Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Wandering Thoughts: Do Racially Indeterminate, Non Gender Specific Characters Hurt The Push For Diversity?

Image: Kaboompics

Wandering Thoughts is where I let my mind stray, think and talk about non-routine things. This is an avenue for bookish personal stories musings and discussions. This post is linked up to Book Blog Discussion.

Don't take me seriously, I'm just a clueless hag.

When we push for diversity, the obvious step of action is to denounce books that are racist or books that leave out the minority and mostly just depict white cis characters. We also hate it when art covers and screen adaptations are whitewashed. Or when stuff like Peeta Mellark’s leg amputation in The Hunger Games – a major plot point because this made him slower in Catching Fire—is not depicted in the movies. What I am a bit unsure of is how to deal with racially indeterminate,non gender specific (R.I.N.G.S. for short?) characters. Are these book characters hurting the diversity movement? Should authors confirm their character’s race and gender explicitly in text?

I have encountered a lot of books where it’s hard or impossible to tell the racial background of its characters. Sometimes, the only description of physical appearance provided through the entire book is “thick black hair”. It does not even say if the hair is straight, wavy or curly. I admit that when the narrative is so compelling, I find myself not bothered by the omission of the character’s race and skin color and might even give a high rating in my review.

I’ve also heard people in the reading community blasting down characters with vague descriptions of skin color--olive-skin, sun-kissed skin, caramel-colored skin, etc.—and found myself not sure if I completely agree with their opinion. I want to side with them because these people are surely championing diversity but I always end up on the fence. I do not want to jump the bandwagon on disliking something when I do not completely comprehend why it should be disliked. I want to know why characters with ambiguous skin color description gets the flak while omission of skin color does not, when these two boil down to them being both racially indeterminate. Why is it NOT okay for characters to have an ambiguous skin color while it is okay if they have no skin color in the book at all? Is there an erasure or an appropriation with ambiguous skin color that I don’t understand? From where I am standing, I am clearly clueless.

Now let’s just take aside these questions for later in the comments. For purposes of continuing this discussion, let’s just assume that there is no difference between a character with no mention of skin color and a character with ambiguous skin color. Both are racially indeterminate, just until we reach to the end of this post.

Once upon a time, Hermione Granger was Asian.

Now to drive to my other point, where I would like to relate my personal experience with arguably the most famous racially indeterminate character we have to date, Hermione Granger. I will first put emphasis on the words “personal experience”.  There are no hard science back-ups, no facts and figures here so you don’t have to see it the way I do. I know we perceive things differently so what may be true to me is not necessarily true to everybody. So here goes. 

I remember I have read the early Harry Potter books back when I was fourteen even before the movies were made (yep, I am that old). One of my best friends (Hi Mommy Steph!) was kind enough to let me and our other best friends (there were four of us) borrow her copies. Needless to say, I am instantly drawn to the only girl in the hero trio, Hermione (I pronounced her name “HER-MI-YOWN” back then), and I imagined her to have Asian features like myself. The description that lead me to this belief was that she was described to have brown eyes (my eyes are actually black but I’d like to think they turn brown in the sun) and bushy hair (mine is so thick and goes to different places without the help of hair products). We have to take into consideration that before Hermione, my encounter with strong women characters in the pages were mostly the Sweet Valley High twins (who were so blindingly white and blond) and Betty and Veronica from the Archie comics (also very white from the drawings, obvi). So when I saw Hermione’s description with no mention of skin color, I was eager and foolish and desperate enough to put her in my own brown Filipina skin even though the setting is in the freaking Great Britain. I know right, what was I thinking? But I saw myself in her. I aspired to be her.
Fast forward to the news of movie adaptation. Like the next potterhead beside me, I was excited to know who’s gonna play the characters from the books. I remember I first saw the picture of the three main actors in a newspaper article in the school library. Needless to say, I was in utter disbelief with the casting of Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. The movie people got it so wrong, I thought to myself. Ugh, I can still imagine the shattering pain of disappointment because I expected that Hermione will look like me and the movie people are telling me that she is white?! Anyway despite of my rage, I am garbage so I still went and watched the first movie (and the next movies after, of course) but I hated on the young Emma Watson deep through my bones the entire time because I felt that she made it rain on my parade or something. (Don’t worry, I absolutely love Emma Watson now.)


