cross-posted from my blog, Scribbles & Sonnets
I’m writing a fantasy series. To be specific, I’m writing a multi-ethnic, supernatural, steampunk high fantasy series. If you’re not sure what I mean, I’ll give you some reference points. Think the television show “Heroes” meets “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” meets “A People’s History of the United States” and throw in some colonialism, imperialism, racism, and other -isms. I’ve always loved the fantasy genre every since I was a kid and here are some things I’ve noticed about the genre (books, film, television and video games) in regards to race:
1. Dark / Brown people are bad.
Dark people are almost always the villains in high fantasy series. I say dark because notions of race are different in imaginary worlds but that doesn’t mean that racism in our world doesn’t carry over through the author’s depiction of dark people. J. R. R. Tolkien specifically stated in The Lord of the Rings trilogy that all of the men who joined Sauron were dark-skinned, and that the pirates were supposed to look “yellow” or Asian. Sound racist? That’s because it is.
In David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean series, the story is told from the perspective of the Alorns (also known as white people) who fight a war with the Angaraks, a race of people with “yellow skin” and “slanted eyes.” They’re often referred to as “yellow dogs.”
In Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, which spans hundreds of years and generations upon generations of humans, dwarves, elves, trolls, etc. the dark elves are the ones who are evil. Read: dark-skinned elves.
Game of Thrones, the new HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Fire and Ice has to this point (one season and four episodes of the second season in) only included three kinds of brown people: the first is a tribe of horse-lords call the Dothraki who the white protagonists view as savage, backward, and ignorant. Then there’s a cursory appearance of a black pirate, who is in the scene for approximately five minutes. In the last episode, there was a black person who is in charge of a city called Qarth (supposed to be modeled off of Egypt) and he has approximately two lines.
2. Dark / Brown people don’t exist
There are plenty of other authors that wash their hands of race entirely, with token brown characters here and there or no brown people altogether. Harry Potter comes to mind, with only two or three named characters of color in seven books. A fantasy phenomenon, easily the most popular series of all time, and there are no people of color who figure prominently in it? Something about that just seems wrong.
Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles has absolutely no people of color in it at all - and this series centers around the ability of the main characters to alter reality as they see fit. So you’re telling me that a group of people who can alter the very fabric of space and are all white?
Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles are completely devoid of any brown people. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games only makes mention of two who are named, and they both serve as tools to help the protagonist. They don’t have inner lives or desires or anything remotely like character development because they only exist to further the plot.
3. Brown people exist to be exotified and ogled by the white protagonist.
Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel series is guilty of this particular trend: she sets up a pseudo-Renaissance world where the protagonist is a facsimile of a white European (seems French to me) and along her travels and journey she meets strange looking yellow-skinned and brown-skinned people. She marvels at how barbaric and savage their customs are. She feels pity for them when something bad happens and feels maternalistic towards them because they aren’t civilized enough to understand what’s going on around them.
Twilight is another series very guilty of this: Jacob is Native American and a werewolf and it’s not a coincidence. All of werewolves in Twilight are Native American, further reinforcing the stereotype that Native Americans are savage, wild, and uncivilized.
and the very rare…
4. Some people are brown and that’s okay because race doesn’t exist!
My beloved Star Trek is guilty of this one, as is Star Wars, The Matrix, and many other science fiction films. Just because we’re in the future doesn’t mean we’re post-racial. As much as I love The Next Generation, there is not a single mention of race in regards to Geordi LeForge (Levar Burton) or Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg). Since Worf (Michael Dorn) is a Klingon, I guess I could see how race wouldn’t be the same for Klingons, and I can even see the argument that because there are races other than human racism within the human species no longer exists… but that’s pretty farfetched to me.
Heroes does this as well, and not only does it refuse to acknowledge race, but it kills off the majority of its characters of color in the first season and then replaces them with blonde white women!
I would put The Hunger Games in this category as well because of the way race is never discussed other than as a descriptor of appearance. Collins had the opportunity to comment on systems of oppression and offer some insight on race as a hierarchical structure but she shied away from it.