Lit Ignorance is Bias: The Diversity Manifesto

Discussion in 'Literature' started by CooperTFN, Sep 2, 2012.

  1. AdmiralNick22 Fleet Admiral of Literature

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    Antares Draco looks very Italian or Greek to me. Maybe even a touch Turkish.

    --Adm. Nick
  2. beccatoria Force Ghost

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    Interesting - I also thought of Draco as Mediterranean in colouring but don't tend to think of that as an ethnic minority. I mean I know that you end up with very arbitrary definitions. There are Middle Eastern people with lighter skin than Mediterranean people, but if we're going to talk culturally, I still think that Spaniards, Greeks, Italians, etc., are part of a continuum of Caucasians who are recipients of white privilege. We wouldn't be so good at racebending characters into being tanned white folks (*cough*PrinceOfPersia*cough*) if that weren't the case? Is there some element of European vs American perspective here? Because I know in the US there's a complex intersection of Hispanic and Latino as identifiers, and this can indicate either being non-white or being of Spanish origin but possibly still being white? Or...am I totally wrong about this - I sincerely don't mean to offend anyone if I have this wrong. In the UK, I don't think anybody thinks of "mediterranean" as a separate racial indicator.

    All that said, I can't really explain why I thought of Draco as sort of Italian but Sigil Dare as sort of Egyptian. It's pure, unfounded personal assumption and probably says good things about the Legacy colouring team that they have a variety of skin tones in the artwork.

    Re: Mohrgan Fel, again good point. My assumption that he was a white person with a tan is probably very telling - I just assumed based on familial relationships and expectation.

    However, the very fact we're arguing over this may point back to the fact that often when people from ethnic minorities, in particular black minorities, show up in the media, they're lighter-skinned, either due to photoshop, selective casting, or outright racebending. Which I say less because I think it was the intention of the Legacy team (obviously I don't believe that's the case!) and more because it has relevance to the wider context of the thread's topic and how these characters are likely to be perceived? It's another of these situations where perhaps the nuance is lost for the need to make the more brutal point, but it's still a lot easier to cast Angelina Jolie as an Egyptian Sigil Dare than it would be to to cast Gina Torres, you know?

    I guess I'm saying two contradictory things at once:

    1) If we have to argue over whether or not a character is white, that character is probably going to be subsumed into the horrible umbrella of default whiteness by most of the world and probably isn't going to help the Chinese kid who gets given Anakin Skywalker's face as a mask on Halloween. Draco Antares is not the dude you want to wave around as evidence that Star Wars isn't overwhelmingly white.

    2) Dismissing the vast nuance of racial identity and the huge variation in human skin tone is also offensive. I vote Sinde as Middle Eastern!
    Last edited by beccatoria, Sep 7, 2012
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  3. Havac Some Guy Who Moderates Lit

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    Well, I think the distinction between Latino/Hispanic/Mediterranean/Whatever means more in the real world; in Star Wars, where we don't have these real-world-localized origins for characters, it becomes far more about appearance than race. So when you've got a "tan" character who, in Earth terms, doesn't look like the Anglo/Nordic/German style of "white," but more like the Italian or Greek or Spanish branch of "white," or might be from Latin America somewhere, or might be from somewhere in the Middle East, both of which are technically counted as "Caucasian" for such things as census purposes but which we see as distinct from "European white people," it sort of becomes difficult to distinguish whether this character is a "minority" or not. He or she has tan skin and no especially racially distinctive features, which is consistent with those chunks of Caucasians we've decided are minorities and some chunks of Caucasians we've decided aren't minorities (but which have been considered distinct minorities historically, because "white" is an amorphous thing). In that case, where we don't have the origins, we don't have the culture, because it's a sci-fi setting, and we're going purely by visual appearance, I tend to think we ought to give "minority" credit to anyone who's visually indistinguishable from a minority, even if that person may also be visually indistinguishable from a Spaniard or Italian or Greek.
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  4. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    The issue of characters who fit into multiple and/or difficult to define 'racial' categories is an interesting one for a number of reasons. First, and very significantly, it highlights the huge difference in how this issue plays across visual media (comics, video games, TV) versus characters who only appear in print and highlights how a single illustration can completely and totally influence what the readership views the character to actually look like regardless of an descriptive prose text - something that is very significant for a number of EU characters known principally from a single image (ie. Tahiri).

