Was Tolkien A Racist?

How could Tolkien be accused of being a racist when his races were, well, made up? No, there are no hobbits in the world. No, there are no elves. No, there are no goblins or orcs made be the magic of an evil wizard.
on May 20, 2019 · 39 comments

Don’t laugh. In the secular world of books, fantasy is under attack, and the father of fantasy has not escaped the accusations. Granted, contemporary writers face the accusation of being racist more than those of the classics, but not entirely. Some have claimed that Tolkien’s orcs in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy are “racialised.” (See “Writers blocked: Even fantasy fiction is now offensive; Persecution is endemic in the vicious world of Young Adult publishing” by Karen Yossman, The Spectator).

Yes, really. Of course author Phillip Pullman, years ago, accused C. S. Lewis of being “‘blatantly racist’ and misogynistic,” so an accusation against Tolkien should not be unexpected. But is there any truth to these charges?

A look at what’s behind the allegations first, will be helpful.

Primarily the condemnation of stories that once were considered classics, comes from other authors, particularly those in the secular young adult community. Fueled by Twitter attacks and chatter from liberal writers with an agenda, fantasy readers are being schooled to read—and review—stories through the lens of identity politics.

As a result some authors have experienced the vitriol turned against them, to the point that they have withdrawn books from publication, even turned the ones in print into pulp. (See Yossman’s article).

In some ways you might say Tolkien is getting off light.

But how could he be accused of being a racist when his races were, well, made up? No, there are no hobbits in the world. No, there are no elves. No, there are no goblins or orcs made be the magic of an evil wizard.

But apparently the suggestion of slavery—not any real, actual mention of it—is enough to bring about the charge that Tolkien is a racist.

I find this trend in the way the secular book world is going, to be rather chilling.

Beyond the issue of gender politics is the idea that ideas must be those that are approved or removed. In other words, a story that presents a different slant, from a different perspective, is not allowed. Concerning slavery, apparently the accepted position is that this is an American issue, suffered by African-Americans, who are then the only ones qualified to write about any type of slavery.

My agent and friend experienced this attitude first hand. Sally Apokedak, before self-publishing her award-winning novel The Button Girl (2018 Realm Award–Debut), submitted it to a number of secular publishers. Some of the remarks she received in return expressed this same idea that her story line about slavery and her attitudes toward male/female relationships made the book both racist and misogynist.

Apparently the two accusations come hand-in-hand because C. S. Lewis was accused of both as well.

The point is simple: from now on, even in fantasy, readers won’t find books from traditional secular publishers that elevate a traditional man-woman relationship or that shows a race of people that is in any way reminiscent of an oppressed people group. No Native Americans, then. No Africans. No Middle Easterners. And no made up races that remind these social justice warriors of any of these groups. Unless the author is from one of those groups. Then and only then can the writer create a story that involves another people group—unless it is a group, not the author’s own.

I suspect Christian authors and readers of Christian fiction will be affected less than others. After all, small press novels, ones self-published, or those published by a traditional Christian imprint, may not feel the same pressure as these authors in the general market have. But I wonder if that fact isn’t necessarily a good thing. Doesn’t it indicate that we Christian writers and readers are operating in our own safe bubble, immune from the slings and arrows of racism? Until we aren’t.

Why should we think we will remain immune to accusations of being racist or misogynist? I mean, if Tolkien was open to such a charge, can we think that the Christian addressing slavery to sin will not also face this same kind of vitriol, at some point? Even, perhaps, at the point that such ideas are deemed unlawful.

Am I being too much of a doomsayer? Ten years ago, I would have thought so. But when I read about the hate that is directed at people for their “hateful attitude toward people of another race,” it makes me wonder what has happened to the marketplace of ideas. Can we no longer hear each other? Can we no longer understand another’s perspective through an exchange of ideas? Is an exchange of ideas something that will no longer be tolerated?

I’m hoping that the Church universal—that stands on the sure word of God—will be a beacon to the rest of our culture as the counterpoint to the world’s rejection of free speech. Of course, free speech means we take the good with the bad.

