This was originally posted on Patreon on October 30, 2017 and is possible through the generosity of my Patrons.
So, a good friend Joseph Carriker posted a link to this Kickstarter project, which features an afro-centric add on as a stretch goal. The begat a question about roleplaying a POC character when the player is not a POC*
“So hey, friends. Serious question. I’m a white dude. I think this setting looks amazing. There are zillions of settings out there that have been based on European ideas of fantasy. I love the idea of supporting a setting that represents ideas from other cultural sources, especially if I can support poc artists and authors. I mentioned to another white friend about playing in this setting when this is released and he was hesitant because he wasn’t sure if it would be akin to “black face”. Soooo… cool for non-poc to play poc characters? Not cool? Or even more broadly, cool for non-marginalized people to play marginalized characters? It’s an interesting conversation. I’d love to hear reactions.”
This comes up often, and having recently paneled at GenCon, it came up A LOT as some of the panels I was on covered the topic. I was tagged in replied and I had this to say first and foremost:
Yes, I’ve spoken on it before but honestly? I’m tired of the question because it usually comes with a side of either a) white guilt over wanting to play a POC character or b) a back handed request to get a POC’s OK to do some racist fucked up shit. There are plenty of resources and if you want to do right and want some education? Pay someone for their time to do so.
Because many times there is a fear of attempting to role play outside your experience. However, if you are playing a RPG and you’re an elf, orc, tiefling or were beast, I’m pretty sure you aren’t actually any of those things that you are portraying. If you are a hidden elf, then make some money off of that! Jokes aside, the problem isn’t with having a POC character present in a fantasy setting at all.
It’s how people will feel they need to justify that characters very existence by giving them an elaborate backstory, or worse saddle them with a backstory that shows that they *think* they know about actual POC. Without fail, they will create a character that is poor, uneducated, often saved by a well meaning (assumed white/non-human but still higher ranking in society) person and that’s where their ability to fight, read, write, whatever their chosen profession is in game comes from.
Instead of being able to image that fantasy humans, elves, orcs, etc come in various shades of brown and exist, there is this inability to accept that hey, you are playing in a setting where dragons and magic exist, so perhaps you can stretch that a little further and say brown folks are roaming the land too.
As to whether it’s “blackface” well that depends. Are you creating a fantasy Sambo that speaks the equivalent of fantasy jive and yes suh’s and no suh’s through the adventure? Then yes, you damn sure are doing tabletop blackface. You may not put on dark makeup at the table, but you’ve created a minstrel show on paper and that’s the worst thing you can do, in the name of trying to be diverse.
Are you trying to create a character that has a good backstory, that isn’t just another character you’ve already played with a different description of what they look like? Then you’re doing better and it’s not what I’d call blackface but there’s still a lack of making sure the character isn’t a stereotype on legs. That’s hard to not do because we all have ingrained biases and assumptions about others. Don’t act as if you don’t, everyone does.
Here is what I’d give as advice to someone asking for help on playing outside their experience, and this is generalized for a fantasy setting. If you’d like more detailed advice/consulting, drop me a line in comments.
- Have a friend look over your character carefully. Don’t know any POC tabletop folks? Fix that first, and pay someone to help you construct a non-tropey character.
- Does this character exist without special circumstances to explain why they are in the game world/joined the party?
- What background have you given the character? Are they poor, uneducated, from a lower class, or were previously slaves because you’ve made them a POC? If so, start over, do not collect $200 or pass Go.
- How have you described the character? Did you use food words? [Pro-tip, Don’t](1) Overly described how dark they are, or their hair in florid detail? Try again as that reeks of fetishization. Remember, your description is what other players have to go on and when you go on and on about the wool like quality, or coffee bean darkness of a character, I’m going to wonder about you
- What is the characters motivation? This might seem odd because all your characters need a reason to be right? But is it motivated by (faux) racism against white humans, or others? That’s an easy trap to fall into, so don’t do it!
