J.K. Rowling recently reignited the Potterite shipping-wars by saying that she should never have coupled Ron with Hermione.
Among the things she apparently doesn’t regret putting into the world’s most widely-read/seen Fantasy franchise of recent decades are the following:
- Gold-obsessed Goblin bankers with big noses and a nigh-communistic inability to comprehend or respect ‘human’ notions of private property.
- A race of willing slaves with brown skin, huge rolling eyes and ‘pickaninny’ speech patterns.
- Giants who are born savage and thick, and who live in ‘primitive’ tribes.
Lest it be thought that I’m singling Rowling out for special snark, let me broaden this out immediately. The SF/Fantasy genre, as a whole, contains a discourse of race that represents a peculiarly insidious reflection of racial ideology. Race pervades these genres as a category. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is full of different ‘races’. The world of Star Trek is full of different ‘races’. The world of Doctor Who is full of different ‘races’. Just think how often we are assailed with ‘races’ in Fantasy that can be told apart by both physical characteristics (the blonde hair of the Thals, the crinkly noses of the Bajorans, etc.) and apparently inborn social characteristics. The Doctor pronounces the Jaggaroth “a vicious, callous, warlike race” (my emphasis). A social trait (the tendency to make war) is thus ascribed a racial origin. And the ones I’ve mentioned are just some of the best known and most mainstream.
Let’s look at another extreme example, which shows a particular kind of Fantasy worry about race:
There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today—I don’t know how to explain it, but it sort of makes you crawl. You’ll notice a little in Sargent if you take his bus. Some of ’em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of their necks are all shrivelled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young. The older fellows look the worst—fact is, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a very old chap of that kind. Guess they must die of looking in the glass! Animals hate ’em—they used to have lots of horse trouble before autos came in.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow over Innsmouth, written in 1931.
This is particularly interesting because the story is about ‘race-mixing’, expressing Lovecraft’s bigoted horror of ‘miscegenation’. But he wasn’t writing in a vacuum. He was a product of the late-19th and early-20th centuries… and, indeed, being a man stolidly stuck to the past, he was also a distillation of much of the American 19th century.
The American 19th century was a period of intense construction of race and ‘races’ as a social category (which is what ‘race’ is with reference to human ethnicity; as a biological idea it’s essentially meaningless). To quote Richard Seymour:
Historically, the act of oppression that produced the category of race preceded the systematic pseudo-scientific classification of human variation along racial lines.