The Racist of Earthsea

In Slate magazine, SF author Ursula LeGuin complains that the
producers of the new Earthsea miniseries have butchered her
work
. One form of butchery that she zeroes in on is by casting
characters who she intended to be red, brown, or black as white
people.

I have mixed feelings. LeGuin has every right to be POed at how
her intentions were ignored, but on the other hand my opinion of her
has not been improved by learning that she intended the books as yet
another wearisomely PC exercise in
multiculturalism/multiracialism.

I liked those books when I read them as a teenager. I didn’t
notice any character’s skin color. I would really prefer not to have
had my experience of those characters retrospectively messed with by
LeGuin’s insistance that the race thing is important.

Note: I am not claiming that all casting should be colorblind. I
remember once watching an otherwise excellent Kenneth Branagh
production of Much Ado About Nothing that was somewhat marred for
me by Branagh’s insistance on casting an American black man as a
Renaissance Italian lord. This was wrong in exactly the same way that
casting a blue-eyed blond as Chaka Zulu or Genghis Khan would be
— it’s so anti-historical that it interferes with the suspension
of disbelief. Fantasy like LeGuin’s, however, doesn’t have this kind
of constraint. Ged and Tenar don’t become either more or less plausible
if their skin color changes.

But what really annoyed me was LeGuin’s claim that only whites have
the “privilege” of being colorblind. This is wrong and tendentious in
several different ways. Colorblindness is not a privilege of anyone,
it’s a duty of everyone — to judge people not by the color of their
skin but the content of their character, and to make race a non-issue
by whatever act of will it takes. (It doesn’t take any effort at all
for me.)

If I had produced the Earthsea miniseries or been in charge of the
art for her books, I would have both (a) respected LeGuin’s wishes
about the skin color (she is the artist), and (b) regretted that she
was so stuck on the issue.

To paraphrase one of my favorite Zen Comix punchlines “I left that
issue at the riverside. Are you still carrying it?”

24 thoughts on “The Racist of Earthsea

  1. I noticed the racial thing when I first read Earthsea, but only peripherally. In the second book, it becomes clear that the Archipelago people are black, and the “evil” mainlanders are white; I thought “Oh, that was clever”, and forgot about it. In retrospect, though, I suppose it’s obvious what she was doing. I mean, have you *read* _Left Hand of Darkness_?

  2. Well, their mistake, IMO, is not so much fiddling with the script… In a way, that’s their job, and they’re entitled to do what they like, but in doing two things:

    1. Calling a known hardcore feminist “Miss Le Guin”.
    2. Claiming to know what “Miss Le Guin”‘s vision of Earthsea is, and that their “Earthsea” miniseries represents a close adherence to that vision, when “Miss Le Guin” had already written to them and told them straight up that the draft script she’s seen is broken in a number of very fundamental ways, and their response was basically, “well, suck it up, baby”.

    By all the gods, what did they expect? That “Miss Le Guin” would just continue to keep her mouth shut? Sheesh.

  3. Eh, the phrase “Miss Le Guin” does look stupid. I don’t see where she said anything about feminism.

    I also don’t see where she said anything about multiculturalism. She gives her reasons for picking brown skin. One, it’s probable that someday Africa will not be a poor continent anymore, and then there will be a lot of rich brown people; two, she likes the color.

    See, it’s SUBTEXTUALLY multiculturalist. She makes no explicit statement, “I put black people in this book to make the black culture visible.” But where she says,

    “I have heard, not often, but very memorably, from readers of color who told me that the Earthsea books were the only books in the genre that they felt included in…,

    we’re going to take that as clear proof of the fact, okay, folks?

    No! This makes no sense! Stop doing subtextual analysis. Everyone. Please.

  4. Pingback: Jeff the Baptist

  5. I had about the same reaction to reading LeGuin’s piece, though, having seen the miniseries it certainly was butchered in plenty of ways outside of “race”.

