After writing my review of Shogun, there was one aspect of the book and its larger context which I wanted to comment on, but which wouldn’t fit into a book review. That is the issue of race, and the general idea of a white POV character surrounded by people of color.

This story template is known in SFF circles as What These People Need Is A Honky (and do read the linked article there — it’s interesting and funny), and it crops up frequently. Shogun is frequently mentioned in discussions of this topic, because it’s an excellent example, falling pretty neatly into the fake outline given at the link above:

White guy flees from his own culture for personal reasons (to set him up as different from those with white privilege). White guy meets natives. Natives educate white guy. White guy learns the way of natives, possibly also converting a native person who was originally doubtful of him, thereby proving white guy’s worthiness. White guy fights for natives. White guy makes dramatic escape while the native guy dies, possibly trying to help the white guy. The movie then ends with a dramatic coda and captions that inform the audience that despite white guy’s triumph, the Situation Remains Dire.

Shogun departs from this template mostly in the ending: the final victory belongs to the daimyo Toranaga, not the English sailor Blackthorne, and the Situation does not Remain Dire. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how an actual Japanese person might be irritated by the presentation of feudal Japan in the book. The Japanese characters, while extremely sympathetic and often more compelling than the European characters, are thoroughly exoticized. The standard of comparison is always Western, the intended audience is assumed to be Western, and the Japanese civilization is presented as an object of fascination and evaluation by Western eyes.

And not just any Western evaluator, but a modern Western evaluator. James Clavell clearly loves Japanese culture, and he sets of a variety of contrasts in which we are meant to side with the Japanese against the early-modern European visitors: the relative religious neutrality of their monarchs, the sexual license and experimentation, the relative equality of the samurai women, their cleanliness, and their diet. The intended audience of the book may be Western, but the reader is clearly meant to side with the Japanese.

This story trope nearly always works this way: the story is presented to an audience that is presumed to be white and Western, yet the audience is asked to engage their sympathies against the West and for the "natives". But this presents us with a paradox. Why should stories which implicitly normalize the Western POV also explicitly criticize Western culture? And why is it that stories of this sort are often simultaneously accused of Western racism and colonialism and anti-Western revisionism?

The answer, I think, is that this story trope has a place in an ongoing argument within the confines of Western culture about the relationship between technology, culture, and human flourishing. The essence of the honky narrative is to present a dichotomy between Western society, which is technologically advanced but artistically and spiritually deficient, and a non-Western society which is technologically backwards, but rich is culture and spirituality. In Shogun, Blackthorne brings Western guns, cannons, shipbuilding, and navigation techniques to the Japanese who lack them, while he acquires a Japanese aesthetic sense and spiritual peace. The same pattern repeats in Avatar, Dances With Wolves, and other notable stories in this type. In every case, the non-Western culture is used as a mirror for the West, casting into relief the tension between technological and spiritual excellence, and its sympathetic presentation of the "natives" is a way of arguing for the incompleteness of technological society.

This explains why the honky narrative is so often reviled for being anti-Western. The West has achieved its current position of global dominance with a combination of technological and scientific ingenuity, and the core tenet of the honky narrative is that technological prowess is ultimately less important than artistic and spiritual wholeness. Furthermore, the audience-members are themselves steeped in technological society (and in the case of Avatar, the presentation of the story itself is a technological masterwork), so the white protagonist’s struggle to understand and integrate himself in the native society reflects the audience’s reluctance to give up their own technological comforts. The argument of all of these stories is that we, the white, Western audience, are missing out on something.

None of which mitigates the complaint from the other side of the aisle about the shallow and insulting depiction of the natives, and the assumption that the audience is white and Western. Non-Westerners and non-whites do not necessarily appreciate being press-ganged into service as object lessons for the more privileged. Nor should they.

And this is why I find myself conflicted about the honky narrative. I understand the complaints lodged against it, but I’m still very sympathetic to the core argument of the trope. Technological and scientific triumphalism leave me cold. I cheer on the protagonist as he questions his certainties about what constitutes "progress". Plus, I’m kind of white myself, so it’s convenient and comfortable to learn about another culture from a POV similar to my own.

