To put it succinctly, there's a bit of racial/cultural/national tension in my book. It springs from a centuries-old conflict (i.e. backstory) with the Beorgians and Elyssians on one side and the Mavarians and Mako on the other. (Although the Beorgians and Elyssians sometimes have trouble getting along also due to philosophical differences.)
If you wish to understand the roots of this conflict better as well as see a map for visual aid, open the spoiler tags.
Spoiler for Backstory and Map:
So as it stands, there is animosity between the "southern" nations and the "northern" nations. The conflict is most heated between the Beorgians and the Mavarians. So I thought that in order to make the tension between them a bit more believable, they should have insults and unpleasant epithets for one another. Here's where things get dicy.
Mavarians sometimes refer to Beorgians as "water rats", because they are a nation heavily invested in seafaring and many of their most important deities are associated with water. The Beorgians and Elyssians have some fairly obvious insults for the Mavarians too, like "savages", "barbarians," "infidels", etc., because their country is less industrialized. But if you notice the location of Mavaria on my map, the country is largely desert, with some savannah and scrubland in the south end. So it stands to reason that the people who live there will be (for the most part anyway) dark-skinned. Whereast the people to the north and east of them will be lighter skinned. I modeled Mavarians on the people of northern Africa and Sudan, while I modeled Beorgians on Russians and the Elyssians largely on Romans/Italians.
This presents a question. Given the fact that Mavarians are dark-skinned and are considered to be evil barbarian-wizards by the Beorgians and Elyssians, and given the common asssociation of darkness with evil, would it not also be logical that the Beorgians and Elyssians would also have distasteful epithets for the Mavarians that reference their skin color? I came up with a few, trying to stay as far away from real-world insults as possible: "dusk witches", "black devils", "burnt men". Likewise, I'm considering giving the Mavarians racial epithets for their enemies such as "sickly ones", "chalk men", and "alabastards". Ok, that last one might be a little too comedic in tone, but you get my point.
But my interest goes beyond having a believable enmity between my nations. I also have an ulterior motive. The Hunger Games controversy. The books flew under my radar for the longest time, but the trailer for the movie has gained them a spot on my to-read list. However, a brief tour of the internet informed me that "fans" of the books were...unhappy (an understatement) that certain characters from the book were portrayed as people of color- even though they were explicitly stated to be such within the novel. How "fans" of the book could miss a detail like that eludes me, and the last thing I want is for my POC characters to be mistaken for or misrepresented as Caucasians*. The Hunger Games issue leads me to believe that description may not be enough to prevent this. The use of (invented) racial epithets by my characters, particularly villains, might serve as a method of reminding the readers in a fairly non-intrusive manner that not all of my characters are white. But there's also that fine line you tread of not wanting to offend people who resemble either side**.
Can I get away with this? Given the context, would you guys advise for or against it?
Of course, all of this takes for granted the admittedly vain assumption that my book will be widely read enough for this to matter at all, but I'm giving myself the benefit of the doubt.
*Take a moment to compare the Earthsea books with the (terrible) Earthsea miniseries. There's a rather obvious difference. Also compare the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon with the (again, terrible) movie.
**I'm black btw. Not sure how relevant that is.