But isn’t Christianity all about the freedom to admit our sin, to tell God about our struggles, to receive forgiveness, and in return to offer it? Isn’t it about our common need for Christ? Not just Americans need the Lordship of Jesus. And not just white Americans. Every tribe and tongue and nation will be represented at the great feast of the Lamb.

Think what this refusal to exchange ideas would have done to the spread of Christianity. Actually the early disciples struggled with the issue: was The Way only for Jews? Or could Gentiles also follow Christ. I, for one, am happy that Gentiles weren’t shut out from the kingdom of heaven! So may the Church continue to be the Church, even in our stories, even in the face of a secular world determined to permit only accepted ideas.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. Freedom of speech always comes with some bullying and abuse, etc. I think it’s important to not be fearful of that. Can’t I stand up against bullying and abuse? Sure, I can. Can’t I deal with having some rocks thrown at my head? Sure. Though maybe not so graciously as I would hope. It can be very damaging, but overall, I tend to believe there’s some fringe angry people, and then there’s the rest of humanity. I’d rather keep free-speech open and let people get angry, than try to lock it down. Seems like that’s the response a lot of conservatives have to the more loony leftist people. But it really just amounts to bullying in response to bullying. Not exactly, “turn the other cheek,” is it? Idk. If I was having a book protested and was receiving death threats, Idk how I’d respond. Probably be emotionally devastated, and live in a hotel for awhile, but I’m not certain I’d take it down. Although if it would avoid violence, I could easily imagine taking it down.

    But if my daughter or wife were having that happen to them, I’d want to blow some heads off, and tear some limbs.

    All so hypothetical, though…

    • Rachel Nichols says:

      The angry fringe get high rankings in Twitter i guess. Publishers should ignore twitter mobs. Most don’t read books anyhow so they’re rants are irrelevant.

  2. Rachel Nichols says:

    You can’t please everyone.

    “Woke” people hate stories, laughter, history, love and friendship. They live to tear down beautiful monuments, censor books others enjoy, set cathedrals on fire, and physically hurt people when not screaming at the sky. They love being triggered since it inflates their pride.

    They attack each other when not attacking outsiders. They stand FOR nothing, but oppose everything. Like the Orcs Tolkien writes about. None of them have green skin. The color of skin isn’t the factor, but the content of their characters.

    They will hate anything beautiful, true, or simply enjoyed by others since condemning innocent mirth makes them righteous in their own eyes.

    I don’t recommend deliberately “triggering” them, but they enjoy being outraged. To the hateful all others are haters

    Follow the Golden Rule, but don’t bother trying to make them like you. It’s a lost cause.

    Lots of people hated the OT prophets and Apostles. it goes with the territory of Christianity.

  3. With people like Tolkien and Lewis, that gets a bit complicated. People are a product of their upbringing and circumstances, so it is possible that they had some prejudices that were common during their time period(or maybe not). BUT, that doesn’t mean that everything they write was ‘insanely racist’. Even if they had tidbits in their stories that seemed a little racist, that doesn’t automatically mean that their entire books are racist/something that would teach others to be racist.

    So, in theory, Tolkien may have had some prejudices, but does that mean that the way he wrote the elves, dwarves, orcs, etc was actually racist/meant to promote racism in every way that woke Twitter assumes? No, not really. Even if it was, what do they expect us to do about it? Is no one allowed to read Lord of the Rings anymore? That’s silly. Even if the racism is there, we can recognize it, roll our eyes at it, make sure we teach our children to interpret the story correctly (acknowledge that the racism is there, but that we should decry the racism instead of imitating it.) And…all that.

    Thing is, although racism, etc. needs to be dealt with in our society, it’s almost like people read something and then subconsciously TRY to figure out how it could possibly be construed as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. And since pretty much anything can be construed to look one way or another, that means that people are going to misinterpret a lot of situations and be unwilling to admit it.

