Racism and the Problem of the Hybrid Hero

It has been said that there are really only two plots:  A stranger comes to town, and someone leaves home.  What I want to look at today is the first one, the stranger–but not just any stranger, the stranger who rises to lead the town.

This concept of the outsider who enters an established community and becomes its leader is very popular.  I think it stems from a variety of attractive ideas, as well as real-life experiences.  Two things typically happen to the new guy, whether he’s new in school or new to a job which already has its own corporate culture, office politics, and ingrained structure.  The first thing is, he’s a rube.  He knows nothing, makes a fool of himself by running afoul of the unwritten rules everyone else knows,  and is utterly humiliated.

But the second thing is (and this is especially true in a work environment) that he shakes up the culture with new ideas and insights.  He’s likely to immediately see the solutions to problems that have been bugging the home team for months.  Why?  Because he brings a new perspective.  Precisely because he is not indoctrinated into the culture, he is able to see its potential shortcomings and offer a vision that may overcome them.

Okay, so what does this have to do with racism, who is the hybrid hero, and what’s the problem anyway?  Members of minority groups used to the imposition of outside control likely already know the answers to these questions.  The hybrid hero is the outsider who has a special relationship with the insiders:  he is the lost king who appears from the wilderness to claim the crown, the mystic born in another culture meant to lead in this one, the white man who is able to negotiate between the tribe and the dominant culture.  Are you starting to see the problem?

The moment a hybrid hero appears, one who bridges some gap between the cultures, there are some who perceive his presence as inherently racist.  Why does the subculture *need* an outsider?  Why are they seen as too ignorant or too innocent or too inept to lead themselves out of whatever the conflict is?  These questions lead to anger on behalf of the subculture, whether they are the orcs of Morgan Howell’s “Queen of the Orcs” fantasy series, or the Na’vi in Avatar.  The basic question is, why do we need saving?  And if we do, why do we need *you* (the outsider) to do it?

On the one hand, I can understand the outcry about this trope of the outsider-savior.  The idea that any given group is not able to save itself can be offensive.

On the other hand. . .if you look at the use of the outsider hero in a broader literary sense, you’ll find he crops up all over the place.  Luke Skywalker is a talented outsider who shows up to save the day for the Rebellion.  Aragorn is an intruder who claims the city where the Stewards have ruled for centuries.  We, as readers, seem to like them.  We respond to the idea that a society set in its ways may require a stranger as a catalyst to achieve a new level of success.  The problem arises the further apart the two cultures become.

The hybrid hero–the one who fuses two disparate cultures–is a special class of stranger because the two cultures are very distinct and separate (in fantasy, often represented as different races, as in Queen of the Orcs).  The hybrid not only has the insight of the stranger, but possesses some peculiarity that gives him or her the ability to understand and relate to both cultures, to mediate between them.  The result in the plot might be a war-leader who expels the other outsiders, a negotiator who finds the middle ground that allows the societies to co-exist, or even a failed ambassador who ends up assimilated to the subculture as they move even further from the strangers.

The hybrid hero compels our interest because he or she is like us, giving the reader a way to relate to the subculture, and also has secret knowledge.  He becomes the translator between an exciting, unusual people we want to know more about and the more ordinary language of home.  She fuses the two poles of the newcomer by both making the mistakes we fear we would, and also providing the insights we hope we would, an inherently engaging start for a fictional character:  already rife with potential conflicts as she tries to reconcile the two sides of her nature, to navigate the unfamiliar subculture and overcome their resistance to change, and to reveal the truth about that subculture to the dominant one in the hopes of creating a new understanding.

This hybrid character is the hero more or less by default:  crafting a compelling narrative for our readers requires that the most interesting person be center-stage, that the person with the most to lose is the one we want to follow, that the reader is drawn to trouble, and the hybrid hero is inherently troublesome.

Far from being racist, the impulse behind the creation of the hybrid hero is an attempt to bring two cultures closer together, to reveal them to each other, and, in particular, to display the truths and spirit of the subculture in a way that excites and engages a distant reader.  Is there a way to craft a hybrid hero who will appeal to the dominant culture readership and serve as their avatar in the subculture, while not offending minority readership?  I’d love to know your thoughts!

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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2 Responses to Racism and the Problem of the Hybrid Hero

  1. Finally, I’ve gotten to this post, which I found very interesting! I immediately think of a first-contact situation (not one as in “Avatar” where someone comes in and wants to take over and exploit an alien planet, but one benevolently bent on increasing humanity’s knowledge). Even here the extraterrestrial culture may resent or misunderstand the intent of the outsider. Somebody has to mediate and gain their trust. In my “Termite Queen” that person is teh linguistic anthropologist Kaitrin Oliva. I want to quote your remarks: “He becomes the translator between an exciting, unusual people we want to know more about and the more ordinary language of home. She fuses the two poles of the newcomer by both making the mistakes we fear we would, and also providing the insights we hope we would.” You could be describing Kaitrin. The termite people are definitely exciting and unusual and we want to know more about them. Kaitrin makes mistakes, but she also relates to the ETs – the point is made often in the books how Kaitrin gets along better with aliens than with her own kind. Big bugs, big birds, and big lemurs don’t faze her in the least, but she can’t figure out the enigma of the human male with whom she is deeply in love.
    And the termites react to the coming of the Star-Beings with some ambivalence. The Seer has been told by her deity that “The time is new.” She has been told to teach the Speechless Ones how to speak – to learn to communicate with them. But others in the culture reject these newcomers, mostly because they are out to advance their own selfish agendas. And the inherently conservative members of society don’t want a New Time. But the introduction of new ideas is unstoppable; by the end of the “Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head” series, we see all manner of change taking place in the Shshi society, including the invention of writing. The hybrid hero has hastened technological advancement whether she intended it or not.
    I hope you don’t mind my analyzing my own book here, but I just felt what you said was applicable.

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