Subtle Forms of Racism to Avoid in SFF

I gave this talk at Eastercon on 20th April 2019.

Hello friends, and thank you very much for coming! I do appreciate it. Before I get started, I’d just like to note that there will be explicit discussions of racism in this talk, so please feel free to step out if need be.

This is my first time at Eastercon – thank you again, this time for being my first audience here – so many of you won’t know who I am. My name is Helen Gould, and I’m a writer, editor, sensitivity reader, speaker, poet, and also clearly a millennial judging by the number of things I do to stay afloat. The talks I give broadly fit into a category of sociopolitical issues in media. My past talks have titles like Wakanda, Africa, and Alternate Futures, Get Out: The Horror of Whiteness in 2017, and Fanfiction and PTSD: Going Beyond The Winter Soldier.

Now you know a bit more about me – let’s talk about what you’re in for today. I originally pitched this talk as a lighthearted, heavily powerpoint-based whistle-stop tour through seventy stereotypes. What you’re getting now is a little different, partly because the title was revised, but also because I came across a ton of ignorance in the time between my pitch and today.

This is not unusual. We live mired in ignorance. It seeps from other people’s mouths – to put it politely – and into our ears. Sometimes it is deliberate, sometimes it is not, sometimes the people talking nonsense don’t even realise themselves that they are deliberately missing the point because to actually engage with the issue would mean more self-reflection than they’re ready for.

I want to make something clear: things are indeed worse for marginalised people now than they were in 2016. But it’s not fallen as far as many of you may think. I don’t say that to say that things are okay – I say that to tell you that the Britain I know has indeed always been like this. Right now it is the alt-right – before that it was the EDL and UKIP, before that the BNP, before that the National Front, etc. 

Anyway. As I mentioned earlier, part of my job is sensitivity reading. I have, largely, been spoiled by the work that has been given to me to read: it is often creative, exciting, and not that problematic. I usually don’t have to say much. In the last few months, that has changed – not because the people writing it have any bad intentions, but because they can’t see what they’re doing.

To put it bluntly, this talk has been written to try to help you see things clearer in terms of not being racist when writing science fiction and fantasy, and it has become a lot deeper than originally intended. However, the word ‘subtle’ is in the title for a reason: I’m not going to be saying things like ‘don’t write black characters who are cannibals with bones in their noses’ because you should already know better, and I’m not interested in explaining 101 stuff in a talk like this when there are plenty of resources out there. Similarly, I am not interested in arguing whether how people are portrayed in media matters, nor on matters of historical accuracy when we are talking about fantasy worlds and futuristic science.

This is a highly political talk. I’m going to talk about aspects of characters and settings that may slip past your ‘am I being racist’ radar. More importantly, I will also be explaining what it means to decolonise your mind. I will try to leave 15 to 20 minutes for questions at the end, and I have a bibliography for further reading if you would like it.

Now, let’s talk about Morpheus – though don’t worry, I’m not going to make any kind of red pill/blue pill reference here. Morpheus is here because he is one of the more famous black men in sci fi; but he is also used as what is called the ‘magical Negro’. To slightly paraphrase a paper called ‘The Power of Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White Salvation in Film’, this is a term that in my opinion refers to a black character who is there to:

a) assist the main, white character

b) help him or her discover and utilize his or her spirituality, self-worth, or abilities

c) offer wisdom that helps to resolve the white character’s dilemma

I should note here that my definition is slightly broader than the one in the paper. Regardless, I think it fits. For me, the essence of the magical Negro is that they are the only one who can help the white character with their incredible insight, and seemingly that is most of the reason why they’re in the story. You may well have heard of this stereotype before if you’re a reader of TV Tropes, and you may think it’s not subtle at all – but the thing is that there’s a spectrum of magical Negroes.

On the one end, you have a character like Abagail Freemantle from Stephen King’s The Stand, who is literally depicted as angelic. I don’t think anyone who knows the story could argue that one. Somewhere in the middle you have Morpheus. On the other end, you have – probably controversially, I know – Marie Rambeau in the recent Captain Marvel film, which yes I am classifying as sci-fi because superheroes are absolutely figures of science fiction. Loads of them are the result of scientific experiments! Anyway, let me explain.

