Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes In Your Work: Race Edition [Part 3][Many images]
April 11, 2014 18 Comments
This post is part 3 in a series of posts looking at how not to fail at writing inclusive settings. Part 1 sets out general guidelines of how not to fail. Part 2 expands on terrible stereotypes centered around gender and sexuality.
As mentioned in my previous post, I had a lot of help putting the outline of this series together. Thanks again to: Monica Speca, Arlene Medder, Laura Hamilton, Kira Magrann, Josh Roby, Claudia Cangini, Elin Dalstal, Jason Morningstar, Ben Lehman, Alexis Siemon, and Chris Chinn. Also worth noting that TV Tropes was used heavily as a resource when assembling the outline for these posts.]
So much of the awful racism that you see in games comes back to this. White people do not have a monopoly on individuality. Humans are complicated and messy and weird, no matter what race you are born into. But all too often, games are incredibly reductive in their handling of race. All orcs are ugly savages. All elves are graceful nature-lovers. Are dwarves are socially inept and greedy.
But wundergeek! You’re talking about fantasy! And everyone knows that orcs and dwarves and elves aren’t real. So what’s the harm?
The harm is that it can tend to reinforce patterns of thinking that dehumanize people of color. When all of your gaming campaigns turn out to be White People’s Murder Adventures In the Land of the Evil Darkies, that’s not exactly contributing to a healthy outlook on race and racial diversity.
Of course, in addition to being just plain harmful, the sheer lack of exceptions when it comes to fantasy races is also astoundingly lazy writing. If you’re relying on tired storytelling techniques that paint all members of Group X as being the same, the stories that you will find yourself limited to will involve cardboard cutouts instead of living, breathing characters. As such, your story will be less compelling.
Subfail: This group of POC is 100% EVIL (ie the Drow)
But wundergeek! They aren’t ALL evil! What about Drizzt? HUH?!?!?? He’s a Drow and he’s totally not evil!
One exception does not automatically make your group diverse.
Quite often, a character like Drizzt serves as the exception that proves the rule. Because you are getting an “insider’s perspective”, the reader is given to understand that all of those nasty Drow/orcs/trolls/whatever really are super evil. And it’s totally okay! It’s not like it’s stereotyping, because the Reformed Outcast of an Evil Race is telling us that it’s not. And why is he an outcast? Because he’s good and noble and valorous and compassionate, unlike all those other members of his Evil Race.
Look. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have analogues of non-white cultures in your fantasy settings. In fact, I’d say that it’s something fantasy needs more of! But have those analogs be groups of real people, with good people and bad people and lazy people and everything in between.
You see it in television all the time – shows that feature exclusively white main characters, with minority characters being limited to incidental, minor, or supporting roles. The same thing happens quite often in games. Take, for example, Dungeons and Dragons. While the 4th Edition books have made small strides – they are demonstrably more diverse than previous editions – the heroes depicted are overwhelmingly white.
Obviously, this is shitty for all the same reasons that having your cast be all-male is. It devalues the importance of stories that reflect non-white characters and plays into cultural narratives of the inferiority of non-whites.
As the gaming audience grows more diverse (and consequently less white and male), game companies have grown (begrudgingly, sometimes) more aware of the need to at least pay lip service to diversity with the characters in their games. Unfortunately, much of the time the diversity is just that – lip service – with token minority characters included so that developers can say that their characters aren’t exclusively white.
Even worse is when you have developers who treat LGBT minorities as checking two diversity boxes. If your attitude toward diversity can be described as – “I’ll include a gay latina! Then all of my diversity boxes are checked and the rest of my characters can be straight white dudes! Diversity win!”
…then fuck you.
Please, for the love of god, if you are writing a game scenario, please do not have it revolve around having a white character (or a character who reads as white, or is an obvious analog for whiteness) save a group of backwards non-white characters (or characters who read as non-white, or who are obvious analogs of non-whiteness). The “white man swoops in to save the poor benighted non-whites from all their problems” story is one that has been repeated quite often in our culture and is, frankly, offensive.
[taken from Feminist Disney, here.]
Let me frame it in terms of personal experience. Quite often when I talk about feminism with regards to gaming, I am informed by thoughtless dudebros that I am doing feminism wrong, and that clearly all of my problems with sexism in gaming would be solved! if I only were to do [X], where [X] = write my own games, draw my own art, stop talking about sexism, choose not to be offended, don’t seek out offensive material, etc etc etc. And you know what? It PISSES. ME. OFF.