It is probable best to simply judge every instance of this trope on its own merits. Shogun seems to me to avoid the worst excesses of the trope, as its Japanese characters are more interesting and have more agency than the white characters. (It’s also well-written and fantastically paced.) Avatar is worse on both counts, with a derivative storyline and more racially problematic overtones. Other books and movies run the gamut. Your mileage may vary.


The most popular article I’ve ever written was Romani, Racism, and Romania, which continually ranks among the most-viewed pages here on this blog. And I see that a Google search for “romanian racism” currently has my article as hit #3. So obviously I hit a nerve on something with that discussion. In particular, I seem to get a lot of Americans who have gone or are going to Romania, and want some context for what seems like a lot of racist behavior on the part of the Romanians.

I’m here to fill that need.

I write from the perspective of a white, middle-class North American. And I’m writing this for the benefit of anyone visiting Romania from America or Western Europe, though I don’t necessarily assume that you’re white. (We’ll cover that below.) My view of Romania is an outsider’s view. However, I speak Romanian fluently, I lived in Romania for a year before getting married, I’m now married to a Romanian, and we continue to visit the country frequently.

Romanians and Anglophone whites

If you go to Romania as an American or British person, you probably won’t experience anything that you’d call racism. However, if you actually attempt to engage in conversation with the locals, you’ll find a lot of stereotypes and assumptions that Romanians make about you. This may occasionally provoke some discomfort.

Rich guy
A typical American
The first and most obvious thing: everyone will assume that you’re rich. And truth be told, you are pretty rich, compared to most of the people that you meet. This can lead to some uncomfortable situations. Some people may ask you for money, and they may become upset if you won’t give it to them. People may not understand the difference between “can afford to go out for dinner every night while on vacation” and “can afford to give someone a $600 laptop on a whim”, since buying a laptop and going out to dinner frequently are equally signals of wealth and influence to typical working-class Romanians. In general Romanians are very generous with each other; conversely, if you start to make Romanian friends, they will expect and assume that you are going to be generous with them. Many people find this presumption of wealth and generosity to be off-putting–I certainly did when I first started building Romanian friendships.

A related point is that you may discover people speaking to you with a certain amount of resentment. Romanians often feel like they’ve been unjustly maligned by history, and that foreigners don’t appreciate their considerable cultural and historical acheivements. As a result they may display a nasty inferiority complex that manifests as the need to constantly put down Westerners, or try to impress them by playing it cool.

Many Romanians are credulous of conspiracy theories and fringe scientific ideas that Americans find ridiculous. An example: I once had the truly surreal experience of talking to a Romanian who insisted that the Jews controlled the banks and the governments. However, he said they were doing as good a job as anyone, so he was content to let them continue.

Romanians who have never been abroad get most of their ideas about America from movies and television. Think about that for a moment. A lot of Romanians assume that America is basically Southern California + New York. And not the actual California and New York, but the Hollywood versions.

Romanians and English-speaking people of color

(I hate the term “people of color”, but I don’t know of anything else that can be used in this situation.)

If you’re a black, Asian, Indian, Native American, or other non-white American, you may be in for a somewhat rougher time in Romania. You’ll find that most of the stereotypes discussed above also apply to you, but with an additional wrinkle: many Romanians will never have meet or spoken to a non-white, non-gypsy person before you. This creates additional opportunities for discomfort.

A lot of people will simply be curious. Try not to take this personally. Americans have been conditioned to avoid directly mentioning or commenting on someone’s race, while Romanians have not. You’ll find that Romanians gleefully trample over the conversational niceties that Americans observe when discussing race. This may come across as rudeness, but it really shouldn’t be interpreted as racism. In fact, you may find that Romanians hold fewer racial stereotypes about blacks and Asians than Americans do, simply because there are almost no people of those races living in Romania and there are no cultural narratives defining what PoC are “supposed” to be like.

