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White privilege in fantasy fiction and gaming
Being White, I have the dubious privilege to be able to ignore race in my roleplay gaming and my fantasy fiction. It's a dubious privilege because it's one that is impossible to ever fully decline. That's not to say "poor white me boo hoo"—rather, the only moral response is to decline the privilege at every opportunity. The pervasiveness of White privilege is such that I can never catch every instance, and when I do I won't always know what I can do to reject it. The key is staying aware of the taint that filters my culture, looking for the chance to resist, and learning more about the reality that is discarded by those filters.

On that last point, some edifying links.

Pam Noles' essay "shame" is the personal story of a young girl couldn't find herself in her beloved fantasy books, her elation at discovering that Ursula K. Le Guin's character Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea is brown, and the shameful Whitewashing of the book and its racial message in the Hollywood adaptation of the book.

bankuei over at Deeper in the Game writes about the perpetuation of the white assumption in fantasy gaming by publishers and players. He particularly notes the inanity of a genre that has room for elves, wizards, half-dragon vampires, and lighting–throwing god-child alchemists who can spontaneously grow wings, but doesn't have room for any colour of human except White.

Monte Cook takes on the twin themes of race and gender in D&D art. In a genre that is all about imagining a diverse palette of possibilities, it is particularly odd that every Strapping Young Swordslinger produced by publishers is as White as bleached cotton. (And male to boot.) Monte gives the example of Regdar (an iconic character in 3rd Edition D&D): he was shoe-horned into the books at the last minute by a marketing team who assumed their target audience was male and White and who feared alienating their "core" market of male White gamers if they didn't have a dominantly-raced and -gendered character for the game's launch. Of course, that's not how it was understood at the time, but that's how racism and sexism works: "it's not biased, that's just how the world is". That attitude keeps the world seeming that way. That the design team pushed strongly for diverse art that didn't include the ever present White Male Fighter is great, despite the sabotage.

And finally, keeping this bingo card handy when engaging with race issues is probably a good way to red-flag all the ways in which we've been conditioned to perpetuate and protect White privilege. There were more than a few squares to which my reaction was to say "but that's justified!", only to realise that it was a perfect example of how otherwise good-intentioned people like me participate in the maintenance of racial imbalance.

How do I apply this to my gaming? To be honest, I don't. I'm still trying to figure out how to disrupt the White assumption in my own gaming without it being a naïve effort that ends up backfiring. I've tried playing a brown-skinned man before, but I didn't know what to do with that character detail. Playing it up would have been as bad as Hollywood's magical negro. As it was, it just sat on the character sheet and there was never a moment in the game where it entered into the narrative as a "not a big deal" detail.

As a GM I'm responsible for portraying entire cultures and worlds, and it's hard to overturn the "everyone is white" default without either being ham-fisted about it or Orientalising a culture. One way of overturning the invisibility of Whiteness (part of how it establishes itself as the default) that I've considered is just to describe the skin colour of all my characters regardless of whether they are the invisible White or a marked Other. The problem there is how to describe White characters then: do I just say White? What about actual white skin that a moon elf has? The White race isn't even homogeneous, since it's a modern construction for political and power reasons: real White skin colours range from pale pink, to tan, to olive, to yellow, and more I'm sure I'm missing.

What do you think about portrayals of race in your shared fiction?

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An interesting train of thought.

In order to use a non-"White" denominator for a pseudocaucasian variety of fantasy people, I've heard (and sometimes adopted) the term "light-skinned" as the obvious counterpart to "dark-skinned". The dichotomy is still loaded (what with Light vs Dark being a central issue in your average fantasy setting), but not in quite the same way as the Realworldian White vs Black.

