The elephant

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This is probably quite an expected post, given the title of this blog. This is the part where I talk about what it’s like being black AND a woman AND into tabletop gaming – a combination which is still pretty rare.

So, I’ve been around in the London roleplaying scene for almost four years now, and honestly I’m happy to report that it’s mostly been an absolute blast.

The first roleplaying group I joined was Indiemeet, which I think is why my experiences have been so positive overall. It’s a really large group that focuses on playing and testing weird indie games rather than traditional D&D or Pathfinder, so my experience was probably not as stereotypically bad as it might have been.

In general, I can only remember a handful of experiences where I’ve been the only person who wasn’t a cis male; but about 90% of the time I am the only black person or POC. There are times when I really, really feel it.

This is my first point: in my experience, the lack of racial diversity in roleplay gaming is worse than the lack of gender diversity – especially when it comes to black people.

I say black deliberately here, both because that is the only experience I can speak from and because there are entirely separate (but just as important) issues for East and South Asian players. There’s a whole other post in exploring how different races are perceived by western society regarding our likelihood to be ‘geeks’.

Anyway, as I continue to explore the community I notice it more. I am so, so often the only black face in the room, and it makes me feel hypervisible.

I tend to react to feeling so conspicuous by leaning into it and trying to subconsciously remind everyone that they have a black player at their table. I find myself almost always choosing clearly African names for my characters – Adama, Olu, Eku – and being explicit about their blackness when I describe them. I demand that my race is seen; that if I have to be so aware of it, everyone else should be as well. Perhaps that is petty of me.

There’s one player in particular who has specialised in riling my characters up, and isn’t shy about using microaggressions to do so. I really love that, because it feels real to me: yes, of course their white female character is going to automatically classify my black male character as stupid or as a threat. Let’s see how that goes (though, for clarity’s sake, I wouldn’t do that with any player I didn’t know or trust).

Having said all that, I definitely have times where I just wave a big sword around and forget all the sociopolitical stuff going on in real life. But don’t we all?

In terms of outright abuse, I haven’t experienced any, and I think it’s pretty terrible that I feel so lucky about that. However, there have been other things; a player deciding for the whole group that our game would be set in medieval England, for example, or boundaries for a game being discussed without me.

In the first instance, we have a player who has gone into the game with a firm idea of what it should be, without considering what other people might want. I don’t think it ever crossed their mind that other people at the table might be completely fucking bored of medieval England, or what implications might go along with that setting.

Obviously the solution to this is to be open to different perspectives and go with the flow – which of course is really a fundamental rule of roleplay. As an aside, I have a whole talk about setting games in Africa here.

The second example is more serious, because here we have several people discussing something extremely sensitive and making assumptions about it on behalf of another player. Not only that, but they decided not to have an X card.

I presume they did this because they thought they knew me well enough to make decisions on my behalf. Pro-tip: even if you think you know someone really well, you cannot and should not decide things like boundaries FOR them.

The problem here is two-fold: one, that they didn’t wait for the whole table to be present for the discussion; and two, that they seemed to think that I wouldn’t need to stop or draw a boundary. Perhaps that was connected to my blackness and perhaps not.

You see, one of the stereotypes you might not know about black people is that we are not expected to feel pain as much. This is why black women are called angry by default – people see rage rather than hurt. It’s why we’re called strong even when we’re cracking. We’re not seen as emotionally and physically vulnerable, so people find it very easy to hurt us. I have literally had someone stab me in the hand with a pencil and then be surprised that I bled.

Having said that, I want to be clear: the unconscious thought process here was probably not “oh, she doesn’t have boundaries”. It is far more likely to have been “oh, she’ll be confident and strong and fearless enough to speak up if she feels uncomfortable, so there’s no need for a mechanism.” Because it wouldn’t occur to them that I might be scared. Strong independent black women don’t get scared. We just stay strong.

On this occasion, I just ended up leaving early; I felt uncomfortable to begin with knowing things had been decided without me, and it got worse as things went on. Without an X card, I felt unable to speak up – not just because there wasn’t a mechanism, but because the decision they’d made not to have one made me feel like I’d be overreacting if I said anything.

The solution is simple: if you want to play a game, make sure everyone’s involved in table-talk about boundaries – everyone, whether you think they’ll need it or not.

That’s about all, really. If you have specific questions, I’m @Alecto101 on Twitter.

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