Your first character is gonna exemplify a similar principle which is often confused with the canard, which is “We just wanna be treated like everyone else.” Now this one is usually true. PoC don’t want affirmative action because we want to be treated better than everyone else; we want affirmative action so we can be treated as well as everyone else. So … you’re gonna make a character, who’s the same as the white character you would normally make under these circumstances, just they’re from another ethnicity or religion who might also be present in the setting.
Since whiteness is a default in our society, when white people roll white characters, they don’t define them by their whiteness. Of course they are culturally white, very much so, in ways fundamental to their existence—but you don’t notice that, we do. Still, you’re likely to make sure they have something else going on. I’m a white hacker. I’m a white grandfather. I’m a white vampire. So you’re gonna define something else about them, write them as if they were any other character you were going to roll up, and then you’re going to cast an actor of color in their part and play them.
“But nothing about this character represents that culture! They’re just a different-colored face on the character I would have played anyway!” Word. This isn’t the fully realized character of color you’re angling for. This is your tutorial character.
This character has two purposes. One is to accustom you emotionally to playing as a person of color under low-key, low-stress circumstances. The other is to make sure, while you don’t have too much new material to worry about, that you’re avoiding all Step Zero’s traps and pitfalls.
When you’re working in this stage, practice building in character traits orthogonal to stereotypes: that is, unrelated either to stereotype or to the conspicuous opposite of stereotype. Hobbies, music taste, favorite foods, job, favorite subject in school: what is or isn’t orthogonal changes from population to population.
You may find this kind of training-wheels character easier to roll in some genres than others: high fantasy, space opera, and other settings farther from the real world in the early twenty-first century. Nevertheless, this process might teach you better even than I could how even such far-fetched settings are full of real-world signifiers nonetheless.
Awareness of Power Dynamics
As you play this character, consider how oppressive power dynamics relate to them and your portrayal. How do they change the choices you make and how you feel?
For example, people of color experience physical danger more often than whites, often from sources which represent security to white people: if we carry weapons, interact with police officers, or drink water from the tap without boiling or filtering it first, for instance. We also commonly run afoul of offensive behavior and bias, which stress and demoralize and harm us. We have to garden our behavior to mitigate these risks. Maybe we’re especially polite and respectful to cops. Maybe we suppress overt emotion so we don’t look threatening.
Don’t overplay these issues. For us, this is everyday life. I don’t want you going out of your way to harp on how oppressed or victimized your character of color is. Most importantly, people of color at your table may not feel like dealing with systemic oppression today, same as they might not feel like teaching you how to play a character of color. Don’t ruin their day.
At any rate, once you feel confident with your tutorial character, we’ll try something a little more difficult.
2. Add Cultural Signifiers, One by One
Cultural signifiers are expressions or traits which indicate, or signify, your character’s demographic background. A realistic character exhibits a balance of signifiers which are and aren’t coded to their culture. You’ll add them to your character one at a time, not all at once. Otherwise you’ll overwhelm yourself and lose control. Get used to each signifier for a game session or two. Gauge other players’ reactions for possible harm. Then maybe add another, although one or two of these is plenty. Take it slowly enough that you can apologize and course-correct if you get bad reactions.
As with the power dynamics above, don’t flaunt your signifiers. Let the opportunities come to you and meet them organically with or without culturally coded reactions. Don’t go out of your way to show off what you know about a culture. Hawkins suggests that you “let the context of the character speak for itself without trying to ‘feel the life’ of it. You can't. But maybe you can learn or teach something. Maybe you can remind people of what already exists to be seen and heard.”
Here are some candidates for addition, in loose ascending order of difficulty. In each of these categories, there are traps; and I didn’t put food on the list because ethnically coded foods feature so prominently in racist talk, and because misinformation about international cuisine is so easy to come by. Of course it’s okay for your Israeli character to make shakshuka for breakfast, but try not to linger in this arena.
Clothing and Possessions
Things like clothes and material culture are a good start because it’s easy to find well-sourced visual references. What casual or formal garments are in your wardrobe? When is it appropriate or convenient to wear them? Do your culture’s knives or swords have a distinctive shape? How do you deal with heat, cold, or precipitation?