I heard a lot from many people about how Captain Marvel had this really cool black woman in it who helps to save the day. I was disappointed in that regard, though the film itself was fine. Spoiler warning for the next couple of minutes.

Apart from Monica, Marie’s daughter, Carol is clearly the most important person in her life. This would be fine, except that Carol seems to be the only other person in Marie’s life. She doesn’t seem to have made any other friends for six years. She appears to have dropped out of the Air Force, and it’s never brought up what she does with her time when she isn’t looking after Monica. It’s as if she’s been in stasis, waiting for Carol to come back.

And you know what – in real life, that really can happen when you’re grieving someone. But remember that this is a work of fiction that was written. Choices have been made here. They chose to have Marie appear not to have done much in-between Carol’s appearances in her life.

Indeed, as noted in the paper I mentioned earlier, there is a ‘lack of character development for these roles. They do not have depth or interior lives…these characters only exist to rescue the white characters that do have more character depth.’

Then there’s a scene in the film where Marie gives Carol a speech about who she is and how she’s the most powerful woman Marie has ever known. I’m sad to say that I have lost count of the number of times I have watched or read a similar speech from a black person to their white friend. Every time I hear something like it, I keep coming back to those awful three phrases from The Help: ‘You is kind. You is smart. You is important.’ What makes lines and speeches like this so frustrating is that they are so rarely said to people of colour, particularly black people, despite the fact that we are constantly told by the entirety of western society and western media that we are not kind, or smart, or important. We are never worthy of being reassured like that – we are never allowed to be fragile in the way that so many of us actually are. We are forced, in reality and in fiction, to constantly provide support to others that we should be giving to ourselves.

Let’s go back to Morpheus for a moment. He is essentially the grassroots leader of the revolution, but the story is about Neo, because Neo is the one with the true magical destiny. Morpheus is there to do the background work, to give advice, and to train Neo in using his new powers until eventually Neo is even better than his teacher. Morpheus is, ostensibly, incredibly powerful – but he is still beaten and captured by Agent Smith, and Neo has to save him while Morpheus is mostly stuck in a chair and then shot while escaping.

African-American online magazine The Root even put out an article called ‘The School for Magical Negroes’, which included ‘The Laurence Fishburne Method of Knowing More Than Actual Hero of the Movie Without Offending White People’. The writer goes on to say that he still doesn’t understand why Morpheus didn’t just do the things he was teaching Neo to start with. To me, The Matrix would have been much more interesting if we fully followed Morpheus leading a grassroots revolution.

Maybe Neo would still be there, but used strategically from Morpheus’ perspective as a tactician and leader, rather than succeeding because he was simply ‘born’ to it. Isn’t it more interesting to have a character that has to struggle to win, rather than accessing a power that was there all along? It is to me, but you may disagree, and that’s your prerogative.

All of this is to emphasise that you need to be careful of how you are writing supporting characters who are black, even when you have the absolute best of intentions. I have absolutely no doubt that neither Morpheus nor Marie Rambeau were intended to be written as magical Negroes. What I think is the writers thought ‘they have a close relationship with the main character and are good people; this is positive and unproblematic presentation!’. But it goes so much deeper than that – and it isn’t only this fairly well-known trope that can present itself in ways you may not notice. 

It is very easy, dangerously easy, to write someone into your story as a plot device rather than as the fully-formed, major character you think you’re writing. Do they also receive comfort from their so-called best friend? Are they ever reassured or affirmed? Do they have a life outside of the main character? Are they ever allowed to seriously criticise their white friend? Are their concerns seen as reasonable or as a distraction (or, worse, cowardice)? Basically: are they three-dimensional, or are they a prop?

There’s a thing out there called the sexy lamp test, which holds that ‘if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.’ In a similar way, if you can replace your ethnic minority character with a teddy bear that says ‘I believe in you!’, that may also need another draft.