    Prose description does not easily reveal race, and it becomes susceptible to defaults, not just to whiteness, but also to blackness, at least in the US. A character with 'dark' skin could easily by Middle Eastern, East Indian, Pacific Islander, or Southeast Asian, while a character with 'light' or 'fair' skin could easily be East Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern. White, non-Hispanic + Black is 76% of the US population but those are the ethnic groups that most Americans will default to based on a single adjective (especially older Americans, 35 years ago, when ANH was released, it was more like 94%).

    Second, non-traditional racial categorization raises a bunch of interesting issues within the Star Wars universe. Notably how and when mixing between ethnic groups has occured and what has happened as a result. There are a number of complications this raises vis a vis the explanations that should be produced in-universe or out-of-universe. The ethnic makeup of the Star Wars galaxy does not, and never will (barring China conquering the US in the next decade or two) resemble that of human demographics on Earth as a whole. So even in a appropriately diverse property (like TOR) there's some weirdly arbitrary questions that get generated about racial intermixing, planetary populations, and the history of ethnic groups marching across the galaxy. For example, why isn't the population of a truly cosmopolitan world like Coruscant dominated by 'mixed race' people?

    Of course, if you wanted to be banal about it, the bottom line is that the mixed/other racial category in the US is presently 5% or so, roughly equal to the Asian population.
  5. Rilwen_Shadowflame Force Ghost

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    I've looked at the pics of Sigel Dare from Wookieepedia, and her skintone really seems to fluctuate. But I take this as her default, and she does not look white there.
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  6. AdmiralNick22 Fleet Admiral of Literature

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    @beccatoria

    I agree that Italian, Greek, Spanish, and other southern Europeans are under the "Caucasian" descriptor (I should know, I am of Italian descent and I mark Caucasian), but I would give points, at least partial, to characters of this appearance as adding to diversity. It is worth noting that th term "white ethnic" has been used in the past for the groups I mentioned above, rightly or wrongly.

    --Adm. Nick
  7. AusStig Jedi Grand Master

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    On reflection I think Draco is Lebanese. (racist stereotypes for the win)

    I always thought Caucasian was Germanic/Nordic peoples.
  8. TKeira_Lea Jedi Grand Master

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    Glad this thread is alive and kicking.

    Brett White at Comics Book Resources wrote a great article about gender equality in comics. He brings up Brian Wood's X-Men as a good example of the use of female characters. Thought is was relevent to the discussion of diversity.
  9. GrandAdmiralJello Community and Lit moderator person

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    Caucasian is a pretty useless term these days, as the whole caucasus theory is questionable anyway, and it's anthropologically equivalent to Indo-European and/or Aryan, in which case it isn't even synonymous with "white."
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  10. Zeta1127 Force Ghost

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    No wonder I have such a hard time trying to answer ethnicity questions, with my varied ancestry, consisting of Mexican, Aztec, German, and Japanese.
  11. beccatoria Force Ghost

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    @Havac -

    See, again I'm really, really torn. Because on the one hand I agree completely that we ought to acknowledge all these characters in this way, because it helps break down the very assumptions that I'm about to use with regards to the other side of the equation. Which is, in keeping with the blunt instrument, broad strokes nature of the opening post, in keeping with ignorance is bias, isn't it arguable that what we need more of are clear and obviously "other" characters? Again, specifically given the media's tendency of erasing more obvious ethnic minorities in favour of more ambiguously white characters who can still appear "exotic"?