The best choices among clothes and possessions are slightly less well-known options, since stereotypical images often feature the really obvious ones. This is not to say that no Chinese character may ever wear a conical straw hat; but maybe if you dig a little, you can find another hat that’s also popular in China that looks a little less like a racist cartoon about Asians coming to steal white women. Maybe your Japanese samurai can wield a tachi instead of a katana. Question the obvious when you get the chance.
While caricatures of deportment (exaggerated bowing, obsequious compliments, etc.) do show up in offensive portrayals, guides to cultural etiquette aimed at business travelers can get you started here. Keep in mind that people from culture X sojourning in culture Y usually adopt culture Y’s etiquette for the duration, although there are exceptions: Jews who are shomer negiah might opt not to shake hands with people not of their gender, for example.
Religion is difficult to portray gracefully and brings in any number of additional, possibly troublesome power dynamics, so you might be intimidated by this option; but I actually really like religion as an early signifier because a lot of widely available resources are designed to help new practitioners or curious outsiders learn about the tradition. How observant are you? Are there any rules you follow from day to day, or on special occasions? Remember the notes in Step Zero about not speaking prayers aloud, doing sacred practices, or playing a fanatical extremist.
Arts and Entertainment
What musical genres, dances, poetic forms, or sports are common in your character’s culture? Is your character into any of them? On a related note to that point in Step Zero about signifiers orthogonal to stereotype, I recommend a balance of media which are and aren’t coded to your character’s culture. If your character is Black and their only interests are rap music and basketball, branch out a little so you aren’t just running down a checklist of obvious Black American stuff.
Does your character know their people’s history? What parts of the world would they know a bit more about than usual? With what other cultural groups would they have had contact via immigration or emigration? Do they speak any foreign languages?
Keep in mind also that most characters, unless they’re from someplace completely isolated, will have some diversity in their cultural signifiers. Some items from this list will point to some other culture by virtue of cultural exchange.
A common answer you’ll hear when you ask about this topic is, “Do your research, lots of research.” Indeed you should, but careful out there. How do you know your information on such and such a culture is legit and not a mischaracterization? Did you get it from a source within the culture? If not, how did the source come by the information? Is their primary concern the welfare and respectful representation of the culture they’re describing, or do they have some other priority?
Consider also your medium. Even the best information vectors have flaws. Courses at school often prioritize colonialist voices. The Internet, while convenient, abounds in lies. Movies, theater, and television demand that actors subordinate their dignity and their truth to a bottom line of entertaining the white gaze (cw: racism, misogyny, and homophobia, but that’s my favorite film in the world, Multi-Facial by Vin Diesel). I sometimes base characters on real people I know; but even that method requires vetting, since we sometimes make racist jokes about ourselves or act out exaggerated stereotypes for complicated reasons that will get their own article eventually.
The best options are things somebody from the culture in question would do, but not things which ONLY somebody from the culture in question would do.
Live-action role-play presents additional challenges because, in many games, a player’s real-world visual presentation represents their character’s appearance. This embodiment process may involve costumes and makeup, which risk evoking whites’ long and seemingly endless tradition of using those tools to impersonate and/or lampoon people of color.
I hate that I actually have to explain this: never use makeup to darken your skin, change your eye shape, or simulate a hair texture you can’t achieve naturally. People do this all the time and we hate it. When I go to Gen Con, my PoC friends and I always play the “how many days before we see a drow cosplayer in blackface” game. Sure, Xarr’en, I bet you were going for dark purple.
As for costumes: I hate that European clothing is the default, that we only get the choice between dressing in the fashion of our own cultures (if that option is available at all) and dressing in the fashion of our colonizers. In an ideal world I could wear a summer yukata or kurta pajama or jeans and a t-shirt or a dashiki and go about my business without it being some kind of statement.
This is not that world.
Practically speaking, I have to take care with how I dress. LARP costuming is not the place to decolonize clothing. The point of decolonizing casual clothing is to establish that it’s a normal way to dress. A LARP with costuming is by definition not a normal context for your dress. Any garments you wear are literally a costume, not a casual outfit.
Villains of color are hard mode. PC villains of color are double secret hard mode. A little less so if everyone in your game comes from the villain’s ethnicity—like, sure, write an evil samurai or ninja for Thousand Arrows—but even then, all this article’s advice gets much, much higher stakes when you imply, at your most charitable, that the character of color is bad and so are the things they think, do, and are.
