From the moment I saw a poster of a Black Dwarf lady for the new Amazon Prime series Rings of Power, I made the prediction that come late summer and into the early Fall, I’d be living off fanboy tears and lembas bread. Turns out, ain’t enough lembas bread at Costco to go with the fountain of white tears shed over Black dwarves, hobbits, mermaids and other fictional characters. It’s been a flood. And frankly, for some of you, I’m just plain embarrassed.
Speak on it Wonder Woman …they saltier than the Atlantic we crossed and survived.
As anyone familiar with this blog knows, I grew up reading lots of fantasy–Narnia, Lord of the Rings, etc. I was on it. And one thing I was certain of as I did so, was that it was filled with people who didn’t look like me. The heroes, heroines, and central characters of these worlds were nearly always white. Oh, there was a rare occurrence when I glimpsed the mention of “brown-skinned” or “dark-skinned” persons. But all too often they were anti-social, disreputable, hung out in the far flung Southern or Eastern reaches (Southrons or Easterlings if you will) and ran with the bad guys. Sometimes, it was unclear if they were even human, rendered to “black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues” at the Battle of Pelennor fields. When I did get some mention of well-adjusted central Black or Brown characters like in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy (where nearly all are characters of colour), I also got white-washed covers–as if purposefully trying to mess with my young mind.
Earthsea Cover (L) versus Earthsea’s actual central characters (R)
So you know what I had to do? I had to try to imagine Black and Brown characters. This wasn’t easy, not when all the main characters were white. In fact, go to talk to many BIPOC writers of fantasy and they’ll share that a lot of their earliest works written when they were younger featured white characters in Eurocentric settings. It would actually take a force of will to imagine differently. I mean dwell on that. Black and Brown children were so inundated with white-centered and white-dominated fantasy worlds, it limited many of our imaginations. So that we could often more likely dream up dragons than otherworlds where faces like ours existed.
But this isn’t the only story to tell. There were always BIPOC authors working hard to change that perception–like the late Charles R. Saunders, who imagined fantasy realms of Black characters set in a world inspired by African history and legends. Many of us who grew up on white-dominated fantasy still inserted ourselves, sometimes re-imagining key figures and characters with faces like our own. We were doing that all along. We cosplayed these characters in our Black skin, and NEVER NEEDED TO WHITEN OUR FACES–SEE HOW THAT WORKS!!! We were making our wizards, elves, hobbits, dwarfs and whatnot BLACK in our imaginations for-ever. It’s nothing new. Hollywood and television are just playing catch-up.
Black cosplayer, Photographer: @simplysavannahart Model: @shiennegh Designer: @itisknown
And it’s about time! Diversity has finally come to the visual world of fantasy. So, of course, has the inevitable backlash. Somehow including Black dwarves of elves now “ruins” the story. A Black central character on House of the Dragon made fanboys weep. And a Black Mermaid done broke some folks brains completely. It seems that those privileged enough to always see faces like theirs in fantasy are really bothered by the mere presence of other faces long marginalized in the genre. It doesn’t matter that in the majority of cases, the central characters in these stories remain overwhelmingly white. A sprinkling of color is all that’s needed to corrupt these tales faster than the “Lord of Gifts” corrupted the rings of power.
Then we find ourselves having these arguments where we marshal our intellectual skills and geek wisdom to point out how absurd the racists are being. We gotta be like, ya’ll mfers’ can accept talking dragons and Elvish but a Boricua elf throws you outta the story? We invoke Saint George RR Martin himself postulating Black Targaryens in order to get some of y’all to shut all the way up about a Black Coryls Velaryon–looking regal AF in them white locs. Or that Tolkien been done gave us brown and darker skinned hobbits in his work–including Samwise Gamgee.
And when one of you gets froggy and starts mouthing off about the “impossibility” of dark-skinned elves because no one in early Europe would have been able to imagine such a thing, we gotta go bringing up the Dökkálfar (the dark elves of Norse mythos described as “blacker than pitch”) to show up your fake ass. Or that Africa and its Diaspora has had Black Mermaids long before Hans Christian Anderson and Disney were even things! We done all the homework. We done all the math. We got the facts, the receipts, and everything else on our side.
But wait, we shouldn’t friggin have to. You know how ridiculous it is at times to even be having these arguments and debates? Over the probable skin color of a hobbit? Or a fictional sea lord? Or a half-human, half-fish person? Do y’all even hear yourselves? These arguments are dumb. A waste of time. And they rob us of simply enjoying these imaginative worlds when we have to take up mental and physical breath to defend our right to exist within them. But maybe that’s the point, as Toni Morrison so astutely pointed out:
And trust me, the arguments are completely vapid. My favorite response is, “what if we had white people playing historical black characters?” Yeah, first off, y’all done did that for the majority of Hollywood. It even has its own term: whitewashing. Whole scholarly articles on the subject. It’s still happening! So what thee entire f*ck are you even talking bout? Read a book! Second, mermaids and elves aren’t real Jan, so try again. They can look like whatever the heck we want them to look like. If you can’t conjure up a Black hobbit or a Black elf, maybe your imagination ain’t got the range. My favorite is, “what if we had a white guy play T’Challa in Black Panther?” Well at least you’re playing in make-believe land. But this is up there with the “why isn’t there a White History Month” or “how come there isn’t a National Association for the Advancement of White People?” They are questions that only work if you decide to be ignorantly bliss about history, race, and power, where the past never happened, and you create a true fantasyland where it’s always been one big flat playing field. Racebending and its importance has been explained now for years: that changing white characters to BIPOC is an important corrective to past wrongs and a means of introducing diversity, especially to increasingly diverse audiences. Whitewashing erases diversity. Racebending increases it.
