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The truth is out there, and really easy to find

March 30, 2008

Julia Bond Ellingboe’s interview from Theory from the Closet really mirrors a lot of discussions amongst my friends about the general ignorance of the majority of white Americans with regards to major portions of American history and current American culture.

My good friend J and I were talking yesterday about the ways in which most white folks are “informed” of POC through the poor narrow lens of television or movies. That is to say, desegregation has made little inroad into building understanding- the fact that many white folks could tell you “about” black folks based on music videos, and yet are completely ignorant of the black church experience, or liberation theology (and guess which one has a few hundred years of history, and is as easy to learn about as talking to the people who live in your town?), says a lot about what I’m simply calling willful ignorance at this point.

Stereotype schlock is easy to build into games, or easy to run in games, rather than, history which has tons and tons of documentation and even living people you can talk to, in order to get the skinny. Ultimately, the problem is not a dearth of information, or difficulty in getting access to it, as many sources are quite happy to provide useful info and help dispel common myths, but rather about white discomfort about actually dealing with POC, and especially in a non-privileged position of accepting our accounts of our own definition.

And it’s not merely a matter of non-interest, as there is a continuous market for stories “about POC”, at least only in that they are put through a white lens and fulfill certain stereotypes.

Tying back into Julia’s interview, I think it’s really important to look at the way in which the participants identify, or “code” with the protagonists as a key component of the process.

What I think is the twitch issue for white folks with regards to Steal Away Jordan, is that you either have to identify with a black character as a protagonist, or you have to accept a white protagonist who has privilege and is receiving benefit from institutionalized racism, which requires thinking about the whole issue a little more indepth than “Racists are mean” vs. “Non-mean people have no part in racism”. It’s a bind because you can’t play and hide in the shell of color-blindness which is the usual defense of the modern American in regards to race issues.

In terms of coding, white folks are often shielded in a pretty strange way. For example, many fantasy & sci-fi novels put white characters on the cover, even when the story clearly indicates a person of color… You have movies like Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Road to El Dorado, 10,000 BC, or even Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, in which a white protagonist “bridge” character must be present to make palatable a non-white culture.

For RPGs, you also see that usually the portrayal of other cultures is about places where white PCs go- whether we’re talking about Vampire or Rifts, Oriental Adventures, etc. Very few games are POC culture focused, and those are all really focused on East Asia, where you don’t have to think about color or hair as differences in coding to your character.

Of course, no one really thinks about the fact that gamers of color always are used to coding to other folks all the time. Or did you think I could only play Pendragon because I’m half white? (God knows if that was the case, I’d be completely unable to play Trollbabe, unless I have some extra mixing my grandparents didn’t tell me about).

So can a hobby built on the idea of self expression and pretending to be people other than yourself break out of this? It ought to be as easy as your imagination.

The real question is whether the people involved have the courage to do so.

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