Musings on Fantasy’s “Brown People”

Here at geekalitarian, the question about fantasy that most perplexes us is: why, when you can create absolutely anything you want to, would you simply reinforce the inequities in race and gender we see in real life? Especially in high fantasy, where many simply stick a few magical things in the Dark Ages and call it a fantasy world?

In grappling with this question, I have begun to write a story based in the world Bat Cat here and I created. The two countries present in the story are not white; they were not based on medieval European cultures. I’m having a hard time conveying this without saying things like, “half-circle headdress that looks like a sun — it’s like an Incan headdress, get it?” Apparently, I’m not doing the best job.

I presented this story to my fiction-writing workshop. No one seemed to realize none of these characters were supposed to be white, despite all the brown skin I mention. Someone suggested I not simply stick to old Eurocentric fantasy tropes (though not quite in those words), particularly in the way that characters talk. I find the idea of changing dialects to reflect different regions to be an interesting idea, but I don’t really know how to accomplish that without making up a language or using ethnic stereotypes. Part of that problem probably has to do with the fact that there aren’t really examples of that for me to follow. Rarely are “brown people” given a large enough speaking part in high fantasy to warrant the genuine creation of a dialect.

Most of my classmates admitted they don’t read much, or any, fantasy. So their assumption that, “it’s a fantasy world, obviously everyone is white, even when their skin is brown” can be forgiven to some degree. Fantasy is definitely painted as a white man’s genre in the mainstream consciousness. It’s a real challenge for fantasy writers to break these stereotypes, not only because it’s so easy to fall back into the old Eurocentric modes, but also because of the necessary cultural sensitivity. How do you describe a fictional people based loosely on a real-life culture without becoming stereotypical, yet while making sure everyone knows it isn’t just more and more whitey?

One way to avoid racism and caricature is by not making the generic “brown people” that appear in HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones. This isn’t, of course, the only place “brown people” like this exist, but it is the most relevant right now, in part because of the crossover popularity of both the TV show and book series. Amidst all the other things to be offended about while watching GOT, Bat Cat and I couldn’t get over the barbarian treatment the Dothraki people were given. Think of any stereotype of “brown fantasy people” (nomadic, libidinous, half-naked, violent, etc.) and you have the Dothraki. Some cite Tolkien himself as the father of fantasy’s “brown people.” Sure, they were evil, and on the periphery. And he introduced the amalgamation of Persian, Hun, and general African that defines “brown people” in fantasy to this day. But Tolkien helped to invent modern fantasy, in the early twentieth century. That doesn’t mean we have to continue his outmoded tropes into the twenty-first century.

A typical fantasy racial breakdown, as seen through Game of Thrones:

“Brown people” look like this:

They’re sorta dirty looking, live in tents and have mustered up enough technology to weave baskets.

White people look like this:

They ride horses, make real metal armor, and seem to be going somewhere important, rather than mucking around in the dirt.

One of the most striking things about HBO’s Dothrakis is that they stripped from them the palace and mosaics (hints of civilization) the book’s Dothraki have. When Bat Cat began to read the book, we were stunned at the (rather offensive) changes HBO’s series makes to the novel. Khal Drogo and The Dragon’s marriage consummation was consensual, for one. For some reason, HBO decided to take a decent (though far from equitable) portrayal of non-whites in fantasy and make it offensive. (This was probably the same board meeting where they realized there weren’t enough breasts or prostitutes, and people didn’t say the word “whore” nearly enough.) I would hardly consider HBO to be a progressive, egalitarian channel, but it would have been nice if they hadn’t downgraded the Dothraki people the way they did.

It’s difficult to think of a portrayal of “brown people” in fantasy that’s not of an uncivilized, “less-than” nation. Only Tamora Pierce’s worlds come to mind, where the non-whites weren’t all confined vaguely to one group of people. She actually bothered to create separate nations for different kinds of “brown people,” like she did for the white people. Pierce has even written books that focus mainly on non-white people! Crazy, I know! I can’t imagine what fantasy would be without racism and sexism! A little better, a little more welcoming? …No, of course not. Everyone knows only white guys read fantasy books.

-Joanna

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6 thoughts on “Musings on Fantasy’s “Brown People”

  1. HBO has a ton of blacks (mostly Brits) cast for the next season — and they won’t be Dothraki. I agree that they could have done better with the “hints of culture” as you say — but it’s still a nomadic culture! Any nomadic culture values things that they can carry (some intricate beadwork/jewelry would have gone a long way!).

    At least someone thought about Drogo’s makeup on set — it’s to reduce glare in the prairie/steppe.

