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How can I make a racially separated world that isn't racist?

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
First question: How are you treating different groups of humans?

If you're looking for a reason to push different races into isolation.... well, there's always the zombie apocalypse. The demon invasion. The great insect revolution. That is, fill the space between them with monsters, and give the elves a touch of magic bugspray that repels them from their trade caravans.

But also, you could think about toning it down a little. Even if elves are the only traders plenty of people would still want to travel with them.

Finally, forget about the backdrop for a second. The real messages in your book are focused on you main characters and your antagonist. What is your story here? And how does all the isolationism play into it?
 

MrNybble

Sage
Let me take a broad pen stroke to this topic for a second. I'm thinking this is all about avoiding racism. Prejudice against a particular race is just the tip of the iceberg. People and even animals will hate things based on any reason the doesn't make logical sense. Makes for the challenge in life based on stuff we can't completely understand. Fear of the unknown can manifest in many ways.
Granted a fantasy world can have or not have whatever the writer wants. If the world has people holding hands and singing songs with no poverty, disease, conflict, or death, I'm sure it would be a boring read. Things easy to relate to are not always going to be things people want to hear. Just include what you need to tell the story no matter what could offend others. Removing possible conflict can be considered offensive to people that deal with said conflict.
 

Aldarion

Inkling
>some people accused university of racism because ceramic tiles in toilet were white. Oh, the horror!).
Aldarion do you have a source for this? A quick search on my part yielded nothing.

It was mentioned in a video I watched a while ago, but I do not recall the name of the video. I only remembered that little tidbit because it is, frankly, hilarious. I did find similar cases, though not the one I was thinking of.

But my point was that anything can be racist if somebody wants it to be racist. And somebody will always want it to be racist because... reasons. Some people just like to complain and see issues where there are none. So I'd say that attempting to eliminate any potential causes for complaint from a work is an exercise in futility. The only thing that can be done is to make world consistent a) internally and b) logically. And if somebody choses to ignore logic, that is their problem.

Let me take a broad pen stroke to this topic for a second. I'm thinking this is all about avoiding racism. Prejudice against a particular race is just the tip of the iceberg. People and even animals will hate things based on any reason the doesn't make logical sense. Makes for the challenge in life based on stuff we can't completely understand. Fear of the unknown can manifest in many ways.
Granted a fantasy world can have or not have whatever the writer wants. If the world has people holding hands and singing songs with no poverty, disease, conflict, or death, I'm sure it would be a boring read. Things easy to relate to are not always going to be things people want to hear. Just include what you need to tell the story no matter what could offend others. Removing possible conflict can be considered offensive to people that deal with said conflict.

Indeed. In fact, various degrees of what would, today, be considered "racism", were quite usual in premodern societies. Avoiding that, and trying to portray such societies as less racist than they were, is a) incorrect, b) illogical and c) insults intelligence of the readers.
 
First question: How are you treating different groups of humans?

If you're looking for a reason to push different races into isolation.... well, there's always the zombie apocalypse. The demon invasion. The great insect revolution. That is, fill the space between them with monsters, and give the elves a touch of magic bugspray that repels them from their trade caravans.

But also, you could think about toning it down a little. Even if elves are the only traders plenty of people would still want to travel with them.

Finally, forget about the backdrop for a second. The real messages in your book are focused on you main characters and your antagonist. What is your story here? And how does all the isolationism play into it?

In my story the main characters and the antagonist are both Elves, the MC is the Wood Elf High King and the antagonist is his younger brother who wants the crown for himself. Since the Elves are the traders there are scenes where they are trading with the other races, taking place in the background. The isolation doesn't really play that big of a part in the story other than to be an excuse for the elves to be the main traders, I just thought it would be an interesting world... quirk?...I know there's a better word for it but I can't think of it right now. But there is actually very little prejudice against the other races, so I could tone it down a bit.

