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Old 08-21-2014, 05:42 PM
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Default Real talk about coded racism in the fantasy genre

Thanks, Beckworth, I was going to make this thread but couldn't think of a succinct title. But you did!

Anyway, an entirely relevant thread that was a long time coming. Discuss: savage orcs, graceful elves, fallen paladins, golden dragons, and the real-world short hand ideas they represent. I think discussions about alignments is also pretty relevant here.
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Old 08-21-2014, 05:47 PM
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I am fond of Brian Jacques (and mildly astonished that such a writer could live and flourish in the modern age as he did), but the biological determinism in his stories really creeps me out.
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Old 08-21-2014, 05:56 PM
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As I've gotten older/played more D&D I find myself having a harder time dealing with completely Evil races, and either start using non-sentient creatures as evil (undead, creates literally created from evil) or using villainous humanoids without condemning the entire race. I find it especially bothersome with the Drow (evil dark skinned elves that con-goers sometimes cosplay to... let's say tone-deaf results) and orcs who are almost always some sort of tribal group.

Tangentially one of my biggest pet peeves with settings is when they just take a country's history, file off the serial numbers (or don't even do that as in the case of D&D's Kara-Tur!) and present that as fantasy enough. Man does Kara-Tur aggravate the hell out of me.
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Old 08-21-2014, 06:02 PM
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In 5e, orcs, and to a lesser extent half-orcs, have an innate compulsion towards evil. This is due to the compulsion of their god, Gruumsh, and the lore says that most of the evil gods that birthed races also did this, not wanting to give them the free will to consider other paths.

The races created by the good gods (humans, elves, dorfs etc.) were given no such inclination towards good, but instead given complete free will. The fact that elves and dwarves are frequently inclined towards good comes from something else, we're not sure yet.

Tieflings, despite a very literal demonic heritage, and despite demons being evil in the same way that fire is hot, have absolutely zero inclination towards evil. You are far more likely to find an evil half-orc than an evil tiefling.

I will not be using the RAW versions of the 5e races.
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Old 08-21-2014, 06:08 PM
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It's kind of the same all over. World of Warcraft does it big time, for example; it just swaps west and east. A lot of it is entrenched behind decades of precedent at this point, but I always appreciate games that mix it up a bit.

Not a game, but: David Eddings' books make a fun read, but I've always thought it was off how there's this little corner of the world where mostly white European types (Roman, Viking and other stand-ins) live in a clump whereas the ENTIRE REST OF THE WORLD (like 5/6, geographically; see upper left) is given over to either the human-sacrificing people of Torak (several subsets, all of which seem to be some version of Easterner) and their thralls and client nations, or else literal demon worshipers.
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Old 08-21-2014, 06:20 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kalir View Post
This is due to the compulsion of their god, Gruumsh, and the lore says that most of the evil gods that birthed races also did this, not wanting to give them the free will to consider other paths.
This sort of thing is how I in-game justify that humans are diverse, while every other race is the same everywhere you go. All elf priests get the same messages about free expression and swordplay and magic as art from Corellon Larethian; all dwarf priests get the same messages of community and craftsmanship from Moradin; all halfling priests get the same messages of fortune and resourcefulness from Yondalla; all gnome priests get the same messages of whateverthefuck gnomes stand for from Garl Glittergold. The priests then shape their communities.

Humans don't have this guidance, so they're more diverse.

I'm still vaguely annoyed at how widespread the pantheons of "evil gods" are.
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Old 08-21-2014, 07:59 PM
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I approve of this thread.

Here's a link to this wiki article on racism discussions involving Lord of the Rings which might serve as a primer. Much like other parts of Tolkien's work, these seemed to have trickled down into the rest of the fantasy genre.
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Old 08-21-2014, 08:16 PM
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You've got your Elves, which are like a mystical native american type culture with their reverence for nature. They always live in the woods, yet rarely are they depicted as nomadic, which is quite impractical. Settling cultures inevitably clear out and use resources, which Elves never do. Magic, I guess.

You've also got Orcs, which are often a shamanistic, savage tribal type culture, which is actually similar to specific native american tribes like the Iriquois. They usually are depicted with nomadic type settlements, and have a reverence for war. This is similar to how native americans are classically depicted in old hollywood movies.

Then you've got Dwarves, which are almost always a scottish highlander type society. They live underground, mine for ore, smith things from the metal, and drink ale. Very rarely is this forumla deviated from, even slightly.

