Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode.
For the first part of Episode 2, “Failure of Imagination: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom”, we discussed the following texts
Reading this thread reminded me of Rukmini Pande’s research which shows that canonical characters of colour are often ignored in the fanfiction communities of different movies and TV shows. There have been conversations about the problematic representations of race in science fiction and fantasy. This culminated in an event called RaceFail in 2009 which encompassed many online platforms and fandoms. According to Pande, this was also the time when fans of colour began recognising each other. According to both anecdotal evidence as well as research, many fans get very defensive when the topic of race crops up. Most fans of Western media fandoms assume everyone is white and from the US (this included me until this tendency was explicitly pointed out to me). Pande proposes that the shift to platforms like Twitter and Tumblr helped fans of colour assert their diverse identities and find like-minded others.
One of the responses in this thread asked fans of colour to write their own fic to make up for the absence of POC. As if representation is only our concern and shouldn’t be something which matters to everyone! Moreover, fans from dominant cultures may argue that they don’t connect with or recognise themselves in stories which highlight marginalised characters. As if fans from marginalised groups haven’t been doing this ALL the time! There is the risk of exoticising/stereotyping characters of colour or from marginalised backgrounds by people from the dominant culture. In the West, this would be weird Indian stereotypes; in India, these would feature stereotypes about different regional and cultural differences since mainstream culture is largely dominated by urban Hindu upper class, upper caste perspectives which is such a small fraction of diverse lived experiences prevalent in India.
When one of the commenters in the thread describes her experiences of her race being ignored and feeling alienated because of that, it reminds me of my experiences in England where most of the people I know are white and nobody seems to know how hyper-aware I am of my skin colour here as I’m walking around the city. Even with Rowling implying that the series doesn’t mention Hermione’s race and then a black actress cast to play her in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there isn’t a lot of negotiation with that aspect of her identity. Prejudice is spoken of in metaphorical terms as Muggle-borns, house elves, giants, and werewolves
Another of the responders says, “People don’t like being called racist in fandom” which reminds me of the Brexit vote. Based on research, a lot of people voted to leave the EU because they thought it would control immigration. People in areas which have fewer immigrants were more likely to vote leave. So if you don’t know immigrants, you’re scared of/dislike them. Even then, most people (except perhaps in comment threads on news websites and Facebook) will reject the notion that immigration played a role in the vote to leave. The UK in general focuses more on class than race and doesn’t acknowledge or deal with its racism. It tends to points at the US where the racism is so much more visible. This is similar to India where so many people, especially in big cities, believe casteism is no longer an issue. I used to be one of these people in my early 20s sitting in my Mumbai bubble. Educating myself about this, mostly on the internet, has helped me move beyond this bubble and view. Dismissing another person’s experiences with racism or casteism is so easy to do when you’re the one with privilege and haven’t had it impact your life. There seems to be this perception that it’s only racist or casteist if somebody exhibits the most negative, most extreme behaviour. We live in a structurally racist/casteist society so it’s conditioned into you, and it’s something we need to actively unlearn. We can begin by actively reading and understanding marginalised perspectives and experiences which we may not have otherwise encountered. For me, the internet and fandom are great tools to do this
“People view the mere existence of people of color as political.” – vibridropp
This reflects many contexts where a specific dominant culture is seen as the norm and every other group is measured against this one. Non-white, for example. Another responder argued that in their stories, they aren’t trying to force diversity because they’re not trying to educate readers, just entertain them. Does diversity necessarily equate to an educational lesson? Can’t diverse characters also be entertaining? Or is their presence read as inherently political?
Responses to this thread were defensive when it came to issues of representation and why it’s important. People were also being super sensitive and over-cautious about offending marginalised people through their representations (which can be solved by researching and listening to perspectives online). Or they had colourblind statements like they were more interested in focusing on the character and not their race. I think this is a patently ridiculous and extremely alienating (as in explicitly treating diversity as an alien other) argument. One of the responders argued that the lack of POC in fandom reflects lack of diversity in mainstream publishing and in canon. However, fanfic plays with canon all the time – queering characters, genderbending characters, even racebending characters.