I know several people (MrNybble, WooHooMan, Miles Lacey, K.S. Crook (I apologize if I missed anyone)) suggested geographical difficulties and I'm pretty sure someone suggested not being able to communicate and I really liked those ideas, I have something similar to the geography problem because my elves cannot leave their homelands without suffering from side effects but if I extend it to the other races... I'll work on it.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Also, they don't really need to be isolated unless you want them to be. Trade happens pretty much everywhere, and there's no reason why elves can't be trading in and among humans, dwarves, etc. You can separate them the way Tolkien did, by having them living in different kinds of geography, but still coming into contact with each other as often or rarely as you need. With as much friendliness or hostility, as well.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
The isolation doesn't really play that big of a part in the story other than to be an excuse for the elves to be the main traders, I just thought it would be an interesting world... quirk?

Ohh.

Then forget the isolation and just give the elves a competitive advantage in travel. If cunning elven naturalism can get their horses to move a little faster, or craft carts that distribute the weight better, that's almost all it takes. Running a trade route a few days quicker than everyone else lets you undercut your prices and dominate the market for long distance trade.
 

megamoo

Dreamer
Don't want to hijack the thread but its sort of relevant.

I have a similar problem with my current work in progress. In the first rough draft I wrote a character who is a big muscly mute from a far away country. I hadn't done any further worldbuilding at that time. I didn't say he was a different race specifically, but just from another country, I just didn't think about it. Then reading it back I realized I'd written the classic `other` character, exotic and different of skin tone. I've since rewritten it to work with the history. Thousands of years ago there was a plague of man eating dragons that swept across the world. Humans had to retreat into caves to survive. When the dragon threat was over, some people decided to stay in the caves and live there. This character is exceptionally pale skinned because he comes from this race of people who live underground, out of the sun. So now I worry that my story will still be deemed racist. Anyone could point out that this character fulfills the old token black character role but he's been made white to avoid an obvious accusation of racism. Which is technically true but I'm not trying to make a racial statement, I'm just trying to avoid being accused of making a racial statement. I don't know what extent of changes need to be made. My story doesn't set out to address racism, but ignoring race doesn't seem to be an option.

My point is that someone will always find something objectionable in your writing because we all have unconscious ingrained biases that don't gel with everyone elses. Beta readers will say if a story really stinks.
 

MauEvig

Scribe
Not only barriers, but it's possible dangerous creatures lurk in the woods that keep people behind large walls and fortresses. Only the bravest of adventurers would dare go out. I see someone else suggested that as well, and I think that would be a good idea. Monsters are usually a good reason not to venture out.
Elves likely have powerful enough magic to deal with the dangers.
Racism doesn't even have to be an issue. Geological structures like mountains, and other regional barriers are possible. Combine that with dangerous creatures, or enchanted forests and you're not exactly wanting to step foot out of your comfort zone easily.
Harsh weather patterns like hurricanes, snow storms, or even "mage/magic storms" could be other reasons why people don't go out. You could even include it in the lore perhaps. Perhaps a great war erupted all sorts of cursed creatures and weather patterns.
 

J.W. Golan

Scribe
My friend said that Adara was racist because she felt that since the races didn't mingle they were judging the other races that they heard of by race or by common ideas instead of as a person.

So, your novel has races, they don’t ordinarily mingle, and they judge each other based upon where they are respectively from. So? So what? That’s the reality of human history. Why is that in itself a problem?

Xenophobia has been a part of human societies since the dawn of civilization. You didn’t create it, and it has less to do about “race” than a more general fear of outsiders. Remember that the term “barbarian” originated from the ancient Greeks, to refer to “those who go ‘baa, baa’ like the animals” (anyone who was non-Greek). The term had nothing to do with skin color - and had everything to do with being an outsider.

In Tolkien’s mythology, for example, the elves and dwarves disliked and distrusted each other. Was that racism? Sure it was. Yet that didn’t make Tolkien’s literature racist.

