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  #1  
Old 12-31-2002, 01:15 AM
spiro51 spiro51 is offline
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Where did "That's Mighty White of You" come from, and what does it mean?

Hi all,

My wife and I have been using this phrase between ourselves for some time, just because it sounds so awful. But, does it really refer to race? I don't think so, but can't think of an alternative. Does anyone have the straight dope on where this phrase came from and what it means?

thanks!
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  #2  
Old 12-31-2002, 01:24 AM
Ice Wolf Ice Wolf is offline
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Some information on this from this cached Google page, from The Phrase Finder site :

Quote:
The phrase has an entry in Eric Partridge's "Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British," which says it's of 20th-century origin (hmm, that seems late to me). "Orig. Southern US, it soon became gen. US, and has been heard in UK since the 1930s, often with an understood implication of its origin. Of the US usage, Prof. John W. Clark, 1977, has noted that it was, at first, used seriously--'like a white man, not like a Negro. Now used everywhere, by everyone to anyone, but always jestingly (and sometimes sarcastically), and with full consciousness that it is a provincial expression--and NOT racist'. . . . [British usage:] Sometimes, in the Services, parodying the legendary British Empire builders, 'Sir, you're a white man!'"
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  #3  
Old 12-31-2002, 01:57 AM
tomndebb tomndebb is offline
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In my experience, it has always been sarcastic. As Partridge notes, it means that one has all the "good" qualities of a white person. (Much as Huck Finn described Jim as "white inside.") However, the whole notion that white people have inherent qualities or virtues superior to blacks (or other non-whites) is so silly that it is generally used as a parody of some stereotypical racist who would think that it actually was a compliment.

YMMV, I suppose.
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  #4  
Old 12-31-2002, 02:09 AM
happyheathen happyheathen is offline
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Yes, it is used derisively, although based on racism.

See also: "Free, white, and 21"
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  #5  
Old 12-31-2002, 02:29 AM
critter42 critter42 is offline
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I've found this link which seems to indicate that the phrase was used by a duo on WGBH by the names of Paul Noble and Stew White.

Quote:
"Mighty noble of you, White..." goes with "...Mighty white of you, Noble." For a while, Paul Noble and Stew White exchanged congratulations several times daily with this two-part salutation.
However, it doesn't specify whether they're the originators of that phrase (I doubt it) - and I'm not sure they'd want to claim responsibility anyway.

IIRC, the phrase was skewered in Blazing Saddles (gotta love Mel Brooks). I think it was also used in The Enforcer.

I also seem to recall there was a bit about it in a Spike Lee movie, but can't recall which one ATM.

critter42
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  #6  
Old 12-31-2002, 02:37 AM
Lissa Lissa is offline
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I've always heard it used to sarcastically thank someone who should have done an act in the first place. "White" is actually used in a derrogatory sense, in that this phrase stereotypes whites as those who want praise for doing what was decent in the first place.
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  #7  
Old 12-31-2002, 06:35 AM
owlstretchingtime owlstretchingtime is offline
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There is an English (ie British) equivelent in the phrase "play the white man" when encouraging someone to do something good.

It is racist in origin too.
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  #8  
Old 12-31-2002, 09:10 AM
Revtim Revtim is offline
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I read somewhere it was shouted at Abe Lincoln during one of his speeches, but that might have been a joke by the author of whatever I was reading.
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  #9  
Old 12-31-2002, 11:22 AM
Duckster Duckster is offline
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Det. Harry Callahan in The Enforcer.
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  #10  
Old 12-31-2002, 11:32 AM
ftg ftg is offline
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This phrase is considered horribly racist by everyone I know. (And I know a lot of black Americans.) It is on the same level as the n-word.
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  #11  
Old 12-31-2002, 12:22 PM
johnboy johnboy is offline
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Carrol O'Connor's character, Archie Bunker used to say it all the time to Sherman Helmsley's character, George Jefferson in the sitcom All in the Family.
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  #12  
Old 12-31-2002, 01:26 PM
Hail Ants Hail Ants is offline
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Quote:
This phrase is considered horribly racist by everyone I know. (And I know a lot of black Americans.) It is on the same level as the n-word.
I have to disagree with the first part, but kind of agree with the second.

This phrase is so obviously based on outdated, racist principles that like everyone said, today its always meant sarcastically. Kind of like using the word 'negro' today. Its so ridiculously old-fashioned and quaint that its not racist, its a joke.