    This is a problem, because people can get to the point where they’re jumping at shadows. Screaming ‘racist!’ at every single opportunity without considering whether the accusation could be false…is just going to de legitimize other people’s genuine efforts to eliminate racism. Part of the issue (on both sides, sadly) is that people treat the issue like a search and destroy mission, and as if everyone that disagrees with them is automatically an evil enemy.

  4. To be fair, it’s not generally the Orcs who get brought up in the context of racism in Tolkien, but the Southrons or Haradrim (who are described as brown or black-skinned, some of them human and others more troll-like), who are the enemies of the emphatically white-skinned people of Gondor and in league with Sauron. Since Tolkien fails to provide us with any characters with brown or black skin who aren’t evil or at least fighting on the evil side, there’s some justification for concern here.

    • I get it. But Tolkien’s vision was to create a mythology for Europe that connected with their general worldview. He lived in a different world back then. It’s definitely a stretch to say he was racist.

      • I think what you’ve just said by “a mythology for Europe that connected with their general worldview… back then” is that Tolkien was a product of his times, and those times were, sadly, pretty racist. JRRT wasn’t the worst offender by any means; he was more thoughtful than many of his contemporaries when it came to such issues, and in some ways he was exemplary (his vocal rejection of anti-Semitism, for instance). However, he was nevertheless influenced by racist attitudes toward non-Europeans, and tended to mostly disregard brown people or else characterize them in stereotypical and negative ways.

        That doesn’t mean we should write Tolkien or his books off in disgust, by any means. I love them. But it doesn’t hurt to bear that unexamined racism did play a factor in his thinking, and that non-white readers have genuine reasons to be troubled by that when they read the books.

        • Actually, I was thinking more along the lines that his work was a product of looking at the history of Europe and imagining a mythology that could have given rise to their thoughts. That seemed, from what he wrote, to be his intent (unless I’m misconstruing something). It has to do with narrative POV (who was “writing” the books? as in The Hobbit, Bilbo was the narrator, and everything was filtered through his personality and perspective).

          Just because the books characterize a legion of dark-skinned people as coming to wage war in Sauron’s defense doesn’t mean he was racist. I’m not saying what you said doesn’t make sense (because it does). I’m just saying, it’s a jump to claim he himself was racist unless there was something else in his life that indicated he had racist attitudes.

          I understand the reasons non-white readers are troubled. I get it.

          Interestingly enough, I was reading translated interviews from Miyazaki (the director of Spirited Away–and my personal favorite film director) on the Lord of the Rings films — not the books — and Miyazaki perceived that the films 1. glorified violence (I agree – whereas the books didn’t), and 2. Were racist against Asians because the orcs were obviously caricatures of Asian peoples. I had never thought of that before, but after reading what he’d said, I looked at the design of the orcs again, and I have to say I totally see what he means. Still, I HIGHLY doubt that Jackson’s intent was to be racist against Asians. After all, he was born and raised in New Zealand — home to descendants of Asiatic islanders. It just goes to show that it’s stupid to read too much into things and make claims that aren’t obvious beyond all doubt. Especially when you take into account Jackson’s film District 9, and its condemnation of racism and racial segregation. People think that they can take a class on “theme” in fiction, and they’re suddenly able to understand every creative’s inner sins, and condemn them for it.

    • Rachel Nichols says:

      In J.R.’s defense these people are so minor you can totally miss them. You can’t even call them “characters” since there’s no development.

      Out of 1000+ pages he dedicates half a page to describing them. Most of it’s about the elephant they bring. (Speciesism not doubt.) I barely remember them.

      The idea is they’re the invaders. Invaders can be a threat.

      The Native Americans aren’t condemned for finding the pale skinned colonists a threat after all.

  5. Krystine says:

    There was a period in Georgian England where groups of people abandoned themselves to emotional outpouring. Whether it was groups who came together to weep loudly on the street because of the supposed tragic beauty of a face someone saw in a window or raging at a supposed offense against the populace, the end result was the same: the reaction was out of all proportion to whatever triggered it.

