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"Mass Effect" (2009): Is Ashley Williams Racist? A Character Analysis


Lee has an embarrassingly deep love of all things "Mass Effect." Her favorite is the original first game.

Ashley Williams as she appeared in "Mass Effect 3."

Ashley Williams as she appeared in "Mass Effect 3."

Let me start off by saying that Ashley Williams is probably one of my favorite characters in the video game franchise Mass Effect. And yes. . . she is racist. I will thoroughly explain why and how further below, don't worry.

I recall her writer, Chris L'Etoile, stating that she wasn't meant to be a racist but a "pragmatist," and I disagree with him entirely. Even if it wasn't his intention, he created a racist character.

So you're probably wondering why I love Ashley if she's racist. Read on.

Why I Actually Love Ashley

Ashley smiles.

Ashley smiles.

Ashley and I actually have a lot in common. First, she has my freaking name. Which is awesome, because I get to hear Shepard say it all the time. Second, I am also an army veteran, my dad was a marine, and I'm a tomboy.

When I met Ashley in the game, it was like meeting an old friend from the service. I thought she was hilarious. I loved talking to her and I loved that I could connect with her simply because she wasn't a sexed-up fan service character but a normal woman who didn't wear makeup or walk around in boob armor.

She was funny. She was smart. She loved poetry (I'm an English lit major). I thought her taste in poetry was bad, and in reality, her reciting (ugh) Tennyson was a nod to Babylon 5 that no one but me seemed to get . . . But I loved everything else about her.

I recognized that she was racist, but I figured she would have some character development and get over it.

From Tomboy to Femme Fatale

"Angry gorilla makeover." Lmao.

"Angry gorilla makeover." Lmao.

So as you can imagine, I was not pleased when Ashley went from cute tomboy to Miranda 2.0 in Mass Effect 3. But this was actually a part of her character arc . . . or at least this is how I explain away BioWare shamelessly sexualizing yet another female character.

No, it's not okay to objectify and dehumanize women in the media, not even in video games that were made for horny teenage boys. These being video games and not "philosophical science fiction books" is not an excuse to teach an impressionable swath of the population that women aren't people and I'm so, so tired of this argument. If you can't see why it's irresponsible and wrong to present women as virtual p*rn, then you have no empathy for women and are sexist.

BioWare is not above criticism because they make games you like, BioWare is not above criticism because they try to be "progressive," and female gamers who laugh and are "okay" with women being regularly hypersexualized . . . have my deepest sympathies.


An image from the Ashley makeover mod.

An image from the Ashley makeover mod.

Ashley is insecure about the fact that she's a tomboy and seems to secretly want to be more feminine.This is apparent in the way she treats Tali (also a tomboyish type) and Liara (a feminine woman). Ashley sees Tali as a little sister because she can relate to her as a hot-headed tomboy, but she hates Liara for being beautiful, feminine, and composed all the time (Liara has a temper too, Ashley just never really sees it).

To be clear, I see Ashley as a "tomboy" because I did know women in the military who were girly and feminine. They still wore makeup and had "girly" mannerisms. For instance, I knew a military nurse who always had French nails (if a French manicure looked more natural, they tended to let it slide where I was). Ashley would never have French nails! At least not the original Ashley. In the first Mass Effect, Ashley is a tomboy both in style and personality, and Tali comes off the same way.

So I think it hurts Ashley if Shepard chooses to spend more time with Liara or Miranda over her. Whether Shepard is male or female, Ashley seems personally offended by this. I remember as soon as Liara joined my party and my female Shepard started to romance her, Ashley started to get more salty, as if she was jealous that Shepard wasn't paying attention to her anymore.

By Mass Effect 3, Ashley's relationship with Shepard, be it friendship or romance, is in shambles. And she seems to believe that the only way she can get it back is to emulate the women Shepard seems to surround herself with.

Samara was the definition of femme fatale.

Samara was the definition of femme fatale.

And really, look at the women in the game. Liara. Miranda. Samara. With the exception of (ugh) Jack, all of them were highly feminine, powerful biotics, and they've got Shepard's attention.

In other words, Ashley is trying to be the person she thinks Shepard wants to be around because she is insecure. And I think this is doubly so for the romance.

And even though Ashley's change is (supposedly) true to her character, I still hated it enough that I used a mod in Mass Effect 3 to keep her a cute tomboy. Because to be honest, I don't think her arc was handled well at all (also, I'm tired of women being sex objects in my games).

