Oh, worldbuilding. You are so hard and so important to any fantasy world. Worldbuilding sets the scene in a big way and allows a writer to create a world unlike ours in which to tell a story.
But what happens when your worldbuilding is vaguely racist and relies heavily on aspects of white supremacy?
Both The Continent and Carve the Mark, two YAs slotted for an early 2017 release, fall into this trap. Both rely on a tired old trope for their worldbuilding: a dark skinned savage race that serve as the aggressors throughout the story. This isn’t anything new, but it is lazy and promotes problematic ideas of race and culture.
In The Continent, the first introduction we get to the war-like and aggressive Topi is hearing about their savage ways from the “civilized” people who live in the Spire. The first on page appearance of the Topi is watching them slaughter a band of Aven’ai, after which they cut off a vanquished warrior’s head and throw it at the heli-plane carrying the main character, Vaela Sun, and her family.
In Carve the Mark the first introduction we get to the Shotet is the male main character, Akos, thinking about how “fierce, brutal” the Shotet are. They killed his grandmother and the reader is told that the cities of the Thuve (who are ostensibly white since they are described by their ability to blush and their light eyes) still bear the marks of Shotet aggression. The first on page appearance of the Shotet is when they arrive unexpectedly at Akos’ family farm and murder his father before kidnapping him and his brother.
Similarly in The Continent, the first time Vaela Sun interacts with the Topi, after her craft has crashed, she is kidnapped by them and taken to their camp.
These aspects of a make believe culture of savage war-like peoples have their roots in the beliefs and stereotypes used to other people of color in the real world. According to scholars of racial inequality, one of the ways groups are othered by the majority is by “using the values, characteristics, and features of the dominant group as the supposedly neutral standard against which all others should be evaluated.”* And we see that at length in both Carve the Mark and The Continent. The language used to describe the warlike, brown skinned antagonist peoples contains value judgments that stand in direct contrast to the belief systems of protagonists the reader is meant to sympathize with:
In The Continent:
· The Topi paint their body in a savage manner that the civilized people of the Spire find appalling
· They are described as fierce and warlike, unlike the educated people of the Spire
· They have no art or technology and their dwellings are crude encampments
· Their speech, when heard by the main character, is described as guttural
· They are nomadic
Similarly, in Carve the Mark:
· The Shotet language is described as harsh, with sudden stops and closed vowels, unlike the beautiful, open vowel sounds of the Thuve
· The Shotet carve marks into their arms when they kill someone, meaning that both men and women have many scars, and this practice is seen as barbaric by the loving and peaceful Thuve
· The female main character, Cyra, describes her mother’s kinky hair as curly enough to trap fingers, while her curls are looser and allow fingers to flow through. The Thuve have straight hair.
· The Shotet have no home planet, rather they travel around the universe in pursuit of the current, a unifying life force that allows people to have gifts (all of which seem to manifest in violent ways in the Shotet, and it is even stated by a doctor that the reason Cyra’s gift causes her pain is because of her people’s tendency to violence)
· The Shotet ruling family is one that embraces violence, so much so that the matriarch is famous for having killed her brothers and sisters, contrasted against the scene of Thuve familial love that opens the story. This is further reinforced by the cruel treatment Cyra receives from her brother
· The Shotet kidnap Akos and his brother, who are Thuve, and force them into a life of what can most easily be described as brutal slavery.
The only difference in these two stories is the real life cultural “bad guy” that seems to be the inspiration for the fantasy race. The Topi closely follow Native American cultural stereotypes, while the Shotet closely follow North African ones (including cultural markers that shadow Islam, such as an annual pilgrimage and the use of cleric as a title to refer to a holy man).
These coincidences in world building aren’t happenstance. Rather, it’s because both authors, whether consciously or not, are pulling from the story tradition of the white hero versus the dark enemy. We see this construct in many facets of fiction, such as Westerns where Cowboys versus Indians or thrillers where the American hero (usually white) faces down a dark skinned third world villain. It’s a popular construct, and one that relies on othering people of color to make it work.
But what is difficult is realizing that these same constructs of white versus not white (where not white can be people of color or even a created non human species such as the Uruk-Hai) exist in the real world and have a real impact on how readers perceive a story. The same cultural programming that lets us immediately recognize that the Topi and Shotet are "bad" with relatively few details are the same ones that lead to real world racial profiling and structural inequality in treatment of minorities.
The bottom line is that books like Carve the Mark and The Continent both utilize AND reinforce cultural white supremacy. It's only because of cultural white supremacy that readers are able to code these cultures as evil. And because readers code brown-skinned people as evil in a literary context the cognitive paths for them to code brown-skinned people as evil in a real are reinforced.
There’s more to be said about the way the plot elements reinforce the initial wouldbuilding truths in both books (Cyra of Carve the Mark is the perfect example of a talented tenth Negro or an educated savage, the person who manages to rise above their genetics and culture) but I think there’s already enough here for readers and writers to chew on. We should all be critical readers and writers who consider the implications of our worldbuilding more fully, by reading more broadly and understanding the impact of the story frames we use.
*This is taken directly from Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey’s writings on identities and social locations in the third edition of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. The essay, entitled “Who am I? Who are my People?” describes four main ways in which social systems maintain structural inequality:
1. Using the values, characteristics, and features of the dominant group as the supposedly neutral standard against which all others should be evaluated. In this case, values and traditions held as important in other groups are denigrated because they are not the same values as the dominant group.
2. Using terms that distinguish the subordinate group from the dominant group. In this scenario the subordinate group only exists in relationship to the dominant group, and its identity is solely described as not being that of the dominant group.
3. Stereotyping. This involves making simple generalizations, usually negative, of a group that is applied equally to all members of the group without thought .
4. Exoticizing and romanticizing. This is the inverse of what most regularly perceives as stereotyping, in that it applies “positive” stereotypes to a group. These positive stereotypes still come from the value system of the dominant group and function to strip the complexity and individuality from members of subordinate groups