Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Obfuscated Elephant: Racism

So, it's been talked about quite a lot in the larping side of the blogosphere recently, (well, let's be honest, it's been talked about for years in the larpnet, in that I can vaguely remember the same "is-Drow-blackface" argument on Pagga a decade ago), and whilst I would like to think that we are getting better at things, there's still a lot of distance to go.

So here it is. I'll say it again, probably less eloquently than others, but whatever.

There's A Fair Bit Of Racist Content In A Lot Of LARP

A common problem

Now that I've alienated half my audience, I will alienate the rest by taking something of a step back from that initial position - I am absolutely not saying that most larpers are racists, nor saying that there is even a particularity large minority that would be comfortable to express "classically racist" views. Indeed, most larpers would be horrified at the suggestion.

Which is exactly why we need to have this conversation, and why it cannot be simply brushed off as "a load of SJW crap", to quote various people.

I should add a disclaimer here - I am white. I would consider myself reasonably aware of my privilege here, but as a member of the privileged majority, I will almost certainly screw up and not recognise elements of racial prejudice, simply because I do not suffer them, and furthermore, because I passively benefit from a society in which there is institutional racism. There's a school of thought that white people have no place in talking about racism; in this case, though I feel I am justified in talking as an ally, because there are few people of colour talking about these issues within the (predominantly very white) UK LARP scene.

(As an aside, if anyone knows of any POC blogging about LARP in the UK, I would very much appreciate links and suggestions here)

There are a lot of different kinds of racism - which, for the purposes of this post, we shall consider to be defined as Prejudice, exercised by those with racial Priviledge, so please pipe down if you are about to start talking about how white people experience racism too, or whatever. Within the larping community - at least in the UK - there doesn't seem to be a large amount of racial discrimination, and out-and-out racial abuse is, to my knowledge, pretty rare. However, what is more common is the more subtle kind of racism, which is frequently not recognized as racism by the privileged, white, majority.

What does this "subtle racism" look like? It begins with the assertion that one is "colour-blind", and does not contribute to any racial prejudices within society. Having first assuaged oneself of any guilt, it then moves to normalize whiteness, and thus to make non-whiteness an "other". From here spring any number of issues - cultural appropriation, minimization, accidental gaffes, and so on.

This is important. The beginning of this symbolic racism inevitably comes from a denial of contributing towards racism.

This means considering yourself "colour-blind" or "post-racial".
This means saying that LARP is "just a game".
This means claiming immunity due to intentions.
This means claiming justification due to context, without actually unpacking, considering, or exploring what that context is.
This means using lazy justifications when called out, rather than engaging.

Not a very good Setite concept
Feeling uncomfortable? Good. That doesn't mean you are a bad person, though - to err is human, and one of the most troublesome effects of racial privilege is that difficulty in recognising what does not affect you. We all fuck up - hell, I once played a conniving, corrupt Setite who was actually Simon bar Kokhba, a concept that shall forever be nailed to my wall of Things I Did Not Think Through as a warning - what is more important is that we are willing to listen, openly and without rancour, and modify our choices in the future.

We can divide the ways in which this symbolic racism manifests into three broad categories:
  • Cultural appropriation
  • Stereotyping
  • Dismissive behaviour.
Taking these in turn - cultural appropriation is pretty ubiquitous in LARP, and is such a thorny subject that I'm not going to even try to tackle it fully in a single post. The short version is that it can be seen in the adoption of symbols, imagery and objects from a minority culture, using them outside their traditional context in a way that is offensive. A classic example would be the wearing of a Plains Indian war bonnet as a generic bit of costume - which would be much like wearing a Victoria Cross as part of a "Generic European" costume. Blackface and the like are also a part of this phenomena - this is a good article on the subject, albeit written for a cosplay audience.

Also a problem.
Stereotyping can be seen in the propagation of certain offensive caricatures of a racial or cultural group. The most commonly seen in UK LARP tend to be the "Noble Savage" (Knifewinter's Stoats, Dark Tempus' Falket, etc), the "Interchangeable Asian" (Maelstrom's Kamakura, Empire's Urizen), the "Standard Aladdin" (Maelstrom's Rukh, Empire's Brass Coast), and the "Dodgy Nomads" (Vampire; The Masquerade's Ravnos, 1318's Vici). Such stereotypes easily become a kind of dumping ground into which all manner of unpalatable racial prejudice can be channeled - and, simultaneously any degree of separation where the stereotype is still plainly visible often merely gives rise to the excuse of "but it's only fantasy", as if it is in any way not obvious to everyone in the surrounding mile or so that your kimono-wearing-honour-obsessed-funny-accented-badger-people are not quite clearly a racist caricature.

Finally, dismissive behaviour. Nobody likes being called a racist - partially because of the social approbation that comes with that label, and partly because if one accepted that one was being perhaps even a little bit racist, one would have to start a process of self-examination and thinking about uncomfortable truths around privilege. Thus we have the usual pleadings of intention being somehow magical, or any of the thousand and one equally unconvincing excuses.

So, what's the take home message?

To quote Dame Hixxi:

What we should be doing at LARP events is taking design work for any aspect of our games, whether we are writing, crewing, playing, running, or whatever, and criticising it from every angle, ESPECIALLY a racist one. And really? I can’t see the downside to doing this. I just can’t.
What does the LARP community have to lose by being more critical of themselves and the choices we make when it comes to being more inclusive?

Seems reasonable, no?

There's no need to play into harmful stereotypes. There's no need to appropriate elements of other cultures that you do not fully understand. There's no need to deny the presence of the elephant in the room that is racism in LARP.

If nothing else, what harm can come of a little honest self-analysis?

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