The Romanian dependence on Western pop culture without the rest of the Western cultural context can have some surprising and upsetting consequences. I had to explain to my sister-in-law that it’s not okay to call black people “nigger”, and that it’s in fact extremely offensive. She didn’t see what the big deal was: rappers and movie characters use the word all the time! The subtleties of in-group vs. out-group usage were lost on her, and she had no understanding of the history of the word. (Romanians know that black people used to be slaves in America, because for some reason Uncle Tom’s Cabin is quite popular in translation there, but they’re largely oblivious to the complex, bitter history of American race relations following the Civil War.) If you find yourself in a similar situation in Romania, it’s important to be forgiving and remember that your Romanian acquaintances are very likely oblivious to the racist significance of their language.

On the other hand, due to the inferiority complex mentioned above, some Romanians will fixate on any available reason to belittle a Western visitor, including their race. Some people will always be assholes. Hopefully you won’t have to deal with very many of these people.

Romanians and gypsies

Ah, here is where things get bad.

(I’m going to use the word gypsy throughout this section rather than the preferred Roma or Romani, simply to avoid any possible confusion between Romani and Romanian. The two words have nothing to do with each other, and the resemblance between them is completely coincidental.)

Before coming to Romania I thought of gypsies basically the same way I thought of pirates: something exotic and alluring that existed only in distant times and places. I was very excited to see real, live gypsies when I came to Romania. But discovering the actual situation of the gypsies in Romania was a rather rude shock.

Tiganca cu copil
A young Romanian gypsy woman and her child
The relationship between Romanians and gypsies is the only thing in Romania that’s remotely analogous to the relationship between American whites and blacks. Gypsies have never been enslaved en masse, but they’ve formed a permanent underclass for pretty much the entirety of their history in Romania. Most of them speak Romanian, but many of them also speak a dialect of Roma, their native Indic language. Traditionally gypsies were nomadic, traveling in caravans from place to place, but many of them were forcibly settled during the Communist era, creating miserable little gypsy villages and ghettoes across the country. Most gypsies live in tremendous poverty, they have a very high illiteracy rate, and they’re plagued by many of the same the social ills that attend to the inner cities in America.

If you’re visiting from America or Western Europe, you’re not a gypsy. Even if you’re dark skinned, even if you actually have gypsy ancestry, even if you think of yourself as gypsy, your Western wealth and status make you Not A Gypsy in Romanian eyes. However, you’re going to see plenty of gypsies in Romania, and you may be very disturbed by what you find there.

Romanians carry lots of stereotypes about gypsies. Here’s just a few:

  • Gypsies are swindlers. If you try to make a bargain with one, you’d better watch out, because he’s going to try to screw you over.
  • Gypsies are thieves. If you live near gypsies, you’d better lock everything up tight, because otherwise the gypsies will break in and steal it. Keep a tight grip on your wallet if you see gypsies in the market.
  • Gypsies practice witchcraft. You can often see gypsies acting as fortune-tellers in the markets. They can work hexes on you if you insult them.

There are basically two ways to react to this situation, and if you stay in Romania long enough you’re likely to experience both poles of this dichotomy. The options are:

Stuff White People Think: Obviously the gypsies are an oppressed people. The stereotypes about them are completely unfounded, and in fact the existence of all of these negative stereotypes is the reason that gypsies are so poor and underprivileged. If Romanians would just open their eyes and stop being so racist, they’d see that the gypsies are wonderful people with a beautiful culture of their own, and the gypsies and the Romanians would live in perfect harmony.

This viewpoint is likely to persist until the second or third time you get followed through the market with a gypsy woman on your tail begging loudly to read your palm, or until the gypsy boys down the street break into your ground-floor apartment. At that point you’re likely to Buy Into the Hype. Everything that Romanians say about gypsies is true. The gypsies are poor because they’re filthy and dishonest. You have every right to avoid them on the street and watch them distrustfully when you see them in the market. And naturally you’ll want to find another apartment further away from those people.

