JRR Tolkien is possibly the most influential fantasy writer of all time. However, he was also a product of his time, and from a modern perspective, there are tons of weird racist moments you never noticed in The Lord of the Rings. That doesn't mean people shouldn't read or enjoy Tolkien's work — there are plenty of elements that are worth celebrating as well — but it's nonetheless important to recognize the bigoted viewpoints that slipped into the beloved series.
Racism in The Lord of the Rings is rarely as simple as one character using a real-world racial slur to casually disparage an entire group. If the issues were overt, everyone would have put the series down a long time ago. Without meaning to, Tolkien brought real-world prejudice into his work, and examining the instances of bigotry in The Lord of the Rings helps us recognize similar unconscious biases that exist in our society today.
Tolkien's Dwarves Are An Unsubtle And Unflattering Analogue To Jewish People
Tolkien's deliberate association of dwarves and Jewish people is well-documented. He once wrote to a friend that stated, "[t]he Dwarves of course are quite obviously — couldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?" This admittance makes his characterization of dwarves feel troubling — particularly in The Hobbit — as Tolkien relies heavily on Jewish stereotypes, which directly contribute to antisemitism.
While some dwarves are portrayed as good people, their preoccupation with gold, as well as their incessant greed (which in part fuels the conflict in Lake-town) is pretty unarguably racist. To make matters worse, dwarves are portrayed as wicked in Tolkien's earlier work, which only serves to further harmful stereotypes about Jewish people that are still prevalent today.
Tolkien's Literal Representations Of Light And Dark Are Super Problematic
Occasionally, there are characters in Lord of the Rings who break the light = good, dark = bad stereotype (Saruman comes to mind), but the prevailing trend is extremely troubling. The struggle of light versus dark is a concept that dates back to the early days of humanity, but in practice the model presents an uncomfortable binary that isn't useful for understanding contemporary conflicts (which are often morally gray all around).
Things get even worse when creators decide to demonstrate the concept by making the evil characters' features appear darker. This is exactly what transpires in the world of Tolkien; the heroes are beautiful and light-skinned, whereas the orcs, Uruk-Hai, Easterlings, and Haradrim all feature considerably darker complexions. They're not evil because they're not white, but these associations tend to bleed back into the viewers' perceptions of real-life, and can potentially cause them to be more critical of dark-skinned people.
Actors Were Turned Away From The Films For Not Being White Enough
While this isn't directly Tolkien's fault, perhaps if he'd included a few more characters of color who weren't evil in Lord of the Rings, this wouldn't have happened. Naz Humphries, a British Pakistani actor, auditioned to be an extra in The Hobbit, but was turned away because they were "looking for light-skinned people....You've got to look like a hobbit."
Though Lord of the Rings does include the "browner" skinned Harfoots, they don't appear in the films as such, and it seems that the casting director (who was later fired) had a different, purely white vision for the Shire. Whiteness is equated with goodness so frequently in the franchise that it must have seemed reasonable to call for only light-skinned actors, even though doing so contradicts the source material.
Tolkien's Evil Race Is Based On Racial Stereotypes
In a letter from 1958, Tolkien wrote that orcs were "squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types." Even without this concrete evidence of Tolkien's bigotry, the orcs' features are clearly racialized within the text, and the films do no better.
In addition to their black skin, many orcs also have dreadlocks.This combination of traits is clearly inspired by people of color, and the whole thing is utterly disgusting. Even if the association is subconscious, these types of parallels condition audiences to associate blackness with evil, and helps archaic stereotypes continue on into the present day.