Orcs: Fantasy Race and Pseudo-Racial Slur

Trigger Warning: This contains frequent discussion of racist slurs used against African Americans (out of respect I refuse to spell the words out)

After reading her Dreamblood Duology, I have finally begun to read NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy and plan to read her newest book, The Fifth Season shortly. NK Jemisin, a black female author, is a much-needed voice in a genre dominated by white male authors such as George GG Martin or JR Tolkein writing Eurocentric fantasy worlds. In contrast, she gives priority to people of color and other minorities overlooked or oppressed within the genre and embeds them in cultures outside the trope of pseudo-medieval European worlds. Whereas I find such fictional writing of hers entertaining, I find her critical writing enlightening.  One of my favorite articles she wrote is “The Unbearable Baggage of Orcing” wherein she deconstructs what these generic fantasy foes represent in the real world and why they are morally problematic for the fantasy genre.

Tolkein is (in)famously responsible for providing the foundation of the traditional fantasy setting populated by fantasy races adapted from European mythology and folklore such as dragons, elves and dwarves. Orcs have a more complex geneology behind them, being a sort of demonic elf, but have become as recognizable as the other aforementioned races to anyone familiar with the fantasy genre. In Jemisin’s analysis, orcs are “creatures that look like people, but aren’t really. Kinda-sorta-people, who aren’t worthy of even the most basic moral considerations, like the right to exist. Only way to deal with them is to control them utterly a la slavery, or wipe them all out.” The only way to confront orcs is to have them “mowed down, usually on sight and sans negotiation, by Our Heroes. Orcs are human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology.” They are inherently evil and therefore necessarily unworthy of our attention, but our intent to destroy them. And yet it’s the orcs themselves who are considered evil? Funny that.

If this sounds to you like the way in which people of color have been routinely represented as sub-human by white supremacists and imperialists throughout history, then you are not alone. It is the same conclusion that Jemisin reaches at the end of the article and is the reason that she is uninterested in the inclusion of orcs in her writing. If you fail to see this connection then you probably white, and are blinded by the distance your whiteness privileges you with. I have written about the conservative and racist tendencies in the fantasy genre before, devoting specific attention to Tolkein and orcs. Rather than repeat that essay, I want to offer an analogy that I think is helpful to conceptualizing how creatures such as orcs can nevertheless be offensive despite their being imaginary.

Think of the term “orc” as a racist slur like the N-word is in the United States. Russian writer Yisroel Markov did exactly that in his fantasy parody of Tolkein, The Last Ring-Bearer. Taking place in Middle Earth after the events of The Lord of the Rings books, Markov puts us in the perspective of Mordor and the “dark forces” of Sauron. The book is written as a revisionist history of the events portrayed in Tolkein’s original works, rewriting much of what we consider to be canon in the history of Middle-Earth if not the fantasy genre in general. One of my favorite revisions is his depiction of orcs: rather than referring to corrupted sub-human monsters, Markov reinvents the term as a racist slur used against the Orocuen, a race of foreign men. In this way, Markov makes explicit within his writing the way in which “orc” is read as a dehumanization of foreign and “primitive” peoples of color. His orcs are just men who have been labeled as monsters by the imperialists intent upon the collapse of Mordor’s scientific and independent culture.

Now substitute “orc” for the N-word and think through the implications this has. Orcs are dirty, impoverished, violent primitives.  They are dark skinned and ape-like, less intelligent than humans but possessed of animalistic strength. They are short-lived but breed in great numbers and probably inhabit inhospitable regions such as deserts or jungles. This description of orc is congruent with the racist caricature of African Americans that the N-word may convey when used as a term of derision. Look at the way in which African Americans have been depicting in racist art; the imagery of grotesque black-skinned ape-men are common-place and hardly a far-cry from the appearance of Tolkein-esque orcs. Also keep in mind that the humans doing the orc-slaying are probably all white pseudo-Europeans with noble souls blessed by destiny of the gods to justify such slaughter. That sounds hauntingly familiar as well.

