What role does the artist play in times of socio-political turmoil? I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. And all my thoughts keep turning back to my old nemesis, The Default.
We have to dismantle the Default. I’ve written about it before, but now, in light of recent events, tearing it down brick by brick feels like a more urgent task, to which we must apply ourselves with conscious effort.
Just to reiterate: what is the Default? The way it works in fiction is that whenever the sexual orientation, race, or gender of a character has no bearing on the plot, that character defaults to a white, straight male. Through the Default, we get an overabundance of characters — not just protagonists, but characters in general — who are white, straight males. Most writers who employ the Default aren’t trying overtly to be racists, sexist, or homophobic. The Default works on an unconscious level, which is why it will take quite a lot of work to eliminate.
The Default is one of the key roots of privilege.
When 95% of movies made, along with at least that percentage of the books we study in school, are about you, privilege naturally follows.
When stories depict you as “normal,” while everyone of a different race, gender, or sexual orientation is shown to be a deviation from “normal,” privilege naturally follows.
When you can play any role in a story, while the roles played by those who differ from you are dictated by their race, gender, or sexual orientation — because there must always be a reason why a character is black, female, gay, or trans — privilege naturally follows.
When stories about you are considered universal, while stories about others are deemed “niche,” privilege naturally follows. This is perhaps the Default’s most insidious aspect. Readers of color, female readers, and gay readers are constantly asked, through their school years and after, to identify and empathize with straight white male protagonists. Yet if you’re a member of the Default, not only is the same effort not required of you, it’s not even expected.
The kind of racial violence we see in the murders of George Floyd and Ahmad Arbery is the extreme end result of this failure of empathy. It’s entirely too easy to brutalize someone you’ve been taught all your life, not only by elders and peers but by the stories you take in, to regard as “Other,” as not “normal,” as not part of “Us” but part of “Them.”
We need to start telling better stories. We can only do that once we become aware of the role the Default might play in the characters we develop. I include myself in this. I came of age on a steady diet of 19th century British fiction, classic black-and-white movies, and Masterpiece Theatre, which has shaped the way I imagine my characters. I may have been challenging the Default when it comes to gender, but I need to do more when it comes to race.
This is no quick fix. It’s a long game. But the more we set our minds to the problem, the stronger the groundwork we’ll lay for those who come after us, so that in time every well-written story, whatever the protagonist’s race, gender, or sexual orientation might be, will be perceived as universal, and empathy for those different from us will be expected of everyone.
In the meantime, my plan, once I’ve finished the books I’m currently reading, is to spend the rest of 2020 reading only books by authors of color (except for the new Stormlight Archive novel; that I have to read as soon as it comes out this fall). I have quite a list: Gods of Jade and Shadow (Silvia Garcia Moreno), The True Queen (Zen Cho), The Tiger’s Daughter (K. Arsenault Rivera), The Ghost Bride (Yangzee Choo), Song of Blood and Stone (L. Penelope), Parable of the Talents (Octavia Butler), Deathless Divide (Justina Ireland), The City of Brass (S. A. Chakraboty), House of Binding Thorns (Aliette de Bodard), Brown Girl in the Ring and The Salt Roads (Nalo Hopkinson), Everfair (Nisi Shawl), Children of Virtue and Vengeance (Tomi Adeyemi), Shadow of the Fox (Julie Kagawa), Dragon Sword and Wind Child (Noriko Ogiwara), The Bloodprint (Ausma Zehanat Khan), Flame in the Mist (Renee Ahdieh), and books from the considerable bodies of work of Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, and Michelle West. I’m on the hunt for new authors to try, so recommendations are welcome.