Since the game began in the 1970s, Dungeons & Dragons players have always had the option of creating characters in various Tolkienesque nonhuman (“demi-human”) varieties like elves, dwarves and orcs, each with different kinds of abilities in the game. The term that the game has always used for these varieties has been “races”. Circa 1980 few people worried about any unfortunate implications of that approach, though there’s reason to think Tolkien’s “races” were tied to racist views.
Also since the old days, players have had the options to play half-elves and half-orcs: characters with one human parent and one elvish or orcish parent. One implication is that these different “races” were not different species, since they can interbreed. The existence of half-elves and half-orcs was a boon for those of us growing up with D&D who happen to be descended from two different “races” in the real world. I read Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance novels while spending long childhood trips in India, and identified with the character Tanis Half-Elven who similarly found himself an awkward fit in at least one of his ancestral lands.
So I’m alarmed that Wizards of the Coast, the company that owns D&D, apparently plans to remove half-elves and half-orcs from the game – and this on the grounds that it’s “inherently racist” to have them in there. As you might imagine, the issues presented by this decision go well beyond role-playing games.
There are legitimate concerns to be raised around game balance (i.e. fairness): in some versions of D&D, half-elves get most of the advantages of both being human and being elf, without the disadvantages. Where that’s the case, they’re too powerful and too many people would want to play one. But that problem is easily fixed by reducing the advantages and increasing the disadvantages; it doesn’t require eliminating the category. After all, nobody ever tried to eliminate half-elves and half-orcs before the American racial reckoning of the late ’10s and early ’20s. It would be good for Wizards of the Coast to learn some good lessons from that reckoning – let’s stop saying orcs are always chaotic evil, shall we? – but here it would seem they have learned exactly the wrong ones.
Fortunately, Wizards of the Coast is not taking the openly racist step of refusing to allow racially mixed characters. But consider the approach that they did take in their playtest, which has:
rules for playing as elves and orcs, but not half-elves or half-orcs. Instead, the playtest included a rulebox explaining how to create a character with parents of two different species, with players choosing a height, averaging the lifespans, and then using the character creation rules connected to the species of one of the character’s parents. That approach was also criticized for functionally erasing characters of mixed heritages by forcing players to choose between the traits of one parent of another.
Functionally erasing indeed. In the real world, for most of my life I’ve had to put up with surveys and questionnaires with a race option that asks something to the effect of “Are you: [ ] Asian [ ] Black [ ] White Pick one.” That’s a textbook example of erasure. I’ve been happy to see that this practice has become much less common over the past decade. So why would Wizards now move toward it in their fictional world, saying that every racially mixed character must now “pick one”, when they didn’t have to before? Why are they deciding to erase us more?
Well, one of their designers, Jeremy Crawford, tells us their reasoning, in an account provided by Daniel Kwan:
Frankly, we are not comfortable, and haven’t been for years with any of the options that start with ‘half’…The half construction is inherently racist so we simply aren’t going to include it in the new Player’s Handbook.
Now those are fighting words. White people don’t think I’m white; Asians know I’m not Asian. (Thai people called me farang, the word for white people, not khaek, the word for Indians.) Racially, insofar as race is a meaningful concept at all, I’m half-Indian (half-Asian) and half-white. That’s who I am. And according to Jeremy Crawford, that’s “inherently racist”.
What led him to that conclusion? He doesn’t say, and apparently doesn’t feel the need to. In both Kwan’s account and an independent account from EN World, Crawford simply asserts that “The ‘half’ construction is inherently racist” and moves on, offering you no reason to believe the assertion beyond the say-so of this one white guy. And yet he also notes, in the same interview, that “we’re not experts in culture and inclusion.” Apparently, in Crawford’s eyes, one doesn’t need to be an “expert in culture and inclusion” to confidently assert, without argument, that it’s racist to acknowledge the existence of people like me. In other words, Crawford demonstrates that he thinks this assertion is obvious.
And what could get him thinking that? Well, such a view would fit closely with the movement consensus on racial issues that proclaims Kamala Harris is both black and Asian-American – not half of each but fully both. Now would it be so wrong to just accept that consensus that that’s how it is, that we’re not half but both? Well, notice: the application of such a proclamation is entirely inconsistent. For logically, if having parents of two races means that one is not half of each but fully both, that would have to mean that Barack Obama is fully white. But the consensus is not willing to go there. I’ve never heard anyone say Obama is “both black and white” – and nobody has ever said that I am “both white and Indian”; it is assumed that we are non-white (or the misleading prettified euphemism for non-white, “people of colour”). After all, Obama has every bit as much white ancestry as Harris has Indian. (And so do I.) Obama and Harris both have one black parent; Obama has one white parent and Harris has one Indian parent. Obama’s ancestry and genotype are as white as Harris’s are Indian (and as either of theirs are black). Logic would demand that if Harris is Indian, full stop, then Obama and I must likewise be white, full stop…
… unless one were to accept the one-drop rule of the segregation era, which – comparably to the Laws of Manu on caste mixing – proclaims that any amount of nonwhite blood pollutes the pristine purity of whiteness. If one wants to deny the existence of half-racial status (thus saying Harris is fully both) while still somehow insisting that Obama is not white, the only logical way to do it is to affirm that blatantly racist anti-miscegenation rule. It makes far more sense to me to simply admit that Obama and Harris are both half-black.
I suppose some might argue that the lingering effects of the segregation era are such that we need to use its racist categories and logic (such as the one-drop rule) in our anti-racist thinking today. I disagree strongly with such a view and find it a harmful path toward entrenching de facto segregation in perpetuity. But even if one were to push back against me on that point, the need to perpetuate the one-drop rule sure isn’t obvious.
The problem, I think, is that the new movement does have all too strong a tendency to assume that there is one simple and obvious answer on racial and gender issues. Sometimes people actually come out and admit this is how they think, as when David Roberts refers to research on the costs and benefits of medical transition as “‘questions’ that already have answers”, or when David Klion proclaims that “the right answer is usually pretty simple, and complexity and ambiguity are how terrible people live with themselves.” More often, they just assume it, and Exhibit A of that assumption process is Jeremy Crawford, who apparently thinks it’s an obvious and simple and unproblematic claim that social progress can be advanced by erasing my existence from the world. But then, my existence is itself a form of complexity and ambiguity, so according to David Klion I have to be a terrible person in order to live with myself.
Erasure isn’t that big a problem in the grand scheme of things. It’s nothing like the miseries of economic deprivation, or the risk of being shot by police. In my life, the generational injustices I’ve faced have been greater than the racial ones. I’ve gone through more than four decades shrugging off the fact that North American discussions of race pretend I don’t exist. But I will not stand idly by while white people decide to make that erasure worse by telling me it’s “inherently racist” to acknowledge my existence. Especially when it’s the white people in charge of a game I have dearly loved.
Racial issues are complicated and they don’t admit easy answers. For many of us, myself included, interventions that refuse to acknowledge that complexity are worse than nothing at all. To all the Jeremy Crawfords and Jona Olssons of the world, all the white people who think they’re benefitting us non-white people by reducing us to simple brute racial binaries and insisting that other white people do the same: please, we’re begging you, stop helping.