So That's What A Foot Tastes Like

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 23 March 2012 Written by Steve

If you get the Drivethrurpg newsletter, you also recently got an email from Sean Patrick Fannon apologizing for a “racially insensitive passage” in the recent issue’s Archetype of the Week article. Perhaps surprisingly, this was not a reference to another of my infamous rants about Ewoks (creepy little furballs). Instead, Sean was referring to the “Noble Savage” archetype, and specifically to a paragraph dealing with a common sub-archetype, the “Magical Negro.”




First, if you took offense solely because I used the word “negro,” I think I can best respond to you by way of an example. Like many people, I was offended by Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about Sandra Fluke a few weeks ago. I was also offended, however, when I found out that some people were more upset by Limbaugh’s use of the word “slut” than by the hateful tirade in which the word was used. Anyone who is offended by the word itself should, in the interest of consistency, also be offended when it’s used in the phrase “slut-shaming” to describe the tactics of some members of the anti-choice movement or when it’s used by women participating in “slut walks.” If that’s the case you are, in my opinion, missing a point big enough to make Alan Tudyk nervous. Chances are that if you’re offended by certain words regardless of context, our priorities are so vastly different that it’s a waste of time to even try to find common ground. You can probably save some time if you stop reading now.

For anyone whose offense wasn’t entirely a knee-jerk reaction to the word, let me try to explain my context. To do that, I should probably start by pointing out that I didn’t use the phrase “Magical Negro” because I failed to realize that the word “negro” is potentially offensive or because I wanted to make rednecks and third graders giggle. I used it because it is a common (though apparently not as common as I thought) way of describing a particular type of character. According to Wikipedia, “The word ‘Negro’, now considered by many as archaic and sometimes offensive, is used intentionally to suggest that the archetype is a racial throwback, an update of the ‘Sambo’ and ‘Noble savage’ stereotypes.” As I’ve always understood it, “Magical Negro” is meant to be critical of stories that feature black characters who only exist to help the (always straight and white, almost always male) protagonist.

The next question is, of course, why did I include the aside about the “Magical Negro” archetype at all? Was I suggesting that it is an acceptable player character archetype? No, I wasn’t. In fact, my intent was exactly the opposite. As the quote from Wikipedia points out, the archetype is very closely related to a certain use of the “Noble Savage” archetype--Tonto is a “Magical Indian,” Kato is a “Magical Asian,” etc. My purpose in including the paragraph was to subtly  warn players against letting this kind of character become an offensive stereotype. I thought that using a phrase that is always intended to be critical would get that point across. Obviously, I misjudged both my writing ability and the number of people familiar with the original intent of the phrase.

When I sent the article to Drivethru, I considered removing the paragraph, but decided to leave it in and let Sean (who is presumably far more familiar with the Drivethru readership than I am) decide whether or not it was appropriate. Since I expected the paragraph to be removed and didn’t want to leave the article completely devoid of acknowledgment that the “Noble Savage” concept is problematic, I added the “don’t be a racist” paragraph* that follows. In retrospect, the explicit warning immediately following the “Magical Negro” paragraph probably makes the original intent of the latter even less clear. I probably should have offered the new paragraph as a possible alternative, which also might have alerted Sean that the article included content that some may find offensive, thereby (hopefully) preventing this whole situation.

So, if the “Noble Savage” is so often racist, why include an entry about it at all? The main reason is that the “Noble Savage” doesn’t have to be racist. In games where non-human characters are not direct stand-ins for minorities, the trope can still work--Klingons are good example, at least based on my casual knowledge of Star Trek (I realize that some of the actors who play Klingons are black, but I also know that John Tesh played a Klingon, and it’s hard to get any whiter than John Tesh). In fact, the “Noble Savage” doesn’t even have to be an ethnic or racial minority--any kind of “otherness” can work, as long as the character is somehow less “proper and civilized” than the dominant culture. You can find examples of “Magical Bumpkins,”  “Magical Poor People,” and even “Magical Mentally Ill People” of every race throughout fiction (though to be honest, many are just as deeply rooted in offensive stereotypes as the “Magical Negro”). Furthermore, the “Noble Savage,” unlike the “Magical Negro,” isn’t always simply a prop for some other character. He can also be a fully-realized protagonist in his own right--for example, Tarzan or Drizzt (the Drow that launched a thousand clones).

Of course, even if the “Noble Savage” archetype was universally used in a racist way, I probably still would have included it (in the original series, if not the Drivethru reprints) because, regardless of how offensive it can be,  it is a recurring archetype in fiction. Leaving it out of the series would, in my opinion, be akin to writing about World War II without mentioning the Holocaust. It’s always been my opinion that if you ignore the elephant in the room, it’s more likely to crap on your floor than quietly wander away. Of course when you try to lure it out with food, sometimes it gets a case of explosive diarrhea, which is kind of what happened here.

I hope this clarifies my intent in including the “Noble Savage” archetype in the series, and, in particular, my inclusion of the “Magical Negro” reference. In the article, I failed both in providing appropriate context for the reference and in properly communicating my intentions and opinions. If I offended anyone, I apologize. Unless you’re an Ewok. 


*Since the Drivethru article is no longer up, I'll repost it here:

A Word of Warning
Aliens and made-up fantasy barbarian tribes are one thing, but this archetype can easily become an offensive stereotype when real-world cultures come into play. In fact, some people find the archetype itself offensive. Therefore, if you’re going to use this archetype for a member of a real ethnic group, please approach the character and the culture with some maturity and tact.


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©2012 by Hex Games
So That's What A Foot Tastes Like.
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