The hunter or warrior specialized in fighting a particular kind of enemy is a classic fantasy trope. The dwarven goblin-killer, the cleric with a knack for exorcising possessing demons, the well-armored knight with a notch on her shield for each dragon she slays, the hunter who knows from a pattern of broken branches the age of the werebear that stomped through this forest last week: these are well-worn archetypes found in great variety in fantasy literature and its freestyle derivative, roleplaying games.
They also provide an interesting opportunity to talk about racism.
Many specialist characters are simply better at fighting their chosen foe, in an abstract, numerical sense. They have some baseline effectiveness in combat, but against their preferred targets, that effectiveness is magnified without otherwise altering the character’s apparent capabilities. An RPG version of this idea has the character gain (often substantial) bonuses that apply only against that specific class of opponent. On a character sheet, this kind of specialist will have entries like “+6 to damage rolls against demons” or “+4 dodge bonus against giants” where a generalist might have “+2 to all damage rolls” or “+1 to Armor Class.” The specialist is, therefore, far better than a generalist at fighting goblins or trolls, but because of that additional effort, worse at fighting everything else than someone who devoted the same amount of time to honing their general skills.
There is another, more organic kind of specialist. Some paths to calling oneself a demonslayer or leviathan hunter involve developing counters for the particular defenses and attacks of one’s desired nemeses. If one fantasy world’s giants are known for hurling boulders and trading accuracy for damage potential in melee, this kind of specialist might cultivate the ability to dodge oversized projectiles more easily or to negate the benefit of that accuracy/damage trade. Dragons are known for exhaling huge blasts of energy and for flight; a dragonslayer might learn how to ground flying foes and create barriers against energy to protect their comrades. If 3rd-edition Dungeons and Dragons® demons are in general characterized by a certain set of energy resistances and immunities, taking less damage from weapons that aren’t suffused with goodness and/or made of cold-forged iron, and using chaos and evil themselves as a source of destructive magic, then a demonslayer might cultivate the ability to overcome or ignore those resistances; acquire a good-aligned cold iron weapon; and learn how to resist chaotic and evil magic or punish antagonists for using it. All of these talents are potentially useful against other foes—demons are hardly the only villains to wield evil magic, and lots of enemies can fly—but these suites of talents are particularly useful against specific targets.
This version has a different narrative significance than the previous one. The earlier, numeric specialist describes someone who is so intently focused on their one foe that they are willing to sacrifice being especially effective against anything else. The organic specialist is able to use their interest in facing one kind of enemy to acquire skills that work particularly well against that target but are not specific to that target, so they can be applied elsewhere whenever otherwise relevant. The numeric specialist has an obsession; the organic specialist has a style.
Here’s where things get interesting. Someone looking for a specialist dragonslayer might scan a series of character sheets for specific bonuses against dragons or powers that specifically impose penalties on dragons, and dismiss all other candidates as generalists who don’t have the desired specialization. After all, someone who specifically wants to kill dragons would have abilities that are specific to killing dragons, right? But if that same seeker pitted a whole series of prospective characters against some dragons and took notes on what followed, they would notice a pattern:
- Some characters would be largely ineffective, due to poor design or being well-specialized for some other kind of enemy or set of skills.
- Some characters would have middling, average effectiveness.
- Some characters would do particularly well, and not all of those have “+2 versus dragons” all over their character sheets.
Among those above-average contenders will be organic specialists whose talents all came into play, where against a foe other than their specific nemesis they might expect a lesser subset of their abilities to be relevant. But make no mistake: these are indeed specialists, no less so than those who specifically sought to increase their combat numbers against dragons at the expense of everything else, because they are better at fighting dragons than they are at fighting other things.
Racism, sexism, and other bigotries work like that.
Many people restrict their definitions of various bigotries to things that specifically and overtly target this or that group for marginalization. If they don’t have +6 against dragons, they’re not a dragonslayer; if they don’t have a “Blacks need not apply” sign, they aren’t racist. As above, this thinking will miss a massively more effective way to target certain groups for special treatment.
You don’t need to codify discriminatory treatment for black people as such to have that result. You only have to identify categories that disproportionately contain black people and treat those categories poorly. You only have to make the punishments for crimes of poverty like burglary and street-level drug pushing worse than the punishments for bankrupting or poisoning thousands of people. You only have to establish a norm where black people who get in trouble with the police for any reason have to fear for their lives, but white ranchers who point guns at federal agents can walk away without even being arrested, and chalk the whole thing up to “discretion” and “cop’s intuition.” You only have to fund schools with local property taxes so that previous generations’ inequality continues to hamper the new generations’ educational prospects and perpetuate vicious cycles. You only have to equate a certain set of cultural identifiers with poverty and social unrest, and then punish those identifiers “wherever they are found.”
You only have to build and maintain a system that just happens to consistently treat a certain identifiable subgroup much worse than it treats others, despite not specifically naming that group and designating a different set of outcomes for them, and then act like that’s just the way things are. You just have to build your character as an organic dragonslayer, then act mystified that they are better at killing dragons than anything else. If you’re willing to accept the collateral damage of occasionally snaring white people in your poverty trap, just as the demonslayer really doesn’t mind when their penchant for avoiding evil magic spares them the brunt of a non-demonic necromancer’s wrath, then there are whole new vistas of disproportionately interfering with the freedom, development, and safety of black people that open up for you, vistas totally invisible to those who think racism means “this court deals +10 injustice damage to African-Americans.” The proof is in the outcomes, not the motives. Dragonslayers are dragonslayers because they are better at slaying dragons than they are at slaying things that aren’t dragons and because they are better at slaying dragons than people who are not dragonslayers, not because the phrase “vs. dragons” shows up 50 times on their character sheets.
Racism is far more than an obsession. It is a style, a climate, and an institution.
Racism, sexism, and other oppressions are not numeric. They are organic.