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.


Roll for Initiative, Universe

Recently while I was perusing the comic book section of Barnes and Noble, I found a novel tucked in the shelves looking really out-of-place. It was called ‘Everything I Need To Know I Learned from Dungeons and Dragons’ by Shelly Mazzanoble, and I was instantly sold. Essentially, it is a self-help (or elf-help) book written by someone who believes that Dungeons and Dragons, not Dr. Phil, holds the secrets to overcoming life’s difficulties.

In the first chapter we are introduced to Judy, Shelly’s busybody mother who sends her every self-help novel she sees offered on television. When Shelly gets a job for Wizards of the Coast (the creators of D&D and God to many nerds), an argument about the D&D stereotype inspires Shelly to go forth and prove her theory that D&D, and not Oprah, can lead you on the path to enlightenment.

Shelly conducts an interesting experiment in an attempt to find religious/spiritual resolution. For one week, every day she is devoted to a different D&D god. Monday, Avandra (God of Change), Tuesday, Kord (God of Battle, Wednesday, Ioun (God of Knowledge), Thursday, Moradin (God of Creation), Friday, Pelor (God of Sun and Summer). While I don’t think this experiment was exactly successful, it might be an interesting one to try. Even if you don’t achieve spiritual salvation, you may learn something about your personality that you didn’t realize before by making the conscious choice to act a certain way.

The chapter on relationships was the most interesting to me. Shelly points out that you can learn a lot about a person by what character they create and how they handle different in-game situations. This can be applied to other RPG gaming as well. For example, I always play a big, badass tank who is all righteous fury, when in real life I am much more laid-back and prefer to settle my fights verbally rather than a bar brawl. When analyzing her boyfriend’s character, Shelly says that she would definitely never date him. While she loves Bart, his character is apparently an asshole. When creating a character we have to ability to focus on one aspect of our personalities and emphasize it, while detracting others. D&D is also a great way to meet new people. In another experiment, Shelly had her recently single and attractive friend go jogging wearing a D&D shirt. The first time out was apparently attracted the wrong kind of nerd, while the second time she met a really nice guy, they got along well, spent the day together- then she found out he was a Dungeon Master and it was over. 😦

Which brings us to the next subject: “Oh Those Charming DMs” Shelly, trying to improve her own talents when it comes to winning friends and influencing people, decided to study the behavior of the DMs. She chose four DMs (who all happened to be named Chris) and observed how they conducted themselves both at the game table and when giving presentations at the office. Shelly then used these observations and was able to convince everyone in her apartment building that they needed to spend the money to make the building repairs it sorely needed. (The previous encounter ended with Shelly punching a cookies and storming out in tears.) Needless to say, the traits she observed are exactly the traits that thousands of self-help books are dedicated to teaching. Only for these people the experience was gained through a game that they love.

For people who live life by a certain schedule or who always like things to be just so, D&D can help you too. For another week, Shelly tries to live life like her adventurer, Tabitha. Instead of carting around a purse and a bonus bag just in case of a natural disaster, Shelly cleans her life of the clutter and only lives with the basics. I am definitely guilty of these over-prepared traits, and this chapter really made me want to loosen the reigns- especially when it comes to my always obese backpack! Shelly did this experiment because Bart was finally moving in, and for someone who had been living in a space for 10 years and who is already anal retentive, allowing someone else’s stuff to occupy your shelves is a big deal.

Obviously as we have discussed before on our blog is that games like D&D are empowering. Not just for adults, but for children as well. Since I am normally on the soapbox about little girls and gender-specific children’s activities, allow me to make this brief: Little girls who play D&D can learn to be strong, monster-battling heroes- not helpless maidens.

Overall, I think this a book everyone should read. Although this may surprise you, I did not give away the gory, life-changing details. I definitely recommend picking up a copy of this book, even if you aren’t in need of any elf-help at the moment.

