Representation - race and ethnicity in other worlds

Hey everyone, I’ve been struggling with this for a while and I wanted to see if you all have any ideas on how to handle race and ethnicity representation/inclusion in stories that are set in other worlds than our own, and how to handle the relationship (or lack thereof) between them.

I feel like I tend to overcomplicate this when I’m thinking about it, so I’ll start with the (relatively) simple question. Given that this story is set in a world where discrimination is for the most part not really present, is it better to associate race and ethnicity, or to not?

Would it be better to show the world as mostly a melting pot where cultures are perhaps tied to countries, but people of all skin tones live basically everywhere – in other words, where race exists but ethnicity doesn’t really? Or does it make more sense to portray a world where there’s still at least some amount of relationship between a person’s skin tone and the experiences they tend to have, culture they tend to grow up in, etc?

I feel like both options have pros and cons, but I think I tend to end up seeing the cons moreso. :sweat_smile: The first option feels like it could ring hollow or read as tokenism. But the second option feels like it could result in some potentially damaging or at least obnoxious perpetuation of stereotypes. So I end up being kind of dubious of both options, but I can’t really think of how else to go about it.

So, any advice? Any thoughts on what you would prefer to see? Am I just approaching this from completely the wrong perspective to begin with? Are there any particularly successful examples of representation or inclusion of race and/or ethnicity that you’ve seen, especially ones set in other worlds?

Final note: I should specify that I am talking about NPCs, not MCs, although that might be a discussion worth having as well.

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I think it is in the distant future. The former would be ideal but if it is in the near future, an alternative historical or fantasy era is medieval or not the first. Of course you can make exceptions if you want to talk about unique and identifiable characters from others such as the dynasty of the black pharaohs or pirate women who despite being few were special among the women of their times. Or if they are also travelers or explorers since they will be the human being different from their social and cultural environment. Like the Jews in Babylon.

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As with all things, it depends on what type of story you’re trying to tell. If you’re going to tell a story set in a world where relationships are based still somewhat based on race, culture, and other things of that nature, make sure you spend the requisite time exploring that. Don’t set a story in that type of world just for the sake of it. These are real world topics that ought to be handled carefully. If you can do that, then I see no reason to not set your story in a world like that.

If you don’t think you can handle those topics with the sensitivity and care they deserve, I’d recommend the former option. I wouldn’t worry about something being read as tokenism as long as you’re respectful with the way you portray your characters. I would also not worry about it seeming hollow. Many people, myself included, like to read about worlds that are much more tolerant than our own. Those who like escapism will prefer this type of setting.

In the end, it comes down to whether or not you think you can give these real world issues the attention and care they deserve in your game, and if you would prefer to write a story that appeals more to those looking for escapism or those looking for a more realistic examination of these real world issues. There’ll be an audience for whatever you write, so think about what it is that you want to write and what it is that you believe you are capable of writing.

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I agree it depends on the type of the story you’re telling?

More often than not, I feel like ethnicity related issues are pointless in a setting where race/species actually come into play - with aliens or anthropomorphic creatures or elves or whatever you wish. It would overcomplicate the story.
Now, depending on the story and setting, ethnicity related plot points may actually make sense and bring something to the story.

So really, maybe just ask yourself the question - “is ethnicity an useful plot device to my story, or is it not relevant or easily replaced by race/species?” If the answer you come up with is “it’s not relevant” or “it can be easily replaced with race/species”, then I wouldn’t bother.
At least that’s how I do it when I work on stories.

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I guess I would suggest just starting with your world building, and developing a short timeline of how this other world (and its nations) came to be. Which one makes more sense might depend a lot on how that society came into being.

For example. A very technologically advanced and futurist setting, with lots of mass communication and cheap/fast travel would make sense for more melting pot type societies and cultures to form that are based around other shared goals or characteristics besides race. A culture could be organized based around things like religion, political belief systems, or trade/professions, etc. In a futuristic setting, building a nation around a common geographic location/territory might be less important, if people can easily form community over large distances and travel freely, or if taking part in some shared goal that requires a lot of international expertise and cooperation, like space exploration for example.

On the other hand, a world where there are largely more geographically isolated populations of people who can’t travel freely or easily, there might be more emphasis on a shared trait like race, or connection to the land, etc.

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I’d echo what other people have been saying and say that it depends on the setting of story you are going for. That said if the story setting does include several different species/races be it a sci-fi or fantasy setting, I’d say it might be best to include humanity as a whole, or maybe separate them into fictional groups/clans based on something other than ethnicity if only to avoid any potential pitfalls and to just generally avoid skirting too close to realism if I’m making sense?

It would also keep things light if other species are added into to the mix of the story/lore and might generally make it easier to manage rather than having multiple races amid different species of people.

*Hope I haven’t caused offense or said anything ignorant!

