Do Raceless Characters Accomplish Anything?

Positive racial representation is so, so important in our popular media. This is not news—it’s something we talk about at least weekly on this site. But what about situations where a character’s race is never stated? Some media, by their nature, don’t include physical descriptors of their characters: what, if anything, can these raceless characters do for racial representation?

betakidsTheoretically, leaving a character’s racial identity open to fan interpretation should allow fans to invent a diverse variety of different designs for that character. It should be a goldmine of racial representation, because leaving a character raceless should allow people of any race to identify with that character. The truth of it is, though, that characters with no assigned race often end up white in the majority of fan renderings. Much like the heterosexist idea that everyone is straight until proven otherwise, when a character’s race is not explicitly stated, the bulk of a fandom will fall back on the idea that white is the default, “normal” race and assign whiteness to the character or characters in question.

White privilege is present in every part of our lives, and part of that privilege is seeing oneself in media without ever having to look. In fact, people are so socialized into believing that all main characters are white people that we often visualize characters as white even when they’re not described as such. For example, did you know that Harry Potter is never assigned a race in the books? He’s got messy black hair and great skin, but the actual color of his skin is never brought up. And yet it’s only recently that I’ve seen people making an active effort to introduce biracial Harry headcanons into the fandom. We do this because we’ve been taught over and over again that white is the norm. While it’s not wrong to imagine a character as white, it is something to be aware of, and to challenge in ourselves as critical consumers of media. What subconsciously led us to whiteness, and why did we choose that over a PoC design?

Take, for example, most of the characters from Welcome to Night Vale. The only person whose character’s race is explicitly stated from Episode 1 is the Apache Tracker’s. So while some characters’ races are implied, the majority of the characters are basically aracial. osric cecil cosplayThey could be any race, and yet the fandom is inundated with so many white Cecil headcanons that some fans felt the need to create blogs like Night Vale of Color specifically to celebrate character of color interpretations. Two separate fans tracked the fanart appearing in the Welcome to Night Vale Tumblr tag, and discovered that, alarmingly, over 80% of Cecil fanart features white Cecil. And it isn’t just because Cecil’s voice actor is white; Kevin from Desert Bluffs’s voice actor, Kevin R. Free, is Black, but there’s so much white Kevin fanart that Free felt the need to address their ubiquity on his personal Tumblr.

Homestuck is another example of wasted representation opportunities. All of the series’ human characters’ designs are in stark black and white, and creator Andrew Hussie intended them to be aracial. This should leave fans wide open to make the kids any race they want. But the majority of Homestuck fanart portrays them as white, and Hussie himself fed the fire during the controversial Trickster sequence in Act 6 Act 5 Act 2, where the characters’ skin was colorized in a shade that was retroactively renamed “PEACHY!”

Guess what it originally said.

Guess what it originally said.

A small part of any fandom may use a lack of race to create diverse headcanons for a character, but in general both fans and creators are going to default to white if race is unspecified. This is a problem that’s endemic in our culture. The idea that aracial characters are some sort of representation panacea is frighteningly naïve, and neglects the presence of white privilege and white supremacy in our society. The likelihood that either adaptation producers or fanwork creators are going to make racially-unassigned characters PoC is very low; hell, we live in a world where the casting call for Katniss Everdeen, a character with canonically olive skin, specified that only white girls need apply. The film adaptation of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series was whiter than a snowbank despite the fact that casting directors had a visual representation of what the characters ought to look like. We can’t even cast characters of color with actors of color.

Does that mean everyone who’s ever headcanoned Rose Lalonde or Pamela Winchell as white is a racist? No—but you can’t pretend that that choice exists in a vacuum. For every amazing piece of South Pacific Jade or Native American Cecil fanart, there are a solid thirty where both of them are white, and that perpetuates the idea that white is the “normal”, default race. In the end, it’s irresponsible for creators to leave their characters’ races unassigned because ultimately raceless characters do very little for representation.

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7 thoughts on “Do Raceless Characters Accomplish Anything?

  1. You’re definitely right, this is something I do all the time without even thinking about it. I’d like to be able to say that the reason I pictured Harry Potter as white is just because the cover art represents him as white, but I know that I would have pictured him that way anyway. As far as the Hunger Games, the casting that was furthest from what I had imagined was Cinna, who I think was only described as having red hair in the books? My mind interpreted that as a typical pale Irish ginger type, nothing like Lenny Kravitz. Although at the same time, I thought that was an excellent casting choice when I heard.

    • Thanks for commenting! Lol, honestly the only descriptor I remember of Cinna from the books was that he always wore striking gold eyeliner, so I can’t say whether or not Lenny Kravitz was a book-accurate choice, but I agree – he was awesome in the part.

  2. What’s so insidious is that I’m a WoC and I do the same thing. When race or color of a character isn’t explicitly mentioned, I assume the character is White. I’m middle aged now, so it’s been many decades of all White Fantasy and Science Fiction characters, so much so that I’m often shocked and occasionally delighted to come across characters of color.

    I hate almost all romance novels. When I was younger, my way of getting through romance books that contained otherwise interesting plots was to gender switch all the characters I liked, thereby inadvertently creating slash fanfiction, if only in my head.

    For some reason, I’ve had difficulty doing this with race except in the past couple of years. Encouraged by Doctor Who ( Agyema) and Sleepy Hollow ( Mills), I like to change White male characters into Black women, just to see how this changes a story’s dynamic. I have to admit, just like my inspirations for doing so, the story does become a Hell of a lot more interesting when I do that. It would be nice if I didn’t have to.

    Another problem I have is the whitewashing of the covers of these books. There may be PoC in a lot of SFF but you would never know that to look at any of the covers. It’s a real problem I think the industry needs to pay at least some attention to, but isn’t. With all the industry’s current talk of diversity, no one seems to have mentioned this.

    • Thanks for commenting! It’s something that’s taught from a very young age, I think, regardless of race. Thankfully people are starting to call it out, and characters like Martha and Abbie are proving to producers that leading characters of color can exist without tanking a show.
      Whitewashed covers are the actual worst – it’s so frustrating to pick up, say, a book with an Asian protag in an Asia-based fantasy world that has a girl who’s clearly white on the cover.

  3. You have my whole hearted agreement.
    Perhaps I have one of those odd brains because I don’t default to only white, or even mostly white, if there’s no explicit cannon depiction of the character available.
    That latter part that’s the trouble though. Lkeke35 mentioned it, but I want to reaffirm it, even in stories where it’s explicitly stated in the narrative, that a character is not white, the cover art is often all caucasian people, and I spend the whole book series trying to figure out who the heck is on the cover only to finally come across a scene which is related to the cover and go “WTF? How is that supposed to be…?”
    In the case of Harry Potter I pictured him as white because the cover was very clearly intended to be a depiction of him, and nothing in the book contradicted that depiction. But should cover art be deciding cannon? (Especially when, as aforementioned, it can actually sometimes be super dead-wrong.)
    Obviously I’m sure you’d say no, and I agree with you, but sometimes it’s hard to convince my brain when there’s a picture staring me in the face every time I pick up the book.
    I mean, I’m one of those who likes to draw fanart that breaks the everyone-is-caucasian mold, but so far that’s been except when there’s a cover-art and no contradiction… but maybe I should change that policy.

    So yeah, I have to agree with you, writing characters without any deme contributes to the problem unintentionally, but I definitely think that there are layers adding to that, which also need to be challenged too.

  4. Pingback: Nintendo Has to Do Better With Race | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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