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Race & Ethnicity in Literature

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Hey, we have this topic for TV and Movies, so why not? :D

 

Since literature is a very different medium - namely, one that isn’t primarily visual - I feel like its issues re: race & ethnicity are different. One thing that I’ve noticed is the tendency to assume that every character is white unless explicitly stated otherwise. Even if there are coded markers to indicate that the character isn’t white, a lot of readers will still think they’re white.

 

This Cracked article mentions the controversy over Harry Potter’s Cho Chang, in which some fans were surprised or even outraged that an Asian actress was cast in the role because they thought that she was white. You’d think that the name “Cho Chang” would have been a hint, but no. (As an aside, I never liked the name Cho Chang.) There were also people who didn’t catch on that the Patils were Indian, although IIRC there was less controversy over those actresses because they were never Harry’s love interest.

 

And then there was all the controversy when JK Rowling revealed that Blaise Zabini was black. “Zabini” isn’t coded in the same way that “Chang” and “Patil” are, but the outrage was still way too much. Heaven forbid that a black character has a name that doesn’t beat you over the head with just how very black he is.

 

Also, for whatever reason, way before the first movie ever came out, I assumed that Lavender Brown was black, I think because I associate the name Lavender with Matilda, and the movie version of Matilda featured a black Lavender.

 

Hmmm, this turned into a total Harry Potter post, lol. I'm not even a super-fan of the series, although I liked it; I just think its racial issues are interesting, considering how Rowling uses names. Anyway, are there any particular markers/codes that you use to determine whether a character is or isn’t white? If there aren’t any markers, do you assume that a character is white? I think that I subconsciously do the latter a lot more than I’d care to admit.

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I read all the HP books and saw all the films. I totally missed the controversy around the casting of Cho Chang.

Not so with the Hunger Games. The casting of Rue caused a vicious backlash, though in that case the character was very clearly written as non-white.

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It took me a couple of Alex Cross books to realize that he's black. It may have been the clues weren't strong enough for me to catch, or more likely (I like to think) that it didn't seem to matter, so I just populated the book with what I know.

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As a writer, I run into this problem from the other direction. In a fantasy or SF story, there may be an alien who is actually midnight black. So calling someone with, say, Obama's skin tone black starts to look odd. I suppose I could go with sort of medium brown, but then people might think they're hispanic rather than of African or equivalent descent.

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I was surprised that Dean Thomas in the HP movies was a black actor. If I recall, Ginny makes out with him in the book. I don't remember reading that he was black in the book.

I remember arguing with my English teacher that Sir Palamedes was black. TH White said so!

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I was surprised that Dean Thomas in the HP movies was a black actor. If I recall, Ginny makes out with him in the book. I don't remember reading that he was black in the book.

I remember him being described as black I'm pretty sure it's in Sorcerer's Stone during the sorting, I'm sure it is.

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I was surprised that Dean Thomas in the HP movies was a black actor. If I recall, Ginny makes out with him in the book. I don't remember reading that he was black in the book.

 

 

I'm sure it was probably was mentioned in SS, but I think I missed that before the movie, too. Of course, I was 11, so I was even worse at paying to details than I am now.  Me and my friend use to both hate how it seemed like Seamus always got Dean's original lines in the movies. But then again they maybe just favored the Seamus actor since they did introduce a black Gryffindor kid in the 3rd film (I believe) who  had no corresponding character in the book and who took, like, all the supporting character lines. 

 

And then there was all the controversy when JK Rowling revealed that Blaise Zabini was black.

 

Really? It's weird since I don't remember Zabini being much of a character. Though, now in doing a little looking into it, I guess since he was never elaborated upon and most of the Slytherins were such terribly constructed characters, I can see why people wanted to build upon a Slytherin character that up until book 6 was a blank slate in all respects. 

