Racism in fantasy is bad… is bad

It’s not uncommon for a fantasy work to take a crack at how racism is bad. The way this is often done is to have elves or orcs or goblins or trolls and find out they are just “people” just like you and me with thoughts and fears and feelings, they love their children and are sympathetic just like anyone.

Therefore racism is bad.

I think most of the authors of this sort of thing think they are helping. They are showing that we just need to look underneath, that we’re all the same, that you should be able to sympathize or empathize and overcome.

There’s a very serious problem with this line of reasoning, and unfortunately it can actually reinforce real-world racism and justify it, and the problem is this: race isn’t real.


When biologists look at human beings they don’t distinguish between races in a biological sense. So-called race-realists will point to things like IQ scores and say these are indicators of true differences, indicators of ability, but the problem is these differences are not causally linked to genetics, they are linked to things like socio-economic factors and the inherent biases of such tests (just look up how well the children of people who create IQ tests do on IQ tests, regardless of anything else).

Are these rabbits different races?

But in a fantasy setting an Orc and an Elf are at least theoretically biologically different species. Different from a human, different from a halfling, different from a lizard-kin or a dragon-born or a troll. Sometimes the fantasy races can interbreed, sometimes they can’t, sometimes you get whole other stat lines or mixes of stat lines.

It’s things like these stat lines however that are in my opinion particularly problematic, and the root of the problem.

If you see something like:
Orc +2 str, -2 int
Elf +2 int, +2 dex, -2 con, -2 wis
Halfling +2 dex, +2cha -4 wis

Then it seems logical that the races are different, it’s just important that we treat them the same, everyone is a person, but in fact, there are real differences between the “races”.

Hasbro nee Wizards of the Coast nee TSR recently came out in an attempt to quash racism and unacceptable cards in Magic: the Gathering, claiming that some cards violated community standards. They banned a bunch of magic cards, some of them pretty offensive, and some of them, in my opinion, not really. Obviously, people constantly misuse and misinterpret the meaning of Jihad, but the idea of a holy struggle is a real one in Islam, and it has sometimes been referred to as a physical struggle or a war, and at other times more spiritually. Likewise, the crusades most definitely happened, and for whatever reason cards like Cathars’ crusade is still allowed in the game. Except Cathars were a real gnostic movement, in like, the real world. So it seems strangely pick and choosy to me. While I understand that “it’s history” is a frequent cry used to block the removal of offensive statues and art and to end the glorification of movements that are in fact decidedly about racism, or in the United States a war that was very obviously fought primarily over slavery.

It seems to me if organizations like Hasbro truly want to take a stand against racism they would push back against the idea that things are different, but must be treated equally. The difference between species-ism and racism is that species-ism is at least somewhat based in reality. I love my dog to pieces, but I don’t consult her or ask her consent to get an operation or to trim her nails.

In the past of course similar arguments have been advanced against some races – that they are not fit to make choices, that they are lacking the mental faculty, one of the recurring arguments for slavery was that it was actually to the benefit of the enslaved peoples. It’s hard to see into anyone’s mind, especially in the past, to know if they truly believed something so absurd.

But the idea that we should accept people who are truly different than us is a wonderful one, but it isn’t the core problem with racism. The core problem with racism is that it’s totally based on a lie – races aren’t real.

We may certainly in the future face a situation where the human race truly speciates. The adaptations necessary to survive, long-term in space, maybe extreme. The human body is essentially adapted to operate under constant, crushing pressure. Astronauts in space suffer a variety of maladies the longer they stay there, lacking the constant sucking embrace of the earth. Bone density decreases, muscle mass decreases, the eyes begin to deform, fluids begin to gather in the upper body, and who knows what other illnesses might ensue after long-term exposure to zero-gee.  Some science fiction properties, attempting to be more realistic, such as The Expanse, have depicted Spacers with elongated limbs, and enlarged heads due to the lack of gravity. As far as back as 2001 A Space Odyssey the need to exercise in space is shown. But a simpler solution to the fluid recirculation problem would be to create humans without legs. Legs require sustenance and since you can propel yourself in zero-gee with your hands (and astronauts mostly due) legs become dead-weight. Other genetic changes might be induced, giving those who live in space larger thicker eyes with membranes to avoid damage from the vacuum of space, mechanisms or glands that recirculate and avoid fluid build-up, enhanced more boxlike diaphragms, and larger lung capacity to store air so that if there is a vacuum blow out eyes and eardrums don’t rupture or bleed. And these gene sequences could be encoded to be hereditary.

Confronting true races that are separate would be an important or difficult step for humanity at large. But we’re not there yet.

And the current problem is not really one of empathy or sympathy, but rather one of ignorance and bigotry.

Properties like Bright or Hasbro’s mealy-mouthed removal of some cards while continuing to promote the idea of the differences of the races is part of a larger environment that continues to imply that the races are real things, but we should ignore them or have sympathy in spite of our differences. But those differences are in truth just ones of culture, upbringing, and generally socio-economic status.

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