I’ve been thinking about this article for the last day or so. I posted a link to it on my Twitter feed yesterday, and saw a few reactions to it that seemed… confused. Part of the problem is that the article gets a little muddled at points, I think because it’s talking about a complicated concept: race as identity, versus race as socioeconomic marker within in the modern (racist) political structure. But part of the problem, IMO, is the misconceptions that readers were bringing to the article themselves. A couple even asked (paraphrase, since I didn’t ask them about posting their comment), does this person actually want racism added to their Dragon Age? Which is when I realized that, to a lot of people, race should only exist, or matter, where there is racism.
Which… yeah, OK, no. I mean, I get where this comes from, especially from folks who, like me, live in racist societies. When I say I’m proud to be a black American, it’s in spite of racism, while a white supremacist would declare themselves proud to be white because of racism. (Paraphrasing many people; not sure who originated this way of framing racial pride.) But I’m also proud to be black because blackness is fucking awesome. I am part of a people, and I revel in our collective uniqueness. Why wouldn’t I?
Apparently lot of people wouldn’t, because they’ve learned to think of talking about race as, somehow, racist. (I never hear anyone say that talking about sex is sexist, or talking about Judaism is anti-Semitic, but go figure.) But race — that is, physical appearance and commonality of culture and background — is something that has existed for as long as human beings have existed. The boundaries of which race is what, how that’s measured and who belongs and what that means, shift with time and overlap constantly — but it’s part of how we function as a species, and personally I think it’s a good thing. The problem lies in how race has been lent additional, ugly weight in racist societies because those societies have chosen to emphasize race, and to give it meanings and consequences that don’t make sense (e.g. “people of Y race are natural geniuses and therefore should be the only ones allowed to attend universities”, “people of Z race carry disease and must be rounded up into camps”). But race can, does, have non-ugly weights and meanings. People were white-skinned, and their looks and background had meaning to their own and other peoples, long before “whiteness” became effectively a caste label which in many societies bestowed rights and privileges that other people are denied. Today it’s a struggle just to be a black footballer in Italy, but the same article notes that black Italians have been just regular folks living regular lives there for centuries… and on occasion, exceptional people living exceptional lives. What’s changed isn’t the ongoing presence of black Italians, but the increase in racism. Meanwhile, back in the USA, it’s nigh-impossible to get fantasy readers just to acknowledge that people of color even existed in medieval Europe. The reality is, and has always been, diverse. Denial of this reality is the modern — racist — addition to the pot.
Which is why this part of the article rang crystal-clear for me:
What would a science fiction or high fantasy game that took (more) seriously the question of race look like? Perhaps Dragon Age: Inquisition itself can provide a clue. Kotaku’s Mike Rougeau noted that in his own playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition that his character’s perfect match was homosexual Dorian, and that his vicariously gay experience helped him empathize with the experience of being gay. Sexuality, here, is not a superficial choice made in character customization, but an ongoing, lived performance that touches the lives of both the player character and non-player characters.
When we deny the reality of race — not racism but race, we have to shed this dumbass notion that the way to kill the former is to erase the latter — we also deny some of the complexity and richness of human existence. It’s one of the things that makes us who we are. And like sexuality, like gender, like ability or anything else, race should be part of good characterization, in writing or any other creative medium.
Case in point, since we’re talking about Dragon Age Inquisition: Vivienne. She’s an awesome character in so many ways: powerful, occasionally vulnerable, subtly manipulating events to her advantage at every turn, and not at all shy about telling the player she’s doing so. But she’s also a painfully incomplete character. We meet her love interest at one point, Duke Bastien — but unlike other playable characters in the game who have lovers*, we know nothing about him beyond what Vivienne tells us (and Vivienne’s an unreliable narrator). She seems to have no friends, only allies and enemies. And what is she? Nearly everyone else in the game has an origin or a “people” — among the humans, there’s the various nationalities, and then subsets of the nationalities (e.g. the Chantry-worshippers vs the Disciples of Andraste/Havenites vs the Chasind, among the Ferelden). Vivienne has nothing. She’s a Circle Mage — but by her own admission she’s spent little time in her Circle (and her attachment is apparently to the Circle system as a whole, not any Circle in particular). She says that each Circle has its own unique customs, but which one(s) does she follow? We don’t know. She wears the trappings of Orlesian nobility but only so that she can effectively play the Game; she’s not really one of them and shows that she understands this in a variety of ways. She was born in the Free Marches but retains nothing of that identity but the accent. She’s not Rivaini — doesn’t share the physical characteristics of Isabela and Duncan, like light brown skin and straight hair, and clearly isn’t acculturated as such — but then what is her race? Does it even have a name? This is the problem: Vivienne is affiliated with many groups but few of them seem to have contributed anything to who she’s become. She’s the only playable black woman seen in the entire trilogy of games so far, and she is cultureless, rootless, and quintessentially raceless.
How much better a character could Vivienne have been if, when Bull complained about the lack of horn balm, Vivienne complained back about the difficulty of finding a hairdresser in Val Royeaux who had the skill to handle her kinky hair when it’s grown out (which might explain why she wears it now in such a short, if high-maintenance, style; good grief, the poor woman must have to shave and edge every day)? What if, when Sera complains about raisin cookies, Vivienne sends her a box of some [whatever her people are called] confection that only Vivienne, out of all Skyhold, knows how to make? What if Vivienne spoke of her family, as several of the other playable characters do — if not the people who birthed her, then the family she forged within one of the Circles she lived in? Apparently at some point in the game, some of the Orlesian nobles make disparaging comments about her skin color and how she must “disappear in the dark”; what if we knew that she laughed at this because where she came from, her particular shade of blackness was prized? How much more resonant a character might she have been if she had a complete history, a unique accent and cultural trappings, and some reason for trying to gain power other than “because she wants to”? How much more interesting are those DA characters for whom we do have this level of completeness?
Go read the article, if you haven’t. There’s good, thinky stuff there — especially for anyone reading who’s a writer. Then feel free to discuss, below.
* Dorian and the Iron Bull, and Josephine and Blackwall, who become items if the player romances neither of each pair; Varric’s old girlfriend Bianca, who actually travels with the player for a time so we get to know her; Leiliana and the Warden, if the player romanced her during Dragon Age Origins.