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Grumpy Gamer's Troubling Tropes: Fantasy Racism

Posted Mon, Jun 09, 2014 by gunky

Grumpy Gamer's Troubling Tropes: Fantasy Racism

I really don't understand racism in the real world. People are what people are, regardless of skin pigmentation or where their ancestors came from. There's really only one real-world race - the Human Race - and I loathe everyone equally.

This is not the case in high fantasy and science fiction, however. In those settings, humans quite often share their worlds with other sentient species. Elves, Orcs, Wookiees, Vulcans, Chua, Argonians... intelligent humanoid creatures with their own unique cultures, languages, beliefs and all that other good stuff, mingling with humans throughout the entirety of time and space.

Usually, this co-existence comes with some kind of conflict. And all too often, this conflict stems around differences between species. Sometimes, this conflict is a deliberate analogue of real-world racism, where each group represents an historical race of people in the real world and the story of the conflict is (usually) a criticism of real events. This can be a healthy way to examine such events more objectively - these stories often center around root causes and motivations, looking at both sides of the conflict with varying degrees of sympathy. You see this a lot on Star Trek - the original series episode, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," where the guy with the half-black/half white face hates the guy with the half-white/half-black face. This has been criticized as a "heavy-handed" approach, but it is still a kind of social commentary.

Grumpy Gamer Troubling Tropes: Fantasy Racism, Star Trek

It comes up fairly often in high fantasy as well. Authors will often assign real-world cultural attributes to fantasy species to give them an added degree of realism, and, sure enough, some other species will hate them for it. Again, this is often an attempt to shine a light on real-world problems with race and culture relations from history - foreign cultures discovering the ancient people of isolated lands and then deeming them "primitive" or "savage" because they don't happen to have fancy pressed trousers or projectile weapons that use gunpowder.

Other times, it seems more happenstance and accidental - writers following existing trends and using common tropes and themes without attempting any sort of social commentary. In these cases, "species" is used interchangeably with "race." This is where things get kind of dangerous.

Consider a "typical" fantasy world where Orcs are the "bad guys." Orcs as a whole will tend to be violent, black-hearted savages capable only of destruction and mayhem. There may be rare exceptions to this rule, but as a whole, all members of that race behave in a way that only ensures that they will not enjoy a long-lived civilization. And they're all good with axes.

Grumpy Gamer Troubling Tropes: Fantasy Racism - Elves in LotRO

In that same fantasy world, Elves are all tree-loving happy-go-lucky people skilled with bows and magic and the singing of songs. They have an ancient, respected civilization and have done great works in days long past. And all the females are super-models with perfect racks.

These are fairly obvious examples of racial stereotyping. If you applied the same sweeping generalizations to any group of humans - whether that group be determined by skin color, region of ancestry, code of beliefs or whatever - it would be considered racism. Even the thing about elf women having nice racks.

There is an overwhelming tendency for game designers to lump races into ideologically-aligned factions, and some of these factions are blatantly racist. Elder Scrolls Online is, to me, chief among these - the Aldmeri Dominion led by Queen Aryan Ayrenn promotes ideals of an Altmer "master race" destined to rule Tamriel by divine right. The "lesser races" are unfit for the task. They're not even trying to hide the Nazi allusions.

Grumpy Gamer Troubling Tropes: Fantasy Racism - Elder Scrolls Online Altmer

World of Warcraft also does this. The whole "Horde vs Alliance" war pits species against species. And they take cultural stereotypes to a whole new level, very transparently "borrowing" certain cultural traits from real-world peoples and amalgamating them into the different races. Trolls, for example, have distinctly Caribbean accents and talk a lot about "voodoo," but there are Polynesian influences in there as well. Tauren have Native American roots - a hodge-podge of different tribes have contributed to their culture. Basically, the "Horde" guys come from real-world tribal cultures, and "Alliance" seems largely inspired by European cultures. And Pandarens are pretty obviously inspired by ancient Chinese culture.

Some consider WoW's use of real-world cultures to be racist - stereotypical cultural traits used satirically and making fun of the real-world people upon whom these cultures are based. Others defend Blizzard's use of non-European cultures as a basis for the different races because they show non-white cultures in a more or less sympathetic light. WoW racial cultures are more than they appear to be on the surface.

Grumpy Gamer Troubling Tropes: Fantasy Racism - WoW Trolls

Be that as it may, the fact remains: all Humans are Alliance, all Orcs are Horde.

Unfortunately, "faction-lumping" has been a part of the high-fantasy genre since the genre started. Tolkien, considered by many to be the grandfather of high-fantasy fiction, has been accused of racialism in the Lord of the Rings - all Orcs, from pre-history onward, are irredeemably-evil agents of the enemy, the constant footsoldier of the great forces of evil. And it is furthermore suggested that this racial tendency towards evil is a matter of genetics - their half-human offspring, like Bill Ferny's Squint-eyed Southerner cohort, were also wicked and rotten, and worked as spies. And it goes even deeper than that. Tolkien himself described his Orcs as, "... degraded and repulsive versions of the (to the European) least-lovely Mongol-types."

