In the Star Trek culture, a Kobayashi Maru is a no win scenario, often computer generated. In the movie, Captain Kirk as a cadet snuck into the computer lab after hours and reprogrammed the computer simulation so that when he took his test on the Kobayashi Maru, he could win. He reasoned that no situation is unwinnable.
My writer’s group discovered a Kobayashi Maru when attempting to have scenes in a story that reflect the diversity of our culture. It is okay to have a child with red hair and freckles. The porcelain doll child with blond ringlets is okay. Including an overweight child is acceptable, but mentioning that one child in this group is black got the author into trouble. Some members of the group felt it was a micro-aggression--identifying one child by race rather than some other detail. The author may try to communicate diversity by including children with ethnically-distinctive names, but J K Rowling was criticized for doing that with Cho Chen the Patil sisters.
Now, if the author never mentions anything alluding to race, the white reader—and even many non-white readers—will read the story as if all the children are white, which is really rather creepy and sad. Our culture simply is not at a point where an author can say “the children ran to the park,” and the reader will imagine a culturally and racially diverse group of children.
Because of discriminatory practices in the US, many white children never encountered a black child until they left home and went to college or served in the military. To these readers, a group of children will always appear white in their imagination. It isn’t a deliberate choice or a preference. It’s just conditioning. Children’s books reinforced the image of an all-white culture. Laura Ingalls Wilder very possibly never encountered a black child, and if she did, that child may very well have been an outsider who wasn’t enough of a part of her life to be included in her books.
The problem got started because of oppression, discrimination, and isolation, and the authors in previous generations reflected what they experienced in their communities. The problem for the current author becomes one of reflecting the composition of contemporary communities without appearing to resort to tokenism, cultural appropriation or racism. What is the solution?
The author can avoid mentioning the diversity in any community. Remaining silent perpetuates the image of all white communities where nobody has disabilities or is too skinny or too fat. Only beautiful white people are worth mentioning. This is not acceptable. Silence is a form of segregation in itself. This should not be the case, but we don’t live in a world of what should be. We live in a world of what is. For too many years, our communities have been segregated. Some communities are still segregated, but where I live, most communities are integrated enough to reflect the proportion of each ethnic group in our larger society. Silence on that subject doesn’t reflect the world the writer experiences.
J. K. Rowling integrated Hogwarts in several ways. The students reflected the ethnic diversity of England, but she got soundly criticized because the minority characters weren’t among the three main heroes. Note that although Rowling never said so, everybody assumed Hermione was white. They were outraged when a black girl was cast to play Hermione in a stage production of the book. Not necessarily because the actress was black but merely because it wasn’t how the readers had pictured the character. This is a great example of the literary segregation that occurs when the author is silent on the race of a character.
Rowling was criticized because her minority characters were not given bigger roles in the story. They did play significant and dignified roles. I loved Lee Jordan’s Quidditch commentary and his role in the resistance was vitally important. The Patil sisters were good people, and they stood with the resistance. Yet Rowling was criticized because their roles weren’t bigger.
To further complicate the issue, although Parvati’s race is never mentioned and she receives exactly the same degree of description as her best friend Lavender Brown, she is considered a “token” for no other reason than that her name is Indian in origin, which suggests that any minority character in a small role is by definition a “token.”
The most common suggestion seems to be that the writer should describe the character without mentioning race. This brings us back to the audience interpretation problems we saw with Hermione. Mentioning a physical characteristic can raise more problems. Talking about a person’s skin is intimate. The protagonist might observe that his romantic interest has fair skin, but if he mentions that a child at the playground has fair skin, that is an indication of something creepy, unless the comment is accompanied by a mention raging sunburn. Yet the argument remains that it is okay to talk about minorities in a way that would be improper when applied to white people. For many writers, that’s not an acceptable solution.
Some people suggest you simply say that a character is “dark,” but “dark” has been used for centuries to mean a Caucasian with dark-colored hair, so it doesn’t clarify the race issue. It has the additional disadvantage of connoting “sinister,” which may not in any way fit the character, and a writer might recoil from the implication that having dark skin makes a person scary.
It seems that the only acceptable solution is for the hero to be a member of a minority. This creates a problem for the white author trying to be inside the head of a minority character. For a white person to attempt to be in the head of someone who has a very different interface with the community raises issues of cultural appropriation and cultural dishonesty. I have no idea what it may be like to get pulled over by a cop for driving while black. I have no idea what living with the daily grind of subtle discrimination is like. I have no idea what goes on inside the head of someone who is snubbed while being black. Sure, some people are rude to me. I can wonder if I did something wrong or if they are just having a bad day. The color of my skin is not a factor in interpreting my interactions with my environment. Thus, I run the risk of misrepresentation.
So our options become literary segregation, “tokenism,” or dishonesty. The contemporary author is left without any acceptable solution--a Kobayashi Maru. I really don’t know of any acceptable solutions to our Kobayashi Maru. I do think it is the role of writers, actors, poets, and visual artists to sneak into the computer lab and reprogram the game so we all can win.