Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Racism in fantasy

Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because – what with trolls and dwarfs and so on – speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

I knew this topic would be fun to write about as soon as I read the Pratchett quote.

1. “There can be good reasons for different races not to like each other.”

That’s another quote, this time from Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. We’re come some distance from the all-good or all-evil races of traditional fantasy, but there’s no need to go in the opposite direction and make all racism the product of a misunderstanding or lack of information.

Besides, it’s fun when people – or races – have serious problems or flaws. Don’t scrub those clean just so there can be harmony between the races. Insurmountable differences are realistic. It doesn’t have to be as major as “Kyrdobans sacrifice the babies of other races and so the Lujesci hate them”. Maybe the Kyrdobans sacrifice the sickly or deformed babies of their own race, justifying this because they don’t have the resources to feed those who can’t contribute, but the Lujesci are horrified by it anyway.

2. Tolerance shouldn’t be limited to the good guys.

Be careful about making only the protagonists open-minded and tolerant. That’s not to say this can’t work, but it has to be handled carefully; the protagonist has to have a good reason to behave that way. In Chocolat, for instance, Vianne’s acceptance of the river people works because she herself is an outsider, so she understands what that’s like.

3. Tolerance shouldn’t automatically be a good thing with positive results.

Extending an olive branch usually doesn’t work if whoever you’re extending it to wants the entire tree, and the land it grows on as well. And even if the protagonist is the close friend or lover of someone of a different race, this shouldn’t mean the end of all their problems and differences. In fact, this can lead to more – they can be discriminated against for miscegenation, for instance.

It stands out glaringly when a protagonist applies modern thinking to medieval times (or prehistoric times, e.g. Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children novels) and convinces everyone to follow his or her more enlightened views. It’s much more realistic, and sympathetic, when the protagonist faces stiff but reasonable opposition.

4. Handle eternal conflicts carefully.

Extremely traditional fantasies might get away with eternal conflicts. All the characters take it for granted that elves always hate orcs and have done so from the dawn of time, and vice versa. No explanation is given and apparently no one wants any end to the struggle other than the extinction of one race or the other.

In most stories, though, and as part of good worldbuilding, there should be a reason for this eternal conflict, and it shouldn’t be ended too easily – or happily. Racism can’t be stamped out by a Romeo and Juliet romance, or negated by the author bending over backwards to show that different races are just like us.

5. Racism comes in degrees.

If there’s a dominant race, consider giving it different reactions to different races. Perhaps they really hate the river-dwelling fishfolk but are just disdainful towards the amphibians, partly because the amphibians are capable of breathing air and speaking.

Look for the small touches and petty cruelties when it comes to racism, not just the grand sweeping generalizations or pogroms.

6. Don’t copy real life too closely.

There’s an R. A. Salvatore novel where the conflict between the elves and the orcs is depicted in a very stark “KKK vs. African-Americans” way. I believe there’s even a scene where a gang of disguised elven fanatics attacks a peaceful group of orcs, though I can’t be certain because I read the reviews on Amazon some time ago. It wasn’t a book I wanted to buy.

The moment a story becomes too obviously a mirror of real life, the suspension of disbelief goes.

To me, racism in fantasy is a rich vein of material waiting to be mined. I love coming up with different races and watching them interact – and clash – with each other.


writtenwyrdd said...

Good thoughts. You might enjoy reading Benighted (aka Bareback in the UK) by Kit Whitfield. Deals with prejudice and how sometimes people just can't really understand each other. Well written, too.

JH said...

I think that there are two reasons why "racism" is an untapped source of conflict in fantasy:

1) What we call "racism" in the modern era is largely a product of colonialism, whereas most fantasy is set well before that, in a medieval European milieu. At that time and place in history, prejudice was divided along class or religious lines more than racial ones*. Further back to, for example, the time of the ancient Greeks, prejudice was largely cultural: you were a barbarian if you could not speak Greek and were not a product of Greek culture, but your "race" was not as important a detail.
2) What fantasy calls "race" has very little to do with the real-world sociological concept of race. Save for instances of interbreeding, fantasy "races" are more like separate species, and they can have physical, mental and moral differences that are much more flamboyant and/or functional than real world races.

When you try to mix themes and issues of real-world racism into standard fantasy, like the example of Klansmen Elves vs. Black-people Orcs, it's going to come out ham-handed. Either the fundamentals of the setting (i.e., pushing the historical baseline to during or after the era of European colonial empires), or the character of your "races," or both, need to change for it to be credible, IMO. And anyway, doing one or both of those things will make for a more original work.

*Interesting counter-example: I have read that the phrase "blue blood" comes from the Reconquista. Invading Christian aristocrats would prove their "worth" or "pedigree" to the commoners by showing how their veins stood out under their white skin, proving that their ancestry was not "tainted" by Moorish parentage.

JH said...

