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April 5th, 2007


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10:49 am - Regarding the Drow...
So there were a number of responses to my last post, and I wanted to try to summarize and address some of the points brought up. The controversy as such seemed centered on the drow -- which indeed seem to be a sticky point in many similar discussions, presumably because of their popularity.



Background on the Drow in D&D

Slight background for those unfamiliar with them, the drow in D&D were created by Gary Gygax, and first appeared in the 1978 AD&D module, Hall of the Fire Giant King (though they were mentioned but not described in the original Monster Manual under "Elf"). They were later included in the Fiend Folio and extensions to the module series. Etymologically, "drow" is probably derived from the Shetland Isles Drow. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (1970) states: "Drow, n., [scot.] A tiny elf which lived in caves and forged magical metal work." The word's origin is identical to the origin of the word "troll," which goes back further to the Scottish Gaelic word spelled "trow." Wikipedia has an entry on dark elf, but there is very little said about them. The Norse svartalfar or dopkalfar also called duergar (dwarfs) who do things like forge Sif's golden hair. Their homeland is mentioned in the eddas as written by Snorri Sturluson, as:
There are many places there which are magnificent. There is one place which is called Álfheimr. A people lives there which is called ljósálfar, but døkkálfar live below in the earth, and they are different from them in appearance and very different in practice. Ljósálfar are more handsome than the sun in appearance, but døkkálfar are blacker than pitch.

So taken from the myth we know that they are creatures that are blacker than pitch. However, the D&D picture of them as nearly human in appearance but with black skin and white hair is an invention for the game. As they originally appear in Module G1, the drow are pictured like this:

Their black skin and white hair are clearly described in text, but are not obvious from the illustrations given the style. Even so, they appear somewhat different from the white-skinned surface elves. The features are subtlely different. Surface elves typically have long straight hair, and wield a bow and longsword. The drow here have short curly hair, and use a spear, spear-thrower, and pistol-like hand crossbow. (In the module, their weapons and equipment get considerable description, including an explanation that the properties are maintained by strange radiations of the drow homeland.)

eyebeams pointed out how their image was later changed, citing in particular a Keith Parkinson painting for the 1986 book which compiled the modules as a campaign series, where they were pictured like this:


His suggestion was that the original was devoid of any real-world racial connotations, but that some later illustrations of the drow gave them a real ethnic skin tone (as opposed to jet black) or gave them racist cultural associations, like Xen'Drik in Eberron. I know relatively little about the full history of drow illustrations and adventures, so I won't comment about the process of development.

I note in passing Module G3 did have the drow lead by high priestesses who were "strangely attractive" (with Charismas 18 and 17) -- but the illustrations were only of male drow, while the later GDQ1-7 collection cover obviously emphasized the female drow. I suspect this mostly had to do with marketing differences.

While covering the drow, I should mention that it has become fairly common for white gaming fans to dress up in black makeup as drow characters. cf. GenCon 2006 pictures, for example. Such costuming has been going on for many years, but recent commentary on it has fanned further the controversy, in particular as it mixes with other examples of black-skin makeup. For example, Eric Grandy posted Blackblackface? about the band "blackblack" who dressed up as "shadows".

Background on Race Relations

I think I should include some general statements here about race relations in general. Part of the controversy that seems to surround the race discussions seems to be different reactions. So, for example, I said that having a fictional people where the black-skinned ones are evil and the light-skinned ones are good has "racial connotations" -- this in turn was interpreted as a charge of blatant racism and a call for "blanket censorship" -- which in turn I misinterpreted.

The problem is that while everyone agrees that the term "racism" is a bad thing, there is strong disagreement on the specifics of that. For example, eyebeams suggested that an important test regarding racism is whether the thing in question does identifiable harm as a concept. The problem is the question of what identifies harm.

Notably, he suggests that the drow are not problematic, but orcs are. He notes, "Stereotypical orcs closely resemble racist stereotypes about Africans: violence, strength, stupidity, fecundity, faux-tribal organization and even the need to be led. So it's the link to a real stereotype that's the thing." However, I'm not sure that matching stereotypes are the sole key to the issue here. A hypothetical series which has blacks always as non-stereotypical villains seems equally problematic.

