If you paint it black is it still white?

Recently I read a couple of books: one a near(ish) future SF the other a popular (urban) Fantasy. I had a problem with the characterisation in both. Here’s the thing, on an intellectual level I knew the primary protagonists weren’t white and yet I couldn’t help see them that way. As I read the books I slowed down and took my time looking at how the authors were giving me clues about who the these guys were and I couldn’t find them. I started to think “Is it me?” but I think that’s only part of the problem.

When I read these stories I found myself deeply curious about how the authors were going to move away from the stereotypical white western model. I was interested in the cadence of the voices and I really wanted hear the idioms in their speech and see a different view of the fantastic through the experiences of these characters. What I felt I got where Okay-ish characters that constructed themselves in my mind as white dudes in black clothes. They spoke like stereotypical white guys and even appeared to think like them. The only difference was that they didn’t have white names.  Clearly the default skin tone was dark so we  assume they are too but that characterisation didn’t work for me.

When I speak my voice has the character of many things. The way in which my throat is constructed, how my tongue moves in my mouth, whether I am ill etc. so physiologically it feels easy. However we all know that how we sound to each other depends on a number of things: our accents, the culture(s) we spend time in, who we are speaking to and other elements. As the listener I need to take all of this in and I need to put it in context.

People are people. If it’s the one thing I’ve learned in my life it’s that no matter where I go I meet People. However some are different. Some are good and some are bad and it has nothing to do with the colour of their skin or the flag they live under.  But people also live in different cultures. If you’re going to frame a story in a different culture you’re going to have to ensure you have a passing ability to put the right people in the right place. If those references aren’t right then you are committing fraud. I think it’s important to be authentic because you owe your readers that much and those cultures your depicting? Well you owe them too.

Or maybe I’m over thinking it.
I am certain that even if you paint it black the risk is that it’s still going to be white.

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