WisCon 31: Why is the Universe So Damn White?

Once again, I must turn to audience members who took notes to provide a play-by-play of the panel. This one I moderated, which meant I could think of nothing but “Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up. Don’t. Mess up.” Thankfully we had a great audience, great panelists (Wendy Bradley, Naamen Gobert Tilahun, and Kate Elliott), and no crazies.

There’s a good summary/transcript up at the FeministSF wiki along with links to other folk’s thoughts about the panel and the issues we brought up.

The panel topic, which I wrote, goes thusly:

It’s great that there are many great SF shows on television with diverse main casts. Stargate, Firefly, Battlestar, Buffy—in each you will find ethnic minorities in major roles. However, if you look in the background it doesn’t take long to notice that even though the main players aren’t all white, everyone else seems to be. Finding a planet full of ‘white’ people is easy, but what about the planets with Black people, or Laotians, or Pacific Islanders? Then you run into the problem of how ethnic minorities are portrayed, both in terms of the main characters and the Aliens of the Week. Why is it so hard for television, which has taken the first step in being inclusive, to take that next step and actually portray a diverse Universe? Why is the Universe so damn white and what can we do to change that?

We spent much of the first part of the panel discussing specific shows we found lacking in this area and when we first started to notice that they were lacking.

For me, it was the last episode of Stargate: Atlantis Season 1. The Big Bad is coming to Atlantis, they don’t know if they will survive, they have enough power to open the Stargate for 3 seconds and send information through. So everyone on the station gets to send a short video message home. It’s the standard stuff — learning about the crew’s families, getting deeper into their characters. We even see some random, background people we’ve never seen before, just to lend it all a bit of realism. Then we get to this one crew member and my mouth is hanging open. She’s Asian, she speaks in this awful, stereotyped, horribly broken Engrish (like just two steps above ching-chong) about how great her boss is, how nice and smart and wonderful, etc. They cut in to her monologue with clips of Rodney, her boss, being an absolute shit to her and everyone else. Now, Rodney is always a shit, so this isn’t surprising, but the way she keeps going on about him! It’s hard to tell if they’re trying to imply that she’s got a crush on him or if they’re making her into the stereotype of the submissive Asian female. It was so blatant and icky I couldn’t believe they allowed that on television.

Then I started thinking about whether or not any of the scientists I’d seen on Atlantis were non-white. The answer: No. The scientists were supposed to be a great international alliance, but all of them are white and/or came from European countries. The only people of color on Atlantis are in the military or are alien. Ford was main cast, Bates was secondary and was only there to be aggressive and angry at Teyla, Teyla is an alien, Ronan is also alien.

After that, it was like a floodgate. Once I started analyzing other SF shows I watched, I saw that even when they had some people of color in the main cast, the people in the background or on the Planet of the Week or whatnot, were white.

One very interesting point Kate brought up was how much Ben Sisko of DS9 is different from other black characters in SF. Sisko had a culture. He had a connection to his past, a place he came from (New Orleans), specific food he cooked for his son, that his father cooked for him. He was more aware of the gulf between what Starfleet understood about the universe and how things actually were. And I have always been convinced that this was due to the influence of Avery Brooks. What other black SF character can you think of who had that cultural link? Geordi certainly didn’t. We knew his dad was Chicken George and his mom was the Queen of Zamunda (these are references to movies, not actually who they were…), but where did his parents come from? Were they born on earth? Which continent, which culture? Where the hell did Tuvok come from? What is the name of the Island of Black Vulcans and, seriously, why haven’t we seen any of them before? Do jaffa do anything but beat the hell out of each other? What do they eat, what do they do to entertain themselves? Other than the one jaffa joke we hear, do they ever write stuff? Even the Klingons have poetry and opera.

Not only is it a problem that the universe is white, but when they do include people of color, they either make them alien or humans of “No-Culture”, which is default culture, which is White American culture.

Wendy brought up that there’s a lack of many types of representation on TV. Where are the ugly people? The fat folks, the differently-abled? Race is one piece of the puzzle of media’s inability (most of the time — there are exceptions, but they highlight the very definition of exceptional) to show us anything but ‘beautiful’ white people who don’t have trouble getting about. “They” assume that’s what everyone wants to watch. Kate read from a news item regarding the adaptation of Bury My heart at Wounded Knee (which I first heard about on Pam Noles blog):

When [HBO] broadcasts its two-hour adaptation of the book, beginning Memorial Day weekend, at its center will be a new character: a man who was part Sioux, was educated at an Ivy League college and married a white woman.

“Everyone felt very strongly that we needed a white character or a part-white, part-Indian character to carry a contemporary white audience through this project,” Daniel Giat, the writer who adapted the book for HBO Films, told a group of television writers earlier this year.

O RLY? Ya RLY!

