White male protagonists, ‘saving’ other ethnically labeled people, are deeply entrenched in modern fiction. So much that audiences take it for granted. James Cameron’s Avatar was the first one that popped into my mind, but there are plenty of others. The white savior is an old idea. He is part of the fabric of novels and films as well. Lawrence of Arabia, Tarzan, Alan Quartermain, Marvel Comics Iron Fist, John Candy in Cool Runnings, even Sandra Bullock in ‘The Blind Side’ reinforce the notion that if not for the guidance of white people, few people of color could succeed in the world.
Of course, this is nonsense, but human societies are ruled by nonsense. There are ways to push back against this conceit in fiction. Writing characters who are perfectly capable of saving themselves and others who also happen to be people of color is one place to start. Writing those same characters without cultural appropriation can be a challenge, but empowering humanity as a whole is a noble pursuit unto itself.
Diversity in my fiction made sense well beyond the absurdity of the white savior. People like to see themselves reflected in the novels they read. I’d feel disingenuous if I didn’t have a red-headed white man in some story of mine, but I haven’t encountered the spot he’d fit into yet. How many Asian, African or Indigenous Americans would like to see characters they can relate to in fiction? All of them, I suspect.
Along the same lines as diversity in characters is another role for modern fantasy: Setting. For close to a hundred years, Medieval European analogs dominated fantasy stories (especially high or epic fantasy). Tolkien directly influenced generations of fantasy writers who have followed his trailblazing, but that vision of Middle-Earth has still hobbled our imaginations. This is the white savior in absentia, his culture (or some slightly disguised version of it) is the one any world would aspire to or ultimately achieve—an equally preposterous (and boring) idea.
Although the setting for my debut novel, Fantastic America, is solidly an analog for the real world, the settings beyond it are as diverse as my limited imagination could manage. There are certainly analogs of elves and dwarves. There are also very alien Djinn, a variety of sentient animal-humanoids, and merfolk living in worlds unlike Middle-Earth entirely. I’ve borrowed liberally from historical cultures around the world to influence those settings, but none of them are inherently Persian, Hindu, or Chinese either.
For me, fantasy is about possibilities, a way to escape the mundane world. I’d prefer worlds that allow us to examine emotions, social constructs, institutions without including a sermon from me about how I see them. An imaginary failed state is much easier for readers to assess than a real one with actual people who lived and perhaps died defending its culture and history. High ideals are wonderful until an entire nation picks and chooses who gets to participate in those ideals.
Fortunately, many more perspectives and unique voices are emerging in fantasy. Increasing diversity in fiction is as apparent as strolling through the shelves of your nearest bookstore. There are financial incentives for publishers to continue this trend, and I can only hope the white savior and associated tropes fade away as more voices join the chorus.