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In fantasy, we've become accustomed to having a lot of different races; let's think about all the familiar elves, orcs, trolls, goblins, dwarves and whatnot. All share in common having two legs, two arms, one brain and the ability to use it to some extent. The classic definition of fantasy race also implies human-like sentience.

Admittedly, most of the times all those races could be summarized by "it's human, but with those x additional characteristics". Elves are prettier humans with longer lifespans. Orcs are sturdier humans with greenish skin. Dwarves are smaller humans who dig holes ... you get the point. As cliché those races might be, it can be fun playing around with the concept.

I was experimenting with a short novel - a third fantasy, third thriller, third steampunk thing - and I stumbled upon the issue of including racism. My setting is a industrialized capital where a lot of racial types coexist, not without conflict. I wanted to have a noir, gritty atmosphere; my main character being a bit biased himself. I wanted to portray prejudices.

It makes sense to have racism in this setting. It felt realistic, it added depth to the characters, and it helped getting the story going and giving the reader a good grasp of the worldbuilding.

All well and good, until one of my beta-readers said, as a compliment:

"It's somewhat similar to Bright, only a lot more times better."

Now if you're not familiar, Bright is a Netflix movie where orcs and elves live among humans in a modern Los Angeles. It has been heavily criticized for a variety of reasons. It seems that the movie is trying to draw a parallel between the in-movie racism and the real-world racism.

This ends up poorly, and what a surprise. Making parallelism between a fictional fantasy race and a real, ethnic group of humans comes at the cost of misrepresentation (at least), offending someone (probable), bad writing (likely) and gross justification of racism in general (at worst).

Yet talking about racism in a fantasy setting is still worth it; it's an interesting theme, and still has potential to grow.

All considered, my question is:

How can you treat fantasy races without making parallels with any ethnic group in the real world?

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Racism is worldbuilding

When you invent races, you can give them handicaps that help explain why certain races clash and others co-operate. Mermaids don't have much use for mountain tree-dwellers, and the goat-race excrete an oil from their musk gland that the butterfly people find odious. That's just having fun.

But racism works along specific rules that will alter society's structure – that's what racism is. There is a dominant race (or in a fantasy context, maybe a species) and no matter how gracious and openminded they believe themselves to be, many still agree the world would just work better if everyone made more effort to assimilate to their status quo. They control government and commerce. They are dominant. They will tolerate accommodating the other species only so far, before it starts to effect their comfort level. They will prefer the individuals from other species who more closely match their own ideals, and this works like a wedge to divide the "lessor" species. Some species are naturally similar, and some individuals within a species may better match the ideals. Tall dwarves receive advancement from the humans, warping what makes a dwarf a dwarf. Meanwhile a regular dwarf has some handicaps getting around a human-sized city, a tall dwarf already has an advantage.

There will be disenfranchised species who have been displaced from their homelands, fleeced by an uncaring society that preys on their misfortune, and then betrayed by many of their own kind who resort to crime, bootlegging, smuggling, vice, and graft. They are forced into neighborhoods that lack facilities and infrastructure, so: poor schools, no police, no bank loans, poor fire coverage, broken windows, and street crime.

These extremes between have and have-nots are polarizing. Power doesn't cycle back and forth, it is enshrined in institutions. It evolves the shape of the cities. It decides whose church is in the town center. It decides who sleeps inside and outside the protected walls (and always have). It decides who gets to be mayor, police, and judge – obstacles for your multi-racial and minority characters.

You can abstract the races, and you can insert some unrelatable epithets about smelling like goat musk oil, but real racism is a power dynamic that is universal and systemic. It will exist throughout society at all levels. No part of your worldbuilding would be untouched. Make your story about actual racism – not races – and you have universal cues to tap into that feel real.

(The criticism with Bright is that they used ethnic coding to play up the race analogy, but didn't address any issues of institutional racism. In fact they used a mainstream minority actor to often be the voice of the "institution" and crack (actual) racist jokes.)

  • One issue: "There is a dominant race..." That is not necessarily the case all the time. I personally have witnessed racist remarks directed from members of one minority group (Canadian Inuit) to members of another (Black Canadians). I mean, full n-word level racism. It is entirely possible for the non-dominant groups to have racist opinions regarding other non-dominant groups. – Keith Morrison Aug 23 at 15:50
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Fantasy racism is normal

In my experience of fantasy works as well as in my own writing racism does exist between the various races. Tolkien's Elves and Dwarves are the most obvious example. Dwarfs and Orcs in D&D lore traditionally don't get along.

Have reasons for racism

Usually the reason for this is some past slight rather than inherit bigotry. See Why don't Elves like Dwarves? for the Tolkien lore. In my world a long and bloody war between Dwarfs and Orcs is the reason for mutual hatred.