On a happier note, we discussed Doctor Who and how that show not only includes people of color in the background and foreground, but also addresses racial issues without making things All About the Race. Wendy said that this was due to Russell Davies, the exec. producer, having a good track record that allowed him to do what he wanted. The show is also produced out of BBC Wales, which is related but separate from the BBC in London. Because he’s far away from the big honchos, they meddle with him less. Someone else brought up Homicide, which was produced in Baltimore. Maybe getting away from the studio bosses is the way to go if anyone wants to start solving this issue.

I ended the panel by re-asking the question I ended the description with: What can we do about it? Kate said to envision the future you want to live in. Wendy suggested that each panelist take the money we get back for being program participants, buy a couple of copies of Writing the Other, and send them to television execs. Later, someone from the Carl Brandon Society said that it might be more effective if we donated the copies to CBS and had them send the books in an official manner. I love this idea and I think that anyone interested in this issue do so. If you want official info on how to do it, let me know.

I said for people to get involved on multiple levels. If you’re a writer, write characters of color if you’re so inclined. If Hollywood comes calling, exercise your power to make sure they don’t do what the Sci-Fi Channel did to Ursula LeGuin. Get involved with planning conventions and heavily encourage television writers, producers, and actors to come. Make sure they understand that the con is not about just fan stuff (though fan stuff is awesome) but about examining the shows and their impact critically. Give them a chance to learn and respond. Also, get involved on the Internet. Nowadays, producers and network execs cannot afford to ignore what’s going on here. Take part in group blogging, have your own blog, talk about this stuff, get traffic, get known, use your voice.

There are a lot of things we discussed that I didn’t touch on. Firefly, Lost, Heroes, Angel, etc. Hopefully, my fellow panelists will come along and add anything that I missed or they feel is important. You can also read the transcripts, which aren’t long.

And, as I said, my fellow panelists were so, so great. Check out their blogs and books (in Kate’s case).

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16 Responses

  1. I’m still wondering how they managed to do that to Earthsea, especially considering how pissed off Le Guin was when she saw the end product. Did they just not consult her on casting or what?

  2. Nope, they did not. I think she said they gave her the title of “Creative Consultant”, which means absolutely nothing if they don’t want it to.

  3. What do we have to do to keep this from happening to our works?

  4. Unfortunately, for newer writers who aren’t huge like, say, J K Rowling, the only thing you can do is insist on having a say and final decision on casting and other aspects you ind important. This will probably mean the end of the deal for you. But you don’t know unless you ask. Still, hollywood offers a lot of money. You have to weigh that against taking that stand. Some say “I’ll take this money now and then when I get big I’ll have some control.” I have no idea how well this works out for folks.

  5. ST: Voyager had one regular Native American character but I got tired of that show quite early in its run and didn’t stick around long enough see how much his character developed. (if at all)

    Teyla and Ronan are actually extraterrestrial humans. I really like SG: Atlantis a lot but it has always sort of frustrated me that they don’t get into the individual characters’ cultures and backgrounds very much. We know McKay has a sister he doesn’t get along with very well (big surprise); Beckett and Zelenka are apparently just there to provide a couple of non-American accents. I wish they would do a much better job of character development. I have the same complaint about their world building. All human worlds seem to have pretty much the same culture, at least as far as outward appearances go which is about as far as it ever goes.

  6. This might be the wrong place for this, but I had a couple of questions after spending the last two days reading WisCon 31 transcripts … LOL:

    “I can often read the blackness of an author from a story — how a character reacts to a situation, etc. Sometimes I can tell when a white author is trying to write a black character too, for the same reason.”

    How? This is something I’d like to avoid (having my work scream ‘whitey!’)

    I don’t remember the exact quotes that sparked this, but I keep thinking it would be great to read a LOTR-quality story about a mythology other than Western European. If there’s something out there I don’t know about, I’d love to read it.

  7. ST: Voyager had one regular Native American character but I got tired of that show quite early in its run and didn’t stick around long enough see how much his character developed. (if at all)

    Very much as Generic American Indian ™, but I believe he had a tribe he belonged to and some of his spiritual practices. If I’m recalling correctly, he was (somewhat ironically, given recent developments) Cherokee.

  8. I’ll go you one better:

    “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had exactly ONE black planet – In the episode “Code of Honor” – and every single TV stereotype of Black Women – and Black Men – came to the front in full display.

    Cringeworthy from start to finish – and that’s putting it mildly.

  9. Oh yeah. I hated that episode. It was in the first (or second?) season I think. The whole thing just didn’t make sense to me for so many reasons. Cringeworthy indeed!

  10. LostInSpace & Lynn S: OMG! I can’t believe I don’t remember that episode! I guess it was so bad that it’s being repressed. ;P

  11. I just saw that episode re-run on the sci-fi channel in The Netherlands. It is so cliché and worth forgetting. Honestly most of the early episodes of TNG are terrible, especially with Troy in short skirt. But I do like the later episodes, when they began to question more and the characters had more depth. Whorf has culture and his character continues to develop in DS9.