I brought up the case of the video "A Girl Like Me" on YouTube, where black-skinned children picked a doll based only on the skin color, often identifying the white doll as a good one. I think that this demonstrates that harm was done. There have been many such studies in recent times with similar findings, not just in the U.S., but also in the Carribean and in Ghana.

However, what caused the kids to more often pick the white doll as the good one? I doubt that any of the kids had any explicit programming where, say, they read stories which explicitly teach the message that all black-skinned characters are bad. However, I think there are a myriad of other possible influences -- including examples from the media as well as personal experiences. Lacking a known cause, I think that possible influences should be seriously considered.

Regarding media examples, there is the issue of ubiquity. There is nothing wrong with having an individual villainous character of a given racial type -- be that African, Indian, Native American, Indigenous Australian, or whatever. However, if hypothetically in aggregate almost all the dark-skinned characters are evil and the light-skinned ones are good, then there are definite racial overtones. It could in principle be an insightful parody, a commentary, or other transformative work. But race would definitely be an issue.

Reactions to the Drow

So, the question is, is there an issue regarding fantasy races in general and the drow in particular? My general reaction to this was that writing in modern America, if you write a story in which you invent a people where the light-skinned ones are good and the black-skinned ones are evil, there are definite racial connotations. That doesn't mean I don't think that it should be done. I think that there are many interesting stories and scenarios that can be made using that as a premise about race.

eyebeams draws a more subtle distinction that the original drow (as seen in the first set of pictures) had no real-world racial associations, but that some later reworkings were problematic. As I mentioned earlier, he notes in particular later illustrations of the drow which had a real ethnic skin tone (as opposed to jet black) or gave them racist associations.

I'm inclined to see it as a change of degree rather than a sudden change in kind. Obviously, I do not feel that the drow inherently convey a message that real-world Africans are evil. However, it does add to a trend of dark skin being a signifier of evil. While they aren't always stereotypes of jungle savages, they were from the start the exotic Other lurking in the shadows behind the brutish giants, wielding unique weapons and lead by "strangely attractive" dark-skinned priestesses.

Suggestions

So what am I saying should be done? First of all, I am flatly opposed to any sort of censorship. I favor free expression -- which includes both artistic expression but also critical analysis of art. I think that we should continue to have games which produce creations like the drow, but we should also be able to talk about the racial connotations without people crying out about censorship.

There is a class of author who is willing to talk about the racial connotations of her work -- who will listen to criticism and not follow it blindly, but reflect on what it says about the content. I like authors to be like this.

If, say, I were running the D&D line at this point, I would not try to excise the drow from the product line -- but I would try to consciously introduce more dark-skinned, non-exoticized good characters and creatures. I was impressed by what I read about Jeff Grubb's "Guild Wars: Nightfall", for example.

However, there are also some authors who want to be "safe" from charges of racism. As soon as they hear there is discussion of the racial connotations of their work, they feel that they have failed, and try to deny any real-world connotations. If you genuinely feel this way, and don't want to engage or think about racial connotations -- then I would indeed recommend that you don't create a race where the distinguishing characteristic of the evil kind are their black skin.

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(Deleted comment)
From:vito_excalibur
Date:April 6th, 2007 02:44 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, this is good thinking.
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From:adamdray
Date:April 5th, 2007 06:42 pm (UTC)
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I have to admit that seeing the reaction to SotC's treatment of race and gender terrified me as a game designer. I'm a privileged white guy and I like to think I've overcome the race and gender biases of the communities in which I grew up, but I know I probably will make some stupid, unintentional blunder when I write my games. I do want to talk about these things and strive to be better, though. I worked pretty hard on race and gender when I worked with my artist to design my cover, for Verge but I'm not sure how well I succeeded. Will my game's examples come purely from the world I know best and thus alienate people with skin color and culture different from my own? I hope not.
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From:bar_sinister
Date:April 5th, 2007 07:04 pm (UTC)
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I'm pretty nervous about this, too, Adam. I am currently working on a game set entirely in a culture based on Native American cultures from the Southwestern US. I'm a privileged white guy, and I do worry how this is going to come across. I plan on writing about my intentions and efforts to avoid racism in the introduction, but a certain element of appropriation is present and can't be avoided.