Do you really think, random dude-type person, that you know my lived experience better than I do? That you understand the experience of sexism so well that you can tell me how to solve sexism in my daily life? Let me assure you, Mr. Dudebro, that anything you can spout off of the top of your head, I have already thought of. And this solution that you want to share with me out of the generousness of your heart is not helpful.
Yeah, that’s how that kind of story can come off to people who aren’t white dude gamers. Except WORSE! Because that neglects the fact that the narrative of “white dude saves non-whites from all their problems” completely ignores the crucial fact that we live in a society that has been institutionally designed to facilitate the economic success of whites and to prevent the economic success of non-whites. So when you write stories that revolve around thinly-veiled analogs of “white dude saves non-whites from all their problems”, you’re erasing the fact that many of the problems faced by real-world minorities were originally caused by white people, and are still perpetuated by white people. Which is a dick move.
Too Brown/Not Too Brown (ie Using Real World Racial Traits to Differentiate Your Fantasy Races)
The typical handling of fantasy races is shitty in a lot of ways, but one of the most cringe-inducing is the seemingly-requisite description of racial characteristics. A lot of the descriptions hinge on the stereotype of black features as being “coarse” and “ugly” while white European features are “fine” and “pretty”. So when you have evil races that are dark-skinned and ugly, their features are described as “coarse” and “harsh” and “brutish”. Contrast this with “pretty” evil races like the Drow** who are described as being beautiful with dark skin and “fine” features. Because even in a universe with magic and dragons, the only standard of beauty that matters is a European standard of beauty. FUUUUUUUUCK.
(I know this might seem monotonous to keep picking on the Drow, but it would be pretty much impossible to write anything that would be a bigger shitpile of privilege, entitlement, and awful sexist and racist stereotypes than the Drow. …please don’t take that as a challenge.)
Try letting your art do the heavy lifting of description for you. And if you must write something descriptive, avoid language that falls into the aforementioned stereotypes.
Even better – you know what would be awesome? Write your racial descriptions from the point of view of a member of that race, not from the point of view of some omniscient European observer. Have a troll describe what is beautiful to trolls. Have an orc describe what is beautiful to orcs. That would be awesome.
So basically, if you’re going to write a fantasy race and have what differentiates them from other races be a characteristic that is usually ascribed to an ethnically distinct group of people in real life? DON’T DO THAT.
Sub-Fail: Superior Species with Real World Racial Traits
Here’s another one I wish I didn’t see as often as I did. If you’re writing a race that has inborn magic powers, immortality, supernatural sexiness, preternatural senses, or is otherwise superior to normal boring humans, DON’T have the defining trait of that race be a real world racial trait.
Wait. No. I’m going to be more explicit.
DON’T MAKE THEM BLONDE. Because that is some creepy white supremacy shit right there – ESPECIALLY when combined with the Evil Darkies mentioned above.
That’s not to say you can’t have superhumans! Because, shit. Superhumans are the best! There’s a reason I’ve played an elf in nearly 100% of the D&D games I’ve ever played, because why would I be a boring-ass human when I could be a goddamn elf? However, you can keep 100% of your magical superhumans and still have them not suck. Case in point, World of Warcraft:
Granted, there’s still an awwwwwful lot of fail of just about all types in WoW. But this is, at least, one small thing that they did manage to get right.
Subfail: Evil halfbreeds (Miscegenation! OH NO!)
You know what’s also terrible? Always having mixed-race characters be evil, even when those races are made up. I’M LOOKING AT YOU SEYMOUR GUADO. That’s some seriously messed up racial purity nonsense, okay? So don’t do that.
So, at the risk of stating the obvious – the society we live in is pretty sexist.
I KNOW, RIGHT??
And yet something that a lot of game writers love to seem to do (that is, when they’re not applying SEXISM BECAUSE HISTORY to eveeerrryyyythinnnngggg) is to have the good and just and awesome white society that is egalitarian and not at all oppressive that clashes with a society of evil darkies that totally hate women because they are unenlightened savages.
And. Um. Yuck.
