I. The Color of Elves
Last week the above picture of fans cosplaying as Drow was posted by the official Dungeons and Dragons twitter account. The internet saw this picture, and, as these things usually go, accusations of blackface surfaced:
— Thayet (@thayelf) August 17, 2014
As is internet law, whenever there are accusations of activity that is–at best insensitive, and at most undeniably racist– there are those who inevitably jump to the defense of the individuals who have been savaged with that most incendiary R-slur.
I’m almost certainly not interested in discussing whether or not the Drow cosplayers were “going for” blackface. My recent exposures to blackface in my current place of residence have desensitized me to the “well, that’s not what was intended” defense against acts that look, walk, and quack offensively.
It’s like this:
1.) You can’t ignore the racial legacy of most of the Western world, especially the wide-ranging and change-resistant impact of American racism.
2.) Blackface was one of the historical tools that American racism used to stereotype and dismiss the value of black life and culture.
3.) If a particular incident looks like blackface, intent aside, there are people who are cognizant of America’s racial legacy that are going to treat those incidents as offensive as blackface (especially if they happen in America).
Those who defend incidents that look like blackface without seriously and thoughtfully considering these three points are doing their arguments a disservice, no matter how absurd they feel people’s objections are. I’m not concerned about right or wrong in this instance. What I am concerned about is folks representative of nerd culture at large who act like groups marginalized within the culture can never speak with anger about anything that concerns them, ever.
Defenders of this type of thing don’t care, but it speaks volumes that there are people who think their right to dress up as fictional characters is more important than the emotional and psychological well-being of members of their communities.
II. Elves of Color
Drow are elves. Dark Elves to be specific. They are marked by their skin–which is “black as Cain” or, alternatively, “blacker than pitch,”–and their alignment. For all relevant purposes, Drow are evil. Chaotic evil. They worship a capricious demon that thrives on duplicity and murder, and their society is characterized by the same.
Popular among fans of Drow is Drizzt Do’Urden, a talented member of the race who struggles against the violence and evil that characterizes his people.
Drizzt Do’Urden however didn’t fit the mold. He wasn’t evil like his black-skinned sistren n brethren. He was one of the “good ones.”
— Disgruntled Haradrim (@pdjeliclark) August 18, 2014
When I was younger, I read the exploits of Drizzt and was struck by his “black” skin and his nobility. Of course, I knew that he wasn’t black in the same way that I was black. Still, there were precious few other characters in my reading that had nonwhite skin, so I latched on to him.
I didn’t realize until my recent re-reading of Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy that Drizzt, and Drow in general, are lazy characterizations. Blackness in the context of drow is a trope, a device used in two ways:
1.) to illustrate Drizzt’s nobility against normal Drow predisposition to evil, and
2.) to set normal Drow apart from other, civilized denizens of the world. Drow are hated and feared by other groups of people, and often killed on sight. The parallel there is striking.
My story in Long Hidden features an Elf of Color. Not just an elf with colored skin, but an actual elf that fits into the concept of blackness that existed in the post-civil war south. He’s still an elf, with magical abilities and pointed ears and along lifespan, but he uses the literary trick of African American dialect. He drinks hard liquor and listens to the blues. He falls in love with a black woman and has a black child.
I felt compelled to write a story featuring a black elf because I honestly don’t ever remember reading a fantasy novel where nonwhite elves existed in any capacity. This writing has led me to examine marginalization of elves based on skin color even more. Without giving too much away, much of the worldbuilding in my new work focuses on “mulatto” elves, and their perceived predispositions based on racial impurity.
I’m sure that I’m missing other stories that feature elves or elf-like characters that don’t have the standard accepted fantasy novel skin color. Drop a line in the comments and let me know what I should be reading.