Note: This week’s essay is a sample of what I’m working on during my sabbatical – a series of pieces in which I am interrogating my own past and looking for the societal underpinnings of my unconscious biases, especially in the realm of racism and white supremacy.
I have always loved fantasy and science fiction. Star Trek: The Next Generation is still, and probably always will be, my favorite TV show. As a young child, I watched Return of the Jedi until I wore out the VHS. In sixth grade I cut my long-form fantasy teeth on the Redwall series by Brian Jacques and The Hobbit. It took me three tries to get through The Lord of the Rings, but I finally did it in ninth grade, and then I read it every year for a decade. My senior year of high school, I read 35 Star Wars novels. Frank Herbert’s Dune blew my mind somewhere in there, but I can’t remember exactly when.
So it’s no secret I am a proud member of many fandoms: LOTR, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, the MCU, the whole Whedonverse (especially Buffy and Firefly). Engagement with some of these creative properties has shaped me from childhood. I learned the meaning of true friendship from Frodo and Sam. I learned the value of leadership with integrity from Captain Jean-Luc Picard. (And I learned the best way to sit down in a chair from Commander Riker.)
Recently, I have been interrogating my own past to uncover how society at large has shaped my unconscious biases. The goal is to take those biases from the substrata of my consciousness to the surface so I can examine and hopefully purge them. I’m certain there are some biases that are so ingrained that I will never unearth them without serious help, but I have to start somewhere. Today, I’m going to look briefly at how my fantasy reading as a child and teenager shaped my bias to the concepts of black and white, starting within the realm of my favorite book of all time, The Lord of the Rings.
Before I get going, let me be clear: in what I write below, I am not accusing J.R.R. Tolkien of anything consciously nefarious. I am looking at how his use of the words “black” and “white” feeds into a larger racist historical narrative that has equated those terms with badness and goodness, respectively.
Indeed, as a general rule, throughout The Lord of the Rings, that’s exactly what black and white mean. Bad things are described with the color “black” and good things with the color “white.”
Here’s a quick survey off the top of my head. I’m doing this off the top of my head because I‘m trying to uncover things that have stuck with me in my memory. (There are other instances that reinforce this pattern, but I wanted to preference the ones lodged in my own mind):
- The evil Nazgul, or ringwraiths, are first described as the Black Riders. They chase the ringbearer all the way to the Ford of Bruinen before being swept away by its waters. They wear black cloaks and ride black horses, and they are servants of the big bad Sauron.
- By contrast we have the White Rider, who is Gandalf when riding Shadowfax, “the Lord of all Horses.” Shadowfax is described in the book as silvery-grey (but in the Peter Jackson films, he is pure white).
- Speaking of Gandalf, he is first described as Gandalf the Grey because of his grey clothes, hat, and beard. But when he returns to life following his defeat of the balrog, he takes the new moniker of Gandalf the White (and his hair and clothes change likewise). His triumph over such evil has elevated him from grey to white.
- But he’s not the only one described as “the White.” When we first meet Saruman, he is Saruman the White (and leader of the White Council), and thus Tolkien has set him up as a good guy. But by the time we know the truth – that Saruman has been corrupted by the knowledge of the palantir – he takes for himself a new name: Saruman the Many Colored. That is, his whiteness is broken apart and he claims dominion over all colors.
- The language of the evil land of Mordor is called the Black Speech. The words inscribed on the One Ring are written in its language, and Gandalf will not sully the beauty of Rivendell by uttering black words.
- The entrance to the land of Mordor is also called the Black Gate.
- By contrast, the gleaming Tower of Ecthelion, the highest point of the great city of Minas Tirith, which the good guys defend, is also called the White Tower.
By setting up the expectation that black is bad and white is good, Tolkien gives himself a shorthand for descriptions in his book. In fact, the only time “black” is used in a good context that I can remember is not in The Lord of the Rings but in The Hobbit. Bard of Laketown shoots down the evil dragon Smaug with the black arrow.
My question is this: because I read this masterwork of 20th century literature so many times as a teenager, what effect did its black(bad)/white(good) binary have on me? Was it further confirmation of what the wider society implicitly said in so many different arenas? The only possible answer is yes.
Being aware of racist historical narratives that continue to play out in both subtle and overt ways in the present brings me to a stark choice.* I can willfully ignore the unjust basis of the narrative because its unearned benefits accrue to me as a white person. Or I can work to make such benefits accrue to all people no matter what because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as Dr. King said.
For most of my life I have ignored the reality of racial inequity playing out all around me. I did nothing to question my unearned privileges because I was the proverbial fish that didn’t know it was wet (and didn’t care to find out). The cracks in my ignorance started to form at the end of 2015, but didn’t begin splintering through my life until the end of 2016.
During the summer of 2016, I began writing my first fantasy novel, The Storm Curtain. Taking a page from my hero Tolkien, the orcs serve as the villains in this story. The most feared orcs are the high commander’s personal guards, who are known as the Kernix Zav. But the text often calls them by their translated name: “Blackmasks.” So steeped was I in the black(bad)/white(good) binary that I never stopped to question my use of the word “black” to signal something scary and threatening.
Looking at the rest of the fantasy world I have been building since 2015, I see other instances of this damaging trope. Currently, I am working on the lore of an as-yet-unexplored continent, and I am consciously trying to avoid use of the black/white binary. But it is so ingrained in both the fantastical and societal milieus that falling back on it is all too easy.
Indeed, here’s another example. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the best book of the series, try to change my mind), we are introduced to the supposed bad guy early on. He has escaped from prison where he was incarcerated for mass murder. He’s on the run, but we all know he has it in for Harry. As readers, we need to feel viscerally afraid of this guy, even though we don’t meet him on the page until nearly the end of the book. And what’s the most effective way to do that? With his name.
Of course, Sirius turns out to be a good guy, while the rest of the Black Family were all awful blood purist Slytherins. But at the start of the story, Rowling needs us to be afraid of him. And the name does a lot of the heavy lifting.
Now let’s contrast that with a final example. In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund chases Lucy into Narnia on Lucy’s second trip. While Lucy is visiting Mr. Tumnas, Edmund encounters a sleigh carrying a woman who calls herself the Queen of Narnia. We the readers know from Lucy’s talk with Mr. Tumnas that this person must be the White Witch, but Edmund doesn’t know that. He enters her service and trusts her up until the point he visits her house. The White Witch is an oddity in fantasy storytelling – a villain with the word “white” in her name. But the use of “white” gives her the benefit of the doubt for just long enough that the reader goes along with Edmund’s confusion.
I wonder what literature and other avenues of entertainment shaped you as a child? Go back and interrogate them to see how their stories did or did not play into racist historical narratives. How did they contribute to the water in which you swim?
* This choice – whether or not to participate actively in the struggle for racial equity is one of the clearest signs of white privilege. Because I am white, I have the choice to ignore or engage.