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A pretty common trope in science fiction and fantasy is to have fictional races stand in for Earth ones. The alien becomes the stand-in for the so-called primitive races for the white man (space explorer) to conquer, or else the supposed terrifying threat of the “alien invader” on white borders. What I’m really interested in is when white borders other than geographical ones are crossed: when whiteness itself is crossed and split.

Here’s what I mean. In some stories, (almost inevitably) white humans as we know them exist alongside alien or fantastical beings who stand in for non-white humans – but also there may be fantastical or alien beings who represent white people, too. Think of the elves in The Lord of the Rings, or the white vampires in the Twilight series. They’re stronger, faster, paler, more beautiful, and of keener senses than the (white!) humans. They’re the ultimate stand-ins for racist ideas of white people as better. Yet they exist alongside actual white people. How does that function?

I don’t have the whole answer to that, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the borders of whiteness do shift a lot and many gaps are left. How imaginary white people exist in imaginary spaces is one of the ways of exploring that.

One of my favourite examples of, and of subverting, this is “The Woman from Altair” (1951) by Leigh Brackett. David McQuarrie has brought home to Earth Arhian, a woman from Altair. He claims that they fell in love and decided to get married, but we later find out that she was forced. The main character, Rafe, David’s brother, is really uncomfortable with her – as it turns out, for good reason, as things begin to go terribly wrong for his family once she arrives. Arhian is described as having “perfectly white and beautiful” skin, but also a “fey-looking” face and hair “the colour of amethysts”. In combining normative and non-normative features, Ahrian disrupts the idea of the alien as the antithesis of white norms.

The very ambiguity of this position is the source of her threat, as the other characters are unsure how to relate to her, and David in particular attempts to reduce her to an idea of helpless, delicate white womanhood in order to keep a grip on her. He can’t imagine Arhian, as the only one of her kind on Earth, and as a woman, as capable of interacting on ethically and politically equitable terms with him. David can then feel comfortable introducing her as one of “many strange and impressive things” from his travels – which of course plays off the history of objectifying displays of racial others. Even the sympathetic hero, Rafe, describes her as a “poor little critter” in an echo of that animalising alienation. The terrifying possibilities of her difference are subsumed into the normativising impulse of Earth societal politics: where her alienness means Ahrian cannot be positioned as a vulnerable white woman, she is a passive animal or an object.

Ahrian takes on Earth’s expected behaviours for feminine white women, of uncomplicated cheerfulness and modesty, in order to disguise her harmful intent. “Ahrian beamed like a happy child, and murmured that her little trinkets [that she made for Rafe and his fiance] weren’t worthy of such an honour” as being part of their wedding ceremony. That’s Rafe’s description: he retains a tendency to infantalise this other even though he knows he ought not to relate to Ahrian as a passive, childlike woman. Of course, it’s the jewellery itself, fused with the power, knowledge, and skill she brought from her own world, that Ahrian uses to try bring the McQuarries down. When she shows herself powerful and capable of harming the McQuarries, who have taken her from her world, Ahrian is reimagined by Rafe as “a woman who had lavender hair and performed witchcraft”. Rafe simply cannot relate to this alien other on her own terms, but slots her into Earth stereotypes of a racial and cultural other, marked by physical features construed as unusual, who performs mysterious magic outside normative knowledges.

She’s both “perfectly” white and not white at all, a woman who both participates in Earth ideas of gender and for whom they are utterly irrelevant beyong taking her captor down. It’s an uncomfortable space for the surviving McQuarries, who have to confront the racialised nature of what they have done while not being able to figure this woman as “us” or “other”.

It’s a good story for thinking about this stuff, not least because it doesn’t straight up use imagined whitenesses as a way to glorify whiteness. Whiteness is always complicated and shifting, never neutral, and imaginary spaces are a useful place to explore how it can function.

Previously: Race in The Women Men Don’t See.

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