Gnomes are usually very similar to Dwarves, tho often more advanced. They typically live in volcanoes, and use the heat in conjunction with water to create steam, which powers their advanced machinery. They are usually a very scientific culture, in these cases. I have, however, seen Gnome culture also depicted as somewhat similar to Elves, living in the woods and casting spells and whatnot. See examples like David the Gnome, or the Keebler "Elves" (those guys are gnomes, let's be real). To me, this suggests that Gnomes are more adaptive, and less dedicated to the traditional stereotypes established about their culture.

Goblins are typically depicted as a significantly less sophistacted version of Orc culture. They're even often enslaved by Orcs, due to being smaller, less intelligent versions of them. They're tribal, violent, and crude.

I'm sure we all already knew everything I just rattled off. So I guess the question is, is it racist to think that sums up these cultures?
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Old 08-21-2014, 08:21 PM
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I'm more bothered by the uncoded racism in fantasy. So many settings where every human on the planet is white, every culture is based on the same vague conception of feudal England. For as long as D&D has existed there has been SERIOUS tension on whether monks "belong" in the setting. Things like this exist.

To a degree, I actually like when weird stereotypes about various ethnic groups get pinned to wacky fantasy races. Leave'em on there long enough and they might stick, so the sheltered bookworm types make those associations at the expense of the real-world ones. You know?
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Old 08-21-2014, 08:25 PM
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No? Because the impetus is on the author not to construct things that way; basically most fantasy authors use different races (and especially oddball pov characters of different races -- see Drizzt) to connotate different political positions and views, and/or as an easy shorthand for certain social and racial stereotypes. This is to provide easy jigsaw story and character "development" and conflict.

"Hey, the dwarves and elves are at again, let's send in this neutral (read: superior) human person to mend fences and teach them to live in harmony like all enlightened peoples" is about as stock a story construction as you can get, and it pops up everywhere in mass market fantasy. And if you do something outside those stereotypes, or do something innovative with those stereotypes (see: Riyria Revelations, to an extent), then people heap shit on you for not following classical fantasy conventions.
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Old 08-21-2014, 08:48 PM
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Originally Posted by PrivateJoker View Post
Gnomes are usually very similar to Dwarves, tho often more advanced. They typically live in volcanoes
I've never heard of geothermal-powered gnomes living in volcanoes. Is this a Warcraft thing?
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Old 08-21-2014, 08:52 PM
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It is a Warcraft thing.
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Old 08-21-2014, 08:57 PM
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isn't it also a Dragonlance thing? Warcraft is not the only place I've seen that.
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Old 08-21-2014, 09:50 PM
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In my (extremely limited) experience, the I've found that the "tribal" depiction of orcs tends to coincide with a more sympathetic depiction.
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Old 08-21-2014, 09:53 PM
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isn't it also a Dragonlance thing? Warcraft is not the only place I've seen that.
It very much is a dragonlance thing.
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Old 08-22-2014, 04:25 AM
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i always thought orcs were black

and like gnomes are asians

and elves are obviously native americans which i'm like 1/7th native american and therefore i always liked playing elves and specifically, magic elves aka shaman

i bet 700 years ago i'd have been a shaman, that's probably what they codified marketers as back then... more polite than saying bullshit artist

honestly, i have always thought this way about dnd races, i mean the word race is right there! and not in a malicious way, i just always thought well racism is probably one of the oldest phenomenons on the planet, a very old meme, and this is less a 'codification' than a kind of therapy maybe

i'm not saying it's GOOD therapy or effective, i'm just saying however unintentionally malicious it may be it never occurred to me that there were racist pepole alive today, (the first racist comment i heard from my family was when i joined the navy, my grandpa warned me about 'those n-words' and i realized what a parody my family was of white christian privilidge) i assumed dragonlance people were just old school and therefore racist because everyone knows you have to have a television to teach you about REAL brown people, and back then, elves didn't have televisions to teach them about orcs with, so people were pretty racist!

see i'm not racist i'm just really really dumb and unintentionally racist because of childhood weirdness
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Old 08-22-2014, 05:17 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sarcasmorator View Post
Not a game, but: David Eddings' books make a fun read, but I've always thought it was off how there's this little corner of the world where mostly white European types (Roman, Viking and other stand-ins) live in a clump whereas the ENTIRE REST OF THE WORLD (like 5/6, geographically; see upper left) is given over to either the human-sacrificing people of Torak (several subsets, all of which seem to be some version of Easterner) and their thralls and client nations, or else literal demon worshipers.
One thing I've noticed about Eddings's works is that the characters are frequently racist (or nationalist, whatever), but the actual depiction of inhabitants of the nation in question frequently are not. Like, you'll have the protagonists talk about how the people of this other place are Evil, but then later in the story the characters will eavesdrop on random guards or soldiers or whatever and they don't seem any different than anyone else. In other cases you'll hear a stereotype about a nation, then meet a character who doesn't mesh with it for whatever reason (although the main character from that nation is generally "representative").

