zodiacal_light: A map of Tortall (tortall)
Like classism, racism is something Pierce thinks she handles well, and utterly fails at. Let me count the ways.

WWRLAM is nothing more than a white savior plot with the Bazhir, and has the incredibly problematic issue of Jon, who is definitely a white guy, becoming the Voice. So, wait, this unique Bazhir role is now filled by a white guy, so that the Bazhir can be saved from themselves? Uh.

There is this brief thing where Alanna supposedly is shown how she's not all that when the girls refuse to remove their veils, but it's very much couched in this condescending "these Bazhir are so backwards" language.

Thayet is described as so white and pretty that she doesn't even look part K'mir at all. I wonder how much of that was motivated by the fact that when Pierce pictured "the most beautiful woman in the world" she was OF COURSE a white woman. (Also, whatever Pierce claims when being defensive, Thayet being of mixed race was NOT a major plot point in LR; I just read it specifically looking out for that, and nope, not in there.)

Numair, for all her occasional insistence otherwise in deuterocanon, is coded as white. His hair texture - soft and wavy - hair color, and eyes are described; as Pierce makes a point of noting skin colors very explicitly, one or two mentions of Numair as "dark" don't mean much; she uses similar language to describe people with a dark tan. I personally read Numair as non-white, but I suspect I still read him as darker than Pierce intended, and I also read Thayet as not having ivory skin and looking visibly part-K'mir, so you can see how much my headcanon has to do with the text.

ETA: It's worth noting that Pierce explicitly based Numair on Jeff Goldblum, so I would take any of her protestations about Numair with a grain of salt. FWIW, her non-defensive comments about Numair having a sort of "Mediterranean Spanish" look is how I always figured she meant him to look - but I find it verrrry interesting that in her defensive comments, suddenly Numair's part North African, too. Frankly, she codes him as white, and yet tries to have her cake and eat it too by also saying he's Mediterranean (European side of the sea) and therefore not white. And that's problematic, too, since most people consider most people from Mediterranean Europe white. Basically, Pierce's treatment of Numair is a whole can of racist worms.

It's also telling that the first I heard of Numair being intended to be a person of color was in a highly defensive - offensively defensive - and angry response Pierce left on a blog that criticized her portrayals of people of color in her books. As that bit of deuterocanon hasn't showed up in any more official area, I don't know that that holds much water; it seems awfully like something made up last minute as a defense.

Sarge is the only really dark-skinned character described, and of COURSE he's a former slave, because very black skin apparently automatically equals slave, and of COURSE he's HUGE, and his name is only deuterocanon and completely unpronounceable, as per deuterocanon, so he just gets called Sarge. And, oh yes, Daine thinks he must have bear blood because he's so big.

He's also a very minor character. This is a pattern; the more major a character, the lighter their skin.

The dark skin-animal connection comes up more often; if Numair really is dark-skinned, then the constant comparison of him to a stork fits this, and also means that everyone described with animal terms that I can recall is dark-skinned. The raka are explicitly said to not be related to humans, but to crows; hatched from eggs in the same nest. That WOULD be just a local story - except that this is a universe where the gods really exist and these myths are really fact. So... dark-skinned people aren't human, they're animals.

Oh, and then there's the tauros. He's dark-skinned, too, and dead set on raping any women he finds. Tauroses, interestingly, are also the only immortals Daine is incapable of communicating with; they're part "two-legger", so her animal whisperer trick doesn't work on them, but their head is that of a bull's so they physically cannot talk.

The Trickster books are so full of race fail I can't even list it all here. First, there's the really simplistic skeevy portrayal of white colonialism. There are people more knowledgeable than me who can poke holes in that.

Then, of course, the two potential queens are paler-skinned because they're half white. Sure, this has an in-story justification, but it's still problematic. The dark-skinned raka are all minor characters ... because the story focuses so heavily on white-savior Aly that we don't see much of them.

Oh, and of course the rebellion just needed a (stupid, incompetent) white girl imported from Tortall for them. The prophecy just had to be referring to a white girl. These raka can't save themselves, y'know. There's not a cunning one among the lot.

And let's not even talk about the skeevy way Pierce writes the Balitangs, as the perfect, pure, moral, upstanding, just slave owners. They read like Confederate propaganda - the perfect masters who slaves desperately WANT to be owned by.

And why are the crows in human form paler than the raka? They're written not like dark-skinned people, but coded as tanned white guys. It reads very, very much like Pierce can't stand to have mixed-race relationships, or at least not ones that appear so. Aly needs a love interest? Can't have him be raka, or really dark-skinned.

Also, on mixed-race people, why the hell aren't any of Jon and Thayet's children visibly part K'mir? Even if by some fluke of genetics Thayet really doesn't look anything other than perfectly white, she still has the genes. Oh, but wait. Jon's family has to be perfect and white.

Then there are the Yamanis. They are exoticized so badly I can't even talk about it coherently. They're described like you'd describe dolls or something, not people.