    With every action, historically there is an equal and opposite reaction, and that quintessentially British ‘stiff upper lip’ was the answer to this emotionalism.

    It feels like we’ve arrived there yet again, where feelings have been separated from logic and reason, and any basic in fact.

    I have to wonder what we’ll find to counter it this time–because we must counter it.

    I think it helps though, when people stand up and speak out like you have, Becky.

  6. notleia says:

    *Picard facepalm meme*

      • I don’t really know what to say about that article. For the most part I kind of agree, especially about how stress, abuse, etc can mess with a person’s head and that people are often too quick to dismiss what they have to say.

        On the other hand, just because someone has PTSD doesn’t mean that people should stop taking what they say with a grain of salt, or that traumatized people are licensed to trample all over everyone else’s boundaries. The person in that article assumed that their ex was dating an underage person, for instance, and it sounded like they were kind of spreading false accusations based on that assumption. That isn’t ok. (The article acknowledged that, but regardless, it’s a bad idea to just outright believe someone.)

        As far as believing someone with PTSD or whatnot, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to videos posted by survivors of Narcissistic and Psychopathic abuse, and it’s pretty clear that it can be hard to tell who’s lying, who’s misinterpreting, etc. Narcissists will sometimes make their victims look like the abusers, for example. Personally, I take what EVERYONE says with a grain of salt. At the same time, I try not to go around invalidating people. Like that article says, I assume that SOMETHING made the person feel and behave the way they do, so I do my best to be there for them.

        But, assuming that a person is automatically in the right/that everyone they complain about is an abuser is a bad idea. Like, that’s a really easy way to turn into that person’s flying monkey. So, like, I dunno. Be sensitive to what someone is potentially going through, but don’t let them haphazardly trample over people’s boundaries or assume they’re right about everything.

        I did enjoy the article and bookmarked it, though, so thank you for sharing.

        • notleia says:

          But sometimes it feels more like people are afraid of Being Wrong than they are of the possibility of a gross creeper being around.

          Heck if I know what to do, but I at least don’t want people to dismiss the possibility of manipulators and abusers so easily. It sometimes feels like people would rather ignore it because doing something about it would take too much work.

          • I haven’t read the article yet so dismiss if I’m too off-context. But I think a more common reason might be the total unwillingness to admit the possibility of being wrong.

          • I’ve been searching out ways to handle both issues. If there’s accusations flying between two people, for instance, and there’s no way to prove who’s at fault and who isn’t, one goal for me would be to keep the two people separated and make sure everyone involved is safe as possible. From there, it would be necessary to keep an eye on them and look for evidence on who the actual perpetrator is. It isn’t a perfect solution or the only one needed, but it’s an idea, at least.

            At a minimum, if there’s accusations flying around, I’m likely to be wary of both sides and keep an eye on them, just in case.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I read the article you posted below and found myself puzzled…I mean, this isn’t someone who got raped, molested by a relative, saw someone shot in the face, got mangled in some kind of accident…it’s just someone who had a kind of difficult relationship with someone who wasn’t all that nice.

      PTSD should require some Traumatic Stress before we can call it PTSD, right? Though I suppose it is true people can create traumatic stress in their own mind…anyway, as someone who has witnessed some fairly bad stuff and had some fairly terrible things happen to me, I guess I felt less empathetic than I should have felt…like someone crying over a paper cut on a finger when I’ve lost a finger to an ax…but to revert to my empathetic self (which is how I think I am most of the time–“suck it up buttercup” is not in fact my standard response to people in hardship), I’m sorry for whatever psychological trauma the writer went through. Though I kinda do think the observations offered on PTSD may be somewhat less that wholly valuable in the article.