The Malloreon is one long rehabilitation for the "evil" races. The characters actually go to all those places and see that the people in them are mostly average Joes, and the entire eastern continent nominally worships Torak but is secular for all intents and purposes. And then the Elenium/Tamuli cycle is written and it's made clear that the only true bad guys are the ones at the top -- once the leaders and the fanatics are removed, the rest of the "evil race" becomes a docile country just trying to rebuild.

I think early in the Belgariad Eddings just wanted Bad Guys who were a threat and could be killed without guilt, but his portrayal of them gradually softened as he developed as a writer. The fact that all his stories end with world peace basically on the immediate horizon kind of puts the exclamation point on the idea that no one is truly irredeemable.
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Old 08-22-2014, 09:45 AM
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It's as much a sci-fi thing as a fantasy thing, and I think it's at least partly narrative convenience. You don't need characterization if you can provide all the relevant character traits just by assigning the character to a different species. To this extent, sci-fi tends to be more extreme than fantasy: Klingons are the proud, dark-skinned warrior species; Romulans are the untrustworthy, backstabbing species; Ferengi are the greedy, sexist species; Vulcans are the dispassionate, rational species; Bajorans are the oppressed, religious species (basically Jewish); Cardassians are -- well, they're also the untrustworty, backstabbing species.

Characters rarely break the mold, and when they do, it's a plot point. In contrast, humans get to be proud, untrustworthy, greedy, or (rarely) religious as the situation demands. By and large, though, the other species are used to represent these traits, as if to outsource all of mankind's undesirable attributes. Even the Vulcans, usually held in high regard, are most often dragged out to show how flawed they are without emotions.

Oddly enough, Star Trek has always been one of the most socially progressive speculative fiction franchises: it's responsible for the first interracial kiss on broadcast television, and DS9 is one of the only shows I can think of (in any genre) to feature a black lead in a primarily non-black cast. Voyager was even more diverse. Tuvok as a black Vulcan raises a lot of questions that were never answered as far as I know, but good on them for considering the possibility that there might be racial diversity in nonhuman species.
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Old 08-22-2014, 09:52 AM
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That never really dawned on me very much as a general writing thing until I saw the Babylon 5 episode about the religious holiday of one of the various races. The one where a major point made at the end of the episode was how all these other races have one religion that exemplifies them as a race, and Sheridan shows up at the end with the various religions of Earth to highlight their diversity.

After that I really noticed just how generally one-note any non-human race is in your typical sci-fi/fantasy universe. Sure, individual characters will vary from that mold, but when you see the races referenced in general they usually embody only a handful of traits.
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Old 08-22-2014, 10:07 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tanto View Post
One thing I've noticed about Eddings's works is that the characters are frequently racist (or nationalist, whatever), but the actual depiction of inhabitants of the nation in question frequently are not. Like, you'll have the protagonists talk about how the people of this other place are Evil, but then later in the story the characters will eavesdrop on random guards or soldiers or whatever and they don't seem any different than anyone else. In other cases you'll hear a stereotype about a nation, then meet a character who doesn't mesh with it for whatever reason (although the main character from that nation is generally "representative").

The Malloreon is one long rehabilitation for the "evil" races. The characters actually go to all those places and see that the people in them are mostly average Joes, and the entire eastern continent nominally worships Torak but is secular for all intents and purposes. And then the Elenium/Tamuli cycle is written and it's made clear that the only true bad guys are the ones at the top -- once the leaders and the fanatics are removed, the rest of the "evil race" becomes a docile country just trying to rebuild.

I think early in the Belgariad Eddings just wanted Bad Guys who were a threat and could be killed without guilt, but his portrayal of them gradually softened as he developed as a writer. The fact that all his stories end with world peace basically on the immediate horizon kind of puts the exclamation point on the idea that no one is truly irredeemable.
Good points, all.
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Old 08-22-2014, 10:11 AM
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Fantasy doesn't really seem real if it's not incredibly racist and sexist. It has to be accurate to the time period, right? Right?

