Fantasy racism revisited

It’s been nearly seven years since I wrote about racism in World of Warcraft. Today I discovered links to the post from both the Justice Points podcast and Christopher Douglas’s exegesis. This bit in the latter struck me:

[T]he scandal in World of Warcraft is that the game does not care about the difference between race and culture. The terms are indistinguishable ingame, with culture being something you are as likely to inherit as race is something that is learned like a language or a religion


What begins as a design choice to keep players coming back unintentionally entails our training in a conceptual model of group difference as natural and innate rather than historical and environmental.

In other words, race is problematic because the racial cultures are monolithic and biologically determined. I don’t think this is true; while the surface level of the game pits race against race, the factions one encounters are more diverse and bridge the Horde-Alliance divide. There’s more mingling and culture-sharing than Douglas acknowledges.

But here’s what Douglas and many other cultural critics miss about speculative fiction. He says that culture is environmentally and historically, but not biologically, determined. Perhaps it only seems that way. Here in the real world we have only studied the culture of one race, and biology does not differ significantly among the human cultures. But if tomorrow we discovered that humpback whales are self-aware, intelligent, thinking animals with their own cultures, we will have to acknowledge that their cultures are largely different because they are aquatic, don’t have fingers, and weigh around 40 tons. They are not just giant humans who like to swim all the time.

So it is with dolphins, dogs, great apes, elephants — they may all be very intelligent, thinking creatures with a culture or multiple cultures. But if they are, they are very different from us because they are not humans. This is why many animal behavioral scientists resist anthropomorphizing the motivations of species other than ours. In fact, there’s a word for assuming all intelligence must be like human intelligence: “anthropocentrism.”

Speculative fiction often posits beings that are very different from ourselves but alike enough that we can communicate, collaborate, negotiate, and argue. How we would work with such cultures and how such cultures would be shaped is a rich area of narrative. But those stories would feel uncomfortably “racist” if the stories were all about humans. Forcing such stories into an allegorical mode will always make them seem so. But this is failing to approach the genre on its own terms, and — I think in Douglas’s case — effectively re-writing the narrative into a convenient straw man.

That’s not to say that we can’t say meaningful things about race and Warcraft, and Blizzard’s use of human cultural stereotype as a character shorthand invites allegorical interpretation. But I don’t think we can dismiss the fact that if Tauren and Troll culture seems biologically-bound, it’s in large part because they are different beings.

Image Credits: Thudfactor

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