Do Fantasy Worlds (Indirectly) Reinforce Racism?


(photo credit to chief-orc on deviantart)

I’ve written two other entries about how video games and fantasy games deal with race issues. I’ve also written a well received entry on racism in America (in the real world). But in today’s entry, I want to discuss the ways in which our media can reinforce our tendency to stereotype. Specifically, how might fantasy tropes be guilty of this. What do you think of when someone says she is playing a dwarf, or another friend says he wants to play an elf?

If you grew up like me, reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons, you probably have some specific traits in mind for these characters. The dwarf is stubborn, fond of drinking ale or strong drinks. She is greedy, tough, single minded, and gruff in action and words. Few people play sickly, weak dwarfs. They are the embodiment of a kind of grit in fantasy worlds, and they are fond of caves and beards and are basically short Vikings who live underground and think only about precious metals and battling goblins or something.

The elf is taciturn, or at least somehow noble and aloof. Elves have a timelessness to them in fantasy worlds, which makes them graceful and elegant; they take the long view on life, because they live VERY long lives (perhaps forever, depending on the setting). They are bound to nature. Elves are naturally good with a bow, capable of sliding down stairs on shields due to their agility. However, they are also a bit arrogant, as they think other races are beneath them.

There are other common fantasy races, like the inventive gnomes, the bloodthirsty orcs, the mischievous halflings (ie hobbits). More disturbingly, there are evil versions of many of these races, such as the drow elves, who are separated from the other elves by having darker skin. Subtle. Of course, they couldn’t be a reference to Africans, because they have white hair. So it’s totally not racist.

Possibly a Drow?
Possibly a Drow?

But seriously, even if we set aside the fact that elves that supposedly live underground have evolved or somehow been given dark skin (underground…where there is no sunlight!), their evil is a character trait of the entire race. If you look them up in the D&D monsters manual, they are evil. Most are lawful evil, so at least they have rules!

Later editions of games like D&D often got rid of these limitations, including the idea that only humans can be paladins, or holy warriors. However, for those of us who grew up with the idea that all drow are evil, or all orcs are monsters, or even that halflings like to eat and are lazy, these easy categories almost certainly affected our worldviews. Certain groups (races) have character traits that are common to all of the members of the group. Or at least, the exceptions to this are so rare that when they happen they are quite remarkable (Drizzt Do’Urden, a drow ranger, rejects the evil of his race and becomes a hero of the Forgotten Realms, for example).

Sometimes, after you had played a game like this, or read too many books that copied Tolkien, you started to look for these alternatives. You might decide to play a dwarf who hates alcohol and loves goblins, or an elf with an inferiority complex. But this too reinforced the tropes. What made these characters interesting is their contrast from the normal.

Interestingly, when I first read Tolkien as a teenager, I thought the humans were the worst. I liked the dwarfs and the elves, and even the hobbits. When the Return of the King ends, and the elves leave Middle Earth forever, I was upset. The Fourth Age would be the Age of Humans, Tolkien explained, but it would be a world of industry and not magic. Everything that I loved about Middle Earth would be ruined by humans, who bred like rabbits and had few redeeming qualities.

There’s something satisfying about knowing exactly what you are dealing with, and humans are unpredictable. Some are good; some are bad. Some are charitable; some are greedy. Some are intellectual and rational; some are emotional and irrational (this contrast of rational and emotional is something I now reject; but as a teenager it felt right).

Psychologists call this cognitive ease, and it happens in cases where we’ve heard the same thing repeated so often that we simply take it as a given. Having it challenged is difficult for us to process. It strains our minds, so to speak, and thus we tend to avoid such challenges. Yes, this applies to political and religious views too, but that’s a separate discussion.

This cognitive ease that we use when dealing with fantasy tropes regarding race can easily transfer to our real lives, especially since we (rather colloquially, and erroneously) use the word ‘race’ to describe different ethnicities, and even different physical traits.  How could a teenager, who learns that different races have different character traits, not transfer that to the ‘races’ in real life?

I’m certainly not arguing that people who read fantasy books or play fantasy games are somehow more racist. In fact, I’ve said elsewhere that exploring different characters can heighten our empathy for people different from ourselves. A good group (including a good GM!) can use fantasy tropes in order to overcome prejudice and discrimination. In fact, I often think of this as a sign of a mature group–when the players look for empathy rather than reinforcement of stereotypes. Still, there is often good and bad in most of our habits, and the bad in this case is one we should avoid, assuming it isn’t too late.

What do you think?