Breaking the Habit of Whiteness

“Race and Popular Fantasy Literature” offers a devastating case against fantasy.

Breaking the Habit of Whiteness

Race and Popular Fantasy Literature by Helen Young. Routledge. 238 pages.

IN HER BOOK Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, Helen Young tracks how whiteness appears, has been disavowed, and is challenged in modern fantasy. The study casts a broad net, drawing our attention to fantasy as a powerful genre founded in fiction but now well established in film and television, role-playing games, and video games. Some readers might expect Young to place particular emphasis on literary fantasy, since that is where — as shown by scholars like Brian Attebery and Farah Mendlesohn — the mode has matured as an artistic and commercial product. By instead turning our attention to how the form has been adapted into role-playing games, television, and cinema, Young establishes the mode’s standing as a ubiquitous form of popular amusement. This popularity underwrites her questions about how real-world racial attitudes are reinforced or confronted in fantastic entertainments.

The specific problem that Young confronts is what she calls the “habit of Whiteness” in contemporary fantasy. Drawing on Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s notion of “unthinking Eurocentrism,” she poignantly identifies the ideological limit of fictions inhabited by fantastic beings and beasts but few (if any) people or nations of color. She defines the peculiar nature of this problem by citing a question asked by writer Chuck Wendig: “If we can have werewolves, why can’t we have black people?” From this simple inquiry, Young exposes whiteness as an enduring feature of Anglophone fantasy ever since its early 20th-century reformulation by J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature lays out the historical evidence for whiteness as a persistent feature of fantastic narratives and the fan communities that often nurture them. Its great strength is its juxtaposition of narrative critique with a survey of ongoing debates in the communities that read and create fantasy. As part of Routledge’s Interdisciplinary Perspective in Literature, therefore, Young’s book advances fan media studies of the kind practiced by scholars like Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith. This helps us understand how the stories told by fantasy novelists, filmmakers, game designers, and television producers matter to its most engaged audiences. Young gives us access to the feedback loop that shapes how fantasy narratives are created and broadcast.

Young also demonstrates that considering how whiteness and race figure in this creative cycle has a lot to do with the way a racially exclusive reading of Western history often motivates the creation of fantasy settings, species, and characters. Following Tolkien’s lead, fantasy often uses a “monochrome Middle Ages” as the model on which its “secondary worlds” are based. Fantasy’s habit of whiteness is supported by an old-fashioned historiography that isolates Western Europe from any affective commerce with black, brown, and Asian peoples. This use of medieval history is, however, persuasive because it is generates a very familiar political common sense: one that Nell Irvin Painter clearly recovers in her essential guide, The History of White People (2010). A white history need not acknowledge the actual contributions of African, Asian, or indigenous peoples to any West, imagined or real. Young’s reconstruction of arguments garnered from blog posts reveals the sway this kind of medievalism has within fan communities. Her use of this electronic archive offers a valuable insight into the racially invested ways our cultural history is imagined within magical entertainment.

The desire of some fans to excuse fantasy from the history of human diversity is a fascinating iteration of what historian George Lipsitz has called “possessive investment in whiteness.” This stake in whiteness offers a richly furnished escape from a complex social reality, undercutting its living complexity. However, the persistence of this desire, from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) to the cinematic gaming adaptation Warcraft: The Beginning (dir. Duncan Jones, 2016), indicates how sticky this social expectation remains in popular fantasy. Young takes care to ground her account in studies by scholars like Sara Ahmed that examine how white identity is constructed in opposition to nonwhite others. This work produces an interesting tension when brought into contact with fantasies that dramatize conflict between human beings and imaginary races of hobbits, elves, and dwarves.

The construction of white identity in fantasy is most pointed in her chapter on “Orcs and Otherness.” Fantasy scholarship has long recognized that adversary races — for which Tolkien’s orcs serve as the iconic model — have been built around the robust cultural reservoir of anti-black stereotypes. What Young offers is a comprehensive account that traces how orc bodies have been defined by skin color and a brutish hypermasculinity. This critique sets up her identification of “anti-blackness” as another habit of genre fantasy: a habit, she argues, that persists in spite of the efforts writers like Mary Gentle to complicate narrative treatment of “evil” races as individuals and social groups.

Race and Popular Fantasy Literature offers a devastating case against fantasy. All too often its fans and creators eschew the imaginative freedom they claim to enjoy by adhering to the rigid formula of Anglo-Saxon narrative centrality. In frustration, we might be tempted to consign fantasy to the bin reserved for racist tripe like Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints (1973). However, Young’s affectionate erudition allows her to support a more nuanced position. She argues that while various kinds of racialist thinking have conditioned how fantasy has developed, the genre has also sought alternatives to either unthinking xenophobia or smug, color-blind liberalism. In this spirit, the author is careful to demonstrate that fantasy’s hegemonic Eurocentrism has always sparked attempts at imagining differently. Thus, in each chapter she offers creators and productions that seek breakthroughs displacing whiteness as a core social principle. As an example, she points to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy and Charles Saunders’s trenchant essay, “Die Black Dog! A Look at Racism in Fantasy Literature,” as significant challenges to fantasy’s investment in whiteness even as ordinary practice continued. And while these counterpoints did not immediately change generic racial practice, they laid a firm foundation for younger writers like N. K. Jemisin and BioWare’s David Gaider.