The thread included debates about the term “POC” or person of colour. It’s a very US-centric term because everywhere else in the world, we’re not measured against white people. Suggested alternatives to POC included diverse ethnic backgrounds or non-white. However, in response to critique for this term, a responder shared a video about the origins of the term woman of colour which outlined it as a political designation and not a biological one. Video features Loretta Ross who describes why the term came to be a form of solidarity among different groups of oppressed women. She argues that the origin has been forgotten because history isn’t documented, preserved, and taught. You can see this in protests in India, where there was this excellent video by Raghu Karnad which talks of how people in India don’t learn about the history of student protests. The BJP wants people to believe that protests are anti-national even though that’s precisely how they came to power.
Someone pointed out that in conversations about diversity, there tends to be a heavy focus on race – however, this isn’t always a bad thing. While conversations in fandom and children’s publishing and even intersectionality began with talks of racial diversity, it has now expanded to encompass other marginalised identities. At the same time, I do agree that the overall focus is on race and sometimes the other identities are overlooked.
“Rarely ever see different religions in fanfiction. Trying to represent a Jewish family.” – Nommatic
This lack of Jewish representation in media isn’t something I ever considered before encountering a similar observation by someone on my Facebook news feed, who has excitingly agreed to talk about it in a future podcast episode.
“The role of imagination in addressing racism and exclusion.” – Darren Chetty
The metaphorical racism he talks about is also seen in science fiction where aliens and robots usually take the place of other races and cultures. In colonising new planets narratives, there is a lack of engagement with diverse racial and cultural experiences among humans. If you don’t have actual diversity in future worlds (which aren’t metaphorical diversity with aliens and robots) what does that say about the society you envision? Does it have no room for everyone? As Jack says (and this is apparently backed up by research according to this episode Black Girl Nerds), everyone in the future will be light brown anyway because of all the mixed-race relationships.
As this episode of Woke Doctor Who points out, black companions Martha and Bill travel to the past on separate occasions with the Doctor but the show doesn’t explore the impact of this. There are casual inter-racial relationships in societies where, based on the historical time period, this would definitely have been controversial. Again, this almost feels like tokenism where there is lots of representation but no exploration of what this representation means and how this came to be or what the impact of it would be. In the Rosa Parks episode, Ryan and Yaz are targetted because of the colour of their skin but the whole episode was about racism so it’s almost like the colour of your skin doesn’t matter until it does. In real life, your skin isn’t something you can make invisible. Recently, however, I was listening to a Verity episode which mentioned the casual diversity in the “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” episode of Doctor Who, and suggested that history is much more multicultural and diverse than we’re led to believe. Now this podcast is hosted by white women while the former is by women of colour. However, I think both points are good ones in ways which challenge my views about history in different ways.
In Harry Potter, there is token diversity as well where there is no engagement with characters who aren’t white. There are characters of colour but they are very much in the background and their different ethnic identities play no role or aren’t even addressed in canon. As Darren asks, are there any professors who aren’t white? This reflects the UK educational system which is very white-dominated. Everyone has blind spots, of course, based on where you live and who you’re encountering, but Rowling doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge or address hers. Darren calls this “a failure of imagination” a theme which cropped up a lot throughout the episode and in accounts of diversity (or lack thereof) in media. It’s also a phrase I absolutely love, and all three of us unanimously decided it should be the title of this episode.
Chetty includes a video at the end of his thread which has a clip of all the times a character of colour speaks in the Harry Potter movies. The video runs to a grand total of 6 minutes and 18 seconds, which honestly encapsulates this argument pretty well.
I identified with Hermione even though she was white (bushy hair, bookworm, large teeth). I was so used to doing that because I grew up largely reading/watching Western media. In fact, I still do this. With the global reach of Western media, it’s not just marginalised groups in the US/UK who are impacted by lack of diverse representation – it’s people from all over the world. Alanna Bennett had to train herself out of seeing white as default for fictional characters. It’s something I still struggle with; it’s like a blind spot in my brain which needs explicit information about a character’s race before accepting the character as something other than white – it’s something I definitely need to train myself out of too. I have a colonised brain which I’m slowly learning to decolonise.
