I have established in the first part that some authors try far, far too hard and fail. Then there are authors who I don’t think actually try, but who feel a vague obligation to send out messages in a Saturday morning cartoon sort of way. Adventuring parties with a human or two, an elf, a dwarf, and possibly a pet beholder to tag along in the bargain. Elves and dwarves bicker but get along in the end. There’s a point made about how race doesn’t matter, let’s unite against evil, la la la isn’t it nice. Villains may be racists, in that mustache-twirling, obvious fashion we can all dismiss. Black, white, simple. Racism is bad and we should all get along.
RA Salvatore, best known for his D&D tie-in fiction, takes this approach to a batshit conclusion. He dresses his bit antagonists up in Klan costumes.
The band and their missing fellows, then, were indeed members of Casin Cu Calas, the “Triple C,” an organization of vigilantes who took their name from the Elvish saying that meant “honor in battle.”
Given the reputation of Casin Cu Calas, whose favorite tactic was to storm orc homesteads in the dark of night and decapitate any males found inside, Drizzt found the name more than a little ironic, and more than a little distasteful.
“Cowards, one and all,” he whispered as he watched one man hold up a full-length black and red robe. The man flapped it clean of the night’s dirt and reverently folded it, bringing it to his lips to kiss it before he replaced it in the back of one wagon. He reached down and picked up the second tell-tale garment, a black hood. He moved to put that, too, in the wagon but hesitated, then slipped the hood over his head, adjusting it so that he could see through the two eye-holes. That drew the attention of the other four.
The other five, Drizzt noted as the fourth dwarf walked back around a corner of the wagon to regard the hooded man.
“Casin Cu Calas!” the man proclaimed, and held up both his arms, fists clenched, in an exaggerated victory pose. “Suffer no orc to live!”
“Death to the orcs!” the others cried in reply.
I’d like to be articulate about this but oh my god fuck this shit. Yes, this text is reproduced verbatim from RA Salvatore’s The Orc King. I made none of it up.
Some context if you’re unfamiliar with Forgotten Realms or D&D. Throughout the history of the setting, orcs have been one of the monster races: the basic game allows your character to be an elf, human, halfling, dwarf, or a half-elf. Later on, this expands to include half-orc plus a ton of whacky templates like quarter-divine semi-golem werewhales, but only if you fork over more cash and buy extra supplements. Until then, your dungeonmaster may let you play an orc or any of the other “monster races,” but the Player’s Handbook won’t provide much for you to build on. Orcs’ default alignment, in D&D’s broken morality system, is Chaotic Evil. In game terms, orcs are experience point fodder for adventurers. In the lore and published fiction, they rampage across the land, burning, pillaging, and raping as they go (half-orcs are mostly products of, yes, rape). Their origins are murky, but some of the lore has it that they were made by an evil god.
So: RA Salvatore has this Big Wonderful point to make about racism. The genius then leaps to a KKK analogue that persecutes and hunts down orcs. Except orcs in Forgotten Realms, until a fairly recent retconwere all evil monstrous barbarians who liked to rape human/elven women. Still with me? Congrats, we’ve got:
The issue is compounded further. Salvatore is famous for his “goodly” drow character, Drizzt Do’Urden. The drow are negative elves who live underground: they have snow-white hair and black skin, generally portrayed with black-purple complexion but on one curious occasion with African features and skin tone. They, and I’m sure you saw this coming, are a Chaotic Evil race and started off as monsters until the advent of Drizzt popularized them among gamers. Nowadays, a campaign will barely pass by without drow characters who see the evil of their people and abandon them to seek the “goodly” folks of the surface. Drow: all evil except for the few token ones plus this one group of hippies moon-bathing followers of a hunter goddess. Drizzt, moreover, is possessed of a sterling moral compass because he inherited it from his father. No, no, not because his father instructed him in it. It’s inborn.
Where were we? Oh yes, unfortunate implications. Except kind of not implied, since it’s put forward bald and bold in sky writing. Throughout his travels, Drizzt comes across the odd goblin or similar who’s a token “goodly” one as distinct from the rest of his kind. Perhaps he, too, was fortunate enough to have a Chaotic Good father? Goodness is in the genes. Your race defines your morals.
