Article: Mixed-race people in SFF

OK, because I’ve seen one too many %%% storylines about mixed-race people in fiction (expanded for SFF to include the children of humans and aliens/magical creatures, etc.). For your information:

We are not psychopaths, terminally maladjusted, forever torn between two cultures in a way that will inevitably destroy us. We are not freaks or hybrids or mongrels or circus animals, forever exhibited as examples of what can go wrong in human/alien/magical creatures relationships; neither are we featureless saints exhibited as examples of interracial/interspecies harmony.

We are not special, magical or possessed of numinous powers by virtue of our non-white/non-human blood; we are not the tamed Other, made acceptable by an infusion of white blood and white customs, the “safe” option with only a hint of fashionable exoticism and none of the raw difference of “true” foreigners. We are not a handy, non-scary substitute for diversity in fiction.

We do not have pick sides unilaterally. We do not have to share the identity of our mother or of our father to the exclusion of the other parent (and most of us will find it quite hard to completely reject one half of our heritage); and our parents are not perpetually locked in some cultural war in which there would only be a single winner. We can be raised with love and respect and in a meld between two cultures: we do not have to be orphaned/single-parent/neglected/abused to exist.

Our parents are normal beings, and so are we.

If you’re using mixed-race people in your fiction and feature ANY of those tropes, do please think for a moment of what it is that you’re saying (and I wish I could say it’s not the case, but I’ve seen all of these–yes, even the hybrid/mongrel–at some point in recent SFF, either in print or in other media).

ETA: also, in case you’re wondering? The use of the word “half-breed” to refer to mixed-race people is NOT acceptable in any context (except possibly as a slur in historicals). “Mongrel” should also be banned from your vocabulary on mixed-race people. I don’t particularly enjoy being compared to animals, or the long history of prejudice inherent in that term (it’s a bit like thinking “mulatto” or “nigger” are appropriate descriptive words). For God’s sake, think on what it is you are saying before flinging this kind of word around.


Disclaimer: this is based on my experience and on those of friends growing up (mostly in Europe, and most Asian-white mixed-race). I tend to think a lot of it applies elsewhere, though…

11 comments

  1. I got a lot of odd reactions to Yeine in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. People thought she shouldn’t have had the cultural fluency to function in Amn high society — which made no sense because her mother was an Amn noble, and the whole world was dominated by Amn culture; why wouldn’t she know at least the basics? She wasn’t awesome at it, because it’s a racist society and people kept reacting to her based on her non-Amn appearance, but she knew what mistakes not to make. I wasn’t trying to make it really obvious, but I was trying to demonstrate that she had enough double consciousness to know what to expect and to defy the stereotypes and assumptions others would make of her. But I can’t tell you how many complaints I’ve gotten for how even that much shouldn’t have been possible. A lot of readers seem to think she should’ve wandered about, a stranger in a strange land, making constant social blunders, barely able even to speak the language — this despite the fact that the Amn had long ago colonized the world.

    I suppose I should’ve stated it explicitly so people would get what I was doing. But I didn’t think I had to, and it’s…. interesting, how many strange assumptions people have made about how this biracial woman “should’ve” behaved.

  2. I was at this Bright Club (stand-up for academics) night the other night & one comic began his set something like, “I know what you’re thinking … I look like a cross between my mother & my father. THAT’S GENETICS.”

    I’ve totally forgotten what I meant to say.

    I guess part of what informs that kinda Magic Mongrel / Uncle Twôism stereotyping – besides vague low-keyed racism – is the comforting fantasy that there are beings out there who live out large-scale social contradictions in microcosm, and experience them in non-mystified forms. Objective matrices of domination are so huge and hidden and alienating. So it’s a kind of cut-price secularised theodicy – maybe everything’s not going to be okay, but at least there are folks out there who know what the fuck is going on.

    Also you’re so right about the non-scary substitute for diversity. It can also be – not laziness, exactly, but – corner-cutting? Like: “Whoa, isn’t it kind of racist and xenophobic to make all the characters just like my white ass? But I have no idea what the implications are of writing someone NOT like me. I know, I’ll make them a mixture of people like me and people not like me. That way if I screw anything up, I can just say that’s, like, the ‘me’ in them talking. Yeah, like, the normal bit. Oops.”

