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.