From the Zabini wiki: 

After the release of Half-Blood Prince, many fans refused to change their views of the character from what they had already established for themselves; others stopped using him in their fic or reading fic with him as a major character.[4][5] This was generally attributed to racism in fandom, though many fans insisted that it was just difficult for them to let go of a fanon characterization they had spend years cultivating.

 

Interestingly, many peopled wanted him to be Italian with dark features and tan skin. Or since the name was gender neutral, they speculated he was (I'm guessing, a white) girl. It really does raise an interesting question, since there was this kind of backlash against even such a minor character. While I feel like JK tried to avoid stereotyping black characters like Dean and Angelina and she put Kingsley in an important  position of power in the end, it does make you wonder the response if more prominent characters were black and what back lash would come with that? Like, what if the whole Weasley family were black instead (though this would certainly intensify the prejudicial nature of the Malfoys and make them even more explicitly racist in the eye of the reader)? What if Harry's mentor Dumbledore was instead a black man? I think it would been amazing if this would have happened honestly. Also, now I am wondering was there a single adult black woman in the books??? Were any of the professors non-white?

 

Not so with the Hunger Games. The casting of Rue caused a vicious backlash, though in that case the character was very clearly written as non-white.

 

 

 

Yes and she was very deliberately from a district that had a majority black population/was located in the south  where the people  specialized in agricultural labor. 

Edited by Beezel

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Also, now I am wondering was there a single adult black woman in the books??? Were any of the professors non-white?

 

 

As far as I remember, no  and no. All  the adult women are white and all the professors are white too. 

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This brings to mind the endless arguments about the appearance of the Dornish in the A Song Of Ice and Fire novels and their adaptation, Game of Thrones. People endlessly and viciously debate about that even though the novels actually spend an entire paragraph detailing the racial breakdown of Dorne:
 

"There were three sorts of Dornishmen, the first king Daeron had observed. There were salty Dornishmen who lived along the coasts, the sandy Dornishmen of the deserts and the long river valleys, and the stony Dornishmen who made their fastness in the passes and heights of the Red Mountains. The salty Dornishmen had the most Rhoynish blood, the stony Dornishmen the least.
 
All three sorts were well represented in Doran’s retinue. The salty Dornishmen were lithe and dark, with smooth olive skin and long black hair streaming in the wind. The sandy Dornishmen were even darker, their faces burned brown by the hot Dornish sun. They wound long bright scarfs around their helms to ward off sunstroke. The stony Dornishmen were biggest and fairest, sons of the Andals and First Men, brown-haired or blond, with faces that freckled or burned in the sun instead of browning."

 

The description of the salty Dornishmen, which include most of the Dornish characters in the books has led to endless accusations of whitewashing during the casting for the show. I place the blame on the use of the term "olive skin". In my experience that is one of the most subjective descriptors of appearance that there is.
 

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John Scalzi very smoothly called attention to this issue while discussing a different one. His book The Android's Dream features a character named Sam whose gender is never specified, with Scalzi's official stance being he doesn't actually know and everyone should make up their own minds. He ended this statement by casually asking what race people thought the book's hero was, as it's never specified either.

 

One odd case is Louis Sachar's Holes, which casually reveals the races of several characters about halfway through. If I hadn't already seen the movie, I imagine that could be pretty jarring.

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I stumbled across this awhile back and although technically it's a resource for writers, it's also really interesting if you're just a reader (like me) -- it's chock full of things I never realized were stereotypes and such until they were pointed out and explained:  Writing with Color "a blog dedicated to writing and resources centered on racial & ethnic diversity."  

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I stumbled across this awhile back and although technically it's a resource for writers, it's also really interesting if you're just a reader (like me) -- it's chock full of things I never realized were stereotypes and such until they were pointed out and explained: Writing with Color "a blog dedicated to writing and resources centered on racial & ethnic diversity."

Wow. That site is unreal. The Thought Police in Orwell's "1984" were amateurs compared to today's Social Justice Warriors who want to dictate creativity and decree what thoughts and actions are "acceptable."
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