      But yes, I do agree with the author that there are people flat out unwilling to believe how common human evil can be. Tolkein may well have had racist ideas–which would not have necessarily made the label “worse person who ever lived” apply to him. It’s possible for someone to have evil in them and still be inspirational or good in other aspects. I mean, isn’t that rather doctrinal for at least most Christians? That we are born into sin by nature and we also learn sin from the culture around us (in the Bible, called “the world”) and we are ALSO influenced by genuine spiritual forces of evil? I mean, with all that evil floating around, it should be no surprise that it’s a rare thing for someone to actually be clean of evil, to be so good as we cannot detect their evil. People might be super nice and kind, but still have tremendous selfishness in various ways–right?

      Was Tolkien a racist? Probably at least a little. When he describes skin colors, which he didn’t do very much to be honest, he actually did attribute lighter skin to better people and darker skin to worse people. Sounds at least mildly racist to me. But that doesn’t mean that I have nothing to learn from Tolkien.

      Lewis’s writing actually is more complex–he portrayed the people of Calormen as villains not because they are dark-skinned, but because their religion is a stand-in for Islam, with parallels to our real world (combined with ancient Assyrian Paganism), while also going out of his way to say how pale-skinned Jadis the White Witch was. That does NOT look like racism to me.

      Concerning him, Lewis, there’s solid evidence to say he had a problem with certain cultures other than his own–which is not racism technically, and in fact is a topic worthy of reasoned discussion. Do YOU want to live under a caliphate? Lewis clearly thought a Arthurian-style monarchy would be better–and whether it would be or not is something worth talking about seriously.

      Anyway, perhaps Tolkien was somewhat racist. Is being racist evil? Yes. It always was and still is. Can I learn something from someone who did something or believed something that I believe is evil? YES.

      Does Tolkien’s personal evil of racism (which by the way, did not define him the way racism defined, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs) mean he’s rotting in hell? I doubt it–we all have our own evil to deal with, don’t we?

      So why don’t we just admit Tolkien seems to have been a little racist but nonetheless was a great and inspirational writer? Because that’s the truth, as best I’m able to determine.

      • The article starts off by saying that the PTSD symptoms were “as a result of ongoing sexual trauma that I was unable to escape for about a year.” So it sounds like this person went through a lot, but was writing about things that happened in the aftermath, rather than the initial trauma.

        Sometimes people have been through a lot but severely understate it or can’t articulate it well, though.

        I think I mostly agree with you on Lewis. And Aravis is probably one of my fave chars in the series. One interesting thing to me is that we often don’t see as many tough, flawed, redemptive female characters as we do tough, flawed, redemptive male chars. Either that, or people don’t think about the tough redemptive female chars as much, so I think Lewis at least gets some points for writing a fairly decent one. I like how he showed early on that she wasn’t a bad person but still had to work through the effect her upbringing had on her.

        • Travis Perry says:

          Yeah, I got to admit a bias in that I think “ongoing sexual trauma I was unable to escape for a year” is one thing if you are a child being molested by your parent or stepparent but if you are an adult, there is no way anybody should be able to do that to you…so yeah, that sounds like fictional trauma to me. (Maybe that’s a bias.)

          • You’d be surprised. Often enough, abuse starts off slow, and the perpetrator increases the situation gradually, so by the time it’s ‘obvious’, they already have a psychological hold on the victim. The victim can feel too scared to leave, or they feel like they can fix the situation if they just stay a little longer, which is reinforced by the psychological games the perpetrator plays. Even if someone does leave, the perpetrator sometimes stalks the victim, threatening family and friends, and law enforcement can’t always handle it right away.

            Walking away isn’t easy in many cases, though. If an abuser is able to abuse someone psychologically, they will probably also isolate their victim (socially and/or physically). So they will take control of that person’s finances, take away car keys, etc, or secretly run a smear campaign in the victim’s social circle that way it’s that much harder to escape. Escape is possible, but it isn’t easy because many abusers won’t just let their victim escape. Either the abuser is afraid of being found out, or they don’t want to lose the victim they spent so much time grooming, or maybe they’re just upset at the idea of letting their ‘possession’ escape them. Abusive situations aren’t limited to all that, but that’s why it isn’t as simple as ‘just leaving’ in many cases.