But for some folks, it’s the diversity itself that appears to be the problem. A co-author of George RR Martin even went on record to grumble about racebending characters like Corlys Velaryon, complaining that “diversity should not trump story.” Beloved, what does that even MEAN? Explain it to me, like I’m a toddler. Like I’m not actually a writer of fantasy and speculative fiction that spends time mapping out worlds and stories. Is there some weighted scale where too much diversity ruins a story’s plot? Does an extra sprinkle of BIPOC characters set the pacing off? Does it screw up the setup, the rising action, the crisis, and the resolution? What is this grand equation where the story–the fundamental art of telling a tale–might be ruined and made incoherent to readers and viewers because diversity showed up? Make it make sense. Cuz right now, it ain’t adding up.
The other common argument I’ve seen is, “well why don’t BIPOC just create their own characters and stories?” This would supposedly shield us from racist vitriol and charges of “white mythic genocide.” It also allows the concern trolls of diversity to come off as well-meaning and reasonable. There are even BIPOC folk, eager to see diversity outside of racebending, who argue similarly. Yeah, hate to burst your bubble, but that ain’t gonna work. Do you not remember how some folk acted about Black Panther? How seeing us happy and regal and making jokes had them gnashing their teeth? What the heck was stuff like this even about? Appeasing the racists doesn’t work. It never works. As Adam Serwer stated in his recent Atlantic article Fear of a Black Hobbit, the reactionaries of geekdom have a larger agenda:
Just sticking to “creating our own” is not gonna solve this problem. Those bemoaning Black dwarves elves, hobbits, and mermaids, are not going to be satisfied with “separate but equal” attempts at diversity in SFF–just like they weren’t happy with Roewood or Tulsa. Ask Black and Brown SFF writers and creatives about the trolling we get. The review bombing. The puppies with the sads. It doesn’t matter what we do or how we do it. Our very existence in SFF, even if it’s in the stuff we create, is perceived as the problem. As far as a loud and miserable segment of fandom is concerned, this is their space and we are interlopers–tolerated or shunned at their whim.
Look, I’m here in the trenches “creating our own.” I’m doing the thing. But I still want all the Black dwarves, hobbits, and mermaids appearing in the seminal works in genre too, where Black and Brown eyes can see themselves with wonder. It ain’t either or for me. I want BOTH. And if it ticks off racists, I definitely want it. Whatever they working at, I’m working against it. So keep on crying. Cuz we’re just getting started. Like I said up top, planned to live off lembas bread and fanboy tears this Fall—and I’m fresh outta lembas bread.
This article is perfection, Mr. Clark. Thank you. Everything you say makes sense.
Yes, yes, yes!
I have enough issues with the divergence from canon that I have to essentially consider RoP as fan fiction – but ENJOYABLE fan fiction.
Two two things I like best about it? Female-presenting characters with agency, who actually matter, and diversity.
Lady Disa is without question my favorite character created for the show. She is fierce and fabulous and I hope we see a lot more of her. I love the diversity we’re seeing in all the Middle-Earth races. It’s about time.
Side note: A friend recommended Master of Djinn and I’m reading it now, and loving it.
Thank you for this post. There is no excuse for the blatant racism being thrown around. Monochromatic fantasy isn’t just unethical, it’s boring.
I have a long-held complaint that so much sci-fi/fantasy is rooted in -isms of all kinds despite the genre being about *imagination* and possibility. It shows how deep these assumptions go–take Day of the Triffids, where Wyndham imagines sentient plants, but can’t imagine an apocalyptic world where women aren’t just baby-makers?
I grew up with Tolkien-type fantasies with imaginary beasts and worlds, but somehow everyone kept the classism and sexism, and left the thinly-veiled racism. Don’t give me the baloney about faithfulness to historical sources, since all those sources are, you know, *made up* and relevant just to that culture and time. I’m all for black mermaids, Cinderellas and hobbits, but I’m even more for finding the *new* underrepresented stories that represent our times.
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Did you ever hear that old joke about how gamers think there are two genders: male and political? I think it’s the same thing with complaints about POC showing up in Tolkien. What “diversity should not trump story” really means is that they found the inclusion of black dwarves so distracting that it effectively broke their immersion and kept them from being able to appreciate the story as is. I’ve always deeply disliked those kinds of complaints because
1: It says a hell of a lot more about the person making the complaint than about whoever made the show.
2: It implies that fantasy should only ever be 100% escapist and should do everything in its power to avoid drawing comparison to the real world or its politics.
Not only does that kind of thinking deeply restrict what SFF can be, but it’s also a bad faith way of consuming media. All fantasy authors draw deeply from real history in order to think up their fabulations, and a property like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is absolutely drenched in racial politics. They don’t notice race when it’s all whites in all the heroic roles and POC in all the subservient / villainous roles, however because it’s just business as usual. As soon as it’s even one black character introduced however, then suddenly they see it and they freak out.