Race, Racism, and Representation in SFF


For my upcoming book, The Bull by His Horns, I knew I wanted to feature cowboys. And specifically, I wanted to pay homage to the often glossed-over fact that most in the American Wild West weren’t white. Many were Black; some were Latinx and yet others were Indigenous people.

monochrome photo of man wearing cowboy hat
(Nishant Aneja /Pexels.com)

So, it seemed only natural to make the love interest a Black cowboy. Of course, said love interest is also an alien … which set me up on a collision course with one of the stickiest issues in SFF: race, racism, and representation.

Is Ferr Really Black?

Nope! The love interest, Ferrante, is not a Black man. In fact, he’s not even human. He’s an alien. Categories of race and ethnicity apply to human beings. Ferr isn’t one, so he cannot possibly be a Black man. He wouldn’t identify himself that way, and he most certainly cannot and does not represent Black people.

There’s an important reason for this. Black people are human. By making my “Black” character an alien, there’s a (racist) suggestion that, by extension, Black people are “alien” or “foreign” or “exotic.”

In other words, it’s a way of dehumanizing them.

Oh, That’s a Racist Can of Worms

Yeah, it is. Racism throughout history has largely functioned on dehumanizing the other. Black people, among others, are often portrayed as being “savages.” That’s because white folks are “civilized,” and it’s their great mission to “civilize” the other peoples of the world. This goes hand-in-hand with colonization and genocide.

It’s a lot easier to justify horrible, inhuman treatment and straight up murder on a mass scale if you first go to great lengths to say, “These people aren’t human.” That’s why Black people are often constructed as being wild, dangerous—almost “animalistic.” Even the “benevolent” version of this myth puts Black people closer to a “state of nature.” The underlying implication here is that Black people are lesser humans or less than human, which is … problematic, to say the least.

So, SFF writers have to watch for this tendency. We don’t want to make outer space all white … but we also need to make sure that there isn’t an alien/human divide in how people look. If your human cast is all-white and only your aliens have a hint of color, you have a problem on your hands.

We Do Want to Imagine Other Worlds as Having Color

Like I said, we also want to be sure that we’re not imagining outer space as some kind of snow-white galaxy (or universe, I suppose). The same is true of our fantasy worlds. When we do that, we end up reinforcing the underlying work of racism: black is bad, white is good.

Take a look at JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Everyone who is good is white—including the hobbits and the elves and the dwarves. Everyone who is bad is black or dark-skinned. We’re told there are “barbarous races” of men from the south, and when Peter Jackson shows them to us on film in Return of the King, they’re … suspiciously dark-skinned people.

The Fellowship of the Ring, which is composed entirely of light-skinned individuals.
Exactly what medieval Europe looked like, obviously.

Tolkien’s world, unfortunately, is often considered a sort of gold standard for fantasy. But Tolkien’s Middle Earth is merely replicating Plain Old Earth here—and Tolkien is imposing his racist, imperialist viewpoint on it. It’s not hard to draw a line between the “white men” of the north, and even the elves, as being a sort of medieval Europe (or Scandinavia, more specifically; we need to keep in mind that Tolkien read and translated Old English and Old Norse). His “barbarous peoples of the south”—well, we can easily read this as code for Africa and the Middle East.

There’s fortunately been more discussion of this sort of thing in recent years, although discussion must eventually yield results for it to do any good. It’s difficult to decolonize our minds, to shake off these internalized notions of good and bad, light and dark. But that means we need to pay even more attention when we’re crafting our worlds—whether they’re on a planet far, far away or somewhere a bit more like Middle Earth.

Replicating Racism and Oppression

Another issue we need to be on our toes about is the tendency to replicate systems of oppression. Often, we translate real-world oppression into our own fantasy worlds because it’s difficult to imagine a world without them. They feel so natural to us that we can’t shake them off. Sometimes, we don’t even notice them.

Of course, some of us do a sloppy job of replicating oppression. We translate this without really thinking it through. Sometimes, we’ll create different races that use magic and create systems of oppression that put “black” magic users beneath “white” magic users. Sometimes, we try to invert the paradigm (without thought for what that looks like). And sometimes we say there’s oppression, but we don’t really bring it to bear; it’s merely pasted on.

At other times, we recreate oppression like Tolkien does when he ensures all his “good” people are light-skinned and all the “bad” in the world has darker skin. Tolkien likely didn’t trouble this notion too much, which is precisely the problem: he merely took what he knew from this world and pasted it on.

Is It Representation Though?

In The Bull by His Horns, we’re greeted with a diverse cast, although the story centers on a white man. Latinx people populate the scene—including a couple of Afro-Latinx individuals, among others.

