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Debunking White Fantasy

July 1, 2008

So watching white gamerdom go through it’s usual cycle of “Why aren’t there more POC gamers/Maybe the imagery is problematic/Oh no everything is just fine/No U!” is tiring.

So what’s up with white fantasy? At the heart of it is the white normative- around which the whole universe must revolve.

In fantasy, you can find societies that have room for dragon people, demon guys, 20 kinds of elves, etc, which function in this incredibly cosmopolitan fashion- yet ironically and most sadly, there’s no actual significant space for characters of color.

Well, why is that? All these weird species either boil down to alien non-human species or white people that look a little different and act funny. In other words, neither type threatens to dislodge the white normative. (Remember, human is synonymous with white!).

When and where we do see characters of color, they’re carefully shown with heavy stereotypical markers- asian people dress and act like this, african people dress and act like this, etc., because in that way, they’re not complex and full humans and threatening to the fantasy itself.

What is that fantasy? Well, the nature of modern fantasy is simplification- easy to understand roles, easy to understand problems that are almost always solved by either trying harder or having faith in your own badassery/love/whatever. People of color represent something difficult and complex- a real world issue unresolved (and fundamentally unresolvable as long as one wears the blinders of the white normative/white privilege/white supremacy at it’s heart).

Sci-fi suffers some of the same things, though sci-fi also has a strong tradition of accepting it’s role as a critique and mirror of the times, which is why you generally see more progressive break-outs of stories and imagery than fantasy.

And really, that’s the part where we reach the point of frustration and having to walk away from the foolishness.

It’s not enough that the media has issues, it’s when you watch someone who spent 2 years learning a fictional language, analyzing the theology of Tolkien, and who tries to compare the stories of their favorite fantasy with Babylonian Creation Myth, who YET cannot connect the dots between media issues which have pervaded Western media much, much wider than simply fantasy… that’s when you fucking lose it.

You know the ability to see is there, the intelligence, and even the geeky OCD to look at it hard and take it seriously, and yet… basically what the person is saying is that their fantasy white privilege is more important than you as a fellow human being. (A friend once pointed out that in these conversations, that concern doesn’t hit because they’re not considering you as human to begin with, so deep is the white normative).

And so, any attempts to have this discussion without a firm foundation in looking at fantasy as part of a larger media concern, will always fall back to the cycle of stupid above. Any concerns will be washed away either in straight up trolling or having to “convince” every comer to a random thread or discussion, at the end of which, there can be no victory.

After having gotten into many of these “discussions”, I’ve come to the conclusion that within white fandom, they don’t actually exist to discuss the issue at hand, or seek changes- they exist to provide the appearance of concern, the appearance of progressive thought, while letting things stay the same.

You can observe this for yourself because most end in simple flame-outs, a few white folks attempt misguided missionary efforts to bring in more people of color (mostly by making a story or game about some POC culture), which almost always involves NOT talking to said people of color directly, and a few others give support without actually doing anything.

For this reason, we kind of have to look at it the same way when McDonald’s decides to celebrate Black History Month- it’s a sham with no redeeming value.

At the end of the day, we can either keep waiting for these fictions to gain truth, or take our truth and build our own fictions. I already know which choice seems more sane to me.

Pt. 2- Debunking White Fandom

Amazingly, people prove my point as they protest it. Anonymous commenting? Racist slurs? “No U!” logic? Wow, what was I thinking when I said fandom was hostile?

For the less crazy, it’s tempting to try to even dialogue, but I realize this: Their words are already everywhere. Why should I give racist bullshit more space on my blog? We already know they’re crazy. And the crazy? They’re not going to learn.

So hey, thanks for the support. Let’s keep building this thing without these fools. Fantasy, fandom, roleplaying, sci-fi, geekdom, comic books, anime, whatever- all of this is not theirs to have. We’re taking everything back, including our imagination.

Part the 3

You could also ask a professional in the hobby.

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27 comments

  1. Yeah.

    I had a big long response, but fuck it, just yeah.


  2. I haven’t read more than your first sentence so a comment about that will have to come later. But the theme of your recent posts has me wondering if you’d be willing to Host the Carnival at some point. Because you’d definitely bring something to it – from a WoC Gamer pov, from a GM pov and from a SF fan as well. Those are just the three pov’s I’ve read this month that had me realizing things I hadn’t put words to or seeing things in a whole new light.


