Racism in Fantasy and Science Fiction

My white privilege post got me thinking about racism, perception, and arguments some people have used when analyzing fiction, especially in regards to there being a right and wrong way to portray a group. My focus, of course, is on fantasy and science fiction, because of the ways that racism will differ in a world where ‘race’ as we know it doesn’t exist, since race in our world is a cultural concept rather than a physical one. In most fantasy and sci-fi, other races have physical, cultural and mental differences that we simply don’t have on Earth.

I made a post on Absolute Write about this a few days ago, because it’s something I’ve been considering very seriously over the past few months. I’m trying to enrich my understanding of race and how it intersects with our world, so please feel free to call me out if I say something you don’t agree with. I admit I’m learning.

I’ve written about the drow of Forgotten Realms in terms of their matriarchal society and the issues that we have implanting our cultural assumptions into their world, and this also presents different considerations when speaking on race.

I don’t personally believe that their dark skin and their chaotic evil alignment is used as an allegory for dark skinned individuals. Their dark skin is only practical in the underdark in a world of subterfuge. Lighter skinned individuals would be more easily targeted and killed by underdark beasts, which would quickly the race extinct.

Compare this, in contrast, with the typical representation of vampires. Typically white, a ghostly pale, and quite aristocratic in nature, they are seductive and evil. They can all pretty much be linked back to the 1819 book “The Vampyre” which painted them as worldly, sophisticated, and evil.

What got me thinking about this is that we have vampires in the fictional world of Forgotten Thrones, and they are based largely on popular culture and ideas of vampires. They’re cultured, sophisticated, hedonistic. They’re also, largely, pale.

So when first considering what I could do to change the racial dynamic of the humans ofthe world, I considered making the vampires non-Caucasian. It would be an easy way to add more diversity and, since the world has none of the racial history that North America does, it wouldn’t have mattered at all what colour their skin was. They would be, to the other races, simply humans. I quickly threw this idea out, however. We already had dark elves that were less than shining moral examples in the world, so there was no way I could make another dark skinned race over-all evil.

I want to create a racially diverse world, and yet I worried that putting non-Caucasian characters in certain roles will be misconstrued as being offensive. I don’t feel comfortable enough with my understanding of race relations to do something like this without a great deal of thought and care. Intentions count for very little – your readers won’t know what you intended when you wrote it, as a general rule.

Sadly, I think this one of the simple reasons that a lot of media and entertainment lacks diversity – they don’t know how to do it right, and instead of trying to do it right, or risking doing it wrong, they just don’t do it at all. I think this is one of the dangers of throwing around the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, as if there’s only one appropriate way to present a certain demographic.

Writers are nervous about portraying people wrongly, and because they don’t want to risk offending, they stick to what they know.

This is a large part of the reason that I try to focus on the big picture when dealing with diversity – they may be portraying a group in an offensive manner, but is that better than not showing them at all?

7 comments

  1. J. Keep says:

    On the issue of “evil races” in fantasy, and our work in particular, personally I think it’s rather a moot point. The “Forgotten Thrones” stories are explicitly set in a world where there’s really nothing but “shades of dark grey” at best, morally.

    In general, I tend to only write characters with both good and bad aspects a plenty anyhow.

    • Anjasa says:

      Yea, I never liked the idea of the ‘only good/only evil’ such as with angels and demons. I only enjoy them when they’re morally grey. Perhaps more evil, but with redeeming qualities – or overarching good, but with some redeeming qualities. Without them, it’s boring.

      I think that’s why I like Spike so much in Buffy. The Judge even says in season 2 that he reeks of humanity because of his passion and affection and love. If he were just a truly evil being, it would have been boring. This is also why I disliked the Angelus plotline – as an evil character he had no depth, and all of the intrigue for that season came from elsewhere. Him, as an individual, bored me.

  2. Rafael says:

    The problem with making Vampires non-Caucasians is that vampire has strong allusions to disease, unrestrained sexual lust, sexual predation and cannibalism. It may be an Alternate World Fantasy, but the readers live in our world, with all that implies.

    • Anjasa says:

      See, with me, that wouldn’t even really register. I think Vampire, I think ‘sexy, cunning, wicked and seductive person.’ I don’t really have any negative connotations to it except for the fact that they are undeniably evil and soulless (for the most part).

      I also think ‘white’ because it’s a European construct, and most popular vampires are white (Lestat, Dracula, Eric Northman, Angel and Spike, etc.)

      Unfortunately it seems that in popular culture it’s much more acceptable to make werewolves poc, which I think has far more negative connotations, at least to me personally (such as animalistic, uncontrollable, evil, and not as sexy as vampires).

  3. Sidney says:

    I know I’ve hesitated about writing non-white characters, but ultimately my desire to write another ethnic group won out. I’ve tried my hardest to use a friend, or another direct resource, for vetting what could or could not be offensive. That said, you aren’t going to make everyone happy. I say go for it.

    • Anjasa says:

      Very good point, and pretty much what we have to do if we want to have more diversity in media – we need to risk offending people and hope to hell we don’t. But in the end, I think it’s more worthwhile to diversify our media than stay in safe zones.

  4. WyrdMystic says:

    I’ve read a lot about racism in fantasy recently and there is one thing that really stands out………people are confusing race with species. Elves, humans, orcs, whatever – these are not actually different races of the same genetic species. So technically, racism doesn’t apply. Yes, all members of a species can act the same and have the same motivation – good or evil or something in between. This is fantasy after all! The question I’m left with is….is spending too much time thinking about ‘racism’ when writing, in itself, a byproduct of racism? Writers should be able to write without having to worry about these things – so what if everyone is white or everyone is black, it all really depends on setting. If you wanted to be purist then you would have to pick the skin colour (if they have skin!) relevant to the climate the ‘species’ evolved in. If you have a human species then you make it more or less diverse based on climate and how progressive their society is. If the society isn’t very progressive, then yes one ‘race’ could be oppressed by another (doesn’t mean they have to be black though!)

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