The Danger of Speaking for Others

The other day I came across an older article written by Ursula K. Le Guin about the whitewashing of her Earthsea series. (Sidebar, I really need to read some of her work). There was a paragraph here that struck me, because it is something that has always sat at the back of my mind as a concern:

So far no reader of color has told me I ought to butt out, or that I got the ethnicity wrong. When they do, I’ll listen. As an anthropologist’s daughter, I am intensely conscious of the risk of cultural or ethnic imperialism—a white writer speaking for nonwhite people, co-opting their voice, an act of extreme arrogance. In a totally invented fantasy world, or in a far-future science fiction setting, in the rainbow world we can imagine, this risk is mitigated. That’s the beauty of science fiction and fantasy—freedom of invention.

I think this is a very real issue when writing about disenfranchised people, or advocating for them. On one hand, your privilege (whether it be your skin color, sexual orientation, gender, etc) will allow you to reach the ears of those who might not listen to those same arguments from people without power, it also runs the risk of simply drowning out the voices of those you want to advocate for.

I value (good) representation over just about everything, so when a show like Avatar: The Last Airbender comes around that draws heavy inspiration from Asian and Inuit cultures, I’m ecstatic. But I can’t help but wonder how many other stories told in worlds based around non-western culture, done by people of those cultures, were passed over for this project, because the creators were not white.

I guess a fear of mine is overstepping my bounds when it comes to writing races outside my own, or about women or lgbtq characters. But I don’t think the answer is to just never write about characters that do not exactly mirror your own. Proceed with caution and get lots of advice, I guess.

Oh well, these are probably things that will be more of a concern after I actually get a book finished, right?

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Light and Dark

As a lover of fantasy, and as someone who hopes to one day write in that genre, I often struggle with this highly ingrained symbolism. I can’t say for sure where or when this concept originated, but since at least Tolkien it has been a staple of high fantasy (both novels and games). If something is evil, then it is “dark” (black) and when something is good it is “light” (white). This isn’t limited to fantasy, much of our language reflects this white/good black/bad dichotomy (Martin Luther King Jr. even spoke about it). To put simply, the constant reinforcement through our language of black as negative helps to perpetuate the anti-black/white supremacist mentality that has existed since America’s founding. I don’t want to be a part of that.

But even so, sometimes I find myself slipping up.

Keep vigilant, one step at a time.