But that, too, is a frequent thing in these books - the darker-skinned people and cultures are written about with exoticizing language. Oooh, how STRANGE and FOREIGN and EXOTIC these people are! Look how not WHITE and TORTALLAN they are!

So, here are some questions:

Why does the most beautiful woman have to be so white her nonwhite heritage is entirely invisible?

Why do the nonwhite cultures have to be universally portrayed as backwards and more barbaric than the white one? (To be fair, there is a white culture similarly portrayed, but the Scanrans are their own issue.)

Why don't any of Thayet's children show visible signs of their K'miri heritage?

Why couldn't the crows genuinely look like raka?

Why did Jon HAVE to be the Voice? Do any Bazhir not like this?

Why do we have to always have a white savior for the dark savages? It happens with the Bazhir and Alanna, with the raka via Aly, and in some respects with Carthak via Daine, very destructively.

Speaking of that destruction, why isn't it a big moral problem that Daine destroyed this country, in essence, and killed tons of people? (You cannot convince me no one died in that rampage?) This smacks very much of "oh, it's just that foreign place, not our white home. who cares?"

Why couldn't, oh, the Shang Dragon have been a person of color?

Why couldn't, if he's really a poc, Numair's skin color have actually been mentioned in text, like the skin colors of all other nonwhite people are?

Why are all the foreign cultures exoticized, and why are all the nonwhite people also exoticized? This happens with the Bazhir, the Carthakis, the Doi, the K'mir, the raka, and the Yamanis. That is every. single. nonwhite. culture. we've seen thus far in Tortall.

Why wasn't the tauros pale-skinned?

Why hasn't there been a nonwhite Tortallan heroine?

Why couldn't the Trickster books center on Dove?

Why did Alanna have to be the one to go to the desert and start civilizing the Bazhir?

Why did Aly have to be the one contrivedly dragged to the Copper Isles to save the raka? Why couldn't Aly's story have been about something else, if Pierce just HAD to write about the Lioness' daughter?

Why aren't the people with eerie magic white? The Doi are explicitly described as having eerie divination magics that are so far from normal magic that Liam isn't afraid of them. They also are the ones who conveniently prompt the white heroine into action.

Why are Bazhir magics described as bloody and savage? Why don't the white Tortallans have blood-based rites?

Why is it the Copper Isles that uses blood oaths, which are particularly vicious and nasty? They were recommended by a darker-skinned person, too, for use on even more darker-skinned people. They were never used on white people, and never to my knowledge did a white person ever suggest them. Why not? Why couldn't the people forced to swear oaths or the people suggesting it be white? Why couldn't we see this kind of practice in a white culture?

Why are Ozorne and Kaddar lighter-skinned? Could Pierce simply not imagine a person with very dark skin ruling a country? So far we have a bunch of white countries ruled by white people, and a bunch of dark countries ruled by not-quite-so-dark people.

Why are the major antagonists all either white or lighter-skinned? Can't a darker-skinned person be a villain?

And yet, why is the major villain who goes and unleashes the unholy immortals, who dares be the first to attack white Tortall, darker-skinned? Come to think of it, why is it that the most common enemies we see, aside from the Scanrans, are dark-skinned Carthakis and Copper Islanders?

Why do the two major nonwhite civilizations we see have barbarian, tricksterish, savage, untrustworthy gods as patrons?

Why are those same two patron gods associated with animals that are commonly considered pests and are trash-eaters? They're also the only two animals in the whole 'verse that we see that have to be bargained with and cajoled into helping, and are presented as more than a bit backwards compared to the normal, good animals.

Why is it the darker-skinned characters who are most blatantly sexist? Zahir insists Kel needs to be veiled and is a distraction to men, and says so to her face. The white bullies are generally subtler. Daine has a horrible scene where she's told by Carthaki youths that women can't fight or shoot, and she very condescendingly teaches them the error of their ways - and they are so impressed that they start fawning over her.

Why couldn't Sarge have been more prominent in WM?

Why do all these dark-skinned people flee to white Tortall to miraculously find freedom? This goes doubly for any K'mir aside from Buri and Thayet, since Sarain is two huge countries away.

Why does the supreme Good culture of that 'verse have to be a predominantly white culture, ruled by white people, that is forcing assimilation on its nonwhite population and has co-opted its greatest spiritual role, and condescends to the other nonwhite (and token white barbarian) civilizations around it?

Why is veiling automatically bad?

Why is it that the cultures that keep slaves are nonwhite? One of those even just had (supposedly) a slave revolt - and yet. But of course the white folks are all skeeved out by slavery. The good white folks, anyway. But the good dark-skinned folks can still embrace slavery!

Come to think of it, why are all the slaves dark-skinned except the plot-important Aly?

And why are the people with the darkest skin automatically slaves?