Grumpy Gamer Troubling Tropes: Fantasy Racism - LotRO Orc

The flipside of this, however, is that Tolkien himself was very much opposed to racism. When he consciously addressed such matters in his books, it was always portrayed in a negative light. He was sympathetic to the plight of European Jews during the first half of the 20th century, and modeled Dwarf culture after what he called "that gifted people." And he later regretted his depiction of the Orcs as wholly, irredeemably corrupt, as such a notion conflicted with his Catholic beliefs. His physical description of them, while surely insensitive by modern standards, admitted a Eurocentric bias. And when Samwise finds the body of a Haradrim soldier, he wonders if the soldier wasn't just some guy who would rather be back home, the same as all the good guys.

It's not just high fantasy that depicts racism/speciesism. We see it in science fiction all the time. In the original Star Wars movies, the Empire is basically all humans, while the Rebel Alliance includes a number of weird alien pilots and soldiers. This isn't really addressed in the movies much (except when that one Imperial officer calls Chewbacca a "thing"), but in the Expanded Universe stuff that followed, it was really played up - the Empire is a xenophobic "master race" of humans, and aliens only fill menial roles and are often subject to overt racism by the ruling elite. 

This was made retroactive as well, to span the era of the Old Republic and Sith Empire thousands of years prior to the events of the movies. Play a non-human Sith Empire character in Star Wars: the Old Republic and you will encounter this speciesism over and over. 

Grumpy Gamer Troubling Tropes: Fantasy Racism - SWTOR Imperial

Even worse, Expanded Universe writers have taken a few seconds of observed behavior on screen and extrapolated it into defining traits of entire species. For example, the guys in the cantina band have big, weird hands and are musicians; therefore, all Bith have incredibly acute hearing and extraordinary manual dexterity, are renowned across the galaxy as great musicians, and work in bars and cantinas everywhere because it's a religious tradition. Greedo was a sleazy, conniving and none-too-bright bounty hunter; therefore, all Rodians are untrustworthy, often stupid criminals who come from a vicious hunter culture. If an alien stumbles on screen, his species is clumsy and accustomed to different gravity. If he is seen in the court of a crime lord, his species is know for ruthlessness and/or lawlessness. If an alien is seen engaged in polite conversation, his species is lugubrious and diplomatic and have special empathy glands in their armpits. If an alien is seen frowning, his species is surly and quarrelsome.

This kind of "monoculturalism" isn't unique to Star Wars. Lots of sci-fi writers need to paint quick portraits of entire species to fill a particular story need. If the story has a mining colony on an asteroid, for example, there are aliens who are docile enough to work there as slaves, or different kinds of aliens who eat rocks and excrete super-pure unobtainium nuggets. If the story needs a war, there are warrior-culture aliens with spaceships built for conquest, and those aliens are taught to shoot lasers from the cradle, and their brain has no fear center in the medula oblongata or whatever. Monoculture is one of those "accidental" types of racism - stereotype becomes fact for those species. Individuals who behave differently from these stereotypes are usually remarkable to the other characters in the story. 

Grumpy Gamer Troubling Tropes: Fantasy Racism - Dwarf in Dungeons & Dragons movie

As I said up above, the accidental kind of racism can be dangerous. This sort of unintentional depiction of prejudice has the potential to be very harmful. On the surface, it may seem innocent enough - lazy writers just following protocol and doing what everyone else is doing - but therein lies the problem. When issues of racial inequality are not addressed in a fictional setting, that means they are considered acceptable. It can create a mindset in the audience where similar prejudices become acceptable outside of that setting as well, so suddenly it's okay to think everyone from X is a dirty Y, or that all A are good at B but can't C. And even if it does not actively encourage the audience to think it such a way, it is evidence that the authors certainly do. Substituting broad generalizations for acute individual characterization is a quick and easy way to tell a big story, but maybe not the best way.


Not all fantasy or SF treats race badly. Larry Niven, for example, is famous for the alien races he's created, particularly in his Known Space series, and there are definite differences between them. But there are understandable evolutionary reasons for those differences. And the differences aren't as simple as 'race A is evil, race B is good, etc. These are sentient beings seeking their own best interest, which sometimes means defending the best interests of their political group, and sometimes their immediate group and sometimes it means simplly doing what is in their best interest of survival.

One thing I've brought up in other discussions (as to, for example, why Star Trek, while being decent television is bad science fiction), is that if you cannot envision members of that race in a very wide range of professional positions within that race (egs. an educator, plumber, garbageman, raiser of young, warrior, floor mopper, merchant, farmer, engineer, scientist) then the creator of that race has done a very poor job of making that race believable. Even in Vulcan society, there has to be individuals tasked with keeping their plumbing working and their streets sanitary. Not everyone can be a professional. Even if it's all automated now, there had to be a time when it wasn't. All races need not be equal, but they all need to have a believable society that could possibly work, and could possibly actually evolve. If something is extremely unusual, then there has to be an extremely believable and logical reason for it -- the more unusual, the more believable the logic for it needs to be.

Most fantasy (and most BAD science fiction, not typical science fiction) has racist/specist tendencies or undercurrents. One book that I STRONGLY recommend is Norman Spinrad's "The Iron Dream" (aka "Lord of the Swastika" by Adolph Hitler). The story is about a war between normal humans and mutants, in which mutants are evil and the hero is trying to protect humanity from this impure menace. The metaphor for Naziism and Aryan superiority is anything but subtle. Yet it reads like your typical bad pulp science fiction novel, which can be very disturbing at times for the very reason that it seems so typical. Substitute orcs for mutants, and you have Lord of the Rings, or your typical fantasy novel.

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