Casual Racism

A hundred years ago, racism was common in fiction written by white people. It can be shocking, when reading something by a fine writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald, to see him quite casually refer to a Jewish character using a stereotype. Today, the careful writer will naturally try to do better.

When writing a big-screen fantasy epic, however — a story not set on our Earth — it can be easy to fall into a racist stereotype without realizing it. “Hey, these characters aren’t even human! What do you mean, I’m racist? Don’t be silly.”

Today I finally, belatedly, noticed my own casual racism. Fortunately, Book 4 of my epic is not yet published, so as I’m rewriting I can change some things.

Portions of Book 4 are set in the ruins of a great city. If you imagine Imperial Rome in a warmer, wetter climate, with the ruins of stone buildings sticking up out of a swamp, you’ll see it clearly. When my characters enter this former city, they encounter some little men and women called imps. Terrible name, I know, but the epic includes dragons, elves, wizards, and an ogre, so why not toss in some imps? They’ll make the setting more picturesque, and add some colorful action and suspense!

I reached a point in the rewrite where I’m about to relocate a few thousand refugees (human) to the ruined city, where they will shortly come face to face with the imps. As I asked myself how that encounter would play out — what the imps would do, and how the two races could arrive at an amicable living arrangement — the one-dimensional nature of my imps rose up and smacked me in the face.

How might you detect that you’ve stumbled into a racist stereotype and need to rewrite, when the world you’re writing about isn’t even our Earth? Here are some vital clues:

  • All of the members of the race behave alike. If there are any named individuals, they have the same characteristics as the rest of their crew.
  • They have an odd appearance, often involving skin color or the shape of the eyes.
  • They jabber in an unknown language full of guttural sounds, and they all tend to talk at once.
  • They’re hostile without provocation, attacking in a group. When your good guys attack them, they all panic and run away in a group.
  • Their technology is primitive. Stone spears, wearing loin cloths, living in one-room shacks with thatched grass roofs, that type of thing.
  • They are superstitious, for example believing in spirits that must be placated with sacrifices.
  • They’re sneaky and can’t be trusted. They will agree to do something and then break the agreement.
  • They have nasty habits, such as eating raw meat or chewing vegetable leaves and casually spitting.

Your racist stereotype doesn’t have to have all of these characteristics to qualify as offensive. And note that the stereotype does not necessarily include the race being evil! Probably nobody will object if your elves are all good and kind and noble and beautiful, even though that’s an awful racist stereotype. On the other hand, if your story contrasts the good, kind, noble, beautiful elves with some dirty, conniving, violent, savage, weird-looking orcs, you’re in deep trouble. (Yes, Tolkien was a racist.)

Unhappily, seven of the eight bullet points above describe, in one way or another, the imps in my story. Oh, crap. Without for a moment realizing it, I was using a 19th century white European’s viciously distorted view of Africans. Time to break out the hammer and tongs and start rewriting.

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