I'm also embarrassed at this point regarding my treatment of race in my first published fantasy setting, too. I did a poor job there, and it's entirely due to ignorance.
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
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From:badgerbag
Date:April 6th, 2007 03:28 am (UTC)
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Yeah it does strike me that being a bit unnerved and having to think about it isn't such a bad fate. ;-) It's not like "up against the wall, the cultural revolution's here!" just, "here's a reaction, think about it next time"



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From:eyebeams
Date:April 6th, 2007 07:52 am (UTC)
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It looks neat, except that the logo and composition make it difficult to figure out that there's a knife fight going on up in the top right hand corner. Stylistically, I'd say that the cover is a bit too self-consciously anti-noir too, but that's just a personal preference regarding the genre.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 6th, 2007 01:02 am (UTC)
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His suggestion was that the original was devoid of any real-world racial connotations, but that some later illustrations of the drow gave them a real ethnic skin tone (as opposed to jet black) or gave them racist cultural associations, like Xen'Drik in Eberron. I know relatively little about the full history of drow illustrations and adventures, so I won't comment about the process of development.

Not quite. My suggestion was that Gary Gygax (et al) seemed to go out of his way to separate the drow from any suggestion of being African-like, but that this wasn't retained by successors. This is a response to a possible charge of unconscious racism or any racist intent. You certainly can't have the latter in the face of indications that he seems to have intentionally avoided it.

I think I should include some general statements here about race relations in general. Part of the controversy that seems to surround the race discussions seems to be different reactions. So, for example, I said that having a fictional people where the black-skinned ones are evil and the light-skinned ones are good has "racial connotations" -- this in turn was interpreted as a charge of blatant racism and a call for "blanket censorship" -- which in turn I misinterpreted.

Well, I still wonder. Saying, "Feel free to do X -- I encourage it! -- but if you do everyone ought look at you as if snakes are crawling out of your eye sockets," is part of how people form communities around specific positions. This is naturally something that excludes certain kinds of speech.

Basically John, if you're saying "I encourage you to write about drow but think there are troubling racial connotations no matter what, as far as I can tell," you really *are* engaged in that process. I do not object to that process. What I do think is that in this particular case, you've overstated the centrality of skin colour. Not only do I think that this is a bit picky, but it creates problems as well. It ignores the experience of a given identity. Hell, there's an instance of it over at the RPG Site, where Nisarg levelled an incredibly racist invective at Amado Guzman solely because he could "pass." If you make skin colour predominant it suggests condoning racism based on "passing," which is a complex problem of its own.

The problem is that while everyone agrees that the term "racism" is a bad thing, there is strong disagreement on the specifics of that. For example, eyebeams suggested that an important test regarding racism is whether the thing in question does identifiable harm as a concept. The problem is the question of what identifies harm.

I think it is important, but not the main thing. I was essentially repeating a point that came out of discussion with my wife (who's a person of colour and has a perspective I don't).
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 6th, 2007 01:14 am (UTC)
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Notably, he suggests that the drow are not problematic, but orcs are. He notes, "Stereotypical orcs closely resemble racist stereotypes about Africans: violence, strength, stupidity, fecundity, faux-tribal organization and even the need to be led. So it's the link to a real stereotype that's the thing." However, I'm not sure that matching stereotypes are the sole key to the issue here.

Again, the orcs thing is my wife's observation -- one she made without any prompting on my part to specifically describe a fantasy cliche she *did* thing had racist connotations, contrasted with dark elves, which she didn't think did.