    When I read the books I noticed the color coding, but basically ignored it. It’s an imaginary world – what red skin means there has nothing to do with what reddish skin means to us, unless some connection is explicitly drawn (and it is not in Earthsea).

    On the other hand, I doubt that Le Guin would have said anything if the only changes they’d made were people’s colors. But there is plenty else to object to, so, it made the list.

    I disagree that colorblindness is a duty. It’s neither duty nor privilege for any individual. It should be a duty only for the state, that is, for individuals acting in an official capacity.

  6. Leonard, you may be confusing two senses of “duty”. I do think we have a duty to be colorblind, but it is not one of the duties that I
    believe the law or any other form of coercion may be enlisted to enforce. On the other hand, I do think that agents of the state should be required to be colorblind in that stronger sense, and that duty should be enforced by law.

  7. What’s the color of the part between the ears? That’s the important part, and though it’s grey for all of us, individuals do vary there, as do populations. Brain “colors” are not always genetically necessarily connected to skin colors, or any other phenotype. I commend to y’all’s attention Mr. Niven’s story about the chocolate-covered manhole covers.

  8. When she published “A Wizard of Earthsea” in 1984, the story wasn’t “yet another wearisomely PC exercise in multiculturalism/multiracialism”, it was, in fact, quite a creative endeavor, especially in it’s genre. Remember that in the United States, the first divisive battle for equality was our Civil War, ending in 1865. One hundred years later, we have the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (upon which most equal opportunity and affirmative action laws are based). Twenty years later, this story is written; and yet, now, twenty years again later, we are calling the message an anachronism?

    Every complaint I hear about Le Guin’s article smacks of anachronistic sentiment, and sounds like the classic ‘reverse discrimination’ argument. This would be sort of like judging a public demonstrator for free/open source in the mid-90′s as a crackpot zealot, since we’ve had the GPL for 15 years now, and the linux kernel for ten… “That everyone has heard that message now… what was the point in wasting their time?”

    Indeed, where I grew up, as a biracial child between a white skinned and dark skinned parent, I felt that I was treated somewhat differently. I was introduced to these books (among others, albeit non-fantasy works) and did feel a sense of belonging, perhaps somewhat beyond that of my white peers who also read the books. At least, that was the sense that I gained from discussions with them. It seemed as if the race issue was written for me, but they didn’t need it, and that was OK. I had other multiracial friends to share books with, and they seemed to “get it”. Perhaps this is the “colorblindness” that she was referring to.

    Also, it is hard to not notice that it is mostly my white friends who are put off by her commentary, as if it were a slight against white people. Also remember, even though the issue be left at the riverside, in many places folks are still living a couple of miles from the river…

    There! Now nobody can say “No colored person has spoken out and claimed they noticed that about the books! I haven’t heard anyone say that skin color was an important component of the story to them!” It may not be something I think about now, but I was young then, my community was different then, and it had a definite impact that I remember to this day. I think it silly that just because many people publically claim that what was important to Le Guin wasn’t important to them implies that it was also not important to the story. It may not have been important to their enjoyment, but it was certainly important to her, and I can attest to the importance of the message, in that form, in that genre, twenty years ago in a less racially-mixed American community, for at least three non-white youths. Why would accuracy dictate less? Anyway, if people don’t enjoy the book for that specific reason, there are plenty of others.

    Since I’m a guy, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the gender thing, but I mostly agree with Jeff the Baptist (above), in that it ruins a good bit of dramatic tension.

  9. As a side note, re “This was wrong in exactly the same way that casting a blue-eyed blond as Chaka Zulu or Genghis Khan would be”: John Wayne once starred as Genghis Khan. I did find his lack of Asianness rather disturbing.

    Le Guin is a great writer, but an idiotic knee-jerk liberal. It’s been a long time since I read the Earthsea series, but I recall noticing a “white people are evil” message. It would have been a better story if all the nationalities involved had been some shade of brown – or some shade of white – so 20th century politics wasn’t injected into a story about another world entirely.

