Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes In Your Work: Race Edition [Part 3][Many images]

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.]


Monolithic POC[1]

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[2]? 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.

Monochromatic “casting”

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.[4]

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.

Mighty Whitey

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[5].

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.

Misogyinist/Other-ist Furriners

So, at the risk of stating the obvious – the society we live in is pretty sexist.


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.

Subfail: Hordes

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.

[1] People Of Color

[2] 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.[3]

[3] 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.)

[4] 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.


19 thoughts on “Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes In Your Work: Race Edition [Part 3][Many images]

  1. You are very spot on as always, Anna, but I have one quibble: The Mongols were pretty cool, and did indeed have some pretty progressive stuff going on, but they still killed an awful lot of people in a lot of awful ways. They imposed a lot of stability, but it was a bit like the old pax roma, “they make a desert and call it peace” kind of thing. I definitely agree there’s no need to stereotype them/their expys as brutish savages, but there’s also no need to sanitize them.

    History has so many awesome stories that can be adapted to games/settings, whether it’s political, cultural, religious that stereotyping and simplifying it is a disservice to both history and stories themselves.

    Dividing your kingdom up between your kids and grandkids wasn’t a great idea, stability-wise, but that happened a lot in history and makes for a good story setting. Ditto for a region/nation to suddenly find themselves subject to a foreign power because their monarch didn’t have a proper heir.

    Having your large, sprawling, militaristic empire be very tolerant of peoples beliefs seems weird, but happened all the time in history, because it made for easier administration, at least for a while. What happens when a previously unknown faith/idea/resource gets introduced to this diverse empire? That’s also a promising setting for a story.

    A nomadic/tribal/mercenary/colonial group uniting under a strong leader and deciding to invade their neighbours because why not happened a lot in history, and makes for a good story. No one wants to be conquered, not everyone will survive conquering but they may bring stability/money/technology/art/etc to a region that was never there before. Is that advancement worth the loss of life and culture? That’s an interesting story.

    Sorry for the diversion, just wanted to make a larger point.

    • Oh, sure! I was just trying to make the point that the way the Mongols are written about, they’re all unwashed uneducated savages. And that just straight-up wasn’t true.

  2. Not to harp on the one “iffy” thing in an otherwise excellent analysis, but the Mongol thing is a crappy example.

    The Mongol Empire, for most of those who survived their integration into it, was a pretty enlightened place. But they really didn’t view non-Mongols as people, and they leveled entire civilizations when those societies respectfully declined to become a part of the Empire. Killing millions (yes, millions) of people when you have to ride a horse to get there and then stab them with muscle powered weapons requires a HARDCORE commitment to “not us, therefore dead” that must dilute, at least a little, the Mongols were awesome(ish) concept.

    And, cause I’m a pedant, it’s Pax Romana.

  3. The one I usually end up tripping on all the time is the language used around the “enemy race” in D&D. Ok, you want a bad guy group in a world where evil can be a literal, physical manifestation, fine.

    What descriptions do we use? Oh, wait, this is identical to the language used to justify the genocide of indigenous people around the world… um. So basically we took genocidal ideas and painted the people green to call it good?

    What gets me is that people half-ass read what I write and go, “Oh, Chris is afraid orcs are being discriminated against” when it’s actually, “Wow, there’s a bunch of people who are VERY INVESTED in having fun fantasizing about genocidal colonization, having just put in ‘stand ins’… Um…”

  4. Love the article (esp the drow parts because JEEZ that’s one effed up fantasy race once you think about it) but you might wanna censor g***y and d****e (not sure if I did that right, someone correct me if they should be censored differently!) cuz those are racial slurs. Also this makes me think of the WOW trolls cuz they’re pretty steeped in anti-black stereotypes.

    • Crap. I put “gypsy” in quotes for a reason, but missed the header. Edited to fix that. Thanks for the catch.

      I used the word “gypsy” in quotes because I wanted to raise awareness that it is an offensive word. Unfortunately, among gamers at least, the awareness that it IS offensive isn’t high enough that I felt I could say “g***y” and have people know what I was talking about. I tried to use quotes to balance the need for clarity against the fact that it is an offensive word, because it was a difficult situation to navigate language-wise.

      • Oh, ok! Yeah, that makes sense. I guess it’s kinda weird w lesser known slurs like that. Same for the word “darkie”. Thanks for clarifying!

  5. Okay wtf Sure you can complain but In blade and soul they are not humans . . . humans cant fly through
    the air and shit so why you compare them to humans?