Let’s move on to settings.

Now, a confession: I have stopped watching Game of Thrones. I couldn’t take the constant death any more. But, before I stopped, I watched quite a lot of Daenerys Targaryen’s white saviourism in Essos. It was incredibly annoying. I’m sure you’ve seen this image before:

Image result for daenerys white saviour

This part of the talk can be distilled into me pointing at this and just yelling DO NOT DO THAT. But let’s go a little deeper. The main settings of a lot of fantasy and sci-fi are essentially European; George R R Martin, Tolkien, Patrick Rothfuss, even my personal fave Robin Hobb all set their main characters in places analogous to Europe, at least to begin with. And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Where it often does go wrong is when authors venture into the east or the south, and then suddenly realise that they don’t actually know what to base these fictional places on – or, worse, think they’re creating new things in a vacuum without recognising that where experience is lacking, stereotypes will often rush to fill the gap. I love the Lord of the Rings, but I have a deep-seated sadness that every character described as dark-skinned is evil.

When I was at university, I studied Orientalism by Edward Said; he was one of the first non-white writers I ever came across. That in itself is worrying, but another talk entirely. What he essentially said was that the idea of the dichotomy between Europe and ‘the Orient’ was a driving factor in how the West decided it was allowed to dominate those countries. They were ‘other’, therefore inferior, and this belief is so ingrained that the people who hold that view are barely aware that it exists in their heads.

He talks about Flaubert describing an Egyptian courtesan, and how it is a metaphor for how the West often speaks of the East:

‘She never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her. He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him not only to possess Kuchuk Hanem physically, but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was “typically Oriental.” […] Flaubert’s situation of strength in relation to Kuchuk Hanem was not an isolated instance. It fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled.’

This narrative is accepted by the West without a murmur, because why wouldn’t they believe it? I bring this up to point out that the ideas of Western writers about countries outside of Western society will never NOT be influenced by assumptions unless they work very hard to change that. A lot of writers do not.

There is an assumed binary between west and east or north and south which brings with it assumed oppositions of civilisation vs nature, democracy vs barbarism, normal vs other. There’s also a very complex dynamic here of what’s seen as “ordinary” sexuality vs the non-sexual or hypersexual, but I don’t quite have the space to get into that because again that could be a talk all in itself – suffice to say that you only need look at the porn categories on any large erotic site, and you will recognise how white is normal and everything else is other.

Think about how many fantasy books have a white society which is corrupt, and then a “brown” society which is even worse. For example, in Game of Thrones, there’s almost a sense of ‘you think Westeros is bad? Get a load of this!’. On that point, one thing that I have noticed with authors who write like this is that often, the non-European places still have slaves. It’s fascinating to me that this seems to be the sign of an eastern or southern society: that slavery is still embraced there. And yet, who was it who began the chattel slave trade?

My suspicion is that this particular phenomenon is a sort of displacement of blame; the white writer knows the history of slavery, and it is a horrible knowledge. So they write a place where the white society doesn’t have slaves and the brown one does, as if to say, ‘see? They’re as bad as us’. Except they’ve had to make it up.

And indeed, often we come back to this picture: a non-western civilisation is full of corruption and poverty and pain, and a white protagonist saves the grateful people. Just like Flaubert and the courtesan, the people in these places have no real voices other than pleas for help.

At this point, I am aware of how negative this must all sound – so let’s think about a non-Western setting that was done right.

With Black Panther, I almost don’t know where to begin. First of all, Wakanda is beautiful: it has mountains and plains and rivers and jungles and cities and little villages. It is not a place of red sand, mud huts, and oppressed people ruled by a despot. It is full of life – real life, not the imaginings of someone who has been raised on Comic Relief depictions.

I took my mother to see Black Panther, and she was able to distinguish different aspects of African ethnic groups. But I want to be clear: they were not smashed together with no thought for nuance, which is unfortunately how many well-intentioned people try to do it. For example, W’Kabi’s Border tribe is based on the Basotho people from Lesotho – even the landscape in the film looks like the real country. The Basotho are also talented riders, but of horses rather than rhinos. That’s just one example of specific influences tweaked just enough to be different, but still showing respect to the source for the inspiration.

