Racism Done Right

WHAT?

No no no. I said racism done right, not racism is right. Bear with me.

I’ve been playing through the Mass Effect games, and I noticed just how good of a character Ashley Williams is. Not because she’s perfect, or a paragon of justice, but because of how well the writers worked in her dislike of aliens.

Now, we all know that as Commander Shepard, you can be intolerant of this space racism, agree with it, or be fairly wishy-washy and non-committal toward it if you are playing through as a paragon, renegade, or limp fish, respectively (just kidding about that last one… except not really).

But Ashley’s a racist, often commenting on her distrust of aliens and how she believes humans should come first. So why is this a boon for her character?

Please note: I will be using a very broad definition of racism, which includes prejudice against a group of individuals different from you and your “group,” as defined in the Oxford dictionary.

Racist and She Knows It

Ashley is the first to admit her distrust of aliens, and believes that humans should come first, especially in regards to affairs that humans are involved in. Coming from a background of humans not being taken seriously by the Council in a galaxy that mistrusts humans, Ashley – a space marine – has been fighting against aliens for most (if not all) of her military career. So this distrust of aliens seems like a very natural and human response – and you’re right, it is perfectly normal to dislike someone in return for not treating you the way you want to be treated. It’s normal to then make sweeping generalizations about any who fall into that group. She has a lot of reasons to dislike aliens, and does so with gusto.

ashley
Giving the side-eye

Whether or not those feelings are right or politically correct, the fact remains that Ashley has them and is very vocal about her suspicion and outright dislike of aliens. This includes some gems such as her referring to aliens as animals and “bug-eyed monsters.”

But Athena, I hear you say, she is also very vocal against Terra Firma in the first game, and mistrusts Cerberus, a notoriously humans-first (read: supremacist) group.

And that’s why she’s such a great character.

I’m Not Racist, But…

As humans, we make judgments based on race and appearance. I would argue that we’ve been wired to do that over thousands of years of evolution, back from when we had to judge quickly whether that approaching Cro-Magnon was one of our clan (probably not going to hurt us) or someone from another clan (probably here to steal our food). I’d also argue that as modern humans we need to realize this fact and consciously work against it for the sake of society, but that’s getting a little off point.

The point is, Ashley’s racism and suspicion toward aliens has been built and based on the society she has lived it. She’s learned from her limited exposure to aliens that they can’t be trusted to treat humans with respect (or will outright attack humans) and her views have been  validated by the other humans around her, so her beliefs are perpetuated.

alien-hostility

For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that Ashley works with aliens on missions with Shepard because she has no choice and she’s being professional, much like how we tend to not say overtly racist things toward our co-workers when we’re on the job. I’m going to also assume that she works with aliens sans insults out of professional courtesy. And  I’m going to assert, as the games progress, she comes to respect the aliens she works with, just as most of us stop stereotyping the people we get to know on a personal level.

But what I do want to bring up is her vocal protests against Terra Firma’s stand on the rights of humanity (i.e., humans first), or the actions of Cerberus, a humans-only organization that promotes human ideals.

She’s not extreme in her views; she holds learned grudges very close to her heart, but is quick to point out when those grudges go too far. Against Terra Firma, she agrees that humans should come first, but the views held on Terra Firma are radical, and the people there are simply looking for political recognition of their racism and hatred. She’s disappointed when she finds out Shepard is working with/for Cerberus. She draws the line at institutionalized racism. So… she’s not all bad, right?

Why All the Hate?

Most of the galactic races are mistrusting or hateful toward other groups. Krogan hate salarians, batarians hate humans, krogan hate humans… but we tend to ignore these instances of racism, perhaps because we (as players) hold these characters up as some sort of “unknowable” entity and don’t judge them based on our human values, or perhaps because they are so different from us we strive to understand their hatred (e.g., krograns hate salarians because of the genophage, etc.).

But Ashley represents racism within humanity. We encounter this type of racism often in our lives, and sometimes – gasp – within ourselves. And racism is a touchy subject. Many claim to not make racial judgments, either not being aware of or ignoring evidence to the contrary. Some take the next step and claim they are racists because they are aware of the fact that they judge people based on appearances, at least until they get to know an individual, in a manner than suggests it’s okay because they are at least aware of it. Others think we throw the word “racist” around too often, possibly forgetting what the dictionary says that word means.

