Dec302019: Some clarification of Relatability =/= Empathy

“in regards to ur relatibility =/= empathy post, I’m a little confused. on the one hand, it’s saying the protagonist doesn’t need to be white to be understood by white readers (which I agree with). but on the other, it’s criticising the publishing houses that only approve white characters. but if the character doesn’t need to be an Avatar for the reader, then does representation matter at all? and if it doesn’t, then what’s the problem with the majority of western fiction having white protags?”

Hm your confusion may be due to conflating some meanings together and perhaps lacking some context (I am not accusing you, just helping you parse. I’ll go through your ask).

Yes, we both agree that it’s true that non-white protagonists can be read and understood by white readers.

But it’s also true that bias is a thing. Bias affects what you like and what you read. For example, I can read a book on the American Civil War, but if my brain space isn’t receptive to it, it wouldn’t be the first thing I pick up.

In publishing, editors have the power to choose which books are developed for production. Because nobody is perfect, editors also have biases, whether checked or unchecked, and they can be as small as my Civil War example, or bigger ones like other cultural/racial/diverse voices. As an editor myself, it’s very hard to describe how choosing which books feel “right” for a publishing house. But it’s similar to finding a spark. A connection. Many times it’s finding something to relate to with the story. Usually that’s a character. If I think this character is relatable to me, that means it’s going to be relatable to someone else. Often what is considered “relatable” to me is going to be based on my upbringing, my cultural privilege, my relationships to people (within and outside my community), the stories I have read before, etc.

Since the publishing industry is more than 80% white, and the majority of editors are white (and American), that means there’s a higher likelihood of bias towards books that relate to the diversity of white-American experiences. But, no matter how huge and amorphous being a white American is, it doesn’t and cannot and will not be able to explain other non-white experiences of being an American. A Mexican-American is gonna have a different story than a Mexican immigrant than a black American than a refugee. Same with other races and cultures and faiths. Even within communities there are huge differences, due to a thousand factors. Let’s not even talk about what it means being an XYZ person in another part of the world.

This is why using “relatability” as the only factor of editorial judgement is limiting. The problem of the majority of Western fiction having white protags is that it only still shows a certain and incomplete segment of what being a Westerner means. The Western world (whatever that means) has never just been white people. Not in 300 BCE and not in 2019. What stories are we missing? What are we purposefully or unintentionally leaving out? How do these missing gaps affect the narrative of our society, how we see ourselves in the past, present and future? This is the problem. The problem we are fighting, is the danger of the single story.

And the second thing: a character not needing to be an Avatar doesn’t mean representation is not important. A non-Avatar character can still be representation. Consider this, I cannot relate to Michelle Yeoh and I don’t see myself in the characters she plays, but when she made that choice to use her NATURAL MALAYSIAN CHINESE ACCENT playing a Captain on Star Trek… Damb, I felt validated. I felt seen. But that feeling of representation (as a Malaysian Chinese woman) didn’t come from relatability, or seeing myself in either Yeoh or the Star Trek Captain. Still, I felt like both our Malaysian Chinese voice (literally) was recognised and given a space to exist among others.

View it like this. An Avatar is seeing yourself. A non-Avatar is seeing your family member, or a friend, or a mentor, or someone else you know. Both are representation.

Hope it helps.

Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.

She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.

Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.

Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur

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