October 14

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Systemic Racism: I Played a Black Character in a Game; This Is What Happened to Him

When I picked my character, I didn't think that a DnD game would descend into an exploration of systemic racism.

And so I said: "I can play Arthur."

Nobody had picked him yet and I don’t think you can play a game that’s inspired by Arthurian legend without, well, Arthur.

I didn't expect that my character — Arthur from the Netflix show “Cursed” who’s portrayed by Devon Terrell, a Black actor — would soon get turned into the group’s punching bag.

Turns out, my naive optimism was unfounded. 


Meeting No. 1: Black character gets punched in the face (by ally)

Friend: “How was your game?”

Me: “Well, Arthur got punched in the face and lost a few points before we even started the quest.”

Friend: “What happened?”

Me (growing increasingly angry): “He tried to wake up one of his allies, Lancelot. Thankfully, Lancelot didn’t have any weapons on him so Arthur only got punched, not stabbed.” *deep breath* “Then the guy claimed Arthur had done something bad to his friend.”

Friend: “What did Arthur do?”

Me: “??? That’s an excellent question and one I received no answer to! I mean, Arthur has been risking his life to defend the people Lancelot’s friend is serving so I have no idea where that degree of venom and ire is coming from.”

Friend: “I guess they really treat your character like a Black man, then.”


Meeting No. 2: Black character gets slapped in the face (by ally)

After the second meeting I attended, I once again talked to my friend.

Me: “Arthur got attacked by someone from his group again.”

Friend: “Again???”

Me: “Well, I’m getting some variety. This time he only got slapped, not punched in the face.”

Friend: “What happened?”

Me (exasperated): “He, um, walked into a tavern. And, well, didn’t have the patience to deal with the existential crisis of a former religious nutjob who previously helped commit genocide. Apparently that was insensitive.”

Friend: “…”

Me: “Yepp, it’s now two out of two meetings that Arthur got physically assaulted by someone who’s supposed to be on his side!”

Friend: “Has that happened to anyone else?”

Me: “Nope. It’s kind of curious that that sort of thing only happens to the one Black male character in the group, isn’t it?”

(Pause)

Friend: “Well, I think you’re starting to get what it’s like to be Black in the US.”


But surely “normal” people wouldn’t act that way?

At this point, you might be wondering what sort of people I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons with.

Did I accidentally befriend a bunch of KKK members?

No, to the contrary. While the people I played with are not my friends, they are a predominantly female group who’s very “woke” when it comes to LGBTQ representation and feminism.

But apparently not woke enough to question if their treatment of my character has anything to do with systemic racism.


Wait, what? What is systemic racism? 

Well, Mary Frances O'Dowd describes systemic racism as something that 

"assumes white superiority individually, ideologically and institutionally. The assumption of superiority can pervade thinking consciously and unconsciously."

As such, systemic racism creates a culture that's hostile to those who are not racially privileged. 


But this is just a game. How can it say anything about systemic racism? 

You are right that it’s just a game. And reflecting on my experiences feels kind of meta given that we had been playing a game with characters that are based on a show that’s based on a legend.

However, I think that games can still show us something about reality. If we think about it, the Stanford prison experiment (which tried to research the psychological aspects of perceived power) was not that different from a game, just on a broader scale, with a research goal in mind, and under supervision. 

In this controversial experiment, volunteers were randomly assigned as "guards" or "prisoners" and then had to go about their day in a mock prison. (Spoiler alert: it didn't go so well for the prisoners.)

But let's get back to the game. 

I find it interesting to see how people react in a game when they are not restrained by laws (such as “don’t assault someone who doesn’t do you any harm”).

And what people chose in that situation was to repeatedly assault the only Black male character in the group, while not doing it to anyone else. That’s an objective observation.

Here’s a subjective observation: throughout the entire game, I couldn’t shake off the sense that my character got treated the way he has been due to the people’s subconscious racism.

The parallels to real-life are just too uncanny. Remind me if you have heard this before: a Black person gets hurt for doing something completely innocuous, while everyone else is given the benefit of the doubt.


Perhaps your character is just super-annoying and his treatment has nothing to do with systemic racism?

I’m the first to admit that the character I played is somewhat annoying in the show the game was based on. But lots of people are annoying — both in real life and in the fiction world we played in — and somehow they don’t get physically assaulted.

I guess the group’s subconscious reasoning was that he’s traumatized, emo and attractive, neither of which I think makes for a particularly good Nuremberg Defense. (Speaking as a German lawyer.)

DIfferent Nuremberg DEfenses

  • Original Nuremberg Defense: “I was just following orders.”
  • Yuppie Nuremberg Defense: “I needed to pay my bills.”
  • Fandom Nuremberg Defense: “I had a bad childhood. Oh, and I have a pretty face.”

So yeah, I think we should call a spade a spade and assume that this has something to do with systemic racism.


What to take away from this

If (like me) you’re not Black, here are some things you can take away from this:

  • racism runs deep (yeah, I know that’s not really a revelation but it bears repeating),
  • “wokeness” in one area of life doesn’t make you/your friends/random people you meet on the internet immune to racist thoughts and actions, and
  • uncover subconscious racism: when you find yourself feeling judgmental towards a Black person, ask yourself if you would feel the same way if the person was white instead.

Racism is a terrible human rights violation.

Even just experiencing a tiny fraction of what many Black people experience — second-hand, via a character and without any danger to my person — sucked.

It made me feel angry to be treated more harshly than everyone else and continually placed in double bind situations (“damned if you do, damned if you don’t”).

After a while, I also felt like the only people my character could trust were other Black characters… of which there was only one. Feeling like my character couldn’t win (no matter what he did) also made me lose the desire to engage much at all.

But here’s the thing: I can quit playing Arthur, if I’m tired of the way he gets treated. (In fact, that’s what I will do, after pointing out the extent of subconscious racism this experience demonstrates.)

A Black person can’t quit being Black, if they’re tired of the way they get treated.

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