“[Humans] are more individualistic than any other species I have encountered. If three humans are in a room, there will be six opinions. I like your species; I am curious to see what you will do.”
— Justicar Samara, Mass Effect 2
I’m going to warn you right now: This post is going to tackle a touchy and very slippery subject. If you are deterred by such things, I only ask that you 1) at least give me a chance to attempt articulating my thoughts and points; or 2) quietly ignore this post if you find it truly isn’t for you. I apologize now if I fail to properly explain my points and perspectives; I encourage all of my readers to thoughtfully and civilly discuss the things this post brings up in the comments, if you are so inclined.
So, what exactly am I going to talk about this week? Race. With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this past Monday, I thought it only fitting to firmly delineate my thoughts on the difference between race, ethnicity, and culture. As expected, I am going to do this through the scope of video games.
A lot of this thinking started with the last Census, which took place shortly after my daughter was born. I was one of those kids who— when asked what my “race” or “ethnicity” was for standardized tests— would write down “human” as a completely serious and plausible answer. Upon receiving the Census packet in the mail, my house was hounded by people both in person and on the phone. Finally, I picked up a phone call from the Census folks and, despite me telling him that I sent in my packet two weeks ago, the person insisted that I answer the questions.
He asked my race. I firmly and clearly said, “I am an American of Chinese descent.”
It took him a minute or two to register what had come out of my mouth. What I told him was the unadulterated truth, phrased succinctly as possible. I cannot claim to be solely Chinese, seeing as I was born on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean from China’s shores. From a cultural standpoint, that single designation is even more misleading and false. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure once he figured out what I was trying to say, he just jotted down “Chinese” on the paper anyway.
When I think of one’s “race” I’m thinking on a scientific level— blood, genetics, the whole molecular kit and caboodle— while considering external factors like birthplace. In a word, the physical things on the surface that you can see and touch. As I like to say, I was made in America and my genes were made in China, hence the terminology I used with the census guy over the phone.
Culture, on the other hand, is much more complex in my eyes. It’s a running joke that Asians in general are supposed to be math and science savants while playing classical music on the violin or piano. At the same time. Me? I don’t fit that description at all, not even a little bit. The fancy piece of paper on my wall says “English and anthropology” for a reason, and I don’t know how to play anything other than video games (plus a smattering of board games). Does that mean I’m not “Asian?” My grandfather rags on me for not speaking enough Cantonese Chinese, though I know plenty of people who fit the first definition to a tee and they can’t speak a single word of Chinese in any dialect. Does that make them not “Asian?”
See what I’m getting at here? Culture, especially in the United States, is a little more difficult to pin down because it is so fluid. My favorite way to explain culture is through food, thanks to a course on US History I took in college that introduced me to “We Are What We Eat” by Donna Gabaccia and “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” by Bich Minh Nguyen. Whenever you eat a noodle of any sort, for example, you’re tasting Chinese and Italian handiwork. Think hard about the stuff you’ve eaten all week, and you’ll come to realize that you are also part Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Dutch, British, German, Jamaican, and much more.
Another way to look at culture is through language. I’m betting you can list five words the American English language has adopted from other cultures, just off the top of your head. Give it a shot. Just as our bodies have individual parts, so does our personal culture. It’s a fluid mosaic of shifting colors and patterns that work together to make up the bigger picture.
The best thing about being a fan of the science fiction and fantasy genres is constantly having a mirror shoved in your face and being asked, “What does it mean to be ‘human?'” Humans are regarded by other creatures and aliens as a whole species: it doesn’t matter if your mage has fair or dark skin, nor does it matter if your version of Commander Shepard is a brunette or redhead. A human is a human is a human— on the surface, anyway. What does matter are your actions, and that is not restricted to any specific species or race, or even culture.
It boils down to a matter of respect. If nothing else, video games show us that people of varying races/species can— and do— find common ground, coexist, and work toward larger goals. The Shattered Sun Offensive at the end of Burning Crusade is a good example of putting aside old wounds, ill will, and racial tension for the sake of saving the world. Tirion Fordring touted the need for the races of Azeroth to come together so that we could defeat Arthas, once and for all. The druids, for the most part, have been looking past racial and faction biases since the original World of Warcraft. And don’t get me started on the intricacies of being a lone human commander who’s supposed to lead a squad of people from different races/species through Hell and back in Mass Effect.
Most of all, look at the ending RP of Deathbringer Saurfang’s encounter for the Alliance. Varian Wrynn— who claimed to hate all orcs because of his father’s assassination and his days as a gladiator in Horde fighting pits— calms his dwarf compatriot when the captain of the Horde airship, High Overlord Varok Saurfang, approaches to retrieve his son’s body.
King Varian Wrynn: Stand down, Muradin. Let a grieving father pass.
High Overlord Saurfang: I will not forget this… kindness. I thank you, Highness.
King Varian Wrynn: I… I was not at the Wrath Gate, but the soldiers who survived told me much of what happened. Your son fought with honor. He died a hero’s death. He deserves a hero’s burial.
We can celebrate our differences while reveling in our commonalities. Think of it as a raid team. Every raid member brings something unique to the table: survivability, physical damage, magic damage, healing— and these are just the overarching qualities. No matter how strong a tank is, it can’t survive for long without a healer. No matter how powerful the tank and healer are, they can’t kill the boss without the damage dealers. The damage dealers won’t stand a chance against the boss, despite having a healer. Healers can’t do much of anything without the tanks and damage dealers.
It’s all connected. Next time, in Part 2, I bring you more examples from the video gaming universe and explain what happens when characters lose sight of “humanness” and respect for their fellow living being. Until then… Stand strong. Stand together.