Essentialism

I’ve touched on this in recent posts, but I want to explain what I mean by ‘essentialism’ as an approach to race. It is a very dated idea that I think most people now understand doesn’t reflect the real world, but it was prevalent in the British Empire (and other colonial societies), baked into the Middle-Earth works of JRR Tolkien and inherited from them by Dungeons & Dragons and many of its successors in the fantasy game and adventure story genre.

The principal tenet of essentialism is just that people of different races are inherently different, and people of the same race are inherently similar. This is supposed to apply to a great range of physical and psychological features, including:

Sizes, shapes, appearances. Although all the Tolkienesque fantasy races look human-like and can be played by human actors (with a little help from make-up, prosthetics and camera work) they are made physically distinctive. They may have features like pointed ears or protruding tusks that are not found on humans, or they may as a race differ dramatically from most humans in a variable like height or skin colour. There is considerable authorial effort to make it true in the fiction (unlike in real life) that you can reliably tell a person’s race just by looking at them.

Lifespans. Tolkien’s elves do not suffer from physical old age or a biological limit to lifespan, whereas his ordinary humans seem to have ordinary lifespans. DnD does not go to quite such an extreme, but the ADnD first edition had elves that could live over 2000 years, and even the more moderate 5th edition has them live up to 750. Other favoured races also live longer than humans, whereas a few, such as half-orcs and dragonborn have shorter lifespan limits.

Capabilities. Tolkien was fond of giving different races different capabilities. Some, like the elves, were good at most things. Some, like dwarves with their work in hard materials, halflings with their stealth and farm produce, and orcs with their infernal engines had unusual skill in limited areas.

Dungeons & Dragons follows the specialism model with certain races naturally having ability in certain skills that other races must learn, or even being able to do things that within the rules other races cannot. It also uses ability score adjustments to make certain races tend to be better or worse in certain areas. These include physical differences that correspond to some extent to size and physique (which, as we have noted, can vary dramatically between races) and also mental differences, with some races having bonuses to Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma and others having penalties. (The most recent 5th edition has reduced the use of ability penalties, but still in some books gave penalties to Intelligence etc. for certain races. In any case, if some races have bonuses then those without bonuses are worse in comparison.)

Social and cultural features. Tolkien created and named several languages and assigned most of them primarily to a race (with major races like Elves and Men getting more than one language each, and minor races like Hobbits speaking a language learned from a nearby major race). Dungeons and Dragons in the core rulebooks tends to be more essentialist still about race and language, having most races speak a single racial tongue, named after the race that speaks it. There are also racial differences in other cultural factors like clothing, preferred landscape, buildings and settlement types, food and drink, music, military technology and techniques, etc. etc.  

Characters and moralities. Tolkien, to be fair, is not the worst offender here. His Free Peoples (elves, dwarves, men, hobbits and a few others) showed a range of characters and could make their own moral choices for good or otherwise. There was a tendency in The Lord of the Rings for elves to be wise and good, but the wider Middle-Earth corpus shows them making plenty of bad choices. His other races (orcs, goblins and suchlike) are evidently not free, and their evil actions can be explained by their servitude to an evil master (though their universal servitude to a single master is itself an essentialist choice).

In Dungeons & Dragons, on the other hand, the rulebooks tend to give pretty heavy steers as to the personality types and moral tendencies of the different races. Most are given a tendency to one or more of the game’s ‘alignments’: good, evil, law and chaos. All are given typical personality notes. Races that are not playable in the core rules but appear in the Monster Manual are given specific alignments as default settings (often evil alignments).

Attitudes to each other as races. Tolkien created some character dynamics by having a race-based mistrust between some of his central characters, who were required to work together in The Lord of the Rings. These were partly explained in the story by a history of deteriorating relations between the communities they belonged to. They were also part of a strong theme in the book that co-operation and mutual support were breaking down between the peoples of Middle-Earth, much to their detriment and to the advantage of the forces of evil. Tolkien’s authorial viewpoint was clear: that (although he seemed to accept that race-based attitudes were common) peoples should appreciate each other for their differences as well as similarities, and work together for the common good.

In DnD, by contrast, it is presented as entirely normal to judge others by their race, and for each race to have their own pattern of judgements. For example, in the Player’s Handbook, the following words are put into the mouth of a dwarf to guide players in how to characterise them: “It’s not wise to depend on the elves… They’re flighty and frivolous. Two things to be said for them, though… no doubt they hate the orcs as much as we do.” There are many other examples.

