Evil Races in D&D are Racist?
Recently I had a conversation with someone on Twitter about whether it is "racist" to have all evil and practically irredeemable races in an RPG. I chimed in and said that it shouldn't be. These are games in a fantasy setting with fantasy races and world rules that do not exactly mirror our own. Their response was:
"When races are called 'savages' or living in tribes and worship 'dark gods' its very easy to see the imperialist racism that plagues the planet to this day."
At this I sighed a heavy sigh.
I can only speak for myself in this, so let me do so. I am of Mexican descent and looking at my genetic history, I am about half Spaniard and half of Aztec ancestry. Needless to say, a lot of European colonization is in my family history. Some of my ancestors were members of the Anza Expedition in 1775. In fact, "imperialism" was not a concept my Spaniard ancestors brought to my Aztec ones. My Aztec ancestors were conquering neighboring city states and hauling off prisoners for human sacrifice long before my Spaniard ancestors set foot on the continent.
So to me, calling a goblin, orc, or lizard folk fantasy creature a "savage" or "evil" doesn't bother me. The connection that this could be some kind of stand in for me or half my ancestors NEVER occurred to me until certain people brought it up. And when they did bring this up, my first thought was not, "Oh yeah, I see that connection." My first thought was, "You think I am a goblin?"
I think this is a problem with several points.
First these games were not made with a post modern mindset. The alignment system that has been a part of the game since it started is proof of this. The "problematic tropes" were not an issue until "hobby enthusiasts" who could not shed their post modern lenses (because they see everything as political) for a few hours of gaming became a thing.
Secondly, D&D has its roots in mythology. It is low level thinking in my view to assume that in mythology, mythological creatures are direct stand-ins for some kind of specific real world person or racial group rather than an idea or archetype.
"The point of mythology or myth is to point to the horizon and to point back to ourselves: This is who we are; this is where we came from; and this is where we're going. And a lot of Western society over the last hundred years - the last 50 years really - has lost that. We have become rather aimless and wandering."
- J. Michael Straczynski
Let's use orcs as an example. The incarnation of orcs in RPGs today has its roots in Tolkien's "Legendarium." The word "Orcneas" can be found in "Beowulf" which Tolkien masterfully translated. He stated in one of his letters:
“Orcs (the word is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc ‘demon’, but only because of its phonetic suitability) are nowhere clearly stated to be of any particular origin”
His orcs, and by extension the orcs that were presented in OD&D, are influenced by demons (or something akin to them) in their genesis and creation. In fact the demonic deity "Orcus" has his roots from much the same place. So if orcs are redeemable, it's only a matter of time before Orcus is then too.
So again, this is a fantasy game heavily influenced by mythology where the world the game presents plays by a different set of rules from our own. That is what made the game so appealing in 1974. That said, I don't want to come off as saying that you cannot run a game where orcs or gnolls or lizard folk are not all bad. It's your table, your campaign, your game. Do what you want. I simply want to point out that the only "ignorance" here is on the part of certain groups implying things about others that are not true based on the kinds of games they run and how they present these monster races. Such accusations are not in good faith and as I have demonstrated, they are ignorant of the mythological roots these archetypes in our games are based on.
In short, leave people alone. Just because they present a fantasy race different than you do, doesn't mean that they are going to Klan meetings to light crosses on fire after the gaming sessions ends.