The term racebending has negative roots. M. Night Shymalan, the director of the live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated TV show with heavy Asian settings and influences, cast all the actors as white except Zuko. Could this be internalised racism or a failure of imagination?
Racebending Hermione makes the metaphorical racism in the Potterverse more explicit. Explicit engagement with racism in science fiction and fantasy is important for creating a greater impact and drawing attention to real-world parallels more directly. According to many fans, it makes sense for black Hermione to be so outraged about house elf slavery and for being a social justice activist working to end this oppression, even though it’s not a popular cause and routinely dismissed by her friends. I love this interpretation of black Hermione. However, I’ve been listening to other perspectives on fan podcasts – especially Harry Potter and the Sacred Text where this has cropped up a few times. They critique her experiences with SPEW as a very white feminist thing to do (or in India, savarna feminist) where she thinks she knows what’s best for the house elves without taking their opinions and feelings into consideration. Hermione isn’t being a good ally.
In the BuzzFeed article, a Katrina Kaif gif was used to represent Hermione as another form of racebending. However, Katrina is a light-skinned Indian woman, and this is the dominant representation in Bollywood movies. Bollywood and mainstream Indian media has its own set of problems with race, caste, class, and regional implications evident in casting decisions.
Who tells our stories? Earlier, diverse picture books were largely written by white authors. This may be a product of the time when such conversations around We Need Diverse Books and Own Voices weren’t mainstream. Even though they were written by dominant culture authors, they allowed marginalised young people to see themselves in the books they read. A Guardian video about inclusive children’s literature featured Guardian journalist Grace Shutti who identified with Amazing Grace, a story about a “little black girl who loved stories and wanted to do everything”. Even though this book was written by a white woman, it was the only book where the journalist felt seen.
Now, we definitely need better representation. There was a recent backlash against American Dirt, written by a middle class woman (with part Latina heritage) who wrote about the South American refugees as well as a controversy about American bookstore Barnes and Nobles’s decision to reprint classic books which are out of copyright with covers which featured diverse protagonists – thereby inserting diversity into a text which didn’t have any. This is racebending in a slightly problematic way, a bit like J. K. Rowling pretending she intended her canon to be more diverse than it is. Definitely a bit patronising. It reeks of tokenism – just having a character of colour to tick off the necessary diversity points, like critiques levelled against The Snowy Day publishers
In Indian children’s publishing, who gets to write what stories? There needs to be more room for diverse creators, writers, media makers in both Indian and international contexts. But can dominant voices never write about marginalised ones? Allyship involves passing the microphone and not speaking for those less privileged, but it’s such a complicated question!
This article discusses non-own voices books and the different kinds of representation within them. There need to be a multiplicity of experiences and diversity of representations – there is no monolithic experience or representation when it comes to marginalised voices. However, they often have the burden of one voice representing all others because there’s so few of them – dominant culture representations don’t have this problem.
A problem with non-own voices writing could be problematic stereotypes, representations, exoticisation, fetishising of unfamiliar cultures – you see this in Harry Potter and Doctor Who to an extent. To make up for the fact that you don’t have lived experience in the culture you’re writing about, you need to research the culture thoroughly to familarise yourself with the contemporary and historical debates, discussions, and perspectives. The internet makes this, if not easy, then much easier than it ever has been.
Dominant culture voices (what is dominant depends on what part of the world you’re in) are unfortunately over-represented and it’ll be a while before this system changes – non-own voices can be good allies by drawing attention to marginalised experiences and exploring them through the kinds of stories they tell. The article provides examples of two non-own voices books which are doing a good job of research and representation – so it IS possible to write in a way where cultural insiders would recognise their experiences and identities. This not only broadens the perspectives of dominant groups but also allows marginalised groups to recognise themselves in the media they consume. There is room for all kinds of stories. In an ideal world, different kinds of stories would flourish so there isn’t a dominant versus marginalised debate. But we’re not there yet.