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Thanks for the responses! I appreciate y’all taking the time to help me figure this out a bit.

I think I get what you mean about it depending on the story, where it’s set and what it’s trying to say and that sort of thing. I feel like the more I think about it for my own story, be it from tonal or thematic or logical reasons, most of them point towards the “diverse individuals, one culture” option. I think after hearing back from you all that I’m comfortable enough to use that as my starting point, and I can always go back and adjust things later if it’s not working. Thanks again! :slight_smile:

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I would say not. Directly pointing out someone’s heritage as being from a particular region of the world is one thing, but drawing lines in the sand because of a person’s physical features undermines the idea that they’re still “the same species”… Awkward wording though I said it myself.

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race is an earthling social construct anyway, so I think coming at the question from this angle is overly complicating it. if this setting is not Earth but still features humans, skin tone does not have to equal race. that is barely how it works in reality in the first place and our relationship and definition of ‘race’ is far more about Earth’s colonial and imperialist history than it is about actual physical variation anyway (which is closer tied to ethnicity imo; for ex. i’m Black but that is so broad as to be essentially meaningless outside of the context of how broader society treats and reacts to me. ethnically I am Fang and that tells you a shit ton about what I might look like, what my cultural experience might be, potential health risks, etc etc.)

embracing ethnic diversity instead is better imo if you’re aiming for a melting pot setting without real world parallels.

*ok lol i just came to realize a giant contradiction in what i said, so let me clarify. i basically said “if you want no parallels to real life, go with race instead of ethnicity” as if ethnicity isn’t also steeped in real life history :sweat_smile:

what I mean, though, is that if the goal is reader representation in a different world setting, drawing inspiration from ethnicities will always feel more representative than categorizing humans by skin color or any other broad interpretations of race. i don’t mean copy-pasting our actual cultures onto alien planets (especially because that can easily become messy and appropriative), but ethnic representation > racial representation imo. not to mention ethnicities develop naturally across a planet so you can write ethnicities original to your setting or ones with real life parallels if you want to–while keeping things respectful and non-fetishistic ofc

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In fact, the correct use of the word race is more biological as for example the Neanderthal is a type of human race therefore to say that a black or Asian are races is incorrect.

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For sure, I certainly don’t want to aim for inclusion but end up doing it in a way that just others people – I’ve seen that happen more than enough times, though that sadly doesn’t make me immune to making the same mistake. :frowning: I just noticed that, as I started writing story and thought up the characters, I was defaulting them all to being white like myself (and without any thematic or cultural justification for it being that way, in universe or meta). I want to push back against that tendency, but I’m not really sure what’s the best way to do that, you know?

This is one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot, too, like…what is it that makes a person see a character and think “I relate to this person”? Like you suggested, I feel like most of the feedback I’ve seen (especially in IF specifically) has been less about “Hey, this person looks like me!” and more about, “Hey, this person is from my or my family’s home countryl! Do they speak this dialect, or have they been to this landmark, or do they like this food?” But how does an author do that for a world that doesn’t have any of those things?

…Perhaps I am overthinking it, though. I want every reader to be able to connect to the story and characters, but it’s not really a story about culture or ethnicity or race, so maybe trying to form that connection in those ways doesn’t make sense to begin with. But I don’t want to use that as an excuse, either … :thinking:

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i mean… I think you just did! for whatever reason, you took a step back, realized your whole cast was white, then decided to change that. because you wanted to. just never forget to take a moment now and then, step as far out of your own default perspective as you can, and assess the direction you’re taking your story and the choices you’re making about your characters. it’s a good way to catch yourself slipping or about to make a bad decision. and then, ideally, you’d get better at not slipping. but you also took the step of coming on here and inquiring about ways to be inclusive. So you’re doing good so far, from what I can tell!

well, the good thing about an other world setting is that I’m sure the audience won’t be looking for that sort of connection. nor should they have an expectation for it. kind of like how enjoying most speculative fiction involves some degree of suspension of disbelief–it’s a given, or it should be. Since you’re talking about a melting pot, diverse population of humans outside of Earth, I actually think if your inspiration is strictly in physical appearance and broad reference to an ethnicity’s features, that would work better than trying to integrate Earth culture into a place that isn’t Earth.

that was a lot of words, lmk if I need to explain anything!

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In fantasy, medieval, or faux-modern stories, I believe ethnicities need to exist (even if not a focal point of the story) because that is a natural conclusion of different communities living in different geographic areas.

How important the differences between them are depend on if there are other species. I think most humans would set aside any differences of skin color, language, or custom when there are orc tribes or elven empires radically different from any human. They should still exist (unless it is a truly magical world ruled by a wizard God or something), but they don’t need to be important.

In a futuristic setting, it is more realistic to have a compolitan culture. The important distinctions would be more planetary than geopgrahic.

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