Writing is Hard: Racism in a Fantasy Landscape

I wasn’t going to write about the Black Witch. And I’m still not going to write about it (if you’re curious about the book you can check out Goodreads here:  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25740412-the-black-witch).  But I do want to talk about two things that have been on my mind since reading reviews: racism in fantasy and redemptive arcs for actively racist characters.  Because I think it’s important for authors going forward to understand why and how an author ends up with books that attempt to deconstruct ideas of power but then fail miserably.

This post is about addressing racism within a fantasy storytelling structure.  I’m going to save my discussion about redemptive arcs for racists for another post.

I touched on the idea of dismantling racism within a fantasy setting on twitter earlier this week.  Authors, especially white authors, like to tackle ideas of racism within fantasy settings by creating fake races for the point of view characters to be racist against.  This seems like a good idea in theory, but it is actually harder than just writing fantasy cultures that have a correlation to real world cultures and deconstructing real world racism within a fantasy setting.

Here’s why:

1. You have to teach a reader about the power structures in your fantasy world. And then deconstruct them.  Part of writing fantasy is about teaching a reader how to read your book.  This involves setting up scenes that illustrate the possible outcomes that can exist in your fantasy world.  Can your characters use magic? Great, now you have to show the reader the price of that magic, or the societal ramifications of that magic.  But you also will have to do that for the racism against the made up races within your book.  So creating a made up race creates more work to be done on the page.

2.  You have to be especially careful about how you code your characters.  If you accidentally code a race as a real world race but neglect to deconstruct the power structures of the real world you’ve created a trap of your own making.  If you code a fantasy race as several different real world analogs then that means there are several different cultural expectations you must subvert on the page.  If you don’t address the stereotypes and cultural narratives surrounding the real world people, then you aren’t going to be successful at deconstructing the power structures of your fantasy world on the page. You have to always be actively deconstructing and subverting at least two power structures: the real world one that people understand and expect and the one you’ve built.  Oh, and also worldbuild and have a plot in there somewhere.  That's a lot of spinning plates to manage.

3.  You can’t erase the real world people of color who actually suffer from racism.  This is a biggie, because one of the reasons authors resort to made up races is to not have to tackle real world racism and expectations of cultural out groups.  But erasing Black people in a book that dissects and deconstructs the ramifications of chattel slavery in a fantasy world where the legacy of chattel slavery is the driving force behind the world’s current power structures is itself kind of racist.  Erasure is it’s own kind of marginalization.  And let’s be honest: if you aren’t comfortable talking about how racism exists in the real world, your fake world racism discussion is going to be shit.

4. Fantasy races like elves and vampires are not human and by their definition are already the other.  So if the recipients of your fake racism are non-human races then as a writer you have to work even harder to show the dehumanization of the people who suffer from racism (or whatever you decide to call the prejudice that is tied to power that takes the place of racism).  And if those people are not human then you are going to have to first humanize those characters, and then show the complexities and nuance of them as a people.  As well as all of the stuff we talked about above.  That is a lot of work.

Bottom line:

Readers will bring real world expectations to your fantasy world.  That means they will also bring real world expectations of power structures to your fantasy world.  That means those expectations will have to be subverted and addressed on the page, along with all of the worldbuilding that is required from writing a fatnasy.   And if you can’t do that in a way that keeps your story moving, your story will fail.