I don't hate that they made Ashley more feminine. I hate that they didn't implement it well. They did not do a good job showing why Ashley was behaving the way she was behaving and this is why so many fans were baffled by her aesthetic change and disappointed by her lack of content in comparison to Kaidan. It also didn't help that her original writer had left BioWare.

So that's why I love Ashley. I think she's a wonderfully written character who was like a sister to my Shepard. I enjoy nothing more than having a full female squad in Mass Effect 3, my options being Liara, Ashley, Tali, and EDI (biotic, soldier, and tech, so perfect).

Another reason I don't really care that Ashley is racist?

Most of the Squad Mates Are Racist Anyway

My adorable krogan son.

My adorable krogan son.

I find it easy to love Ashley because pretty much all of your followers are racist in some way, with the exception of Kaidan, Thane, Samara, Grunt, and Wrex (and a few others, like Kasumi and so forth).

No Wrex and Grunt are not racist, they're bitter. Racism is an irrational hatred for an entire group of people. Wrex and Grunt don't want to seriously kill all the turians and salarians. They just intensely dislike them for all the horrendous crap that was done to them.

Grunt's anti-turian ramblings in Mass Effect 2 are about him finally grasping why his people are so bitter against the turians, the amount of atrocities that were done to them, and why he should care. His comments are about him finally understanding what it means to be a krogan and what he's fighting for, though Shepard (and the player) can easily misconstrue it for actual racism.

Art of Wrex in "Mass Effect 2."

Art of Wrex in "Mass Effect 2."

"But Wrex lets the krogan fry salarians in the pit for fun!!!" you may be thinking in exasperation.

Yes, thanks to the Lair of the Shadowbroker DLC, there's video evidence that the krogan enjoy killing and torturing other aliens on their planet. But first of all, how do you know Wrex was there to witness that? Maybe he was in the can.

And second of all, when you first arrive on Tuchanka, Wrex tells you that they don't usually allow aliens on their planet. This isn't "racism," but a justified precaution after centuries of aliens meddling with their genetics.

The krogan deeply resent alien meddling, as it has led to the overcrowding and the destitution of their planet. Grunt is a "pure krogan" because he was cloned from krogan that hadn't been altered by salarian science.

Of course, in regards to the "no outsiders" rule, there are a few exceptions, like Shepard, Shepard's crew, and the poet krogan's asari girlfriend . . . but that's about it. So any other aliens who come to Tuchanka are told to leave.

Given Wrex's statement, one can only assume that the aliens getting fried in the pit were intruders who were up to no good and got caught. Because who in their right mind (aside from maybe Shepard) would come to Tuchanka, a barren and deadly wasteland of a planet, for an innocent visit?

And after what happened with Maelon, Mordin's old assistant (you know, the mad scientist guy who came there and tortured a bunch of krogan to assuage his own guilt for being racist . . . ), it's not surprising that the krogan are now pissed off.

That doesn't justify them burning people alive, it just rationalizes why they did it.

Mordin Solus aboard the Normandy SR2.

Mordin Solus aboard the Normandy SR2.

Actual racist characters aside from Ashley include Mordin Solus (whose entire arc is about confronting ones own personal racism), Miranda Lawson (yes, she was), Jacob (also racist . . .), Garrus (Yup! Listen to his banter in the first game. He even apologizes for it in the third), Tali (the geth were irrationally hated and then . . . gave the quarians a reason to hate them), and even Liara (much as I love her, Liara displays typical asari arrogance in some of the things she can ignorantly say to Shepard about humans).

Honorary mention for Javik, whose species lost to the reapers because they couldn't let go of their arrogance and bigotry.

Hell, even Shepard can be played as a racist Renegade in the first game, which is supposed to draw her in deliberate parallel with Saren, a racist turian who has a history of committing atrocities against humans.

An ongoing theme in Mass Effect is actually overcoming racism, embracing diverisity, and learning to work together as equals despite (or maybe because of) our differences.

The whole "nature demands diversity" thing is actually one of many, many reasons the ending of Mass Effect 3 was just . . .so wrong. F*ck synthesis.

Basically, practically everyone in Mass Effect is some level of racist, be it covert or overt. So why is there especial vitriol for Ashley Williams?

Ashley's Silly Paranoia

Ashley as she appeared in the first "Mass Effect."

Ashley as she appeared in the first "Mass Effect."

It probably doesn't help that one of the first conversations you can have on the Normandy with Ashley is about how she doesn't trust Garrus and Wrex. These are beloved fan favorites, and yet, she's attacking them with a paranoia that is downright silly. So it only makes sense that this would piss off fans.

Ashley's paranoia is silly because the Normandy was built by turians, so what would Garrus be stealing that the turians don't already have . . .?