  3. Fantasy is a very conservative genre in the sense that it looks back to some sort of idealized past. The basic message is that “it was better back when.” This is not to excuse this behavior, but it is a partial explanation for it.

    I also feel the remark about white designers is close to the bone for me. I just designed a game based on a POC culture, and without input. Sadly, not for lack of trying. The well has been poisoned by white people looking for advice and then doing whatever they want anyway, and many POC are really hesitant to talk to anyone doing a creative project now.


  4. Hi Willow,

    Just to clarify, I am a male ally of color, and thank you!

    A couple of the communities I’m working in are reaching a powerful shifting point, and I think a carnival in the next few months might be a good idea.


  5. Hi Brennan,

    I suppose that brings a moral question you have to ask yourself as a designer- if a group of people have been so deeply abused/used by another group of people that they’re not willing to talk to you, what role does your game, without input and permission play in that?

    And, maybe consider shifting your scale of thinking- many communities take years to earn the right to participate and speak on as an ally. Friendship, trust, and respect, especially in the face of bad history are not earned in a few months. What a lot of POC communities are looking for is responsibility, of which, cannot exist hand in hand with white privilege.

    What it means to you, as a creator might be pretty tough to look at. But then again, what that means to the people who are being depicted without input? Even as respectful as you might be about it, the fact that you’re making profit from folks who haven’t accepted you as worthy of dialoguing with?

    Again, that’s a moral question for you to ask yourself.


  6. Bankeui, forgive me my assumption of gender. Female seems to be my default online and male my default offline 🙂

    I’ll put you down as a possible host for the PoC SF Carnival in the fall.


  7. No problem. I consider it a compliment as a down ally.

    I wanted to make sure that there was no confusion for you (or anyone else) as I’ve seen some sketchy stuff online with people passing for or creating identities they don’t identify with, to gain credibility or access to certain communities.

    I want to make sure that my voice doesn’t dilute, replace or get in the way of folks looking for the words of women of color.


  8. […] Bankuei breaks a lot of shit down in his post – Debunking White Fantasy: Well, why is that? All these weird species either boil down to alien non-human species or white […]


  9. I say this as a white guy who earnestly wants to understand: I feel as if my personal perspective is so inherently different that it’s difficult to put together what you’re trying to get across.

    If I understand the central issue, there’s a lack of POC gamers. I can’t deny that, but then, what is the solution?

    Are you saying that the problem is primarily a massive, deeper set one of media portrayal? Which may be to say, that it’s fundamentally an issue with the collective perception as painted, reflected, and re-propogated (endlessly) by the media.


  10. Actually, the central issue is that fantasy, as a media, and as a culture around it, is hostile to people of color. (and a lot of other folks, but if we can’t talk about one, there’s no way we’re even going to reach the issues of intersectionality)

    What is the solution? For us, we’re building new networks and communities, and fandoms, and media. After trying so hard, for so long to work with the existing scene, I’ve decided it’s not worth my effort to deal with.

    For you? You could do research into disparities in media and consider what role you’d like to play in that, or, as I mentioned is the status quo- let it continue unremarked or with minimal protest.

    Ultimately, I expect mainstream fantasy to do what it always has- the publishers will say, “Oh, the fans don’t want POC” and the fans will say, “Oh, the publishers are at fault” and both in the end will turn to the rest of us and ask, “Why SHOULD you matter?”


  11. Bankeui,

    I am always on the lookout for the voices of WoC. But in respect of the Carnival, it’s about People of Colour.

    Still, I appreciate you taking the time to make things clear and explain why you did so.

    Cubeblue: You could also just walk into a bookstore – ANY – bookstore and look for Tananarive Due and ask why she’s in AA Lit and not in Science Fiction. In fact you could take a look at some of the titles in AA Lit, many of which could fit comfortably in Romance or General Fiction and ask why they’re being segregated.

    Then you could ask if the book seller has thought through what it means to carry and sell Street Lit (which is graphic and often presented as all ages, or under a heading claiming to be YA Fiction ).

    Meanwhile as Bankeui said – We’ll be finding our own way as we’ve come to realize that segregation (I speak chiefly of America) remains in certain areas of life and we’d been the only ones who thought differently and gave up our self sustaining communities in hopes of a better, integrated tomorrow.