I agree that simply overturning the White default is a no-go either way, partially because I like my fantasy coherent. There has to be a reason why a people is of a certain skin colour. This is also the reason why I consider the often-repeated Drow-with-bluish-black-skin stereotype to be a rather silly one. Drow have ashen skintones in my games, if I use them at all. (Being rather more biased towards dwarfdom, I have issues with allowing pointy-eared spider worshippers steal all the thunder. They'd not last a decade against my dwarves! ;) )

Back to my point, sometimes it is helpful -- in order to sidestep the problem of Orientalism -- to Occidentalise the "default". So the "Europe" equivalent is based on chivalry and liege-lord relations? Then the peasantry is most likely bound to their clod in a rather restrictive system of serfdom that can, in some places, make Oriental slave-ownership look downright benevolent. (Not on average, naturally, or we'd be replacing one issue with another; but the balance is tricky, I'll admit.)

... every Strapping Young Swordslinger produced by publishers is as White as bleached cotton ...

Drizzt Do'Urden

You mean *THIS* creepy old white pedophile?

Seriously! WTF????

I try to ignore the problem by not explicitly stating people's races when I can get away with it. Either that or just randomly assign colors to people after I've written about them a while.

One of my problems is that I am a white middle class guy. I can only really stretch my mind so far in any direction of gender or race before I'm going to end up being either a reflection of a white male in a different skin or a caricature of the other group. I can ask advice from other people, but there is still only so much I can manage without becoming either offensive or condescending (which is also offensive)so I opt to ignore the issue and let the reader decide when I can.

That's the problem I face in my gaming fiction: how to use non-White characters without just being 20th century White guy in a non-White skin, or badly portraying another Earth culture.

The best example of how to do it well is Le Guin's Earthsea books. In the first one, the protagonist's brown skin (and that of everyone else in the central part of the world) is a minor detail that's casually noted midway through the book. The key there is that it's a fictional culture that isn't modelled on an Earth one, so there isn't the problem of caricature.

Of course, Le Guin is bloody brilliant as a world builder, and has put her entire career into thinking about these problems. So, there's a lot of finesse in the way she handles issues of race that probably eludes my analysis.

I have no experience with gaming, but -- of course -- an interesting post nonetheless. I'd never even considered the concept of racism and stereotyping in this sort of environment.

I like your idea of using descriptive words rather than black vs. white. Pearl, ashen, tawny, olive, tanned, ebony, peach, mahogany, chestnut, jet-black, rosy, rusty -- all skin-colours out there have pleasant-sounding adjectives that might sound less awkward than "this dude is black and this chick is white." If you describe one character as skin: opal, then describing another as skin: coffee (mmm..) lessens the "obvious-ness" (for lack of a better word/concept -- awkwardness) of trying to introduce a more representative mix (ie being ham-fisted, as you suggested).

That's awesome. The huge palette of colour names have never tripped off my tongue easily, so I didn't think about that too much. But you're right, there are lots of un-loaded colour words that sound so appealing as descriptions of skin tone. Also, they're very well distributed across the range of skin tones so I don't have to feel like there are more words for "everyone else" than there are for White. Thanks!

Thanks for collecting those links in one post!

Race is a pretty complicated social construct that encompasses a lot more than just skin color (or any physical traits), and so it's difficult to say how one could depict it in a medieval-ish FRPG setting.

It's not like Fantasy worlds are so true to medieval culture that modern cultural concepts (like race) can't be given some expression in those worlds. Of course I find it amazingly offensive when DMs/GMs just shoehorn race in through Orientalist nonsense, or by putting on an "Asian" accent (shudder). I think the way to do it is to set up fantasy histories that make "race" meaningful in a fantasy setting as well.

When I've DMed, I've set up worlds/locations where society's history mirrors something now seen as "raced" in our (modern) society, such as a society that depends on a permanent underclass of forced labor acquired by planeshifting to and capturing people from other material planes, who are demarcated by language and an inherited magical marking; a militarily superior invading group setting up an outpost to "civilize" an area, depriving the indigenous people there of access to the land and resources, and criminalizing their traditions (and disturbing a malevolent spirit that the indigenous peoples had been suppressing through their longstanding relationship with the land).