If you can link the behaviour to an in universe reason readers are less likely to draw a parallel to real world racism.

Avoid real world terms or scenarios

Try to avoid using referring to other races or group with the same terminology that is used in the real world. Make sure your research an derogatory terms you use and understand their connotations before including them.

You should also avoid behaviours or actions similar to real world situations. Segmented bathrooms or schools will always be seen as a parallel. As will racially biased law enforcement. Educate yourself on what the pain points in racial discrimination are, and avoid reflecting these in your work.

Get feedback from multiple ethic groups

This it possibly the most important point. As a member of one race I can only give you advice from my perspective. While I may not find parallels to real world racism in your book, members of other ethic groups may. Try to diversify your test readers as much as possible. If you intend to send the work internationally or put it online get feedback from the countries it will available in. Racism looks different in different places and you should be prepared for that.

Add a disclaimer

This is a work of pure fiction set in a fantasy world. Any parallels to real world cultural groups or events are unintentional. The author respects all races equally.

Adding this sort of message to the appendix of your work is never a bad idea. It won't stop people from making them, but should reduce the backlash if you do make a mistake.

  • 3
    I think the key is to define the basis for the racism. Americans are seen as (x, y, z). Immigrants are seen as (x, y, z). Indigenous cultures are seen as (x, y, z). So--at the first mention of elves, say that--They were so odious, the way they insinuated their thoughts directly into your mind. At the first mention of dwarves, say that--They were so tied to the elements, the way they used earth and fire, water and air, to their own advantage. The trick is to evoke a racist feel without tying it to a specific stereotype on present-day Earth. – DPT Feb 28 at 23:14
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You won't be able to stop people finding parallels. That's going to happen regardless of what you do. If you have a comment about some race being money-obsessed, there will be someone who will immediately start thinking of Jewish stereotypes, even if nothing else about them either in the narrative reality or other racist beliefs characters have about them could remotely be construed as a Jewish stereotype.

The best you can do is, if racism against a specific group is expressed for several reasons (which is typically how it's justified), that you don't make the combination similar to well-known real racial stereotypes on Earth.

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People will draw parallels between racism in your world and actual racism, because both you and your readers live here and now. It's not just that it can't be helped, it's part of why we write. We interact with the real world because we are the real world.

Any style of racism you describe will already exist. Only the details differ. Who, why, and how.

If you want to avoid readers finding parallels with specific instances of racism (oh this is like China or this is like blacks in America) you'll need to be cognizant of the details of racism in our world. Then change it up.

If a particular group in our world is stereotyped as being a particular type of criminal or bad person or unskilled at something, etc, make sure you don't match the stereotype with beings that look at all like the group in question. Don't combine the myth of controlling the media with large noses. Don't make the lies about people with dark skin be they can't control their sexual urges. And don't create extremely sexist societies only among people who cover their hair in public.

Then ask your beta readers. If one person draws a parallel, let it go. If 4 out of 5 do, it's a problem.

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Fantasy Racism is not just normal, it is part of the genre (as it exists traditionally).

But it is good fun racism that normalizes the real racism of the real world.

The lower thug races (goblins and orcs) are unabashedly modeled after Jews and Blacks. (and most of the time, they work for a white evil human, or a wizard )..

The higher races (the elves) are basically the idealized image of Nordic Aryan Warrior Poet Princes and Princesses.

Then there are the regular people (the humans) who are basically normal working class generic western european white peasantry, people who strive to impress the elves.

the bandits and barbarian humans are often depicted as foreigners (middle eastern or slavic). Black humans are very very rare in fantasy.

The Dwarves are pretty much the nice jewish people. (Has anyone noticed how the Hobbit, was basically a story about a hapless/well-meaning English gentleman trying to help a bunch of displaced jewish dwarves reclaim their ancestral homeland?)

There is almost never any inter-racial romance (except once in a while a human gets an elf, which gives hope to the target audience). Human rarely go for dwarves... everyone pine for the elves (except the goblins and orcs who are too low to pine, they can only rape and pillage the elves)

With all the wars of hate, it is always the lesser races raping and pillaging the higher races. (reinforcing the usual racial paranoia of the real world).

The higher races are always fighting EVIL, bringing peace to the land, and nation building.

The higher races never commit any war crimes or any atrocities against the lower races (conveniently the lower races never get any character development, so of course we never see anything from their point of view. Orc and goblins, do they even have women and children?)

So when you ask how to you avoid racism in fantasy.

One can argue it is part of the genre, but with the "normal" in mind, I have now given you a template to subvert expectation and change the genre.

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