    And it also all ties into the points @Mechalich raises about the inherently more amorphous nature of literary and comic book characters versus characters played by an actual human being on the screen. I think in real world contexts, I'm more likely to back the notion that we need to be breaking down the overwhelming white-as-default mentality by acknowledging the way ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds are, in fact, hugely amorphous. But that's easier when actual actors are involved because it's then clearer where we're dealing with Hollywood white-washing and when you're dealing with a pale-skinned person from a different culture/ethnicity/racial group (i.e. Tahmoh Penikett from BSG is, I think, half First Nations Canadian, though you mightn't guess it from his appearance, while Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton are very definitely a white people playing a middle eastern ones in The Prince of Persia). Which isn't really about whether or not Persians with the same skintones as Northern Europeans exist, so much as it's about Hollywood's culture of marginalising minority actors.

    So while not perfect, when you're talking about actors playing characters, there's an easier bar to use as to whether this is supposed to be a white person or not, and if it's not, whether it's an example of trying to exoticise someone who is still fairly pale?

    Whereas in comics media and print that's...much, much harder. And like I said, I'm genuinely unsure the best way of handling it. I think ultimately, you're right, we should count them. To do otherwise seems...to erase something and that could be harmful. But I still think the issue is...not simple or clear cut and it's important to be aware of the media's tendency to substitute "exotic white folks" for other racial groups.
    Last edited by beccatoria, Sep 8, 2012
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  12. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    On one hand, doing a sort of Konrad Rus/Union-esque thing might be a helpful middle ground, here. On the other hand, I imagine there's probably a mountain of legal issues you'd have to get past, first.
  13. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    I was actually thinking the same thing - there's a lot of precedent for comic artists using well-known actors for reference anyway, so that could be a great way to clue people in when someone is intended to have a harder-to-distinguish racial makeup. That could have been done with Kerra and Salma Hayek, in fact.
    Last edited by CooperTFN, Sep 8, 2012
  14. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    Not to mention the advantages of having faces that actually look real in terms of making them easier to relate to.
  15. CaptainPeabody Jedi Grand Master

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    Yeah, "minority" is a very amorphous thing, since it changes quite frequently generation by generation and country by country. About a hundred years ago, Southern-Europeans were definitely considered to be a minority in most of the US, with quite a bit of prejudice directed against them; and if you go back about another fifty years, you'd be hard pressed to find a minority that was more hated, feared, and demonized than the Irish (and on explicitly "racial" terms)...but now, in the US, assimilation and interbreeding means that neither of those groups are really considered to be minorities anymore.

    Basically, in societies where Anglo-Saxons were dominant, non-Anglo-Saxon "whites" were considered minorities (and despised and mistreated as such); in societies where Han Chinese were dominant, Koreans and Japanese were considered minorities; in a society where Romans were dominant, Greeks were considered a minority; and those minority statuses were always tied to something called "race," and reinforced by what we would consider vanishingly slight differences of appearance. Likewise, today, Southern Europeans are essentially identical in appearance to North Africans, Iranians, and many other people from the Middle East, yet the latter are still considered to be a "minority" in Western society while the former are considered white. Trying to make sense of all of this using the modern ideas of race adapted from the Black-White relationship in America is always going to be a losing battle.

    Personally, I'm not sure why we would want Star Wars to try to parse out and utilize all those fine distinctions of appearance, locality, ethnicity, and culture that have been and still are used as synonyms for "race" and "minority." All I ask is that Star Wars literature has a good mix of humans with different appearances, rather than just having everyone look like Anglo-Saxons with a few black people mixed in. Inevitably, that's going to involve both Northern European and Southern European-looking people, as well as a whole host of other such things, and whether or not we count that as "real diversity" seems to me to be neither here nor there. I don't think we should be asking Star Wars to act as the antidote to the entirety of modern American culture; we should just be asking it to acknowledge that people, you know, look pretty different a lot of the time.