- Does this character fit the Noble Savage stereotype? Are they shocked by civilization and unable to fit in? Again, that’s a bad trope that should not be affixed to a POC character period.
- Have you made it so they hate that they are dark, not human, not elven, etc? That self hatred due to race isn’t a good look and is something carefully, carefully handled, IF the GM lets you do it.
Those are a few things that I’d advise, again this would change outside a fantasy setting. TL;DR if you have elves, dragons and magic, there’s no reason you can’t have well done, believable POC characters in your setting.
Another thing I wanted to address because it came up in the overall discourse about whether playing a POC character is ‘blackface’ in a tabletop setting. The idea of learning and of empathy. Here’s a reply that I had about whether playing a POC as a non person of color could teach anyone.
…playing a POC in a RPG is not a learning method and no one will ever walk away from a game knowing what it’s like to be a person of color. There’s no system that can ever give that experience, not should anyone be encouraged to try it out as some learning experience. That’s what leads to false empathy & cries of “I played a black character once, I understand your issues!” From some people.
That brought about this reply further down the chain, which prompted me to address this overall in a Patreon post rather than going back and forth on Joe’s initial share of the KS.
…another element to this question of a non-poc playing a poc. That any of these RPGs will be played with others. Which means the GM also has a role in how the game and treatment of the character will happen. As do the other players at the table. Does the GM play to the race bias that a character that is poc would encouter when setting up the story and playing the NPC. If the story centered around elves needing something from dwarves and they don’t get along, it would be strange and break the world narrative of the distrust that exist between the two. Especially if it isn’t set up that the dwarf their trading with is friendly to elves. So to would it be necessary for GM to treat the poc character in a racial manner is fit the story, if they had never met a poc or had been at war with them in the story narrative. With that come the potential for sympathy.
This is a false equivalency. Fantasy races are already conflated with POC. See Orcs and how they are code for POC(2). An elf in conflict with a dwarf is not the same thing as a POC character having to be treated in a racial manner by the GM. There’s no comparison here, and if a GM used that as an excuse to insert racism into the setting because, well elves and dwarves have CANON beef with each other? I’d leave and never come back. It also won’t give anyone empathy for others, just as they won’t be able to learn from playing a POC character in a fantasy game.
This circles back to the points I made to start out with. You can have POC characters without HAVING to justify why they exist in a fantasy setting. You can have POC characters without inflicting racism against them in the game. Your POC players (IF you have any) get enough of that shit in the outside world, don’t bring it to the table. Also, if the GM is a white person, you can never, ever bring an authentically racist experience to the world for a POC character.
White people don’t experience racism in the ways people of color do, and trying to inject it into a game when you’ll never be able to (nor should you want to inflict this on your players or others at the table) replicate it. If the game setting has established conflict between elves and dwarves, high elves and wood elves that’s fine, go forth. But don’t shove racism down a player’s throat because that is an established conflict.
We often want one space where we can leave that behind and sadly tabletop has not proven to be that space. You want to help POC creators be seen, and to get more diversity at your table? Try the following (last bit of *free* advice you’re getting in this post.
- Make it known your game store, your table, your group is welcoming to EVERYONE.
- Use the X card so players can have an out if things get uncomfortable and weird if another player tries (and fails) to play outside their experience.
- Check in with your players about their experience, especially if you have a mixed group and someone is trying to RP a POC character and they are not POC.
- If you don’t have any POC players, investigate why and fix that.
- Use the internet, there are plenty of apps to play online so no one is restricted to literally who can come to the table
- If you make games and want to create outside your experience? Hire a consultant
- Don’t invite one POC, one woman identified person, one queer person and think you’ve done good. That’s scratching the surface.
That’s just the beginning, there’s plenty more you can do to create, run and play a character that is outside your experience or is “Other” than you without falling to tropes and stereotypes. Hopefully this post will help you and others reading it to do better.
* POC = People of Color
1 = A post I wrote on not using Food Words to describe POC in writing
2 = Wikipedia entry on the Noble Savage Trope