Science Fiction Is For White People

The concept of science fiction was built for white people; it took off near the start of the Industrial Revolution and age of Enlightenment in Europe. Scifi is then a very Eurocentric box, though The Arabian Nights and other folklore may contain elements of scifi. Scifi is an expansion, along with technology, in the human tradition of folklore and myth. The wonder of scifi though now has enraptured most of the world because it’s meant to explore worlds that are possible though improbably opposed to the impossibility of fantasy as H. Bruce Franklin puts it. There seems to be this notion though that even in the future the world remains white, just like it is now. However, by 2050 the US expects to minority-majority.

My own favorite, recent scifi shows don’t deal well with race. Travelers, a Netflix show, deals with people in the future taking over current people’s bodies to try and save the world. In Travelers, the character Carly has a look of disgust as she takes over her new body in the present and realizes she’s Black. She has an apprehension about her race, and the implications of what that means in her life. Carly fits many stereotypes– being a single mother and almost having her child taken away by the government. The father of her child is abusive and beats her. When the father of her child sees one of Carly’s love interests he accuses her of sleeping with him for the money. Again and again Carly fulfills many stereotypes in the life she leads in the present, yet the Carly from the future who is taking over Carly’s life is a badass tactician. This future Carly though in that first moment of apprehension, I don’t think totally understood the implications of being a Black woman in the present. Maybe when the world is ending in the future, racism is less prevalent?

Another Netflix show, 3%, in set in a society where 3% of the population passes a test to live in an utopian Offshore while everyone else lives in poor, slum-like conditions. 3% is a Brazilian show which makes the racial dynamics different, but even watching from an American viewpoint it gives more nuance to the characters of color compared to Travelers. The concept of the 3% doesn’t have any direct racial lineage with it despite the obvious elitism those in the Offshore appreciate. The entire process of testing is supposed to “fair,” however fair leaving 97% of the population in poverty can be. This testing creates the egalitarian meritocracy people dream of where color no longer matters. The two main Black characters, Rafael and Joana, are not the most privileged in their little ensemble, but are not given any worse back stories than the other characters. While race is never really mentioned in the series, it gives a reprieve from scifi being a white only genre.

The process of watching scifi is a tricky one, there are supposed to be lessons about the future and the present. Many dystopian and futuristic ones are a warning about what not to do and are worst case scenario, meaning every bad thing about the current world– like racism, sexism– can be stressed. Getting these weird twitchy feelings in the everyday world when detecting a bit of prejudice is a skill I’ve learned, but I’ve learned to try and ignore it during  TV. Trying to turn off this little itch I feel when watching scifi takes its toll. There are moments when watching Traveler I want to just turn it off and not deal with those icky moments. I have to do a pro-con list in my head about whether or not it’s worth it watch a show. Will the show just further reinforce stereotypes that I’ve tried so hard to unlearn?  Even with shows like 3% that handle race well I end up being on guard because I’m so afraid of someone making a mistake. The constant research of trying to know whether or not something on or someone in the show is #problematic. Whenever I end up recommending one of these shows to a friend, I have to include a little disclaimer about the issues of the shows.

The media I consume isn’t the most correct, rather far from it. I live with knowledge the media I watch perpetuates stereotypes and often degrades people who look like me. Trying to live my life on the straight and narrow path is not something I can ask from anyone. There’s a lot more when it comes to my feminism and beliefs as a woman of color, than a few time travel TV shows which could perhaps benefit from a consultant. Roxane Gay makes the messy world a little better for me in her Bad Feminist book reconciling her love of things she “shouldn’t” love and her feminist beliefs knowing what she loves is wrong. In her own words she is a “mess of contradictions” a term that watching these shows make me realize the different layers of myself even.

Scifi is all things possible no matter how improbable. The worlds I see people imagining are finally pushing the limits on what mainstream thinkers thought probable like Afrofuturism. People not seen in scifi are putting themselves into the narrative as Octavia Butler did even earlier. I look forward to the day where I don’t have to feel a pull between my love of worlds not yet seen and my dreams of a more equitable world. I want to stop carrying all this emotional baggage about But until then I have to accept the world I live in and my own faults and joys. The most probable world after all is one where I’m not perfect.

Words: Amelia Dogan, Illustrations: Zoë Slesenger