            Even if she could/should have left, that doesn’t mean the abuse didn’t happen. I used to brush off the psychological aspect, too, but even though I haven’t been abused I’ve had some pretty intense interpersonal conflicts that challenged what I thought about the psychological aspect of conflict. It isn’t easy to understand until you’ve been through something that incites that stress.

            • Travis Perry says:

              Two things–one I agree you are right that terrible things can happen that are essentially psychological and abusers can do more harm than people realize. So some people are real victims in subtle ways.

              But two, not everyone is. A whole bunch of people (sorry) strike me as having little to no idea what suffering really is, since they’ve lived basically coddled lives. I think there are plenty of people complaining of abuse who were not really actually abused, but simply have hurt feelings over relatively ordinary relationship issues which they themselves contributed to.

              Note I am especially referring here to the abuse of the term “Post Traumatic Stress”–PTS refers to a body’s reactions to things your mind is hard-wired to think can kill you, like your life about to end, massive bloodshed, etc. Unless someone thinks a person really is going to KILL you, even if you suffer greatly, you technically are not going through Traumatic Stress.

              That sounds harsh, but I don’t think most people in our culture our all that good at being psychologically resilient. People should work to build their own resilience with of course strength given by God.

              • In general, people who suffer domestic abuse do fear the abuser will kill them. I’ve never personally encountered anyone who complained of abuse that just ended up being simply hurt feelings over relatively ordinary relationship issues. Have you?

              • Well, of course not everyone is. That doesn’t mean the person in the article didn’t go through something horrible (she may or may not have).

                Unfortunately, some people are more predisposed to getting caught up in an abuser’s web, too. Sometimes when people are children, they suffer abuse that leads to things like codependency. Sometimes, because of that, they even feel like the abuse is normal, so even if they’re miserable, they don’t necessarily know to leave right away. Or, some people are more vulnerable precisely because they’ve never been abused. They don’t always recognize the signs until it gets really dangerous. It’s even worse when the abuse occurs in a romantic relationship because the victim is often in love the the abuser and wants to trust them and fix the relationship rather than leave.

                Could you imagine telling a soldier ‘You aren’t in danger anymore. Be more proactive and stop getting triggered into PTSD flashbacks, you big silly!’ That’s pretty much what people do when they go around assuming that someone’s abuse wasn’t that bad. Or that it ‘didn’t happen’/should be overlooked just because they should have been proactive and left. Those are attitudes that make it more difficult for victims to leave, in fact.

          • Sorry, Travis, but that’s stupid. I personally know someone this happened to. It was their boyfriend–and it really messed them up. Most common abusers are those very close to you. Blaming the victim is ridiculous.

            • Travis Perry says:

              Sorry, Brennan, but it’s not blaming a victim to tell people that you should not let yourself be abused over a long period of time. Sure, it does no good if the abuse has already happened, but people need to be more proactive about themselves–don’t you think?

              • Let’s take the person in my life who this happened to as an example. Everyone thought this guy was great. She thought he was great. Then he started getting a bit more specific about not wanting her to go certain places or do certain things. She thought it was a bit odd but definitely reasonable. They grew very close and she was going to marry him. Then he started getting aggressive with her. He started becoming verbally and emotionally (psychologically) abusive and controlling. One day, his hands ended up around her throat, and she went from pushing back against his verbal abuse, to thinking she was going to die. He backed down and acted like it was an accident. Then bawled his eyes out saying it would never happen again. (there was more than just plain physical abuse, by the way, there was sexual trauma–it happened in a similarly insidious way so that she wasn’t even certain what was happening until after it had happened) Then the abuse would go away for a bit, then come back. She had her own issues, and he controlled her by saying that if she told anyone about his issues, he would publically embarrass her about hers. She’d finally had enough, and she said she was leaving him. He threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone. He threatened to kill himself. She was terrified for herself and all her family.

                Tell me, would you stand in front of her and tell her (to her face) “You should have been more proactive.”? Or would you keep quiet and help her? What would be the appropriate response?

