A world in which race matters

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.

39 thoughts on “A world in which race matters”

  1. Thank you for this. I would love to have seen those sorts of detail from Vivienne, and it’s definitely something to think about in writing.

    It’s about anchoring details of experience, isn’t it? Not about saying “all people like X will have Y trait” but “most people like X will have had Y experience.” And that commonality of background groups us or divides us.

    There’s a lot here to think about and chew over.

  2. At one point, Cole says this: “A breath-caught smile from the Enchanter as the candle lights. The walls are safe; she will never be hungry again.”
    Refers to Vivienne’s relationship with Duke Bastien. – http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Cole/Dialogue

    I’m not sure why the wiki editor thinks that it must apply to Bastien; other conversations with Vivienne reveals that she appreciates the Templars, so I took it to be about that- Circle mages are subjected to much, but except a punishment mentioned in one of the books, they are always well-fed. They live in luxury compared to the average citizen of Thedas, for the most part. My theory about this is that Vivienne had an impoverished background, maybe even dreamed of being taken away to live in a tower and wear beautiful clothes etc etc. And she refuses to talk about it, because Game, as you mentioned.

    I mean, this could be me just reading my own class issues into it, but I definitely saw her refusal to name a past as a passing strategy. Well educated people can poke holes in lots of stories, but a mysterious silence can be alluring.

    None of this really relates to the need for black characters with their own cultures and families; I just wanted to share that she didn’t seem quite as much a cipher to me.

  3. I have to wonder if the ‘talking about race is racist’ is because, as always, people learn the wrong lessons, and what they should have picked up was not that talking about it was bad, but that the specific thing they said was problematic… either that, or because somehow the idea is that calling attention to race is somehow a crime for suggesting that *gasp* people are different. Sort of a ‘if we pretend everyone’s white then racism will go away’, maybe.

    I don’t know with this crap.

    Anyways, I really like the idea of race existing without racism in fiction, that there can be different cultures evolving and meshing and mingling without one group or another treating the rest as subhuman or lesser. Well, I suppose there will always be assholes, but to escape the widespread taint of it all…

    Haven’t played Dragon Age, but the analysis of Vivienne is thought-provoking. The little things that could make her whole… and that she’s the only playable black character, but has no real background, no roots or culture. Wonder what that says about the creators…

  4. Caroline,

    Theories are good. Formulating your own headcanon is kind of a necessity with Vivienne, though — because there’s not enough definitive information to comprise a solid canon. You can infer that she grew up hungry, but there’s no confirmation that she did — and no explanation as to why. Are her people a relatively poor culture? Was her family just a poor group within that culture, and most people within that culture are doing okay? Were they stranded in a foreign land, struggling to survive because they stood out, and unable to feed themselves? There’s just not enough there to work with.

  5. I think another reason that white people learn that “talking about race is bad” is because, unless they spend a lot of time educating themselves (including shutting up and listening when the chromatic people are talking), their “insights” on race are prone to winding up regurgitating some sort of stereotype or racist bullshit, whether it be active bigotry, white saviorism, or what-have-you.

    It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of insularity and parochialism in American white culture – we’re brought up with only a sort of vague awareness of even other white-dominant countries, let alone being aware of things like Africa being a continent and not a country, or y’know, Japan not being a city in China. (I shit you not on that last one – I actually had someone say as much to me. Even worse, I was in a customer service position and couldn’t laugh in their face.) It’s not that it’s not in the curriculum in our education system, but our mass media and pop culture present very distorted, pared-down, often racist and ethnocentric impressions of the world: Russia is in perpetual winter, sub-Saharan Africa is, like, mud hut villages, poachers, and three cities in South Africa (it’s always fun to blow someone’s mind by showing them things like aerial views of Lagos or Nairobi, or an picture of the pyramids at Giza that shows the city of Giza in the same shot, since it’s, y’know, *right next to the fucking Pyramids*).

    Being the hegemonic group in a society like ours means that, in many ways, trying to understand *race* outside of the context of *racism* is, to some extent, like a fish trying to grasp the idea of water – the shared experiences are, as far as the naive white person in this scenario understands it – are *everyone’s* experiences; they’re the people who might wonder quietly to themselves (but have enough sense to not say out loud) why there’s no “white entertainment network.” At most, if they’re part of a group with common ethnic roots that maintains a strong identity tied to it (e.g. many white people of Italian descent in the NYC area), they might sort of get it that way, but the conceptual leap is often rather a stretch even then.

  6. You do get people saying that talking about sex or gender is sexist — to different degrees, I think that kind of attitude is present with any kind of issue where “LET’S JUST PRETEND THERE’S NO PROBLEM, THAT WILL TOTALLY FIX IT!!!” is in action.

    I feel this way a lot of the time about the occasional representation I see — like it’s just a palette swap, so to speak, and of course it’s always the dominant culture being used as the base template, never a different one. It feels like people who *look* like me and mine are only allowed in fiction if their lives and the things which inform their experience of the world have nothing in common with us — whether it’s the palette-swap or the gag-inducing stereotype.

  7. Hehe, “chromatic people”. I am now trying to imagine Nora as a red dragon.

    ((In D&D, the major groups of dragons are ‘metallic’ and ‘chromatic’. The chromatics, sadly, are all evil. They do include black dragons, but those live in swamps, breathe acid, and at least one description defines their faces as skull-like.))

  8. Before Inquisition came out, I refused to look at any pictures, videos, or other information beforehand, to make the playthrough as fresh as possible. As a result, I only saw one picture of Vivienne, in which she had her Maleficent hat-thingy on. So I was very surprised when I played the game and found out she had a shaved head. Considering her personality and her fanciful dress, I assumed she would have an extravagant hairdo. Still, there was nothing wrong with her hairstyle per se, except every other black character (that I remember) also had a shaved head. Then I saw you mention that lack of hairstyles for black hair in character creation, and I just became disappointed in BioWare. You could play off that she shaves her head to “stand out by not standing out”, or for practical purposes like you say, but it all falls to shit when there weren’t any other hairstyles available for her. For all we know, black people in Thedas can’t grow hair longer than a few centimeters. And considering the unique hairstyles the other team members got, it really feels like they purposefully didn’t care about Vivienne’s.