Another thing that I've noticed often happens in fantasy roleplaying and that goes unremarked upon is heterosexism and unquestioning acceptance of gender binaries.

I love world-building, but sometimes I also enjoy traipsing about in the "standard" fantasy setting that is so inseparable from European culture. Maybe I just need to give up on that flavour except in well-developed worlds that treat race with more nuance...

Another thing that I've noticed often happens in fantasy roleplaying and that goes unremarked upon is heterosexism and unquestioning acceptance of gender binaries.

The hobby still have a difficult-enough time engaging with even heteronormative sexism that I kind of despair that the wider gaming community will be able to take on heteronormativity and the binary at all. Among publishers, I doubt it will ever happen before mainstream society tackles it.

On the other hand, there are a few examples of this engagement that I've come across recently among actual hobbyists, publishers be damned. Moonhunter's Elves of Tallarn are a great representation of a different gender model in fantasy. Inevitably the presentation shows some filtering through the 20th century's two-gender and sexuality-defined-by-desire model, but for an unpolished forum post that's to be expected.

Another great example of smashing heteronormative assumptions is again from bankuei at Deeper in the Game, in the post 5 Blades of Bahamut: Deities. It's such a smashing example because it's matter-of-fact about which gods are sleeping with whom and doesn't even stop to acknowledge that there's a bunch of non-heterosexual and non-monogamous stuff going on. That assumes that the gods in question can be said to play by mortal gender rules at all, granted. Still, it's a good example of taking the opportunity presented by a fantastical element to represent something different from our dominant cultural assumptions.

Edited at 2008-07-09 04:31 pm (UTC)

I have to go to sleep now, but I wanted to ask you if you've seen this?

Also: the biggest problem I run into while gaming is how do you describe NPCs to people when the categories to which we assign people vary from person to person?

I haven't seen that episode, no. That sort of thing is why I always loved Star Trek after the original series. Memory Alpha seems to do a good job of summarising the story.

the biggest problem I run into while gaming is how do you describe NPCs to people when the categories to which we assign people vary from person to person?

That's one of the things that group RP just doesn't handle well. This problem comes up with even simple things, like different relative positioning giving different views on events. The simple answer would be that this is where single-protagonist roleplay outdoes group roleplay. An other answer is that this is where the players' responsibility to manage their part of the story—their own character's place in the world—comes into play most challengingly. It takes a very good Narrative group to enable the players to do that effectively, I think.

Hi. Sorry for the anonymous comment; I don't have a Livejournal account.

As a GM I'm responsible for portraying entire cultures and worlds, and it's hard to overturn the "everyone is white" default without either being ham-fisted about it or Orientalising a culture.

I don't think this is true once you get used to facing the problem head-on. It takes some practice. When I design a game, I want my world to be as 'real' as possible, and that means that racial, ethnic, gender, and class conflict are just as prominent as conflict between nations (to the extent one can separate nations from races and ethnicities; depends on the setting). The key to overturning the "everyone is white" default is simply to remove the default. That also means not mapping your game's cultures and ethnicities and races to entities in the world we live in. You can also play with the way different cultures in your game view one another -- they likely each have a 'default' of their own, and they'll clash.

One way of overturning the invisibility of Whiteness (part of how it establishes itself as the default) that I've considered is just to describe the skin colour of all my characters regardless of whether they are the invisible White or a marked Other.

Every NPC in my games belongs to some culture. Part of what I describe to players is what that NPC looks like and what cultural group they seem to come from. Likewise, when my players design their characters, I expect them to tell me about the characters' backgrounds, and about what they look like.

That's how I deal with fantasy games, anyways. I also run futuristic sci-fi games every now and then. I play with race differently in those. I'm writing a future history, right? That's an opportunity to ask 'what if' questions, to play very directly with what our world might look like in the future if racial and cultural conflicts play out this way or that way.