  12. I remember that TNG ep well. I wasn’t a big fan of the original series, though like everyone else in Euro North America, I knew who the characters were. And she was trying to get me to watch the then new edition with her. It was the ep my sister made me watch with her to try and get me into Trek. That was a VERY bad move. I saw that mess and forget cringing. I was filled with “WTF!” Especially with the devaluing of Black women to raise the Blonde, White Goddess (Tasha) on a pedastal. I didn’t mess with TNG until WAY after the series was done. That ep soured me on the other series of Trek as well. I have only recently begun to watch those.

    Not only did they not have backstories for so many of the characters of color (CoC) but it seemed that the writers seemed to think that racial utopia meant that everyone finally got to be White, not necessarily White in biology (skin tone, facial features, etc.) but that us culludz finally got invited to partake fully in White culture. Now maybe for SOME people of color, that IS utopia. For the rest of us, we just want to be who we are without catching mountains of hell for it. Theh only CoC I’ve seen so far that embodied the latter WAS Ben Sisko of DS9.

  13. Why is black women always hating on white women?

  14. […] are people of color got some vocal/dialect representation. (See ABW’s post on Wiscon’s Why is the Universe So Damn White? […]

  15. […] possible. At the top of the pile I have Angry Black Woman’s report on a discussion entitled “Why is the Universe so Damned White?” Not only is it a problem that the universe is white, but when they do include people of color, they […]

  16. Goodness! I’d been thinking of this exact same thing recently.

    Well, not exactly the same thing… but close. Mostly I was wondering why all of the men of color (and face it, if they’re dark skinned, they’re almost always male) were the same exact guy. I mean, I love that guy, don’t get me wrong… the Ronan/Tyr/Worf/Teal’c/Ford vaguely-dangerous-loner-(who turns out to be a big softie, unless he turns out to be a murderous psychopath) is a great character.

    But…particularly in the early episodes of any given series, they’re all the same guy. He stands in the back looking dangerous (or servile… I went back and forth on Ford for a while, but he definitely evolved to fit the standard… and gave us our ‘murderous psychopath’ quotient for the season), doesn’t say much, and is very clearly Other. (Again, Ford doesn’t really fit this at the beginning, but with the venom and the crazy and the everything else, they certainly did a lot to make him That Guy just like the rest of them.) If/when he does open up, it’s almost always to a female character, with whom he forms a strong (generally but not always romantic) bond, rather than opening up to the crew in general, or just letting his guard down.

    I tried to think of women of color, and came up with, um…Kendra. And Teyla. And the aforementioned scientist. Oh! and Guinan.

    It just occurred to me while I was trying to think about Stargate, particularly, that I don’t mind their portrayal of the main SG teams, even the Atlantis team, as primarily white. Considering that it’s supposed to be happening right now, and it’s mostly American in leadership and organization… well, how many people of color can we expect? If our government had a super-secret space-travel program, they’d probably institute a paper-bag test. With them, it’s the whitening of the alien species that gets me.

    I mean, ginormo pantheon of vaguely Egyptian (and other ethnic) “gods” colonize a bunch of worlds with giant deserts and desert-dwelling people that dress like certain groups of (imagined) brown folk on earth and speak/read/write languages that seem an awful lot like the ones we find in certain browner regions of the world, and… we get white people with dreads? Seriously? Again, I like the image of white people with dreads (when well done), and I can buy that deserts on different planets might mean different things (maybe their melanin works in reverse?) … but one would think that at least some of these extraordinarily earth-like worlds would have evolved some earth-like people with an earth-like distribution of skin tones.

    (Then again, there’s also a significant lack of non-typically-humanoid aliens in general. I mean, we have two Big Bad races that are obviously non-human…one of which looks mostly human and the other of which lives inside human hosts. And the Asgard. Who else is there? All the people that look like people are mostly white, except for the Jaffa, who are basically slaves.)

    *sighs* This is all getting tangled up in my head with the annoyance I have at the recent Green Lantern Corps graphic novels (and, okay, a lot of comics in general… though they’re better than TV on the racial distribution of alien species, certainly). Even though I’m glad I have the knowledge and the skill to look at this stuff critically, sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier not to know. Not being able to turn a page (in an otherwise engaging and decently written story!) without saying “Why the hell is she contorted like that? Breasts don’t work that way! Why do all of the female-appearing aliens wear skimpy clothes, even if they have three arms, bat wings and a tail?” would be… novel. Or watching an (otherwise entertaining, in that summer-movie way) movie without wandering out asking “Why did the black transformer have to be the one they killed?”

    … yeah.

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