I Hate Proxy Racist Characters

I tried watching Cobra Kai.

The premise, as I assumed it, was interesting. I thought we’d be catching up with the villain from the original Karate Kid, which is true–we do. But I assumed we’d find out that villain wasn’t actually a villain, an idea that the prologue (cut almost entirely from the original film) sets up. We see the villain kid being notoriously ordered to “Sweep the leg,” and we see his reaction: even he’s shocked that his douchebag sensei would tell him to take advantage of someone’s broken leg in a fight. The rest of the scene plays like normal, and then we cut to present day . . .

. . . Where we find our protagonist has the typical “Hollywood” version of a sad life. We watch him get up, go outside, encounter a young Latino kid . . .

. . . and to this kid, our protagonist immediately says, “Oh great. More immigrants.”

I hit Back like I was calling an elevator (*clickclickclickclickclick*). I remember saying, “Nope. I’m good.”

Cause, yeah, believe it or not . . .

I FUCKING HATE

RACIST CHARACTERS!

In 2020, it feels weird to even have to write this, but it also feels essential.

Which makes me sad.

I’m aware that Cobra Kai (which I keep misspelling as “Kobra Kai” for some weird reason), was first released in 2018. But, maybe because it’s so recent, I feel like that line–the decision that made me immediately drop it back into the abyss of Netflix content from which it came–deserves to be looked at.

Because, like edgy shithead comedians from the 2000’s–the long-extinct champions of “I’m gonna say it!” humor that empowers all racists and sexists–the Proxy Racist character is a problem I want to catch immediately.

So let’s define it.

The Proxy Racist

This is the fiction writer-equivalent of the shitty, edgelord, “I’ gonna say it!” joke: a grossly racist character who says horrible, racist shit while the writer in control of that character (and everything they say and do) smacks the dust off their hands. “I’m gonna write it,” they might have literally said to themselves, and now they stand akimbo, proud of themselves for establishing a gritty tone while alienating a large portion of the audience.

“I really want my audience to hate this guy,” they say, and then–as if there’s no other way to achieve that–they pen a character who talks about how much they hate Dwarves and want to kill them all.

“I want my audience to look forward to this asshole getting what’s coming to him!” the writer says, and then chooses to write the racist shit the character says, from a perspective that can only be called “privileged.”

To make it clear, the Proxy Racist is just a vehicle for a writer to be racist, not because they are, vehemently and vocally, in their day-to-day, but because, when faced with the choice of changing their writing or offending a bunch of people, they chose to offend a bunch of people. The writer of the shitty racist character ultimately doesn’t care how upsetting that racist character’s words and actions are to a minority. In the most brutal irony, they only think about the emotional reaction those words will get out of an audience of “readers,” “watchers,” and “gamers” who are safe from those words, because the white writer just assumes those faceless readers, watchers, and gamers are all white.

The weird paradox of it is, if we give the writer the benefit of the doubt and assume they did consider how the racism would emotionally impact a minority, their decision to keep the racism in makes it undeniable that they ultimately just shrugged. “It’s more powerful this way!” I can hear them excitedly telling themselves, safe in their writing nook, comfortably displaced from all the people their choice is going to offend.

Or, obviously worse, the writer of the Proxy Racist is just angrily selecting words and scenes because of their right (or, more accurately, privilege) to write those things. An avenue to vent their racist thoughts to the public; to say what they really want to.

Now, I was about to write, “Let’s move onto some examples to make this problem extra clear,” but, really . . . I just wanna vent.

I’m Tired of Racist Proxies Ruining Shows for Me

Remember when the one racist episode of Community was removed because it had blackface?

I had a passionate exchange with some friends about it.

Them: “But the joke, as I took it, was that [the one character–I refuse to watch it] is just really excited to play D&D, so he dresses up in full cosplay. But he’s also just really socially inept, so he doesn’t realize how weird it is that he dressed up as a Drow.”

Me: “Does anyone call it out as racist?”

Them: “The one character calls it a hate crime.”

Me: “So the actual punchline is that it’s racist. Because the joke you’re talking about could absolutely exist without the racist part. He could’ve showed up dressed as a Dwarf with the long, braided beard and it still would’ve hit that same punchline.”

Them: “Okay . . . Okay, yeah, you have a point. Touché.”

But Racist Proxies Also Ruin Games

For an example that isn’t directly related to comedy or TV, you can look at Divinity: Original Sin 2, a Fantasy example, and thus an example I had to bring up.

If you thought that example from earlier–with a character talking about how he wants to kill all Dwarves–was a weird thing for me to make up, surprise! I didn’t make it up!

At the last part I made it to–a small fishing town–there was one enemy NPC on the docks who talked explicitly about how he wanted to gruesomely murder all Dwarves.

But, really, it’s not just relegated to that one Fantasy cop (surprise, surprise) in Divinity 2; it is a fantastic game, but, unfortunately, it also has an unreal amount of racist proxies in it. Seriously, the majority of enemy NPC’s are bigots with zero qualms about saying how much they hate whatever group.

Of course, I have to say, right off the bat, that I don’t think the entire dev team is racist; characters in a Fantasy realm saying racist shit about a made-up, Fantasy race is a far cry from characters in a Fantasy realm hurling real life slurs at each other.

But Divinity 2 is a dialogue option-heavy RPG, meaning you can totally choose not to kill a lot of the racists you encounter. In fact, you can even decide to help them during any morally open-ended quests they’re involved in!

And . . . win one for the nazis playing the game, I guess?