    I’m actually now going through the other Dragon Age and Mass Effect games in my head, looking for this.

  9. As a black reader of fantasy, I have long (long!) been disappointed in the lack of POC in fantasy. Well, we do often get those nomad southron races in the inevitable far off desert region. :/

    My husband has started to watch some fantasy with me, whether TV or movies and he has said more than once and rather angrily “…if they are making people up, like fairies and elves, why are the people always white? Why can’t they be any color?”

    Outside of games, what immediately came to mind was Game of Thrones. Unless I’ve missed it, literally every POC on the show was either a slave (freed or not) or a ‘bad guy’. Sigh…really?

    Keeping to TV shows, The Walking Dead seems to be the polar opposite. THey’ve got quite a diverse cast–white, black, asian, hispanic and gay. Just like you’d get in a real zombie apocalypse. Which is a relief. For a while there, my forays into dystopian fiction almost convinced me that we didn’t make it.

  10. Jonathon – I saw the “chromatic people” term used as an alternative to “POCs” a few months back, and I added to my inventory of terms to possibly use. (Here, I think it works a bit better for reasons of nuance I’m far too tired to properly articulate.)

    Jesslyn – I am reminded of what others first articulated, and I’ve found myself saying a few times over the past few days: there are genre readers and writers who seem to genuinely believe that brown people are less plausible than dragons or FTL travel.

  11. I think some of the reason why it’s difficult for many white people in America to understand race outside of the context of racism is because that was how the system was originally set up. I should probably note that I’m following Beverly Tatum’s definition of racism – “a system of advantage based on race” – as well as Bonilla-Silva’s concept of a “white habitus” where whites simply avoid contact with people of color, and thereby avoid confronting race as a meaningful category.

    In this sense, “Whiteness” as the unmarked state becomes the *only* state of any depth or relevance, creating a lack of awareness of how race might exist as a meaningful dimension of difference *without* stratification or inequality. In a sense, the sometime acceptance of different sexual orientation possibilities in DA reveals a slightly higher comfort level with non-heteronormative romance, relationships, etc., though that also needs the caveat that many gamers objected to the presence of lesbian, gay, or bisexual character options.

    I’m teaching about race this semester. Can you tell? *wry smile*

  12. Daniel, my guess is that someone at Bioware figured that in the medieval era, black folks would need simple, easy hairstyles since they didn’t have relaxers. (Or something.) And then, whoever made this decision, knowing nothing about how black hair actually works, then created a bunch of “simple” styles that aren’t easy to maintain without access to modern shaving equipment or at least frequent access to water and soap — which a bunch of people in a war situation would be unlikely to have. It’s completely unrealistic. ::sigh::

  13. Jessalyn,

    Yeah, I don’t want to make it seem like this is a problem of Dragon Age only; it’s definitely an across-the-board issue in fantasy. Just using DA again here because a) I’ve written about it before, and I know some people were interested in my thoughts on Vivienne, and b) the article I was referencing was about it. :)

  14. Victor,

    Yeah, pretty much everything about the Dragon Age games suggests its creators are more comfortable with non-heteronormativity than with race as an identity. -_-

    I’ve read both Tatum and Bonilla-Silva; was just trying to break things down in lay terms. Damnit, though, I wish I could take your class at some point! :)

  15. Hello NK Jemisin!

    I just recently picked up “Killing moon” and was very happy with it – good job! I also read your self-interview, where I was happy to find your opinion to be so corresponding to mine. Except you put it way more eloquently (and humorous) than I ever could!

    Concerning race. As it pertains to my every day life, race is being manifested in cultural differences. Being Swedish I experience many middle eastern cultures, owing to the immigration stream from those nations. Naturally, the new and substantial immigration (Sweden being if not number 1 then second after Germany in accepting immigrants in Europe) creates a need for discussing cultural differences and heritages.

    And in Sweden we are very afraid to talk about race. It is being handled in the most careful way (i.e. not at all) – bottom line being we should just unconditionally all love each other, hold hands and dance in a huge circle. Give me a break. Racism is a social structure, love and respect is not. If we are afraid of discussing racism (or immigration) because that would be an inherently racist topic it doesn’t take a genius to hear something is really wrong…

    The main issue seems to be that appreciation of individuals becomes lost. Just because someone belongs to a social subgroup shouldn’t mean that it is foremost its own person. I can still respect subgroups that I don’t belong to, while liking/disliking certain individuals belonging to them based on their personality. My best friend may not eat pork, being a muslim, but he is not my best friend because I blindly just ignore race, cultural differences or religions – but because me genuinely liking his personality.

    Woops, a bit of a rant! Thanks for sharing the article and your insightful thoughts. I hope to pick up Dreamblood #2 sometimes soon :). All the best!

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  17. Personally, I find ‘race’ a worrying and essentially illiberal concept. I’m sorry if that offends, but you did say feel free to discuss, and I assume you might like to hear some reasoning behind the ‘dumbass’ opposing views. Or one of them, anyway, I can’t claim to speak for every dumbass in the world.

    What benefit do we get from continuing to think in terms of ‘race’? We don’t gain the ability to accept diversity in culture – because we can have culture without race. Indeed, we do have cultural distinctions without race – each ‘race’ has produced many diverse cultures, and of course historically many (most?) cultures have existed within mixed-race societies. So attaching different racial labels to different cultures – and hence grouping those cultures conceptually together on the basis of the average physical characteristics of their practitioners – seems to add nothing. Does a concept of ‘black people’ or an ‘African race’ help us to understand or respect the diverse cultures that developed in Africa, or indeed to understand or respect that diversity itself? Cultures, indeed, whose practitioners had (and have) immense physical differences from those of other ‘African’ cultures, and cultures that were greatly different from one another (but sometimes quite similar to some cultures practiced by members of another ‘race’). I don’t think it does – quite the contrary. ‘Race’ encourages us to generalise between fundamentally different cultures on the basis of relatively trivial physical characteristics. It blinds us to the distinctions that matter within those cultures themselves, whether physically determined or otherwise. And it also, more pervasively, leads us to see divisions where they do not exist, to interpret cultures through a lens – our concepts of race – that have no relevance within the culture.
    And when the ‘we’ in question have some power over the ‘other’ culture, those divisions we imagine can become real. The ethnic genocides of the great lakes region are to a considerable extent (though of course not entirely) because european preconceptions ‘racialised’ a previously economic inequality, teaching people that their inequalities were based not on arbitrary (and changeable) economic happenstance but on fundamental and irreversible physical and historical differences.