    Or maybe that's just me.
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  16. Robimus Force Ghost

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    Not from a comic but a pretty good example would be Ed Harris as Kal Skirata

    [IMG]
  17. beccatoria Force Ghost

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    I think it matters more or less depending on how you're approaching the topic. In terms of the verisimilitude of the Star Wars galaxy, I completely agree with you. In terms of taking positive steps in a realworld social context, our currently underrepresented or misrepresented groups (no matter how transitory they may be on a longer timescale), are going to be relevant to the discussion.
  18. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    The thing of it is the ethnic diversity of humans in the Star Wars galaxy matters from an exclusively out-of-universe perspective. As far as can be determined the in-universe reality is one of complete color-blindness (at least in humans, we do have at least some examples of intraspecies appearance-based prejudice in other cases). It doesn't affect character identity in any way whether their skin tone and facial features are pulled from one end of the viable continuum to the next. So, a focus on that particular issue in diversity serves a purpose solely with regards to providing identifiable examples and strong, recognizable characters to the reader/viewer base. The issue is entirely one of presentation, not storytelling.

    I think that, more than anything, is why movement on this issue has been slow, especially in the medium of prose, where it is both the least visible and dragging the most pre-existing baggage. other media have far more intraspecies human ethnic diversity because it's easier to implement. In the area of video games we can even see how it's become easier to implement over time through the increase of technology. The various NPCs of TOR are pretty well randomized, which is simple because all those templates were created at character generation anyway, as opposed to back in the days of Jedi Academy when they only had a small number of pre-constructed character models.

    The various other 'diversity sliders' (to use the term from my long post above) in Star Wars contain actual storytelling issues that function in-universe. Personally, I absolutely feel that the state of diversity in EU works should be evaluated more on those scales (male/female and human/near-human/humanoid/alien most notably) first, with the intraspecific diversity of humans being secondary. Star Wars has things to say about those issues, and actually has a very pro-diversity message on that front (diverse rebels good, exclusionary xenophobic Empire bad), it doesn't have anything to say about intraspecific human racial diversity. Indeed, the intraspecific prejudices of humanity are, in-universe, directed in a vaguely nationalist planet-of-origin directed way in the first place.

    In the case of the novels, this is also the area where we should look for them to excel over other media. Visual aliens are expensive whether it comes in costume costs, hours of makeup or new complex digital models (ex. Admiral Trench, the spider-being from TCW, don't think for a second he didn't cost a lot to create), but prose aliens don't cost squat. The multiple perspectives of the overwhelming majority of novels (1st person, I, Jedi type works are very rare) also means a greater opportunity for shared male and female leads, compared to say, single-protagonist action video games under pressure to bow to their single largest demographic.
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  19. Skaddix Jedi Grand Master

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    well i will say the hard part with lit is describing characters when you don't have real world countries to use. Its hard to describe minorities. Usually u can say Chinese and its case closed
  20. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    I've never really gotten that. Yes, the rebels have aliens and the Empire doesn't, but positive diversity has never really been an inherent part of the package in the same way as, say, Star Trek (particularly if you look solely at the films). Jabba's always going to be the giant evil space slug with a bunch of ugly-looking alien henchmen, the Trade Federation is run by a bunch of corrupt Neimoidians, Luke is menaced by a bunch of shady aliens in a bar, and the Confederacy leadership is almost exclusively alien. I'd argue that the examples of diversity in the films are more there to make the rebels look more accepting than the Empire than it is to send any sort of message of tolerance or diversity.
  21. jSarek VIP

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    You imply disparity where none exists.
  22. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    I recently contacted Jen Heddle on Facebook about answering some in-depth diversity questions, and she invited me to start a conversation on the Star Wars Books FB page and promised to take part herself. I've done just that, and it couldn't hurt to have a few friendly faces involved, seeing as I have no idea what kind of response it'll get from the other fans. Not sure how to point directly to my post, but if you click the link above you should be able to see "Mike Cooper" near the top somewhere. It'll be interesting to see what comes of this.
  23. RC-1991 Force Ghost

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    Found it and liked it.

    Your post seems to have covered a lot of the basics. Anything in particular you would like for us to add?
  24. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    Don't use it, so I won't be participating, but more attention is always good.
  25. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    RC - I don't want to overwhelm them right off the bat - I tried to keep it as brief and general as possible. Let's wait and see what they respond to (and what they don't).
    Last edited by CooperTFN, Sep 10, 2012