Fantasy’s Race Problem and Racism IRL

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A problem I’ve always had with high fantasy is the way that entire races of sentient creatures apparently share character traits. I can accept that it’s possible to generalize about people who live in a particular region, because cultures shape our attitudes and behaviors. (As long as those generalizations stop at comments like, “Germans really like being punctual” or “Chinese culture is more collectivist than the US’s individualist culture.” Obviously people can also make pretty harmful generalizations, that dance along or outright cross the border of racism.) These aren’t rules that are set in stone, but rather observations that aren’t necessarily meant to be applied to every single individual within a culture.

However, high fantasy’s racial attributes tend to transcend geographic or cultural location and, perhaps more dangerously, reflect the moral and ethical outlook of an individual within this race. This means that, within fantasy worlds, the goodness or evil of an individual is predetermined by her or his race. Within the context of these fantasy worlds, we accept this, because the rules have been laid out for us. When reading fantasy novels, watching fantasy movies and TV shows, or playing fantasy RPGs, there is a certain level of trust required on our part; we prefer fantasy worlds where things “make sense” given their internal logic. This means that all of us have, at some level, internalized the fact that in some worlds it is possible, even logical, for race to predestine an individual’s morality.

And I have to say, that’s really messed up. As I mentioned in my previous post, I didn’t really start to think about the implications of this until the out-of-character casual racism of certain D&D party members was juxtaposed with the in-game comments NPCs made about specific races. My party encountered a Rakshasa (essentially a tiger person), who was running an orphanage where everyone seemed suspiciously happy. As the DM and various NPCs made clear, the peculiarity of the orphanage was emphasized by the fact it was being run by a Rakshasa, who are typically evil. Despite this apparent racial red flag, I tried my best to have my character ignore the fact that the orphanage owner is a Rakshasa, because I’m pretty tired of racism getting a free pass in fantasy worlds. (That part of the story hasn’t been concluded yet, and I’m hoping that this character turns out to be good.)

Of course, the major race that isn’t associated with rigid moral attributes, that is allowed ethical ambiguity and individual alignment, is human. And human, in most fantasy worlds, isn’t much more than shorthand for “white.” White is seen as the default in storytelling, but it is especially typical of fantasy to create various nations of diverse white people, including other humans and their countries and cultures as background noise or obstacles for the white protagonists to overcome. The attribution of rigid racial characteristics is especially problematic given the freedom humans have to be good, evil, or neutral as they will.

If we allow ourselves to settle for fantasy worlds that dictate behaviors and morality by race, are we settling for a real world that is unconcerned with allowing any individual of any race the opportunity to be as good or as evil as they wish to be? Are we suggesting that race can determine a person’s ethical core? It seems that way. While race, like gender, certainly influences the way that we as individuals see the world, it’s not because it’s encoded that way through our melanin count. It’s because, living in the society we live in, race is still important. Racism and white privilege are constants. But while race may affect our perceptions of the world, it does not provide us with the ethical blueprints that high fantasy provides for its non-human races.

The two casually racist members of my D&D group think they can get away with saying offensive things about Martin Luther King Boulevards and Latinas wearing lipliner, because within the internal logic of their world, that’s fine. It’s not racism if you aren’t wearing a white hood or throwing a brick through someone’s window. While my boyfriend and I use our characters to stop NPCs from making casual comments that reinforce this fantasy world’s racist logic, we are also getting better at trying to get those players to understand that we aren’t going to tolerate out-of-game racism either. We refuse to allow the racism of fantasy worlds to reinforce the racism of real life.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem important, given the pervasiveness and dangerousness of real-life racism. Perhaps it seems frivolous to suggest these instances of RPG racism have lasting consequences in our lives. But I can’t help noticing that my D&D party is equally indifferent to NPCs asking my character “what’s a Kalashtar doing here?” and to someone suggesting that black people are dangerous. The logic of fantasy worlds does not create racism or sexism, but rather reflects the mindset of the society in which it is made. In a society so mired with racism, it is no wonder that our fantasy worlds, the ones we escape to, the ones we dream in, would maintain even stricter racial laws than are possible in real life.

-Joanna

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4 thoughts on “Fantasy’s Race Problem and Racism IRL

  1. Welcome back! You’ve been missed!

    This is an excellent point. As much as I love fantasy, too much of it is little more than a juvenile “exportation” of good vs evil with an unrealistic division between “the good guys” and “the bad guys.” If something looks scary then it’s OK to kill it.

    A story doesn’t even have to be that deep to avoid this. World of Warcraft immediately comes to mind since it actually does a decent job a portraying traditionally “evil” races (orcs, trolls, etc.) as different but not evil.

    • Aw, thanks so much! It’s really good to be back!

      And yes, the “good guys” vs “bad guys” mentality then becomes easier to make clear, when race becomes shorthand for “good” or “bad.” I think the solution to this problem is, as always, better and more interesting/inventive writing.

  2. I think a lot of that comes from Tolkien. Most fantasy RPGs, and many fantasy novel series, are based on the world Tolkien came up with. Unfortunately, as much as I love his stories, he was quite obviously racist. (Of course, D&D took this a step further, with dark elves and dark dwarves and so on, all being evil.)

    While back when I was DMing (oh, I miss those days), I did include racist societal views, I often had NPCs that flouted those views. Not only good dark elves or goblins and the like, but evil tribes of wood elves, It used to drive me nuts when people complained about characters not fitting the stereotypes.

    • It’s pretty amazing to think how much of modern fantasy really is simply “rearranging the furniture in Tolkien’s attic,” to paraphrase Terry Pratchett. Of course you’re right, so much of the problem of race in fantasy stems from Tolkien’s very narrow view of the world. His race problems are our race problems, and once we stop relying so heavily on Tolkien’s furniture, we could build a much more imaginative and un-racist attic.

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