Meanwhile, the krogan are completely grounded. After the uprising, they weren't allowed to fly ships. Their barren, borderline-destitute planet barely has the parts for them to build new rovers, let alone ships. What would they do with information about the Normandy's inner workings?

Again, racism is completely irrational and emotion based, not logic based. True, Tali eventually steals some of the Normandy's technology, which can be seen in the third game. But this proved to be harmless. In fact, it was completely inline with the spirit of the Normandy, since it was created through the joint effort of turians and humans.

It's funny, too. Because Tali is the only alien crew mate Ashley likes, and yet, Tali is the one who steals a copy of the Normandy's drive! Also, Ashley liking Tali doesn't make her not racist. Plenty of racists have that one token black friend who isn't like "those other blacks."

Anywho, the point of the Normandy was to share knowledge and technology, overcoming racial barriers to do so. So Ashley is basically worried about a ship's tech being stolen when it was created as a statement about sharing technology.

Again. Racism dumb.

Real World Vs Fantasy

Ashley on Therum.

Ashley on Therum.

I think Ashley gets the most hatred because she resembles a real-life white Christian bigot. Barring a bad southern accent, Ashley hits all the check boxes for this caricature. White? Check. Christian? Check. Assumes the worst of people based on their race? Check.

I'm not going to ignore reality to spare people's feelings: white Christian bigots exist.

So Ashley gets more hate because, unlike Mordin Solus (who most people don't even seem to realize is actually racist, amazingly enough), Ashley more closely resembles real life racism simply because she looks like the typical American racist.

Are the keepers sentient, though?

Are the keepers sentient, though?

And Ashley compares sentient people to animals, which has been done to racial minorities since white people and brown people first came into contact.

People will scream all day that Ashley's keeper comment is a bug, and we could argue that the keepers are a reaper construct completely lacking self-awareness, but it doesn't really matter, does it? What Ashley actually says is exactly what a racist would say: she has difficulty recognizing the personhood in sentient people.

This is dangerous because it will lead her to treat other sentients as less than people. Point in case: taking Ashley along to kill Fist means that she will try to shoot Wrex after he kills Fist . . . except killing Fist is the entire reason you're there.

Fist was working for Saren and he's trying to kill an innocent quarian girl (Tali). Why should he be spared? Because he lost the battle? Because he surrendered information? Since when does Shepard arrest people?

Ashley is jumpy and paranoid, believing Wrex is a danger that needs to be put down because she can not recognize his personhood. This incident serves as a foreshadowing for a later event, where Ashley can actually shoot Wrex (those circumstances being entirely different).

Other "totally not racist" gems Ashley can say:

  • "You want to get involved with some alien? Go ahead."
  • "Make nice with the bug-eyed monsters."
  • "I am no fan of aliens."

Ashley is Wonderfully Complex

Ashley disapproves of Cerberus in "Mass Effect 2."

Ashley disapproves of Cerberus in "Mass Effect 2."

The thing is, Ashley can be correct about a lot of stuff but it's actually . . . for the wrong reasons entirely.

A lot of people who don't believe that Ashley is racist point to her hatred of extremist groups like Terra Firma and Cerberus and believe she must not be racist just because she opposes them. These are people who likely have never dealt with so-called "benevolent racists" aka people who think they aren't racist but whose ignorance actually harms others and is, therefore, racist.

Shepard confronts Terra Firma in "Mass Effect."

Shepard confronts Terra Firma in "Mass Effect."

For example, I once overheard a white woman going on about how shocked she was that her "Spanish" (she meant Latin) and black neighbors were actually decent people. At the end of her astonished rambling, she insisted over and over to her friend that she wasn't racist, then went on to degrade the white supremacists who were actually killing black people in the news.

The fact is, this was indeed racist. She holds the ignorant belief that all non-white people are actually awful, so when they turn out to be normal, decent citizens just trying to go about their lives, it's "shocking."

Ignorant people like this will often treat non-white people horribly based on the assumption that all of us are terrible people who deserve it. The onus is always on us to prove we aren't dangerous, prove we aren't stupid, prove we aren't violent, liars, lazy, rude . . . the list goes on and on.

Stereotypes exist for a reason and this is the reason:

Stereotypes are the ignorant observations of a person observing a culture from the outside, without any real context that would allow them to grasp it. For example, black people used to eat chicken all the time because black people couldn't afford more expensive meat. Most black people are poor because of systemic racism. But the stereotype would have you believe that all black people just love chicken. (For the record, my favorite food is pizza.)