      • notleia says:

        Some people have feared for their lives on a daily basis right from the comfort of their own homes, Travis. You can end up just as dead from being shot by your partner as you can from some rando Taliban dude. You can also be sexually tortured without the hassle of being captured in a combat zone.

        Don’t scoff at domestic abuse. Even if it’s just gaslighting, that kind of thing can destroy your mental health for years on end.

        • notleia says:

          Heck, maybe I shouldn’t be implying that youre dumping on all domestic abuse victims, but gaslighting is a super common tactic that shouldnt be scoffed at. Mental/emotional abuse is not less important than physical abuse. Its just more convenient to ignore.

          • Too true… : ( it really is horrific. Freaking breaks my heart that people go through such suffering.

            On the Tolkien being racist thing, I guess I don’t know of anything that gives me confidence saying he WAS racist. Unless there’s something I’m missing? Possible that he could have been racist. Just saying… I don’t think the LOTR’s books (and its accompanying books) are enough to establish that.

            • Travis Perry says:

              Praising elves and describing them as golden haired and describing worse creatures as dark is the main thing we’ve got on Tolkien. It “seems” it could indicate racism, but Tolkien certainly doesn’t spend much time there–as opposed to Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was pretty continually racist in everything he wrote (which I was too naive to realize when I read his books circa age 13).

          • Travis Perry says:

            I tend to think gaslighting is uncommon, but I don’t really know. I know it was done to me on certain occasions, but I really do think there are worse things.

  7. Here’s a post people might find interesting to this conversation:


    Something like this is a bit complicated, because there are aspects I agree with and other ones I don’t. On one hand, yes, authors need to be careful with what they write, and they should try to do their homework. In some contexts, it also might make sense to say that food comparisons are bad/fetishizing/racist/etc. On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to automatically assume an author is racist just because they use those comparisons at times. This article pretty much implies that everyone has the same reasons for certain behaviors and that everyone of certain groups thinks the same thing, which doesn’t even make sense.

    It is entirely possible for someone to make a color comparison between two things with no fetishized or prejudiced thoughts involved. In this instance, readers should probably ask themselves what the author is actually comparing. Is it literally just a color comparison(or a comparison to some other aspect of the food). Or is the author somehow actually trying to imply that the character is ‘edible’?

    Consider how the term vanilla is used in common expressions. I’ve heard terms like vanilla and yoplait thrown around to describe people, and it usually just means that the person is plain/boring or has boring and typical tastes. That’s it. Someone could find a way to make that fetishy if they want to, but assuming that the expression ‘vanilla’ can only be used in a fetishy way would just be silly.

    Also, some writers will use a very deep third person POV when writing their characters. Meaning, they will do their best to write according to how that character thinks and feels, with little to no interjection from the ‘narrator’. Sometimes that actually means writing a character that thinks and feels bizarrely different than the author. So, if a particular character is biased toward making food comparisons for some reason or another, putting those comparisons in there might actually make sense. Maybe a char’s parents’ owned a candy shop and the char inherited it when she grew up and consequently compares everything to sweets. Or maybe the villain is an extremely racist person and uses food comparisons because that is partly how his racism is expressed.

    If I recall correctly, Writing With Color or some other blog like that deems it ok to make a color comparison between skin tone and gold, sand, and more earthy things, at least in some instances. Thing is, gold is just an object, and dirt/other earthy things can be spoken of as lowly (the expression ‘lower than dirt’, for instance) So if color comparisons with food are out because of potential fetishes and othering, then technically comparing something to an object or earthy thing should be out, too. Of course I don’t want them to ACTUALLY forbid earthy comparisons, but it would be consistent.

    As the article I linked indicated, maybe earthy skin tone comparisons actually will be considered extremely taboo in a few years(They admitted social trends like that are ever shifting and hard to keep track of). And that leaves the question of what has to happen to books that no longer fit into the acceptable category. The reasonable thing would be to say that the books should be grandfathered in, so to speak. Like, Woke Twitter and the like should be willing to look at the publication date, see that the book would have been considered ‘acceptable’ at the time of publication, and leave it alone, but many probably wouldn’t be willing to bother.