    So I don’t think we need ‘race’ to think about culture. And physical differences, the other thing you mention? We don’t need race for that either.

    Race is not in itself an objective physical fact. It may be founded upon physical facts, but it is not itself a physical fact – it is a way of viewing certain correlations of physical facts. [An inherently hierarchical way – certain traits are viewed as more important than others. So while patterns of skin-folding around the eyes are used to distinguish ‘asian’ and ‘european’, they are irrelevent once someone has been assigned ‘african’ as their race and the fact that epicanthic folds are found in some parts of africa is not considered ‘important’ racially – likewise, while hair colour has been used to distinguish race in Europe, it is ‘outranked’ by skin colour, so the presence of flax-blond hair in vanuatu doesn’t make those people ‘aryan’ or ‘germanic’, or even make them a difference race (in our current schemes) from dark-haired melanesians.]

    And we can celebrate physicality without celebrating the ‘race’ notions that historically were used to explain physical variations. Someone who thinks blond hair is pretty can think blond hair is pretty without having to turn that into ‘I think Germans have pretty hair’. Someone who enjoys the fact that they’re very strong and can lift heavy things can think ‘I love being strong!’ without having to think ‘I love being a Slav!’. And indeed, since there are blond non-Germans and great non-Slavic weightlifters, people do think those non-racial versions, despite the strong correlations of these physical qualities with ‘race’.

    So I don’t see what good is gained from thinking about people in terms of ‘race’, that we do not already get from vocabulary about culture or physicality. When we have facts about cultural and physical variation, ‘race’ is just a superfluous categorisation stuck on the top.

    So what do we get that is bad? Well, quite a lot.

    For a start, there are the problems of generalisation. When we have a label, we tend to overestimate its usefulness, and use it to make lazy assumptions.

    Then there’s the problem (a subset, I suppose of the above) of the problem of racialising particular preferences. If you like being able to lift weights and think ‘it’s good that I can lift stuff’, there is a very fine line between that and looking down on people who can’t lift stuff so well. Likewise, you tend to admire other people who can lift stuff like you. And this can be problematic. But what’s really problematic is when that gets attached to broader labels. ‘It’s good I can lift stuff’ > ‘it’s bad you can’t lift stuff’ and ‘I like him because he can lift stuff’, and that can be irritating. But ‘It’s good I’m a Slav’ > ‘it’s bad you’re not a Slav’ and ‘I like him because he’s a Slav’, and both those outcomes are very dangerous. And restrictive – because who knows, maybe the Slavic weightlifter and the anomalous great Spanish weightlifter out there somewhere might actually get on great and bond over their shared weightlifting prowess! But if the Slavic weightlifter is taught to be proud of his ability not in or for itself but as an instantiation of a specifically Slavic racial trait, then he has cut himself off from those he might otherwise find commonality with.

    Both these are subsets of the ‘separate but equal’ problem. Logically speaking, it’s of course perfectly possible to view two sets of things as of equal value, but fundamentally different. But in practice, this equality is very hard to maintain. Big divisions tend to, as it were, sweep up generalisation after generalisation like black holes wrecking a star system, dumping all the matter into a big bland accretion disk of prejudice. Individual generalisations are rarely dangerous, but as they get put together they become more all-encompassing and hence more dangerous. Inevitably these prejudices have an impact on society.

    Race attracts generalisations, because race is a generalisation. Race is a generalisation that was constructed as a platform to enable more generalisations. Generalisation is the whole stuff and matter of the thing.

    Eventually prejudices add up with the generalisation problem and you get vendettas. Particularly when human impotence enters the mix. If you are told that you are French and a fundamentally different race from those Teutonic Germans (and the French are peaceful farmers while the Germans are ambitious industrialists, and the French have a history of stability and nationhood and the legacy of Rome whereas the Germans have been locked in perpetual war for a thousand years in their ten thousand miniature statelets and descend from the barbarians who destroyed Rome, and the French have great traditions of art and literature and cuisine and viniculture whereas the Germans…. don’t, or at least didn’t until recently when they started copying the French… and so on) then when a German murders your family you find it very easy to hate Germans. Particularly if you cannot ever take revenge on that particular German – so you want to take revenge on some other German instead. After all, the German who killed your family was a representative of the German race, was the product of the same German race that produced all the other Germans, so what does it matter which one you kill?

    Whereas if you are taught that French and German people have often been at war because of political disputes, but that they are fundamentally one people (children of Charlemagne!) divided by arbitrary or trivial barriers, and that the ‘border areas’ between them are not places of essential opposition but places of continuum and ambiguity that put a lie to the doctrines of difference and essence that are put out by the far-away elites of both countries to ensure strife between neighbours and cousins and keep communities from deciding they want to be neither, or both, or from challenging the leadership of their own ‘nation’… well then you get a very different post-war environment. As it happens, the French and German ‘races’ (as they were once considered, but now rarely are) had two goes at that problem in the last century… they tried race and revanche, and they tried solidarity and social progress, and so far the latter has proven by far the more preferable.

    Can you blame liberal white europeans for being frightened of the destructive powers of ‘race’? We don’t just have to remember what we did to the rest of the world, we also have to remember what we did to each other – or rather, to ourselves. This continent was torn apart by race, by nationhood, by patriotism, by ethnicity, in the greatest bloodbath the world has ever seen. Every time we seem to progress, the old lies creep back in – you’re a different race from them, be proud of what your race has done, look what they’ve done to people the same race as you, he’s not really the same race as us. It’s bad enough when it’s religion – and that you can at least change, or claim to have changed. [I’ve family in Northern Ireland, where they spent decades murdering each other and wrecking their own country because of… well, they said it was religion, but for almost everybody it was race (and some did say it openly, Irish vs Ulster Scots, Celtic vs Germanic). And it’s never just the killing, that’s just the visible part of the iceberg of racial pride and prejudice. ‘Why marry her – aren’t your own people good enough for you?’]