A pivotal part of Young’s overall argument, perhaps because of its subject, may be very accessible to a general audience. This is in large part due to the popularity of HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire into the television drama Game of Thrones (2011–?). Young argues that what makes Martin’s late 20th-century fantasy paradigmatic is his insistence on a historical realism that she calls “gritty fantasy.” The writer seeks to break with the chivalric romanticism of high fantasy for an unsentimental reading of the European Middle Ages. Despite this claim, Young notes that Martin’s initiative reproduces the whiteness of the Tolkienian precedent it claims to reject. The result is the accretion of a fan community around a cultural product and a mode that is hailed as white. Fantasy, and the history that supports it, is thereby limited to creating stories unsullied by “diversity,” a perspective that seeks to displace whiteness from narrative centrality. Fan communities that insist on a monochrome Middle Ages on page and screen construct a white identity for themselves even as they argue against racism — following “the longed-for racial purity of nineteenth-century medievalist ethno-nationalisms.”

Even a field dedicated to imagining worlds that take us to undiscovered countries cannot help but reflect the preferences/prejudices of readers and writers who only desire familiar social stories in new worlds. However, in the book’s final third Young traces a rough transition from fantasy’s Anglo-Saxonist roots to its reformatting for a postcolonial age. She foregrounds the contributions of black and indigenous writers in this transition, as they negotiate fantasy’s internal politics and create new work. While fantasy’s new worlds are occupied by a great diversity of imaginary races, Young notes that direct representation of North America’s indigenous cultures — peoples whose historical presence often serve as models for non-Western cultures (Tolkien’s Rohirrim, for example) — are mostly absent. Questioning this absence leads her to the work of writers like Daniel Heath Justice and scholars like Grace Dillon who ask us to consider modes of fantasy grounded in folklores and customs beyond Europe. The result is a conception of the fantasy genre that can draw upon myths from Australia, Africa, and the Americas to cultivate new worlds and ways of being. The hope is that by doing so the readers and writers of fantasy will be able to appreciate and exploit stories that break the Tolkien-Martin nostalgia for a Golden Age of white patriarchs.

While Young takes care to track how writers of color have contributed to the project of expanding fantasy’s cultural and racial purview, she recognizes that this project cannot be accomplished only by drafting more writers and fans of color to the cause. Her treatment of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternate history of a Napoleonic Wars fought with dragons, indicates that the writing she seeks refers to more than just a creator’s skin color. It resides in pens whose wielders can imagine worlds that reflect and, perhaps, transcend the habitual use of race to define who must win and who should lose. Young’s reading of N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, a politically complex world that does not enshrine rule by divine or racial right, moves us beyond the mythic structure that Tolkien made the rule. These readings indicate that fantasy has arrived at a place in which its potential to move beyond an unthinking Eurocentrism has been demonstrated.

However, as Young rightly observes, this arrival is complicated by the political and historical grounds by which race is practiced in the creative process. Her coverage of RaceFail ’09, the contentious online debate about race and writing, recovers how it moved quickly from modest proposals about respectful representation of minority characters and cultures to neoliberal justifications for a fantasy divorced from anything but individual artistic vision. The latter argument seeks cover for the vice of “colour-blind racism” with the virtue of artistic integrity.

Young argues that RaceFail ’09 indicates that some fantasy fan communities will continue to organize around a whiteness that is “invisible and unremarkable because of its omnipresence.” However, she notes that the event is also evidence for “the presence and voices of people of colour within the broader genre-culture [that] breaks the pattern of assumed and unchallenged Whiteness.” This marks a significant change in fantasy’s discursive community; it is an evolution that has a measurable effect on some of the stories created in its name.

Race and Popular Fantasy Literature would have us understand that creating imaginary worlds relating to the way we live now is more difficult than we often admit. The fractures of gender, political affinity, and race mark the borders of our creativity as well as our social relations. Race remains the limit of what is said and not said, what we can and cannot believe. The white identity provocation of a loud minority indicates that any change in the racial status quo will inspire opponents. So Young’s final optimism is qualified. But the process of breaking fantasy’s habits of whiteness does have its champions and a way forward. Young makes a strong case that, whether on the page, the table, or the screen, its creators have produced work that strengthens the genre and its future prospects.

Despite its strengths, this particular edition of Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness does not serve either its author or her topic well because of the lack of attention paid to proofreading the text. Each bit of editorial carelessness diverts attention from the writer’s otherwise valuable work. This reviewer was particularly bemused upon discovering himself identified in the text’s index by his middle and not his last name. There is also a moment when Henry Jenkins is name-checked as “Harry” Jenkins; the casual reader might wonder if this is one or two people. Young’s book is well worth reading and remembering, yet these editorial faults temper my otherwise enthusiastic engagement with the author’s work.


De Witt Douglas Kilgore is associate professor of English and American Studies at Indiana University.

LARB Contributor

De Witt Douglas Kilgore is associate professor of English and Adjunct Professor American Studies at Indiana University. He is the author of Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space (2003).


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