Where are the people of color in dystopias?

Hannah GomezSarah Hannah Gómez has an MA in children’s literature and an MS in library and information science from Simmons College. Currently Guest bloggershe works as a school librarian in Northern California. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she is passionate about social issues in literature and social media engagement with books. She spends the rest of her free time singing, reading, and learning to run. Visit her blog at http://mclicious.org.

I was going to start this post with something pithy like, “How to survive the apocalypse: Be white. Or Morgan Freeman. Or, 2012 onwards, be a Kravitz!” I was going to tell you how dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction and film allow creators to act out a future and explore countless possibilities that could ruin or save the world. And that is kind of what’s happening, though it’s a lot more complicated than that…

Have you noticed that every movie trailer that talks about Earth after some catastrophic event displays a civilization of white people (and to have a future with no diversity, when there is so much right here on the ground today, is disingenuous, odd, and patently false.*Morgan Freeman) speaking American English? Sure, some of that is unavoidable and practical–you can’t make a movie about everyone and in every language at the same time–but it’s also ethnocentric and exceptionalist of us. Not to mention problematic in myriad ways, because the lack of diversity goes utterly unacknowledged.

Generally in dystopia, the reader understands everything about the society in the story as a copy of their own, except when the author specifically points out the rules that make it different. So to have a future with no diversity, when there is so much right here on the ground today, is disingenuous, odd, and patently false.*

As it’s the United States that is driving the current success of dystopian genre, let’s look specifically at our diversity. White people will no longer be the majority within thirty years, says the Brookings Institution. And in the meantime, people of color are rising to positions of power (hey, Obama!) all over, and while we have a long way to go, old bastions of whiteness and power are being dismantled. While I can’t say this from experience, since I’m a woman of color, I can imagine that this is terrifying to people who are in a position to lose their power. If I were someone with lots of privilege and power, I would want to hold onto it, and it would be very nice to create a world in which I could.

If you look at it that way, you can see why it’s so popular to whitewash the future. A dystopian world is the ultimate controlled environment, so why not control the things you fear, like losing your power or sharing it with people different from you?

often these pretty girls are living the dystopian problems of actual teens today--just not white teensThe Hunger Games goes the route of having a nearly white world with the usual Noble Savage (Thresh) and Magical Negro (Rue) to guide and humanize the protagonist and ultimately sacrifice themselves for her. For all that it’s a classic that works very well, The Giver talks about how Jonas only begins to see color when he sees Fiona’s hair, but there is never any mention or questioning of skin tones and what they might mean, though all sorts of interesting “post-racial” ideas could come out of such a discovery. Countless other dystopias, like the Eve series, Crewel, and so many that have combined in my head, star pretty white girls who have the problems that come with having long, flowing hair and yet being physically strong and adorably unaware that everyone is in love with them.

Not only is this a tired trope overall, but often these pretty girls are living the dystopian problems of actual teens today–just not white teens—

Christina from Divergent
Christina from Divergent

so it seems a missed opportunity to do what dystopia does best: safely explore and criticize a contemporary problem in a made-up place. Adelice in Crewel is snatched from her family in order to be trained to be a useful member of society and told she can’t associate with her relatives anymore, which sounds like the experience many Native American children had in the twentieth century when they were sent to schools tasked with making them less “savage.” And before she’s whisked away, her parents encourage her to fail the test that ultimately makes her become a Spinster. I can see a lot of parallels with the way members of minority groups must carefully balance their membership in their ethnic group with their membership in their class group, especially if their socioeconomic class does not match the one traditionally associated with their ethnic group.

Otherwise harmless and fun books like The Neptune Project attempt to have a diverse supporting cast, but fail when examined beyond a superficial level. Sentences like “I realize that he looks Asian” are awkward and technically meaningless. Pointing out a specific characteristic first and foremost, while never starting off that way when meeting a new person who is white, perpetuates the assumption that white is the default, the “normal” from which all other humans deviate.

The 100
Image from The 100

Visual representation in films set in the future is also important, and in some ways improving. In Veronica Roth’s book Divergent, Tris’s best friend Christina is black, and she remained so in the film, where Zoë Kravitz played Christina alongside two other actors of color in significant speaking roles. The CW’s new TV show The 100, based on Kass Morgan’s book, has two black characters and other actors of color.**

However, in both worlds, everyone is essentially raceless. This could be considered progressive in some ways–they just live normal human lives, as people of color are sometimes observed to do in nature. But it is problematic in others. Does race really not impact these characters’ lives in any way? How can a society be at once so peaceful and advanced as to be post-racial and yet be so broken that it needs teenagers to dismantle its entire structure (Divergent) or rebuild its world (The 100)?

The 100 misses a huge opportunity to do more with race and ethnicity–its premise, that juvenile delinquents are sent to re-colonize Earth the way convicts were sent to Australia, could allow for an exploration of how incarcerated youth in our world today are disproportionately black and brown. Instead, nearly every member of the 100 is white.

I’m not saying there’s nothing good out there. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, is set in futuristic Brazil, stars teens and adultsThe Summer Prince of various shades of brown, is a veritable queer utopia, and allows both its characters and its readers to grapple with complex questions about technology and ethics without coming to one conclusion. But even after making the National Book Award longlist, it was ignored by ALA in all of its awards, and it’s not getting nearly the amount of recognition it should be getting, neither for its literary quality nor for its progressive strides.