    And on that note: no, it’s not anti-semitic to talk about ‘Judaism’ per se. But if you talk about ‘Jewishness’? Well then people get uncomfortable. Going to a synagogue, well that you can stop if necessary, or try to hide. Look like you’ve got a bit of a Jewish nose? Well that’s subjective, isn’t it? But the Jewish Race? One drop of blood in the marriage records and that’s what you are, plain and simple, no argument, no but-I-crossed-my-fingers, no more-Christian-than-the-Christians, no but-you-must-mean-the-other-sort. When Judaism has been persecuted, it has been terrible; but when The Jewish Race has been persecuted, it has been unspeakable. Prejudice against beliefs is prejudice against people, against minds, which are fluid, and many-faceted, and which can speak in their own defence; prejudice against race is prejudice against bodies, which are solid and are mute. The person is merely trapped inside, unheard, unseen, reduced to an irrelevency.

    So yeah, a lot of people, myself included, get a shiver down their spine and a little feeling of dread when they hear people starting to talk about race. It’s like watching somebody play with a gun because look how shiny it is… when nobody’s quite sure if all the bullets have been spent yet. And yes, in the perfect world where there is no war or murder and never any horrible accidents, what’s wrong with owning a gun? Nobody would ever use it for anything bad! In the perfect post-violence society. When we get there… but how do we know when we get there? Leaving guns lying about and waiting to see if somebody gets shot seems like a bad way of finding out we’re not there yet. But whatever way we have of learning when we reach utopia, I’m not sure our confidence that we’re safe now should ever be stronger than our memory of what might happen if we’re not.
    So race, like guns, like smallpox and other things that were big in the 19th century – do we really still need it lying around? Shouldn’t we get rid of it while we can? It’s not like we need it for anything, or like we can’t find alternatives. Surely we can find better alternatives – better ways of understanding difference – than our slave-owning native-starving war-obsessed class-dictatorship great-great-grandfathers?


    Then there’s the problem of reduction. Physical differences are not just immense, they’re infinite – everybody is different. Every group has subgroups, every subgroup has subsubgroups and so on, and every border between subsubsubgroups has its own ambiguities and continua. But when you say ‘there are X, Y and Z races’ and equate physicality with race, individuals are taught that their own differences are not important. Or rather – they are told which parts of their unique physicality are significant and which are not. Some parts make them who they are, give them a racial ‘identity’, while others they’re told don’t really matter, are just trivia details.

    And that’s not neutral, either. Because ‘you are an X and Xs are defined by their wonderful Ys’ devalues everybody who is stuffed into the X category but who doesn’t have pedigree-perfect Ys. A brown-haired Swede is… well, not quite as Swedish, racially. And then when you also link race with culture, and with history, then a brown-haired Swede is not quite as much an inheritor of Swedish culture, does not quite as much belong to Sweden, does not quite have the same right to claim ownership of essentially Swedish things. And lo and behold, it seems like maybe often the ones who decide which features make you essentially an X, a prototypical X, a perfect example of an X, are exactly the guys who happen to have those features… but perhaps the worst is when the defining characteristics of the race are things you CAN change about yourself. Because then you are given a choice: who you are yourself, by yourself, or who you would be if you were unambiguously an X, with all your friends and family. Few people are able to fully insist on their own specificity, their own nature, in the face of the lures of a shared identity.

    It’s not neutral, and you can’t do much about it. Because race is an essentially coercive institution – it is, we’re told, simply a fact. You don’t get to choose. You don’t get to leave. So when one race has power over another, you can’t just swap sides. When the landowners are oppressing the peasants, a peasant can sometimes hope to become a landowner (and maybe be kinder to their peasants!), or the peasants together can have a revolution and redistribute the land more equally. But when the landowners are a different ‘race’ from the peasants, the peasants are all stuck where they are until the revolution comes, and when it does come there’s no peace because one ‘race’ takes over at the top and the other ‘race’ becomes the peasants. Even if a peasant in a racial society does manage to own land, they don’t become members of the landowner-race… they just become a bounder, an imposter (and a traitor to their own ‘race’, so neither one nor the other). Worst of all is when the landowner-race are able to persuade the peasant-race that being a peasant is an essential part of their race. Oh, all peasants love to till the soil with their strong arms and back, anyone who doesn’t must be one of those effete, weakling landlords! Who’d want to be one of them!?
    Do away with the boundaries that people are told are fixed and determined by biology and they can have a go changing the things that they know are fluid.

    The sandpapering of the individual into the mold of the identity is a problem with any ‘identity’ in the social, collective sense. But at least most identities are things people can choose. And choose to leave.

    Likewise, ‘community’. A community is not just an abstract aggregate of people. A community has an inside and an outside. It has limits. It has people who have power over setting those limits. It has people who use that ‘community’ to amplify their own voice, and people who use the threat of exile from the community to control ‘their own’ members. Every community has – is – a power structure, and every power structure is an exploitation and an oppression and a marginalisation. Some big, some small.

    Of course, we can’t escape communities. Or at least few of us want to, and for good reason. We get a lot of things from communities – but we also have to give a lot along the way. We should be careful what we put on the line. In a community defined by where people live, members put their homes on the line – they may have to move to remain part of the community if the borders shift, and conversely those in power can exile someone from the community simply by moving the borders. In a community defined by what people believe, people have to make their beliefs conform, and face exile on the grounds of their beliefs. But on a community defined only by what you are, it’s what, or how, or who, you are that’s on the line. It’s what you are that you may have to lie about, disguise, batter into a new shape to fit the entrance requirements; it’s what you are that may see you kicked outside. And of course it’s also what you are, how you are, that may see you barred at the gate.

