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.
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.
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?
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!
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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