But seriously, it is difficult to create things in a society where a lot of the great examples of genres are deeply coated in racist imagery. Also, it's really difficult to have a discussion about it when defenders can just point to classics and say "why could they do it but not I?" This thread is super important, thanks for making it/contributing to it, all.
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Old 08-22-2014, 10:15 AM
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I detect a writing challenge! Write a Sci-Fi or Fantasy short story that avoids the issues this thread mentions. I'd participate, it would be fun to see how subconsciously racist I am through peer critique of a short story.

Edit: I can see two directions to go, one in which there's been some kind of civil rights movement in the past and one in which there has never been racism or sexism in the setting historically. The latter option nicely subverts the Humans are Aliens but Better trope, making it seem like Humans have serious problems, but that might just be a different kind of codified racism. Maybe the former option then. Imagine applying feminism to a sci-fi or fantasy setting, you'd have to totally rethink how it might look and find ways to show contrast with the history of the planet/kingdom/dimension whatever and the 'present' within the story maybe... it might even necessitate putting a somewhat uncouth or racist character (or even just a brutally honest and historically educated character in) into the story to show said progress in as few of words as possible...

My brain! It's full of bad ideas! That means it's time for breakfast.
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Old 08-22-2014, 10:17 AM
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Quote:
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I detect a writing challenge! Write a Sci-Fi or Fantasy short story that avoids the issues this thread mentions. I'd participate, it would be fun to see how subconsciously racist I am through peer critique of a short story.
That's easy, though. There's nothing about speculative fiction that says you have to use nonhuman races/species.

#NotAllKlingons
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Old 08-22-2014, 10:21 AM
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mogri why don't you do it if it's so easy you cheeser

ok whatever, omelettes are calling
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Old 08-22-2014, 10:24 AM
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I'm very surprised that you guys are reading elves as noble-savage native stand-ins. I always read them, even as a youngin', as the epitome of the perfect, alabaster European. Like, they tend to run closer to the Nordic ideal of tall, blond, whey-faced Aryan than all those other, lesser white peoples generic humans. The fact that they tend to be the pinnacles of academia/knowledge and especially the arts reinforces this to me.
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Old 08-22-2014, 10:25 AM
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check your head cannon privilege gahitsu!!

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Old 08-22-2014, 10:39 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by gahitsu View Post
I'm very surprised that you guys are reading elves as noble-savage native stand-ins. I always read them, even as a youngin', as the epitome of the perfect, alabaster European.
More than anything, elves are prelapsarian. That's why they are simultaneously perfect alabaster Europeans and noble savages. They are an idealized, eternal past before the fall that miraculously continues into the present.
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Old 08-22-2014, 10:43 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by gahitsu View Post
I'm very surprised that you guys are reading elves as noble-savage native stand-ins. I always read them, even as a youngin', as the epitome of the perfect, alabaster European. Like, they tend to run closer to the Nordic ideal of tall, blond, whey-faced Aryan than all those other, lesser white peoples generic humans. The fact that they tend to be the pinnacles of academia/knowledge and especially the arts reinforces this to me.
Personally, I always read elves more as an analogue of various European pagan groups. Similar to and even able to blend in with "humans" by themselves, but as a community they are more aloof, ancient, secluded, and mysterious.
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Old 08-22-2014, 11:04 AM
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Battle for Wesnoth is an open-source hex-based strategy game, commonly found on Linux distros just because why not. Mechanically speaking, I do not care for it, even if it has neat ideas.

Flavorwise, well... you'd have to work really hard to convince me it wasn't written by elf supremacists.
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Old 08-22-2014, 11:10 AM
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A lot of coded racism in fantasy is inherent to the classic fantasy construction, which is authoritarian and obsessed with authenticity. It focuses on how awesome the good old days were, on the benefits of "legitimate" authority (the pure royal line), and falls entirely to pieces when you start asking questions like "Wait, but why should thousands of peasants die to put the King back on the throne?" Sooner or later, this construction comes to depend on biological determinism, and from there it's a short hop to sectioning off human stereotypes into "othered" non-human races.

It's very similar in a lot of ways to superhero stories, which, sooner or later, have to address the question of "Wait, so why isn't this hero with his miraculous power changing the world?" the answers to which inevitably wind up being reactionary and conservative.

Sadly, there's also a lot of pitfalls to be found in attempting to break free of the classic fantasy construction; many works that do so wind up being just as reactionary and, honestly, not very interesting. Once you break past the "Ah-hah! But it's not Tolkien, you see!" they tend to bottom out quickly.
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