As part of a response to escalating racial tensions in the United States sparked by the protests stemming from the death of George Floyd, Wizards of the Coast – makers of Dungeons and Dragons – published a blog post titled “Diversity and Dungeons and Dragons.” Given how huge DnD has become in the past few years, it’s nice to see them addressing the diversity issues. Especially welcome was this passage:
“Curse of Strahd included a people known as the Vistani and featured the Vistani heroine Ezmerelda. Regrettably, their depiction echoes some stereotypes associated with the Romani people in the real world. To rectify that, we’ve not only made changes to Curse of Strahd, but in two upcoming books, we will also show—working with a Romani consultant—the Vistani in a way that doesn’t rely on reductive tropes.”
The Vistani were, in many ways, the last powerful remnant of DnD’s poorly trope filled past. It wasn’t terribly racist before – DnD was fairly progressive for the time at its origins – but had an unfortunate habit of lazy writing that relied on stereotyping entire cultures or species using very shallow portrayals of real world cultures. Orcs were the worst stereotypes of “the Mongolian horde” mixed with the worst stereotypes of “non-white people being stronger but dumber than everyone else,” and all the terrible things that implied. Dwarves were basically tiny Scots and Irishmen, including all the stereotypes of them drinking all the time, but they also had big noses, long beards, and were greedy and oh dear God can Jewish people get a break?
The worst, in my opinion, were elves. Elves in DnD had the pale skinned, blond haired, blue eyed High Elves who were just more advanced than everyone else, the olive skinned, dark haired, dark eyed Wood Elves who were kinda okay but much more savage than Aryan – I mean High – Elves, and the dark sinned Dark Evils, who lived underground and were pure evil. You could tell they were evil because they were dominated by a matriarchy, were weird S&M Perverts, and also had dark skin.
Ignoring for the moment that living underground makes pretty much every species lose their pigmentation so Dark Elves actually being dark skinned makes absolutely no sense for a cave-dwelling people, I’m sure any reasonable person can see why that’s problematic.
This is a problem that is baked into Fantasy almost from its origins. I’m not going to say Tolkien was a racist. I am going to say he was the originator of all of the stereotypes I mentioned above, plus the evil humans who followed Sauron were just the “men of the East,” and the only thing DnD added were the Dark Elves – Orcs were everything I mentioned above and the evil version of elves. Again, that doesn’t make him racist – I doubt he was really considering the implications on real world races when he described the cultures of these races. He in fact did one thing when it came to orcs that made them less racist than their depictions in most other fantasy that followed. In Middle Earth, orcs are actually the results of Sauron and Saurman experimented on elvish prisoners of war and turning them into evil, debased creatures.
So yay making sure we don’t have a race that’s born evil, boo the “trauma makes you evil’ trope.
Again, I’m not trying to say Tolkien was in any way trying to make a point about race or mental health. I’m saying that, as part of the genesis of the entire genre, he accidentally brought over some cultural baggage from the early 20th century that has lingered with Fantasy ever since and spread out to infest the rest of genre fiction.
(In defense of Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, C.S Lewis, Edward Rice Burroughs, and Robert Heinlein, and many more were contributing factors to this as well – I’m just focusing on Tolkien because he’s the best known.)
The problem is genre fiction is unique compared to non-genre fiction in one key way – since genre fiction relies entirely on writing about the inherently unreal, a lot of genre fiction draw on common touch stones when writing because it helps ground the reader. If you don’t want to make up fantasy races for your world and you don’t want to write a world with all humans, borrowing elves and dwarves and orcs is an easy fix and it allows you to go a bit weirder with other elements of your setting.
Want to write a fantasy story set in space, but don’t want people to debate if it’s Science Fiction or Fantasy? Sure, you can add wizards, but Star Wars made Space Wizards into a Science Fiction trope decades ago. However, the moment you add space elves and space orcs and call them elves and orcs, you have fantasy, and everyone will agree with that.
Of course, if you call your space elves Vulcans and your space orcs Klingons, you’ll get called science fiction and also sued by the Roddenberry estate.
The problem with this approach is, when you import those species without thought, you also import the cultural baggage that comes with them. That meant Tolkien influenced Gary Gygax when he was working on Dungeons and Dragons. That meant that when Dungeons and Dragons rebirthed the Tabeltop Miniature War gaming scene and gave birth to the Tabletop Roleplaying games, they influenced the first generation of computer role playing games and future miniature gaming. That meant they influenced Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe. That meant that when Blizzards of the coast could not secure the rights to Warhammer and made Warcraft, they carried that influence. Which lead to World of Warcraft becoming a massive pop culture phenomena at about the same times Lord of the Rings was experiencing culture prominence again through Peter Jackson’s trilogy.
