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White Fantasies and Popular Culture: Should Non-Whites be Included in a "Realistic" Video Game About Medieval Europe?


We find meaning through popular culture. It is a space where identities are negotiated and a society's values and beliefs are reinforced--as well as being subverted and challenged. Ultimately, popular culture is a projection of a society's collective subconscious.

As I have discussed here and elsewhere on numerous occasions--and with no small amount of controversy on the part of those who disagree with a basic thesis--popular culture is a space where political values and dominant norms around race, class, gender, and sexual are both reinforced and reproduced.

Popular culture is not "just" a fun distraction. Its power lies in the ability of individuals to dismiss it as "harmless", when in fact, popular culture is one of the dominant means through which individuals are socialized into a set of cultural and social values.

For example, The Walking Dead, which returns to television on Sunday night, is not "just" about zombies. Rather, the zombie motif is a way of working through anxieties about gender, nationality, freedom, human nature, survival, race, consumerism, faith, and other issues.

The HBO mini-series True Detective is a meditation on the place of religion in a nihilistic world, and where the story is set against the crippling poverty of rural New Orleans. Of note, careful viewers of True Detective have likely noticed how African-Americans are both invisible and hyper-visible in the story through the use of flashbacks as a narrative device.

I am particularly fascinated by how questions of race and representation remain present even in those spaces where individuals are seeking escape through popular culture and finding pleasure in creating alternate lives through traditional pen and paper role-playing games, having adventures in video games, engaging in speculative exercises of the imagination through literature and other media, or attending events such as The World Science Fiction Convention.

Discussions of how race and gender still "matter" in those "fun" and ostensibly "neutral" spaces are very impassioned. Why? Those spaces are "their" spaces. And how dare "you" bring "your" issues into "their" world.

White Supremacy and white privilege are operative across every aspect of American society. Ironically, fantasy--what should be detached and separate from the "real world"--is one of the spaces where Whiteness is most entrenched as an ideological force.

The fantastical spaces of video games, comic books, role-playing games, conventions, and other mediums/venues are not racially unmarked: there are "White" fantasies, "male" fantasies, and "straight" fantasies which are not universal...although they gain their power through a pretense and appeal to normality.

When the particular nature of a given fantasy is identified, its owners and adherents can become very defensive.

This dynamic is even more pronounced among those who imagine themselves as "outsiders" and somehow separate, if not superior to others, because of their choice in hobbies and interests. Self-described progressives, visionaries, futurists, and free-thinkers can be the most reactionary when confronted about how they too participate in and support systems of white privilege, racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.

Relative invisibility is one of the most powerful and enduring aspects of white supremacy and Whiteness. This is accomplished through appeals to "common sense" and the language of "everyone" or "it's just normal".

If such assumptions are challenged, and the particular way that the white racial frame operates is exposed (as a myopic and narrow understanding of the world, and not one that is all encompassing and natural) an uncomfortable truth is made visible.

The roles for people of color (and the Other more generally) in White fantasies are limited and circumscribed. There is a defined script for non-whites as viewed through the White Gaze. Those roles are even more pronounced in the realm of fantasy and speculative fiction (both interactive and otherwise). The best works of speculative literature and art, both digital and traditional, subvert and challenge those norms by making them clear and present in the text. The common, those examples of popular culture that are the worst examples of what we can derisively term as "mass culture", simply take Whiteness and White fantasies as a given.

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