    • What does that have to do with the price of eggs? Literally nothing in this post mentions Blade and Soul. Congratulations for missing the point on an epic scale.

  6. I just found this quote and thought of you and this blog. Especially because you’ve been slash/stabbing your way through several instances of SEXISM BECAUSE HISTORY lately

    “There is no deception on the part of the woman, where a man bewilders himself: if he deludes his own wits, I can certainly acquit the women. Whatever man allows his mind to dwell upon the imprint his imagination has foolishly taken of women, is fanning the flames within himself — and, since the woman knows nothing about it, she is not to blame. For if a man incites himself to drown, and will not restrain himself, it is not the water’s fault.”
    ― John Gower, Confessio Amantis (Published 1390)

  7. Okay, this is going to be a long comment, detailing my personal experience with race in fantasy tabletop RPGs. My English isn’t too fluent and I tend to ramble, but there’s a question at the end that I would very much like to see answered, so please bear with me.

    The depiction of races in fantasy is always something I had problems with, due to the reasons so eloquently described in this post. However, trying to turn my frustration into something useful did not work quite as I expected:

    A couple of years ago, I worked on a project in a gaming convention: a sort of a large-scale GMless game taking place on multiple tables at the same time, at a shared fantasy world. The question of race was something that very central to the world: the main plot concerned the collapse of multinational empire, and how its different provinces try to carve out their own destiny from the ruins.
    When creating the different cultures, I tried to distance myself from the established gaming-fantasy notion of race. There has been several ‘races’ in the game, but none of them had any single trait that was common to all members. For that purpose, I used the character appearance creation system of Apocalypse World.
    For example, let’s say you started the game at the Eastern Forest, as part of the Forest Folk. You had to pick your external appearance from several options which could create a wide variety of bestial, faerie and plant-like creatures (for example, you could choose between light skin, dark skin, green skin, furry skin or thick bark). You would also to choose to follow 2 out of 3 core beliefs common to your culture. These beliefs were something along the line of “sadness is bad, happiness is good” or “no living creature deserves to endure pain”; they defined the culture in broad, non-obligatory strokes, and were meant to allow you to play a member of a foreign culture without being obligated to follow any particular precept.

    Now, during the game, I oversaw the different GM-less games at the different tables, and what amazed me (and this happened at the two different times I ran the game) was that in each table, the players immediately settled on a rather simple racial stereotypes and built their characters around it (“wait, so Forest Folk is basically elves, right? okay, so I guess I’ll pick a character who is fair skinned, has pointy ears and loves nature”). This means that a lot of the customization options were left unused and the different cultures coalesced in a more-or-less uniform fashion familiar D&D races, even though neither I nor the game texts I prepared encouraged the players to do so in any way.

    Which brings me to my question: designing and publishing tabletop RPGs in which the game text shows a less abhorrent approach to race than D&D should be lauded; but how can you write a game in such a manner that would have the *players*, a large number of which are pre-conditioned by years of D&D, to develop a more desirable approach to race (or to gender, for that matter)?

    • Oh man. That is a tough situation – especially because I actually like the approach you took!

      I guess if that happened to me, the approach I might try might be something like handing people a pack of half-finished pregens to choose from, where the appearances and other similar traits were pre-selected and they had to assign skills, so as to ensure a mixture of traits? I’ve had luck running GMed games where I’ve taken that approach before, and depending on the system I think it could work for a GMed game as well. Hopefully players would respond well to that?

      But man. Heart breaking. Thanks for sharing your experience, and I wish I honestly had something better to offer than that.

  8. Seymour Guado wasn’t evil because he was a ‘half breed’ — he went bad because the disgusting racism against humans (and most every other race in Spira) toward Guado and vice versa screwed him up emotionally. He was born to try and mend racial tensions, but got caught between bigoted societies and grew up hating the established religion and society that condoned it.

    This aspect of his character was not, imo, very well explained directly in the game. But things like the Ronso ‘retaliation’ for Seymour’s assault on them by basically committing genocide against every other Guado regardless that they were innocent is one of the clues.

    • ugh, not ‘against’, I meant ‘the disgusting racism OF humans’.
      Guado are half-plant, which for some reason made the other races despise them.

      • I knew what you meant. And yeah! Seymour is an interesting character! Taken on his own, there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. It’s just a problem in that he fits into a larger pattern of “evil half breeds”, is all.

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