As I said above, I think making skin too central has its own problems, and that yes, orcs are a bigger problem because their portrayals are more relevant, to the point where The Orcs of Thar specifically used orcs and goblin types as excuses to use multiple racial stereotypes, because they've been rendered down to a colonial ur-stereotype so effectively.

A hypothetical series which has blacks always as non-stereotypical villains seems equally problematic.

That's certainly true, but I think this is where drow were designed to be not-ethnic black to prevent this. You raise an excellent point, however, by pointing out that a lack of diversity on the part of the good guys contributes to this problem. If you had drow fighting African-looking good guys, would the problem still be there? I don't think so.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 6th, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
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So, the question is, is there an issue regarding fantasy races in general and the drow in particular? My general reaction to this was that writing in modern America, if you write a story in which you invent a people where the light-skinned ones are good and the black-skinned ones are evil, there are definite racial connotations. That doesn't mean I don't think that it should be done. I think that there are many interesting stories and scenarios that can be made using that as a premise about race.

Sure there are racial connotations. I mean, you have two different groups with different physical features. You can't not have it. But "connotations" are not prescriptive; you have to be more specific. Can it be interpreted as racist? Yes. Can it be interpreted as racist by a reasonable, informed audience? I'm not so sure about that, but maybe yes, since creatives actually let the concept degenerate. Do creators have an obligation to people outside of the informed audience? Maybe. Sort of.

eyebeams draws a more subtle distinction that the original drow (as seen in the first set of pictures) had no real-world racial associations, but that some later reworkings were problematic. As I mentioned earlier, he notes in particular later illustrations of the drow which had a real ethnic skin tone (as opposed to jet black) or gave them racist associations.

I'm inclined to see it as a change of degree rather than a sudden change in kind. Obviously, I do not feel that the drow inherently convey a message that real-world Africans are evil. However, it does add to a trend of dark skin being a signifier of evil. While they aren't always stereotypes of jungle savages, they were from the start the exotic Other lurking in the shadows behind the brutish giants, wielding unique weapons and lead by "strangely attractive" dark-skinned priestesses.

I think this is a bit of a stretch. Drow priestesses are attractive because of sexism first and foremost. Secondly, it's in the nature of obective evil in fantasy to be an Other -- if it's a problem for drow, it's a problem way bigger than drow.

Dark *skin* a signifier of evil? Maybe. But the point of drow was to turn fear of the dark (as in lack of illumination) into an bad guy in a game. There was a previously extant mythology that fit the bill, that predates our contemporary concept of race entirely.

So from that perspective, I think it's not accurate or fair to characterize this as a point on a continuum or a "matter of degree" that ends in the most offensive images and has stereotypical orcs somewhere in the middle. Their origins are easily traceable to somewhere outside of it in terms of intent, and there is some (weak) evidence that they are not perceived as part of this continuum.

But the point is -- of this combined construction evokes racial connotations despite its considered origins, how far does the author's responsibility extend? The answer isn't "nowhere," but it doesn't extend to every possible interpretation, either. Authors are only *so* responsible. They aren't responsible for every deconstruction but they do bear responsibility for some of them. So don't put me in the camp of authors who want to be free from examining the connotations of their work.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 6th, 2007 01:54 am (UTC)
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So what am I saying should be done? First of all, I am flatly opposed to any sort of censorship. I favor free expression -- which includes both artistic expression but also critical analysis of art. I think that we should continue to have games which produce creations like the drow, but we should also be able to talk about the racial connotations without people crying out about censorship.

I didn't use "censorship" in the sense of something interfering with the rights given you by your nation-state or anything. I'm talking about Millsian forms of discourse where just because we accept that anybody can say anything, doesn't mean we also accept than anything and everything is a good idea. And I urge you not to further milk this business for sentiment when I have made it clear what I meant when I used that word.

If, say, I were running the D&D line at this point, I would not try to excise the drow from the product line -- but I would try to consciously introduce more dark-skinned, non-exoticized good characters and creatures. I was impressed by what I read about Jeff Grubb's "Guild Wars: Nightfall", for example.

I think this is excellent, and really, a big part of the problem with what happened to drow over time.

