Disclaimer: I’ve taken way, way longer than intended to get this post out. Why? Because I wanted to figure out the perfect way to talk about the DAGGER without offending anyone. I’m not sure that’s possible; the DAGGER Test is designed specifically to call certain elements of fantasy–some of them beloved–into question. I took pains not to mention any particular series or novel, but I’m sure that the DAGGER will criticize something you love.
That said, I’m not naming names in this post because the goal here is not to call anyone out. And also because the weird, exclusionary elements or ideas that the DAGGER points out are all institutional.
That in mind, I’m not saying that any of the elements herein need to be abolished forever or that they are universally, eternally wrong.
All I’m trying to do with this post–if I’m destined to be a popular author one day–is give a large audience food for thought. My goal is to challenge a few old story standards, not start a flame war.
That said, here we go.
We’ve finally made it to a long, serious discussion about what I’m calling the DAGGER (Degrees of Archaic, Grandfathered, Generalizing, Exclusionary Racism) Test. Unlike the last two, this one does not focus on racism against Latinos in fiction; instead, the DAGGER is about institutional racism, as a whole, in the fantasy genre.
Now, despite the name of the test, I don’t think the DAGGER is a violent thing (which probably means I should change the test’s name . . . but no). What the DAGGER exposes shouldn’t be looked at as really harsh, intentional racism. Instead, what it exposes is institutional racism; most of the stories that fail the DAGGER on any level don’t fail because the people responsible for them are horrible bigots. In most cases, creators fail the DAGGER because fantasy, like the rest of the entertainment industry, has a long-ingrained tendency to white-wash everything.
I think that, for most writers, it’s strangely difficult not to be exclusionary with fantasy. After all, the genre has its roots in medieval England–with characters exclusively speaking with heavy, British accents so often that we don’t even notice it anymore. Many fantasy stories focus solely on a cast that comes from royalty (even stories where the young prince is trying to save commoners rarely deals with the actual commoners). And fantasy races are a major part of many fantasy settings; if you take that fact and pair it with America’s pro-white tendencies, of course things are going to get hairy.
What I’m trying to say here is, I love fantasy. I love fantasy races as well. I love the idea of a story taking place on an enclosed continent, with the sea standing as a big, mysterious barrier between our characters and the Otherlands/the Far-away/the etc.
But I do think that there are certain standards we need to question as fantasy writers. A few practices that are a bit quaint that we should try to steer away from.
Classifying these quaint standards and making them into degrees that can be applied to stories is all that the DAGGER Test is about.
Do you want to figure out if your fantasy story is quaintly exclusionary of real-life races? Take the DAGGER Test. The more degrees your story has, the more exclusionary it is.
The DAGGER Test
Criteria for Passing: Your fantasy story has none of the seven following degrees of institutional racism.
- Your fantasy world features no people of color. The entire world has been explored, but nowhere in that thriving fantasy world does a person of color exist. This does not apply to a fantasy world where the entire planet has not been explored (i.e. analogues of medieval England). Not every series clarifies this point, but The Wheel of Time is a good example of a story that makes it clear that there are other cultures in distant lands and across the seas.
- Your fantasy world features people of color, but none of them are named and none find their way into your plot. Because it’s as unlikely as it is unwittingly exclusionary (in most cases [I choose to believe]).
- Your fantasy world features people of color who double as a character class. While fantasy cultures can be really cool, sometimes, they’re awkwardly one-note. For made-up example, if “He’s a Vaneth assassin” is synonymous with “He’s a Vaneth,” the end product is a very generalized culture. “He/she is Vaneth, which means he/she only does the one thing that Vaneth are good for.” To be clear, this does not apply in a case where the fantasy culture is shown to be complex, with varying social tiers, jobs, ideas, etc.
- Your fantasy world only features either white Humans . . . or abnormal/inhuman fantasy races of varied skin color. I feel like this one is a bizarre accident in most cases (a mixture of an enduring, old Hollywood preference for white characters mixed with a love of monster fantasy races [like orcs]). But still, if not handled correctly, that combo sends a really bad, subliminal message: “You’re white or you’re a monster person with weird-colored skin.”
- Your fantasy world features fantasy races that are also all white. The tendency to make all characters white often spills over to fantasy races. And, really, of course it does. There are some series that challenge this very well (The Elder Scrolls series does an awesome job of presenting elves of varying skin color and culture), but most of the time, its an all white cast of humans, dwarves, and elves saving the day. It’s neither better nor worse than the fourth degree; it’s exclusionary in its own way.