The key here is the specificity: there are no sweeping statements made, no broad assumptions. The people of Wakanda do not all look the same or dress the same or, importantly, think the same. This movie could have gone very wrong, because it was about an African country falling into civil war – but it didn’t, because nuanced thinking went into it. A more boring story would have erased Killmonger and had Klaue stay the main villain – or have had M’Baku successfully challenge T’Challa and rule as a tyrant. The story would have stayed highly binary, with T’Challa restoring the status quo with no further exploration at the end, instead of learning and adjusting the historical policy of his country.

That last part is important: T’Challa and Wakanda change. They grow and adjust. To go back briefly to Edward Said, he says that one of the great fallacies of Orientalism is that non-Western countries do not change: they stagnate. This is necessary because, in white supremacy, anything non-European must always be permanently “other” and permanently homogeneous in a predictable way. If these countries can change and grow, that undermines the fundamental assumption that European civilisation is always in control.

For non-white societies to defy these racist expectations is a threat to the eternal correctness of white supremacy. That is why black people are criminalised: because they must always be lawless and dangerous; indigenous peoples are erased because they must always be non-existent; Arabic and middle Eastern people are attacked because they must always be a threat. To bring up a recent example, African countries on Comic Relief must always be disease-ridden and starving, because they must always need our kindness and help so we can feel better.

So. When writing a setting that you intend to have parallels to the East or the global South, dismiss the first ideas that come to your mind. Do your research. Think deeper. Allow for differences between people who are from the same place: do they all worship the same thing? Does that cause conflict or not? What are the different environments like, and how do they affect how people live? What brings them together, and what separates them? Do not force a dichotomy between west and east or north and south if it ends up making one worse than the other.

Now we come to the next section: decolonising the mind. I’ve been weaving it through this talk as I go, but I’ll talk about it explicitly now.

The original work ‘Decolonising the Mind’ was written by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in 1986, but huge swathes of it are still relevant today. I think there are probably some who will take exception to me using it in a talk intended for a mainly white audience, as the original text was intended for colonised peoples. He was writing about the struggle to discover your own voice when the language you speak is one that was forced on you, and how people writing in their own languages were excluded from literary canon.

However, in my opinion, at this point white supremacy has been on white people as well as on people of colour. None of us had a choice in being born into this, whether we benefit from it or not – though many make the decision to perpetuate and worsen it, or just not to interrogate it at all. But in the beginning it’s a trap for all of us. If you want to improve things, white people as the beneficiaries have to deliberately and consciously give it up. It is like a self-colonisation that you have to fight against to really be free.

What wa Thiong’o says is this:

‘The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe.’

To me, this is just as true in fiction, including fantasy and sci-fi. If the dominant language and media expresses that brown and black people are dangerous and one-dimensional but white people are civilised and complex, then that is how they will be defined in the real world as well.

He goes on to explain that the colonisation of Africa was violent, but that so was the imposed western education systems and learning. It was psychological violence that deliberately erased histories and language from the colonised. It taught the people that it oppressed that the only truth and the only language were the ones that were being forced on them.

In the same way, the false truth of white supremacy is all around us right now, being repeatedly forced on us all. What were you taught about slavery? I was told that it was a bad thing for a while and then the British abolished it and everything is fine now. I don’t remember being given any kind of impression that the empire was bad – as far as I knew it was all about exploration and new things, not murder and theft.

I didn’t know anything about the Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Slave Revolt, or Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, or even much about the Black Panthers until a few years ago. I didn’t even come across them at university. These are deliberate choices that were made in the British curriculum I was taught for over twenty years. I am still discovering new things.