We all need to distinguish between a fantasy world that has racism, and a story that is racist. The two are not the same. Describing a fantasy world in which different races or civilizations dislike or distrust each other does not make a book racist. It makes it true-to-life.
Having a fantasy world in which one race is inherently good and without blemish, while another is inherently despicable and untrustworthy, on the other hand, might be considered as racist - depending on how it’s executed. Although somewhat less evident in the Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s elves were not without their flaws or abhorrent characters - as the Silmarillion made evident. Nor were the dwarves inherently greedy or untrustworthy. Other than the orcs and trolls, none of the races could be described as purely good or bad.

So if your fantasy world has some societies with xenophobic elements - so what? That’s reality. How you handle those real-world tendencies as an author is far more telling.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>Why is that in itself a problem?
It's a problem because one of the OP's readers said it was a problem. There has been varying advice given here, including to get feedback from more than one person, which is presumably why the OP posted in the first place.

We may not agree with our readers. We may even decide to ignore our readers. And our readers are free to ignore authors!
 
If it was one comment best to ignore it. Recently i got feedback on a short story with the person telling me to speed up events and then another reader told me i should of slowed down the pace of my story. Now if you keep getting the same feedback then you could choose to make a choice. But for now i wouldn't stress about it.
 
I knew this writer a couple years ago who got a publishing deal for a YA fantasy book, one which featured different races. ARC copies went out to readers for review, and one day she woke up to see that they smeared her poor book all over the internet. According to one blogger, the antagonistic race too closely resembled Native Americans, simply because their skin was a bit darker and their hair was black or something to that extent. Before the book was even released, dozens of people who hadn't even read it gave it one star reviews on Amazon and called it racist.

I knew this girl and her husband, and they were the furthest thing from racist. She cried so much and got called so many horrid things. Ultimately, the publisher was forced to push back the release date, destroy thousands of copies, and have her rewrite certain things. It was a fiasco. All because someone got offended by something that wasn't really there. The publisher lost money, and her book will go on to be remembered for its controversy rather than its quality.

Where I'm going with this is that cancel culture is a thing now, and people are going to look for issues to validate their own opinions. Write what you want to write so long as it doesn't overtly offend.

What I would like to know is what your friend specifically finds racist. That the elves live above and command respect or travel more? Well, as you stated, there are drows who dwell below too. Races in fantasy AND real life live segregated in the most part because of culture and region. There's nothing wrong with that. It is how humanity evolved in their respective continents. I'll have to echo Aldarion's sentiment and say that your friend is looking for things that aren't there.

I wish your freind's publisher had stood by her instead of giveing into petty bullying and published the book at its regular date. That's not an actual review its slander, though i have to ask did the controversity get more people to pick up her book? Sometimes bad press can be a good thing JK rowling's book became sucessful becuse of the large smear campaign aginst it. Also is her book still up on Amazon i'd love to check it out and her an actual review based on plot, characters ect...........
 
So, your novel has races, they don’t ordinarily mingle, and they judge each other based upon where they are respectively from. So? So what? That’s the reality of human history. Why is that in itself a problem?

Xenophobia has been a part of human societies since the dawn of civilization. You didn’t create it, and it has less to do about “race” than a more general fear of outsiders. Remember that the term “barbarian” originated from the ancient Greeks, to refer to “those who go ‘baa, baa’ like the animals” (anyone who was non-Greek). The term had nothing to do with skin color - and had everything to do with being an outsider.

In Tolkien’s mythology, for example, the elves and dwarves disliked and distrusted each other. Was that racism? Sure it was. Yet that didn’t make Tolkien’s literature racist.
Totally agree with most of this, with one exception - which I'll get to.

If the OP's friend thinks a story is racist simply because the world has different races who keep to themselves...the OP should simply thank the friend for their input and never bother asking again. Racism only happens when people make judgments or take action on the basis of race.

And is that always a bad thing? In a book?