So once upon a time, Hermione Granger was brown in my mind. Then she became white in the movies and now she is black on the stage. The beauty of it is that her character is so big and universal and transcendent that she can fit to any skin color.

Newsflash: Colin Creevey is gay.

I’d also like to touch on the other half of the R.I.N.G.S. (I hope you notice that my acronym game is so Hermione Granger), the non gender specific characters. Being a cis-female, I am not an authority on personal experiences with gender issues but If you will, I’d like to bring to the witness stand another popular Potterverse character, Albus Dumbledore.

Prosecution: Professor Dumbledore, sir, please state to us your gender identity.
Witness: I am gay, J.K. Rowling said so in 2007.
Prosecution: But that was after all the books are finished and published. Are there textual backup of you being gay in the books?
Witness: *speaks softly just like in the books and so unlike in the Book 4 movie because movie people can REALLY get things so wrong* Well, there was no textual evidence that contradicts to me being gay but there were a lot of hints that can be implied that indeed I am. In Book 7, there was this picture, see Exhibit A, of a seventeen year old me laughing with my “close friend” turned nemesis, Gellert Grindelwald. Then there was this letter of mine, see Exhibit B, to Gellert where I poured all my intimate thoughts about the greater good. *raises his voice slightly and looks sternly behind his half-moon spectacles* Do I have to spell out my sexuality to you when it is not important to the storyline? Haven’t you heard of the “Iceberg Theory” where maybe my author may have chosen not say explicitly in the books anything about my sexuality because she trusted that her readers will eventually catch up with it? Didn’t Harry Potter himself got enraged with me also in Book 7 because I did not tell him everything about me before I died? *beams kindly* And have you forgotten that through the entire series, I am a champion of tolerance and I am adamantly opposed to the oppression of the minority? 
Prosecution: *in a weak voice, obviusly taken aback by the witness* No further questions, you’re Honor.

Stopping my lame pretend courtroom scene here, forgive me for I am no proper lawyer. I hope you get the picture. Although his sexuality was not explicit in the books, I've heard they are making him openly gay in the next Fantastic Beasts movie. And although some say the above-mentioned textual backups are not that tight, maybe all his talk and example about defending the Muggleborns is the closest we can get to him supporting LGBT+ rights. Come on, we cannot deny the larger than life legacy that old man Dumbledore left behind.

I am not saying that Queen Jo’s writings are faultless. To be fair, I would also like to shed a light on what she said about Hogwarts having LGBT+ students when there is neither explicit textual backup nor hints to that effect in the books. There is an abundant display though of hetero couples through the entire series, some with relationships having little to no importance to the storyline, but not once did she mention a homo couple. She could have at least inserted homo couples in the Yule Ball in Book 4, or in Book 2 with the whole Valentine’s Day shenanigan courtesy of Gilderoy Lockhart. Couldn’t Queen Jo have at least mentioned a line or two about one girl wooing another girl or one boy pursuing another boy? I would totally ship Crabbe and Goyle in exchange for the priceless reaction from Malfoy’s face. (!) Also our hero Harry Potter, on his good old days,  was always surrounded by giggling girls in the books. Couldn’t he at least have one boy admirer following him around. Ooooh yes, there was one: Colin Creevey, bless him! Okay newsflash people, check on The Daily Prophet headlines tomorrow: Colin Creevey is gay!

I do not claim to be an expert in the Potterverse text, though. I honestly have the slightest recollection of Colin Creevey canon. Fellow potterheads, if you would please help out a friend here. Was there a mention in the books of him going out with anyone? No? Right, for the purposes of this discussion let’s just assume that if there was zero mention of his sexuality in the books, would a homosexual reader relate to his admiration of the boy who lived and imply to it as something even remotely romantic? Anyone, hmm?

