Saturday, December 14, 2019

Fictional Racism

This is probably going to be an awkward post, so bear with me.  It's about racism and fictional worlds, and why it all matters.

Not racism in the story -- that's actually the easy part.  Toss in a "we don't serve goblins here" and boom, you've got fictional racism.

Order of the Stick #13 - Rich Burlew

This is a post about real-world racism that fictional stories bring up.  Sure, this thing I've been writing is just a fantasy world, but like all fiction, it's made of metaphor and parallels and simplification from the real world around us.

The big parallel, of course, between Signs and the Wilderness and our own world is the story of the colonial frontier of North America.  It's not a perfect match, but it's clearly a major source of inspiration for what I'm writing, and it's the story of the land where I live and the culture I grew up in.  So while this setting is fictional, we humans are not as good at separating fact from fiction as we'd like to think.  The best fiction pulls us in and makes us feel like we're part of the story, and those emotions and impressions take root and stick with us.

Thankfully, I'm living in an environment where the most overt racism is abhorred.  If I went to work and started claiming I was part of some superior race that ought to rule others, I'd be fired in a heartbeat, and everyone there would think it just.  I live in a place where it's very easy to say "don't hate Thai people" and we all nod our heads and agree that hating people is wrong and we shouldn't do it.

It's another matter to face underlying racism that's part of our own story.

I'm an American through and through, which means my people came to be a people at the intersection of empire and slavery and manifest destiny.  It's a fascinating story and one that's worth telling, but it's full of darkness for one fundamental reason: it's easy to justify the use of power when you're the one in power.

You might point out that America isn't unique in this regard, and you'd be right.  Plenty of other countries were built on racial oppression and there are plenty of other cruel stories in history.  But the story of America is the one I know best, so that's the context I'm using today.

American Progress - John Gast

I should keep some perspective here -- none of what I'm writing is going to fix this dark history, and I'm still learning about it myself.  But something I can do is point at it so we don't forget it's there.  I'd like to make sure my writing doesn't try to hide racial oppression or pretend it never existed.  How much you choose to engage with that is up to you.

With that in mind, I'm looking at three areas where oppression has left some nasty scars on our landscape of ideas, three kinds of justifications for racism that I think I need to keep myself aware of:

  • That the oppressed are Evil and the oppressors are Good.
  • That the oppressed are Passive and the oppressors are Active.
  • That the oppressed are Gone and the oppressors have Replaced them.

Civilization vs. Evil

This is the easiest form of racial oppression to see, so thankfully it's one our society has come around to recognizing more and more.  But based on my own limited experience with education, I think it still needs to be said.

Colonial empires are brutal, both in building them and maintaining them.  Sure, disease played a huge role in the conquest of the New World, but colonial empires followed it up with a great heaping of theft, destruction, and murder, and they justified it by finding real or imagined flaws in their victims to call them Evil, while ignoring their own flaws to call themselves Good.

Power corrupts.  We all know it, and we all need to keep remembering it.  When the big, powerful empire wants the land and resources of other people, of course they'll make that conquest sound good and noble and justified.  And for the most part, they'll probably believe that's exactly what they're doing, seeing the suffering they've wrought as good and necessary.  It's easy to justify getting what you want.

Not that oppression somehow makes an oppressed people good.  People are people, and every society has its flaws.  Everyone in, say, 1600s New England had practices that look strange and unreasonable to us today.  There are no races of good people and races of evil people.

But when you're the powerful ones, it's easy to spend all your time talking about other people's flaws and minimize your own.  So while I'm including strange practices in all the species of my fictional world, it's the brutality of the colonial empire that has done the most damage (both the fictional one and the real-world ones) so that's the brutality that needs to be pointed out.

Passive Victims

There's another racist idea that is more subtle, which has let it hold on longer.  It's the idea that people from the empire are the only ones Doing things, while indigenous people are just waiting around for things to happen to them.

Think of the typical adventure story: the empire sends people out to explore, while the locals are sitting there, waiting to be explored.  Those stories are half true: that explorer really is going out and exploring, but they're also half false: the other people aren't actually waiting around, they're striving and achieving with all their strength and with all the resources they have.

In Signs in the Wilderness, I want to make sure to show that every group is striving and doing, that all people are protagonists of their own stories.  The empire may be richer, but that doesn't make their stories better.

Power is like its constituents wealth and technology.  It lets you conquer more or build bigger, but it doesn't make you strive harder for success.  (If anything, having more certainly makes me more complacent.)  Power lets explorers travel farther, but it doesn't make their stories better, just more widely known.  Great kings and scholars and lovers once lived and fought and dreamed in the land where I live now, and their stories were worth telling, even if no one alive remembers them today.

Replacing a Dying Race

This last idea I think is the one that's put down the deepest roots in our own world, the idea that the oppressed people are all gone now, or are fading away, and so while it may be very sad, they're all gone so they don't really matter anymore.

Here in the US, it's so terribly common to think of indigenous people as something of the past, and I've heard that view is common elsewhere.  Yes, there's no longer, say, a Comanche empire ruling over Texas, but the loss of political power isn't the same as vanishing altogether.  But it's easy to conflate the two, so we've got a lot of stories where native people were rather than are.

I'm not sure what to do about this idea in my own setting, made strange by fantasy and the passage of centuries.  Like the rest of these pernicious ideas, I'm just trying to point at it so we don't forget it's there.  I'm glad to see that people are writing stories about and from indigenous people today, people who can write more informed and meaningful stories about their own society than I ever could.

(Incidentally, while reading about this concept I came across a number that surprised me.  How many indigenous people do you suppose there are in the US today?  Six million, give or take.  That's more than the population of Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis combined.  I think that's a fact that deserves to be pointed out.)

I'm sure none of what I'm doing here will have any impact in changing people's lives.  There's no room for illusion: I'm writing a little hobby game that maybe someone will enjoy for a good adventure or two.  It's just fantasy.  But maybe that fantasy will help tell the true story of how we got where we are today.  We can't go back, and we can't undo.

But we can remember.


  1. It's good that you're taking the time to consider this issue and how it factors into your work. It's so frustratingly easy to reproduce harmful tropes in what you do if you don't tread carefully. I highly recommend that you read some books by indigenous authors if you want to represent indigenous people better in Signs. House Made of Dawn by N Scott Momaday and Tracks by Louise Erdrich are both great at portraying the history of different indigenous nations and how they might recover from the trauma of colonization.

    1. Carla Speed McNeill's Finder series is also excellent. It transposes Indigenous culture and issues into a sci-fi setting.

  2. I think you've identified the thing I think is most fraught about roleplaying in a fantasy American setting. I like that you've identified some narratives it would be easy to reinforce and have created a reminder for yourself to undermine them instead.

  3. This is an excellent articulation of some of the ways in which fantasy adventure games can be problematic. Not only your setting (which is great btw) but also many traditional old school D&D campaigns. They all involve European-esque travellers entering an unknown world (the dungeon) to explore and replace the denizens, as well as taking their valuables.