Race and Worldbuilding

In response to the request to stop derailing the discussion of racism and SF/F with discussion of the hurt feelings of white people and how badly they’ve been behaving. It’s really been covered, by people much more intelligent and articulate than I can ever be on the subject. See rydra_wong ‘s link-up here.

It’s been percolating through my head the reason why 90% of the the populations in SF/F are white, or white-identified. Because really, if you stop and look at the world, at populations, at where people come from and whatnot? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Fantasy makes the most sense, I suppose. Because usually fantasy it set in a quasi-Arthurian European setting, which means there aren’t people of color. Fairies and Elves are traditionally described as being pale as snow and whatnot, except for the more hobby-gobby ones, who have skin like bark, or water, or shadows, or whatever they’re affinitive with. So ok, I can accept that fantasies in those settings don’t have people of color, because they’re set in a very narrow area.

Very narrow. Seriously, if you look at the basic geography of humanity? The “white” population, being what is currently considered “white” – people with pale skin, green/blue/grey eyes, and blonde/red/light brown hair? It’s a pretty narrow strip. It’s only naturally occuring on a couple of cold islands and their related surroundings. (NOTE: I have not been able to gather enough specific information from the internet to determine the original population of the Russian/Eastern European area as being either white or asian in character. Sorry, I truly apologize for the lapse. It’s something I’m looking at. I want to lean toward asian though, as it makes the most sense. If I am wrong, I will update.)

That means the rest of the world is some shade of non-white and carries other characteristics, which are extremely diverse. Lumping people into “white,” “black,” “asian” and “other” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, because context changes things. To the natives of South American, the Spaniards were white; there are “whiter” people in Europe who historically considered them swarthy and sallow-skinned. Also, that “other” category? Yeah, way too big. No one really fits in those boxes, so why use them?

So when worldbuilding, from scratch, an alien planet that is “M-class” (haha!) or Earthlike, or an alternate world, or an alternate dimension… why does it make sense to have the majority of the population be white? Seriously? The time I’ve spent building the races in my world has been inextricably tied to building geography. Geography informs the characteristics of the people, and there’s a very narrow set of characteristics which seem to naturally produce “white” people.

I’ve always been confused by the Men of Rohan. I know they’re white and Anglo-saxon and blonde and blue-eyed, but their culture as described, the place they live, the way they lived… they always looked like Native Americans to me. They’re the horse-lords! And at the time of my childhood readings of LOTR, the Native Americans were the only horse-culture I was aware of. Of course, taking LOTR in its world-building context, all the brown people of the world have already been conquored, corrupted and subverted by Sauron (the Easterlings, the Haradrim, the Southrons) and are marching on this last bastian of (white) goodness in Middle-Earth. Again, it’s a situation where the setting is (somewhat, technically) English and so there aren’t brown people to be had, so I can give it a bit of a pass in that regard.

So, is every fantasy world everywhere pseudo-English? I uinderstand that between Arthurian legend, legends of Fairyland and LOTR, the English kinda invented the genre. And that’s awesome, props to them! But is there some reason they have to be the only population of it?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, from a world-building standpoint.

When I made the Katriel “people of color,” it seemed natural. They’re not even really an extreme example, I guess they’dfall into that pesky “brown/other” category. They’ve got swarthy skin, black curly hair, and black eyes. It seemed natural to have the invaders from the sea be “white” because they were built on Viking boat culture, with obvious (and very large) tweaks like having the boats be generally floating cities containing whole families who lived there all the time. The only reason the “white” people are the majority in the first book is that (a bit like the real world!) they were conquorers who artificially implanted and expanded themselves all over the landscape.

I’m just spitballing. To me, it doesn’t seem like it should have been a big shock that everyone in Earthsea was brown. Look at the setting! It should have been shocking for everyone on the island archipelego to be white, I think. To me, it’s weird that the Rohirrim weren’t brown. It’s odd that the Dunedain came from their sunken island and landed in a place where everyone looked… just like them. What?

The geography, racial characteristics and culture will all inform one another. To ignore any aspect of that is just lazy worldbuilding. Yes we nod and smile about that, every time we pick up a fantasy novel that is once more set someplace where, miraculously, everyone looks like the Norse and the climate and geography don’t support it at all.


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