Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness

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Author: Helen Young

Ok, so first off I have to say this is an academic book, and as such it has an academic price tag, but you can probably get it through your library if you are interested in it (I read an e-book version, courtesy of the author). It aims to look at race in fantasy media, beginning with “founding” fathers like Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, and moving to recent social media race controversies. As such, it is quite expansive, which may be one of the problems I found with this title. Fantasy literature alone would be enough to fill a volume, but Young mentions movies, video games and TV shows. At the same time, an overview of of whiteness in 20th century fantasy is quite welcome since it’s not the kind of book you find every day. And considering recent media like Doctor Strange or Gods of Egypt it seems it is a topic that will continue to be addressed.

Race and Popular Fantasy Literature is strongest in its beginning chapters and I found it begins to putter out once you reach urban fantasy. The final chapter on social media seemed a bit too muddled and meandering to be of much use, though it does chronicle several social media battles, which may be of historical use for generations to come. Someone has to write down what we say to each other on Twitter!

The urban fantasy chapter felt slight. At one point, Young discusses cultural appropriation, “authors…write about cultures and societies of which they are not a part, and create characters from races which they themselves are not members of,” but dedicates only a small space to what is surely a much more expansive discussion.

I was also disappointed to see that although Charles Saunders and Samuel R. Delany are mentioned as “challenging” habits of whiteness, there is not a more expansive analysis of their work while Robert E Howard’s Conan is scrutinized in depth. 

My problems may be simply that I was looking for certain element which could not exist due to the framing of the book. It is, after all, studying “whiteness” not “POCness” (or whatever term you wish to employ) so it is obvious it would focus on people such as Tolkien and Howard to establish the origins of fantasy and of the whiteness that has gone hand in hand with it. However, I would have like to have explored some of the “subversive” fantasies of Saunders and Delany, and how they map in comparison to Tolkien and Howard.

What Young does best is she provides a convincing argument of how whiteness and fantasy have been so carefully woven together that it seems difficult, sometimes almost impossible, to pry them apart. For people who are not white it means that most of us, even those of us who grew up in non-white countries, end up dreaming up white fantasies. For the rest of the world* it means that having a white woman as a martial arts teacher (showing a white man how to fantasy-fight) in Dr. Strange may be a natural and even welcome experience.

Verdict: Recommended you check out if interested in race, fantasy literature or fantasy pop culture.

*I’m being cheeky here since white audiences are often seen as “the world,” the only valuable audience.

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