There have always been alienages. They have been around for as long as elves and shems have lived in the same lands. Ours isn’t even the worst: They say that Val Royeaux has ten thousand elves living in a space no bigger than Denerim’s market. Their walls are supposedly so high that daylight doesn’t reach the vhenadahl until midday.
But don’t be so anxious to start tearing down the walls and picking fights with the guards. They keep out more than they keep in. We don’t have to live here, you know. Sometimes a family gets a good break, and they buy a house in the docks, or the outskirts of town. If they’re lucky, they come back to the alienage after the looters have burned their house down. The unlucky ones just go to the paupers’ field.
Here, we’re among family. We look out for each other. Here, we do what we can to remember the old ways. The flat-ears who have gone out there, they’re stuck. They’ll never be human, and they’ve gone and thrown away being elven, too. So where does that leave them? Nowhere.
– Dragon Age Codex, entry “Alienage Culture”
In Dragon Age, city elves live in “alienages,” a word chosen presumably because ghetto is too real and therefore unpalatable. I haven’t the patience to find out what Bioware’s gibberish means so your guess is as good as mine, but the gist of this setting’s elves is that once upon a time they lived in harmony with nature and copypasta from the nearest Tolkien clone, then humans invaded their land and enslaved them. A cross between Jeanne d’Arc and Jesus (white) rose up against the human empire and liberated the elves, and then elves were conquered again. Many of them now live in walled-off ghettos in human cities. Every now and again a gang of human nobles burn down their houses and/or rape their women for shits and giggles. It’s not hard to see where the writers are going, and the lead writer David Gaider asserted that “The medieval Jewish ghettos were the original inspiration behind the alienages, yes […] all of Thedas started as a fictionalized version of European history, so that is indeed where it began.”
These elves look like this:
Looks Semitic to you? Me neither! Their religious beliefs bear no resemblance whatsoever to Judaism. I’m not even sure they have a culture beyond “generic oppressed elves in city.”
It’s not so much that fantasy minorities must correspond precisely to their real-world counterparts. It’s that this is a whole new level of erasure. Minorities aren’t even token characters anymore; they are in absentia, their oppression and plight appropriated by lily-white people with pointy ears, written by a lily-white dudebro from Canada who posits his race of horned non-humans as “sort of like what you’d get if you crossed Islam with the Borg.”1 Thankfully, his dwarves aren’t compared to Japanese victims of concentration camps or something, though I’m sure that could be worked into the sequel.
 Whose only representative in the game is a lunatic who murdered some innocent farmers for the crime of helping him. He’s also a Proud Warrior Race Guy to a tee if we haven’t piled on enough race essentialism already.
You’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. You are ranting, justifiably, about sexism in a game or homophobia in a novel or racism in Avatar. Then along comes some twit who chastises you for wasting energy on something so “trivial.” Moff’s Law is invoked; tone argument is trotted out, and anyway don’t you have better things to do than complain about a videogame? Go out and fight for your rights. There are people dying out there.
For this, I blame cardboard bigotry and white-guilt fantasies.
White people generally don’t like to confront their privilege. They want to deny it, or derail the discussion by telling you how they were bullied in school because they were short and a POC got a job promotion over them thanks to affirmative action. Institutional oppression is especially difficult for them to grasp, because in school and through the media they are spoon-fed the most extreme and obvious forms of bigotry, which after a point is nothing more than preaching to the choir—every child knows it’s bad to want to kill somebody because they don’t look like you. What is left out is what they think are “little things.” Racial profiling at job interviews and words like gypped, to them, don’t constitute racism. They don’t recognize it as such, so why should anyone? It’s not racism unless someone’s being lynched to death while Klansmen stand in attendance. It’s not anti-Semitic unless you’re up to your elbows in neo-Nazi.
