No, Orcs Aren't Racist

Why cultural critics keep arguing about the wrong things.

Posted Apr 29, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Recently, some recesses of the internet went abuzz with debates whether orcs, the fictional bad guys from the Lord of the Ring series who also feature in the Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game, are the product of racist tropes or promote racism in real life. Much of this seems to stem from a recent article in comicbook.com. The article itself was influenced by a trending tweet critical of the D&D orc. The thrust of the arguments seem to involve a myriad of related concerns, namely:

  1. Playing in Dungeons and Dragons either as or fighting against orcs may promote racist attitudes in real life
  2. The origin of the orc in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is based in anti-Asian (or alternatively anti-African) racism
  3. The concept of “race” in fantasy role-playing or fiction novels or movies is “problematic” as it implies a kind of biological essentialism. 

Essentially, if you say “goblins are evil monsters” (a concept that long predates Tolkien), this is racist as it robs fictional creatures of their agency and defines them by their race.

If this all sounds like a tempest in a teapot, it kind of is, but it harkens back to days in the '80s and '90s when the Dungeons and Dragons game was the target of a moral panic, mainly promulgated by Christian conservatives who worried about the game promoting Satanism, suicide, psychosis, and violence. As we debate the racism of a race that doesn’t exist in the real world, it helps to revisit an exceptionally earnest 60 Minutes documentary segment from the '80s on Dungeons and Dragons. Today’s moral panic over race and racism in the game has strange moralistic echoes of the 1980s panic with the exception that, today, there aren’t any bodies of dead teenagers for moral entrepreneurs to point to. 

The first claim regarding D&D is the easiest to consider. Put simply, there is no evidence that playing Dungeons and Dragons or, for that matter, watching or reading Lord of the Rings contributes to racist attitudes and behaviors in real life. In fact, evidence suggests that playing Dungeons and Dragons is associated with positive moral development and improved socialization, not increases in racism.  Generally, whether looking at action video games, 13 Reasons Why, even sexualization in media, the evidence suggests that fictional media portrayals simply don’t produce the kind of attitude or behavior changes society’s pearl-clutchers on right and left like to worry about. The idea that attitudes can shift from media to real-life is based on a theory called Cultivation Theory, but Cultivation Theory has had a rough road, evidence wise, even for news media. Put simply, there’s little empirical reason to suspect that playing Dungeons and Dragons or watching Lord of the Rings is associated with real-life racism.

The second critique stems from attempts to scour the writings of Tolkien himself for any evidence of racist inclinations. The notion that certain creatures are, by nature, evil or malicious permeates folklore in both West and East. Tolkien hardly invented the concept. But are orcs meant to be analogous for certain real-life races? The method of modern critical studies of media appears to be to scour the writings of an author for the worst possible thing they ever said and interpret this in the least generous way. Tolkien once wrote that orcs were “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least-lovely Mongol types." However, the qualifiers “to Europeans” and “least-lovely” seem critical even in this supposedly damning description. Moreover, Tolkien historically wrote against and rejected racialist views particularly as they emerged prior to WWII.

There’s an entire deep dive into the origin of orcs (who, at least in part, seem tied to humanity and elves, rather than wholly separate from them), but the characterization of orcs as intentionally depicting the entirety of human cultures appears mistaken. Despite the one quote above, Tolkien generally disavowed the notion that orcs were intended to portray an actual human culture. Some might argue that the authors’ intent doesn’t matter (death of the author), but there’s an incoherence here, one can’t argue from the author’s letters to show intent, only to claim intent doesn’t matter when the larger evidence doesn’t fit the narrative. Essentially this question boils down to something of a Rorschach card: If you want to see racism in Tolkien’s orcs, you will; if you don’t, you won’t.  

Related to the third point, in Dungeons and Dragons, the depiction of orcs is entirely monstrous, with few clear references to any actual human culture. Indeed in the first edition of the game, they looked more pig-like than anything, and are portrayed wearing vaguely European-style armor and wielding European polearms. Orcs are generally (though not always) depicted as inherently evil. They’re one of many bad guy “races” in D&D.  It’s this depiction of biological essentialism, that the moral virtues of a creature can be defined by its biological origin as a “race” that some progressives appear to object to. 