    Almost everything else, you can do something about. But your skin colour, your eye shape, your body shape, your hair – you’re in this bin or you’re in that bin, for life, good luck landing in the ‘right’ bin (or, more importantly, not in the ‘wrong’ bin). Sure, some people may be so on the borderline that they can choose (either directly or by changing where they live – racial boundaries can change when you cross a cultural border). But even those are faced with accusations (from outside, or from the outside-put-inside of their conscience, that they may really be only pretending, only deceiving everybody, including themselves). And sometimes a little agitation here, a little PR there, and a border can be moved to include these people or relinquish those. But the communities are still there, and most people don’t get to pick.

    What do communities look like when newcomers have no say in which community they join, and when residents cannot choose when they leave? They look like prisons. A place you cannot choose to leave is a prison. And prisons are not nice places to live. They do sometimes have their benefits for the inmates, no denying it. And people who live there long enough can get so that they can barely imagine living outside. Maybe there are even some prisoners who are so comfortable in their prison that they really would be worse off outside. And now of course it can be a pressing problem when some prisons get more food and resources than others; it can be a great injustice. But even if all of that injustice is ended, you’re still in a prison. That’s the point: you don’t get to choose. [Even the few who request and receive a transfer – that mercy is still not the same as a choice]

    (Are there authorities in prison? Every prison has a power structure. Some are organised caste systems where the prisoners are fundamentally distinguished from the guards (though perhaps even the guards don’t get to go home at night – they just have live-in ‘apartments’ rather than ‘cells’). Others are brutal dog-eat-dog worlds run by the prisoners. And maybe, perhaps, some have managed to become happy, shiny communes of consensual action and universal love. But if you are trapped with one another, even love and consent come chained to an ‘or else’. Even with the best of intentions. And then again, even if there are no padlocks on your door and the windows open freely… you aren’t truly free to leave unless you’re free to go somewhere else instead. Freedom only begins with the availability of viable alternatives)

    So sure, we need to live somewhere; we need a roof over our heads. But let’s build homes with doors that lock and unlock from the inside, not only from outside. Let’s build homes that have multiple safe exits in case of fire.

    ‘Race’ is not a good place. It’s true, of course, that it doesn’t have to be the place it was, but it will never be a good place until it becomes something people can freely choose, or at least can choose as ‘freely’ as any choice in life is ‘free’ – as free as we can make it. And at that point it stops being race altogether and becomes something else. Culture, perhaps, ‘lifestyle’, or just ‘identity’. Well we have culture already, and we have lots of identities. So we don’t need ‘race’.

    We have culture, and we have physical characteristics. If we add ‘race’ on top of that, the most we can hope for is that it looks vaguely ornamental and doesn’t actually do any definite harm. The worst we can fear is… there are no limits to how much harm it can do. Even in seemingly innocuous places, it can do insidious harm to people’s self-conception and their relations both within and between ‘races’ – there’s no such thing as a good stereotype. So let’s get rid of it.

    Of course, other people may feel differently. I can’t see how they’re not wrong, but I can’t stop them feeling that, or saying that. I wouldn’t want to. I may disagree with their views, but I disagree much more fundamentally with anybody (myself included) being able to shut people up. And who knows, maybe they have a point. Maybe you (for any value of ‘you’, anybody who happens to read this) really do get something specific out of ‘race’, distinct from anything that’s in ‘culture’ or ‘physical characteristics’. OK – although I don’t understand what that could be, and I’m skeptical whether the benefits could really outweigh the problems, and the potential problems. Perhaps someone might enlighten me. Or not, it’s not like it matters what I think anyway.

    But that’s what I think, anyway, or at least what I’m thinking at the moment, tonight, and I guess there’s a psychological benefit in expressing what one thinks, now and then. So, there are my words.

    Sorry if you feel such a long comment from a stranger is inappropriate. And sorry also if you feel I’m a dumbass racist. But this is all I can find myself thinking at the moment.

  18. Wastrel,


    TL;DR. Sorry; you obviously put a lot of effort into that, but I literally do not have time to read 3700 words if I want to hit my wordcount target tonight. (Your comment is three times the length of my post. Just… wow.) I will say that on a cursory skim of your first paragraph or two, you’re conflating racism with race in precisely the way I alluded to in my post. You’re also performing a fairly standard rhetorical/logical fallacy that I see from a lot of well-meaning people: seeking a simplistic solution to a complex problem. Racism is bad so race must be the problem! Extrapolate that argument to other complex problems, though, and you start to see what’s wrong with it. Climate change is bad so climates must be the problem! Sexism is bad so sex/gender must be the problem! Your heart is in the right place, I’ll give you that. But this kind of reasoning is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem.

    Good news, though: there are whole disciplines and subdisciplines devoted to this stuff, university courses and such, which can help you understand it better. I would urge you to take at least one of those courses, and read some of what other thinkers have had to say on the matter. You are of course entitled to your opinion, but you should try to make it an informed opinion, at the very least, don’t you think? And if I may say… if you need to talk about it this badly, writing a 3700-word off-topic essay in the comments of a relatively obscure SFF writer’s blog probably isn’t the best place to start a dialogue. You’re better off finding another place, and a more appropriate group of people, for this discussion.

  19. I’m sorry if you found the comment inappropriate, or off-topic. As for a better place, I don’t delude myself that there is one – I’m not in any sort of position of power or authority, so I’ve no ambitions to ‘start a dialogue’ (and in any case, the dialogue would convince nobody – I’ve increasingly given up the hope that liberalism might become a live third option in society any time soon, and certainly not online). I just have a bad habit of instinctively trying to explain myself to people who so forcefully disagree with me (even if they don’t know they’re disagreeing with me). It wasn’t an essay or anything, or something I particularly felt I ‘needed to talk about’, just a condensed response to your comments. Even if I can’t ever persuade anyone of anything (come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anybody online persuaded of anything by anybody), I think maybe it is good if people are, as you put it, ‘informed’ of unpopular opinions. In any case, I’ll take your advice to heart and leave you alone from now on, and not try to insert myself into a group of people where my presence or views are inappropriate.

