Racism in Fantasy
Fantasy rarely depicts any characters of color. White people dominate in fantasy art, games, and films. Often, the best you get is the “token black guy” or the Asian who knows martial arts. Sometimes you get a vaguely Middle Eastern person who is invariably a villain, an assassin by trade, or someone who knows the secrets of science, such as gunpowder. Most people of any race but Caucasian play the roles of background actors, token sidekick heroes, villains, or foreigners.
It’s racism. And it’s deplorable.
So okay, there are plenty of excuses for why it happens:
• Fantasy depicts medieval worlds, and it’s incongruous to have many people of color in such scenes.
• Fantasy is based upon Celtic and Norse lore, which don’t include other ethnicities.
• It’s just the nature of culture right now, like how Hollywood doesn’t produce a lot of movies with minority leads.
• It’s because of the history of fantasy art. People are used to seeing Conan, Gandalf, Merlin, Elric, Bilbo—all white people.
• Elves, dwarves, and halflings/hobbits are all depicted as white, and if there are different ethnicities among humans, it highlights the lack of diversity among the other races.
• You have fantasy races in a fantasy setting that take the place of other human races.
• Minorities are a small minority of the audience for fantasy games and films, so you might lose many white consumers by depicting them.
• Few creators of fantasy come from minorities, so it’s only natural that few get depicted.
• Fantasy art and films focus on a few heroes, and when some of them are dwarves or elves, there’s not enough room for more than a token character of another race.
I could go on, but this mode of thinking disgusts me. All the excuses have racism at their root—if not actual racism on the part of the person making the excuse, at least the passive, pass-the-buck racism of repeating the mistakes of the past because “that’s the way everyone does it” or “that’s what people expect.”
Even the most seemingly reasonable argument based upon medieval Europe falls apart upon closer examination. For one thing, it’s a fantasy world! If you’re assuming there’s a new world with magic and elves, there’s not point in talking about medieval Europe.
I’ve experienced this racism firsthand, not as the target (I’m as white bread as you can get) but as the receiver of racist screed. After the Dungeons & Dragons movie released, I was working for Dragon Magazine and got a letter from a reader who saw the movie and was incensed by the fact that a black actress was chosen to play an elf. To her—a devout worshiper of the Norse gods—elves were clearly described in lore as being light skinned and only the evil ones were dark skinned. Since D&D and fantasy in general was partly based upon her religion, it was an affront to her that Wizards of the Coast would allow an elf to be played by a black person. Of course, she assured me she was not racist in any way; it was merely a matter of principle.
Even if we go to Tolkien, arguably the father of fantasy as a genre, we see more leniency in depictions of skin tone than we’ve come to expect of fantasy. Harfoots are described as ”browner of skin,” whereas the Fallohides are “fairer and taller.” That’s pretty interesting, considering the recent controversy surrounding casting for The Hobbit.
Now think about this. You can probably come up with a black character or an Asian character who was a hero in some fantasy property. Maybe you can even think of an Indian actor in such a role. Can you think of one who appeared to be a Native American or Mesoamerican? How about an Inuit?
So how do we do better? It’s easy.
• Hire people of minority races for jobs in the industries that make fantasy.
• Put people of minority races in art as heroes.
It’s not going to ruin fantasy or drive audiences away in droves. It might even build the audience for fantasy over time.
And it’s the right thing to do.