Dragon Age and the People of Color ‘Debate’

The internet (namely, tumblr and twitter) have been abuzz as of late with an oddly large number of people freaking out about the ethnicity of a recently announced character for the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition. Much of the fan art for the character has made him look ‘more white’ than he was intended. This, naturally, caused a sort of uproar wherein the majority of people were 100% confused, spurring such comments as:

Dude. Dorian’s got olive skin, which is the usual southern European/Mediterranean colour, and you can bet your arse that we all identify as white.

…how is Dorian NOT white. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for poc character and I got super excited when I saw vivienne because not only is she black, she HAS features common of african ethnicity and not just a white person colored black…but Dorian’s a pastry white ass guy.

While there is much there to address, if you’re unfamiliar with the Dragon Age franchise, this is the character in question:

dorian

When I first saw Dorian, I thought he was white. And this is not so much his actual appearance, but a deeper issue that this has been revealed in media: I thought Dorian was white because I expected him to be white. He has some color to his skin, he has features not commonly associated with Caucasians or white people (rather, features commonly associated with Indian or Middle Eastern heritage). In fact, he looks like  me. And I am very much not white. Despite all of this, I assumed that it was just the lighting, and that he was another white character. And a lot of other people did too.

This is a problem.

And I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that this is a problem for them to realize that this is, in fact, a really big problem. We live in a society where there are so many white leading men that, unless we get a character that is outwardly black or Eastern Asian, the assumption is that he is white.

Since the above comments were made, several of the writers and developers on the game have come out to address the issue. John Epler, cinematic developer for BioWare, had this to say:

When you take a character that -is – a PoC and you draw them as white, you’re sort of saying ‘don’t care about you unless you’re white’. And that’s a feeling that people will take into their real lives. ‘Unless your’e white, we don’t think you’re worthwhile’.

This speaks to a much deeper issue than let on. As previously stated, the artists that drew Dorian as white did not realize he was not meant to be white. His skin isn’t noticeably dark, therefore he has to be white. In my eyes, the problem is not that people drew Dorian white. The problem is that everyone is so sure that he is white that they’ve become outwardly opposed to any other idea.

The logic, as seen in the first anonymous comment above, is that Dorian has light skin, therefore he is white. And this speaks to an issue that has been hugely prevalent in culture throughout the last century: passing. I talk more about that idea here. Specifically in the poem Passing by Tori Derricotte:

Why presume “passing” is based on what I leave out and not what she fills in?

Too many people need to know, and too many people fill in. In the case of media, it is very important as there are not many not-white main characters. By filling in his race, too many people have made a crucial mistake. And this is something we should talk about, and this is something that we should work on.

We see race in terms of black and white, and that has never been okay.

That being said.

There is another fundamental misunderstanding that has made this conversation a hell of a lot harder to have. People keep talking about white washing, and Dorian being a Person of Color and all that. But what most have failed to talk about is what, exactly, Person of Color means. Where I come from, it means black.When we get letters that talk about ‘people of color’ from colleges and the like, many have the response ‘but I’m not black’ and others, like me, feel the term is dated and weird. In my region, the only people who call all minorities people of color are the white people of the north end. Everyone else associates the term with people who identify with the black cultural identify. This predominantly includes people with ethnic ties to Africa, Jamaica, and South America. So for someone like me, and I’m sure for many other people, to hear that Dorian is a PoC, their first response is ‘but doesn’t look black’. And ‘reasonably’ so, as there have always been differences in social structure and slang across different regions (again, assuming a cultural identity based on appearance is a tricky thing to do). But pulling this entire idea into the area of ‘PoC’, everyone has latched onto this idea of black, and thus the central issue – the fact that he is not white and the shocking issue that so many people ignored his actual appearance as so many people expected him to be white – has gone largely ignored.

This is a problem.

I do not believe that they should have has to make Dorian darker. However, I do wonder why they didn’t. I’m not sure if that’s also a problem, or if it’s just the reasonable exercising of his country of origin (Tevinter) and the fact that the only Tevinters we’ve seen so far in the series have been darker than Fereldens and Kirkwallers, but not as dark as commonly associated with East Indians. And there is also the thought that Western media tends to latch onto the darker people in the Middle East and generally ignores the diversity that exists within skin tone and appearance.

There really is a lot going on here.

What is your take on the issue? And what does PoC mean to you? Let me know in the comments below.