In other words, people are ignorant. And in their ignorance, they do others great harm. Ashley is not a malevolent racist who wants to see all the krogan die. She's an ignorant racist who will shoot them first and ask questions later.

Ashley is Always Right

Ashley, Kaidan, and Shepard on Virmire.

Ashley, Kaidan, and Shepard on Virmire.

What makes it difficult to explain Ashley's racism is the fact that she is always right.

In the first Mass Effect, Ashley explains (rather patronizingly) to Shepard that the council is racist and doesn't see humans as people. Instead, they see humans as attack dogs that can be used as canon fodder to defend them while they flee.

And what happens in Mass Effect 3? Exactly that. Earth is sacrificed by the council so that the council races can look out for themselves. And prior to this, in the very first game, the council was already giving humans permission to colonize planets that are between council space and the terminus systems, creating a sort of human buffer zone that space pirates would have to go through to reach the council planets.

The council controls who gets to colonize where, so it was deliberate that humans were being used to deter space pirates. This is pretty sh*tty, and the council should be called out for it.

The only problem is, Ashley is seeing this through a racist filter. She thinks the council is racist because they're evil aliens when, in fact, they are racist because they are frightened, ignorant, flawed people who can learn and change . . . Ironically, just like her.

Being able to call out other racists does not make Ashley herself less racist. It just makes her really lacking in the self-awareness department (and also a hypocrite).

Ashley Brings the Rage on Herself

Another reason the fans hate Ashley is that she shoots and kills Wrex. As I stated above, she frequently craps on people's favorite characters. She suspects Garrus, is viciously spiteful toward Liara, and kills Wrex in cold blood.

Not shocking the fans hate her.

If you speak to Ashley in the first Mass Effect, you learn that her grandfather got the family blacklisted when he surrendered to the turians during the their (vicious and unnecessary) attack on humans.

Because of this, Ashley hates the turians for what happened to her family. But yes, it's an irrational hatred, because it was the Alliance, not the turians, who blacklisted her family, and for a ridiculous reason. As Wrex actually points out in the game, humans did not go on to be oppressed by turians. They were not confined to their planet, denied the right to bear arms, or inflicted with bio warfare the way the krogan were.

Even being manipulated by the council is something humans have to take responsibility for. No one held a gun to Earth's figurative head and forced humans to colonize in the traverse.

Ashley's hatred is personal, as if the turians deliberately set out to destroy her individual family. This becomes apparent when playing a Mindoir Shepard whose family was killed by batarian slavers when she was a child. When discussing Mindoir, Ashley assumes Shepard is protecting the colonies for (childish) revenge on the batarians. My Shepard is a mature adult who doesn't blindly hate all batarians over the actions of a few (though she doesn't necessarily like them as a people. Their endorsement of slavery is vile) and replies that, no, she isn't out there to kill batarians; she just wants to see space.

Basically, Ashley assumes that Shepard is a vengeful bigot because that's the way Ashley herself is. The way she talks about the geth after the loss of her entire squad makes this obvious (even if those flashlight head comments are, admittedly, hilarious).

Nyreen as she appeared in "Mass Effect 3."

Nyreen as she appeared in "Mass Effect 3."

To be absolutely fair, though, the turians are presented as vicious and highly unlikeable. Every single turian NPC in the entire franchise is an asshole, the exception being Nyreen from the Omega DLC.

Samara says in Mass Effect 2 that Nihlus killed innocent civilians. But she doesn't give much context, so we are left to assume that he did something bad enough that she would pursue him as long as she did (she chased him something like months, I think). From the way Samara words it, it sounds like Nihlus directly killed these people, instead of simply letting innocents die for the greater good, the way Renegade Shepard (and Samara herself) can.

Also no, I'm not a Garrus fan. As I outlined in another article, Garrus killing mercenaries for fun is all levels of evil.

So given the way turians are often presented as militant assholes, I think it's understandable that Ashley doesn't like them. The writers didn't even try to make them seem redeemable as a people.

During the First Contact War, the turians were ready to annihilate humans, who were incredibly technologically inferior to them, over a simple misunderstanding (this was a direct emulation of the human-minbari war in Babylon 5) so it makes sense to kind of resent the turians for that.

The turians did try to reach out and make amends, but only because the council decided they wanted to use humans as a buffer zone. So they pretended to welcome humans to the galaxy and made nice.

In short, Ashley is right not to blindly trust aliens, at least the council races, as they see everyone else beneath them. But going so far as to mistrust her own allies? That's where it makes no sense and becomes ridiculous and irrational.