I get the intention behind having those characters in the game. I get the fact that, in this setting, racism and bigotry are a big problem, and such settings are legitimate and potentially helpful tools for speaking about real world racism.

But I also feel like if one of the writers on your team pens a character who freely talks about committing genocide, in gruesome detail, . . . maybe you need to have a talk with that writer.

“Bob . . . I mean, he’s literally just an NPC.”

“Not even the main villain, dude.”

“You do not have to make this deep a cut for a passing quest NPC.”

“There’s another way, Bob.”

And that’s really what I want to end on here. The idea that . . .

There’s Another Way

For a long time, my mantra has been “If you want to combat a bigoted trope, don’t just put a woke spin on it. Totally undermine it instead. Don’t do it at all–do the opposite.”

I’ve also said, time and time again, that we just do not live in a world that needs more minorities as a side characters–we need more minorities as protagonists.

Both of those mantras always come to mind when I think of how to fix a Proxy Racist.

Do we need fiction that talks about racism? Yes, totally, the same way we need more minorities as side characters. Sure.

Would it be better if we just fought racism in fiction by writing a story with a minority as the protagonist? Yes. Abso-fucking-lutely.

The absolute anti-thesis of that, which isn’t helping anyone? A story with a white protagonist who fights a racist white villain.

Or a story with a racist white protagonist, even if they eventually learn better.

Again, don’t put a spin on it. Undermine it completely.

The reforming racist is absolutely a character arc worth telling, and I think that, in the near future, it’s going to be important to write that story.

But, until then, if you’re writing a show where your white protagonist is a racist who has a change of heart and starts teaching a young Latino kid martial arts . . . maybe just make the entire goddamn show from that kid’s perspective.

Or, at the very goddamn least, when you get to that part in your manuscript where your character is going to say something genuinely racist–that point when your nostrils are flared and, “I’m gonna write it!” is on the tip of your tongue–just fucking don’t.

~~~

Well, it turned out I was angry this weekend! What a surprise! Thanks, Twitter!

No, seriously, I was going to write something fun, but then I tried out Cobra Kai on Thursday and it was just a wrap after that.

Thanks for stopping by, and if you want to be notified when I post again, you can follow House of Error on the left side of your screen (or via the hamburger menu on the upper right on mobile).

Next week, I’m going to post something fun–I swear. I won’t look at Twitter or the news at all and it’ll be great.

Until then, take care and stay safe!

Published by

Louis Santiago

I'm a fantasy writer based in New York. One of my short stories, "Aixa the Hexcaster," was published at Mirror Dance Fantasy. You can read it here: http://www.mirrordancefantasy.com/2016/09/aixa-hexcaster.html.

3 thoughts on “I Hate Proxy Racist Characters”

  1. Holy crap. Damn.

    I read an article recently talking about how our morally gray characters are becoming too likeable, to the point that their darker sides are being forgiven because of their good sides. At first, I chaffed against this, but you’re making me look back at it in a different light. Makes me think that the point was sympathizing with such morally bereft characters could go the wrong way.

    Stories are having the effect of forgiving bad characters of their actions and making excuses for them, instead of focusing on how they lost their way and how to bring them back. It’s like, you watch Breaking Bad, and even as Walter becomes more selfish and power hungry, you still get angry at Skylar for “nagging” him. But in reality, she’s right. But he’s our POV character so we empathize more.

    It makes me sad to think poorly of Divinity 2, one of my favorite games ever; but that is a huge problem with RPGs that I haven’t thought about in a while. You get permission to be horrible and can even get rewarded by the game’s systems for being that way. How many of us, myself included, kill off NPCs for the XP (though I think in some parts of Div 2, and some other games, some NPC deaths don’t give any XP).

    We need more people definitively saying “this is wrong.” We can make them nuanced, three dimensional characters, but someone needs to be there to call such characters out. I love DND for this: if you want to discourage “murder hobos,” you make massive consequences for attacking people unprovoked. I wonder if the same could happen, naturally, for racism.

    1. Yeah, Divinity 2 is great, and it’s also something that came out before 2020, so at the very least, it’s wasn’t stubbornly created in 2020, during BLM.

      It is difficult listening to some of those NPC’s though.

      Although, really, that’s a universal problem with so many things. Skyrim has an entire racist plotline where you can either help the Empire (who are posed as the villains from the very start, when they’re about to execute you during the intro) as they try to seize control of Skyrim… or help reclaim it for the Nords who hate the other races.

      It’s always going to be weird with media and Hollywood; I know I’m already putting together a list of casualties of 2020 (things that I just won’t ever be able to play or watch now), but I’m just really hoping we can stay away from seeding racist bullshit by proxy. That “it’s okay to say x in y context” shit just needs to stop.

      And, holy shit, yeah, the “morally ambiguous” thing for protagonists needs to go away for a while too. I love a good anti-hero, but when that anti-hero is, like, an assassin for hire who “killed a dude once just for getting his coffee order wrong” or the anti-hero who’s *literally Satan,* a part of me can’t help looking at those stories and wondering, “How much did this contribute to younger people accepting Trump?” I could never say without a shadow of a doubt that the “Trump is an under dog hero” mentality was bolstered by stories with asshole, murderer protagonists who are portrayed as being morally ascendant, but there are absolutely correlations there.

  2. Hear hear, seriously. And going back before that to your John Wayne cowboy movies made by literal racist John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies where crime is defeated by an angry rogue cop, not criminal reform and repairing broken inner city communities. Those are more obvious now, but they are the ancestors of the anti heroes who bend the rules because they know what’s right. Taken to its extreme, we get Trump being painted as White America’s LITERAL MESSIAH

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