At this point, it would be nice to say that my experiences in Romania disproved the stereotypes and showed the baselessness of Romanian anti-gypsy prejudice, but that would be a lie. In reality, despite my initial favorable disposition to the gypsy people, I rather quickly learned to keep my wits and wallets about me when I saw gypsies approaching. This sort of thing falls into the realm of unfortunate necessity, a necessity that many people have discovered.

So what does this practically mean for you, the intrepid traveler?

In the first place, I’ll repeat the advice that any tourist is likely to receive. Don’t give money to panhandlers (of any race). Don’t go to people offering to read palms, tarot cards, or any other kind of fortune-telling, no matter how fun or innocent it might seem. Keep an eye on your valuables, especially when in crowded public places like markets. Do all of these things double when gypsies are involved. You may feel uncomfortable about doing so—I certainly feel uncomfortable giving this advice—but you’re not actually helping the gypsies any by letting them steal from you.

On the other hand, don’t hesitate to buy from gypsy vendors who are selling handicrafts or homemade goods.

Don’t bother arguing with Romanians about gypsies and racism or anything of the sort. They’ll tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and they’ll be right.

If you actually want to help the welfare of gypsies in Romania, I recommend that you donate to a reputable Romanian charity, or one dedicated to helping gypsies across Europe. You, as a visitor to Romania, are not in much of a position to change Romanian culture or make any real difference in the lives of the gypsies that you meet. However, there are many charities that are doing real work to increase literacy, provide job training, etc., and they’re much better equipped to actually help people break out of the trap of poverty and crime.

One last thing

Have fun in Romania. I love the country, and I can’t wait until the next time my family and I get to go back.

Please read this before commenting: A more positive follow-up. I get a lot of people complaining in the comments that I was overly negative about Romania, so I want to make sure that people see the other side and realize that there are lots of great things about Romania, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from going there.

An infuriating article about Indian discrimination against blacks. Did you know that the Cherokees used to keep black slaves? But that after they emancipated them (before the US emancipated its slaves, natch) they were integrated into the tribe and generally regarded as full Indians? Neither did I. Unfortunately, a later US Indian census separated the “black Indians” into a separate category, and that is now being used as the excuse to disenfranchise and exclude their descendants from tribal membership.

Read the whole article for details.

I find that I fully agree with David Levine’s analysis of the cultural appropriation imbroglio. Because it’s basically the same thing that I said when a similar brouhaha came up last year.

I heard about the supposed firestorm late, after the major participants had already had their say. The only thing that I want to add is that the original Elizabeth Bear post is actually a fantastic piece of advice for writing the Other.

Here’s a popular Romanian joke:

A gypsy and his neighbor set out to build their houses. They spared no expense, and they succeeded in building two identical houses, brick for brick. When they were done, they both stepped back to admire their work. “What a great house!” the one said. “I’ll bet that I can sell it for a million dollars.” “What a great house!” the gypsy said. “I’ll bet that I can sell mine for two million dollars.” “What?” the neighbor said. “Our houses are identical. Why would yours sell for twice what mine sells for?” “Easy,” the gyspy said. “I don’t live next to a gyspy.”

And here’s a true story that happened to me while I was living in Romania: I lived outside of town and had to take a bus into work. I lived near a gypsy enclave, and my bus was often filled with people bringing their wares into town. One day the bus was very crowded (as usual), and I offered my seat to a youngish gypsy woman who looked tired and weary. She took it without a word. Then, about halfway through the trip, she started harassing me to give her money. I politely ignored her, but she became increasingly strident, offering to tell me my fortune in exchange for whatever money I was willing to give her. As she grew more insistent I grew more impatient, until the bus finally arrived downtown and I hurriedly disembarked to escape. No luck. She followed me, pulling on my sleeve and almost physically attempting to keep me from leaving. In exasperation I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out the first thing that I found: a 1000 lei coin (a tiny pittance, since a loaf of bread cost 10,000 lei at the time). I tried to push it into her hand, but it slipped out and fell into the muck and snow at the edge of the bus stop. She dashed after it, then looked at me in disgust when she realized that she had dirtied her hands for such a pathetic sum. A cop was standing nearby, and he started laughing. He winked at me in camaraderie–he naturally assumed that I had done this on purpose to humiliate the woman. Horrified and embarrassed, I fled from the bus stop and towards downtown. I say these two things to illustrate the following points:

  • Romani (gypsies) are subjected to immense, pervasive prejudice in Romania. One simply assumes that gypsies are dirty, irresponsible, rapacious, abusive, fortune-tellers, thieves, and swindlers. Anti-Romani racism is nearly universal and almost never questioned. In this sense Romania is quite different from the US, where racism is usually covert and subtle. Romanian bias is overt, obvious, and most of all considered normal.
  • At the same time, the prejudice is not really racial. It’s cultural. Romani who adopt mainstream dress, language, and lifestyle are pretty easily integrated. My wife descends from such a family: her paternal grandparents were gypsies who settled and entered Romanian mainstream, and this heritage has had close to zero impact on her and the rest of her family. She and all of her sisters are darker-skinned than the average Romanian, but no-one cares. I knew other people who were obviously Romani, but who had no trouble integrating into normal economic life once they took up Romanian dress, religion, etc. This also contrasts with historical attitudes in the US, where one-drop rules meant that people with mixed ancestry felt the full weight of segregation.
  • Partly for this reason, official attempts to redress this situation have been entirely ineffective, from what I can see. Officially, the Romani are not țigani but romi, and public-service advertisements against racism are visible in all major cities. The result? People now tell racist jokes using the word rom instead of țigan. Progress, eh? Additionally, there’s very little political consciousness among the gypsies themselves (that I know of). This dooms any attempts to address the problem through official channels, and makes the gestures that have been undertaken seem like condescension.
  • The story of what happened to me on the bus illustrates a problem with many of the accepted narratives about why racial stereotypes exist. In this feel-good just-so story, stereotypes are a means for the privileged to keep the underclass down, and closer interaction with the oppressed shows the stereotype to be false, and so racism disappears. My experience was just the opposite. Most interactions that most people have with gypsies in Romania serve to reinforce the stereotype. Indeed, the most horrific stories of spousal and child abuse I’ve ever heard have come from my sister-in-law and her husband, who do social work in an impoverished gypsy village. Their experience working closely with the Romani has not served to create the comfortable illusion that the gypsies are “just like us” beneath their skin, but rather has deepened the impression that there are terrible dysfunctions in Romani culture and mores.
  • Since the real divide between gypsies and Romanians in Romania is cultural, some people would counsel tolerance and mutual respect. Tolerance might be possible, but it will never lead to respect, because the differences between mainstream and Romani culture are imbued with moral significance. For example, it is not uncommon for Romani women to be married in their teens, and to have a few children by the time they reach their twenties. This is combined with widespread domestic abuse and general misogyny. Is this something that should be tolerated and respected? And this is just one example that I picked as congenial to Westerners–there are many other examples of cultural differences imbued with moral significance that separate the gypsy minority from the Romanian mainstream.
  • There is a conflict between the desire to preserve and respect Romani culture and the desire to eliminate prejudice against the Romani, because the culture is largely the cause of the prejudice. Okay, we say, we’ll keep the good (or neutral) aspects of the culture and get rid of the bad ones. Keep the bright dresses and lose the child marriage. Okay, but which cultural aspects are good and which are bad? And who gets to decide? The Romani themselves, or well-meaning liberal bureaucrats in Bucharest and Brussels? I have a hunch who’s actually going to set the policies that determine the future of Romani in Romania, and I’m suspicious that it’s just another form of racism, masquerading as multiculturalism.

And yet… I don’t think that we should be complacent about the treatment of gypsies in Romania (or anywhere else). I just think that we should be realistic about the content and the causes of prejudice. If you like this, you may be interested in A visitor’s guide to Romanian racism.

Update: Here’s another article about gypsy demographics, culture, and history which is relevant to this discussion.