Still, we seem to be on the cusp of something different when it comes to diversity in science fiction. Then again, The Cusp tends to be when people about to lose power get more aggressive about what they’re about to lose, so we could be on our way to much better or much worse. It will be interesting to watch. And read.

*However, were an author to acknowledge the blinding whiteness with a backstory about white supremacy where only the white people were allowed on the spaceship or inoculated against the great plague, that could be a fascinating read, actually.

**Though we’ll see if Henry Ian Cusick’s character ever gets to allude to the actor’s Latino heritage.

Looking for diversity in your dystopias? Try these:

Diverse Energies

The Tankborn trilogy

Killer of Enemies

Or check out this list of dystopias featuring diverse characters.

19 thoughts on “Where are the people of color in dystopias?”

  1. Great post. I suspect that the reason many protagonists of dystopian YA novels are white females is because their authors are white females, and it can be tricky to write a novel from a POV that differs substantially from your own.

    I think the real question, which you get at a little bit here, is why does dystopian fiction appeal so much to largely white, female authors in the first place? And why does present-day, realistic fiction appeal to authors of color? The latter observation may not in fact be a trend, but I remember Jacqueline Woodson remarking that she was afraid the type of fiction she wrote–contemporary, realistic–was being displaced by the dystopian trend. It’s certainly worth thinking about.

  2. I’d add Orleans by Sherri L. Smith to your list of diverse dystopias to check out. It’s also notable in that it doesn’t feature a shoehorned romance.

    1. Orleans is a wonderful book! I have indeed read it. I just couldn’t mention everything good and keep to a reasonable word count, but it’s definitely a great one!

  3. Alina, I’m not sure that it’s necessarily that white authors are more likely to write dystopias or SFF of any kind than authors of color; I think it’s that publishing is used to the idea that there is something referred to as “race-based fiction,” which means that stories about people of color only seem relevant when they are serious, hard-hitting realistic or historical fiction books about dealing with racism, so that’s what gets published. Jackie’s books are obviously different from that, but I still think it’s not that white people are more likely to write in certain genres, just that systemic racism dictates that they are more likely to be published than non-Eurocentric SFF.

  4. Interesting discussion. I’m definitely a fan of dystopian society fiction, but your point about the future’s trend to becoming more racially mixed with whites in the minority is spot on. As is your point about a large percentage of juveniles in detention centers not being white. Yet, as you put it, the writers and producers keep whitewashing the future. The racial differences between districts in the Hunger Games is very odd as is the fact that nearly everyone in the 100 is white. And as of last night, both black characters on Earth have since been killed off. Given that these were the only two black characters on Earth with any speaking role made their deaths even more striking.And I do wish that the CW would stop placing black characters with minor roles (like Wells) in their promotional pictures just to create the illusion of diversity. Also, given the unpopularity of Well’s father, I suspect that Washington’s character might be killed off soon.

    The show is also coming dangerously close to recreating what happened to the Native Americans, which would have been OK, except for the fact that the story is once again told from the perspective of the settlers. what makes it even more cliche, is that I have yeat to see For example, I have yet to see a white Grounder….most seem to be so why not have more mixed race individuals among the 100? I was really hoping that the writers would be more enlightened and not try to portray the 100 kids as the good guys and the Grounders as the bad guys. Anyway, after last night, I decided to stop watching the show due to my frustration with character portrayal….there are too many other good shows out there for me to waste on this one.

  5. I was wondering where all these enlightened people of color are when I go into the bookstore.

    Now I do see some in African American studies(about the same percentage i see as White Liberals)

    I guess you need to shine up that ole mirror and ask yourself that question.

    After all, Money Talks and Bulls*#t Walks.

    Censor this great evil you just heard.

    1. Midas,
      Our country is 37% people of color. If you don’t see a diverse population in your local bookstore, perhaps it’s because your bookstore does not carry an inclusive collection of books. Or perhaps your neighborhood is not particularly diverse. Either way, there are plenty of people of color who buy books, and plenty more who would buy if they could find more books that reflected them. Sure, consumers are partly responsible for the problem and I agree that “money talks.” But I think the other half of that is that the books need to be available in order to be purchased. You can’t say books about black characters don’t sell when the only books about black characters are relegated to midlist, not given a marketing push or budget, and not carried by major bookstores.


    2. What’s that supposed to mean, that people of colour don’t read books? That’s racist, and from the last time I’ve been in a bookstore, it’s not true at all.

  6. As a black author, I tried to solve this problem in my newly released novel. My main character is obviously of color, but has some traits not typically found people of color. He comes from a primitive society far in the future, which he does not see the past with a multitude of different people’s characteristics until later in the book. I suppose only a transcendental author can break the racial barrier not typically found.

    My book on Amazon: The Memory of Lost Dreams A quick snapshot:

    Malik Soules gets trapped in a dream world, where its technology reveal a more terrifying past.


  7. Another good new self-published dystopian novel featuring diverse characters is Unbroken: The Renegades by Na’Imah Anderson. The main character is actually brown and seems to be a mix of African American and Native American, much like the author herself.

  8. I just want to point out that The Giver does actually mention skin tones, by whitewashing the community. When Jonas is standing on the stage after being given his assignment the faces of the audience change again, like the apple. The Giver later explains to Jonas that Fiona’s hair is red, and Jonas was likely seeing beyond on the stage because of the red pigments in skin. A bit of reading between the lines here tells the reader that all of Jonas’s community is white. Since there’s never any attempt to develop this plot line further I feel like this novel is that is yet another case of white being the “default” race.

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