a Continuum 9 panel, posted here to facilitate discussion
Liz Barr, N. K. Jemisin and Stephanie Lai talked about “The Last Airbender, Cloud Atlas, Earthsea, book covers that portray characters of colour as white. Why do they keep doing this? And why doesn’t it ever go the other way?”
Earthsea was hardly mentioned but Airbender and Cloud Atlas kept cropping up, particularly with regards to actors portraying people from other people groups for various reasons.
The obvious example was Hugo Weaving attempting to look Korean while being a more convincing Romulan in Cloud Atlas. Apparently the public assumed one of the actors in the Last Airbender was Tibetan, the nationality of the character he portrayed.
The panel discussed an upcoming movie where a famous actor will wear prosthetics and makeup to pass herself off as a coloured person instead of employing someone who looks like the historical figure in question.
I raised the issue of actors portraying people with disabilities instead of employing people with disabilities; one of the panelists responded by calling that ‘crip-drag.’ While ‘crip-drag’ is a real term, I urge people not to use the term ‘crip’ unless you identify as disabled; otherwise this term is on a par with calling African-Americans ‘niggers’ or Chinese ‘chinks.’ Although I raised this issue of terminology, I felt the panelist and I were in accord with regards to sentiment so I did not take offence.
The topic of people of colour passing themselves off as lighter or a more socially acceptable – the ‘more equal’ – race, was lightly touched upon.
(During the discussion of raceface I cringed, feeling more than usually conscious of wearing make-up to make myself look darker-skinned, and the hair-dye that still hasn’t grown out. Ironically, my motives are the same as those of people of colour attempting to look white: to pass for ‘normal’ or socially acceptable.)
Justine Larbalestier was mentioned as a bookcover was imposed upon her featuring a white woman; Justine was powerless to do anything about this, so wrote a throwaway line in a blog about not being happy. Fans campaigned. The book cover was changed. No-one seemed to have concrete figures about book sales with either of the covers but the feeling seemed to be that sales may have dropped with a darker-skinned woman on the cover. This is another issue: how do you build equity while taking a hit in hip pocket?
This led to discussion about colour of people on covers and in the main story; N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy series focusing on Middle Eastern peoples with dark skin has not sold well. Nora believes this series hasn’t attracted white readers and, perhaps, hasn’t attracted public attention the way it might have if it was a more traditional fantasy. Personally I’m a bit over the traditional European Middle-Ages style fantasy; this is one reason I’m so enthusiastic about international political fantasy stories and Jo Spurrier’s Winter Be My Shield.
I’d love to continue this discussion here. What do others have to add to this discussion?