Most of these characters are human, so we can say there’s representation here. Our alien love interest, Ferr, is similar in appearance to a Black person, so much so that he’s easily mistaken for being Black. And he’s clearly not evil.

The cover for The Bull by His Horns, which features a more diverse cast.
Obligatory cover drop.

Now we run into another issue, though. Although Ferr manages to get around some of the issues that typically confront SFF writers, he’s not actually representation.

This is something the characters discuss briefly within the text itself. One character makes a comment about Ferr’s behavior, which could be considered stereotyping. Another character calls them out, and they argue over whether or not the remark is racist.

Their argument is inconclusive. Although they’re both aware that Ferr is an alien, not a human, he appears Black. They decide they should probably try to refrain from those kinds of comments, even if Ferr isn’t human.

This is an enormous problem within media. Since there’s so little representation of Black people, among others, people will adopt non-human characters as “representative.” Some writers do this in order to fulfill their “diversity quotas”—although they may also be trying to get around the idea that space or a fantasy world is full of white(ish) peoples.

And, at first glance, people might assume these characters are Black. I have several characters in the Zodiac series who share common features with Black people—but these characters are not Black people in and of themselves. But if you were to see them in a drawing, it would be easy to misconstrue this and say, “Ah, look, Black representation!”

What Counts as “Representation”?

This was a criticism lobbed at V.E. Schwab. Readers noted the lack of characters of color in the author’s recent book, Addy LaRue (which might suggest Schwab’s a victim of the “historical accuracy” fallacy). Some people tried to defend Schwab by pointing out the royal family of Red London is brown in the Darker Shades series. But Red London is a magical fantasy land, and there’s a question of whether the people who inhabit it are human in the sense that we interpret the word.

So we wrap back into the question of whether or not that truly counts as representation.

We could easily make the same argument about my own work with A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale. The main character, Tarquin, and his sister Tullia are brown-skinned. However, they’re joined by their albino sister Tanaquil and their white cousin Aleksandru, who hails from the north.

The cover for A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale.
And another one!

It should be noted here that Tarquin and Tullia are modeled on Arab people; indeed, their kingdom is a sort of “Arabian Nights” style setting. Yet we ought to note that none of these characters are human—they’re demons, incubi.

While I think there’s something to be said for imagining worlds of color, for making mythical creatures “anything but white” and ensuring that “the good guys” aren’t always pale as snow, the point still stands that Tarquin and Tullia cannot be representative, because they’re not humans.

And the same is thus true of Ferrante. He’s not actually a Black cowboy; he doesn’t represent Black people.

So as much as there’s color in space, as much as there’s a cornucopia of peoples in the Zodiac series and many of them are not white-presenting, we do have to keep in mind that they are not human.

And thus they are not representation. And that’s where we have to be so cautious, so careful with this. If we have a bunch of “colorful” aliens but no people of color? We have a text that’s dehumanizing people of color, literally transfiguring them into non-human beings.

That’s a big old problem.

Purple People Don’t Count

Basically, this boils down to the issue of “purple people.” Plenty of white folks claim to be accepting and support diversity, so much so that they say they’d accept green or purple people too.

But we often fail to imagine our aliens as anything but white, even if we make them green or purple-skinned. And green- and purple-skinned aliens can never stand in as representations of how “not racist” something is.

Green-skinned people and purple people don’t face the systemic oppression, the racist ideologies that have constructed Western society. Black-presenting aliens and Arabesque demons in fantasy settings do not have the same experiences as the human beings who inhabit this Earth.

And that’s precisely because those characters are not human. So they can never—and must never—stand in for diversity, inclusion, and representation. To suggest they can is racist in and of itself.

Do Think Expansively and Inclusively

I don’t want to suggest we shouldn’t be writing about species of aliens that don’t present as white, that maybe present as “Black” or “Asian” or something to that effect. I think there’s merit in imagining a diversity of peoples (and species and so on) in space. After all, wouldn’t space be boring if everyone was milk-white and every society looked like Western Europe or America? Part of the appeal of SFF is the sheer possibility. We’re leaving Earth and its rules behind entirely. So long as we can imagine it, it’s possible.

But as we imagine planets and galaxies far, far away and lands that are visited by once upon a times, we need to be mindful of how much diversity there is here at home, on Earth. There are so many, many peoples. Not diversifying our human casts, falling into bad stereotypes, lazy shorthands for worldbuilding, and pasting on systems of oppression aren’t going to cut it.

So think boldly, and think beyond whiteness—but remember that as “diverse” as our casts might be, we need to keep a close eye on what’s happening with any human characters as well. That’s where true representation lies, and we should always strive for it—no matter how far from home our characters might travel.

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By Cherry

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