Despite the message in today’s comic, I happen to think that fantasy racism is actually a good thing. Like we talked about back in Cultural Exchange, elf-dwarf sniping is a tradition in high fantasy. In my home game for example, the resident dwarf invented the term “bunny” as a slur for elves (they’ve got long ears, eat vegetables, etc.). There was much giggling at the table. One of my favorite podcasts features a module called Battle of Bloodmarch Hill, and that module contains a lot of human-orc conflict. When the PCs prevent an innocent half-orc from getting lynched, one of the defeated vigilantes shouts at the half-orc PC, “I hate your music and everything!” (in context, a pretty clear allusion to racially charged sentiments like, “I like all kinds of music, except rap.”). Again, there was much giggling at the table.

It’s the giggling that’s most interesting for me. Why the laughter? Why do we find terms like knife-ear (elves), fail dragon (dragonborn), or stunty (dwarves) amusing? I’ve got a theory here, and it draws on history’s greatest psionicist.

Sigmund Freud has quite a bit to say on the subject of humor. This wiki article has a (very) brief explanation, but for our purposes this is the important bit: laughter happens “when the conscious allows the expression of thoughts that society usually suppresses or forbids.” Out in the real world, racism is taboo. It is not talked about outside the realms of earnest culture studies seminars and fraught political message boards (looking at you, Uncle Phil’s Facebook page). By transferring all that angst to the safe space of the RPG (you aren’t going to risk offending the ethnically orcish guy at the table after all) you can explore these topics unburdened by real world repercussions. The laughter comes out because it’s a release of psychic energy: you’re venting all that societal angst, and you can begin to explore themes of race and prejudice without “real” cultural hangups getting in the way. For my money, this seems like a healthy sort of activity.

What about the rest of you guys? Have you ever called those dirty savage humanoids “greenskins” or referred to humans as “dire halflings?” Did it ever elicit a laugh? Do you think that bears any relation to real world racism?