Don't dance around race and culture. Don't avoid them altogether. They're part of human interaction, part of what dealing with being human is for us. Confront them head-on and they'll make your games much, much richer.


Thanks for the comment! I'm surprised but pleased that this is getting any attention at all from outside livejournal, so doubly thanks.

The approach you describe sounds ideal for a well-developed world, and is what I hope to achieve when I do design one. The problem that I'm running now is that I set out to run a 4th edition D&D game "as written" in a high-fantasy, low-narrative-expectations way; i.e., it's straight-up hack-n-slash for the old-school fun of it. Unsurprisingly, though, that leaves race issues unengaged with, and adding that back in with grace is going to take some thought.

Fortunately, I haven't detailed much of the setting at all. I've got a map of the archipelago, a couple place names, and the PCs have met only a single isolated fishing community on a remote island. Once they begin traveling I'll have the opportunity to bring in a variety of human cultures. The island chains were populated by a diaspora, so there's going to be lots of opportunity for cosmopolitan variety even in the backwoods.

Okay, I'm feeling a bit better about how to approach this in that game now. Thanks once again for your comment and for the chance to bounce off your thoughts. :)

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I wonder how often I've let my fiction be stymied by race.

It's hard to be sure whether it's the right way to go or not, but I tentatively think that it's better to forge ahead, and make mistakes that can be learned from, than to stop because of being unsure about engaging with race the right way. I'm thinking of a parallel with the morally-unencumbered task of learning a language: the people who charge ahead and say foolish things are the ones who end up learning the language best; while those who carefully consider everything they say before they say it, and decline to speak when they're unsure, never gain much proficiency with it.

That still needs to be weighed against the damage that it can do, though. Writing about a White guy with epicanthic folds (sigh, Firefox's Canadian English dictionary doesn't include "epicanthic", apparently) is probably too far out, but writing a character with a clumsily-researched Chinese-Canadian background is probably better than never trying.

I think what's really being balanced there is the desire to be sensitive (or avoid insensitivity) and the desire to eliminate the silence that you mentioned in the clothing metaphor. I broke the silence with this post, and I was distinctly aware of how certain things I wrote were uncomfortable because they broke the illusion of race-blindness that polite Canadian society maintains. (Saying I'm White, and that I don't address race in my fiction yet where two in particular.)

Is it better to blunder and be embarrassed for what one once said, or to get it right the first time but wait an indefinite amount of time for that first? I don't think it's clear-cut. I remember saying, when I was 13, something relatively innocent but that in hindsight I know was subtly but very strongly homophobic. As I grow older and more socially conscious I remember it with increasing embarrassment. I keep learning from that moment, though, and it spurs me on to continue improving. However, I'm really glad that the people affected by that comment were very few.

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Hi, I'm also a non-LiveJournal person. I've only played D&d 3.5 and 4e, so I can't speak for science fiction based games or other stuff like that. I'm also a teenager who hasn't been playing very long, so excuse my inexperience.

I don't like the idea of real races or cultures in a fantasy game, in part because I know any GM would have to leave people out (in the interest of time and simplicity) and/or would get things wrong (because we're all human and make mistakes). But I like the idea of dealing with real issues - racism, sexism, homophobia and the like. So the races and cultures that I make up might have real-world influences, but they aren't any more real than the elves or kobolds who make them up.

That seems to be the consensus answer for the how to deal with race (and sexism and heteronormativity): keep the real-world issues but cast them in a new, fictional set of cultures and political relationships.

As a GM I don't like that because it's more work. But, I also have to remember intellectual laziness is a major source of many bad portrayals of race, gender, and so on, and not just in fiction.

It does make me wonder whether No Myth games would be worse for leaving racial assumptions in place, or whether they'd be even better at dealing with it because the group could be generating a more creative and stereotype-free world.