    Regarding university courses, I have a degree in philosophy and politics (with a little sociology along the way), from a reasonably respected university, and my views come from spending three years pretty intensively reading in and around these topics (and quite a few more years now after, mulling things over at a more leisurely pace). [I guess the academic background is a big part of my naivity and failure to prevent myself from piping up where I shouldn’t… or possibly those flaws are just why philosophy is attractive to me].

    It’s also one of many (so many) reasons why you’re an author and I couldn’t be – I could never meet daily wordcount when there were people like me being wrong verbosely on the internet!

    For what it’s worth, the analogy to climate change is flawed. There are two different things: climatic features, and climate classification. The former is a physical phenomenon we cannot alter with words alone; the latter is a purely cultural institution. Now, if the Koeppen classification were really causing problems, of course we should get rid of it. But climate change is actually a problem on the other side of the equation – climate change is a problem of climatic features themselves, and thus beyond what reconceptualisation alone can alter.
    In the case of race, on the other hand, the physical facts are unproblematic. [Some past race theorists have believed there were problems with the physical facts – purported physical or mental detiorations of the gene pool from miscegenation – but virtually everybody now recognises that those theories are empiracally unsupported and conceptually incoherent] The problems arise solely within and from the cultural institutions. Therefore an approach that aims to reform or eliminate those institutions is entirely appropriate.

    The analogy to sex is more valid, but I don’t see it as problematic. Over the last century, the cultural institution of sex has been gradually eroded, with characteristics (physical, psychological, social) that were once considered to be essential to the concept being stripped off, and in some cases moved to alternative concepts. This has been in most regards beneficial for people (although in some cases quite problematic for sporting authorities…). As in the case of race, I would indeed go further, and get rid of sex (and gender) altogether. Unfortunately, sex remains too embedded in people’s worldviews, made too much practical use of in daily life, for this to be viable in the foreseeable future, but on a conceptual level certainly sex should be eliminated, yes. As should nationality (as distinct from culture and citizenship). These things are of no inherent use and considerable inherent harm and it is irresponsible to maintain them.

    But anyway. Not like I’m going to change anybody’s mind about this so I’m an idiot for arguing the point.

    To end on a happier note: now don’t sell youself short! “Relatively obscure SFF writer”? Hugo, Nebula, WFA, adoring legions of fans, opinion-former, talk of all the internet… if you’re still relatively obscure, obscurity is much more exclusive than it used to be!

    Anyway, thanks for putting up with me for a day. My sincere best wishes on your future endeavours.

  20. I really enjoyed our exchange on twitter on this topic. thanks for taking the time to communicate with me. I left that exchange, as you put it, confused. More confused on my own reaction to the issue then the issue itself.

    It helped trying to explain our discussion to other people. Trying to grasp your perspective proved to help me understand where I had made some bad assumptions not only about character creation but also world building in my own work.

    It’s been interesting to use Dragon Age as the discussion setting since the game goes so much further then other games in terms of character creation and player agency that it creates a kind of uncanny valley that puts the spotlight on the places where they just didn’t go far enough.

    So thanks again, and I’ll be sure to send this around because I think you do a much better job of detailing the issue then the original article.

  21. Pingback: A World in Which Race Matters – N.K Jemisin | biowaremetacritique

  22. I’m not surprised that Bioware would be less comfortable with race as an identity (assuming Dragon Age was mostly done out of Edmonton). I think we Canadians tend to discuss race and racism in an American context. Which is to say, as an America problem. I’m reasonably certain we pretend that racism isn’t an issue here (please don’t ask about the First Nations, please don’t ask about the First Nations), focusing more on language or region or culture for our categories. Especially since we legalized SSM, we like to pretend that acceptance of non-heteronormativity is a way to distinguish ourselves from Americans. Aren’t constructed nationalities fun?

  23. Great article! Here’s some two things I want to say:

    1) Isabela is black, just because she light skinned doesn’t mean she isn’t. There’s a cutscene where she faces fetishization (played for laughs) but still. I relate a lot to her and appreciate her skin tone since it’s close to mine. I love having her in my party and seeing two black girls kicking ass.

    2) I feel like a lot of the DA:I companions are pretty shallow, but yeah vivienne expecially. We just know she’s observant and likes good manners and etiquette. A lot of it is intentional I’m sure she tries to keep distance but just a little more would’ve made her full fledged you’re so right. None of the characters really /develop/ they stay the same. It’s not as moving as 2 or origin’ companions.

  24. Cristaly,

    I had to go check up on 1), because I’d never seen any confirmation that Rivaini = black before, even back during the fandom discussions on Isabela and race after DA2. Still haven’t found anything specific about Isabela. If you’ve found something, please point me to it? The straightish black hair that she shares with Duncan originally made me think the Rivaini are meant to be the Middle Easterners or south/southeast Asians of Thedas. (In that case I guess I should be glad that Tevinters have been confirmed to be people of color, because otherwise Rivain would basically end up being just “the land the PoC come from”. Now I can think of Tevinter as “fantasy Meso/South America” and Rivain as “fantasy Asia”.)

    But apparently it was recently confirmed that Vivienne is Rivaini (not sure I’d recommend the rest of that forum thread), which certainly means that Isabela could be too. Except that then means that Rivain represents “fantasy Asia” *and* “fantasy Africa”, which is an awful lot of representation to shove into a tiny landmass appended onto the enormous “fantasy northern Europe” of the rest of Thedas. That represents some… interesting worldbuilding choices.

  25. “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”

    I think your making the mistake of equating race with culture and ethnicity. Race is something that is imposed on a group by outsiders. Ethnicity refers to someones background, and culture is something that is created by a group of people. People who share a similar appearance can be composed of many distinct cultures and ethnicities who’s members would not necessarily see themselves as a single group merely because of their appearance.
    In my opinion a realistic depiction of race would treat race as a by product of culture not as a depiction of someones culture is.