– BatCat

PS: Shelly wrote another book ‘Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress: A Girl’s Guide to the Dungeons and Dragons Game’. I am not sure how I feel about the title, but I am willing to give it a chance.

Ladies’ D&D Night In

I’m re-posting a great article by Aminah Mae Safi over at Geek Feminism. It’s called All My Nerd Ladies, Put Your Hands Up, and suggests that women get together and play D&D, an idea that I’ll honestly admit never actually occurred to me. It’s obviously not rocket science to suggest that a bunch of women start their own D&D group. I’ve probably never thought about it because I’m used to not having a large enough group of girlfriends to do that. But it also might be because, somewhere in the deep, dark dungeons of my mind, I never actually thought you could do things like D&D without men. Obviously, if you were to ask me, “Is it possible to play D&D without men?” I’d say, “Well, duh.” But the thought has never really consciously crossed my mind. That fact makes me deeply uncomfortable.

One thing Safi discusses in her article is that she and her fellow players didn’t have to worry about being insultingly called “girly”  and felt “free enough to admit excitement over planning our characters’ costumes and buying pretty dice.” Women, myself included, often feel like they have to prove to their male nerd friends that they’re nerdy enough to be nerds.  About this Safi aptly says, “I didn’t have to prove myself by quoting an entire Monty Python sketch or discussing my favorite extended universe character.” Just today, I was discussing Skyrim with a male acquaintance, and I felt I had to know all the right terms, all the right evil gods, couldn’t confess my much-lower level. Even though he is a very nice, non-judgmental guy, I found myself nodding at names of people from quests I hadn’t gotten to yet, because I didn’t want him to think, oh it’s another girl who thinks she’s a gamer. This need to prove myself is embarrassing, and yet I can’t really blame myself. My whole life I’ve had to prove that I belong amongst geeks. I had to outdo a kid in seventh grade in a discussion about the Return of the King, because I knew he didn’t respect my knowledge of Tolkien, because he was male and I was female. I even think about what clothes I wear when I go into a gaming or comic store, wondering if the employees will think I really belong, if I’m wearing a lacy skirt or a fashionable waist-cinching belt. And unfortunately, the habit isn’t going to die just because I know it’s unfair.

So, while I’ve never experienced outright hostility in my own D&D group, which is mixed gender and generally welcoming, I think about the idea of playing D&D exclusively with women, and I have to say I like it. When one player decides, “hey I just got some Crackle nail polish, can I paint your nails, it’s so cool,” and another player says, “sure,” and the nail-painting happens between turns, without interrupting gameplay, you don’t have to watch as the male players cringe and shake their heads, just tolerant enough not to actually say anything. There’s nothing to prove. (That really happened one night. I was the one who said, “Sure.”)

As Safi says, she isn’t trying to suggest women permanently segregate themselves into a cutesy little ivory tower of ladies playing D&D. But it is a good temporary suggestion for those of us who want to break free of the habit of having to outdo other nerds with obscure knowledge, just to earn our seat at the gaming table.


D&D: Girl on the Inside

This is the first in a (possible) series in which I discuss the highs and lows of being a woman in the D&D/tabletop gaming universe.


I started playing D&D about two months ago. It was something I’ve wanted to do for many years, not some hipster joke or because I once watched an episode of Community. I’d never played because it seemed so daunting, with endless books to read and DM kits and minis to buy. High school me was broke and, really, two people (myself and my BFFL) were hardly enough for a full party anyway. (People joke about nerds playing D&D and not having friends, but really the two ideas are incongruous. A nerd needs at least four friends if they want to play D&D in real life.) I finally got my chance to start playing when the group my boyfriend’s brother-in-law played with had a schism, and a new group was formed.

I was excited to begin. I selected a bard, because I liked the idea of fighting monsters with my “rock.”  When it came time to choose my character’s race, I thought being either elven or human was lame, so I settled on the telepathic Kalashtar instead. Feeling damn pleased with myself and my character (and her ability to viciously mock people to death), I played contentedly for over a month.

