In most *written* secondary-world Fantasy, and far-future Science Fiction, race doesn’t much matter. Because those worlds aren’t contemporary, and written word is a non-visual medium.
First, a character’s race certainly matters in stories set on our world (or a recognizable facsimile) any time in the past, present, or near-future. Race matters a lot in the real world, it has major impacts on a character’s life and experiences that are very pertinent to the reader. A black character in a Urban Fantasy is still dealing with hostile social forces, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and common stereotypes. A Hispanic kid in a cyberpunk world still has to deal with similar issues. These things inform who the character is, and how we relate to them, because these are forces we experience (or at least are intimately familiar with) in our real lives. Describe a character by their race and we internalize and remember it. Simply the fact of how they look has shaped their lives in ways the reader will be familiar with.
In a secondary or far-future world, this is not the case. In a world where the ruling majority have dark skin and people with light skin are the foreigners… so what? Or one peoples have straight hair, the others kinky. Or one peoples have folded eyes, the others not. Or mix and match, and alter other features as well. It doesn’t really matter, because there are no social or experiential implications to any of these traits for the reader. We aren’t immersed in the politics and culture of the non-contemporary world. We may be told that “the flat-nosed people oppressed the sharp-nosed people for centuries,” but there’s no emotional history that goes along with literally living our entire lives in a world like that and seeing the consequences daily. Of seeing photos of men murdered in the street.*
These things can make for cool cosmetic differences, sure. It’s boring to have everyone look the same, and mixing it up can give each group a distinctive flair. But it doesn’t mean anything on an emotional level. And I’ve found that, for that reason, I very quickly forget a character’s racial characteristics in any non-contemporary novel.
In one novel, set in the very far future, the protagonist was introduced as black. Ok, great. A hundred pages later this was mentioned again, and I was surprised. I had forgotten his skin color. In large part, because it didn’t matter. It had no effect on the story, as humanity had advanced beyond such prejudices (and had better things to be prejudiced about). I don’t really have visual representations in my memory of any character that isn’t on the cover of a novel, so if it doesn’t matter in other ways, it fades from memory quickly. When I was reminded of his race again, about 150 pages after that, I was surprised again. Doh.
I’m reading another novel, in which the character’s racial features are mentioned a fair bit more often, and do matter somewhat. But when they aren’t specifically commented on, my awareness of them disappears. It’s hard to keep track of what the various racial groups are in that world, what they look like, and how they interact. And you can’t tell who belongs to which group just by looking at them, because they are physically invisible except in any paragraph where the author is describing them. To be completely honest, I kinda wish they were over-the-top exaggerated features that really stuck out in memory. Like pointy ears. Or horns. Or scaled skin. Or short & stocky & fond of beards. Different skin tones and eye-shapes is hard to keep track of once the cast of characters is greater than three.
Secondly, a character’s race does matter–even if it’s not story-relevant–in any visual medium. That’s why it’s good to have the multi-ethnic cast of a Star Trek, or the new Star Wars. It’s why the non-whiteness of the Avatar: The Last Airbender characters is refreshing. Even though their races explicitly don’t matter (except perhaps to separate people into teams), we see them every second they are on screen. Humans do update on fictional evidence. Seeing someone with dark skin treated like an equal does matter on a visceral level. Even in a completely fantastical setting.
Sadly, the written word is not a visual medium. You only see that which the author is talking about at the specific moment. And unless they’re talking about a person’s racial characteristics, they’re pretty invisible.
So, while race doesn’t need to be left out, I don’t think it’s nearly as important as writers seem to think it is. Unless the character appears on the cover, or the work is optioned for adaptation into a visual medium later, it doesn’t make much difference for non-contemporary settings. I guess in the end this doesn’t matter, except for making me grumble about people thinking they are being progressive when in fact nothing is being accomplished, because the medium they work in isn’t a visual one.
Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
(As an aside, while I have trouble remembering a character’s physical characteristics, you can tell me their sexuality once and never mention it or any effects of it again, and I’ll never forget. I’m not sure if this is common among humans, or if I’m much more sex-interested/motivated that most?)
*For this same reason, race does actually matter in contemporary settings. Hermione could certainly have been black as written. Not a single word would need to be changed in the books. But, unless English culture is drastically different from American culture, it would mean something different *to the reader* for a black character to have her story. For her to go through seven years and never have anyone comment on her skin color, or make assumptions based on it, or treat her dismissively because of it, says a lot about the society she is living in. The reader would have noticed, and would have inferred things about wizarding society. I’m fine with a re-imagining of Hermione as a black character. I’d actually be really interested in seeing that, it sounds awesome. But to pretend that she could have been black all along without it changing anything about how the story is read is disingenuous.