Octavia E. Butler. Photo by Malcolm Ali/WireImage

In 1980: Octavia Butler Asked, Why Is Science Fiction So White?

First published in Transmission Magazine, the afrofuturist author’s essay “The Lost Races of Science Fiction” resonates more than ever in today’s conversations around race and representation.

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Sep 4 2018, 2:30pm

Octavia E. Butler. Photo by Malcolm Ali/WireImage

Fourteen years ago, during my first year of college, I sat in a creative writing class and listened as my teacher, an elderly man, told another student not to use black characters in his stories unless those characters’ blackness was somehow essential to the plots. The presence of blacks, my teacher felt, changed the focus of a story, drew attention from the intended subject.

This happened in 1965. I would never have expected to hear my teacher’s sentiments echoed by a science fiction writer in 1979. Hear them I did, though, at a science fiction convention where a writer explained that he had decided against using a black character in one of his stories because the presence of the black would change his story somehow. Later, this same writer suggested that in stories that seem to require black characters to make some racial point, it might be possible to substitute extraterrestrials—so as not to dwell on matters of race.

Well, let’s do a little dwelling.

Science fiction reaches into the future, the past, the human mind. It reaches out to other worlds and into other dimensions. Is it really so limited, then, that it cannot reach into the lives of ordinary everyday humans who happen not to be white?

Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Amerindians, minority characters in general have been noticeably absent from most science fiction. Why? As a black and a science fiction writer, I’ve heard that question often. I’ve also heard several answers. And, because most people try to be polite, there have been certain answers I haven’t heard. That’s all right. They’re obvious.

Best, though, and most hopeful from my point of view, I’ve heard from people who want to write science fiction, or who’ve written a few pieces, perhaps, and who would like to include minority characters, but aren’t sure how to go about it. Since I’ve had to solve the same problem in reverse, maybe I can help.

But first some answers to my question: Why have there been so few minority characters in science fiction?

Let’s examine my teacher’s reason. Are minority characters—black characters in this case—so disruptive a force that the mere presence of one alters a story, focuses it on race rather than whatever the author had in mind? Yes, in fact, black characters can do exactly that if the creators of those characters are too restricted in their thinking to visualize blacks in any other context.

This is the kind of stereotyping, conscious or subconscious, that women have fought for so long. No writer who regards blacks as people, human beings, with the usual variety of human concerns, flaws, skills, hopes, etc., would have trouble creating interesting backgrounds and goals for black characters. No writer who regards blacks as people would get sidetracked into justifying their blackness or their presence unless such justification honestly played a part in the story. It is no more necessary to focus on a character’s blackness than it is to focus on a woman’s femininity.

Whites represent themselves, and that’s plenty. Spread the burden.

Now, what about the possibility of substituting extra-terrestrials for blacks—in order to make some race-related point without making anyone…uncomfortable? In fact, why can’t blacks be represented by whites—who are not too thoroughly described—thus leaving readers free to use their imaginations and visualize whichever color they like?

I usually manage to go on being polite when I hear questions like these, but it’s not easy.

Onward, then. Let’s replace blacks with tentacled beings from Capella V. What will readers visualize as we describe relations between the Capellans and the (white) humans? Will they visualize black humans dealing with white humans? I don’t think so. This is science fiction, after all. If you tell your readers about tentacled Capellans, they’re going to visualize tentacled Capellans. And if your readers are as touchy about human races as you were afraid they might be when you substituted the Capellans, are they really likely to pay attention to any analogy you draw? I don’t think so.

And as for whites representing all of humanity—on the theory that people will imagine other races; or better yet, on the theory that all people are alike anyway, so what does it matter? Well, remember when men represented all of humanity? Women didn’t care much for it. Still don’t. No great mental leap is required to understand why blacks, why any minority, might not care much for it either. And apart from all that, of course, it doesn’t work. Whites represent themselves, and that’s plenty. Spread the burden.

Back when Star Wars was new, a familiar excuse for ignoring minorities went something like this: “Science fiction is escapist literature. Its readers/viewers don’t want to be weighted down with real problems.” War, okay. Planet-wide destruction, okay. Kidnapping, okay. But the sight of a minority person? Too heavy. Too real. And, of course, there again is the implication that a sprinkling of blacks, Asians, or others could turn the story into some sort of racial statement. The only statement I could imagine being made by such a sprinkling would be that among the white, human people; the tall, furry people; the lumpy, scaly people; the tentacled people; etc., were also brown, human people; black, human people, etc. This isn’t a heavy statement—unless it’s missing.

From my agent (whose candor I appreciate) I heard what could become an even stronger reason for not using black characters in particular. Not using them in film, anyway. It seems that blacks are out of fashion. In an industry that pays a great deal of attention to trends, blacks have had their day for a while. How long a while? Probably until someone decides to take a chance—and winds up making a damn big hit movie about blacks.

All right, forget for a moment the faddishness of the movie industry, forget that movies about blacks are out. Movies, science fiction and otherwise, with a sprinkling of minority characters, but no particular minority theme, seem to do well. Yaphet Kotto certainly didn’t do Alien any harm. In fact, for me, probably for a good many blacks, he gave the movie an extra touch of authenticity, and a monster movie, even a good monster movie, needs all the authenticity it can get.

That brings me to another question I hear often at science fiction conventions. “Why are there so few black science fiction writers?” I suspect for the same reason there were once so few women science fiction writers. Women found a certain lack of authenticity in a genre that postulated a universe largely populated by men in which all the power was in male hands, and women stayed in their male-defined places.

