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Fiction’s Importance In Navigating Culture

April 19, 2012

Over the past few weeks, a lot has been written about diversity in American fiction, particularly in fantasy. Just before I began writing this morning, I read an article about why Avatar: The Last Airbender and its spin-off The Legend of Korra are amazing because of how they’re able to portray non-Western cultures, and have people of color as their main characters. My first, stereotypically white, thought when I first ran into this plethora of articles was, “Guys, I think we need to stop shooting black kids for no reason before we can tackle these sorts of issues.”

Then I paused, and tried to think of a character who I liked, was a different skin tone than myself, and was well-rounded and well-developed. I was suddenly extremely disappointed to realize that the only character who jumped into my head was Roy Greenhilt from The Order of the Stick. When a character from a niche webcomic is the best example of a character whose race (besides being Human, it is based in D&D after all) doesn’t actually affect the character, it just happens to be that way, there is a problem.

Order of the Stick, as has been mentioned elsewhere, doesn’t strive to be multicultural it just sort of is. I’m reminded of the creator of famed cartoon Doug who once when asked why everyone was colored with radical and pastel skin tones, he just sort of shrugged and said that he didn’t want the show to have racial tones to it and just wanted to portray a world where people were just people.

The notion of moving forward to a world where race doesn’t matter is an admirable goal. It is in fact one of those things that futurists and science fiction authors have dreamed of for some time. Many forget that Johnny Rico of Starship Troopers was a Filipino raised in Argentina, raised in a home where three languages were spoken not the blond hair all-American we see in that terrible film. I also must say that while Gene Roddenberry’s phrasing was poor (“I had not just a black, but an oriental, a russian, and a scot! All when most people couldn’t even get a black on tv!”), his goal of portraying a future where men and women of all races and species could stand next to each other in arms was quite beautiful. Truly one day we will achieve the dream where people are judged by their character and nothing more.*

Long before the day that we live in some sort of harmonious multicultural world though, we have to live in this one. This complicated place where people are still racist, and where even educated people still don’t understand what it means to come from other cultures. There have been attempts made to make people aware, but (from personal experience) educating multiculturalism in schools often results in high school students who think they know everything becoming embittered to the whole concept.

Multiculturalism isn’t something that occurs because we all get together one day a year, and dance around the maypole in our traditional cultural dress.

Multiculturalism is a way of living your life where you are aware that people are coming from different frames of reference, different upbringings, and different cultures that are generally all valid.** The problem that we’ve had is where the hell does multiculturalism begin?

Perhaps, it does begin in our fiction.

After all, the media that has had the most profound affect on my own actual thoughts (not the racist stodgy 19th century anthropologist I sometimes play at for laughs) are television shows like Star Trek. Pieces of fiction that made me regard people of other skin tones as just other people. Stories that made me respect other viewpoints, and ideals, as well as kindled a desire to engage in them. These are certainly the things that made me eventually earn my degree in Anthropology.
One thing I did learn as an anthropology student though was that we still don’t really understand a lot of each others cultures. After all, the Lakota casting director I met wouldn’t be complaining about the constant calls for “Tall, lean men, who can shoot guns and ride horse bareback,” if we actually were culturally aware of each other.

I’m not going to stand here and make a call for “diversity.” I feel that more often than not, calls for diversity end up with just throwing a few more token races to dance around the maypole. I think it’s time we started grappling with our history and our reality.

Sing me the songs of your people, ladies and gentlemen. Bring to our world your culture, your viewpoints, your upbringing. Most importantly of all, let us start telling stories of interaction.***

Culture is driven and defined by its encounters with the Other. Interaction is where culture shines. Stories of interaction is how we will learn about each other so that we can finally work toward the future where we stand side by side on the bridge of a starship… shooting green space aliens, together.

*: Don’t worry racists, when you can see past race you’ll realize there’s plenty of reasons to hate people. Like the way we hate all of you for your ignorant backwards beliefs.

 

**: I make no apologies over the fact that I do not consider cultures that believe in things like female circumcision to “keep the women pure,” valid. No, the term savage can still be applied to people, regardless of how much technology or education they have.

 

***: Ya know what’s a fucking rad story of interaction set in our own world? The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, it’s YA but it’s fucking awesome. It was even featured on The Colbert Report.

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  1. From the Desk of Mark T. Hrisho

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