Thursday, August 8, 2013

Is D&D a white game?

Recently, I participated in a discussion on noism's blog monster's & manuals which among other things digressed into "middle class" habits, and it occurred to me that some of what they were saying was echoing a conversation I once had with some black friends about acting white, including the disconnect or discomfort you can feel in such conversations, as you're the outsider commenting on the subject. It involved the term "middle class dinner party conversation."

Which clicked with recent discussions I've read about the broadening of a product's fantasy art to include multiracial models, this in particular dd-should-be-for-everyone-not-just-white-men. I know I've commented on it on someone's blog, I just don't remember where, mostly a discussion of why I tend to have just white guys in the mix and some references to Tolkien's and Howard's racism.

Let me pause for a moment and make the necessary modern aside in American race discussions, that what I'm discussing here is a discussion of black and white, rather than an inclusion of the wider spectrum of races, as in America black and white is always with us, while quite often other races disappear into the "white" or mainstream culture with no more blip than any other immigrant family.  The fact that my friend Vinh's immigrant Dad thought it was a waste of time, no different than my friend Vlad's immigrant Dad thinking the same thing.

Is playing D&D "acting white?"

I'll now waste time with personal history to allow people to say, "no it's just your generation, man, you're old."  Yes I always feel such statements need to be said in pseudo hippy patois.

I went to what is upon reflection an absurdly well balanced high school in the early eighties, in that it covered a variety of economic classes and that it included a black population which pretty much reflected the national average.   Our suburb was just far enough outside the inner ring to be oblivious to the aftermath of white flight and for busing to have no impact upon us.  Our school had few to no race problems, outside of every two years or so, some kid would try to turn his personal beef into a race war and he'd inevitably get deflated, when someone would say "Yeah but Keith's cool and you're a dick."  We were still as stratified as any other high school of the era, but it was generally on that paradigm of jock/burnout/nerds/brains/bandgeeks  that John Hughes made into universal archetypes. Even most of that overlapped as the Gen X population trough made it pretty difficult to set yourself out there as a distinct clique. We weren't really large enough to support distinct,viable subcultures.

At the time I had a black friend named Ron, who while not a best friend, ran in the same circles. We gamed together sometimes. Geeked out over computers.   Being teen age boys, most of our discussions involved technical details or insulting each other, it wasn't as if we discussed race.   I do remember him commenting on the fact that the only black man in the "manuals" was wearing a leopard skin once. I seem to remember him playing a character in '84 known as Wilt Chamberlin's badass brother, after seeing the newer Conan movie.  (we had a running joke from the old Rogue's Gallery of naming people this way, as an extension of a name, rather than an actual name.)

Anyways Ron was the one black guy who played D&D, also the one black guy who messed around with computers and the one black guy who played war games.  At the time, this didn't seem notable.  As I mentioned, it was roughly average for the school. We lost touch, as you do with most people you knew at that age. People reinvent themselves in college, move, or get married. I do remember asking a close friend of Ron's about him and getting the answer of "he went Spike Lee political in college."  Ron remains the one black table top Gamer I've known personally since then.  I'm not a big convention guy, but when I've interacted with larger groups, I just haven't seen that many.   In retrospect, they just weren't present, it isn't as if the average gaming group was politically aware of such things.    There isn't the "political" pressure in such things as there can be in a literature society to broaden the membership.

Time passes, I've had a lot of friends over the years.  The good ones stick because you go out of your way (and their way) to get together. Others drift in and out, quite often based on convenience, that is they're neighbors, coworkers or class mates you enjoy arguing with.    Still others are friends because of a familial connection.  You spend time with your brother, by extension you spend time with his friends, soon they're sort of your friends.  (Forgive me this rambling, as I somewhere I have a paper for some soft science class I took in my thirties where I attempted to disprove another student's assertion that Friends was a racist television show mathematically.  Yes it was quite silly, which is one reason I stopped taking such soft science courses.)  Lastly there is mutual pursuits, such as why I was friends with Ron.

Which is where I've been circling back to that discussion on "acting white," in this case white pursuits.

Now I'm not sports guy, and I'd say being a sports guy is the single greatest bonding force with the male half of the species. So great that it seems to be the favorite pickup line by middle-aged women on match,com, as well as part of those manuals they issue with new degrees to tech geeks on management and team building.   I'm not a sports guy, but even I'll fake it to spend time with relatives.  To me it all seems like a rather worky way to drink in the afternoon.   I'd say that sports is the single greatest force of integration in America, simply because between playing them and watching them it's part of the major bonding experience which makes friendships.   In fact, I've noticed one of the few "class" divides you can identify in America involves whether as a man you obsess more over college sports or professional sports, as the college sport obsession is often a product of how you spent your Saturdays drinking in your early twenties, as opposed to Sunday afternoons drinking.

Now that long ago discussion which among other topics, involved "acting white."  We started on the topic of music, which I'd say along with gaming is responsible for the majority of my "mutual pursuits" friendships in life. I have some broad musical tastes and during the 90s, I went to a lot of concerts and a lot festivals.  I'd regularly badger some new guy at work, who'd expressed a passing interest, till he was loaded in a car with perfect strangers for a weekend in the woods. I discovered the one black Allman Brothers fan I've ever heard of existing outside of the actual band .  Another friend of mine felt the need to push metal on everyone and discovered a couple of black, metal fans (as opposed to black metal fan.)  So we discussed a lot of mutually enjoyed music, finding common ground. I brought up something which I'd wondered about, that being the rarity of black music fans at concerts.  Something I'd noticed at everything from the overly liberal jam festivals, where quite often the only black people were on stage to the openly hostile metal concerts and the creepy conformity of an REM concert.  Out of the different 'paloozas, stocks, and tours I'd been to the only one which seemed to have had a large black contingent had been Lilith Fair and that claim has been disputed by my date that evening who claims "that would be because you spent all your time looking at the lesbians, hun."  I was basically pushing to load these guys into a car if possible. Metal, Jam, punk, or whatever.

And I got told that concerts were a "white thing" which is how we got on the subject of acting white eventually.   The consensus from these guys was basically just that they didn't do concerts at all.  They might go to a club, but almost exclusively to see what the described as black music.  The admitted that part of it, but not all of it, was just not feeling comfortable at an outdoor venue dominated in such a way by white people and related it to the same feeling they had stopping in a rural Ohio town, which are still almost universally white, where they just felt marked as the alien.  Then we got off onto a wide variety of other things which they called "acting white" things which I think might also overlap with some people's definition  of being middle class.  A lot are just different ways to spend to money or are based in those parenting articles which tell you how to raise geniuses.

Now I admit, that just as I used to try to rope people into music festivals I also try to push them into trying role playing games.   If they mention they used to play and I need players, I try to stir up enthusiasm.  I'll spend time explaining how of course they'd enjoy it given they like fantasy literature, comic books, video games, or vampires.   Yet I've never had any real success with most of my black friends, coworkers and acquaintances.

So I'm wondering, is it just not a black thing?  Or is it just that I pick low hanging fruit, in which case I can expand this to mean the entire realm of such nerdish pursuits.?

Edit:  Apparently I'm not the only person wondering about such things, as here is a similar article on NPR which explores a similar question   Some of My Best Friends Aren't Black Or Brown Or Asian .

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