  26. Raptor,

    I’m not making a mistake. I agree completely that race is constructed and imposed (with one notable exception, below), while ethnicity is — also imposed, partially; sometimes “a people” are made by its enemies — more organic. But that doesn’t mean that race isn’t real, and that it doesn’t have real, distinctive components to it that can unify people of even wildly disparate ethnicities behind a common purpose, a common status, a common sense of identity. That’s how it worked for white people, after all, and they’re the only race that has chosen their racial identity.

    (Not generally a fan of Tim Wise, note. But this particular talk of his is useful as a summation of a whole lot of other peoples’ research. Yes, uncredited, which would be why I’m not generally a fan of Tim Wise.)

    So a realistic depiction of race would acknowledge the fact that race transcends ethnicity and culture, and that even where imposed it has meaning. Because that’s how it works in the real world.

  27. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Representation in Games | Scribal Tattoo

  28. I always enjoy dropping by your blog to read your posts, you talk about far more interesting topics than most authors do!

    Anyway, I happened to watch Disney’s new remake of Cinderella last night, it was unsurprising that the main characters were of a light skin colour, but I did notice that some characters with darker skin had been slipped into the supporting cast. One of them happened to be pretty cool too, he was honest and dependable in stark contrast to his counterpart, the scheming white guy. Perhaps only small things, but it’s nice to see that Disney is at least trying.

  29. This post is interesting and lovely until you pull a reverse brown bag test on all Riviani characters in Thedas and dismiss them of being Black on the assumption of the appearance of two characters (one of whom is both Fereldan and Riviani thus his even lighter skin and different look of this hair in comparison to Isabela). You even ignore the fact that there are characters who looks Black (if we go the assumption that you have this race criteria that all Blacks are dark, and kinky hair, who is Ser Barris) and even go as far as saying that Vivienne is the only Black character in the Dragon Age setting and killing any entire race to make a point. A very good and uplifting point, but how good is it really if you’re committing genocide and destroying all very little of representation of black characters in setting where they barely exist in the first place to uplift one character?

  30. PBLovesJelly,

    Things genocide is: the physical and cultural eradication of a group of people.

    Things genocide is not: the attempt to figure out what video game characters are based on exhibited (well, pixelated) phenotype.

    I feel kind of the same way about abusing the term “genocide” as I do about people claiming they’re being “lynched” when they’re really just getting yelled at on the internet, or “raped” when they’re really just losing a game or an argument. That is, I feel like this particular hyperbole is a great way to diminish actual genocide, lynching, and rape… so let’s not do it, OK?

    And while we’re at it, things reading comprehension is: what you are not doing. I said Vivienne was the only playable black character.

    Seriously: I admire your passion in defending these characters. Characters of color need defending in video games and other media. And I completely get why black fans might have “laid claim” to Isabela and Duncan before now — since there wasn’t much else to lay claim to in DA:O and DA2. What troubles me is that you’re effectively doing the same thing you accuse me of, and you don’t even seem to realize it. You’re just doing it to other people.

    See, we have no reason to believe that Isabela and Duncan are black, per the game. The folks at Bioware didn’t give us the option to have certain phenotypical features until DAI, so folks who looked like me, with my nappy hair and my wide nose, simply couldn’t exist in Thedas. (Did you call that genocide, too? I’m curious.) I’m fully aware that black people come in different shades, with a wealth of hair textures, etc. (If you think I’m not aware of that… well, you clearly haven’t read my work.) But it’s fair to question whether, in a game series that until now has literally denied the existence of dark-skinned, kinky-haired people, whether the ones who’ve finally showed up are meant to be of the same race as the lighter brown, straight-haired people. They’re all obviously PoC, but not all PoC are the same, and not all PoC are black.

    For example, the Rivaini might have been meant to be Indian. Or east Asian. Or Latino/a, though now that the Tevinters are on the scene I think maybe that’s their “role.” (Or maybe Tevinters are indigenous, though I wasn’t sure whether the Chasind were supposed to represent that group or not.) Representation is a need for all people of color, after all, not just black folks. Thus I was perfectly willing to let the players who looked like Rivaini have their representation, and I liked the idea that there might be other lands and countries in Thedas full of brown people, and which might have altogether provided the DA world with the kind of diversity we see in reality. Instead, alas, Bioware just lumped everybody darker than a Tevinter into Rivain.

    So did it occur to you that by insisting the straight-haired Rivaini are black, you’re essentially “committing genocide” on a different group?

    (You’re not really committing genocide. You’re just making it harder for other PoC to get the representation they might need.)

    And here’s the thing: I never heard Vivienne identify as Rivaini within the game. Apparently it’s only said outside the game, by the developers and in the wiki. If you’re also a PoC, you probably understand that the determination as to who is what should be governed first and foremost by what a person says, not merely by features. In the absence of that self-identification — which was kind of my point, that she claims no identity — and in the context of Bioware’s total refusal to represent roughly 1/6th of human race ’til now, it seemed fair to ask some questions.

    But do go on blaming me for the three games’ lack of black representation. Since that’s what you’re really doing.

  31. Somebody posted about this article on G+ in order to cast aspersions on the writer and his thinking. N.K. I find myself agreeing with you.

    On the matter of race and differences; it’s not a matter or how much you differ but in how you differ. Bantu and northern European whites tend to have rather broad shoulders. The latter also tend to have a curve in the thigh bones that makes it easier for them to ride horses; a trait selected for when we were horsemen out on the Asian Steepes.

    BTW, there are three other games out there which include race from the very beginning. Only one has been published (Mythus), but Unhallowed and Changeling also include race. In my rewrite of Mythus I also include races for the non-human species, though the Alma are actually a different species of human.

    In any case, one thing I try to do is to look at the question of race from the viewpoint of a native of AErth. For an inhabitant of Albion, for example, someone from Benin is viewed by as an exotic curiosity than as an object of contempt. Such a person is more apt to be invited into homes; because his visit will be an interesting conversation piece for weeks after, and he will have stories to tell.

    Warning, the URL is long, and I’ve forgotten how to do the HTTP properly. Anyway the Human racial charts can be found at:


    Note that about half the possible results are people of mixed race, and they may include other major races as well. I also game the Alma and the Gnomes races of their own, because they also live separated from others of their kind, in over the generations differences will appear.

