Thursday, February 25, 2016

Drizzt Do'Urden and the failure of fantasy racism

(Content: discussion of racism and other oppression.  Fun content: I hope you like elves.)

I should preface this with a giant disclaimer (in case there was any question) that I'm white, so this whole post is an extended 'it seems to me...' and I don't want to speak over anyone's experiences.  I don't think I've seen anyone address this specific flaw to supposedly progressive fantasy; I'd be happy to link to any such works if y'all know of them.  (Also, I think a lot of what I say below can translate to representation of other demographics and types of oppression, like LGBT people and comic book mutants, but it's Black History Month, so that's where we focus.)

Pictured: either my family tree or a box of assorted entertainment crackers; who can tell?

The best thing that speculative fiction can do is show us a bizarre new world that loops into our real mundane world right now and gets us to see something in a new way.  Consider classic Star Trek's episode about an alien cop chasing a fugitive, each of them literally half paper-white and half ink-black, divided down their centre line, but the cop is convinced that he's racially superior because he's black on the correct side.  The Snowpiercer movie (thankfully nothing like the original comic) is a beautiful, layered, sickening, and ruthless exploration of capitalism and literal class war.  And if I start talking about Discworld novels we'll be here all day.

Countless stories--like Star Trek there, and like Forgotten Realms and Lord of the Rings and X-Men and basically every other serialised speculative story sooner or later--take the opportunity to criticise racism, usually by showing us elves and dwarves scowling at each other or something.  The first problem with this kind of scenario is that it extrapolates human 'races' (a nebulous and nonscientific concept) into entirely different species, so that the story is about (white) humans learning to get along with weird other-y pseudo-natural entities (of colour?).  We can do better.  But, at the same time, there's no reason that identifying with the badass werewolves or dragons or fae should be restricted to white people either, so yes, let's have elves with high tops:

Pictured: painting of an armored elf with distinctively black features, by Nick Robles.

Running with this, writers sometimes give us a paragon of virtue like Drizzt Do'Urden.  Drizzt is one of the most iconic characters in modern fantasy: a renegade drow (dark elf, literally black-skinned) from the underground city of Menzoberranzan who grew up disgusted by his people's cruelties and so ran away to the surface, where he roams the land of Faerun slaying monsters and rescuing the helpless.  He is, of course, nevertheless hounded at every turn by people who see his black skin and assume he's a monster.  I won't speak to authorial intention here, because I haven't read RA Salvatore's mind at any point in the last thirty years, but there's only one common reading of Drizzt's story and what it symbolises for our world.  We readers look at these presumptuous bigots, who think the only good dark elf is a dead one, and scorn them for failing to get to know Drizzt before judging him.  We know better and we are enlightened.

Drizzt is a good guy.

Drizzt isn't like other drow.

Drizzt is one of the good ones.  A credit to his kind.


But the thing about those narrow-minded common peasants who flinch or scream at the sight of Drizzt walking into town is that they're only wrong this time.  With literally any other member of his species, they'd be absolutely right to freak out, because a powerful and sadistic murder-specialist would have just said hello.  That's not racism; that's basic probability and pattern recognition.

Fantasy racism like a fear of dark elves is ultimately a terrible allegory for real-world racism because the dark elves have worked long and hard to gain that reputation for monstrosity, whereas in the real world white history is basically a laundry list of the other nations and peoples we've slaughtered and enslaved and oppressed for monetary gain, political power, or occasionally just for sadistic fun.  In order for Drizzt the onyx-black elf hero to be an actual metaphor for black people in North America, our continent would have to live in constant fear of invasion from a subterranean army of African-diaspora wizard-ninjas, and I figure there can't be more than five or six million registered voters who actually think that's a concern.

What I'm getting at when I say #notalldrow is that Drizzt's experience, being a variously privileged individual walking into vulnerable spaces full of people who have been hurt before by people who look like him (and who know that he has the power to hurt them further), is the experience of the oppressing class, not its victims.  White people, especially but not exclusively white men: we're the drow.  When Drizzt sees someone afraid of him at first glance, it's not because they've been arbitrarily taught that black people are inherently inferior and disgusting.  If we read these scenarios and all we think is "Bah, foolish bigots, we Drizzt would never be so villainous!" we're only reinforcing the idea that vulnerable people owe us their reflexive trust or they're the real racists.

To the credit of Drizzt's fictional persona, he sympathises with these people and is patient with the caution strangers take around him.  At least, this is a good aspect of his character if it's taken as a model for, say, white people to not go around acting indignant that people of colour aren't always ecstatic about our presence.  From the 'surface' reading of his story, where Drizzt is the victim and he is patient with having to work to personally win over every single racist he meets... that's suboptimal to say the least.  The tangle that this kind of speculative fiction has made of power dynamics makes it harder to draw any conclusive arguments out of the text beyond a lukewarm 'everyone should be good to each other'.  That kind of 'equal opportunity learning' gives us stuff like the unholy mess that was Disney's Pocahontas, in which the indigenous Powhatans are also guilty of prejudice against strangers just because the white people are here to conquer, pillage, and murder.  I cannot even.

Fantasy racism doesn't speak to real-world racism as long as it seeks to justify its existence: as long as those simple innocent farmers are afraid of orcs because orcs are literally and objectively the twisted embodiment of malevolence forged by an evil god to burn the world, fearing orcs isn't racism, it's self-preservation.  Fantasy that wants to tell us that racism is bad has to start by admitting that racism isn't a defense mechanism but a weapon--a philosophy that helps the people in power convince everyone else that it's okay to kill and exploit those other people, without provocation, because they just don't deserve any better.  Stopping racism is about acknowledging and revealing and destroying that idea, and it's got to be done in us, the privileged, oppressing class.

I'd love to add some examples here of fantasy racism done properly (purely as propaganda and not based on objectively truth) but... I'm not sure I can think of any.  Even in Discworld, the conflicts between trolls and dwarves ultimately come back to 'both sides bear guilt'.  In the Warcraft universe, primary example of a setting where orcs are heroic protagonists as often as villains, the orc-human divide stems back to those one or eight times that the orcish horde got cursed into raging berserkers and tried to burn down the planet.  In settings like Star Trek (and often Star Wars, depending on the book) aliens often are pretty one-dimensional in ways apparently defined by their species.  I think a good case can be made regarding house elves in Harry Potter, but that'd be a book unto itself and there are plenty of people who feel the text ultimately fails to make a proper case distinguishing the racist propaganda from the truth.  If any of you readers have encountered a good speculative treatment of how racism functions that doesn't make these kinds of errors, I would love to hear about it.

Let me end by sharing with you a quote from Chris Rock, in an interview from 2014 which I was lucky enough to encounter this week:
So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years... The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
Hope everyone's been having a good Black History Month.

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