I’m not here to say which, if any, of these options is good, but the take-away message is that Ashley hits a nerve within us. We identify with her a little too strongly for our comfort. To make ourselves feel better, we label her as a racist and say she’s bad, often not pausing to understand that she is a product of her times, just like we all are. And, like us, she might not change her feelings toward aliens, but has an innate sense of fairness that she will defend.

When Being Wrong is Done Right

I’ve spent a lot of time explaining why Ashley is racist and why it’s reasonable for her to have these feelings, but the reason I bring this up at all is that Ashley gives us permission to examine our own feelings, should we take the moment to do so. The games, which are very socially progressive, give us a character who is racist but not a bad person, believes humans should come first but aliens shouldn’t be treated with hatred, and holds her grudges close to her heart while working alongside aliens without comment or incident.

So Ashley is just like us, and she bears characteristics that make us cringe. She doesn’t go through a miraculous change, like the other characters. She is fairly set in her beliefs. Beliefs that, again, hit a little too close to home. So what do we do?

kaiden-and-ashley

We shun her. We hate her. We leave her on Virmire. We distance ourselves from traits that we don’t want to see staring back at us in the mirror.

But none of this makes her bad. It makes her a person with depth, feelings, desires, and opinions of her own. We see her make sweeping generalizations of aliens, but then rail against supremicists and human-only organizations. She’s complicated, and that’s why I say that although she’s a racist, she’s a racist done right.

What do you think? Why all the hate? Is Ashley a racist or just a product of her times? Is there a difference? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you soon!

~Athena


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For fun, here’s a breakdown of the other characters in Mass Effect:

Wrex: hates turians and salarians

Grunt: hates salarians and turians after living in a tank (read: inheriting bigotry from those who came before)

Garrus: thought krogans were thugs and believed that quarians continued to deserve their exile for the sins of quarians long dead

Tali: hated geth until she got to know Legion

Miranda: is part of a pro-human terrorist organization. Bonus, she’s a white person with blue eyes who was made to be genetically perfect by her father (the game’s subtle implication/reference is there even though it’s not her fault)

Jacob: a member of the same terrorist organization, even though he doesn’t seem to believe the missive of the organization (read: he supports a racist organization through his actions but not his words. Talk about complicated).

Zaeed: I’m fairly certain his only way of saying the word “batarian” is by saying “goddamn” before it.

Mordin: genophage (read: genetic clensing/war crime) against the krogans

Samara: applies asari code to entire galaxy and believes she can impose it on the galaxy and kill anyone who doesn’t follow that code

Javik: …primitives.

16 comments

  1. Personally, I quite liked Ashley as a character. She was flawed, yes, but so were all the characters worth liking in the Mass Effect universe. Except Garrus. Garrus is totally perfect, LOL! (Kidding, of course, even my lovely turian boyfriend is not without his shortcomings). IMO, I thought it made much more sense if she’d been the one mistrusting Shepard on Horizon as opposed to Kaidan, because it was easy to see where her opinions lay in the matter of pro-human extremists like Cerberus and aliens to begin with. It’s probably why I almost always save her on Virmire, fem-Shep and male-Shep (save the one time I actually saved Kaidan because romance option…yum).

    And as you pointed out, her beliefs ARE deep-rooted. This is a girl whose family revolves largely around a military life. She had relatives who fought during the First Contact War (against turians). Her entire platoon save for herself pretty much gets decimated by even more aliens (damn Reapers). And then it turns out even MORE aliens are out effing up the universe (just about every single alien who’ve gotten indoctrinated). I see why she mistrusts them. I see why she doesn’t cozy up to them.

    But do I like her as a person? Yes. Because, to be honest, she knows where she stands and in the end, she doesn’t let it get in the way of the overall mission.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I really like Ashley, too. I’m a fan of more complex characters, and therefore have undying love for many of BioWare’s characters. I agree that I can respect someone who knows her beliefs and yet doesn’t let them “get in the way” of doing the right thing – she’s a product of her times, and I think she realizes that somehow. (Yes, I just stated I think a video game character is self-aware. No, I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life anymore, why do you ask?)

      And I actually never really liked Kaiden (ducks for cover). He’s sensitive and nice and everything, and we’d get along if he was a real person, but it was like someone pressed “chivalrous male” on a vending machine and out popped Kaiden. I never really got a feel for where he stood on anything. That’s not the reason I left him on Virmire, but as a character I just don’t find him as interesting as Ashley.

