Presentism and the “White Default” in SciFi Romance

Presentism and the “White Default” in SciFi Romance

Note: This post was originally published on my Lucy Varna blog.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
--L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

I read a number of blogs each week covering everything from politics to science and history to crafts. Many of those blogs are geared toward writers and readers, specifically in those genres I enjoy reading, like Science Fiction Romance.**

As with many genres, this one has been infiltrated by well-meaning people who take a cock-eyed view of the world. This bothers me particularly because these people indulge in the sort of presentism that historians loathe: They judge the future by present values and problems. 

Now, don't get me wrong; many readers turn to speculative fiction in order to explore humanity's current problems in a way that's informative and non-threatening, and I'm no exception. That's not what I'm talking about here. No, the problem that concerns me is when people assume that the future will look exactly the same way it does today. These people assume that there's a "white default" in SciFi Romance, where the characters, cultures, and situations too closely resemble these people's definitions of "majority" identity. 

By these people, I'm actually talking about Social Justice Warriors and others in the fringe left who believe all people should be defined by three characteristics and only three characteristics: race, sex, and sexual identity/orientation.

If you think that's as absurd as I do, well, join the crowd. A growing number of people are beginning to speak out about this kind of pigeon-holing, calling it exactly what it is: Racist and sexist. Though I agree with that assessment, I realize that merely agreeing won't solve the problem, so let's look at what the SJW crowd is actually talking about. 

Let's take race, for example. Almost all discussions of racial "diversity" hinge on two criteria: Culture and skin pigmentation. I've seen discussions online where readers actually castigate authors for not including characters whose skin is non-white (i.e. their skin isn't dark enough). 

I kid you not.

I won't repeat those here because, frankly, I find such comparisons embarrassingly ignorant. This is the 21st century, right? Surely we're beyond such racist notions. And yes, they are racist, and shallow, and completely irrelevant. In my time as a professional genealogist, one thing I learned the hard way is that no one is "pure" anything. The current chief executive of the US, for example, is hailed as our first "African American" president...and he's 50% white, more or less. His skin color is an accident of birth, not a mark of racial distinction.

That doesn't matter anyway. The difference between one "race" and the next is so small as to be negligible, a point most SJWs seem to completely miss. Why, therefore, do we continue to draw attention to a person's skin pigmentation (and that's all current popular models of race are) when there's no real difference genetically between one person and the next?

Let's step back and look at the other meaning SJWs use when discussing racism, primarily when referring to "native" Americans. Don't get me started about nativity. Humans aren't native to the Americas. Having cultural roots here that go back centuries doesn't make one person more native than the next, particularly in light of the fact that most modern tribal cultures evolved from others well after humans first stepped foot here. 

No, let's look at something else SJWs overlook: Tribal Americans prefer to be affiliated with their clan/tribe, not with the pan-Native Americanism SJWs promote. You know why? Because each tribe is different. They have different cultures, different naming patterns, different outlooks, different histories... Grouping tribal Americans into the completely inappropriate category of "Native Americans" does a huge disservice to the individual cultures and tribe members, and it promotes false narratives that no honest, rational person wishes to foster.

Again, why do SJWs and others continue to use this term? This guy has an idea or three, and I'm pretty sure he's right.

What does all this have to do with the future, where most SciFi Romances take place? Simply put, because there is a continual cry for more "diversity" in this genre, and by diversity, what the proponents really mean is characters that fit precisely within pre-approved criteria in three select categories. You guessed it: Race, sex, and sexual orientation.

In other words, the we need more diversity crowd is trying to pigeon-hole all characters (and by extension, honest to goodness people) so that they're confined by three externalities. That isn't diversity. It's a tiny little cube these people box themselves and the world around them into. They can't see the truth, that they're not creating diversity; they're limiting it.

Example: The SciFi Romance I'm working on now takes place in the unknown future. Humankind is out among the stars. We've settled planets throughout the galaxy, and as we did, our cultures and physiology changed as we adapted to the individual planets on which we settled. Race is a meaningless concept. Individuals still have cultural identity and ethnicity, but it isn't tied to skin color at all; it's tied to the locality in which people live, not such a huge leap given the fervent nationalism gripping most cultures today. Humans are rather tribal, after all, for distinct, evolutionary reasons. 

Now, I have distinct pictures in my head as to what the characters look like, but just out of curiosity and as an experiment, I asked my alpha reader to describe how he views my characters. He told me he thought of them both as being the equivalent of Arabic. 

And he's so very, very wrong.

He came by that notion because of two things: The main male character's straight, black hair and a peculiar custom the Pruxnae (his culture) have of covering themselves when they're out in public among strangers. Everyone does this, male and female, young or old, and not for the reasons you might think. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the fact that the Pruxnae are raiders. A good many of the young men have bounties on their heads, so they blend; they hide behind the practices of other cultures; they obscure their faces and make it difficult for anyone to recognize them.

How do the characters actually look? Something like this:

Uh-huh. Not Arabic. Want things to be even more confusing? Ryn grew up in a Viking-like culture among people whose skin really is white. Does anybody care? NOT A BIT. Such distinctions are meaningless in this story world, and because of that, I don't emphasize them. Perhaps I should (and I might during subsequent drafts), if only to give readers a better feel for the characters, but therein lies the problem. No matter how I describe these characters, readers will walk away with their own images of how Rin and Ziri look, and that is the real problem with the so-called white default in SciFi Romance. As far as I can tell, this is more of a problem with assumptions on the parts of readers (especially in the SJW crowd) than it is on the part of the writer.

Here's a huge clue: Most readers simply don't care about the characters' race, sex, or sexual orientation. You know what they're really after? A good story. A few hours of escape from the everyday. A satisfying ending. The people who care most about "diversity" are the only ones paying attention to whether or not the characters represent

To completely rip off L.P. Hartley, the future will be a foreign country. We don't know how things will be done. That's the beauty of it. We can imagine. We can pretend. We can write the stories the way they deserve to be written precisely because we know things will be different. Just as it's unwise to judge the past by present ideals, it's absolute insanity to judge the future by what's going on now. Will the present have an impact on that unknown time? Oh, yeah. But will the things people care about then be the same things we care about now? Will they still be dealing with the problems we're struggling with today? 

God, I hope not. I hope three thousand years from now that when humanity is out there among the stars, people no longer judge one another by the color of one's skin. It doesn't matter why that judgment is being made, even if it's during the false pursuit of a narrowly-constructed ideal of "diversity." Racism is racism, people. When you judge someone by the color of their skin or by their sex or by whether or not they like men, women, or both, you're doing wrong by them and yourself. Don't. Please. Until you stop forcing people to identify by such minor aspects of their being, the world will never change.

And that would be a damn shame.

** The inspiration for this post was a spate of blog posts on SciFi Romance blogs about "diversity" (when the author really meant "non-white skin color" and "non-heteronormative.")

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