Seriously tho, what do we do with R.I.N.G.S.?

Now that I am done prattling about my personal experience with a racially indeterminate character and musing about how probably a homosexual reader may relate to a non gender specific character, I hope you can see why I am on the fence with the efforts of completely shutting them down.

I am aware that my examples above are , albeit from a widely read book series, from way 2k-late by millenial standards. But still the issue at hand is all the more relevant now. There are still handfuls of racially indeterminate, non gender specific characters in this day and age and I think we simply cannot do away with them completely, what do we do with them? In a perfect world, R.I.N.G.S. characters are non-existent and we are not lacking multicultural, inclusive, and gender bias free books. But the world is not perfect, and I do not want to put up all these questions without contributing something. So here are some stuff that I think we can do with our current situation.
  • If you love a book with racially indeterminate and/or non gender specific characters, go interpret and imagine them however you like them to be. I cannot do this because I have zero talent in art but by all means, explore your interpretations with a fanfiction or fanart. Tag the authors and let them know how you see the characters in their books.
  • Vigilance is important in literay activism, that’s why from now on I decided that I will take note the race and gender of the characters in the  books I am reading and I will include another element in my review posts that I will call “Diversity Watch”. I am still working the details in my mind but basically it’s a list of the characters checking and identifying if their race and gender are explicity specified in text. It will have no effect on my star-rating but I hope it will at least add value to my review and award brownie points to books with diverse characters.
  • Speaking of vigilance, let’s hold all the authors accountable for what they write. Raise questions, call them out for books that hurt, stereotype and misrepresent the minority. Cheers and praise authors who write with fair character representation.
  • Continue our staunch support for marginalized, #ownvoices authors. Even the littlest things like sharing, hitting the like button and retweeting can do so much if we do it all.
  • We do not stop at pushing diversity in books. Let’s go all the way! Clamor for diversity in screen adaptation casting, especially if the book characters belong to the racially indeterminate and/or non gender specific kind. Screen adaptation of sci-fi and fantasy books have some serious potential in shifting the landscape of race and gender because it is set in different realms removed from the mold of our world. Let us not waste this opportunity to see onscreen a healthy mix of black, brown and white faces in kingdoms and galaxies far, far away. I say, don’t let them movie people get it all wrong again!
I hope my suggestions above may somehow make up for my basic cluelessness. They did not come to me as a prophetic vision from Dumbledore’s ghost or from some other sage R.I.N.G.S. character. They are inspired from hanging around the periphery of your Twitter threads and from reading and watching thinkpieces about diversity.

Now to conclude, I am not giving the authors a pass to be sloppy and ignore diveristy but I think that the fellowship of the R.I.N.G.S (I hate myself for this pun but I know I have to) is not entirely a bane for diversity. Side note: My brain just did a quick rundown of the LOTR movies and I can’t seem to remember if there were any brown or black hobbits portrayed in them. This is a shame because Samwise Gamgee could have been brown! And imagine if Gandalf is also gay and him and Dumbledore meet in Valinor and gets married there, they are both great wizards after all right?! What, too far-fetched? No literary crossovers allowed? (Ugh, stupid movie people!) So moving on before the purists cast me with stones, I am willing to tolerate R.I.N.G.S. characters in books because although they are a bit problematic, they are not as bad as racist characters. Unless the ambiguously brown character is racist, because I still need an answer for my question on that. In the end, how we see and interpret these R.I.N.G.S characters are what’s important because it has the potential of making an impact. I mean, they are not necessarily evil because we, the readers, can turn them into something good for the movement. This is purely my take on the matter, the table is always open for any opposing views and I’m willing to listen and learn. So what do you guys think, is it okay for authors to sometimes leave skin color and gender out of text or not? Where do we draw the line of acceptable and not acceptable characterizations in reference to diversity? Hit me in the comments!

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