My first published novel was (among other things) a strongly anti-racism story. In order to achieve that subtext, I had to have some racists saying and doing racist things. Does that make me or my story racist? I defy anyone to read the book and say: yes.

Would it be possible to set any story in holocaust Europe without anti-Semitism?

It really does my head in sometimes the way people want to sanitise the energy, life and passion out of literature with their do-gooding agendas. Such people will never be writers.

Now, back to my point of disagreement above. I suspect that few people at the time of publication would have regarded Tolkien's literature as racist, but writers can't help but reflect the values and unconscious prejudices of their time/culture, and subsequent readers from times with different values will inevitably judge them. I was always uncomfortable with the fact that in LOTR, everything good was white and everything bad was black. Was that unconscious racism? Or even thinly disguised conscious racism?

I suspect it may well have been but that doesn't detract from the genius of the work, as perceived by we entirely non-racist commentators of the C21.
 

AlexK2009

Dreamer
First, as people have pointed out, the word "racism" is so widely abused it has, like capitalism or communism or socialism become almost meaningless. Since the concept of race is meaningless "Xenophobia" is more more accurate but many very vocal people who are "anti-racist" either cannot pronounce the world or would not want to use it because it is a Greek world and using it would be cultural appropriation.

Secondly, the Old Testament is totally racist. The commandment "thou shall not kill" was really "thou shall not kill a fellow jew", and recall the command to the Jews that after defeating an enemy they should kill all the men and take all the women for themselves.
(If anyone wants to call me anti semitic for pointing out this - GO.TO.SHEOL. Laws in any culture did not as a rule protect "outsiders")

Now back to your story.

Ask your reader for passages that back up their statements.

How are people who travel accepted in their new communities of they settle down, or if they just stay a while then move on?

Why not make it clearer that judgment is based on hearsay "I hear that they xxxx, but others say..."
 

James Wilson

Dreamer
Xenophobia and tribalism is the normal and natural state of humanity. It has to be overcome, and can be. Racism has to be taught. People used to be just as prejudiced against the next village as any racist is today against a vast number of people who run the gamut from good to evil. Race has to be created for racism to be believed, and the first racists were also scientists trying to reduce us all into discrete classes, aka races. So what is the origin of your races? Geographic isolation is good, as several others have mentioned. But how did they come to think of themselves as a race or people? We use the term in fantasy for human-like species, rather than races in the human sense, so using the word ‘tribe’ or ‘nation’ might work just as well. Why use race? It’s just a dumb convention from D&D and it is not a requirement for understanding. It’s such a uselessly loaded term today we might as well abandon it. ‘Racist’ has been so overused against people who don’t deserve it that it’s close to losing all meaning.

So don’t sweat it too much. Those who want to be offended are going to be offended. They’re prowling the internet now, looking for another source of outrage to fuel their addiction. You can be their victim without doing or saying anything wrong. So why worry?
 
I would mostly agree with JW but add the rider that while xenophobia is a natural state of humankind, it also has its obverse which is brotherhood (or whatever the gender neutral term might be). Strangers can become insiders/friends and be loved with the same passion as outsiders are (often) feared and hated.

Kinda...
 

James Wilson

Dreamer
I would mostly agree with JW but add the rider that while xenophobia is a natural state of humankind, it also has its obverse which is brotherhood (or whatever the gender neutral term might be). Strangers can become insiders/friends and be loved with the same passion as outsiders are (often) feared and hated.

Kinda...

I agree completely, but it has to be learned. It’s no easy matter to overcome the prejudice one absorbs with mother’s milk. It’s one reason I love a particular scene in ‘Rosewood’. The boy whose dad made him watch them throwing bodies into a pit is running away and when his dad objects that it’s the way of the world he says ‘you’re no kind of man!’ I admire that kind of courage, to choose good when you’ve been taught an evil tradition. No easy thing to do. It’s easy to go along, get along, be part of the crowd, and standing up is painful and dangerous. Otherwise ‘Rosewood’ is a grim watch. I wish it never happened.
 
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