Ashley doesn't trust Shepard's judgement and acts like the commander is a naive simpleton who needs someone to sit her down and explain to her why humans aren't safe in the galaxy. Meanwhile, Shepard is in the other room telling the council to go to hell every day. She is not naive or oblivious at all.

Khalisah as she appeared in "Mass Effect 3."

Khalisah as she appeared in "Mass Effect 3."

The problem is that characters like Ashley and Khalisah (that annoying reporter) all put Shepard on a pedestal. They see her as a naive simpleton who blindly trusts aliens and believes the aliens have their best interests at heart. They believe Shepard is being used as a tool to promote this lie, and they are not wrong.

But the reality is, Shepard doesn't have as much power and influence as Ashley and Khalisah would like to believe. The most Shepard can do is lie on camera to keep the racial tensions diffused while bickering with the council behind the scenes and fighting to protect the human colonies.

Paragon Shepard is a politician. She knows that it would be foolish to go on camera and tell the truth (that the council is racist and doesn't give a damn about non-council races). But Ashley and Khalisah are Renegades (Khalisah's Paragon counterpart is Emily Wong). They want Shepard to be bold and in-your-face with aliens, rather than covering for the council for the sake of the peace.

And it's frustrating that you are given no way to tell Ashley (and Kaidan too) that you're aware of the situation and you don't need to be patronized. I think Ashley honestly sees tolerant Paragon Shepard as a blind idealist (which they can be, to be fair, depending on how you roleplay).

Yes, the council are bastards. None of this, however, justifies racism. Shepard can work with the council without being racist and paranoid like Ashley (you don't have to kill the council at the end of the first game and in my opinion, it's better if you don't), and her efforts should stand as an example that racial unity across the galaxy is possible. And yet, the very humans who idolize Shepard don't trust her judgement and can't see the bridges she is building for her people.

Wrex shoots the water on Virmire.

Wrex shoots the water on Virmire.

That said, I believe that Ashley was right to shoot Wrex (and Wrex agrees in Mass Effect 3's DLC Citadel). Wrex is a krogan battlemaster, which is kind of a huge deal (he's basically a BAMF). He's a mercenary. He's pissed off. And he's pointing a gun at Shepard's face.

Wrex was wrong for this behavior. Even though he was trying to defend his people, it was a moment of irrational emotion and it was very wrong for him to try and shoot Shepard.

I firmly believe that if Ashley hadn't stepped in, Shepard would have been shot. Of course, that's provided your Shepard fails to talk down Wrex.

And as much as Ashley loves Shepard, whether they are male or female, Shepard isn't the only reason she kills Wrex. The reason behind it was her racism. As she demonstrates for the entirety of the game, Ashley does not trust Wrex, Liara, and Garrus. If Wrex had been human, I highly doubt she would have been so quick to shoot him, rather than allowing the commander to try and talk him down.

Ashley sees Wrex as a dangerous beast that can't be talked down, much as the (racist) salarians standing along the beach, who are so shocked that Wrex can be reasoned with (no wonder she can get on so well with them).

So once again, Ashley does the right thing . . . but for the wrong reasons. This is actually the tragedy of her entire arc.

Can Shepard Save Ashley from Herself?

Ashley points a gun at Shepard in "Mass Effect 3."

Ashley points a gun at Shepard in "Mass Effect 3."

Mass Effect 3 places Ashley in the delightful position of having to eat her own words. She spends three games telling Shepard not to trust the council, that Shepard is little more than the council's guard dog, and that Shepard is Cerberus scum . . . only to turn around and find herself in the position of defending the council under the orders of a Cerberus agent (Udina).

Ashley is once again doing the right thing (defending the council) for the wrong reasons (doesn't trust Shepard). The sad thing is, Shepard's actions put Ashley there.

If Shepard was a racist Renegade, Ashley may have taken a long look at the commander and decided she didn't want to be like that.

If Shepard was a tolerant Paragon, Ashley may have realized that even though the council is racist, their lives are still worth protecting . . . because they're still people.

It is up to the player whether or not Ashley lives to learn from her hypocrisy. The player can choose to gun her down, in which case her arc will end with a bit of cruel irony, much like Udina's.

Or Shepard can talk Ashley down, save the council, and be privy to an embarrassed apology from the second human spectre later.

Sadly, Ashley didn't have enough content for a full character arc, not even if you romanced her (in my opinion). I wish there could have been more in-depth conversations with her on the Normandy. It's almost as if they expected us to shoot her on the Citadel.

If BioWare is really going to do a remaster, I hope they fix Ashley's arc in Mass Effect 3. She's a great character and deserved more content, especially being one of the original squad from the first game.

Also, they should fix the ending. But that doesn't need to be said.

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