We only need to look at the BBC right now to see an example of how far the general narrative in this country is being pushed. Generation Identity, a hugely and blatantly racist and Islamophobic far right group, were literally on Newsnight about a month ago, being given the space to air their views. Again, this was a deliberate choice, just like deciding what to tell children about the Empire. The BBC essentially said they did it in the interests of revealing the context of hate crimes, and that by airing their views people will see how abhorrent they are. I know that many people will agree with that, because hey, that sounds reasonable. But that’s not how fascism works; it has nothing to do with reason or logic. What was true in 1939 is still true now: fascists need to be fought, not heard. Avoiding that conclusion is highly dangerous. It strikes me very hard that there is a dearth of people pointing that out on our televisions right now.

Another thing that wa Thiong’o said was this:

‘Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.’

I don’t have much to add to that apart from to give you these question: who is controlling our culture right now? Should they be controlling it? Should anyone? What are the words you use and the concepts you express when you try to define what is ‘you’ and what is ‘other’? What comes to mind when you think of ‘the other’, the not-you or the not-us?

Decolonisation is an act of self-reflection, and it will be different for every single person. For me it meant learning my past to understand who I am and what I want, and what the future might be for me. For you it might be something different. The point of it is to cut through the complacency and lies that are ingrained at all levels of society – including science fiction and fantasy. Think about how what you believe about the world and about people may affect what you write – think about what exactly it is that you believe.

On a literary level, a more practical level, decolonisation also means widening your horizons in terms of the books you read and the research you do. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Meena Kandasamy, Octavia Butler, Abir Mukherjee, Akala, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Afua Hirsch, Malcolm X – broaden your reading in both fiction and non-fiction. Find out what has been kept from you and what has been silenced for a very long time. It’s not easy. But it is necessary.

One piece of work that I found very useful in writing this talk was an essay by Andrea Smith, titled ‘Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing’. In it, she theorises that there are three main pillars of racism towards ethnic minorities: slavery/capitalism, as relating to anti-blackness and the reducing of black people to property, including in current policing and prison legislation in the USA and the UK; genocide/capitalism, as it relates to indigenous people around the world and the insistence that they must disappear or never have existed at all so that allow white colonisers than claim their land without guilt; and orientalism/war, as relating to countries in Asia and the Middle East as a threat to western dominance, and therefore needing to be fought. All of these have a lot of overlap, of course – genocide and war often go hand-in-hand, for example – but they give a useful framework for analysing what assumptions and tropes you may be reproducing.

Having said all of that, the most important piece of advice I can give you is to be creative. I have read too many pieces of work where the author has gone with the first idea that came to their head, not realising that they have created a stereotype instead of a character. Almost every time, the solution is to think harder or think differently. So you have a general in an imperialistic army; what happens if they are challenged by a new recruit or by somebody they are conquering? Or you’ve decided you have tribes in your work – why are you giving them grass skirts and war cries like you’re recreating Zulu? Perhaps you have an object or person that represents purity – why is the colour for this always white or pale? Question yourself when you are dealing with ethnic minorities or fantasy cultures that are analogous to them. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is not to assume that you’re fine because you know you’re not overtly racist.

Lastly, do hire sensitivity readers if you’re not sure. With the caveat that I am biased, I will say that I have never read a piece where something didn’t need to be rethought, clarified, or just removed entirely. Start to think of sensitivity reading as a normal part of the editing process, as it’s almost impossible that you’ve written something that doesn’t touch on any marginalised identities at all. And if you have, that’s a different problem.

Speaking of: a complaint that is heard a lot by people of colour is white authors saying they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t when it comes to writing about different cultures and ethnicities. They think that if they write about people of colour they’ll end up getting slammed for being racist, and if they don’t they’ll get told off for being exclusionary. But frankly…that’s not actually my problem.

The issue here is essentially one of writing things well. If you can’t write a black man without making him aggressive, or an Asian woman without making her meek and submissive, that is a you problem. People of colour have been trying to talk about this for years. With the advent of social media, we can make you hear us more easily. You might not want to, but we can tell you what you’ve done by using the same rights that you used to write about us in the first place.


