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Dungeons & Dragons & Oppression

photograph of game dice and figurine

On September 2nd, Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces official Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) materials, apologized for offensive content in its lore concerning the Hadozee race released in the most recent Spelljammer: Adventures in Space boxed set. The Hadozee are a monkey-like humanoid race known for their sailing abilities and love of exploring. They have been included in the Spelljammer series since 1990, but recent updates to the lore, as well as some of the Hadozee artwork, prompted criticism that the Hadozee evoked anti-Black stereotypes.

The updates restructured the Hadozee’s origins, stating that the race was created after a wizard captured wild Hadozee and gave them an experimental elixir that made them intelligent, more human-like in appearance, and, as a byproduct, more resilient when harmed. The wizard’s plan was to sell the enhanced Hadozee as slaves for military use; however, the wizard’s apprentices helped the Hadozee escape with the rest of the elixir. The Hadozee returned to their homelands to use the rest of the elixir on other wild Hadozee.

As reddit user u/Rexli178 explained, the main issues players had with this lore were that “the Hadozee were enslaved and through their enslavement were transformed from animals to thinking feeling people,” and that “the Hadozee had no agency in their own liberation.” This, coupled with the fact that anti-Black stereotypes often compare Black people to monkeys, plus the well-known historical racist sentiment that enslavement was necessary for the improvement of the Black race, plus the idea that Black people don’t feel as much pain when harmed, plus Hadozee artwork that seemed to evoke the imagery of minstrel showsplus the fact that the Hadozee were characterized in other places as happy servants of the Elves all came together to paint a picture that many players found damning.

It is worth noting that the critique of the Hadozee lore was not that the Hadozee reminded players of Black people. The critique was that the Hadozee echo anti-Black stereotypes and narratives that have been used to oppress Black people.

Stating that something is similar to a stereotype of a group is not the same as stating that that thing is similar to the group itself; this is especially clear when the stereotype in question is plainly false and dehumanizing.

The recent Hadozee controversy is not the only misstep Wizards of the Coast has made in the past few years — the 2016 adventure Curse of Strahd  contained a people called the Vistani who evoked negative stereotypes associated with the Roma people. At the same time, Wizards of the Coast is slowly trying to change how race functions in D&D, removing alignment traits (good vs. evil, chaotic vs. lawful) and other passages of lore text to allow for greater freedom when constructing a character.

What went wrong with the Hadozee storytelling?

Whether the parallels with real life oppression and negative stereotypes were intentional, it seems clear that this lore pulled players out of the fantasy world and recreated negative tropes associated with anti-Black racism.

How strongly it pulled on those tropes might be a matter for debate; however, I think the more interesting philosophical question here is: How should D&D include stories of oppression into their game materials, if at all? The answer to this question will likely depend upon particular histories of oppression and the details of how a given narrative of oppression is woven in the story, but I think we can say a few things to answer the general version of the question.

The first observation to make is that D&D is a fantasy series. When playing, we want to be able to escape our mundane world and experience the excitement of casting spells, fighting monsters, and just joking around with our friends. Because D&D is a fantasy series, it seems that the stories about oppression that the game facilitates should be sufficiently removed from actual histories of oppression. Even more so it seems that they should avoid reifying oppressive stereotypes in worldbuilding.

Some historical themes can be pulled upon, but WotC should be careful not to let too many of those themes overlap.

If a story maps too closely onto the experiences of oppressed groups that still exist and are still oppressed in some ways, D&D has left the realm of fantasy, doing a disservice to its storytelling and potential for healthy escapism.

And, if a story maps too closely onto oppressive stereotypes that have been used to denigrate certain groups of people historically, that can also set off alarm bells.

It is worth noting, too, that just because a piece of lore does not bring certain players out of the game – because they do not see the parallels to real-life oppressive tropes or narratives – that alone does not mean the lore is passable. The point here is for players of all different backgrounds, including from different marginalized groups, to be able to suspend disbelief and enjoy the fantasy world of D&D. Storytelling that makes it difficult for members of certain marginalized groups to equally enjoy and participate in the game is unjust and can practically exclude people from the game.

Now, this isn’t to say that Dungeon Masters (DMs, or the person who runs the D&D game) should not be allowed to modify or reinvent D&D materials to tell stories that more closely map onto real-life instances of oppression. Some members of oppressed groups might appreciate being able to navigate oppressive frameworks in a world in which they have power and can become heroes. Whether these homebrew stories are exclusionary is another tricky question.

The point is, while players should have the freedom to adapt and change stories, the basic blueprint put out through official D&D materials should be maximally inclusive.

