Posted by: kshayes513 | July 14, 2013

Race, science fiction, and “the Other”


“If Trayvon Martin had been born white he would be alive today. That has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. If he had been white, he never would have been stalked by Zimmerman, there would have been no fight, no funeral, no trial, no verdict. It is the Zimmerman mindset that must be found guilty – far more than the man himself. It is a mindset that views black men and boys as nothing but a threat, good for nothing, up to no good no matter who they are or what they are doing.”  
~ Michelle Alexander, Professor of Law and author of The New Jim Crow (on Facebook)

 A day or two before the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was expected, law enforcement agencies, especially in Florida, were given the word to prepare for possible rioting after the verdict was announced.  The assumption was that angry black communities might rise up in violent rage if George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. There have been no riots – why should there be?  The black community has always known, all too well, that Zimmerman was very likely to be acquitted.  So did anyone else who has been paying attention to the relationship between race and criminal justice in the United States.

For me, a white woman in a predominantly white community, the pernicious tenacity of American racial prejudice hit me in the face last week, when I was talking with neighbors about the trial. I quickly realized that my friends saw Trayvon Martin through the filter of “black boy = good for nothing, up to no good;” and therefore they assumed that he probably had provoked George Zimmerman into shooting him. They are good, kind, decent people who have progressive political views, voted for Obama, and consider slavery and Jim Crow abhorrent. Yet their own racism in this conversation was entirely invisible to them. Even when I tried to articulate a little about the fear Trayvon must have felt at being followed by an unknown and obviously hostile white man, they didn’t get it.

If  you don’t get it either, if you think the whole case was a fair example of American justice at work, read this ordinary black American’s essay on what his daily life is like in “post racial” America.

I am relieved to say that I do get this essay, but I still wonder in what ways I also might be harboring the unconscious racism of white privilege.

If I’m not an oblivious racist– if I can understand, even in a limited way, how this case and this verdict confirm every belief and every fear that black Americans have about law and civil society being stacked against them–it’s largely because of nearly five decades of reading and watching science fiction and fantasy.

sulu uhuraUhura and Sulu were the first to break through any learned subconscious racism of mine; and today it’s impossible to overstate the importance of having these two actors portray, in 1966, a black woman and a Japanese man in non-stereotyped, professional positions as equals among the white officers.

After Sulu and Uhura, the one writer who taught me the most about listening to people with different perspectives is Ursula K. Le Guin. Over the same four plus decades, I learned from reading her books to listen for the voice of those who are Other to me. And especially to listen for the voices and perspectives of anyone and everyone who has little power, whom society has robbed of a voice, a position, even of visibility. This perspective isn’t yet strongly apparent in Le Guin’s earliest works, the ones everyone knows and name checks (which may be one reason why they are the best known, I suggest cynically).

buffalo gals If you really want to see how Le Guin treats otherness, try reading something from considerably later than 1970. Try the recent novels Lavinia, The Telling, and Powers. Or try the 1987 novella, “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” a story whose perspective takes you so far into the worldview of the Other, that when I first read it 25 years ago, I had not the smallest idea what it was about.

Yes, speculative fiction still has its biases and its institutional racisms. Not enough readers and writers and artists of color; and too many white writers, artists and readers (and editors?) for whom the history of the Other is invisible or unimportant next to the doings of heroic [white/human/male] space explorers and [white] Northern European warriors and wizards.

But as writers, storytellers and worldbuilders, we have the opportunity, always, to do better. We have the opportunity to build new worlds that explore the human dynamics of racial conflicts, and to give voice to characters and groups that many readers and writers would dismiss as the Other – if they considered them at all.

Who is “the Other” to you? Who is “the Other” to the main characters of the world you are building? Do those Other people deserve a listen, and a chance to speak for themselves, to become “Us” instead of “Them”? And where else have you read or seen any spec fiction that deals with race and the Other especially well?



  1. Thank you.

  2. Excellent post. I blogged about some related issues yesterday, having recently directed an interdisciplinary performance project on the subject of Otherness, using non-humans as the Other, and relating this to Trayvon Martin’s situation:

  3. Thanks for visiting and reposting this, Ellen. Your post also makes a good point in raising the more subliminal issue of “bad things happen to others that can’t happen to me, because I’m not like them.”

    And I see you’re an Odyssey alum, so you’re obviously brilliant as well. 🙂 I’ve known Jeanne C. for many years.

  4. I wish Odyssey had made me brilliant–mostly it made me realize how non-brilliant I am, but in the very most helpful and productive way of course. 🙂 Nice to “meet” you!

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