Fantasy magazine

From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Learning to Dream in Color

I didn’t grow up dreaming in color.

I dreamed in white.

Not my literal dreams, the thoughts that flickered within my mind’s eye while I dozed. In those dreams I was a frizzy-haired black girl with unkempt hair and an overbite, same as I was in my daily life. Those nightly dreams were cast in shades of brown.

But my fantasies, those daydreams that get us through the dull moments of the day: the bus ride to school, a teacher reciting multiplication tables for the thousandth time, the lecture from your father about the importance of school, those were white. Me, a princess with golden hair long enough to escape a tower.

Me, a warrior woman defending my land against barbarian invaders.

Me, a vicious sorceress feared throughout the land and for good reason.

In my head I was many women.

But I was also always white.

I became convinced after a while that if I were white, magic would happen for me. Obviously it was my skin holding me back from having the adventures I read about in books. I only became more convinced of the fact after reading The Hero and the Crown, a book in which the main character’s pale skin and red hair marks her as different from the rest of her darker-skinned family. Of course, Aerin was truly a princess, even though the rest of her family doubts her royal blood. She was white, and everyone knows princesses are white.

And they were. Every fantasy world I read about was inhabited strictly by white people. Beautiful white people. Petty white people. White people with every color of hair imaginable. They were the stars in these fantastical lands. I wanted what they had, the magic, the drama, the intrigue. And most of all, the fair skin.

And so I always dreamed in white.

The funny thing is, I’m not the only one.

• • • •

Whenever people talk about making fantasy more inclusive the focus tends to be on adding realms of discovery, broadening the conversation to include fantastical worlds that exist outside of the European fantasy tradition. Why, exactly, is that?

Rarely do we look at the existing canon and agitate to change that. It seems like such an obvious place to start, but for most of us it isn’t. We chafe at adding black people to the settings of European fantasy, relying on arguments of historical accuracy and tradition. What part of history had dragons and complex magic systems? And slavery was also a tradition for a very, very long time. Few would ever consider holding on to that institution.

Still, others sidestep these arguments altogether. Rather than adding and elevating people of color within the existing fantasy story frames, the decision is to add new frames to the conversation for people of color to project their stories upon. Which is admirable, but essentially changes nothing.

And you can see this for yourself: most calls for diverse (a word bandied about so much that it’s lost all meaning) or multicultural fantasy specifies non-European-based fantasy, as though fantasy worlds based on other cultures haven’t been white-washed just as much as their European-based cousins. It is a flawed idea that to make fantasy inclusive we must force writers, and most especially writers of color, to design new story frames upon which to hang their tales.

This focus on fantasy worlds from cultures other than the ones we know comes from a good place, but it is functionally corrupt. These calls emanate from a desire to both broaden the current storytelling frames and preserve existing, wholly white story frames. After all, it isn’t as though no one is publishing European-based fantasy with an all-white cast. Those stories are multitudinous. Rather, by forcing tellers of multicultural/non-white fantasy to create new frames we are still, in our hearts, dreaming in white first and all other colors second. This is what a colonized imagination, an imagination in which white is the first, best answer, and all others are secondary, looks like.

This is why we talk about people of color destroying fantasy. It means breaking down the existing story frames that rely strictly on a white, European default. It means building new frames that are wide and broad enough to include all. It means populating a European-based fantasy with black elves, Latino dwarves, and a hapless Chinese farm boy. It means making Bilbo Baggins Samoan or casting Snow White as Aleutian. It means to make all stories fully inclusive, not just those set off to the side with an eye toward exoticism and white voyeurism.

We need fantasy worlds that don’t rely on a palette of whiteness. The colors we dream in shouldn’t be an accent to an overwhelmingly white construct. Rather, all the colors should be visible in discernible measure. Anyone should be able to find magic.

Fantasy belongs to everybody. So let’s all dream in color.

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Justina Ireland

Justina Ireland

Justina IrelandJustina Ireland enjoys dark chocolate, dark humor, and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, and dog in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows, both currently available from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. Her essay “Me, Some Random Guy, and the Army of Darkness” appears in The V-Word, an anthology of personal essays by women about having sex for the first time, published by Beyond Words (S&S). Her writing has appeared in Story Magazine, Book Riot, and Fireside Fiction. And her forthcoming book Dread Nation will be available in 2018 from the HarperCollins imprint Balzer and Bray. You can find Justina on twitter as @justinaireland or visit her website