This brings me to my second point — Dungeons & Dragons should not shy away from storytelling that allows players to explore oppressive societies, complex social issues, and other uncomfortable situations that they may face in their real lives. The trick is that the players need to be able to make their own choices about how they want to engage in these issues. And, if the storytelling is sufficiently removed from real-life histories of oppression, that will make it a safer space for players to explore how their characters might respond in those scenarios. In order to include these elements and tell these stories well, it would be good for Wizards of the Coast to hire writers who are familiar with common oppressive tropes and narratives and who could redirect problematic stories in a different direction.

It’s interesting to note that the people who have reacted against the Hadozee controversy and claimed that the Spelljammer material was just fine seem to agree with these two principles. One common reaction appears to be something like “fantasy is different than reality, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.” While the bulk of those reactions insinuate that people are seeing connections between Black stereotypes and the Hadozee that aren’t there, I think that they are roughly in line with the idea that fantasy is something that is distinct from reality and should be kept that way. I take it that those who are critiquing the Hadozee lore are critiquing it for this same reason.

Another common reaction seems to be along the lines of “we shouldn’t get rid of conflict and difficult themes just to make some politically correct folks happy,” which lines up with the idea that D&D should be a space where those scenarios can be explored by all players. I imagine that those who are unhappy with the Hadozee lore would also agree with this principle, so long as players can be active in shaping their characters and experiences and the game does not exclude certain groups of players.

To be inclusive to all D&D players, however, Wizards of the Coast needs to have better representation of people with different life experiences and understandings of the world in their writing rooms. This will not only make for better storytelling, but it will also facilitate gameplay that does not alienate certain players in the room. Let’s hope that Wizards of the Coast as well as the larger D&D community start to head more in that direction.

The Ethical Risks of Ad-Hoc Bilingualism

photorgaph of Air Canda plane in air

A rather strange episode in Canadian language relations occurred at the beginning of November when the CEO of Canada’s flagship airline Air Canada had to apologize for not being able to speak French, despite living in Montreal for 14 years. Quebec politicians and journalists quickly labelled the remarks as “insulting,” prompting a wave of criticism in his direction, including from the Deputy Prime Minister herself, who wrote a letter to the airline telling the CEO that improvement to his language ability “should be incorporated as one of his key performance goals.” The affair has prompted yet another debate about bilingualism in Canada, but this particular instance highlights a growing ethical problem regarding the way that bilingual policies are understood in practice.

The affair began on November 3rd when Michael Rousseau, the CEO of Air Canada, made his first major speech after taking on the role in February to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. Rousseau spoke limited French during his speech, and when asked afterwards by a journalist how he could live in Montreal for so long without speaking French, he replied, “I’ve been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal.” These remarks were labelled as contemptuous of Quebec and its culture, “appalling and disrespectful,” “insensitive,” and indicative of a “lack of respect for francophones” by various officials at the federal level and from the Quebec government. In response, Rousseau has pledged to take French lessons.

This affair has prompted a counter response that this is simply Quebec “fragility” with each charge against Rousseau being more absurd than the last. But, putting aside the culture war for a second, its worth considering what bilingualism is supposed to mean to a contemporary Canadian society. The role of the French language has been a hot issue in Quebec since the government recently introduced new legislation to strengthen the French language in Quebec and crack down on English use in public. Initially, the policy of official bilingualism in Canada began with the Official Languages Act of 1969, passed by Pierre Trudeau’s government. The intention behind it was to ensure French and English would be given equal status and that French or English Canadians would be able to access services from the federal government in their own language. In addition, Canada’s constitution guarantees equal language rights and education rights. But these inclusive policies seem merely meant to guide government services, not encourage all members of Canadian society to be bilingual.

The dispute playing out stems from an ambiguity. One conception of bilingualism would hold that any Canadian should be able to work in their language of choice. Another conception of bilingualism may specifically promote the idea of speaking both French and English, and as a social policy Canada should become more bilingual in this way. These are very different goals and would require very different resources, carrying with them very different ethical concerns.

For starters, science tells us that learning a new language once we reach adulthood is very difficult because our neural connections have stabilized by that point. This means that a number of social factors will likely determine success in picking up a new language. The science of languages suggests that learning a second language really requires one “to be immersed in it,” “to be around native speakers as much as possible.” Yet, the 2016 Census found that 86% of bilingual Canadians live in Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick, meaning that if you live in a difficult geographic region, your ability to learn a second language is far more difficult. In addition, civil servants have argued that current bilingual policies are racist because they effectively exclude immigrants and new Canadians who in many cases must learn not one, but two new languages if they wish to work at the federal level.