    (and they tried to do the wedding scene like the book, but the actors couldn’t pull it off within time constraints. I don’t think the scene in the book is “consensual” — it’s clearly a seduction of a 13yrold (more akin to someone’s dad boinking the babysitter — and a good bit of the powerdynamic). However, within her culture Dany assents, and Drogo definitely shows some caring in the book that isn’t shown in the series.)

    • I do admit to often forgetting that Dany is only thirteen, so I would agree that there are definitely some sexual consent issues there. But, like you said, Khal Drogo wasn’t quite as brutal as he is in the movie. And it wasn’t on some rocky cliff, and she did actually get to say yes.

      I don’t mean to sound like I’m blaming HBO for their portrayal entirely. (Though I’m not letting them totally of the hook.) Like I suggested, the Dothraki in the books aren’t totally divorced from the Dothraki in the show. And more broadly, this portrayal isn’t exactly uncommon in fantasy. That’s really my point here. The fact that they’re the token non-whites with the token fantasy non-white culture that’s sort of a fusion of Persian and vague African, and they represent a lot of the negative stereotypes we associate with non-whites in real life. I don’t know enough about the George R.R. Martin’s world to know whether they really are the only non-white people, but it would seem so. Do you know who the “ton of blacks” that will be appearing next season are? As in, where they come from, if they aren’t Dothraki?

      • There are the Summer Islanders who are mentioned and there’s at least one minor character from there and some of the people from the Free Cities are black/brown/not white. I can’t remember what the people from the cities of Slaver’s Bay look like but that’s mostly because they wear their hair in the shape of horns and harpies and I was too stunned by that to notice anything else.

      • Well, it’s nice that there are more not-white people than the Dothraki, but it would be nicer if they played a more central role in the books. I’m all for creating diverse countries in fantasy worlds, but I still think it would be better if the not-white people weren’t always on the periphery. Thanks for clearing up who some of the other not-white people are, though.

  2. Re: “How do you describe a fictional people based loosely on a real-life culture without becoming stereotypical, yet while making sure everyone knows it isn’t just more and more whitey?”

    I’m not a writer, but I’ve read an ungodly amount of fantasy and science fiction, and the ones that do the best job of basing a fantasy on non-white, real-world example depend an as the accumulation of details that make the the whole story different.

    You don’t need to make sure that the headdress is recognizably Incan (for example), but if you’re in the mountains, the protagonist identifies everyone’s ethnicity by their hat, the farmer passes by with his alpaca laden with potatoes and yucca, the magic/religious system is based on reincarnation and huacas and the supreme sun god, AND the character is wearing an Incan headdress and has brown skin, then it’s not clearly going to feel like you’re in European elf/dwarf/dragon land. The readers may not be familiar enough with Inca culture to place exactly where the details are coming from, but they’ll know it’s not another Tolkien derivative.

    So, use those details of setting and societal norms, but within that culture, have some people be good and bad and romantic and petty and funny and smart and dumb and bureaucratic and sneaky and all the different types of ways that people are everywhere. Then it won’t feel like a stereotype.

    Oh, and if you do write that story, let me know. I blog book reviews and am building a list of good sci-fi and fantasy books and short stories with non-white protagonists (best friends and sidekicks don’t count for the purposes of this list – only POV characters). I’m on the lookout for stories to read and add to the list.

    • Well, I suppose the problem in my own story is that I want this particular country to be vaguely Incan aesthetically, but not necessarily culturally. Details are, of course, important in any writing, but in this case many of the details are ones I invented, not really based in any Incan lore or culture. Part of the reason I want to make it look more like an Incan fantasy world (rather than it properly being one) is that I really appreciate fantasy that invents its own social structures, art, myths, etc, as opposed to using one particular culture and putting fantastic elements in it. I realize that nothing comes from nothing, and so my “invented” culture is secretly an amalgamation of many details from many real-life and fictional cultures, even when I think I’m doing something new.

      As for stereotypes, I’m more concerned with stereotyping an ethnic group, rather than stereotyping the individuals in the ethnic group. I’m a huge supporter of writing people like they’re people (something a surprisingly large number of writers struggle with), so I don’t think I lapse into stock characters. (At least I try not to.) But sometimes, even when the individuals aren’t stereotyped, the culture is, and I think that that can be difficult water to navigate through.

      If I finish this story (it grows ever longer), I will certainly send it your way! I just checked out your blog, and it looks really good. I’m interested in seeing the other books that make it to your SF/F stories with non-white protagonists. I’d definitely like to support more writers like that. Thanks for the comment!

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