Just as an addendum, this post showed up this morning – I have not followed the links, so I can’t speak to the amount to which this post is factually accurate, but it does provide a live demonstration of the debate:  http://www.dailydot.com/lifestyle/sfwa-sexism-sci-fi-nebulas-mary-kowal/

  22. Poignant. Maybe it isn’t appealing. Another problem may be with the surfeit of white characters and situations, going back to the Earliest recorded writing, is there a worry of treading the same ground?
    Should Tarzan have been black?

  23. KatieDoyle_IN mythicscribes Great food for thought! I’m trying to shake some things up in my WIP, but I’m probably not going far enough.

  24. I try to include people of different races and backgrounds in my own stories simply because I hope having those cultures interacting with each other makes for a more interesting story. Especially in the case of something like urban fantasy, it would be pretty bland if it took place in New York City and everyone was white. It also wouldn’t make much sense. For epic fantasy, I can see how that may be more of a challenge for some because they’re writing in European-centric settings. However, it’s fantasy, so it’s up to you how you forge your worlds. I don’t believe they always have to be historically accurate myself.

    We have to write what makes our stories the most interesting at the end of the day. Readers are ultimately going to decide if they will reject the European-centric settings and characters in favor of more diverse casts and settings. But writers have to provide these alternatives in order for the readers to find them.

    I encourage readers who are truly interested in diversity to check out writers who don’t write in English. You may be more likely to find translations that are really interesting and give you a new perspective on what can be deemed fantasy. One book I’m looking forward to more than any other at the moment is by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi called The Man With Compound Eyes. 


  25. Red or yellow, black or white….Good fantasy doesn’t depend on the color of the character, although color does make a picture more interesting!

  26. Of course racism is not an exclusively white characteristic, but the article is directed at white writers who want to be more diverse, not at Japanese writers. 

    When one is “falsely” “accused” of being racist or sexist or homophobic, I submit that the response more useful to both parties is not to deny the “accusation” but to ask, “What did I write that makes you think that?”

  27. Maybe the white good guy is just a well-worn trope, without malicious intent behind it. Does the author reserve similar disdain for Japenese writers? They almost always write about Japanese characters, and most white characters in their works are caricatures. Who’s accusing them of racism?
    I have to quote someone who weighed in when I was falsely accused of racism and being oblivious to a lack of diversity. “Of course, the most egregious thing in the history of ever is the fact that everyone has unique characteristics and is born and raised in different situations. We must find whoever is responsible for this and punish them, because conformi…er, equality.”

  28. The Ashtown Burials series by N. D. Wilson features interracial children as the leads, though the covers once again made them white.

  29. I can’t think of any excuse F/SF authors have to make all their characters white. Out of all the genres, ours is absolutely the easiest to diversify. We not only get to decide what race or color our characters are, but we also get to decide what that means in their world. If you have a lily-white cast and you don’t know how to diversify it, just make their skin darker. Unless your fantasy world has social and cultural issues with race (and if they do, why would they have the same ones?) it’s not going to change their character makeup a whole lot. I think we imagine that if we make a character Asian or African or Middle-Eastern they’re going to have to act Asian or African or Middle-Eastern. But that’s stereotyping. Characters, like people, are affected more by their backstory than their coloring. Leave them their complexity and their lead roles and their talents and romances, and just turn the shade up on their skin.

  30. Yes, I think that fantasy literature is unrealistically white. Even in predominantly Caucasian civilizations there were some people of color, but fantasy doesn’t usually reflect this. For a great fantasy series that features people of color, the Earthsea novels are recommended. Sadly, the Earthsea miniseries made by SyFy changed the characters of color into white people!


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