There are also concerns that the policy of official bilingualism is exclusionary for aboriginals as well. Former MP Roméo Saganash opposed forcing Supreme Court judges to be bilingual, for example, because it would effectively prevent aboriginals from reaching it. Even recently, there was a controversy over the fact that Canada’s newest and first Aboriginal Governor General, Mary Simon, a bilingual person speaking English and Inuktitut and born in Quebec, was unable to speak French. This raised hundreds of complaints from francophones despite Simon noting how as a child she was denied the chance to learn French.

Finally, even once one has attained bilingual status, ethical concerns remain. The federal government’s own website notes how tension and insecurities between second language speakers and native speakers can lead to exclusion. These insecurities have made it difficult to have a bilingual civil service, so why would we expect these factors not to be a problem if bilingualism were promoted more broadly?

This brings us back to the case of Michael Rousseau. Critics argue that since Air Canada, a former crown corporation, is the only national airline legally subject to the Official Languages Act and required to be headquartered in Montreal, it follows that the CEO should speak French. But while this is a reason for Air Canada to offer bilingual services, it is not an argument that everyone in the company should speak multiple langauges. As Sabrina Maddeaux recently noted,

If no one at Air Canada headquarters spoke French, that’d be a problem to discuss, but that’s certainly not the case. In fact, the airline has a multi-million dollar internal official languages program and employees dedicated to any complaints related to the Official Languages Act. Functionally, this is a non-issue. Rather, it’s a PR problem and optics issue the government has no business sticking its nose in.

Instead, most of the arguments against Rousseau seem to dwell on the symbolism involved. Some argue that Rousseau didn’t show enough “humility,” while other argue that Air Canada is “not just any company” because of its status in Canadian culture. They insist that that CEOs should set an example and that “Official languages obligations should be seen as a duty owed to the nation”: “If the CEO is not bilingual, why should a flight attendant?” Of course, the obvious answer is that a flight attendant directly offers the services mandated to be bilingual while the CEO does not.

But even if it can’t be legally required for a CEO to speak French, should we regard the expectation as more of a social requirement? Should everyone in the company be bilingual? What about other national corporations and institution? If the argument is that either for symbolic reasons or because we actively wish to promote a bilingual society, you must be bilingual if you want to operate at the national level, then we cannot ignore the larger moral issues and potential inequities.

Moving from a model of mandating service in both languages to a model of bilingualism that promotes it as a social policy carries important ethical concerns. Determining who should be bilingual and what national roles should be bilingual is not something that should be handled by a mob of journalists and politicians based on ad-hoc reasoning about which roles rise to the level sufficient importance. This isn’t an issue that affects only a single CEO who could easily afford French lessons. It could conceivably apply to any job field within federal jurisdiction. Such moves in official language policy have the potential to exclude many sections of Canadian society. Policies which could potentially ruin whole careers or exacerbate social inequalities should be rigorously debated and voted on. Given the moral challenges of bilingualism, it is morally irresponsible for a government to proceed in such an ad-hoc or arbitrary way.

A Stark Divide: On Critical Race Theory in the Classroom

photograph of students studying at desks in classroom

“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist nation.” So declared Senator Tim Scott in his address last month. Refusing to acknowledge a messy explanation of how institutional racism contributes to significant racial disparities in criminal justice, healthcare, education, and economic outcomes, Scott chose the tidier, more familiar framing of racism as an all-or-nothing character trait. As though racism must always take the form of a conscious and deliberate act. As though offenders must have violence on their mind and evil in their hearts. As though longstanding inequities could be the simple work of a few bad apples.

But Scott’s pronouncement wasn’t designed for nuance, it was meant to serve a particular political function: contesting the need for race-based education in our schools.

“A hundred years ago, kids in classrooms were taught the color of their skin was their most important characteristic. And if they looked a certain way, they were inferior. Today, kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them, and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor.”

Race-based education, Scott claims, is infected with the very same racial essentialism it seeks to expunge. Whatever their intentions, these educational programs are thought to be reductive — they reduce individuality and personal responsibility to a matter of skin color and treat race as though it were the only relevant characteristic defining one’s social identity. But, as Scott argued, “It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination.” As such, race-based education stands accused of being divisive. By focusing exclusively on our differences, it pits us against each other rather than bringing us together. Perhaps most damning of all, race-based education challenges an article of faith: that the social, political, and economic rewards reaped in this life are proportional to the sweat of one’s brow.