  12. I have edited the post down to the salient points. I’ll talk about it a bit in my reply why I did this.

    I happen to agree with the thesis of the main post, but I also get the sense that you read too many internet message boards and are starting to let it affect your message.

    The main reason for outcry needn’t even be a question of race, but a simple appeal to logic: Why do fantasy human races, even on a world scale, default to white? snip random examples

    I could totally get behind your post, until we reach a few paragraphs down, where you start looking at internet message board discussions as an indication of the “white fandom.” First of all, message board discussions are never a good source of intelligent conversation *regardless* of topic. snip further elaboration

    Second of all, however, you’re doing all you can to prevent sympathetic white posters from rallying to your aid when you use terms like “white normative.” snip Oh Noes!!!

    snip random buildup It’s just more of a passive neglect than an outright hostility.


  13. You have some interesting, and incorrect assumptions about what I’m doing with this blog and this post.

    First, you make an assumption that the internet examples are the prime examples, rather than simply a recorded, covenient, and most recent example of something which folks have experienced in person.

    Second, “sympathetic white posters to my aid”? Why would I need white posters to aid me? Why would I even be reaching out to them in a post which pointedly ends with me saying that waiting on white sympathy is insane?

    Third, to consider “hostility” from the viewpoint of white intent, rather than POC experience?

    Finally- your comment was massive, and a perfect example of “taking space”. I snipped it because it was ridiculously huge.

    Your protests are demands, demands based in the assumption that this post or blog is about me serving you in any sense. The points above? All show that you’re not the target audience. Quite a few folks, including white allies unfamiliar with the specific anti-oppression terms got it all fine.


  14. Bankuei,

    It is indeed a moral question that I have asked myself. In the end, I decided to present my creative project and see what the reaction is. I did so with some trepidation.

    The reason I designed the game in the first place was because I felt it important to present a game that was not focused on white characters. If, as a white game designer, I perpetuate the pervasive whiteness of the hobby, I feel I am contributing to the problem.

    I am also aware of the cultural imperialism of this approach, however. I did change some things on the advice of an expert in order to avoid offense, and I contacted the cultural outreach groups of several Native American tribes as well. We shall see.


  15. “It’s just more of a passive neglect than an outright hostility.”

    If the outcome is hostile what does it matter. Passive neglect, unintentional, what does it really matter when the same shit happens again and again. The road to hell is paved with ignorance and good intentions. Can you now move on to the point where people stop doing this shit? Or become aware of it? It’s only been three-hundred years or so now. I’m amazed at how many people -failed- history and current events at the high school level.

    Can you get to the point of doing something about it instead of shrugging your shoulders and saying “well that’s just how it works, sucks to be you.”

    Thank god, I’ve left mainstream fandom.

    “I could totally get behind your post, until we reach a few paragraphs down, where you start looking at internet message board discussions as an indication of the “white fandom.””

    If that’s all it takes for you to shy away from supporting anti-oppression, good riddance. Epic flounce. Demand bankuei post real time video of his personal experiences in life for all to see. He’s had his own experiences and heard of many others, for you to take one blog post and extrapolate that into him reaching for examples is ridiculous.


  16. Hi Brennan,

    While I applaud your desire to increase diversity, I guess the next question to ask yourself is “Why Indians?” Why not some folks who lived down the street from you, or people you already knew? (Don’t bother answering me, I’m not particularly caring of the answer , it’s again, questions for you to yourself).

    The reason I call it misguided missionary efforts is that the idea of making equal representation without the input and voices represented is a fundamental failure of logic.

    There’s a large industry of white media about Indians (from “savage” romance novels, Dances with Wolves, White Ego Woman, or fake memoirs of a not really half Indian white girl who didn’t really come from the hood), which seems to have done little for either helping Indian people feel represented, or help white folks actually learn something about them.

    I mean, when you look at that, how many folks do you think already have some random person coming up to them, “Hey, I wrote a book about you! (without anyone’s input, I’m sure I have 90% of it right) Can you help me finish it up?”

    For me, there’s tons of cultures I’d love to play a game in, at the same time, there’s a difference between my ignorance and mistakes when I’m playing with a group of friends at my house, and when I’m publishing something as part of a larger context of media. I admit, I hold myself to a pretty high standard in that regard, if only because I have a strong commitment to making things better as part of my moral line.