    Like, if people are going to bash old books like LotR and Narnia for not meeting modern standards, they’ll probably do the same for newer books, even if those books were deemed ‘acceptable’ just a few years ago. That leaves the question of how authors and publishers are supposed to handle these things. Will they have to go back and edit their (already published) books every time one of these Tiny Yet Super Important details change?

    The skin to food comparisons are actually pretty irrelevant to me since my skin color descriptions are usually pretty boring. In some ways it’s weird to me whenever someone sits there poetically describing ANYONE’S skin for sentences on end(with or without food involved). But, again, that’s because it’s not something I put much work into describing, and a lot of the stories I read have rather boring skin descriptions, too. Usually, my descriptions are something like ‘she had medium toned skin with a dusting of freckles across her face’. And I have a char with very light skin and white blond hair, and describe him as being ‘pale as death’. But I’m not going to go around assuming that everyone needs to follow the same descriptive style as me.

    Now and then if I saw a specific problem with a specific book’s descriptions, I would point it out and mention some ideas of how an author can improve, but it’s a lot less likely that I’d be breaking down their door to tell them they’re a horrible person that needs to change their story or immediately take it off the market. More than likely, I’d just talk about it in a blog post as food for thought to other writers, instead of bad mouthing the author or emailing demands to them.

    For the record, the article I linked seemed to assume that a light skinned person would automatically be weirded out/offended if they saw a light person’s skin being likened to rice or some other food, but that’s probably not actually true for a lot of them. In fact, I think I’ve seen light skin described as ‘milk white’ or something, and it didn’t bother me at all. There might be specific contexts where it would, but I rarely run across food to skin comparisons in the first place, and the ones that I’ve seen didn’t bother me enough to leave an impression.

    • I was somewhat delighted when I read a book where a visiting princess’s skin was described as “fish-belly white”, because it did such a neat job of reminding the reader that the heroine and her court are brown-skinned, and also seemed like such a clever way of flipping the usual fairytale script where pale skin is viewed as the highest standard of beauty.

      (Plus, I myself am 100% fish-belly white, let’s be real here. It’s a far more accurate description for my complexion than “cream” or “porcelain” or any such romantic nonsense.)

      • Fish belly white doesn’t even sound like an offensive comparison to me unless the char actually meant it offensively. Even then, it’s not something that would bother me to read in a book.

        It’s interesting how this works in fiction vs real life, though. Books often focus on describing things and making comparisons in order to give the readers a visual image. In real life, though, it would be sort of odd to hear someone try to make a bunch of poetic descriptions to describe someone. In our modern era, I don’t think people usually flatter their dates by making poetic comparisons between them and something else, for instance. Or if they do, it’s more likely to be a joke.

    • Rachel Nichols says:

      “Peaches and cream” comes to my mind.

      Interesting how C.S. Lewis emphasizes Jadis’s whiteness. But that won’t score points with the feminist crowd.

      “He hates strong, empowered women who reject the traditional maternal role (by killing children) and has the male protagonist crush her in a manner obviously symbolic of rape culture. Waaah!” says the feminist professor desperate for a scholarly article topic.

      I’m tired of conservatives complaining about The Last Jedi too. If you don’t like a book or movie don’t read or watch it. Problem solved! Quit spoiling it for those who enjoy it, FCOL.

      And don’t get me started on the spoilsports who started Gamergate but aren’t even gamers themselves.

  8. Meagan says:

    The only book of Tolkien or Lewis I ever had an issue with was Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress where everything bad seemed to be a little brown-skinned girl. But the rest of their work’s I never got I a feel of racist views. I know several people who have an issue with The Horse and His Boy for this reason. When taken in the context of the time it was written is understandable and I can see why some people don’t like it. But I have a fondness for talking horses.

What do you think?