Fantasy’s Racial Profiling Problem

I’m not sure how many of my readers take time to read the comments on posts, but there are times when some good discussion happens there. On my recent post about archetypes in video games and tabletops, a discussion was had about racial profiling in the fantasy genre. This is a topic I feel strongly about and since it has come up on the blog in some form already, I want to take the time to really delve into it and put my thoughts out there.

I’m gonna start off with a little backstory about myself. I am a white American male, and a Christian. Arguably the least persecuted combination of features that can exist. So I understand right off that when I start to talk about race and racism, that some folks may not want to take me seriously. No, I have not experienced racism directly. It has not happened to me. However, I have seen racism happen to other people and every single time, it breaks my heart.
I grew up in a community where pretty much everyone was like me. In my school system, there just weren’t a lot of people of different races. So it took until college for me to really meet that many people of another race. I am embarrassed to say that this didn’t always go well for me. The first time a black person invited me to a Bible study, I didn’t take my wallet. He was a stranger and I had no idea what to expect.
Man, am I ashamed to say that. Particularly since that guy became a very good friend and a strong mentor during my early college years. I was stupid and sheltered and the fact that I just had to type that out hurts so badly. But it’s because I used to be that way, and because I’ve seen racism in the workplace and at school hurt so many people, that I have strong feelings about it now.
Skin color, nationality, those things shouldn’t alter how we treat another person. But there are a lot of people out there who haven’t come to that realization yet. These people may have strong upbringings in families full of racial profiling, or they may live in communities where they just don’t meet anyone who is different from them. And because there are people out there like that – like I used to be – there needs to be an example of how to really behave. Art imitates life, but it works vice versa. If our art shows the negative effects of racism and promotes interracial unity, then more people will understand that all races should accept one another.

Sadly, art doesn’t do that.

Now you can say that video games and the like are not “art forms,” that they are just entertainment. But whether you think of them as artistic or not, the fact is that just like television, books, and movies, they can influence our world view. They portray fantastic worlds with complex situations, and we formulate opinions about them and we learn lessons from them. They present philosophies and challenge our ideals and beliefs. Video games can influence how we think, but sadly they tend to influence us the wrong way.
I am speaking specifically towards the fantasy genre. This is the genre I grew up on, the genre that tells stories of dwarves and elves (or Gorons and Zoras, Nords and Redguards, Toads and Koopas – take your pick). Fantasy is a genre that has a strong history, and as such has very strong traditions that writers take very seriously. Races behave in very specific ways, according to archetypes established years and years in the past. And anyone who has played a fantasy video game or tabletop knows exactly how those races are supposed to work and act.
Dwarves are surly miners living underneath mountains or in caves. They are excellent blacksmiths who craft beautiful weapons and tools. They distrust elves, hate orcs, and only tolerate humans. They can be gruff on the outside but are fiercely loyal and have hearts of gold underneath.
Elves are haughty forest-dwellers that love art and magic. They are lithe and beautiful, ageless and intelligent. Their immortality causes them to see the world in centuries rather than individual years, so they make friends slowly. They find humans short-sighted and dwarves uncivilized. Oh, and they hate orcs.
Orcs, for their part, are violent nomads. They wander the world just trying to kill, rape, and conquer wherever they can. They want to tear down civilization but if they ever had a civilization of their own they’d just destroy each other. They’re very strong, but ugly, and unfit for society.
Can you imagine the backlash if I replaced the word “orcs” with a skin color? Or even “elves” or “dwarves?”
Yet because fantasy hides the racism behind fantastical creatures that don’t really exist, we don’t really care. We’re perfectly okay with saying that every dwarf is surly and every orc is violent because dwarves and orcs aren’t real. But the thing is, we play games that reinforce these racial stereotypes over and over again until suddenly, we’re totally okay with profiling an entire race based on the actions of a few.

Now if you’re from a community like mine, one where you are in a very obvious majority with no members of a minority in sight, you may think that racism is not a problem. That’s Civil War stuff, right?
Wrong. We live in an era where one of the most popular presidential candidates of 2016 has profiled an entire religion, playing on the fear caused by a group of radicals who do NOT represent their entire culture. We live in a world where black Americans have been beaten and killed by white policemen for perceived threats that were not a reality, and where white policeman who have done nothing but do their job fairly are disrespected and even killed because of the actions of their brethren. Racism is a very, very real problem. And the world of fantasy is doing nothing to stop it.

So what can we do? How can a few people change the world?

The fastest way to change the world is to change ourselves. The world will follow suit.
For those of you who are reading this and are writers, our role is to write stories that break the mold. There are plenty of ways to do this. Show that all members of a race are not the same. Take the tropes from these genres and flip them on their heads. Do what you do best – write. When we populate the world with stories that show the true colors of racial profiling, people will read those stories and it will change their perspective.
For those of you reading who are avid readers or gamers, don’t indulge media that keeps the stereotypes going. If a story glorifies racial profiling, let the author or developer know that you don’t approve. Conversely, games that seek to overcome racism, novels that break the mold, those are the stories you should be giving your money and your attention to.
Social media is a strong weapon. When you see a game that shows the negative effects of racial profiling and promotes racial unity, use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, whatever you have to show your approval. If you see racial profiling in a novel or game, call it out.
If you have kids, make sure your kids understand that people of other races are as different and unique as people of our own. It is so much easier to nurture proper understanding of race and unity in a fresh child than it is to change the opinion of someone whose ideas are already developed and cemented. Teaching the next generation to be accepting and to be aware of the dangers of racial profiling is perhaps the most powerful way to effect change.

I understand that the idea of challenging an entire genre seems ridiculous. But there are already authors, readers, gamers, and developers who are taking these steps. And as difficult as it might be to change the face of fantasy, it is a task that is worth the effort. Because changing how fantasy treats racism can impact how the world at large treats it.

So whether you’re a dwarf or an elf, a halfling or an orc, let’s all stand together to show our uniqueness and our worth. There’s no better way to fight a problem about isolation and prejudice than to stand together as one.

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