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8 comments

  1. I completely understand. Sometimes I find it amazing how brainwashed culture cna make you. If someone says I saw a guy… I imagine a white guy. Even though I’m a mixed black female. Any other race gets denoted before the word guy. I thought Dorian was white from that picture too. When I met him in game it’s clear he’s not, but often to me I think of a lot people as white just because they aren’t strongly not white… I mean are Italians considered white? What if they have white skin? It seems like it depends on who you ask but a lot of people in America have mixed ancestry and just consider themselves white or black or whatever. Anyway, good read.

    1. So sorry this took me so long to reply to! Thank you very much. I appreciate the comment. =]

      Italians have always been an odd story in my mind because in the early 1900s, they were not considered white by any standard of the word. Now, however, they are considered white as long as they aren’t immigrants. The trouble is, though, people will mistake them for lantinx or middle eastern if they have darker skin and will make fun of them for that. In addition to that, they are severely fetishized and that’s 100% not okay. So Italians are in an odd place as far as race goes. In America, that is.

      1. The mere fact those other races would be made fun of is not ok… But I can’t deny that I haven’t seen it. I knew a immigrant southern (darker) Italian and people called and laughed and called him Mexican… The whole thing is ridiculous. It is interesting and sad to think of how cultures can be fetishized but people are still racist toward them though… Sometimes even the same people.

        1. Indeed. The fetization of races is inherently racist, though. Because it’s based on stereotypes. People will say they love Italians for features and personality trains that generalize the entire race into one type. Fetishization is racism.

  2. I’ve never really been comfortable with the “white” and “PoC” labels. I, while pale, am mixed, and grew up in an extremely culturally rich and diverse setting. Looking at Dorian, I see so many beautiful features that I saw in Greece and in Italy. Those features are different from many features seen in the United States, and while they are paler, I would not consider Greeks “white”. Personally I’m finding the fact that Bioware is filling out the racial gradient as refreshing and exciting. Who wants everything to be black and white when there are so many rich shades and variations in between? Life would be boring if there were only two skin tones to people.

    I think it is sad that we live in a society that is ready to assume a leading character is (and, subconsciously, that they should be) “white”. As an artist perhaps I can put more variation in the people I showcase to better highlight the diversity a main character can have, and to change this expectation we seem to have. Thanks for writing such an interesting and thought provoking article.

    -Danielle

    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. =]

      I agree with you to a point. I don’t associate rich culture with non-whiteness. I find there are many rich cultures filled with white people. I cannot come to consider a Greek or Italian a person of color, as they are very much considered white in the states. What I mean by that is, though they do have these rich cultures that are separate from what is normally associated with whiteness, they have white privilege in the US. For that reason, I have to consider Greeks and Italians white because in the society I grow up in, they usually have all the privilege associated with whiteness unless they are a first gen immigrant. There are darker skin tones of both these ethnic group that often has them confused for Lantinx, but the privilege is not lost because they are Greek or Italian, it is because they were mistaken for something else. These groups can absolutely be subject to colorism and several forms of discrimination, but they still have white privilege in the states.

      But I do love that BioWare is filling in the racial gradient – the world is not just black and white, so it would be boring to only include those shades. That’s why I appreciate the design of characters such as Dorian, Josephine, Zevran, and Fenris. It shows the sort of middle shade, as well as reveals how easily artists and people in general find it to whitewash characters. As well as how desperately it seems people need these sorts of heroes to be white.

      Thanks again for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed my article.

  3. Tevinter is supposed to be a rough analogue of the Late Roman Empire and the period we refer to as the Byzantine Empire, so he’s basically meant to be on the skintone spectrum of Greek-Italian-Armenian, if that makes sense to you. I think the previous Tevinter character we’ve seen could be comfortably classified as white and since he’s from a noble family I see no reason why we should assume different about him.

    1. I knew that about Tevinter, but the reason we should assume that Dorian is something other than white is because the creator of the character explicitly states it. I was upset with myself for assuming he was white, becasue he looks like me. I am not white. Then I was upset with the internet for latching onto the idea of him being white and refusing to accept anything else. I really don’t think it was logical to assume he was white because he has features that are commonly associated with Middle Eastern heritage. It’s not just about the skin tone, but his actual face. There is a trend where we assume he’s white because we expect him to be, and we expect him to be because there are so many white characters to begin with. And while that might seem okay, I really don’t think it is.

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment. =]

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