However, there are also some authors who want to be "safe" from charges of racism. As soon as they hear there is discussion of the racial connotations of their work, they feel that they have failed, and try to deny any real-world connotations. If you genuinely feel this way, and don't want to engage or think about racial connotations -- then I would indeed recommend that you don't create a race where the distinguishing characteristic of the evil kind are their black skin.

I'm going to ignore the backhanded comment implicit here and move on to the other parts. First of all, while an author is responsible for some racial connotations, deconstruction works both ways -- it also says something about the audience. If a writer makes her intentions known through the work, but the cultural context seems to interfere with that so such an extent that this obscures what she was trying to say, this really starts being about the audience and culture, with the work as an exemplary locus. And indeed, it looks like this is what happened to the drow. It looks like contemporary American issues with race were powerful enough to trump what it looks like Gary Gygax was going for, even when it appears that he took at least some precautions.

And the fact is that dark elves *work*. They're one of gaming's compelling additions to mass market fantasy and as a signifier, their skin tone is a very large part of it. Perhaps they work because they're suggestive of racism, but I doubt it. I think it's more likely that they work as a construction of the Other that stands apart from the stereotyped continuum of race.

What you have to ask yourself is whether or not your suggestion, if followed back in the 70s, would have been followed in such a way as to create anything as compelling, and if not, whether this loss of expression was a reasonable price to pay in order to avoid being embarrassed by cosplayers and assorted idiots 30 years down the road. Maybe, maybe not -- but the stakes are so marginal that I can't see your guideline is a reasonable one, especially when there are more nuanced suggestions to be made.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 6th, 2007 08:52 am (UTC)
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Regarding how dark elves work. Yes, dark elves are popular and compelling within the community of D&D players (i.e. generally white, suburban 15-35 year-olds). I don't think that is evidence one way or the other regarding their racial connotations. After all, orcs are popular as well -- and you cited them as matching harmful African stereotypes. Similarly, there are many other things which are popular but still problematic, from chainmail bikinis and so forth.

As for your ending question, I've posted separately about that as a new LJ entry, "What I Would Do With the Drow".
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 6th, 2007 11:07 am (UTC)
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John, I think it's obvious that the difference is that people want to *be* drow far more than they want to be orcs. Being an orc is a side trip in D&D and is only now a mainstream character choice -- and that's partly by doing the Noble Savage inversion. What stereotype are players of good drow inverting into another?

People have wanted to be them for ages too -- long before Drizz't -- and not in the comic relief form of early D&D orcs.

Part of it, John, is that I get the feeling you're doing this 85% vague thing to avoid being pinned down. You're not defining what "connotation" is, exactly. Sure there are racial connotations. But a prescription for action requires more than a vague mental association, and I'd like you to assert that association instead of merely alluding to it.

In part, the drow *are* a design that's playing with something dangerous, but that's not enough to say anything one way or another. Basically, I think we agree on an ethos, but not necessarily on this *specific* case.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 6th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC)
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Well, I think I did provide a clear prescription in the following post. If you have any questions about that, or still feel that it isn't specific, you should follow up there.

However, I don't believe that a prescription is needed in order to comment. Any reviewer can be attacked by saying something like "You didn't like X? Well, what would you write?" -- with the implication that any negative criticism amounts to censoring the whole and replacing it with nothing. As a reviewer of the drow, I think it would be reasonable to point out racial connotations of them even if I didn't provide a prescription for exactly what should be done.

I am not a reductionist -- meaning here that I do not think that a fantasy can be reduced to a simple X=Y, like "Orcs=Africans". I have made a number of comments on the connotations of the drow, but you seem to be dismissing anything except for either "drow=Africans" or "drow are abstract symbols of darkness". While you acknowledge that in principle there can be racial connotations other than simple substitution, in response to anything I say, you point out some visible differences between drow and African stereotypes as if that denies what I said.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 7th, 2007 06:04 am (UTC)
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Well, I think I did provide a clear prescription in the following post. If you have any questions about that, or still feel that it isn't specific, you should follow up there.