- Your fantasy story features a fantasy race that is better than all of the others. That race is also whiter than all of the others. Although I love them, elves, who typically sing better, dance better, make superior weaponry, and use superior magic, are often exclusively light-skinned, commonly with bleach blonde hair and bright blue eyes. In stories that feature drow, this degree doesn’t apply only if the drow are not portrayed as evil/thieves (Extra Disclaimer: I also love drow, but I have to call it like I see it).
- Your fantasy story features people from far away lands, but they’re all just white people who dress and/or talk differently. Because sometimes ethnicity in a fantasy world amounts to other white people getting wacky with their color choices. To be clear, this does not apply to people in a distant town on the same, enclosed continent; if I traveled south on horse back, I’m going to find people who sound different and dress differently from how I dress (it’s called the south and I’m scared of it). Here, the problem is when invaders arrive from a different continent, wearing crazy armor that looks like it’s made out of swords (or whatever) and they’re all . . . still white people for some reason. Now, hey, vikings. I know. It isn’t unrealistic for a race of white invaders to lay siege on a continent controlled by another white race. All I’m saying is that maybe we should question when the invaders/foreign delegates/etc. are also white but wearing different clothes. Is there a strong, creative reason for it? . . . Or was it just an easy, reflex choice? Are you trying to mirror actual history or are you just shying away from representing people of color?
Now, considering these degrees, you probably know a fantasy series (again, not naming names here) that has a little or a lot of DAGGER in it. And, really, almost everything does.
But, again, the goal here isn’t to point fingers or sling flame. It’s to cast an evaluative eye on fantasy as a whole–it’s weird, quaint predilections.
So, for anyone reading this, I’m not asking for you to raise arms against me or anyone else. I’m asking you to just consider the DAGGER. Particularly for aspiring fantasy writers, take the DAGGER with you. Please.
Because, if there was ever a time for us to start re-evaluating fantasy, as Americans, it’s now. Just the other day, I saw on Facebook that Chick-fil-A (seriously, Chick-fil-A) of all places finally stopped making contributions to anti-gay groups.
Hearing that and thinking about other recent events here in America, with our government and our people getting more progressive . . . maybe it’s also time for us to question the standards of fantasy. Not to abolish elves, stories on enclosed continents, or stories logically dominated by white characters–I’d never suggest any of that–but to actually cast a raised eyebrow at those ideas. Time for some of us to reconsider putting them in our stories. Time to make harder, more complicated choices about the characters we put into our work. Time to acknowledge that America’s tendency to white-wash has gotten into everything.
And to work against that. Because slowly, finally, America, as a whole is working against the white wash and I don’t want fantasy–my beloved, amazing fantasy–to miss out.
As is almost . . . always the case with my sci-fi stories, I soft quit on “Reset.” What does that mean? Well, I definitely didn’t throw my hands up in frustration. There was no, “I can’t write this!” I just took a break from it (to figure out a snag that I totally figured out) . . . right as I found the perfect setting and tone for my fantasy short, “Rainwater’s Archaic Goods.” And, holy shit, wouldn’t you know it, the moment I started brainstorming details for “Rainwater,” I just forgot about “Reset.” At no point did I groan an exhausted, “I have to put this story on the back burner.” Nope. There was just a recent, “Oh, right! ‘Reset!’ I . . . was supposed to be writing that.”
And now, talking about it, I realize that “Dream Runner” was also sci-fi . . . I’m seeing a pattern here. I will go back to “Reset” at some point, but not while I’m burning to finish/polish/submit a group of strong fantasy pieces.
When it comes to my goals from last time, I wound up spending all of my recent writing time editing “Aixa,” which I’m submitting this weekend. Memory edits have been slow because–full disclosure–I burned out on edits and I had no idea if some of the changes I was making where hurting or helping the novel. So I had to step away, although I’m going right back after I send “Aixa.”
Well, that wraps up this controversial series of posts on racism. And man am I grateful; this one in particular was a study in, “How can I write something that’s guaranteed to piss people off . . . without pissing them off?” Oy.
If you enjoyed this post, I always appreciate a Like or Follow. But, regardless of all that, thank you just for passing by. And, as always, write well.