And why is it that the Banjiku, the darkest-skinned people we are introduced to, worship only animal gods, and believe they are slaves by divine design?

And, once again, why is it up to a white girl to tell them that they aren't meant to be slaves? Remember, this is a universe with active gods. You'd think that might be an issue big enough to warrant a godly message or two straight to the Banjiku themselves.

ETA: And why is it these same Banjiku who are the only ones shown propitiating the immortals? The text explicitly codes this as backwards. Why don't we see any white folks propitiating the immortals?

Why is it only dark-skinned characters who ever talk in broken "common"?

Why is it that of the two great gods who head the pantheon, the one who does very little and almost never speaks is the black man?

Why are the other great gods either white or in disfavor/locked away?



This is only the tip of the iceberg. The more I read these books critically, the more skeeved by the blatant racism I am.

Date: 16 Feb 2011 03:24 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] lotesse
lotesse: (tortall_heroines)
Data point - I didn't realize that Numair was a poc until I was in my twenties. Sheltered white kid from very homogeneous rural community, but still. She wrote it so subtly that, for years, I couldn't see it at all.

Date: 16 Feb 2011 05:16 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] carmarthen
carmarthen: "Would you like my hat?" (Default)
You cannot convince me no one died in that rampage?

Canonically, people did--soldiers, nobles, mages--I think we were supposed to think it was okay because Daine got the slaves out and everyone else in the palace deserved to die or something.

Why is it the darker-skinned characters who are most blatantly sexist? Zahir insists Kel needs to be veiled and is a distraction to men, and says so to her face. The white bullies are generally subtler.

To be fair, Zahir was also the only one of Kel's bullies who eventually stepped out and possibly had some (off-screen) character growth. He certainly wasn't portrayed as being as evil as Joren and what's-his-face.

Why do all these dark-skinned people flee to white Tortall to miraculously find freedom?

FOR SERIOUS. The K'mir especially make no sense, because they're fairly egalitarian or matriarchal nomads, and WOG has it that things do eventually settle down in Sarain. So (a) what are they fleeing? Not their own chiefs! and (b) why in the world would nomads move two countries away and become sedentary? This just doesn't happen much in real life.

Why is it that the cultures that keep slaves are nonwhite?

WOG has it that most cultures keep slaves except Tortall (and Tyra?), but I don't think we ever see any of this in canon, even in Scanra. Of course, there's a nominally feudal system, which is not as different from slavery as Pierce seems to think, but that's fuzzied up, too. (I generally do not feel that WOG makes up for shortcomings in the text--most readers will never be aware of it, and it is not a substitute for complete worldbuilding within the text, or having canon queer characters, or whatever.)

And why is it that the Banjiku, the darkest-skinned people we are introduced to, worship only animal gods, and believe they are slaves by divine design?

And, once again, why is it up to a white girl to tell them that they aren't meant to be slaves? Remember, this is a universe with active gods. You'd think that might be an issue big enough to warrant a godly message or two straight to the Banjiku themselves.


SO MUCH SKEEVINESS.

Why are the other great gods either white or in disfavor/locked away?

Well, there's Kidunka, who is (a) a giant snake, and (b) mostly seems to be worshipped in Carthak, despite being the first child of Mother Flame and Father Universe, iirc.

Yeaaaaaah. Well, you know I have issues with damn near everything in DOTL. I think it's all very subtle, internalized Nice White Lady Racism, the kind most people don't pick up on because she's not textually spelling out "POC are inferior and need white people to save them!"

Date: 16 Feb 2011 07:27 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] carmarthen
carmarthen: "Would you like my hat?" (Default)
He's still the only one to directly bring up all the "this is why women shouldn't fight" stuff - my question is why Pierce always seems to put that stuff in the mouth of a poc.

I don't know...I thought Joren and his cronies were fairly direct at times--but it's true, there's a lot more of that put in black Carthaki/Saren/Bazhir mouths than white folks.

As for her fuzzing up of the feudal system - how much is just medieval romanticism, stemming from the same place that figures noblesse oblige as progressive, and how much is because this is the system in her good white countries, and so can't possibly be horrible?

I think those are kind of inextricable--it is not a big step from noblesse oblige to lower classes to the White Man's Burden. :-/

The number of people I've encountered who dig in and insist that WWRLAM and DOTL were not problematic at all and not about white saviors saving the poc savages, all because they just happened to like the books.

*weep*

You know, I like WWRLAM quite a bit--parts of it, anyway--but NO. Just no. I mean, obviously I love these books in general (DOTL aside, sigh) or I wouldn't spend so much time picking them apart, but liking a text does not make it magically unproblematic! I still listen to the Dresden Dolls! I still like Elizabeth Moon's space opera! I enjoy Bujold despite the bizarre whiteness of her future and the problematic handling of queer/trans/herm characters! I just don't see the point of pretending that stuff we like is all perfect, instead of pointing out its flaws in hopes that other authors/artists/whatever will do better in the future.

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