      I really liked Ashley’s reception of Shepard in ME2, since it’s so obvious she’s amazed and happy to see her friend, but then (like a friend) challenges her/him about being part of Cerberus. It’s nice when characters have their own opinions and don’t just blindly go along with whatever the PC says (one of the reasons I liked the “rivalry” relationships in Dragon Age II). And I actually like that Ashley doesn’t “evolve” into all of a sudden loving aliens, because that’s not how real people work, either. Like you said, she knows where she stands but does he job *professionally* regardless of her personal feelings.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Same, I liked Ashley, didn’t like Kaiden so much. Part of it is that I find her flaws a lot more relatable than Kaiden’s. I’m not particularly racist myself, but I can understand where she’s coming from, and it makes her seem a lot more rounded. Flaws in characters are good writing, even when they’re fairly despicable, so long as the writer’s handle it well.

        Moreover, Ashley was a far better analysis of racism than you usually see. Often times it’s just ‘oh, this character is racist and that is wrong wrong very wrong’ or ‘look at all these people that hate humans isn’t that a cute cultural thing’ and doesn’t go any deeper than that. That you have a game that actually addresses racism in a smart, rounded way gives a whole fresh take on it, and it’s rather refreshing.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes! That’s why I liked her so much; she really represented a well-conceived and executed example of a PERSON who might happen to hold some racist remarks. It really wasn’t her defining characteristic, which, let’s face it, one trait never really defines someone, does it?

          Liked by 2 people

  2. My main issue with Ash is her transformation from a rather stiff soldier in ME1/2 to glamour model in ME3. If I have one reason to kill Ash in ME1, it is so she is always remembered as who she truly was and should be. But I digress.

    I was never that bothered about Ash’s racism. The concept of racism (as per your definition) can be complex and contradictory. It really relates to an individual’s definition of his/her in-groups and out-groups at the same time. It is possible for a group to be both part of an in and out group. And these can change over time.

    For example, I am a Scot. When I think about the American Revolution, I tend to favour the red coats. But when I think about the Jacobite rebellions in the same period, I hate the red coats. Thus, the red coats can be either an in or out group, depending on circumstances.

    Ash’s negative view of aliens is personal rather than ideological. Her father, and by extension herself, was dishonoured after his surrender to the Turians on Xanshi. Her views were shaped during these events and how humanity was later treated by the Council. She believes that humans are not treated with respect by aliens. Her racism is more that felt by a downtrodden group against its masters rather than the exceptionalism racism felt by racists in power. It is more an act of rebellion than anything else.

    Ash is much more loyal to people than organisations. She is loyal to her family and to individuals she serves with. That is why she comes to appreciate the aliens she works with, but does not like pro-Earth organisations which she cannot relate to.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think her transition to “glamour model” as you say is more to do with the devs and less to do with her character development. My personal opinion is that she’s so bad-ass that she can look “pretty” and still shoot you between the eyes.

      You’re right that her racism is due to her personal/familial interactions with aliens, more than just inherently thinking aliens are bad because they are different, which explains her dislike of the Terra Firma politician and Cerberus.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a good topic, though I think most people are unwilling to examine it closely; probably for the reasons you stated. Ashley does make for a good comparison to people today, but only because in video games and in popular culture, people tend to identify better with those that exemplify their super-ego (yes, I’m using Freudian psychology terms). People WANT to be able to look at a character like Ashley – one that is prejudiced against aliens – and say “That’s bad, you shouldn’t feel that way”. However, people are generally more like Ashley than they’d care to admit.

    Hell, I find myself guilty of the very things that could result in me being labelled as a racist.

    *Confession Warning*

    I grew up in southern California, about an hour’s drive from the US-Mexico border, in a town where I (a VERY white kid) was not in the majority. Some of the biggest bullies I had to deal with on a daily basis happened to be of Mexican descent; kids that would tease, threaten, or harass me on a regular basis. That experience altered my perception of people from other backgrounds. I was a quiet kid that just wanted to go to school and be left alone, but I often wasn’t able to.

    The consistent negative behavior towards me triggered a defensive response. I started avoiding the groups of people that the bullies came from, and I felt suspicious of those groups. I was prejudging them, even though I knew plenty of people that didn’t match up with that perception.