  32. Forgive me if I’m necroing a conversation, but I was under the impression that the fantasy south america/meso was Antiva since Zevran from DA:O used a Spanish word (or it was possibly Italian, I don’t have much experience with either language) and had a very over done accent. As well as Josephine who had dark skin and had an accent as well. Of course, it could be an easier equivalent to Spain instead, but I’ve seen others see them as representation.

  33. A few remarks concerning the whole ‘race in Thedas’ issue. If you look at the basic setup of the Dragon Age franchise, in particular the map and the role of the different races, and go back to the first game, it’s not hard to figure it out.

    Thedas is an upside-down map of Europe, minus Asia and Africa. Tevinter is vaguely Romano-Byzantine, Rivain was intended to be ‘vaguely Spanish’ and Antiva as ‘vaguely Italian’. A lot of fantasy settings, particularly in gaming, are only superficially developed, in particular when the franchise is young and unproven. BioWare went for something that was simple, recognisable and only ‘there’ as an outline. It is hard to prove 100% without having any knowledge of the original worldbuilding notes (if any) by BioWare’s writers, but they probably just envisaged a ‘white’ Thedas, with people in the north (Thedas is in it’s world’s southern hemisphere) being a bit more brown than their southern cousins. Duncan (who was half Ferelden and half from ‘vaguely German’ Anderfels in the game, but this was changed to half-Rivaini in a novel by David Gaider that came out just before the first game) and Isabela’s looks in the first, respectively second games seem to reflect this. Isabela in particular looks reminiscent of paintings of Andalusian women or Spanish gypsy women. Or any sun-burned Mediterranean women for that matter.

    At some point, the absence or presence of black characters in DA became an issue on BioWare’s forums. Gaider himself came forward claiming that Isabela was originally intended to be ‘black’, but problems with the game engine made this hard to realise. At the same time, it’s not clear what he actually meant by ‘black’ (he later once admitted he didn’t have a clear view on what was black).

    It does seem that in more recent times, BioWare did make a concerted effort to introduce diversity, though it appears to be oriented towards people of African ancestry. Isabela’s backstory was extended, so her name is no longer Spanish (Isabella minus one l), but turns out to be originally ‘Naishe’, while the Rivaini people as a whole have been given a distinctive origin in a distant region far to the northwest. In a sense Rivain, once ‘vaguely Spanish’, has been turned into the equivalent of Hammerfell, the province of Tamriel in the Elder Scrolls games. Hammerfell acts in that series as the homeland of all the humans who have a clearly African phenotype. Hammerfell, too, was colonized by humans who came from a distant overseas homeland and therefore have different origins from the majority European-looking humans of Tamriel.

    In general, given the fact that Dorian has been described by BioWare as ‘Indian’ and the relatively dark looks of Antivan character Josephine Montilyet it looks as if BioWare is retroactively trying to ‘compress’ as much of Eurasia as they can in Thedas. In some of their interviews they certainly seem to be eager to stress the importance of inclusiveness.

    I strongly suspect non-European looking people were not part of the original plan concerning Thedas, though it’s possible BioWare had vague plans to introduce them (and their homelands) if the franchise proved successful enough. Given that BioWare is one of the few studios that ever developed an RPG featuring a non-European setting and characters (Jade Empire) I don’t think they had any ugly motivations in the way they implemented race.
    I suspect they just forgot or didn’t think it would be an issue. An interesting difference between BioWare is that it’s a studio in a country that until recently was almost overwhelmingly white, with only a small black population (not too different from Europe actually), while Bethesda, which made room for black people in the Elder Scrolls universe more or less from the get-go, is based in Maryland.

    Another thing regarding race in Thedas is that while a recognisable form of racism does exist, it’s at the expense of the Elves, whose situation has more parallels with Jews, Gypsies and Native Americans than with North American blacks. I think THAT was probably intentional – it allowed BioWare to address the issue of racism, while ‘safely’ isolating it from the real-world phenomenon in North America, specifically the USA (which is their primary market, after all).

  34. A. Baede,

    …Yyyyeah, I know all this. I’ve mentioned most of this in my posts about Dragon Age, and I’ve addressed that many of these issues may be unintentional, but are still problems. So what’s your point?

  35. Pingback: Race, Romance, Media, Contractors… | Play First. Talk Later.

  36. Thank you for your insight on this topic! It seems to me that making race “not matter” in the world of Dragon Age is one of those unhelpful “colorblind” writing decisions, instead of focusing on diversity of culture.

    I feel like the way you write culture really echos a sentiment from Junot Díaz: “If race or gender (or any other important social force) are not part of your interpretive logic—if they’re not part of what you consider the real—then you’re leaving out most of what has made our world our world.” I’ve never seen an author whose writing intentionally engages this sentiment quite like yours does, and it’s really refreshing and real-feeling in a world brimming with magic and creator gods hanging out with mortals.

    I have a question about how you personally tackle race and culture in your writing. (Maybe you’ve answered this elsewhere? If so, sorry.) How did you go about building the races and cultures of 100K? While reading, I was particularly interested in the history of the Maroneh – I was so impressed with how you acknowledged experiences of real-world diaspora people and cultures where trauma is part of their collective history. I think what made it real-feeling was how the repercussions of that event weren’t just a story people told, but it affected the power and resources of the Maroneh, the way they were perceived by others, and the way they crafted their histories. I wondered how you came up with the idea of the Maroneh (or the Darre, or other cultures) and how you developed their cultures and made them feel so real. On a related note, do you find yourself building a culture from a character, or creating a culture and then making a character who fits into it? I’m sure it goes both ways to some extent, but I wondered about your world-building process.

    TL;DR – I am realizing that all fantasy I have ever read is racist and doesn’t understand how culture and race shape people and the world at large. How do avoid the pitfalls of racist fantasy?

  37. Re: Vivienne. OH AND SHE’S VOICED BY A NON BLACK WOMAN, FUCK THAT BITCH. That shit’s digital blackface.

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