Then some of us thought it would be nice to get our own minis. We had been using the more economical tokens that come with the DM kit and from a monster’s set. These are ok, perfectly acceptable for gameplay, but they have neither the flash nor the majesty of minis.

I knew it would be a challenge for me from the beginning. I wanted a female mini who was neither an elf, nor a sorceress, nor opposed to wearing clothes (let alone armor!). I figured there would be some official Kalashtar minis, and looked online. A single blonde, pale-skinned Kalashtar bodyguard answered my search. Apparently, the Kalashtar come in a variety as wide as humans, so I suppose that despite all the brown skin and black hair in the character builder’s Kalashtar pictures, the Aryan look of this bodyguard is acceptable. I also know the Kalashtar are a somewhat obscure race, so I’m not complaining about having only one option. In fact, this lone bodyguard is a blade-brandishing, well-covered woman who, despite the size of her breasts (the universal C-cup of all women), does not look simply like the sexual fantasy of a man-child. So kudos there. Unfortunately this figurine is no longer being made, and doesn’t at all fit my character, anyway. The fact that this is the only Kalashtar figure that has ever been made does bother me. If a Kalashtar could be any color or combination thereof, just like humans, why only produce a white, blonde Kalashtar? It is the same question that makes fantasy in general unappealing to many: Why, if you could create absolutely anything you wanted, would you simply re-create the inequities in race and gender you see in real life? Why are the good guys always white?

I digress only slightly. The challenges that women can face in the geek world are similar to the challenges that people of color can rub up against. (Not that one cannot simultaneously be a woman and a person of color.)

To return to my search for a figurine: I am fortunate enough to live down the street from a RPG/tabletop gaming store. The store is little and packed with wonderful things, from card games to paint for your mini. They do regular tournaments of every game you could want. It definitely has a feeling of a bunch of guys hanging out in a basement, with all the good things and bad things that entails. It’s a place I don’t know that I feel entirely comfortable in, a place where I don’t want to spend too much time in case women ever do come up, and I learn things about the proprietors I don’t want to know. (The “Skanks in Space” (fake?) movie poster prominently displayed behind the counter doesn’t make me feel more secure, even if I don’t really know what it’s referring to.) Don’t get me wrong: the two guys working there have never condescended to me or treated me like I don’t belong there. There isn’t anything actively hostile about the environment. But there isn’t much to convince me they’re welcoming me either.

A quick look at their minis, D&D and otherwise, proved my suspicions about the kind of female minis this shop would sell. It isn’t just that the women aren’t sensibly dressed; it’s the fact their nipples are more prominent than their weapons. It’s the fact that I can even see their nipples. It’s the fact that some guy seriously sat down and designed this woman and thought to himself, I need to make her nipples show. For every female mini that looks like this, there are 10 more that look like this. So I left that shop empty-handed, and with a little emptiness in my heart, too.

I realize I could paint a figurine myself. I could choose a woman figurine who is wearing clothes and wielding a weapon (or a musical instrument, because I can’t forget I’m a bard) and paint her so that she is brown-skinned like my character. I’m not doing that because I know that would end sadly, leaving poor Darshana a bleeding mess of paint. But the real point is that I shouldn’t have to. There should be figurines I can choose from that don’t make me feel like less of a person, figurines that wouldn’t get me laughed at or leered at if they went on a campaign. There should be figurines of brown-skinned women, if brown-skinned women exist in this universe.

And a barbarian woman, like any class of woman, shouldn’t be wilting like a porn star, posing for the men she pretends to fight, but rather, ferociously cutting her way through a  sea of foes. I look forward to the day when barbarian women like those are in the majority, and I can go to my local RPG shop without seeing bare breasts.

-Joanna M.

NEXT WEEK: Matriarchal vs. patriarchal societies in D&D and why it matters