However, I don't believe that a prescription is needed in order to comment. Any reviewer can be attacked by saying something like "You didn't like X? Well, what would you write?" -- with the implication that any negative criticism amounts to censoring the whole and replacing it with nothing. As a reviewer of the drow, I think it would be reasonable to point out racial connotations of them even if I didn't provide a prescription for exactly what should be done.


I'm talking about how strong the justification is. A general "connotation" isn't as good a reason as a specific case. I'm asking you what you feel the process is which leads to problems and whether that process -- or those problems -- justify solutions like your example.

I am not a reductionist -- meaning here that I do not think that a fantasy can be reduced to a simple X=Y, like "Orcs=Africans". I have made a number of comments on the connotations of the drow, but you seem to be dismissing anything except for either "drow=Africans" or "drow are abstract symbols of darkness". While you acknowledge that in principle there can be racial connotations other than simple substitution, in response to anything I say, you point out some visible differences between drow and African stereotypes as if that denies what I said

The problem is that this "reductionism" actually matters, John. It's not a trivial factoid, and the actual details about drow are not trivial factoids either. In the case of orcs, there's a clear process that moves from representation to discrimination and easily defined reasons why. There is a substantial body of discussion about how orcs are a problem that leads from source texts.

This is not trivial details in the service of denial. In each case, it's the substance of the text. You do me a disservice by suggesting I'm appealing to the idea of "simple substitution" or wholly denying the existence of an issue -- but neither are you willing to present cases and argue for them being representative to a trend. I think those cases exist and certainly, there's a trend at least in game development that's problematic, but I'm not sure that it's a *strong* trend that isn't already answered by some of the material.

My concern is that this has become so intellectual and theoretical vis a vis its subject matter that it's being divorced from what you call "simple substitution" -- and I call noncontroversial problems that need to be addressed.

Denial? Hardly.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 7th, 2007 03:12 pm (UTC)
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Honestly, I can't tell what you want here. You asked for a prescription of what I would do -- I think I answered that in detail in my following post. Now what are you looking for?

I am not dismissing possible problem of orcs, and I'd be glad to talk about the problems of them as well. The reason why I posted more about drow was not because I felt that they were a prime example, but rather in response to people's comments about my April 2nd post (where I only mentioned them in passing).

In turn, I would ask: can you say more about the problems with orcs? For example, you claim that they match stereotypes of Africans, but from what I have read, they were loosely based on the Mongols as Eastern invaders of Europe. Given this, what harm do you feel they do? Are they a part of any trend(s)?
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From:badgerbag
Date:April 6th, 2007 03:15 am (UTC)
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Somewhat tangential, but I can't read about blackface without thinking of the excellent flowchart: Should I use blackface on my blog? by Gary of ebogjonson.

Not directly related to the drow fans, but good to read and think about. Also... hilarious.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 4th, 2008 05:11 am (UTC)

dark elves = rascist ? answer=NO

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i dont believe that dark elves having black skin is rascist toward the black peoples. having black skin was a way to distinguish them from there fair skinned counterparts. for one thing, it better suited there dark, underground envioroment. having black skin did not make them inferior then other races, it just made them more unique. the fact that the drow are a gennerally evil race has nothing to do with the color of there skin - it was the choices they made as a society and by the individuals ofthe drow people.
[User Picture]
From:jhkimrpg
Date:May 5th, 2008 05:44 pm (UTC)

Re: dark elves = rascist ? answer=NO

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I didn't say that dark elves were inherently racist against black people. They do inherently have racial themes, though, which can be anti-racist or racist or various mixes. Particularly in the U.S., if you write fiction where you have a race where the black-skinned of a race are generally evil while the light-skinned are good, it is going to have racial themes.

Really, I don't see how the fictional device regarding black-skinned elves changes things. i.e. I could say that it is a curse that made the drow both evil and black-skinned, is that any more or less racist than saying that their evil is due to the choices they made as a society? I think in both cases, it depends on how it is handled.

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