I have a feeling that this is going to turn into a longer essay one day soon. Setting down some thoughts now…
Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies is about a dystopic world in which everyone is given surgery on their sixteenth birthday so that they can become pretties. Two friends, Tally and Shay, at Tally’s insistence, are experimenting with the looks they would like to have – although a committee will in actuality decide for them:
She tweaked the eyebrows, making their arch more dramatic, and added roundness to the cheeks. Shay was still too skinny, even after the morpho software had pulled her toward the average.
“And maybe a bit lighter?” Tally took the shade of the skin closer to baseline.
“Hey, Squint,” Shay said. “Whose face is this, anyway?”
Shay has olive skin.
This is one tiny moment in a long novel that otherwise doesn’t mention race, and it’s a significant for that. It’s chilling. I wonder what happened to the people with darker skin, and other “imperfect” features, as this dystopic system was being set up. If baseline is pale, what happened to the people who were nowhere close to conforming? If they were altered or killed or prevented from reproducing, whichever, it’s a nightmare conclusion.
In Uglies, it’s a forcibly all-white world that is presented as a dystopia, and I think Westerfeld maps that out well, if a little too briefly for my taste. But that’s not a universal for science fiction, where all-white worlds are regularly presented as the utopia. Sometimes, non-white people don’t even have to be explicitly killed off in order to make our exclusion from paradise obvious. I’ve read stories so clearly designed for white people, at the expense of people like me, that I’ve not taken the trouble to finish them. Why bother paying that kind of respect to a writer who thinks I don’t read and am worth nothing more than a sad rhetorical point?
Alternatively, a white writer may present non-white worlds as dystopic. There’s a story I love, published in 1969 by Suzette Haden Elgin, called “For the Sake of Grace”. It is about a young woman, Jacinth, who wants to become a Poet, which is a religious position on her planet. However, women who fail the examination – and women are denied training – are to be isolated for life. She overcomes other people’s narratives about what a woman can be, terrible danger, and indifference in order to achieve the dream of her heart. It is a magnificent story, full of pain and vision. But it is magnificent very much in spite of itself, because this is a world modelled on a falsified faux-Middle Eastern conglomerate culture. It relies on the reader’s having the idea of Those People being bent on restricting Their Women, according to a singular model of patriarchy. Elgin isn’t alone in this: white women, and white women working in science fiction, make points about patriarchy at the expense of their non-white sisters every day. I am sick, sick in the weight of my arms as I write this, sick in my gut, sick of being an example for white women to point to as their patriarchal past, even as I am their contemporary, an example of a non-white culture rotted with wrongness.
Ultimately, in these writings, it’s white anxieties about whiteness and perfection that are being placated. Non-white people are bad, and it’s a better world that does not have us in it. It’s a relief to have white utopias, because then white people do not have to confront difference. This is too close to our world. It is terrifying to think of all those writers thinking up worlds in which their false imaginings of our cultures are contained, terrible, to be acted against – or gone entirely.