  3. @Nora: really? Personally speaking, I had no issues with that at all, and it indeed seemed pretty natural to me that Yeine would know how to function in Amn society (what did they want? a Barbarian?) I had a little trouble with Yeine because of the seemingly easy acceptance she had in her father’s society: in a matriarchal society with an outsider mother, I would have expected her to have a much much harder time at becoming an adult (but then again, I might be projecting my own experiences of growing up on her…)
    @Jo: I think it’s more than corner-cutting–sometimes authors make that choice because they think that the character will be less alienating to their readers. Which is frustrating because not all their readers are white…

  4. What makes this even more ridiculous is that, at least in the US, we live in an increasingly openly mixed-race society, and multiracial families are quite common, but it’s like there’s a special compartment in white peoples’ minds where all those old tropes live that are saved for “entertainment.” And since the entertainment industry is huge and basically rules our culture, the old racist tropes are reinforced.

  5. Aliette,

    Yeah, I tried to suggest that her grandmother had run interference for her to a degree, but I don’t know how well that came across. And yes, some people did want her to be a barbarian, even though that would’ve fed right into the stereotypes she was already fighting and damaged her cause (and she knew this, which was why she deliberately chose to act otherwise). But then some people’s ideas about a) people of color, b) women in martial/military circumstances, and c) “strong female characters” are shaped more by stereotypes of these things than any reality, or any understanding of the double standards that hit all three.

    And some people always assume that multiracial folks, as you’ve said, “pick one”. I suspect most of the people who hit you with that one are American, because of America’s pathological obsession with race and tendency to treat people with even “one drop” of Other as wholly Other, especially if that Other is black. So I think the reason Yeine got that reaction is because I’m black, and a lot of readers assumed that I was trying to make some kind of commentary on black race relations. I was, but not in the way they thought.

  6. @Andrea: yeah. Entertainment industry is increasingly out of touch with the way the country actually works…
    @Nora: some people’s ideas about a., b. and c. can be really out there… I think the “pick one” thing is mostly American (as you say, probably because of the history), but I have to admit I didn’t keep an exact count (it’s hard to tell, but I think most of the stuff that annoys me on this specific issue is American. French stuff tends just not to tackle the problem at all, which I’m not sure is better…).
    And sympathies; it’s really annoying to see people hold you to some weird standard of being the same as your character, especially when you’re writing fantasy set in a secondary world that doesn’t have a lot in common with the US today…

  7. THANK YOU FOR THIS POST. So much.

    This stuff drives me up the WALL. Especially what you talked about in your second paragraph, the “non-scary substitute for diversity in fiction” — I CANNOT STAND IT when an author makes a character mixed race and it smacks of wanting a sprinkling of the “exotic” but without going full-on POC because “that’s just too far to expect the audience to go” /sarcasm. You know, the “foreign but not too foreign” idea . . . I see it especially with mixed love interests being described as having “exotic almond-shaped eyes and/or high cheekbones from the XYZ heritage,” or a protagonist who is half-White, half-“Magical Negro/Magical Native American/Magical Asian,” and it makes me want to throw the book across the room. I mean come on, really?? Okay, I could go on, but basically I’m just repeating what you said in different words and agreeing, so I’ll just say thank you again.

  8. Another great post, Aliette (sorry that I don’t comment much: a lot of what you say doesn’t need much extra). Several of my best friends here in The Netherlands are of mixed race and they blend very well into the dominant culture, while at the same time they make jokes about the racial stereotypes they’re *supposed* to comply to, but obviously don’t.

    Neither are their parents in a constant cultural fight: they know who they married and make it work. Basically just what you said above.

    Nora, FWIW: one of the (many) things that I really liked about TE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS was the constant balancing act Yeine was performing: trying to be accepted into the Amn culture while also trying to fight for her people’s rights. On the one hand (at least, that was the impression I got) she hated having to do it (assimilate in the racists Amn culture), while on the other hand she knew she had to do it for her people.

  9. @SL Huang: aw you’re welcome! I regularly get pissed off at that kind of stuff, I figured it was high time I put it in writing… (the half-White/half-Magical anything never fails to make me throw books, either…)
    @Jetse: thank you! Glad this works for you.

  10. Word! All I heard in high school was some variation of “You’re not allowed to be all of those things; pick one.”

  11. @mclicious: *sympathies* Societal pressure sucks.

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