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