Race in the D&D game though is not used in the same manner as it is for anthropology among humans. The closest analogy for D&D “race” among hominids might be to consider Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals as separate “races,” biologically distinct hominids with some similar features. In this sense, different anthropological “races” among modern homo sapiens reflect a nuanced and complex mixture of culture and evolution, whereas the essential difference between homo sapiens and Neanderthals is clearly biological in origin. Then again, discoursing on the Mendelian genetic intent of the D&D use of “race” invites the absurd. Of course, the idea of monstrous races or species is nothing created by D&D, but rather the notion of monsters imbued with evil by their very monstrous origin is common to many folklores worldwide. To appease the critical theorists on this score would require a massive scouring not only of the D&D game but of fiction, mythology, and folklore. 

To be fair too, though many tropes certainly do exist for many ethnic and cultural groups, to declare the D&D depiction of orcs as repeating these tropes simply because orcs are inherently evil in the D&D universe, requires significant imagination. If D&D or Lord of the Ring orcs are indulging tropes of an anthropological race, observers can’t seem to agree which race that is. As noted, initial concerns seemed to focus on Asians, but others suggest orcs may trope Africans. These inconsistent observations suggest some observers may be projecting their own stereotypes onto orcs. Is it fair to say “race is socially constructed” when the races exist entirely in fiction and that fiction set out to define them as biologically distinct species? Why stop with orcs? Is the portrayal of Martians as inherently bent on Earth invasion (whether in War of the Worlds or Bugs Bunny cartoons) “racist” in some way? Can you be racist toward a race that doesn’t exist? Many media critics seem to reflexively tie much that’s in fiction back to real-world phenomena, but I’m not sure that’s correct. Sometimes an orc is just an orc.

Back in the '80s, the moral panicking of Christian conservatives did lead to self-censoring of the game as the game makers sought to remove demons and devils and anything else “Satanic” from the game to appease moral crusaders. Most players just kept including devils and demons anyway, and demons and devils eventually returned to the game officially. We can only hope that the makers of D&D have learned from this episode. First, giving in to moral bullying only rewards those moral bullies. And related, once something is identified as “problematic," those moral entrepreneurs’ appetites will only be whetted, and the list of “problematic” things will only grow exponentially. This is a mistake made by the makers of 13 Reasons Why when they removed the graphic suicide scene from their show. Granted, there may have been legitimate artistic reasons for either including or excluding the scene. But once it was released, removing it in response to moral outrage did nothing to appease critics and only damaged the credibility of Netflix as a guardian of free expression.          

The missed element of D&D is that depictions, as presented, are just guidelines anyway. There are multiple playable versions of the orc race in D&D now. Some of these already change the “inherently evil” narrative to other backstories and options. And the D&D game encourages flexibility. If a player wants to play a happy, peaceful, non-violent, well-intentioned lesbian orc wizard, they can.

The moral pearl-clutching of Christian conservatives was ultimately a bad look. It’s a shame that progressivism seems so intent on repeating it. There are legitimate concerns around race and racism in the United States and across the world, whether Europe, China, or elsewhere. Issues like criminal justice or education reform would be instrumental in actually benefiting people’s lives. But the concern about the racism of non-existent races, particularly when there’s no evidence fantasy role-playing does harm, borders on self-caricature. Increasingly, critical theories resemble rigid ideologies that have jumped the rails, and whose main contribution to society is moral outrage, all the time. Often the very fact some people are outraged is considered evidence that the target is “problematic.” This argument is a strange tautology, a kind of Mobius loop of aggressive morality. “I’m offended by orcs because they are racist.” Well, how can you be sure they are racist? “They are racist because people find them offensive.” 

This negativity bias, the ability to filter anything through the worst possible lens, often as part of a kind of performative virtue, achieves very little other than to contribute to polarization in our society today. The irony is that often, the very people who claim to be concerned about race or gender will use race and gender to silence anyone who disagrees with their ideology (either because they are white or male or because black or brown people aren’t speaking with black or brown voices). The culture around this kind of discourse needs to be challenged, in large part because it does nothing to foster progress on race or gender issues. This kind of shrill hectoring and fun-policing, I’d argue, is exactly what made people get fatigued with the nonsense of some Christian conservatives when they spoke about Dungeons and Dragons, pornography or a host of other issues. 

No, orcs aren’t racist, and D&D isn’t promoting racism. There’s no good scientific evidence to back up the claims of this new woke wave of moral outrage and policing. There are real issues around race and racial inequities we need to work on in the US and across the world. But as far as D&D goes, let’s try to tune out society’s moral entrepreneurs as best we can and get back to gaming.