The Power of Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White Salvation in Film

The School for Magical Negroes, The Root

Sexy Lamp Test

Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing, Andrea Smith

Orientalism, Edward Said 

Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ is a broad mix of African cultures—here are some of them

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature – Ngugi wa Thiong’o


13 thoughts on “Subtle Forms of Racism to Avoid in SFF

    • H says:

      I wouldn’t know – as I mention in the article, I haven’t finished watching GOT and I haven’t read the books. I am using that specific frame from the TV as a good example of what I mean; and at that point in the TV show, she was definitely being portrayed as a white saviour. It may have been subverted later (I genuinely don’t know) but that’s not really relevant to the point I was making in the essay.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you for taking the time to source and write this article. I’m a (barely published) writer working on a fantasy world, trying to create something that is both new yet recognizable, that is both acceptable to me as a non-white American an also to the general public to whom I’m hoping to sell.

    Representation is f***ing hard. I say this as a Puerto Rican steeped in puritan American Culture looking to tell a salable story. What you’ve written here applies to all representations outside of the Caucasian side of American culture, and gives me a clearer idea of what I need to look out for, and how I need to think during my world-building process.


  2. dragonesseclectic says:

    Came here via a link in Martha Wells DW journal. Interesting, engaging essay; I’m glad you posted this transcript because my attention span does not handle YouTube videos well.

    A couple of comments/nitpicks:

    love the Lord of the Rings, but I have a deep-seated sadness that every character described as dark-skinned is evil.

    1) As a serious Tolkien fan, I sigh with annoyance when this tired old myth gets tossed around. Samwise is described as brown; is he evil? The Gondorian levies from the hill country are described as swarthy; they don’t seem to be considered evil. Orcs range in color from “pale” to “sallow” to “black”, rather like people in general, and the majority, per Tolkien, are “sallow”. The “great black uruks out of Mordor” were so noted because they were the *exception*. In short, I don’t think it’s a fair criticism. It’s fair to criticize Tolkien for being a conservative monarchist with a dislike for modern technology, embedded in a colonialist society (though he subtly criticized colonialism in the person of the Numenorians), but not fair to consider him racist based on the skin color of some of his villains. The Haradrim are not intrinsically evil, in any case–just duped by Sauron, like most of humanity in his world.

    2) My favorite “magical negro” was written by Robert E. Howard–the 1930s South Texas racist pulp adventure author who thought barbarians were cool and gave us Conan the Barbarian. He also gave us the vengeful Puritan swordsman, Solomon Kane. Solomon Kane’s recurring ally in Africa was N’Longa, a wizened old shaman/witch-doctor, and the very definition of “magical negro”. Except for one little twist–Kane rarely had a clue what was really going on, and N’Longa was using Kane to accomplish his own agenda. He was a delightful Manipulative Bastard, and certainly didn’t consider Kane better than himself. In gaming terms, he was both quest-giver and ranged DPS while Kane tanked for him.


  3. It would be interesting to consider the ramifications of the Matrix story if Will Smith had taken the Neo role (it was first offered to him, then Keanu after Smith declined). Would Fishburne still have been cast as Morpheus or would the have gone to a white actor? (My thoughts say the latter, as Hollywood in the 1990s would not have been an easy place to finance a movie with two black leads, though the former would have been am-a-zing)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent essay, and essential reading for those of us playing the game of life on “easy mode”. The only thing I disagree with is the implied assertion that the West invented slavery and the slave trade, which simply isn’t true. Historically, slavery existed in all cultures – including African ones – long before there even *was* a West. But I doubt I’m telling you anything new!


    • H says:

      What I’m talking about is specifically chattel slavery of a whole people. Obviously slavery existed before that, but never in such a way that a whole race of people then had the shadow of it cast over them for generations. I don’t think that was done until colonisation and the Atlantic slave trade.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the Jews might argue the point, having been enslaved in Egypt for generations, but I get where you’re coming from. Certainly it took the West to turn it into an industrial-scale operation.


  5. Thank you for this wonderfully insightful – and informative – piece of work. I’ve definitely learnt a few more things to keep in mind next time I’m working on my own fiction, or indeed editing someone else’s.


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