All this means is several generations of fantasy writers and game designers were being influenced by cultural baggage that was fundamentally racist, but was unquestioned because it was being applied to fantasy races. You could hate orcs without being a bad person, because orcs aren’t real. You could idolize elves without being a white supremacist, because elves aren’t real. And you didn’t have to think about the fact that the tropes that informed those races were rooted in real world bigotry a linguist in the 40’s probably didn’t even mean to import because it was the 1940’s and he was more interested in building cultures that justified his obsessively detailed constructed language, so he used stereotypes to fill in gaps in their cultures because ‘no harm, no foul.’
Except now it’s the 2020’s. Race is a huge deal because we, as a culture, are realizing that when we got rid of laws that enforced racism we didn’t actually fix the underlying power structures that still kept that racism going. And depictions of fantastic races that rely on those harmful stereotypes are something we’re realizing is not ‘no harm, no foul.’ Reinforcing racist ideas absolutely does have harms, and absolutely is foul.
So I applaud Wizards of the Coast for taking steps to address these issues in their own work. Especially given their recent rise to cultural prominence, they are an incredibly influential voice in the genre, so taking a solid stand is something that’s only going to be a good thing going forward.
As for what general fans of fantasy can do?
Well, not immediately having a screaming shit fit about the discussion would be a nice start. Please calm the hell down. No one is calling you racist, and no one is saying that you are a bad person for enjoying DnD before these changes got made. What we are saying is “man, we just realized this isn’t cool, we should fix that going forward.” That’s it. Engage in the discussion, and realize that no matter what, addressing stereotypes is only going to make the general discourse around fantasy better and lead to less cookie cutter fantasy books. Orconomics is the first example that comes to mind from recent fantasy – a satirical fantasy novel that has all the classic races, Orconomics directly addresses the race in fantasy issue and does it without carrying over harmful stereotypes, and it’s better for it.
Also, realize these stereotypes might not hurt you, but they do hurt people and their ability to enjoy the genre. For an example, instead of speaking for someone else here, I’m going to share a moment of personal realization I had when writing this post.
It’s an ongoing joke in my Dungeons and Dragons groups that I hate (fantasy) dwarves. The joke has its origins in the fact that, when I run Dungeons and Dragons, I almost never utilize dwarves in my world, and I refuse to play them. Oh, and it’s also because whenever pressed on either of those, I’d flat out state it’s because I hated the fantasy depiction of dwarves. I never could put a pin on why, but the presence of stereotypical dwarves always hurt my enjoyment of a fantasy book or game or whatever.
My mother is Irish. My dad is Jewish. It is literally just now, as I’m writing this post, that I realized that I have disliked fantasy dwarves for decades because they were a racist amalgamation of the worst stereotypes of both halves of my ancestry. I didn’t hate dwarves, I was offended by them, but because I hadn’t thought critically about them I wasn’t even aware of it.
And I say this as someone who still loves fantasy enough that I’m writing books set in fantasy worlds. Imagine how many people have been turned off or alienated by the genre over the years because of things like that. Imagine how many great fantasy authors or game designers we’ve lost out on because the genre bothered them for reasons they couldn’t put a finger on.
Imagine how much better the genre would be if anyone can enjoy it without feeling uncomfortable. And if these changes are uncomfortable for you, because they fantasy has become your comfort zone and you just want to enjoy it without thinking about race?
Well, if you let yourself be uncomfortable for just a bit, the problem will fix itself. If you stop going on reactionary rants about how this is somehow destroying the genre because of “historical accuracy” or “SJWs” or whatever the buzz word is these days, and help draw attention to the problem with racist stereotypes so we can fix them even faster, the underlying issues will be dismantled. Then you can go back to enjoying your escapist fantasy without thinking about race, and you’ll be able to do so with a much more diverse group than before.
And if your problem is you don’t want a diverse group of real world people in your fantasy space, then I hate to break it to you, but the problem isn’t the genre or in the attempts to fix racist tropes.
In that, very specific case, the problem can be found most easily in the nearest mirror.
But what if you’re an author or dungeon master or game designer or other creator? What if you want to address issues of racism in fantasy without making the problem worse or getting egg all over your face?
For that…I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some. And they’ll be found in my next blog post. This is gonna be a two parter. See you then!
Want to read something to tide you over? I have books!