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?