These charges, however, misunderstand (and sometimes willfully misconstrue) the purpose and aims of race-based education. Critical race theory, the unnamed villain in Scott’s address, is designed to question the ways we perceive our society and the ways we are perceived. These reflections provide us the opportunity to develop and strengthen our racial and social literacy. At its very core, critical race theory challenges each of us to appreciate our situatedness (or perhaps “thrownness”). There is no view from nowhere; we all speak from a specific perspective informed by a unique lived experience, and we each possess a particular point of view. If we are to truly come together and bridge that gap, then we must learn to recognize these differences and begin to develop a shared language with which to communicate — identifying the barriers to the inclusive and just society we wish to share, as well as articulating the work needed to dismantle them.

Critics often assert that critical race theory is not a proper pedagogical model because it focuses on what to learn rather than how to learn. In truth, however, it offers us an alternative lens by which to gain perspective on our social situation and consider the ways things could be otherwise. In this way, critical race theory delivers real educational goods: the civilizing of students, the enlargement of imagination and empathy, the cultivation of rich and meaningful autonomy, and the development of independent judgment by challenging dogmatic ways of thinking and perceiving.

The political war being waged on race-based education is not new. Senator Scott’s statements echo Trump’s proclamations that critical race theory represents “radical indoctrination,” and Scott’s words speak in support of Trump’s (since rescinded) ban on the “un-American propaganda” in diversity and inclusion initiatives. Critical race theory is smeared as left-wing proselytizing, the toxic by-product of the Great Awokening spilling out of the ivory tower and threatening education reform from grade school on up. To escape being swallowed up by PC culture and white guilt, there is but one recourse: Resist. And many conservative state legislatures are responding by outlawing any and all attempts to broach the subject of slavery and segregation in American history in the classroom.

In the wake of recent events, many schools have been prompted to reconsider their traditional course offerings. Unfortunately, proposed changes to the education curriculum are continually cast as a struggle over the soul of the nation. Just last month, Cornel West and Jeremy Tate referred to Howard University’s dissolving of its classics department as a “spiritual catastrophe,” signaling the “spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness run amok in American culture.” Contrary to faculty’s explanation, they depict Howard’s decision as a loss of faith. Lacking the strength of conviction to defend the sacred texts, Howard succumbed to pressure from the woke mob. The barbarians are at the gates.

In defending the discipline from would-be reformers, West and Tate emphasize the formative power the study has for its disciples. “Engaging with the classics and with our civilizational heritage” they argue, “is the means to finding our true voice. It is how we become our full selves, spiritually free and morally great.” But the idea that one must assimilate oneself into Western culture in order to find one’s true identity and have anything meaningful to say is precisely the problem. It may very well be true that only through understanding our place in history can we ever hope to know ourselves, but the question that remains is: whose history?

This question is especially pressing for a discipline like classics. Even scholars within the field are beginning to question the ways in which the study lends itself to supporting white supremacy narratives, promotes Eurocentrism, and is instrumental to the construction of whiteness. As classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta has argued, “the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.” So how might we separate the meat from the bone and dismantle the power structures that seem inextricably fused to the life-blood of the discipline?

This discussion regarding what should be excised and what can be rescued within the classics curriculum reflects the substantial difficulty facing us in the larger societal conversation. Unfortunately, these questions are often explored in terms of who is cancelling whom — is the left out to expel all conservatives from the academy, or is the right suppressing academic freedom by claiming that all education is merely liberal ideology? But this way of assessing the debate only encourages us to retreat to our separate political corners. Commentary devolves into scorekeeping: whose tribe is winning? At present, public debate is paralyzed, consumed in accusing the other side of one of two untenable extremes: continuing to actively ignore an oppressive status quo, or burning everything to the ground.

Gay Representation and ‘Onward’

photograph of Disney castle

Disney-Pixar’s latest film Onward has generated a mild flurry of controversy in the week before its release. The film, which is set in a modernized fantasy world, features Pixar’s first openly gay character, a police officer (who also happens to be a cyclops) voiced by actress and writer Lena Waithe. Christian right-wing groups have protested the character’s existence, viewing her inclusion in the narrative as a blatant attempt to peddle the “LGBTQ agenda” to children. But surprisingly the LGBTQ community has evinced mixed feelings about the film as well. Disney’s frank attempt at inclusiveness could be seen as a groundbreaking move away from heteronormativity in mainstream film. Representation is a certainly good thing; the limits of our imagination is at least partly determined by pop culture, and when we see something treated as acceptable within the bounds of fiction, that thing starts to feel more possible in real life. But some have taken issue with the nature of LGBTQ representation in Onward, for two main reasons. First, they argue that it’s problematic to herald Disney as a champion of progressiveness in any context, and second, they take issue with the type of character Disney has chosen to make LGBTQ.