Innate origin of cultural features

In order to present these similarities and differences as inherent characteristics of each race, the relationships of culture and biology to each other and to individual characteristics and capabilities are blurred and over-simplified, often to the point of ignoring them completely and treating learned or trained characteristics and capabilities (or the lack thereof) as inherent racial features.

For example, the half-orc description in the 5e PHB is clear on the inherited nature of personality and morals, describing the contrasting roles of orcish and human ancestry: “though their human blood moderates the impact of their orcish heritage. Some half-orcs hear the whispers of [the orc god] in their dreams, calling them to unleash the rage that simmers within them… evil does lurk within them, whether they embrace it or rebel against it.”

Racialised world building

Having made races inherently and fundamentally different, it seems obvious to use them as primary units around which to develop the rest of the world. This leads to race-based distinctions taking the lead in developing many aspects of the setting, and to other aspects of the world design serving the need to maintain the distinction between races in the face of dynamics that would logically lead to their blurring.

Racial homelands. Races live apart in their own territories. Or at least each area can be characterised as belonging to a certain race, even if there are individuals of other races living there. In regions of mixed population, each race may live in separate settlements.

Limited interbreeding. Individuals of different races having children together is rare or exceptional, and problematic (especially in Tolkien, who has just three great and tragic cases of love between Men and Elf-ladies, and makes clear how wrong it is of Sauron to interbreed Men and Orcs). There is more hybridization in DnD, but it is still limited and mistrusted, with half-elves ‘walking in two worlds, but truly belonging to neither’ and half-orcs aspiring to ‘grudging acceptance’. ‘Half-elves’ and ‘half-orcs’ are themselves examples of the kind of typology that world-builders (echoing real-world race theorists of the colonial era) deploy to enable an essentialist approach to be taken even to people of evident multiple heritage.

Separate origins. For example, the setting history may have each race created by a different god, or arising from some fantastical transformation applied to members of a predecessor race.

Races as actors in the drama. Races (often with the exception of humans) tend to act as units in competition and conflict, or in co-operation and diplomacy. There is often warfare, hostility or rivalry between different racial communities and, when establishing a scenario of inter-group conflict, many game products find it sufficient to identify the different factions simply with racial labels. Inter-racial conflicts may be a primary driver of an adventure’s plot. Conversely, those of the same race are typically written as allies and comrades. A shared racial identity is often assumed to be enough to get people to work together even if they have just met.

Racist world building

If races are fundamentally different from each other and can be different in unlimited ways, then they can differ in ways that make some better than others. We can observe the tendency, in both Tolkien’s work and (at least historically) in DnD, to conceive of some races as generally superior and some inferior. Tolkien made his Elves just below the angels, greatest in magic, culture and other accomplishments. They did not grow old and might live as long as the world. They (originally at least) dwelt in an earthly paradise with the godlike Valar. They were superhuman in their senses and their endurance of the elements, and they could do miraculous things like walk on top of deep snow without sinking in. They were also frequently described as good-hearted and noble in motivation. Next to the Elves were Dwarves and Men, with certain nations of those races being more accomplished or noble than others—perhaps because they had contact with Elves and learned from them, and in other cases seemingly from natural tendencies. Races made by evil creators, such as the Orcs, were throughout the canon debased and brutal.

Dungeons and Dragons does not have quite so many layers in its racial hierarchy, but it has still not moved entirely away from the Tolkien model. There has been a persistent distinction between good races and monstrous races. The good races include most humans as well as a certain set of others like dwarves, elves and halflings sometimes referred to as demihumans, and altogether have also been called the civilized races. The grouping corresponds to Tolkien’s Free Peoples. These races in DnD are generally stated to tend towards moral goodness, and have rarely been given any penalties to mental characteristics. They are also often described and depicted as physically attractive or at least acceptable in appearance and are generally less affected by age than humans. The main members of this grouping are always offered as playable races in the core rules. The official published settings also generally place them in civilised societies with productive economies, and make them the wielders and creators of much of the worlds’ magic.

