Race is not something that we naturally have — it is something that is done to us. It is, first and foremost, a way of granting or withholding whiteness from us; and secondly, a way of ordering us. We call this doing of race racialization. We are racialized subjects. Race happens to us. Any system that doesn’t acknowledge that fundamental to race is the creation and protection of the category of whiteness is a flawed system.
White people don’t simply exist. They are made. Through legal battles, cultural battles, organized terrorisms, lynchings, government incentives: whiteness is and has always been a way of arguing for the right to own and enslave, and the right to be free. Racial ordering is a secondary effect of the need to protect whiteness. The native must be rendered gone. Blackness must be rendered as enslaveable. The Asian must become the horde. These musts exist because of the usefulness or non-usefulness of various populations under colonialism.
I want us to remember this when we ask the question about our capacity to play a person of another race. This question is loaded because it presumes the primary difference between people exists with the racialized order. Under a racial order, culture becomes a way of explaining race. Rather than seeing culture as a fluid, dynamic, changing thing that is always in relation to the desires of the ruling, owning, and working classes, culture becomes a stand-in for race. We begin to see Orientalist takes on the inherent difference between cultures, instead of seeing these differences as produced and overlapping, scalar and contingent.
So when we ask to play another race, we are also often asking this: what do I need to know to properly represent another culture? Which again is a loaded question because what does it mean to represent? What is knowledge?
Representations are not simply the re-production of a static thing that is true and waiting to be shown. Each time we represent something, we create the perceivable truth of the thing we are representing. If there is in reality a tree, no matter how many times we take a picture of that tree, we cannot capture it in its entirety. Our photographs then take on the quality of what is true of the tree. Representations organize reality. Race itself, as a way of ordering, then, is also a kind of representation.
So when we ask about playing another race, we’re asking what it is we need to know about representing this representation constructed under white supremacy.
“…in order to play a person of another race, you must understand race as a system of colonial knowledge production.”
What do we need to know? is also a loaded question. Because knowledge production under Orientalism always assumes the possibility of knowing, the possibility of making known what is true of a people. In this case, then, we can also see that knowledge itself is a kind of representation. To know the racialized other is to represent them. So we’re really asking what representations should I be familiar with to best represent this representation?
As you can see, we’re quickly become detached from reality. This, I think, is a good thing though, because in order to understand race you have to first detach it from reality. Further, to know a representation is to know the system under which that representation was produced: namely settler colonialism, racial capitalism, or any other angle we take to speak of our current model of the world.
So our question expands to: what might I need to understand about racial capitalism in order to best create a representation of this representation? Or: how does representation under such an order operate?
That is the aim of this essay: to show that in order to play a person of another race, you must understand race as a system of colonial knowledge production, and the impossibility of knowing truly anything beyond representation. The question might be best rendered not along lines of accuracy with regard to the truth of a representation as it aligns with the real of the world, but along the lines of what kinds of truth claims that representation seems to be making.
Is the truth claim I am making with this representation one that furthers the ideologies of whiteness: Orientalism, anti-blackness, and native erasure? Seems to me to be a more concrete way of asking our question.
How might I best avoid reproducing the tropes associated with Orientalism, anti-blackness, and native erasure? Is another way. And: what is worth producing in my avoidance of these tropes?
Here I am going to depart from my critique and ask that we each think through the desires we have in representing someone whom is different than us. Why do we want to create characters as such? What are we attempting to do? What do we want?
I worry that empathy is not a good answer because empathy is built upon making knowable someone in their difference and saying that there yet remains for you the possibility of relation, which to me reads as a colonial relation where you maintain power. I worry that understanding is not a good answer because to understand means to know and to know is to render what is knowable under current regimes of knowledge which is to say Orientalism and racial ordering.
I worry that this desire springs from guilt or exoticism or any other host of emotions that center one’s own racial ordering against another’s in a way that makes primary that racial ordering in our representations of the world. And yet to ignore racial ordering, too, is not useful, because race orders our world, and to ignore such ordering would be to fundamentally erase the lived experience of the material effects of that ordering.
So rather than asking if we might play another race, the first shift is to ask if we might play a person who is racialized within the current racial order in a particular way. And then to make that person something other than their racial ordering.
“Make people something other than their racialization. But also: show what the lived experience of that racialization might mean.”
If you were to play me, for example, you’d be playing a racialized person whose grandparents were interned, whose other grandparents lived in the ghetto, and who now, thanks to shifting racial ordering in the 50s and 60s, live the suburbs. Another person, as a racialized person, might have another story entirely: they might have fled Taiwan in the 70s due to paranoia over Vietnam and Chinese dominance, settled in California and continued to be in relation to some family that yet remained in Taiwan.
These two experiences are entirely different and show the complexities within something as simple as the category of an Asian person. Which doesn’t even begin to get into things like Coolies, native Asian populations, or something as fundamental as partition.
If you wish to play a person of another race within a fantasy world, you are asking to take on the phenotypical characteristics of a person who is different than you, because race likely operates differently. Don’t do this. Just describe your physical makeup and get on with it.
But what about fantasy cultures of the orient? What about these jungle people who look black? You know what. Don’t do that either. It is irredeemable. It centers race above all else. It reduces, aims to naturalize race, make it synonymous with the cultural. What’s the difference between elves in the forest and jungle people? Why are these people civilized and these people savage? Why? Racism.
Make people something other than their racialization. But also: show what the lived experience of that racialization might mean. The cultural, too, will flow through this, but remember: race is not culture. When you ask about race, you are asking about race. That is what this essay is about.