Popular media, then, reinforces this notion by refusing to engage with insidious forms of prejudice. Rather it wants to throw villains like ridiculous hood-wearing “CCC” orc-hunters at the audience or humans who are out to ravage elven women: simplistic caricatures everyone can safely and happily hate, then pat themselves on the back. They can’t possibly be racist because they aren’t like those villains; they aren’t promoting violence against minorities, so how can they possibly be bigots?2 This mindset absolves them of thinking of POC as “ethnic” and making racist jokes, because sticks and stones will break your bones but words don’t hurt anyone. It excuses them for thinking in terms of stereotypes (all Asians are hard-working children raised by strict parents who speak broken English; Indians, Chinese and Hispanics are out to steal our jobs) because everyone’s a little bit racist. It takes away nuances, and what is left is a reductive, kindergarten logic with which privileged folks employ in discussions of race politics. Like not seeing race. “I don’t see skin color, I see people,” a white person will protest. “I put ‘human’ in ethnicity fields, there is no race, everyone’s equal.” Which is naturally easy to say when one believes that “seeing race” equates to extreme life-and-death persecution.
: this is how James Cameron’s Avatar works. Jake Sully isn’t like those evil humans who are bent on destroying the Na’vi and their habitat. No, he’s a paragon of virtue, the model of tolerance, and all should learn from him. That’s why he is a better Na’vi than any actual Na’vi, why they accept him as one of their own, follow his lead, and fall in love with him. This is also the fantasy of white people who would like to call themselves allies, and have POC accept them as such too. The Na’vi is, of course, an analogue of Native Americans. Only more blue and more magical, because real POC are boring and not sufficiently glamorous.
It’s a game white people can’t lose; when you use Hitler and the KKK as a yardstick, it’s easy to come off smelling like roses in comparison. How progressive it is to disagree with eugenics. How enlightened it is to not want to send Jewish people to concentration camps. Low standards, aren’t they, and nicely black and white? In the meantime, it’s okay to dismiss upset reactions of minorities as irrational, hysterical, and “unhelpful” to discourse. It’s just fine to accuse us of looking to be offended. It’s wonderful to fetishize Asian women and coo over how exotic we look. Those little things just don’t count.
What about when media does engage with checking your privilege? Border House invokes an interesting example from Mass Effect concerning Wrex and Krogan, a warlike species that has been hit with a genetic plague that dooms them to a low birthrate forever. It’s not a bad one, really, and as Alex notes, it hits all the right parallels. Intent is magic. What-about-me derailing. Unfortunately, we are still dealing with racism directed at frog-aliens who look like this:
It’s even further removed from real-world racism. While I can certainly agree that the conversation Border House quoted could provoke useful conversations and nudge people toward unpacking their privilege, I still feel it isn’t as confrontational as the discussion would have been had the dialogue occurred between a white character and Jacob Taylor, a black man, in Mass Effect 2.3 If game discussions I have seen are any judge, the audience is much likelier to make wishy-washy threads about the horrible oppression that elves and dwarves have suffered at human hands, or how nasty Ashley Williams of Mass Effect is for comparing aliens to animals. Rare is the thread that ventures anywhere near the land of “hey, maybe this is kind of like race relations IRL.” If a topic like this miraculously appears, it will quickly be dismissed and shut down, because nobody wants politics and the PC police in their videogames.
: Of course, you can argue that in the game’s setting humans are too busy dealing with interspecies relations to care about distinctions between human ethnicities and cultures anymore. Okay. I doubt it, but okay. But a lazy way out, all the same.
That’s the crux of my argument. You want to address racism? Great, lovely. Go ahead. But don’t sugarcoat it by making it about amphibious aliens and orcs. Don’t even make it about bullshit “blood purity” and magic. You want to do this? Do it properly. Shove it in your audience’s face and be not afraid. Don’t soften the blow, don’t misdirect, don’t beat around the bush. Make those elves black. Have different human nations in your fantasyland, some inhabited by dark-skinned people, some not. No, I’m not asking everyone to be literal-minded and painstakingly imitate life and history, but don’t insult me by pretending that you are making some profound point about tolerance when all you really want is to talk about the suffering of pointy-eared Caucasians.