Also, for anyone who hasn;t heard of it, The Iron Dream ( stands out at least in concept as the best exploration of racism in SF/fantasy.

rosemerry said...

GunnerJ- While I knew blue blood was coined because you could see their veins I didn't know it also represented the lack of Moorish blood in their ancestry. Interesting!

Race seems to be such a huge deal here in the States. I think racism isn't touched on a whole lot out of fear of offending someone. In my own W.I.P. while I don't look at the origin of first names I am paying attention to last names and I'm hoping to get some diversity in my story so that not everyone is pictured as a white mary sue.

Good post!

JH said...

Race seems to be such a huge deal here in the States. I think racism isn't touched on a whole lot out of fear of offending someone. In my own W.I.P. while I don't look at the origin of first names I am paying attention to last names and I'm hoping to get some diversity in my story so that not everyone is pictured as a white mary sue.
Excellent articles, on this notes:

Hazardgal said...

Good quote....
The moment a story becomes too obviously a mirror of real life, the suspension of disbelief goes.

You hit the nail right on the head.

ChristaCarol Jones said...

good stuff, M. Some things you mentioned I'm going to take into further consideration with my work. There is a huge prejudice against mages in my story (as I'm sure you remember with helping my query lol).

Anonymous said...

I think the reason why it didn't work in Salvatore's novel it is because it is a book based on a well known franchise (FR/D&D). That particular characterization did not fit even with Salvatore previous works.

Now take how Elves were shaped in the Dragonlance novels, and how the Elves treated the Kagonesti elves (Wood Elves) to the point that they enslaved them. There it worked because:

a) it was members of the same race (not a distinct "species") and

b)it was (at the time) a fresh take on the D&D/Tolkien milieu.

For many a fantasy (or even science fiction) racism as we understand it (and shown by your Niven quote) does not really apply.

Bigotry may be perhaps a better approach, although underlining the base reasons for such behavior such as ignorance, greed or ideology/religion works regardless of whether you call it racism, bigotry or something else.

Anonymous said...

Of course the real theme is prejudice which in a fantasy setting is hand waved by saying that a given "race" is good while another is evil. In that sense the original Drizzt stories worked because it played with the established prejudices that made D&D race/alignment system work without breaking them.

Marian Perera said...

Hey GunnerJ,

Good point about most fantasy being set in a time when people simply weren't likely to be exposed to others of different races.

Now that you come to mention it, it does seem odd that so many fantasy worlds have either open borders or international travel. Especially when the differences between fantasy races can be (as you said) flamboyant.

I'm thinking China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels as a great example of this, though for a closer-to-home example there's Matthew Woodring Stover's Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon as well.

And Redemption. :)

Marian Perera said...

Hi Marge,

"You hit the nail right on the head."

Thanks! As another example, it's entirely workable to put our own values and opinions into stories (though we have to be careful about doing so).

But giving the villain and villainess the same initials as Bill and Hillary Clinton, in a novel with a strong political theme? I don't think so.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Christa, thanks for reading!

Yes, I remember that in your story, though discrimination against magicians is going to be a whole 'nother blog post. Seriously, there's a lot I want to write about that.

Good to hear the post helped, and say hi to the baby for me. :)

JH said...

Now that you come to mention it, it does seem odd that so many fantasy worlds have either open borders or international travel.

This is very interesting to me. My first thought was that this might be historical accuracy. Since medieval polities were loose feudal confederations arranged in a hierarchy of vassals, it's difficult to say how the "borders" would even be drawn. By duchy? By kingdom? Each knight's small village holdings? Most of the population wasn't even allowed to leave the fief they worked without the permission of their lord, so the issue free movement had a very different focus than borders. It might be that there was no real concept of "national borders" in a feudal system, and that expecting there to be such a system is looking at the past through the geopolitical lens of the Westphalian system of nation-states we currently live in.

But then I realized that many fantasies already do this, approximating a kingdom to a nation-state, even though it was a very different arrangement historically. So I don't really know why no one ever worries about border checks in fantasy. It might be just a "narrative artifact" of a lot of the seed material for mainstream fantasy's setting tropes which got the feudal arrangement and its implications "right."

Marian Perera said...

Hi rosemerry,

I didn't even think of racism in fantasy as controversial. Then again I also didn't try to avoid offending anyone in my work. One of my most downtrodden races is fair-skinned and blond, while another (equally badly treated) is dark-skinned and black-haired.

Though skin color isn't as much a deciding factor in this as their other physical features, mentality, sociology, evolutionary history and place in society.

Showing diversity in your characters through their last names is a good touch. I don't mind all the characters being WASPs if there's a good reason for this, but I find different races just a bit more intriguing.

Loren said...

This subject reminds me of the antagonism between the Dwarfs and the baboon-ish Ghols in the Myth computer-game series:

...turning the godhead of the ghols into a monument to Balin's victory. Nothing else has done more to sustain the mutual hatred since the ghols raided the crypt at Myrgard for "victuals".