Science fiction writers come from science fiction readers, generally. Few readers equal few writers. The situation is improving, however. Blacks are not as likely as whites to spend time and money going to conventions, but there is a growing black readership. Black people I meet now are much more likely to have read at least some science fiction, and are not averse to reading more. My extra copy of Dreamsnake has reached its fifth reader, last I heard. Movies like Alien, Star Wars, in spite of its lack, and Close Encounters, plus the old Star Trek TV series have captured a lot of interest. With all this, it’s been a pleasantly long time since a friend or acquaintance has muttered to me, “Science fiction! How can you waste your time with anything that unreal?”

People resent being told their established way of doing things is wrong, resent being told they should change, and strongly resent being told they won’t be alone any longer in the vast territory—the universe—they’ve staked out for themselves.

Now to those reasons people aren’t as likely to give for leaving minorities out of science fiction. The most obvious one, and the one I feel least included to discuss is conscious racism. It exists. I don’t think science fiction is greatly afflicted with it, but then, racism is unfashionable now, and thus is unlikely to be brought into the open. Instead, it can be concealed behind any of the questions and arguments I’ve already discussed. To the degree that it is, this whole article is a protest against racism. It’s as much of a protest as I intend to make at the moment. I know of too many bright, competent blacks who have had to waste time and energy trying to reason away other people’s unreasonable racist attitudes; in effect, trying to prove their humanity. Life is too short.

A more insidious problem than outright racism is simply habit, custom. Science fiction has always been nearly all white, just as until recently, it’s been nearly all male. A lot of people have had a chance to get comfortable with things as they are. Too comfortable. Science fiction, more than any other genre, deals with change—change in science and technology, and social change. But science fiction itself changes slowly, often under protest. You can still go to conventions and hear deliberately sexist remarks—if the speaker thinks he has a sympathetic audience. People resent being told their established way of doing things is wrong, resent being told they should change, and strongly resent being told they won’t be alone any longer in the vast territory—the universe—they’ve staked out for themselves. I don’t think anyone seriously believes the world of the future will be all white any more than anyone believes the present world is all white. But custom can be strong enough to prevent people from seeing the need for science fiction to reflect a more realistic view.

Adherence to custom can also cause people to oppose change by becoming even more extreme in their customary behavior. I went back to college for a couple of quarters a few years ago and found one male teacher after another announcing with odd belligerence, “I might as well tell you right now, I’m a male chauvinist!”

A custom attacked is a custom that will be defended. Men who feel defensive about sexist behavior may make sexist bigots of themselves. Whites who feel defensive about racist behavior may make racist bigots of themselves. It’s something for people who value open-mindedness and progressive attitudes to beware of.

A second insidious problem is laziness, possibly combined with ignorance. Authors who have always written of all-white universes might not feel particularly threatened by a multicolored one, but might consider the change too much trouble. After all, they already know how to do what they’ve been doing. Their way works. Why change? Besides, maybe they don’t know any minority people. How can they write about people they don’t know?

Of course, ignorance may be a category unto itself. I’ve heard people I don’t consider lazy, racist, or bound by custom complain that they did not know enough about minorities and thus hesitated to write about them. Often, these people seem worried about accidentally giving offense.

But what do authors ordinarily do when they decide to write about an unfamiliar subject?

They research. They read—in this case recent biographies and autobiographies of people in the group they want to write about are good. They talk to members of that group—friends, acquaintances, co-workers, fellow students, even strangers on buses or waiting in lines. I’ve done these things myself in my reverse research, and they help. Also, I people-watch a lot without talking. Any public situation offers opportunities.

Some writers have gotten around the need for research by setting their stories in distant egalitarian futures when cultural differences have dwindled and race has ceased to matter. I created a future like this in my novel, Patternmaster, though I did not do it to avoid research. Patternmaster takes place in a time when psionic ability is all that counts. People who have enough of that ability are on top whether they’re male or female, black, white, or brown. People who have none are slaves. In this culture, a black like the novel’s main woman character would, except for her coloring, be indistinguishable from characters of any other race. Using this technique could get a writer accused of writing blacks as though they were whites in Coppertone, and it could be a lazy writer’s excuse for doing just that. But for someone who has a legitimate reason for using it, a story that requires it, it can be a perfectly valid technique.

More important than any technique, however, is for authors to remember that they are writing about people. Authors who forget this, who do not relax and get comfortable with their racially different characters, can wind up creating unbelievable, self-consciously manipulated puppets, pieces of furniture who exist within a story but contribute nothing to it, or stereotypes guaranteed to be offensive.

There was a time when most of the few minority characters in science fiction fell into one of these categories. One of the first black characters I ran across when I began reading science fiction in the fifties was a saintly old “uncle” (I’m not being sarcastic here. The man was described as saintly and portrayed asking to be called “uncle”) whom Harriet Beecher Stowe would have felt right at home with. I suspect that like the Sidney Poitier movies of the sixties, Uncle was daring for his time. That didn’t help me find him any more believable or feel any less pleased when he and his kind (Charlie Chan, Tonto, that little guy who swiped Fritos…) were given decent burials. Times have changed, thank heavens, and science fiction has come a long way from Uncle. Clearly, though, it still has a long way to go.

“The Lost Races of Science Fiction” copyright © 1980 by Octavia E. Butler. Reprinted by permission of Writers House LLC acting as agent for the Estate.