Any gesture towards inclusivity feels hollow when delivered by a mega-corporation like Disney, which has a checkered history with the LGBTQ community to say the least. In the same week that Onward announced their lesbian character, Disney also announced that they would be removing Love, Simon, a television show based on the movie of the same name centered on the life of a gay teenager, from the Disney + streaming service. Apparently, the show’s frank discussions of the main character’s sexuality pushed it out of the “family friendly” category, despite the fact that other shows still hosted on the service contain decidedly non-family-friendly themes, like explicit violence. Disney is a monstrously large company, and despite its many attempts to shape itself into a homogenous brand, it can still send out contradictory messages, like taking down a show for being “too gay” and proudly announcing the existence of a gay character in the same week. Part of this comes from the company’s desire to appeal to everyone, both the “family values” advocates and a more progressive crowd at the same time. In that sense, Disney’s form of representation will always feel false. It comes across as an attempt to make money and not a deep-seated commitment to equality.

In an article for Slate, Sam Adams further breaks down the problem with Disney’s gay representation, beyond the scope of just Onward. He explains that “From the ‘exclusively gay moment’ in the live-action Beauty and the Beast to a kiss between two minor female characters in last year’s The Rise of Skywalker, each baby step has been preceded by a flotilla of coverage proclaiming the advance—and each has been followed by the inevitable sense of confusion and betrayal when viewers see the movie and realize, “That’s it?” He correctly points out that the way these movies often use their landmark gay moments as a marketing tactic, drawing both positive and negative press (which, in terms of a company’s bottom line, often amount to the same thing). The marketing is often loud and expansive, in proportion to the half-second of actual screentime for the gay characters themselves. According to Adams, “The problem is often less with the movies themselves than with the self-congratulatory buildup to them.” It’s an attempt to capitalize on “woke points,” or credit for inclusiveness without actually being progressive, which ultimately translates into box office sales.

Beyond the film’s marketing, the lesbian character and the way the filmmakers have chosen to portray her is a source of controversy. Adams noted that “Waithe’s character is, like pretty much every character in every Pixar movie, essentially sexless; her girlfriend never appears on screen, so whatever intimacy the two of them might share happens only in the viewer’s imagination.” It’s worth asking whether this approach is better or worse than making the character’s sexuality more apparent, which might fall into the trap of harmful stereotyping. At the same time, treating gay characters in the exact same way as straight characters with the aim of normalizing them can has the effect of erasing difference completely.

Furthermore, the character is a police officer. This may seem like an innocuous choice, and given the light tone of the movie and the little amount of screentime given to the character, it probably is. But at the same time, LGBTQ cops are often difficult to portray in works of fiction. One has to balance both the reality that LGBTQ cops exist (and that they often become police officers with the aim of improving the way law enforcement treats their community) and the history of police brutality against gay people who protest against the state. This troubled relationship between gay people and cops is evident throughout the latter half of the 20th-century. In 1974, for example, the police department of Alamedea County in California began recruiting gay officers, because gay people in San Fransicsco were deeply uncomfortable reporting crimes to straight officers. In January of 2020, the San Francisco pride parade voted to ban various police departments from marching, and issued a statement that “[Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies can participate in Pride] so long as they do not visibly identify as deputies of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office while doing so.” This small example is a microcosm of the relationship between police officers and gay people on a larger scale, which involves both opposition and intersection. In that sense, portraying a gay character as a police officer, especially if that character is the first gay character in your animation company’s history, inevitably comes with baggage.

We might compare this problematic representation with NBC’s hit show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has been ensnared throughout its run in the same controversy as Onward. One of the main characters of the show is both a black gay man and a high-ranking captain within the NYPD. Funké Joseph, a black fan of the show, has written about the whiplash he experiences every time he sees this character, and how he balances between enjoying the show’s jokes and remembering the brutal reality behind the script. He explains that,

“Real life cops have abused their power countless times against me and people who look like me. It still feels like almost every other day there’s another black police brutality victim being turned into a post-mortem hashtag. That’s why cheering for the utopian version of cops is a moral dilemma for me.”

That same moral dilemma is evident on a much smaller scale in Onward. The film encourages gay viewers, who may have a deeply negative relationship with the police, to cheer for a lesbian cop.

The fact that there is a gay character in Onward at all is a good sign; at the very least it signals that Disney thought it was more profitable to market to a LGBTQ or LGBTQ-friendly audience than the “family values” group. But it remains crucial that we understand Disney’s profit-based motivations for this move, beyond the empty rhetoric and marketing strategies. One solution for the moral problem of representation, perhaps, is to stop giving Disney credit for every new “first gay character,” and begin to ask what kinds of gay representation are considered acceptable for mainstream audiences and why.


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