And I know that this will give very politically correct people a stroke, but that phrase is kind of on a par with 'the n word' in that it gets used in the same non-agressive, familial way between white people that 'nigger' gets used between blacks. And for the most part, just as harmlessly.
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  #13  
Old 12-31-2002, 04:12 PM
I am Sparticus I am Sparticus is offline
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I have friends that do this, they do it as a joke, and it is terribly racist, they think it is funny.
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  #14  
Old 12-31-2002, 04:42 PM
Keith Berry Keith Berry is offline
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I'd say that it's definately got racialist or prejudical implications, especially the way it's used nowadays. I hear these variations on the phrase very often:

Spoken like a white man: when someone says something even mildly intelligent.

I thought you were white: jokingly said in disapproval of someone's actions. For instance, I was unemployed for awhile last year and accepted unemployment checks, and when a friend of mine saw one, he said, "I thought you were white".

I don't think people actually intend to make a racist comment, it's just something they heard and picked up. But then again, I know quite a few whites who use the word "nigger" constantly and don't consider themselves racist, so who knows.
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  #15  
Old 12-31-2002, 10:36 PM
Markxxx Markxxx is offline
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A few years back I asked the same question. Here is the post

http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/...t=mighty+white
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  #16  
Old 12-31-2002, 11:56 PM
spiro51 spiro51 is offline
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Thanks very much for clearing that up, folks!

Mighty white of you.

- Colin, OP
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  #17  
Old 01-01-2003, 12:21 AM
Dr_Paprika Dr_Paprika is offline
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Hey, with all these burdens we white folk take on, gotta say something, no?
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  #18  
Old 01-01-2003, 02:08 AM
kitty kitty is offline
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I remember kids sayint that when I was growing up (1970s) in MA.

>>Carrol O'Connor's character, Archie Bunker used to say it all the time to Sherman Helmsley's character, George Jefferson in the sitcom All in the Family.<<

I don't remember that unless it was later in the series.
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  #19  
Old 01-01-2003, 10:23 AM
YPOD YPOD is offline
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mighty white

I remember the phrase from an old movie with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Lancaster gets the drop on Cooper while in the middle of nowhere, strands him without a horse but tells him he can keep the now useless saddle - to which Cooper replies "That's mighty white of you." Probably more people saw and remember that exchange than remember it from Mark Twain.
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what?
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  #20  
Old 01-01-2003, 11:18 AM
asterion asterion is offline
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Actually, I'm a little surprised to learn that it's racist. I've only ever run into it in books, and actually I figured it was going to the idea of it meant you were doing a good thing. You know, white=good, black=evil, light=good, dark=evil, and so on. Obviously, I was wrong.
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  #21  
Old 01-01-2003, 12:45 PM
Smitty Smitty is offline
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The context in which I hear it used (and use it all the time myself) is when someone offers you help that isn't much use. For example - I'm carrying a heavy load, and someone offers to help by taking one small item from the pile.
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  #22  
Old 01-01-2003, 02:25 PM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is offline
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From wordorigins.org:

Quote:
The use of white man, meaning an honorable or square-dealing person dates to 1877 and is an Americanism. The implication is that non-Europeans are not honest or square. The phrase white of you is first recorded by Edith Wharton in 1913.
I recall hearing or reading the phrase in any number of 30s and 40s movies and books. It was never used sarcastically, but as a true expression of gratitude for kind services rendered. I've always wondered what the occasional black actor in those movies thought about those scripts.
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  #23  
Old 07-05-2016, 07:40 PM
Joe100 Joe100 is offline
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mighty white

Saw and heard the saying that's mighty white of you in the movie Texas Cyclone. A 1932
that's right 1932 movie starring Tim McCoy with John Wayne in a small part. It was said twice. It was on Get TV.
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  #24  
Old 07-05-2016, 09:17 PM
Dr. Drake Dr. Drake is offline
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Since we're reviving a 13-year-old thread, the exact phrase shows up in 1900 in the Century magazine, vol. 61, p. 146, in a story called "Her Mountain Lover" by Hamlin Garland, who was from Wisconsin (b. 1860). It also shows up on p. 301, in the voice of the same character. Published as a novel in 1901. I've never heard of the guy, but he seems to have been well-enough known to have perhaps made it up and popularized it.

It seems unlikely that the phrase was current in Victorian Wisconsin, but what do I know?
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  #25  
Old 07-05-2016, 09:41 PM
Hail Ants Hail Ants is offline
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nm, zoombie...

