Vampires hate werewolves. Dwarves hate elves. Humans hate everyone who isn’t human. Fantasy racism, you are the trope that never dies. And I am getting so sick of you, you pastiche excuse of a plot device.
One of my favorite things about fantasy as a genre is its ability to explore real world problems in great depth and detail in a space that’s distinctive from our own world and therefore more neutral. Hard topics can be brought up in fantasy, such as sexuality, racism, and sustainability, and then discussed in metaphorical terms rather than literal.
But so often these days, fantasy racism isn’t used in a well crafted and nuanced manner to shed light on our own failings. It’s a blunt tool used by the author to shove the plot wherever they want it to go.
Having trouble figuring out why your destined pair can’t hook up now and run off into the sunset? BAM FANTASY RACISM! Turn one of them into an elf. Cross species pair, all the angst, none of the development!
Not sure why your party wouldn’t just go to the local authority and ask them for help with the oncoming dark hordes? BAM FANTASY RACISM! The king’s now an elf who hates you on sight for not also being an elf!
Having trouble coming up with a conflict or plot that won’t be solved in the next sixteen seconds by your super awesome character? BAM FANTASY RACISM! Your character’s now and elf and everyone hates them for being an elf!
My problem with this trope is not the potential to explore complex inter-species relationship but rather the complete lack of anything complex.
The problem is that real racism, the kind that exists in our world, yes, really, it didn’t die with Martin Luther King Jr., is that true racism is a deeply nuanced thing. This is what makes it insidious and so hard to see in ourselves or the world around us. But when racism gets boiled down to “we hate elves because we are dwarves,” it belittles the impact and reach of racism. It makes racism into something that can be solved by introducing our dwarvish character to an upstanding and good elf who will then, through the power friendship, show the dwarf that his opinions were narrow and shortsighted!
That’s not how racism works. That’s not even the most dangerous aspect of racism. The loudest cry of the biggot is ‘but some of my best friends are elves!’ Racism isn’t ‘we hate elves because elves’ it sounds a lot more like “I don’t have any problems with elves, they’re really great people, but I don’t think they should be hired by the city guard. Would you really feel safe with elves patrolling your street? They’re so flimsy! And sure they’re great shots, but how useful is that in a narrow street? What about ricochet? I’m just saying, can’t they find jobs as rangers?”
As with many of my complaints with peeves, this comes down to a complaint about laziness on the author’s part. If you’re going to use a trope, use it, don’t just lean on it and expect your novel to stay standing.
But in the case of fantasy racism, this trope isn’t just lazy, it’s also damaging and dangerous. Take some time while writing your fantasy world to consider not just the broad strokes of racial unease, but the subtle, more insidious ways that racism will color your world. Then cut out a few broad strokes in favor of something subtler, sharper, and so much more meaningful to your work.