Firstly, this has some pretty horrifying white supremacy implications – you’re pretty much saying that non-white cultures can’t treat their people properly because they’re either less evolved or less human, which should be gross for reasons that are self-evident if you have even the smallest modicum of human decency. But second – and here’s where I know that I’ve turned into a parent – people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Look. Society sucks for everyone. EVERYONE. But you know what sucks more? When artists create work that only perpetuates the ugly stereotype that people of color come from cultures that are morally and intellectually bankrupt. That not only erases all of the harm that white people have done to create and perpetuate systematic oppression against people of color, it adds a healthy dose of “well you deserved it anyway”, which is a nice bit of shit icing on that particular turd cake.
Look, I’m going to be short and to the point here because Tassja of Irresistible Revolution covered this better than I ever could. EXOTIC IS NOT A COMPLIMENT.
Are you writing about a POC culture (or a culture that reads as POC, or a culture that is an obvious analogue for POC) in a way that makes them “exotic”? Well don’t. It’s a shitty thing to do. Exotifying a culture takes away it’s humanity. If you want to write about a culture that is not your own, write about that culture as a group of people with merits and flaws and traditions and weird hangups. Write about a group of PEOPLE. Not a bunch of brightly colored cardboard cutouts.
Subfail: Sexy “Gypsies”
The Roma are a real-life group of people who still face real-life oppression today. Do a little Googling and you’ll dig up more than you ever wanted to read about the horrific treatment of the Roma by EU countries, particularly France and Hungary.
When the only “gypsies” that appear in games are SEXY “gypsies”, that only dehumanizes real-life Roma and erases the violence that Roma face on a daily basis. Also? It’s a tired fucking stereotype, so don’t use it.
A lot of fantasy fiction has hordes as the generic force that must be opposed – an implacable IMPOSSIBLY LARGE army that’s, you know, evil and stuff because they’re foreign and they’re an army. The thing is, a lot of how these fantasy hordes get written about is pretty much the same way that people write about the Mongol hordes.
Now let’s face it, the Mongols were pretty much the bad-assestest of all invading armies from history, so they do make a pretty good historical model for an antagonistic invading force. And they also make great villains! What with their lack of bathing and overcoming enemies through sheer force of numbers and their rampant misogyny… oh. Wait. No. That’s not the mongols, that’s racist stereotyping.
Guys, the Mongols were actual super, super awesome. As in were ruled by badass lady Mongols, invented an efficient postal system, were masters of tactics, and created a Pax Mongolica. Yeah, that’s right. And that’s just a few of the awesome-tastic things they did. So if you’re going to have an antagonistic invading horde, why not have it be an army of foreigners who are just better than you. Better tactics, better technology, better society – more tolerant and progressive. And then have a campaign about trying to repel that force while some of your own people say, wait we like those guys better. That would be pretty damn sweet, now that I think about it.
But please, no more cardboard cutout unwashed barbarian raping hordes please.
Subfail: The Noble Savage
Are you writing a game with a group of primitive Natives who have a simple-but-beautiful culture and a connection to nature and they are beautiful and irresistible despite their primitive nature? Congratulations, you’ve just written a group of noble savages, which is really, really terrible. Bonus points for being screwed up if their connection to nature gives them magic powers (TENRA BANSHO ZERO) because now you’ve just given them oppression superpowers. (It’s totes okay that we oppressed you because you got superpowers out of the deal so shut up.)
Look, the myth of the noble savage is exactly how the stories of real-life Native peoples are subverted and/or erased. It’s a way of saying it’s okay that we destroyed their culture and committed genocide, because, you know, they’re a bunch of damn savages. And the noble part? That might have been something that originated from a sense of guilt about the horrible stuff we did to native peoples. But more probably it came about as a result of companies commodifying the image of the “Indian brave” as a brand to be sold. And it’s hard to sell something if it’s not seen as laudable in some way.
If you want to have a group of Native people or a group that reads as an analogue for Native peoples, cool! But find a way to turn the trope on its head. PLEASE.
 People Of Color
 Drizzt is a Drow ranger from Forgotten Realms who turns against his people because he doesn’t want to murder a beautiful white girl. …no, really. I wish I was making that up. (And then he winds up murdering her anyway later. Only it’s okay because he really didn’t want to, and he feels really bad about it.
 Furthermore (just to pile a little hate on Drizzt), it’s worth noting that Drizzt is a man who comes from an Evil Matriarchy. Because obviously the Evil Evil Wimminz in power aren’t capable of reforming because they are wimminz. (Yes I just footnoted a footnote. Shut up.)
 Think I’m exaggerating? Listen to any Republican talk about crime and watch them immediately start using racially coded language. OH YEAH I JUST WENT THERE.