Orcs are a convenient way to represent peoples of color as sub-human without appearing guilty of doing so. Because one cannot be guilty of dehumanization if the person in question is not even human at all, can they? This reminds me of a racist comment I once overheard on my university campus in response to accusations of anti-Semitism: “its not racist if Jews are not human to begin with.” A disgusting rationalization, but a convenient one nevertheless; racism appears to provide its own rationalized excuse and fantastical racism has the added benefit of well, fantastical. The caricature of a n***er is offensive because it deals with actual African Americans, while the description of an orc is apparently inoffensive because orcs are not real at all. But this misses the point. People do believe in real “orcs”, they just refer to them using the N-word instead.

Orcs and the black-faces of minstrel-shows are both offensive fantasies that pervert the beauty and diversity of black bodies and cultures. The only apparent difference between the two mockeries if that the the minstrel-show is intended to be a reflection of reality in a way that the former is not. But representation is more critical than intention; one can be offensive without intending to be racist or believing that a monstrous example of racism is true. One doesn’t have to internalize a racist joke into a sincere belief to find it amusing, but one’s amusement is likely to be interpreted as nevertheless offensive to those it portrays. I don’t believe that simply because one enjoys reading a book about orc-slaying one is unconsciously fantasizing about the genocide of Africans just as I don’t think one is a necessarily a white supremacist simply because one possesses privileges associated with being white. The problem is when such privileges and their associations to power structures remain unacknowledged and unchallenged; by failing to critique the symbols of systematic oppression we only reinforce its status-quo they are invested in.

By focusing our attention upon the intentions of white writers we ignore the way in which their works are received by black audiences as offensive. And by responding to such black critics with accusations of reverse racism or over-sensitivity is absurd in the case of the former and ironically indifferent in the case of the latter. Such responses would perhaps be legitimate if black people and other peoples of color were not so routinely forced to live their lives as if they were orcs, as something sub-human, something other to be feared and suppressed like wild animals. For people born of white privilege, orcs are a mere fantasy while for people of color it may be a lived reality of oppression and institutional violence. The way in which fantasy narratives not only reflect but justify such violence is likely to only appeal to those ignorant of their privilege or invested in it. One could, and many authors do, write worlds with metaphysics that justify wanton slaughter because the victims’ being is inherently evil and antithetical to the order of existence. But that sort of narrative is exactly the same which racists construct in their own conscience to rationalize their bigotry. If the fantasy genre is to mature beyond criticisms of irresponsible escapism, let alone sexism or racism, it must transcend moral alignment based upon mere racial or cultural affiliation alone. Our world is not benefited by such dishonest moral simplicity and it is a waste to indulge in such delusional literature. I don’t have any interest in such childishly violent fantasies or their parallels in reality; that is why I chose to read writers like NK Jemisin over Tolkein and why you should too. What we need is literature that looks beyond the moral stupidity of the orc trope. I at least want orcs that own up to the racist reflection which they are, orcs which are themselves victims of bigotry, rather than the rationalization of it. I await the day when “orc” is considered a dirty word in the history of the fantasy genre, and the product of a less tolerant, less diverse age of literature.

One could, and many authors do, write worlds with metaphysics that justify wanton slaughter because the victims’ being is inherently evil and antithetical to the order of existence. But that sort of narrative is exactly the same which racists construct in their own conscience to rationalize their bigotry. If the fantasy genre is to mature beyond criticisms of irresponsible escapism, let alone sexism or racism, it must transcend moral alignment based upon mere racial or cultural affiliation alone. Our world is not benefited by such dishonest moral simplicity and it is a waste to indulge in such delusional literature. I don’t have any interest in such childishly violent fantasies or their parallels in reality; that is why I chose to read writers like NK Jemisin over Tolkein and why you should too. What we need is literature that looks beyond the moral stupidity of the orc trope. I at least want orcs that own up to the racist reflection which they are, orcs which are themselves victims of bigotry, rather than the rationalization of it. I await the day when “orc” is considered a dirty word in the history of the fantasy genre, and the product of a less tolerant, less diverse age of literature.

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