Leaving the West

This was the introduction to a workshop I gave at Nine Worlds in 2016. I only had about five minutes for this, so this is a very quick overview – feel free to ask me for more thoughts!

A lot of the time, roleplayers focus on default European features when creating a setting. This means things like describing all NPCs as having white features and using Western ideas of religion, architecture, cultural expectations, and so on. This often leads to creating a game set in an intensely white environment.

This is what I feel puts a lot of people of colour off: the stereotypical role playing game, for many, is still a bunch of white guys living out a power fantasy. In addition, in the society we live in, the default is white everything.

If you don’t say “this person is black”, they are assumed to be white. In a similar way, if you don’t specify “this setting is NOT European”, it’s assumed to be based on western environments.

The thing is, Africa has some of the most diverse environments on this planet. It has waterfalls, mountains (WITH snow, thank you very much Bob Geldof), jungles, deserts, lakes, rivers, seas and coastlines, savannah, cities full of lights and high rise buildings, towns, villages, palaces, pyramids, fields of grass and trees, blue skies with fluffy clouds, rainstorms that drive everyone indoors, and of course a very hot sun.

However, because this is not the Africa that automatically comes to mind, it often doesn’t occur to GMs or players that it’s a potential setting for games – but it is, it is, it is.

So: confront this. Don’t be afraid to set your game in Africa or somewhere based on the continent. Talk to people from around there if you’re going to be doing a campaign that will need detail, and avoid any obvious stereotypes.

If you get called out, that’s fine. Accept it, apologise, and move on without overly dwelling on how guilty you feel for being told that you said or did a racist thing, because it’s not actually about your feelings when it comes to racism against black people. We’re all human and we all make mistakes and we’re all battling the ingrained prejudices that society pushes on us. Deal with it.

Here are my top five stereotypes to avoid for those who might not have an idea of them already:

  1. Tribes, in terms of being seen as primitive rather than as a different word for ethnicity – for example, my mother is from the Creole group, but other Gambian tribes include the Jola, the Mandinka, the Wolof, etc. It’s fine to acknowledge that these groups exist, but what is not fine is to denigrate them to barbaric, primitive people because of the way their society works.
  2. Literally any impressions of an African language ever. Or an assumption that they all speak the same language. I do not ever want to hear anyone saying ooga booga. End of.
  3. “Voodoo” and witch doctors, in terms of how the west has simplified it into dolls with pins stuck into them, zombies, and curses. Also, there’s little recognition that there are different types of vodun, and it’s often regarded as pure evil. That is simply not accurate. Don’t do it.
  4. Any stereotypical tropes about black people. This includes:

    – the magical Negro
    – the strong black woman who don’t need no man
    – the angry black man
    – the Mammy

    Also, if you’re going to set a game in Africa, you’d best make sure all of your NPCs are black.
  5. Finally, there’s what I call “topsy-turvy racism”. There is a lot of conversation out there around “ah, but what if the tables had turned and black people enslaved white people?” Talking about hypothetical racism towards white people when we live in a world where it’s still black people who are literally dying because of racism is incredibly ignorant.

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