Race in Fantasy:
This is a topic that’s been nettling at for me for years now. I was never quite sure of the right venue to discuss it, but this seems as good a choice as any.
It occurred to me once that, while fantasy authors will generally go into great detail in describing everything about their characters’ appearances, they rarely if ever make any mention of the character’s race. And the reason for this is obvious: we all know they’re white.
I’m more of a fantasy fan than a science fiction fan, but one thing I always respected in sci-fi was its tradition–started by Star Trek and continued by many others–of portraying an ethnically diverse cross-section of humanity. The unspoken message is that, in the future, race doesn’t matter. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, and all the others are all just thought of as human.
But sadly, fantasy isn’t like that. Sometimes it may pay lip service to the idea with it’s multiple non-human races, but that’s sort of undermined by the way they smack of Caucasian. When was the last time you encountered a black Elf? An Asian Dwarf?
Ironically, Warcraft–which even a fanboy like me will admit has a very basic and unsophisticated story most of the time–does a better job of this than most. If there’s one message the franchise has repeatedly hammered into the player, it’s that racism is bad (mmkay?), and the great diversity of their races allows them to do so with a reasonable degree of authenticity. Also, that they let you play as a variety of racial options as a human (and some other races) is nice, if hardly unusual in the video game world.
That’s not to say that fantasy never includes anything but white people, but their history with other races is spotty at best. In my experience, the most common non-white races to see in fantasy are Arabic and South Asian (probably because these would be the only ones likely to have been well-known to the medieval European societies fantasy tends to base itself on). But these are often portrayed as villains, or at least suspicious foreigners–a problem that all non-white races suffer in fantasy, honestly.
Blacks and Asians really get the short end of the stick in fantasy. I’ve been reading fantasy novels compulsively for the last ten years, and out of all that experience, I can only think of two high fantasy series in which black people were portrayed prominently, and both were pretty outside the norm of high fantasy. The first is Ian Irvine’s Three Worlds Cycle, which has featured many prominent and likable black characters, such as Tallia Bel Soon, who is described as having “skin the colour of chocolate” and is renowned for both her beauty and her skills as a fighter and sorceress. The other is Glen Cook’s Black Company books, which featured, among others, the black wizard One-Eye. He wasn’t portrayed in a very positive light, but neither was anyone else, so it’s safe to say that wasn’t a comment on his skin tone.
For Asians, the only examples I can think of off the top of my head are the samurai guy in Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Bifrost Guardians series, and the Nyeung Bao, also of the Black Company novels.
Hispanics suffer perhaps the worst of all. I can’t really think of any I’ve seen in fantasy.
(As an aside, I’ve always been confused when fantasy authors describe a character as “dark,” as there are a lot of ways to interpret that. To be fair, some of them could mean “black” or “South Asian” or “Hispanic,” but based on the rest of the genre, I tend to assume this means “dark hair with a tan.”)
One reason for the whiteness of fantasy is immediately obvious: the genre is mostly based on western European mythology, so it feels natural to have it mostly populated by western European-inspired people.
But is that the only reason? Is there some hidden and shameful streak of racism running through us fantasy authors? It has certainly become common to deviate from the traditions of the genre’s mythological roots in other ways, so why does this racial inequity continue to stand?
And perhaps the most important question of all is, is this okay? Is the fact that fantasy worlds are as white as Dempsters a harmless idiosyncrasy of the genre, or a grave injustice that sends the wrong message to non-white readers/viewers/players? Or is it somewhere in the middle?
And if it is a problem, what do we do about it? People have become so used to the Caucasian dominance in fantasy that a major break from that now might seem pretentious or preachy.
This is a major concern in my own writing, and a large part of the reason I haven’t broken free of the ethnic mold much. (This is also why I haven’t written any gay or lesbian characters yet, but that’s another topic.) In two of my novels (and, by extension, their subsequent sequels), I’ve tried to create distinct human ethnicities, but in one, the difference between the two was based on magic, and they were both completely white, and in the other, they were all, again, mostly various shades of white. The only major exception was a sort of quasi-Asian race with blue hair and pale skin.
I’m not proud of this, but again, any other races just end up standing out so much in a fantasy story that it just ends up feeling awkward and potentially preachy, and that’s no good. So what am I, as an author, to do?
If this same struggle is going on in all the other fantasy writers out there, then I can see why the Caucasian obsession persists.
If you were looking for me to make a point in this post, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you. The fact is that I really don’t know how to feel about this issue or what can be done about it, or even if anything should be done about it.
I believe strongly in ethnic diversity, and I also believe that it should be depicted in the media, but it can’t be right to shoehorn a bunch of black people into a story just to make a point, can it?
I love fantasy, and I don’t want to view it as a cesspool of racism, but there are times that seems like the only logical conclusion.
If my thoughts seem to be all over the place, that’s because they are. I find this a very complex issue, and despite all my thought over it, I have come to no solid conclusions.
Please share your comments on this. I’m very eager to see what people think. Is the lack of racial diversity in fantasy a travesty, or a non-issue? If it is a problem, what should be done about it? If you know of any high fantasy works not mentioned here (in any medium) that have broken the racial mold, please mention them.
I know this has already been a terribly long post, but some other notes before I let you go…
Sometime this week (I haven’t been able to find an exact date), Beckett Media’s Massive Online Gamer magazine will be releasing its issue #33, which includes an article on WoW patch 4.2 by yours truly. I encourage you all to pick it up and marvel at my wondrous insight into the effects this patch has had on the game. (:P)