Mass Effect’s Biggest Problem Isn’t That Ashley Is A Space Racist, It’s That She Never Confronts It
The first thing anybody says about Ashley Williams is that she’s a space racist. It’s a pretty accurate assessment; while humans are generally new in the galaxy and slightly wary of aliens, Ashley goes way further than most. She openly compares them to animals, and loudly complains about what a terrible idea it is to have aliens on the ship even with Wrex and Garrus standing right there. Mass Effect has some complex characters that the fanbase can often distil down into a single, oversimplified characteristic – to call Morinth a serial killer ignores a lot of context – but labelling Ashley a space racist is right on the money.
I don’t inherently think this is a bad thing, either. Sure, if aliens were real and sentient and had been in control of galactic democracy for decades, maybe don’t call them dogs when they’re in the same room as you. But Mass Effect isn’t based on real life. It’s a story. And in a story, it’s okay to have bad characters, even racist characters, if those characters can reckon with what makes them rotten. Ashley’s backstory is explained by essentially making her grandpappy a space confederate, and not a very successful one. She is both driven forward and weighed down by her name, and this is what causes her to lash out at other races – it’s an interesting premise, if it’s followed up on.
This time around, I left Ashley to die on Virmire, but I’ve saved her many times before and I’ve watched some playthroughs of her in Mass Effect 3 since the Legendary Edition came out. It’s better to be boring than to be racist – that’s why I prefer Keir Starmer to Nigel Farage – but few would deny Ashley is a more interesting character, and that’s why I’ve saved her before. It’s not like Ashley is the only space racist either. Miranda shares Ashley’s sentiments, she just manages to express them more diplomatically. Garrus too has some iffy views on certain races, while many minor characters are openly hostile to other races – most frequently humans, quarians, and batarians.
Racism was always going to exist in a galaxy like this. Each race has a different place in the hierarchy determined in part by their seniority, in part by their intelligence, and in part by their pushiness. Humans are only in the spot they’re at because they have repeatedly pushed themselves to the front of the queue and forced the issue – humans are very green and seem undeserving of a spot on the Council. While real-world racism is obviously bad, taking it out of a universe like the one constructed in Mass Effect would be unrealistic.
Instead, space racism gives Mass Effect a chance to explore many of the issues around actual racism – prejudice, injustice, personal history. Garrus was a cop; that he has racist views towards the underprivileged races of the galaxy is pretty accurate. As he leaves C-Sec and sees the world through a less filtered, authoritarian lens, he grows a little bit. Having racism in a fictional story is not inherently a negative thing, even with a sympathetic character – and as much as some of you hate Ashley Williams, she was written to be sympathetic. The choice on Virmire is pitched as ‘the boring one’ or ‘the racist’, but it’s clear that BioWare intended it to be a choice between the two members of the crew Shepard had served with the longest and grown the closest to.
Ashley has no real change of heart if you save her, however. She’s grateful, and feels some guilt over Kaidan, but the death of one of their own does not bring Ashley much closer to her crew mates, nor does seeing the horrors of Saren’s factory cause her to rethink her narrow minded views. Of course, the return from Virmire is all coloured by the fact that Ashley can – and possibly did – go all George Zimmerman on Wrex because he looked at you funny, and her own racist prejudices took over.
This is just the first game in the trilogy however. In Mass Effect 2, she just has a minor cameo where her concerns revolve around Shep working for Cerberus, but in Mass Effect 3, she’s a fully fledged crew mate again. She returns with a whole new look and a whole new perspective on the galaxy – neither are explained. She goes from a straight laced, plain faced, hair in a bun soldier to a glamazon in dark eyeshadow and a blowout. More confusing though is that she goes from a racist to not a racist. She’s not an anti-racist, she doesn’t acknowledge or come to terms with her old views, she’s just not racist anymore.
Ashley in Mass Effect 3 still likes poetry, and has the shared memories of the Ashley Williams of the first game, but other than that, they seem to be completely different characters. Kaidan discovers his bisexuality – although uncovered voice lines do hint that this was at least recorded for the first game – but other than that, he’s still clearly Kaidan. He’s developed a little bit, growing in confidence and maturity, he’s still a little dull, and he’s the same old Kaidan. It feels more like Ashley’s unpopularity amongst the hardcore fans led to a more substantial rewrite, when in fact what Ashley really needed was to reckon with her past. “I’m not racist anymore,” just isn’t going to cut it, I’m afraid.
Mass Effect 3 had a great opportunity to examine Ashley’s racism and come to terms with it. We’ve all lost so much, we’re in this together, and Ashley has grown up. Acknowledging her old views as misguided and making a conscious effort to move past them could have given her one of Mass Effect’s strongest arcs. Instead, she went to the beauty salon and came back not a racist. I’m glad I left her on Virmire.
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