(1) So, recently David Bratman had an interesting post about the single fact about Earthsea that most readers miss: that Ged is black. I think this is because Le Guin fails to clearly signal this simple fact to the reader,* but David here does a good job of arguing otherwise by bringing together all the references in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA to characters' skin color:
What I found particularly interesting in this is David's drawing attention to the fact that Le Guin avoids describing Ged; a nice piece of subtlety, even though I think it backfired on her here.
(2) In any case, she avoided the misfortune of having been on the panel at WisCon David mentions and provides the link to, where one panelist (the talented Mary Doria Russell) sparked the ire of one person in attendance, who seems to have spent the rest of the weekend telling people that Russell had made racially insensitive remarks and trying to get people upset and outraged over what seems, from a distance, to be a perfectly harmless comment. Here's the offended party's description of the panel, along with her critique at the end of what upset her so badly:
(3) Despite the panel's general inconclusiveness and the outrage of the report's author, it's an interesting topic and I wd have attended if I still lived close enough to make it to WisCons. This was something that came up in D&D all the time, particularly among those of us at TSR in the early nineties who were trying to include as much gender and ethnic diversity into the adventures and boxed sets and sourcebooks we wrote and edited as we cd (particularly the art).
The problem is that acceptable terminology changes over time, so that "white" and "black" (which have the benefit of being universally understood) have been challenged and replaced by the more neutral terms "Caucasian" and "African-American". But in a fantasy world like Greyhawk or Mystara, there are no Caucasian Mts nor any Africa, so those referents are woefully out of place. The Forgotten Realms tried to address the problem by creating an area of African-style jungle called "Chult", but that solution itself was open to charges of tokenism (the Realms' Asia analogue, ORIENTAL ADVENTURES, was vast by comparison, as were its later Central-America analogue and Mideast analogue; only its Africa analogue was disproportionally small -- whereas in the real world Africa is the second largest continent, huge by comparison to Europe).
In the end, the problem wasn't solved so much as side-stepped. With the coming of settings like PLANESCAPE and later Third Edition it was simply assumed that the human population of those settings was racially mixed, with ethnicity no longer corresponding to culture -- that is, much more like post-modern America.
Ultimately, I don't think we ever found a good way to describe ethnicities in rpg products, and mostly fell back on the art instead -- though here too we quickly ran into difficulties (but that's a whole 'nother story).
So, I have no good solution. 'People of Color', the current acceptable term, will no doubt one day seem terribly quaint in its turn; I can only hope that by then people will look back on all this in mild disbelief that the people of our time were so obsessed by distinctions and gradations that no longer exist.
*just as, in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, there's one scene in which she intended the reader to visualize the alien as a woman although she keeps referring to the character as "he" throughout. I think in both cases there's a disjuncture between what Le Guin sees in her mind's eye and what she conveys to the reader.