Fantasy “Races” Shouldn’t Be Evil

On the topic of WotC’s recent update to eliminate racial alignments, or “Orcs/drow aren’t racist, but maybe we should be more inclusive”
Obviously, orcs and drow aren’t racist. They’re not even real. And even as pieces of art, they (probably?) weren’t originally intended to represent ethnic groups in our world.
I say “probably”, because I suspect those early authors just didn’t consider their own biases. We’re talking about a time when people though Black people weren’t even human. OF COURSE they made their scary monsters have dark skin.
But WE (that is, humans in our world) can and frequently do create things that ARE racist, and we should try not to do that.
And drow, orcs, etc… you don’t have to squint too hard to see the racial issues involved in depicting a race of brown and/or black people as “inherently evil”, “savage”, or barbarous.

Orcs and drow respectively. Huh, I wonder what the issue might be…

“But Erik,” you say, “surely evil can be just a force that the good guys struggle with. This is FANTASY, after all!”
So, here’s the thing. There IS obviously a distinction, and different people obviously have different tastes.
  • Some people prefer stories where heroes struggle against entirely amoral forces: monsters, representations of evil, basically forces of nature, Lord of the Rings, early Terry Brooks, xenomorphs, Predators, that kind of thing.
  • Some people prefer stories where heroes struggle against moral antagonists: other people, who can make a conscious choice between good and evil, the Legend of Drizzt, A Song of Ice and Fire, most of the popular fantasy published over the last forty years.
That second moral perspective is much more in vogue these days. Heck, Peter Jackson even tried to introduce a little moral ambiguity into his Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Remember when Faramir talks about the man from the east, and what he was fighting for? That scene.)
And seen through that lens, it becomes… iffy to look at those older stories that cast entire peoples as just *innately evil*. When you try to apply that expectation to something like, say, the drow of Salvatore’s work, who have a complex society, culture, language, relationships, expectations, and clearly the capacity to *be* good, once they break free of their acculturation process. Can one in good faith look at the drow and say “these are monsters”, just ignoring all of Bob’s work to make them people?
It’s much the same with orcs, though they don’t have a single long story to point to that justifies seeing them as people, rather than monsters. Their evolution has been slower, spread out over various works (including some by Salvatore, but also Warcraft and other games). In some respects, they are *easier* to label as evil than the drow, but the difference is mostly aesthetic. They aren’t as pleasing to look at for most of us, so we’re ok dismissing them as evil? What?
This is exactly the same process we human beings have used against other human beings since time immemorial. Labeling an “Other” to define ourselves against, and deciding they are evil and must be wiped out or, better, enslaved and persecuted. And it’s no surprise that this takes on a racialized character, no matter how much we old school fantasy fans argue against it.
Racism doesn’t go away just because you deny it’s there. If anything, denying it only makes it MORE OBVIOUS.
Depicting characters of the “standard fantasy races” as sharing different ethnic features and traits helps, obviously, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem. Before WotC made the decision to update, we still had multiple “races” of dark-skinned beings who were labeled as “innately evil” or “barbaric” or “savage” or any number of other words real-world racists use about people of color in the real world. This change, at least, says that we can recognize that people deserve to be treated like people (with the capacity for good or for evil) and that we are no longer going to objectify them.

The 5e Fighter; definitely more like this, please. But this isn’t ENOUGH to make racism not a thing anymore.

WotC is just updating their game to match our evolving understanding and appeal to a wider player base, seeking to invite more players who aren’t white cishet dudes like me. They’ve already got us–we already have plenty to appeal to us in the game.
We can share our toys, and when other players show up, we don’t have to shout loudly that the brown ones are BAD.
Just let other people sit at the table. Some of them won’t care about any of this, but some of them will, and it’s better to be inclusive than to be exclusive.
We’re gamers. Isn’t including the downtrodden, bullied, and marginalized what we’re supposed to be doing?
Let’s be the heroes we look up to.

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