For white readers, when the race of a character is vague or unspecified, it’s assumed to be white. What else, after all, could a character be? We live in a white-centric world where everything around us is saturated in whiteness, where our heroes are white, where our entire worldview and framework is white. While nonwhiteness is recognised as a vague quality that exists somewhere, it’s not central to our understanding of narratives and our own environment. Within fiction, we retreat to what is comfortable and known – thus, authors are forced to spell out the race of nonwhite characters and people of colour in order to make sure the reader understands what is going on.
With white as a default and nonwhite as Other, fiction reinforces already extant social divides. Not necessarily on the fault of the author, who is merely forced to work within a system that existed long before she set pen to paper or hands to keyboard, but through that of society, which privileges whiteness as default. Thus we end up in a world of science fiction where everyone is white, fantasy where Cinderella is white as snow, contemporary fiction where the streets of Los Angeles and New York City are oddly, uniformly, mysteriously, white.
When we speak of the need for diversity in fiction, this is one of the things we speak to, of the need to break down this constant in fiction. But it’s also about pushing barriers and bringing on the unexpected, which is why I have a special affection for fiction that challenges dominant notions about race even further by flipping assumptions about skin colour and social positions, class, power, and race, forcing the reader to reconsider the notion that paleness somehow conveys superiority, and that darkness is an illustrator of lower worth.
Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots is one such example, a totally flipped world in which whites are slaves and indentures, while people of colour are the dominant members of society. Unlike the horrifically racist Save the Pearls, Blonde Roots is a commentary on social attitudes about race and the slave-owning era in England (where it’s loosely set, with considerable variance). It’s about wild, pasty-skinned tribespeople brought in hand by an enlightened, dark-skinned people – and about the desperate emulation of Black traits, a desire to pass as Black.
It’s a sharp, incisive, and at times deeply painful debut novel that explores the Transatlantic slave trade from an entirely new angle, challenging the reader to think about the history of slavery, and race, from an entirely distinctive perspective. Her book is designed and calculated to make white readers deeply uncomfortable, and it does, in a glorious, clear, wonderful way that makes it impossible to avoid certain truths of our collective past.
She could have set out to write a straight book about the slave trade, and I suspect it would have been amazing, given the astounding voice and writing power she demonstrated in Blonde Roots, but instead she decided to flip the narrative, bringing something new to the discussion. She forced readers to think about the long history of dehumanisation and exploitation and horror involved in slavery, and not in a way that suggested it would have mattered ‘more’ if it happened to us as white people. Blonde Roots doesn’t set out to make itself more relatable and comfortable by flipping the dynamic. Instead, it makes the reader more uncomfortable.
Likewise, N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood series explores a world in which social power, class, and status is signified by race, but not in a way that readers would expect. Darker-skinned people are more respected and hold more power, while those of lesser status have pale skin, and are viewed with suspicion. The entire society and class structure of this series is incredibly complex and very artfully written, and race is written right into its foundations. Again, the narrative here challenges beliefs and attitudes about race, but also about history.
Whites like to assume that white has always been right, and that white people have always enjoyed a position of higher class and social status by virtue of our skin. But what makes us so confident and sure of that? Are we so sure that history has always favoured pale skin and treated us as honoured members of society? Are we so confident that whiteness has always been a desirable social trait, something people will give up anything to achieve?
Here in the West, of course, many traditional narratives privilege white skin – but not all, and not all Western cultures were dominated by white communities. While white children may be taught from an early age in school and society that they’ve always enjoyed a unique position in the world, that’s not actually the case, and racially-flipped fiction challenges that in a way that’s innovative, sharp, and demanding. Readers who think that assuming everyone is white allows them to avoid conversations about race in text and in their own lives are forced to confront racial issues in the pages of the books they read and love, and fiction becomes an incredibly powerful tool for talking about race.
There are some who might make the mistake of thinking that fiction doesn’t matter, that this is just about books and imaginary worlds and no one really cares, these things don’t reflect on reality, but they’re wrong. Acutely, intensely, painfully wrong. Because fiction is about very real, palpable things all around us, including race, power, privilege, and oppression. The very fact that people of colour and nonwhite people need to be explicitly identified in fiction so they aren’t erased is a telling reflection on the racial conversations many are not willing or ready to have – but should be.