    She would have been smarter not to sell movie rights at all, to any of her books. Hollywood doesn’t do well with such intensely cerebral stories. I’m just surprised that her biggest complaint is about them losing the political message – was that an accident or has sanity returned to some small portion of Hollywood?

  10. My favorite Le Guin book was The Left Hand of Darkness. When that was published, I was majoring in physics. TLHD captured what (I imagine) it would feel like to be in the middle of a huge leap forward in physics. I eventually bailed out of that field, when I realized that not only were the chances of me personally being involved in any significant advance was pretty much nil, but real advances weren’t likely to happen in my lifetime. New bombs are technology, not science. New theories aren’t an advance until you find a way to test them, and that isn’t happening. Finding a single new “particle” with a lifetime measured in femtoseconds is less than a significant advance, even if it took billions of government dollars to accomplish. When they find a way to test their theories that doesn’t require accelerators miles in extent, then they might start getting somewhere.

  11. I never liked LeGuin’s books, but it’s a bit clueless for her to not notice that there are already lots of wealthy brown people. They mostly live in India. Actually, long before Africa develops I assume that race will be a technological anachronism. Flesh is matter and can be manipulated arbitrarily.

  12. Well, if casting Denzel Washington as Don Pedro breaks your suspension of disbelief (and there were Moorish gentry in the Kingdom of Aragon — look it up), casting Ged, whom I’ve known rather well for the past thirty years, as a pretty white boy damned well breaks mine. And while it’s true that the Kargs are just villains in A Wizard of Earthsea, they get a lot more subtlety in later books. Earthsea is not “white bad, black/brown good”, and nobody who had read The Other Wind, or even The Farthest Shore, could think so for one moment.

    As for Le Guin’s point about “colorblindness”, you’ve missed it entirely. It’s saying “Oh well, we’ve cast this character of color with a white actor, but that’s all right because we’re color-blind.” This behavior is repugnant when anyone does it, but only white people can get away with it.

    Finally, if Le Guin sold the movie rights, maybe it’s because she needs the money, eh?

  13. Most of your complaints are predicated on a basic ignorance : at the time when LeGuin wrote *Earthsea*, there were no popular notions of multiculturalism, and the term “political correctness” had not yet been coined by George Bush, Sr. For that matter, for her chronicles to present heroes who were not blandly Arthurian/Tolkienesque caucasians was radically innovative at the time. I think we need to recognize this historical fact.

    I think we also need to take into consideration the way the *LOTR* films and the Celtophilia of the past two decades have unintentionally fostered a situation in which once again fantasy tales ignore any fantastical heritage except British — a situation which (accidentally) ignores all the fantastical heritages of people of color. I suspect the renewed marginalization intensified her frustration — that, and the fact that LeGuin doesn’t like being lied to.

  14. Of course they can recast Ged as white, I only wish that they had made her a girl, too. I also suggest casting Denzel as Bruce Wayne, Lucy Liu as Clark Kent and Eric Raymond as Lando Calrissian.

    After all, it’s another world and we’re all oh, so colorblind.

  15. When I read the books, I never noticed the “white people are bad”. I just noticed that for once their was a main character that was not white. Can you really call her rasist for doing that? She’s a good writer, and I think this element of the story really complements the world of Earthsea. On the “colorblind” issue, it’s not the most important detail of the book. But what’s wrong with it being in there? I don’t see any racsim here. I see quite the opposite.

  16. Writers tend to write about topics they know and believe in. Political undertones are reactions from the author about the world they are in and are trying to escape. I don’t hear anyone complaining about the political undertones of “Lord of the Rings” even though it is obviously a reaction to both World Wars.

    Race is a confusing issue because there are two schools of thought. 1-That it is an issue to be ignored. No one should ever look at race, it should always be about the content of character, how the person lives, their impact to others, etc. 2- One should not ignore race because it is a part of your heritage, a part of who you are. AND there is the middle- they are two issues on the opposite sides of the same scale. We need to achieve balance between the two schools of thought.