    Even now, I still catch myself with those same prejudiced thoughts, even though I know better. My case is only one example though. There are folks that develop their own prejudices from their family or friends. Some require no negative experience to develop those feelings. It’s not right, that’s for sure, but it’s a human characteristic. We look for patterns in everything, which is why humans are such good problem solvers. We try to look for causes and associations so that we can identify the root of problems, and sometimes other people from different backgrounds fit there.

    We as humans all judge groups based on the actions of the few. We see that in our politics, religion, social circles, and even gaming. I think that people who claim to not have any prejudices are just trying to fool themselves. The important thing is to make sure that you can identify those prejudices so you can limit the effect they have on you.

    Thank you for posting this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you clicked 😉 Your story is exactly what makes this game example so compelling. It’s easy to condemn others for behavior you don’t acknowledge/see in yourself, and I certainly have my own share of racist thoughts because of my interactions with people different than me. But what I didn’t say back when I wrote this article, and that you captured very well at the end of your comment, is that it’s important to recognize those thoughts and then have your super-ego (there it is again) step in and try to re-frame how you’re thinking about things. Part of addressing a problem is admitting that there is one, first!!

      Thank you so much for sharing your story and for your thoughtful comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So, I really like watching blind let’s plays of the trilogy. The most frustrating experience I’ve had (aside from watching someone screw-up ME2’s suicide mission and do no self-reflection, “I guess the game just kills random characters, huh?”) was watching a guy stupidly ignore his option to talk Wrex down on Virmire (he had the points to do it).

    Ashley, then, shot Wrex and he completely flipped, calling her a “bitch” and a “whore”. Unfortunately, I think a lot players act like this, and leave her to die for her space racism (didn’t know racism carried a death sentence, but hey-ho) or because they screwed up with Wrex.

    I really like you examining her critically, rather than writing her off. As an aside, another annoying thing that happens in ME2 is that Shepard inexplicably sheds his racism. He could leave Wrex and Garrus on the Citadel, in the first game, but isn’t allowed to object to picking up a turian vigilant in the second – not to mention that he acts pally with a guy he barely knew and didn’t like.

    Also, Cerberus being a racist pro-human organisation is retroactive continuity. You can actually find a Salarian Cerberus operative in the first game and they’re always portrayed as a rogue black ops group, not a “a pro-human splinter group”. They also go from being an extremely shady/secretive organisation to a very public terrorist group known throughout the galaxy. They really should’ve just ditched the ‘Cerberus’ name when they made ME2 because the only important pieces of information on them, in the first game, are that they assassinated Admiral Kahoku and orchestrated the attack on Akuze but you aren’t able to bring up either with Miranda or TIM (especially egregious if you’re playing a Sole Survivor – which is the default setting; a Paragon, Earthborn, Sole Survivor Male Shepard).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an unfortunate state of (some) folks that they don’t ever really think about what the game is trying to show them. I completely botched the suicide mission the first time around (I decided to just “clear the galaxy” from right to left, instead of doing missions in order), and I thought it was pretty clear that the folks who died were either not loyal or not the right person for the job.

      It’s not a secret that Shepard goes from war hero to demigod during the trilogy, and I think the sudden inability to “say no” is a pretty interesting way to illustrate that. The point you make about Cerberus: in talking to Kelly Chambers, it seems like the devs tried to keep Cerberus as a shady organization rather than a terrorist one, but sort of bumbled the overall presentation, which I think caused some confusion. Of course, TIM is a little more pro-human, and because he’s in charge, well… the fish stinks from the head, right? Although I will say it’s hard to take into account every single choice a person makes, I would have liked a few more pertinent in-game references to backgrounds as the story warranted.

      Having said all that, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! I actually like Ashley quite a bit, and think killing someone for being racist is a little extreme, and a lot worse than, you know, *being racist.* After all, none of these traits exist in a vacuum, and Ashley isn’t an objectively bad person, so other than trying to make ourselves feel better, I’m not sure where all the hatred comes from.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Woot! Your Mass Effect LP lead me to an article by you that I haven’t read yet. 😁

    I mostly liked Ashley, despite her attitude toward non humans. Like you mentioned, she doesn’t hate on them mindlessly. However, there was one time in the first game where I really wanted to punch her for saying something very stupid about Liara, but I forgave her. Her general sarcasm is so awesome! For that reason, poor boring Kaidan got left on Virmire, but it was a really hard choice. 😭 🌌

    Liked by 1 person

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