Illustration by lillymiranda10

Overcome your ‘White as Default’ bias by reading more diverse books

#Week 11, N.K. Jemisin and The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season follows three women: Essun, a secret orogene searching for her lost daughter; Syenite, a Fulcrum trained and owned orogene who is questioning what she knows of the world; and Damaya, a young orogene being taken to the capital for training. These three storylines are deeply interconnected and lead to a literal breaking point for the world (from Smart Bitches Trashy Books)

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. It’s excellent. Please read it. I‘m buying extra copies just to give to friends to help spread the word.

Within this book Jemisin is challenging our biases and assumptions. She is telling us a story of prejudice and discrimination, of the painful consequences of restraining and hiding your own true self, of coming together, recognising your powers, and fighting back. It’s the narrative of 3 females — the child, becoming a woman, of being a Mother.

With every book I read as part of my FemCult52 project in which I’m discovering 52 female creators in 52 weeks, I’m looking to learn a new lesson. N.K. Jemisin taught me about the White As Default bias. She knows that when readers are not given a name or a physical description, that the character is very often assumed to be White .

Jemisin is very aware of this bias, she runs courses for writers to help them counter it in their writing. Which makes me wonder if she intended to ramp up the impact of the bias in the opening line — The first line put me immediately into the characters shoes —

“You are she. She is you. You are Essun remember? The woman whose son is dead.”

As a result whoever ‘you’ is, which for me is a white cis woman, immediately saw, well, someone like me. This second person narrative style is threaded throughout the book acting as a powerful empathy technique. Especially so when it becomes clear that the character is Black and this is a narrative of a woman treated as ‘other’, feared, even loathed, not accepted. I had no idea how powerful this bias is until a few pages in as Jemisin trickled in more physical descriptions which did not match the image that had immediately come into my head with that first line — ‘her hair hangs round her face in ropy fused locks, each perhaps as big around as her finger, black fading to brown’ and ‘her skin is unpleasantly ochre-brown by some standards and unpleasantly olive-pale by others’. The impact of that second person empathy narrative works fast and you as the reader are now Essun, experiencing the world in way you may never have before.

We’ve become so used to reading narratives about White characters, particularly White male characters that it reinforces the bias that readers believe a character is White until told otherwise, as Jemisin explains in the quote below:

“Thus we see an example of the racial default at work: the inescapable fact that in any Western society, no matter how multicultural it might be in actuality, most people in it will assume that any character who’s not described otherwise is white”
artist unknown

Jemisin deliberately flips this default on its head. The white skinned characters in The Fifth Season are described in contrast to the default of brown skinned characters. Thin straight hair typical to white people is described in contrast to the hair styles of black people. It’s so refreshing and contrary to expectations. This is exactly what Jemisin is trying to achieve. In fact, it frustrates her when readers still don’t grasp that a character is black despite the hints and descriptions (one commenter on Jemisin’s blog assumed a character twisting her wet hair on the river bank was White, to which Jemisin replied: “Damn. Then I did it wrong. ::sigh::”).

That The Fifth Season is set in an alternate fantasy Sci-Fi world somewhat amplifies this bias. There are no recognisable names of countries which could signify the likely ethnicity of characters. No names which would indicate probable heritage to the reader, something Jemisin says she often uses to infer ethnicity when her writing is set in this world. Fantasy novels, and particularly those in medieval settings that assume euro-centric ethnicity, is where ‘White as default’ often shows up. How writers should challenge these issues has caused a lot of debate, as infamously illustrated within the writing community during RaceFail in 2009. For example, there are writers who worry including diverse ethnicities within European medieval inspired fantasies would be tokenistic. But as Jemisin says:

“It’s illogical to populate your fantasy world with only one flavor of human being, which is what far too many fantasy stories default to…how did that castle get its spices for the royal table, or that lady her silks? What enemy are the knights training to fight?…
Whiteness is the default in our thinking for Earth-specific cultural/political reasons. So while it’s logical for fantasy realms to be homogeneous, it’s not logical for so many of them to be homogeneously white. Something besides logic is causing that.”

Writers need to be very attuned to the ‘White as default’ bias within their writing, and readers need to recognise it in themselves.

Fan art by Liber Libelula, Yeine from the Inheriance Trilogy by N.K.Jemisin. Not a character from The Fifth Season, but it’s a beautiful piece of work and I wanted to include it!

So, four reasons you should read The Fifth Season

1. Because it’s bloody brilliant

Yes it’s incredibly diverse (key characters are female, black, bi-sexual, gay, polyamorous, transgender…). This diversity is why I loved it. But more than that it’s just a fantastic novel. I’m a sucker for intricate world building, strong female leads, gorgeous and intricately magical environments (a world with giant floating crystal obelisks and communities built inside geodes….I need more). Beautiful story telling, twists and turns, heart rending narratives. It has it all. Please read it.

2. It will challenge your white as default bias

The best way to challenge this bias is to read more diverse books.

3. Because the The Fifth Season characters are 👌

And the characters came to her in dream! When asked by Wired magazine how she came up with the idea of orogenes, people who have the power to stop earthquakes yet are reviled by society, Jemisin replied:

“Pretty much the same way I’ve gotten most of my other major world-building ideas: partially as a dream, partially me trying to make sense of the dream. I had a dream of a woman walking toward me in the badass power walk that you’ve seen in any blockbuster movie — these grim-faced people walking toward the camera with stuff exploding behind them. But instead of stuff exploding, it was a mountain moving along behind her. She looked at me like she was really pissed, like she was going to throw the mountain at me. Who is this woman who can control mountains? How can she do that?”

4: Because The Fifth Season won a Hugo Award last year

Hugo Awards are the Sci Fi excellence stamp of authority. That means it’s not just me that thinks this is an excellent book. She is also the first Black author to win the award, an important milestone.

Are you a writer? Well here’s some tips about what you can do about the White as default bias

Jemisin has written 3 excellent posts on describing characters of colour. Here are some thoughts for writers:

  1. Check that your world isn’t racially homogenous
  2. Be aware of the ‘racial default’ — that characters of colour are often compared to the default of ‘being white’
  3. Don’t be subtle with describing ethnicity and think the readers will ‘get it’. “Yeah, the problem with the subtle treatment is that those of us reared in post-colonial societies aren’t used to subtlety when it comes to race”
  4. Be aware that commonly used wordsets like coffee, chocolate and sugar can be problematic descriptions of skin colour
  5. Appreciate that it’s tough to do it well. “No matter how many clues you toss in, some people still won’t get it unless you say HE’S BLACK, DAMMIT in big letters”
  6. Be careful not to exoticise black hair and skin “Having seen American writers (white and PoC) go through agonies trying to figure out how to describe kinky hair, or the various shades of brown skin, I’m reminded of this discussion on the unmarked state in anime/manga and how Americans habitually resort to exaggerations of PoC physical features in their art — exaggerations which people from other cultures don’t see or employ themselves. I’m beginning to wonder if the emphasis American writers place on black hair texture and skin shade is another example of such exaggeration”

And finally, because I can’t pass up on the opportunity to share some female creators making crystal based artwork, all of which remind of The Fifth Season

Left to right: Zeinz_, sarakbenning, belief_and_eden
left to right: chloeoshea, pielife_art, lillymiranda10

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If you want to follow my project to discover 52 female creators in 52 weeks, follow the FemCult52 publication below.

What female creator did I discover last week?

This post is part of my FemCult52 project in which I aim to discover 52 female creators in 52 weeks. Last week was all about Iranian-American Film Director Ana Lily Amirpour