Villains of color are so tough to pull off, even for me, that I don’t think it appropriate to include them in this entry-level article. I don’t want anyone coming away from this joint thinking they’re gonna write Michael B Jordan’s Erik Killmonger or Henry Rollins’s Zaheer. What I will do, though, is advise you to examine villains of color in popular media and what makes them cringey. What trends arise in their backstories, criminal tendencies, and sexual behavior? Which negative characteristics do they all seem to have, regardless of how they fit into the story? Systemic oppression as motivation, implying that anyone who suffers sexual violence or becomes disabled or is poor might turn evil, is particularly played out these days.
How Much Do You Trust Your Game?
As you work through the steps above, you need to ask yourself whether the game you’re playing is helping your process, hindering it, or both. If you want to get good at it quicker, play games written by people of color about people of color. Clio Yun-su Davis’s “The Long Drive Back From Busan” (which has the best half-page you’ll ever read on how to play a Korean) and Julia Ellingboe’s Steal Away Jordan build respectful, authentic depictions of people of color into the character development rules and the mechanics.
But white people wrote most games out there. People of color usually appear in expansions and alternate settings, generated for all the reasons under “Why Not?” They appropriate cool stuff from people of color—monsters, powers, fighting styles—and leave the people themselves behind. Even positive depictions usually hew to stereotypes like the noble savage or the mystical honorable Easterner. Orientalism and the white gaze are a hell of a drug.
As you create your character, analyze the rules and setting text by the same criteria above. Does the character creation process tend to place PCs of color into uncomfortable characterizations? These warning signs may or may not be racist in and of themselves, but tend to lead to racist characters.
Look at the statistics which define mental or physical capabilities. Do some races have inherent modifiers to or limits on how athletic, intelligent, or likable they are?
Are some races’ magical or mystical powers emphasized to a degree that quickly outpaces others’?
Does the game’s core focus on Europe or America, while non-Western countries appear only in expansion material?
Are some races more civilized than others? Do some races rely heavily on material and other culture from a historical period that is particularly well-known in the West, while Western cultures continue to advance into the future?
Do adjectives like “savage,” “barbarian,” “primitive,” “superstitious,” or “bloodthirsty” crop up a lot in descriptions of sentient beings, even non-player sentient beings?
Does mythology derived from European sources dominate the game’s supernatural content? Are other countries’ religious and mythic traditions reframed to match it?
Are sensationalized or wicked cults a big deal? Do uncommon religions strongly influence those cults?
Are your primary means of interacting with the world violent or exploitative?
Does the text state how the creators didn’t intend it to be offensive, but feature only scant mechanical or practical guidance to make sure it stays that way?
… and finally, my personal favorite:
Is rolling a less offensive character somehow mechanically disincentivized?
If you’re out there somewhere and you’re rolling up a PC from a race or religion or something that isn’t yours, and someone from one of those groups tells you they’d rather you didn’t do that? Their opinion overrules mine. I don’t wanna hear any y’all come back to me talking about “someone told me not to do something because it was racist and so I told them James Mendez said I could.” No, I did not. I care about this hypothetical person’s feelings and I’m gonna assume they have good reasons when they’re telling you not to do something. You thank them for speaking up and you listen to what they have to say.
If you’re in a place where you can ask questions, if they tell you of their own accord without seeming pressured that they’re cool to talk about it, then you can go back and forth with them and then come tell me about it. But I’m telling you here and now to err in favor of the person your actions are most likely to hurt, not me. I’m not there. I’ll be okay. Worry about that person who had to summon the courage to go up to a white person and tell them not to do something.
To All the Racist Characters You’ve Made Before …
… I have too. Everything in this piece that I’ve said you can get wrong, I’ve gotten wrong in the past. But I forced myself to study my mistakes and learn from them. If you realize a beloved character you’ve made before is racist, cycle them out of play and revise them. Talk to the other players about what you noticed and how you’d like to improve. Perhaps you’ll retcon their traits or history some; but how you portray them going forward is the most important thing.
Will you admit your mistakes honestly and gracefully?
Will you listen to your critics with empathy and good faith?
Will you improve in practical ways, even if you must make yourself vulnerable to do so?
A Fun Exercise
Do everything in this article, except with a white person.