Last edited by Hail Ants; 07-05-2016 at 09:42 PM..
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  #26  
Old 07-05-2016, 10:05 PM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dr. Drake View Post
Since we're reviving a 13-year-old thread, the exact phrase shows up in 1900 in the Century magazine, vol. 61, p. 146, in a story called "Her Mountain Lover" by Hamlin Garland, who was from Wisconsin (b. 1860). It also shows up on p. 301, in the voice of the same character. Published as a novel in 1901. I've never heard of the guy, but he seems to have been well-enough known to have perhaps made it up and popularized it.

It seems unlikely that the phrase was current in Victorian Wisconsin, but what do I know?
Nice find. Google Books has totally changed phrase finding, in addition to most other research.
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  #27  
Old 07-05-2016, 10:06 PM
leahcim leahcim is offline
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I don't believe Google Ngram search was available when this thread was started. Seems to originate a little before 1900 and has two peaks around 1910 and 1940.
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  #28  
Old 07-05-2016, 10:31 PM
md2000 md2000 is offline
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I've always thought it was racist - I assumed it was Southern USA, it almost begs to be said in a southern drawl. I've only really heard it used in an ironic sense (since the early to mid 1970's), either sarcastically or self-deprecating humour as "look at me, I'm acting like a racist buffoon like Archie Bunker".
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  #29  
Old 07-05-2016, 10:38 PM
harmonicamoon harmonicamoon is offline
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Sometimes we say it. Because it is totally the wrong thing to say.

And sometimes we like saying totally wrong things. And we laugh.
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  #30  
Old 07-06-2016, 05:32 AM
MrDibble MrDibble is offline
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"Mighty Whitey" is the new Frank Miller superhero comic...
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  #31  
Old 07-06-2016, 05:44 AM
samclem samclem is offline
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A scholarly article from Mark Liberman in language log in 2011.
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  #32  
Old 07-06-2016, 08:28 AM
lance strongarm lance strongarm is offline
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I'd guess that 99% of the time it is used, it is being used sarcastically to mock racism rather than in an actual racist way.
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  #33  
Old 07-06-2016, 10:31 AM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by lance strongarm View Post
I'd guess that 99% of the time it is used, it is being used sarcastically to mock racism rather than in an actual racist way.
That may be true today. It certainly wasn't true in the pre-Civil Rights era.
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  #34  
Old 07-06-2016, 11:32 AM
wolfpup wolfpup is offline
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It appears fairly extensively in the writings of P.G. Wodehouse, most notably in the dialog between Bertie Wooster and his various associates, which makes me a little doubtful that it's an Americanism. If it is, it's one that made the leap across the pond and was presumed contemporaneous to the early decades of the 20th century in which all the Jeeves stories were set. And it was certainly used in the sense of a sincere compliment.

For example, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit:
"The contingency is a remote one, sir, and I gladly took the risk, knowing the Mrs. Travers's happiness was at stake"

"Pretty white, Jeeves."

"Thank you, sir. I endeavour to give satisfaction."
Or Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves:
"Very creditable."

"What did you say?"

I said I had said it did him credit. Very white of him, I said I thought it.
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  #35  
Old 07-06-2016, 12:54 PM
Morgenstern Morgenstern is offline
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Tighty whities doesn't refer to an all white fraternity?
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  #36  
Old 07-06-2016, 01:41 PM
Personal Personal is offline
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When I was growing up, I thought it was, "That's mighty wide of you." "Wide" as in generous, open arms. It wasn't until after I graduated from high school that someone looked at me cross-eyed and questioned my use of the phrase that I learned it was "white" and not "wide." I stopped using it immediately. And it's been years and years since I've heard anyone use it.
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  #37  
Old 07-06-2016, 07:50 PM
Backwater Under_Duck Backwater Under_Duck is offline
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I have to believe that it would be found in Kipling somewhere. It's that era of British colonialism that I have always associated with, possibly through 19th century theatre. Used to do a bunch of that.
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  #38  
Old 07-06-2016, 11:15 PM
Hail Ants Hail Ants is offline
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Growing up in the 70s I occasionally heard my older brothers and their friends (who were most all white) say it. And back then it was in the context of being a sarcastic/semi-racial comment to counter black guys being able to say, "Help a brotha' out". It's kind of meta-that nowadays, as black guys still calling each other 'brother' today seems a bit ridiculous and kinda a reverse-racist cliche. They're both exclusionary terms.
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  #39  
Old 07-07-2016, 01:09 AM
pool pool is offline
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I live in the South, and I hear the phrase every now and again. The White, free, and 21 thing is interesting too. I haven't heard that in a long time, but my Mom claims when she worked in a Doctor's office, the same doctor that delivered me actually, when she turned 21, he gave her some little speech with that phrase thrown in there. That would have been in 1980.

