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Critical (fantasy) race theory

Jerry Stratton, April 20, 2022

Talk about Critical Race Theory

I created this blog specifically to segregate my political and other (currently, vintage food and vintage computer) blogging from my game blogging. Sadly, some very egregious politics has been blundering around in gaming over the last several years and it’s starting to come to a head. I’m crossposting this on my main blog because it’s as much about the resurgence of virulent racism as it is about gaming.

One of the things that has always interested me and seems never to be explored in games is how having real, definite races of people would affect the imaginary differences we’ve made up in the real world. It seems as though having truly different fantasy races ought to make it obvious how ridiculous man’s tribal hatreds are today. The same ought to be true of the discovery of truly alien races.1

I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently Shadowrun 2E handles inter-human racism the same way I do in Highland: the new creatures are so obviously different that humans in these worlds no longer view each other as different. Inter-human racism is gone. In Highland, there’s the added change that the cataclysm jumbled up cultures so drastically that cultures are no longer associated with skin color.

In reality, I suspect that this is wishful thinking. It is easy to be disappointed by the resilience of such racism in the real world, and it’s hard to say that it would not remain resilient even in worlds like that of D&D or Shadowrun. When self-described anti-racists make claims that are right at home among slavers, it’s difficult to be optimistic about any impending end of racism.

This is especially true when people complain about it being “racist” to name a player character’s fantasy race. There has long been a weirdly racist attempt to analogize human races to fantasy races. But in games such as Dungeons and Dragons where the rules of the game make it abundantly clear that fantasy races really are superior and inferior in various ways, this conflation of real-world and fantasy is blatantly racist. Players and pundits who make this equivalence are accepting the racist belief that some human races are superior and some are inferior.

This most recently came up in a question on Stack Exchange about…

…a player, that whenever they notice that a character/NPC is addressed by their race, they shout “racist!”, followed by a prolonged laugh.

May I ask, to what extent is it understandable to address players/NPCs by their character race in colloquial speech?

Of course it is appropriate to address characters by their fantasy race. Dungeons & Dragons fantasy races really are different, with different special abilities. They are nothing like real-world human races.

The game itself both calls out people of different races for actual differences, and differentiates between races and ethnicities, all in the same sentence:

And the people themselves—people of varying size, shape, and color, dressed in a dazzling spectrum of styles and hues—represent many different races, from diminutive halflings and stout dwarves to majestically beautiful elves, mingling among a variety of human ethnicities.

If, in the real world, blue-eyed people could see twice as far as other eye colors, it would not be at all eyeist to call for “the blue-eyed person” in situations requiring seeing across long distances.

If blond people were able to withstand poisons that could kill non-blonds, it would not be hairist to call for “the blond” to deal with situations that might otherwise kill people.

Even among groups that have known each other a long time and know each other’s names, use of group names rather than individual names is a useful signal about what the need is. This is especially true where special abilities make a huge difference to survival. It is not at all occupationist, for example, for a soldier to call for the medic, even if the medic is a known person with a known name.

I happen to be reading E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed right now. He talks about needing medical help for a comrade:

I yelled “Corpsman!” and Ken (Doc) Caswell,* the mortar section corpsman, crawled over, opening his pouch to get at his first aid supplies as he came.

In the United States military, a corpsman is a specially-trained medic. By calling “Corpsman!” rather than “Ken!”, Sledge signaled Ken to prepare for medical action. The footnote goes on to explain Ken’s nickname:

Aspects & Assumptions of White Culture in the United States

How can it not be white supremacist to say that whites are the culture of planning for the future, making decisions, and rational thinking?

*Habitually and affectionately, Marines call all U.S. Navy corpsmen who serve with them “Doc.”

Even outside the military people will commonly address their doctor solely as “doctor” or “doc”, despite knowing their names, when requesting information of a medical nature.

Members of a D&D party will reasonably call for “the thief” or “the fighters” to similarly signal situational needs. D&D adventuring parties often display a sense of camaraderie very similar to small military units, and for similar reasons.

Addressing people by what they can do or by their position—professor, chef, farmer, officer, lawyer, even boss—is very common. Children do it when they address mom or dad, and mom and dad do it when they address each other as ma or pa. Children will sometimes even change the way they address their parents once they have children of their own, because what their parents can do has now changed to include grandparenting.

D&D character races, like D&D character classes, are things the character can do. In Dungeons and Dragons games, the same character might be addressed as their class (cleric, thief), their race (elf, human, dwarf), their character name, or their player’s name, depending on the abilities each aspect of the character brings to the current situation. There’s good reason for this, as player choice of race “establishes fundamental qualities that exist throughout your character’s adventuring career.”

For example, a halfling could be a good choice for a sneaky rogue, a dwarf makes a tough warrior, and an elf can be a master of arcane magic.

Dwarves “have advantage on saving throws against poison, and you have resistance against poison damage”. Elves “have advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep… Elves don’t need to sleep.” And so on through each of the fantasy races. These are real things in the game that make real differences to success and survival and that dwarf individual variation.

There is nothing like this among human races, except in the imagination of racists. It’s uncomfortable to even use such examples as eyeist, hairist, and occupationist. Saying it’s racist to acknowledge the real differences between members of very different fantasy races trivializes the actual racism experienced by humans in the real world where such differences do not exist.

Treating human racial differences as equivalent to the differences between a fantasy elf and dwarf is racist. It assumes that some human races are naturally inferior and some are naturally superior, as if modern racism were justified by real differences in biology and the rules of physics.

”Race” as it is used to describe different human ancestry is not the same word as “race” used to describe fantasy elves, dwarves, humans, and so on. These terms are not the same in any realistic or ethical sense. In the real world it is racist to claim that each of the human “races” are different, and to treat them differently because of that belief. Those racist claims are wrong. In D&D differences do exist, and it would be racist to claim that they don’t. It would be racist to deny the special abilities of a dwarf, a human, or an elf. Such refusal to face reality could kill the character whose race is being ignored.

Imagine ignoring that humans cannot see in the dark, for example, or denying that halflings can escape doorways blocked by an enemy.2

Imagine calling it racist to bring up those differences, differences that affect the survival of the character, within the game.

It isn’t surprising that this kind of racism is entering the fantasy realm. The woke left teaches that the different human races really are inferior in ways similar to fantasy races. Much of their “talking about race” is indistinguishable from the old-school racism of slavers and other 19th and 20th century Democrats. Far from progressive, woke racism is very old-fashioned.

A good example is this flyer, posted at the Smithsonian (PNG, 474.3 KB) for what they called anti-racist training. What would a slaver disagree with in it? That people of color cannot plan for the future? That they don’t work as hard as whites? That they are innately inferior at math? This is pure old-school white supremacy resurrected by the woke left.

Attempts to treat fantasy races with real differences as analogous to real-world racism is a direct result of the deranged, racist teachings of the woke left. D&D isn’t racist today, nor was it created racist. But the more WoTC and Hasbro incorporate woke politics into the game, the more racist D&D will become.

Woke racism is still racism. It’s the worst kind, the kind that brought us slavery and jim crow, segregation and ghettoes, and mob violence against anyone who stands for treating people equally.

  1. A sudden jolt of this sort was sort of the plot of Alan Moore’s Watchmen: that there exist Damoclesian threats that can bring humanity together. Moore was also pessimistic about the outcome of Veidt’s plot to fake such a threat, although in his case the plot was objectively wrong; most of the heroes were objectively wrong to go along with it.

  2. Halflings have the special ability that other races do not have, “Halfling Nimbleness. You can move through the space of any creature that is of a size larger than yours.”

  1. <- Kolchak: The Big Creep