    Where and what your line is? That’s for you to decide.


  17. I totally agree with you in this one.

    They say “We don’t have specific human races in the games” but thats not what I see when I buy their products or when I play their games.

    For example:
    In D&D, the evil drow that lives in underground caves usually has “dark” skin, why is that? They live miles and miles underground, wouldn’t they all be really, really white from the lack of sunlight?

    Their elf cousins that live in the surface are beautiful fair and _white_!

    Should it be the other way around? The evil white’s underground and the good black’s above ground?

    The answer in D&D is simple, color has nothing to do with actual location of the races, but how they are perceived in their good vs evil axis. The most evil being completely dark, while the most pure and good being white.

    Completely biased!


  18. Yeah, they love to try to shift between the defenses of “realism” or “traditional European mythology”, when D&D doesn’t really follow either.

    Dark elves were not actually dark skinned, so, yeah, neither realistic NOR traditional.

    I remember it struck me a couple of years back, that I could find tons of images of drow, and nary an image of POC characters.


  19. Someone suggested that my blog is based on keeping one sided commentary only. After being so rudely treated, I think I will.

    Thanks for the advice anon!


  20. Still more excellent examples of why I want nothing to do with gaming…


  21. This is a great post. Thank you.


  22. “So hey, thanks for the support. Let’s keep building this thing without these fools. Fantasy, fandom, roleplaying, sci-fi, geekdom, comic books, anime, whatever- all of this is not theirs to have. We’re taking everything back, including our imagination.”

    Church.

    One day, hopefully, gamers will surprise me and respond with sense and research, instead of the vitriol they spew confirming they are what they protest.


  23. I often joke that the logic is, “I know! I’ll beat people up until they let me join the Pacifists’ club!”

    I’m surprised at how often this analogy holds true. But until we learn to use stupidity as a source of fuel to end our energy needs, I guess I should get used to it.


  24. I started reading your blog for the inspiring world building, and then I read this and it cemented me as a regular reader. Roleplaying is so often represented as a medium that deals with real-world moral quandaries, and yet there are huge issues that so often go untouched.

    I also wanted to thank you for inspiring a post of my own at my LiveJournal that is generating some good discussion and grist for the mill.


  25. Hell, the sad thing is that I’m not even asking to deal with complex real world issues- I’d just like to have equal participation in mindless escapism.

    If we can’t even get that… No way to even get as far as playing with real interesting stuff like culture, history, etc.


  26. At the risk of reviving an ancient topic with a lot of controversy… isn’t it fairly logical that humans in a fantasy setting would be mostly one-race?

    The main reason we have Asians, Africans, Caucasians and what not in the real world is because humanity was the top-dog and got to populate wherever it pleased, which lead to diversification.

    9 out of 10 fantasy worlds humans have to share their world with dozens if not hundreds of other sentient beings, things that eat them for lunch and will not tolerate humans anywhere near their turf.

    The less human-centric you make your world, the less chance that there will actually be different human races, as humanity will be far more centralized and as such not go down different evolutionary paths.


    • Consider the larger context: fantasy media is made by real people, in the real world. If we’re going to take this logic that humans wouldn’t diversify in appearance because of competing ecological niches, some thoughts come to mind:

      1. If humans were not able to diversify because of competing ecological niches, why are they depicted as white in fantasy, instead of stories about asian, stories about Black, stories about NDN, etc. appearing folks?

      2. Likewise, if other species are taking up the ecological spaces, why is it the more human-ish looking ones, also look white?

      3. Given that this theory isn’t espoused in any fantasy book or game I’ve ever seen, why are all the media so consistent about portraying white humanoids?

      The answer to all of the above is pretty simple: fantasy is created by real people, in the real world with the issues that entails. Folks are making white focused fantasy the same reason Hollywood makes white focused media – which is… uh, racism.

      This isn’t like we put together some self generating world building program that built up it’s own ecology and somehow accidently spewed out a white focal setting or world – we’re talking about thousands upon thousands of books, movies, TV shows, videogames, etc. all created by 100,000s, maybe millions of people over generations, that all happen to do this same thing. Including people with no understanding of evolution or ecological niches.



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