I think the way I've interpreted race in most fantasy and science fiction is that, in a world where your next door neighbour on one side is a reptile and on the other side is an elf, little things like skin colour become unimportant next to the larger issues of species.

Species-based discrimination is a good way to explore the racism thing without pushing everyone's buttons, though.

It's true, and that's always been the more-or-less overt treatment of racism in the actual fiction produced by publishers and created at the game table.

It's a multi-pronged problem though, which I don't think I made really explicit in the OP. Solving the problem at the table leaves the problem of how race is portrayed in the industry's fiction and marketing. Solving it at the table doesn't make the industry any less hostile to non-White gamers (or, to the point, potential gamers). Not that a table solution isn't necessary and good, but it's a deeply-set problem that pervades every aspect of our hobby.

Aside: I just realised that your avatar is a chibi Lady of Pain. zOMG.

He particularly notes the inanity of a genre that has room for elves, wizards, half-dragon vampires, and lighting–throwing god-child alchemists who can spontaneously grow wings, but doesn't have room for any colour of human except White.

Please, be thorough and objective in your analysis. What racist lessons am I supposed to draw from the elves, wizards, dragons, and so on?

Well, nobody should be learning racist lessons from this, but better awareness of racial issues is a good take-away lesson.

The point that bankuei makes in the article is that the publishers are producing a game that depends on their target market having a craptonne of creativity and imagination, yet they paradoxically assume that none of them have the imagination necessary to comprehend, deal with, or identify with anything other than male White characters. The publishers are willing to explore racial diversity, but not when it comes to humans. Human, in these worlds, means White. (That said, there are a few notable exceptions. Publishers are starting to clue in. See Monte's article for more on that.)

But then, bankuei explains it much better in his own words. I recommend reading the articles I linked to in the OP if you want to understand what my post is getting at. I didn't aim for a thorough academic analysis in this post (unless you're offering me tenure or a paper in a good journal?), but just to engage with the issues, point people to some excellent thoughts on the subject from other people, and then move on to my own particular conundrums with the problem of race. We've all got our own relationship with White privilege, so you and I will necessarily be engaging with different aspects of it.

This very well may be White Privilege speaking, but I hope it's closer to genuine curiosity. Some part of me thinks that traditional fantasies haven't even gotten the handle on speciesism, much less even having begun to deal with the more insidious pigmentation issue. Not to say that we should ignore one for the other, but would it be more appropriate to use the differences between species as the way of sneaking discrimination awareness into campaigns and systems?

Or are we supposed to realize/assume, whether true or no, that in a story setting with marked physiological differences, things like pigmentation wouldn't make it high enough on the list of things to discriminate over?

Part of the answer to that is that, tackling one with the correct tools can't leave the others untouched, else the root of the problem remains with a band-aid over it.

To ground that: dealing with speciesism and actually getting at the root of it requires recognising the systems that maintain the dominant group's privileged position. Doing that drags in all the other ways to marginalise people that such privilege enables. Hence, dealing with race inevitably intersects with dealing with gender, species, able-ness, age, etc. if taken far enough to find a real solution to the privilege.

The Wheel campaign I was hoping to try out had characters from different cultural backgrounds assigned as colonial police in a multi-ethnic port boom town on the edge of an empire (which has equated "multi-ethnic police" with "fewer riots"). Each character would be responsible for detailing hir character's culture, and its relation to the locale, the larger empire and the other cultures within both. The idea being that we'd write the back-story of ethnic power structures as the game played out.

A: Whereabouts are the Merriden in this town?

B: Mostl yworking in the mill and attached docks. Our land was heavily forested, and a lot of us made a living as loggers under the theocrate satrapy, but eventually the best timber ran out. Since Merriden discontent was so tightly tied to the revolution that fostered the Praku Union, the Union subsidizes our trips, both to avoid future violence and to move our youngest and strongest people away from home where, if unemployed, they might wind up as insurgents again.

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