In contrast, a group of monstrous races (also labelled humanoids, savage humanoids, evil races) are generally placed in ‘tribal’ societies, often made to be parasitic and violent raiders, or ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherers, and often participating in tropes such as eating humans (or other good races). They are generally stated to tend towards evil in motivation and behaviour, and as the guilty party in starting hostilities with the good races. They have historically been assigned penalties to mental characteristics like Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, and are written to be less adept at magic. They also typically have naturally shorter lifespans than humans. They have often been described and depicted as ugly and repulsive. They (beyond the half-orc) are generally not available as playable races in the core rules, though most editions made some available in later supplements.

The most recent editions of D&D, to be fair, are introducing some new races beyond the Tolkien set, which are fantastical in appearance but more equal in dignity to the human-like people. This goes along with the recent tendency for many players and creators to reinterpret the older monstrous races in positive, relatable ways. Gradually, established publishers seem to be accommodating this tendency, despite a backlash by traditionalist players.

Racial coding evoking the real world

It is not the only way of doing essentialism, but I have to bring out explicitly at this point that in both Tolkien and (for most of its history and still to some extent today) Dungeons & Dragons, the good races are mainly portrayed as white and the bad races as non-white. Tolkien repeatedly describes his Elves, higher Men and other most admirable characters with ‘fair’ or ‘white’, whereas Orcs and lower Men are swarthy or sallow. He is on record that his model for Orc appearance is a negative caricature of Asian people, and for the character of Hobbits some mainly positive stereotypes of British people, and that Elves and Dwarves were rooted in north-west European folklore and legend. He also places his Free Peoples in the north and west of Middle-Earth (corresponding to Europe), and their enemies in the south and east (corresponding to Africa and Asia). (The Men of the south and east, allies of the Dark Lord, also are described in terms that evoke African and Asian people.)

Dungeons & Dragons worlds do not necessarily display such clear geographical correspondence with reality, but their descriptive text and abundant artwork does show that the publishers (and most fan and third-party creators) conceived of the civilized races as primarily white and European in type. In the same portrayals, the evil races almost never have naturalistically ‘white’ skin (it is often an inhuman colour such as green or orange) or European features and, like Tolkien’s orcs, often have features and societies inspired by racist caricatures of non-white races and ‘savage’ peoples. Some others, like dark elves (drow) and gray dwarves (duergar) resemble good races in form but are distinguished by pigmentation as well as by their evil nature. There were at one period even official products depicting dark elves as physically resembling real-world humans of Black African heritage.

More recent products make attempts at positive representation, but even the 5e PHB (2014), which stood out compared to previous editions for its human diversity, looks as though updates like dwarves usually having brown skin and brown to black hair were made too late to inform the art department, which depicted dwarves with the traditional north-west European palette.

What’s wrong with essentialism anyway?

Let’s be clear: essentialism is false in the real world.

Real human races are not clearly divided. The vast majority of human variation is between individuals and only in a few characteristics, such as skin colour, does the variation between population averages rival the variability between individuals within those populations. Also the variability between population averages is continuous worldwide, and gradual ; there are no clear dividing lines. In fact, categories such as White, Black and Asian are subjectively constructed for social or even political reasons, and are different in different societies. The present distribution of genes and cultures around the world is a transient pattern created in the last few centuries and millennia by migrations, diffusions and mergers, and set to be remodelled in the next few centuries and millennia by the same processes.

Also the kind of characteristics ascribed to different races by Tolkien and especially by Dungeons & Dragons are, in many cases, simply not inherent features of race in reality. Culture is independent of biological heritage. (Many people inherit both from their parents, but also people readily absorb the culture of adoptive parents or a community that they migrate into, pick up cultural ideas from diverse sources, and blend cultures and create new cultural elements.) And character and values, to the limited extent that they vary between populations, vary between cultures, not according to ancestry. 

I’m not sure that essentialism absolutely necessarily leads to racism, but it is a good start. If you’re going to make judgements based on race, it helps if you think that racial categories meaningfully describe people and reliably predict significant differences. It helps if you forget how much individuals vary within races, and that cultures are multi-racial and races are multi-cultural. It helps if you imagine that absolutely any type of difference between people, even morality and moral worth, can be determined by race. If we can get away from essentialism then that also leads us away from racism.

So, without trying to demand an end to essentialism in fantasy, I think it would be good to replace it as a default assumption with something more nuanced. And I think that if world-builders are now going to use essentialism, they should be conscious that they are using their freedom as fantasy creators, which could allow them to do anything, to build into their world a falsehood that is behind real-world racism, and think about their reasons for choosing it.

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