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Race, Ethnicity, and Andre Norton

I've been reading some of the peripheral matter to the RaceFail debate recently.

I haven't wanted to get into it too much, since, by the time it became known to me, it seemed to have gone downhill to:
Side A: No, seriously, you're DOING IT WRONG. Here is how and why, with examples and a lot of confrontative language aimed at trying to AT LAST GET THE SIMPLE POINT INTO YOUR HEADS, NEVER MIND THROUGH.
Side B: There's no need for that kind of language and anyway we're not actually doing it wrong and besides, you SUCK (and what's more, you're not noticing our points, probably because you suck).

Seriously, I have better things to do with my life than read a great number of people on Side B opening their figurative mouths and proving themselves, if not idiots, either wilfully blind or too stubborn to admit that they took an ultimately untenable position in the first place. (Except in certain works of fiction, where one can usually be certain that the person justifying himself now will eventually learn better, and it won't be an utter trainwreck to read.) I'm sure that the people arguing Side A have many fine things to say that would help make me think and/or hold up a mirror that I may or may not want: however, I can find plenty of books and websites containing writing that similarly challenges me and leads me to a place where I can examine my own unconscious prejudices without being cluttered up by comment threads full of kneejerk entitlement-bitching (clarification: said kneejerk reactions being on the part of people who've just been alerted that they aren't as open-minded as they thought they were and didn't want to hear it), and several of the discussions I have found interesting are ones that weren't started for the sake of me or my in-group and whose table I therefore have no place at, and I expect it would probably be rude of me to barge in and say something on their journal.

Some of the things that have been said, though -- especially the side-debates that keep running into "Well, how should we write foreigners of color then? Or should we therefore wait for people who are that color and live there to write them; and wouldn't leaving them out entirely in favor of people of our own race, however artificial* that construct, be equally as bad if not worse?" got me thinking about Andre Norton.

*"Race as an artificial construct" -- well, race, as in the quasi-ethnic not-particularly-genetically-based categories we divide human beings up into, IS an artificial construct. So is gender, as opposed to physical sex. So are religious denominations, say. Just because they're artificial doesn't mean they're not real, or that people don't identify with them, or that ignoring them doesn't give off an effect of forced homogenization by assimilation with the speaker's paradigm.

(The other day, a diner sold me a Reuben sandwich with swiss cheese in it. Since when do they do that?)

But. Andre Norton.

There was a time when she didn't want to write female characters according to what her editors thought female characters should be like, so she just didn't write any major female characters at all (which, again, is not an unproblematic solution), and when she did start writing them, I think a lot of the time she was concentrating so much on what she didn't want her heroines to be like that the heads they did have wound up being harder for me to get into than those of her male heroes. But not all of them; I loved Loyse and Tanree, for instance, and Maelen and Joisan.

On the other hand, she wrote a significant number (in those days, "more than one") of non-white heroes; and while I suspect that she more likely than not got many of them subtly to wildly wrong, I haven't as yet actually run across any reviews specifically addressing such portrayals.

Moreover, especially in those of Norton's later works whose heroes weren't white, I tended to have the feeling, not that the hero "happened to be a ____," which is rightly annoying in that it treats something that clearly would be a strong aspect of character as if it were as trivial as clothing choices, as that "a ___ happened to be the hero" -- i.e., the only reason for someone to say "well, she could easily have made a white male the hero" would be that they expected that to be the default, in defiance of the common sense that points out that this is a multicultural world and, unless the plot calls for something in particular (such as the story where the heroine was switched with a princess from a parallel world where Pharaonic Egypt was a world power, and therefore it was important that she be the same sort of brown as said Egyptian princess), the hero is just as likely to belong to any ethnicity as any other.

But here again, I don't know how these portrayals may have affected people belonging to the groups who had members thus nominally being written about; I can only say that, to my girlhood self, while her works and those of the writers who followed in her footsteps didn't actually tend to make me more aware of the lack of non-white characters in other books (I was a self-centered little kid), it did ensure that the presence of non-white characters in said books and of the cultures that shaped them wasn't anything worth taking note of; they were there because, you know, they existed.

Just as, in a lot of the science fiction written after she paved the way, there were women, both as heroines and as secondary characters, because women existed and were perfectly capable of doing as much. (Unlike, say, the Lensman series, which I like but have to read with my head figuratively kinked sideways for any number of reasons. I try to keep telling myself that the Arisians deliberately held post-WWIII culture to an artificial functional gender dimorphism in order to ensure that the Eddorians would have a gigantic blind spot, holding the sad stifling of human potential for generations Necessary in order to prevent a much worse stifling forever, but it's still... problematic.)

Which -- on the one hand, I should think that portrayals of other cultures and other sorts of people, even if they get some things wrong, is at least something and it raises interest, the way that I became interested in historical Japan and Ancient Egypt in childhood and have stuck with those interests -- as long as they aren't totally, egregiously, insultingly wrong. Both in children's fiction and in adult fiction, in mainstream fiction and -- perhaps especially -- in genre fiction.

On the other hand -- that's for me and those like me. I have no idea how people who are Native American, or black, or Chinese, or whatever, respond to these characters, whether they find that at least something or outright insulting or nothing to do with them because all too often they aren't really the audience.

I don't know.

But I want to find out.