Last edited by pool; 07-07-2016 at 01:10 AM..
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  #40  
Old 07-07-2016, 03:19 AM
Melbourne Melbourne is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Personal View Post
When I was growing up, I thought it was, "That's mighty wide of you." "Wide" as in generous, open arms. It wasn't until after I graduated from high school that someone looked at me cross-eyed and questioned my use of the phrase that I learned it was "white" and not "wide." I stopped using it immediately. And it's been years and years since I've heard anyone use it.
You weren't the only one. I wouldn't assume that you personally had invented the phrase in that form.

Last edited by Melbourne; 07-07-2016 at 03:20 AM..
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  #41  
Old 07-07-2016, 06:01 PM
Mr. Bill Mr. Bill is offline
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Originally Posted by Backwater Under_Duck View Post
I have to believe that it would be found in Kipling somewhere. It's that era of British colonialism that I have always associated with, possibly through 19th century theatre. Used to do a bunch of that.
There's a very close analog in Gunga Din, when the narrator says of the native bhisti or auxiliary "...for all his dirty hide, he was white, clear white inside when he went to tend the wounded under fire."

The saying definitely seems to be rooted in an unspoken assumption that white folks are better than those of color, just because. Kipling, however ends the tale with "... by the living god that made you, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din." A clear recognition by the narrator that his racist attitudes were unwarranted.

Interesting bloke, that Kipling.
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  #42  
Old 07-07-2016, 07:53 PM
Siam Sam Siam Sam is offline
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I heard it all the time growing up in West Texas in the 1960s. But for there, I would say it was "semi-sarcastic" rather than wholly sarcastic.
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  #43  
Old 07-08-2016, 12:01 AM
Lasciel Lasciel is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by asterion View Post
Actually, I'm a little surprised to learn that it's racist. I've only ever run into it in books, and actually I figured it was going to the idea of it meant you were doing a good thing. You know, white=good, black=evil, light=good, dark=evil, and so on. Obviously, I was wrong.
Yes I know this is an old-ass zombie but I want to explicitly challenge the idea that the classical fantasy trope of white=good and dark=evil is not racist. Cause it probably was, and it's good to actually think about the messages that sort of thing sends when the evil orcs are always dark or swarthy or the evil elves are the black ones, while the good peoples are invariably Northern European looking.

There. I've hijacked a zombie. I feel like I need a particularly gruesome trophy or something.
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  #44  
Old 07-08-2016, 05:21 AM
Chronos Chronos is offline
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For what it's worth, in Tolkien, most elves were darker-hued, at least in hair color: Galadriel was considered remarkable for being blond. The Rohirrim were pale and fair-haired, but they were just one of many "good" nations of humans, and the southerners were "swarthy", but it's made clear that they were fighting on Sauron's side only because they were misled and/or bullied into it. Nobody else's pigmentation is ever specified, including hobbits, dwarves, Numenoreans, or orcs, and there's a scene where the wiser characters chide the hobbits for their prejudice against the Druedain based on their appearance (which differs from "civilized" men in ways unrelated to color).
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  #45  
Old 07-08-2016, 10:59 AM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Lasciel View Post
Yes I know this is an old-ass zombie but I want to explicitly challenge the idea that the classical fantasy trope of white=good and dark=evil is not racist. Cause it probably was, and it's good to actually think about the messages that sort of thing sends when the evil orcs are always dark or swarthy or the evil elves are the black ones, while the good peoples are invariably Northern European looking.
Well, yes and no.

Going back into ancient mythology, the association with light being good and darkness being evil is widespread. Both Hades and Hell were places of darkness, away from the lifegiving sun/presence of God. Look at the legend of Persephone as an example of the recognition that life always had elements of good and bad.

I'm not an expert on world mythologies but from what I've read the obvious dichotomies of sun/dark, heat/cold, fertile/infertile are basic to most, if not all. This would precede all the modern notions of racism and so would be the roots for classic fantasy. Unless you're calling Tolkien classic fantasy rather than modern fantasy, which is wrong and wildly unhistoric.
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