by Keith Morrison
©2009 Keith Morrison
Im going to present to you a fascinating little conundrum.
Assuming no major dislocation, the human population of Earth is expected to peak in 2050 and then start to decline. Add on the further assumption that no one region is disproportionately hit with some disaster that causes a massive depopulation for them and no one else, what will the world look like in, say, 2150?
Well, 57% of the population will be from Asia, divided mostly between what wed call East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, etc) and South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, and so on). Another 24% or so will be African (hence, mostly black, with a significant North African Arabic population). The Americas and Europe will make up about 18%, mostly white in Europe, but not so much in the Americas. In essence, were one to randomly choose a human of the planet Earth the odds are only about 1 in 10—or lower—that said person would be what wed classify as white or Caucasian today.
Now compare those odds with the bridge of the Federation starship USS Enterprise—any one of them. Notice something?
Granted, each of the various Enterprises is an imaginary starship with a fictional crew on a TV show cast with mostly North American and European actors meant for those same markets; its hardly fair to compare that with what could reasonably be expected if such a ship were to really exist in the future. But how about written fiction or fantasy, whose authors arent restricted by that sort of thing? Well its pretty damn pale out there. Oh, sure, you get the token non-white crewmember (bonus points if they have a funny accent!), but by and large, the crew composition wouldnt look out of place in the US Navy or Royal Navy of the 1930s.
Why is that?
As I see it, there are two primary reasons; the first is dumb, the second relevant. The first, dumb, reason is that people have a tendency of forgetting that large parts of the world are multicultural and multiethnic, and that fact sneaks up on people. For instance, Canada is often seen as prototypically white, with a few Indians and Inuit scattered for flavour and yet, as of our last census, 1 in 6 Canadians are members of a visible minority. I live high up in the Canadian Arctic, where the common sterotype would have it that everybody is whiter than white—and one of my neighbours was born in West Africa, the wife of my local political representative is Burmese, a lawyer in my organization was born in China, and so on and so forth. One of the most famous Canadian activists/scientists is named Suzuki; our Governor-General (the Head of State when Elizabeth II isnt in town) is Haitian; our previous G-G was born in Hong Kong; and yet, if you meet a Canadian in fiction, odds are he has a name like Mackenzie or Frasier and is as white as the driven snow.
The second, relevant, reason does actually have some merit: Its hard to write a character from a culture other than your own. And I dont mean Get the name right, learn a few swear words in their language, know what part of the country they are from hard (for the terminally lazy) sort of way, but hard in a Am I writing something that will piss off real people from that country/culture/religion? sort of way. This is actually an issue in science fiction circles these days: Several writers have been taken to task by readers for hopelessly stereotyped, or even outright wrong, portrayals of characters from non-North American culture, let alone the culture itself.
Let me offer an analogy for the Americans reading this: Lets suppose an author described the typical American as a fat, ignorant, racist, Bible-thumping, gun-toting moron. To be sure, there are some fat, ignorant, racist, Bible-thumping, gun-toting morons in the US but odds are, your average, randomly-selected American wont fit that profile, and it would be considered insulting if the token American on the crew were portrayed that way. Now, when was the last time you saw a character who was a Christian Arab? Or, God forbid, an atheist Arab? News flash: Arab is not synonymous with Muslim! How about a devout Christian from China? A Jew from Ethiopia? Hell, anyone at all from Ethiopia?
At least on the surface, the solution is easy: Pick non-stereotypes for characters. Why dont more writers do that? Because once youve left Stereotype City behind, you set yourself the problem of getting your characters cultural baggage right—and they will have cultural baggage. Everybody does. And getting that baggage right is not a trivial problem! Ah, but stereotypes are easy, not least because each one is built around some sort of kernel of truth, however small and distorted that kernel may be.
For instance, polls indicate that Canadians are more likely to have trust in large institutions, such as a bank or a government, than are Americans. Why is that? Historical happenstance. America was colonized in large part by people fleeing from authority, or rebelling against it; Canada, contrariwise, was colonized largely as a series of government and corporate projects. We needed large institutions to get things going and to defend ourselves from that bunch of maniacs to the south. So what does this difference mean? A Canadian, who generally observes large institutions as being necessary and good, will be more inclined to make sure the institution runs well, while an American, being suspicious of large institutions and thinking theyre at best a necessary evil, will be more concerned about ensuring that he or she is protected from them.
Again, this is a generalization—and a fairly simplistic one, at that. Even so, it is a genuine difference between two cultures that have a fairly close history, speak the same languages, have the same religions, share many of the same cultural values, and live lives that are often indistinguishable. Now try to imagine the differences that exist between a North American and someone whos grown up in rural China, or the Punjab, or Malaysia. Even that could be viewed as simplistic, because China is a very large country; someone who grew up in one part of rural China could have different values than someone who grew up in another rural part of the country. And those two, in turn, are likely to have different values from someone who grew up in Beijing—you did know that Beijing is one of the biggest cities in China, right?
All that said, the writer does have one advantage: All humans are the same species. This means there are drives and reactions that are universal to all humanity. We acknowledge beauty; reciprocate kindness; will sacrifice our own well-being in order to extract vengeance, or to protect another. Well defend the young and the helpless, sometimes not even of the same species. Were social animals, political animals. The specifics may need some research—though we may all acknowledge beauty, there can and will be purely cultural differences in what we regard as beautiful, and the manner in which we acknowledge it—but theres no reason the writer cant make the effort to get it right.
Making the character come from the culture youre most familiar with (your own) is easy and, in many cases, entirely justified. But if you want to write about other characters than just the members of one insular group? Try to show some diversity.