    LeGuin created a world rich in different races and heritages. That made the world realistic. Her complaints are vallid because 1-she is the artist, the creator of the piece and 2-the casting of the miniseries took a lot of the richness in story away from the plot. To her, the casting was as bad as…for example, casting an Asian to play a full-blooded Mexican. Sure, there are many qualified Asian actors who can do the part and speak spanish, but why not cast a Mexican to play a Mexican?

  17. John Cowan (#12) got it right. You need to realize that in some places, such as the Southeast U.S., race is a big deal when it comes down to who’s the best. Race is used in the same way that class and gender are used. Leguin just makes it so that it really doesn’t matter what color a person is – that’s the point.

    Also, Scifi really messed up in other areas too, such as plot. Perhaps if people would stop picking at the racial aspect, they could concentrate on the plot, which is richer with the differences in skin color.

    Kristen Kruik as Tamar?! That’s sad. I’m not even going to mention that Ged is a dorky white guy in the miniseries. He’s cooler than to be maimed in the name of tv ratings.
    And they didn’t let Leguin have any say when they were casting the movie… even JK rowling got better than that! and she’s nowhere as good a writer!

    Curses on those scifi people. I hope nobody makes a movie out of catwings… *shudders*

  18. I never really cared for Earthsea. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” though…wow.

  19. Ged’s dark skin is mentioned repeatedly in the books. Casting a completely white actor to play him just reinforces the notion that fantasy heroes should be white. It becomes self-fulfilling, because people then expect the hero to be white, which gives directors some justification to prefer white actors, which then cause people to expect white actors etc etc. Can you blame le Guin for wanting to break the cycle?

  20. You, sir, are either a closet racist, or an insensitive dolt. Racial representation in the media matters to those who are not represented. Imagine if you lived in a world where you did not see yourself represented anywhere?

    Try looking exploring the grounds outside the castle of your whiteness. You might get an education.

  21. >Imagine if you lived in a world where you did not see yourself represented anywhere?

    I don’t have to imagine that world, because I live in it. Popular culture won’t touch many of the ideas most basic to my sense of self with a ten-foot pole. My skin color is a trivium by comparison.

    Racists are people who make a big deal about race. I want that to stop.

  22. Ok…. it seems as if the people who support LeGuin’s work even missed the point. What if we asked some of you to imagine an educated wealthy doctor? You honkeys will automatically think of a white male person. (we can say honkey cuz we is white) But why? This is the issue LeGuin is addressing when she wrote those stories. She constantly reminds you that this character is not what you expect or first imagine. It’s about how our minds produce schemas and make assumptions. This is a core element of what is wrong in society. We assume a prisoner is a black male, we assume a CEO is a white male, we assume that a nurse is a woman, we assume a muslim is going to suicide bomb something, we assume everyone is heterosexual, etc… (we all know what assuming makes) Her stories are among other things mental exercises that train the reader to go beyond how you have been accustomed to think and mentally categorize. Oh yeah… Sci-Fi channel sucks!

  23. Jesus Christ you really are white. First, I thank Ursula for writing black characters. Growing up, I was a science fiction/fantasy nerd. Do you know how many black people ever appeared in my fantasy stories? Only one. And that was Ged. Even now, I remember how enthralled I was with those books, I remember how I imagined Ged as a black man, glistening dark skin shining with sinew, bright white teeth flashing. I loved him because Ursula was an amazing writer because Earthsea was fascinating AND because Ged was black. And his character was like a pinprick of light in all my stories. Ursula is right to be angry that the movie changed the colors of her characters, the race of the characters and the allegory is incredibly important in her story. As far as you having left race behind, I will bitterly tell you that I wish I was white, unconscious and so color blind that I could pretend to pat myself on the back that I am post-racial and have “left race behind”. (Rolls eyes.)

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