Ash has played "Skyrim" for several years now and enjoys writing about it and her various Dovahkiin.
It's a widely held belief among fans that the Stormcloaks of "Skyrim" are a racist bunch not worth supporting. For this reason, most fans will side with the Empire in the civil war while completely brushing the Stormcloaks aside.
But I have a confession to make: I've been siding with Ulfric for years.
Now, to be completely honest, I didn't side with the Stormcloaks because I believed they were the good guys. I sided with the Stormcloaks (on a khajiit character, mind you) because I hated the Empire for trying to cut off my head without even caring that I was innocent!
The Stormcloak khajiit was my second play through of the game. My very first Dovahkiin was a bosmer elf (because, thanks to The Lord of the Rings, I love playing elves in video games) and she escaped Helgen with Ralof, then immediately ran off and joined the Stormcloaks (my logic at the time being to follow the other prisoner and not the guy who 1) made a racist remark during my execution and 2) works for the people who want to kill me!).
My bosmer, Eloriel, didn't join the Stormcloaks because she believed they weren't racist but rather because she believed the Empire was the bigger evil. I've sided with the Empire since then, but I've always felt as if siding with the Stormcloaks was the correct answer.
To be clear, there is no correct answer. The developers left it ambiguous enough that you could join either side of the civil war and still find a damn good reason to. This article is my reason for believing you should side with the Stormcloaks. And since most players avoid siding with them because they believe they are "racist," I'm going to explain to you why they are not racist.
Fans are Stuck on Real World Racism
I think the biggest reason people insist on seeing the Stormcloaks as evil racists is that they are stuck on real world racism and are comparing this fictional world to the conflicts of real races in our world.
Yes, fiction is not created in a vacuum. The work of any writer is going to be influenced by their world and culture. I'm pretty sure the white people who wrote for Elder Scrolls see white people in the real world as noble and innocent and brave (meanwhile, Nordic Vikings in the real world were brutal raiders and pillagers competing in a cold and merciless environment to survive) while viewing the other races of our world as evil and savage.
And while that may be their viewpoint (I'm pretty convinced the writers for Dragon Age, for instance, based the elves on their real world perspective (aka racism) regarding First Nations people), this is still fiction and as a result, it cannot be held up to the same standards as the real world and its conflicts.
The elves are just objectively bad people as a group, okay as individuals. And this is true only because they are completely made up. You can't condemn an entire group of people in real life (that would be absurd) but it's easy to do it in fiction because they simply aren't real. Which means that they can be deliberately created to be evil.
I believe the elves were meant to be seen as evil entities. That's why they are the main ones worshipping daedra and doing crazy crap in the hills. Hell, the dunmer are an entirely cursed race for a reason! So are the snow elves (aka the falmer)!
The Elves of Skyrim are Evil
Yes, that's a generalization. Not every single one of the elves are evil. But historically and culturally . . . Yes, they are. The elves endorse slavery, cannibalism, dark magic, vampirism and necromancy . . . Those things are indisputably evil.
Yes, vampirism is, by it's very definition, evil. So Serana, who you love so much, is an evil being who feeds on innocent mortals.
The elves endorse all of this crap. Not every single one of them, but culturally and historically? Yes. They basically are evil. And by "culturally" and "historically' I mean that evil is something ingrained in their past (history) and in their beliefs (culture), which they pass down to their children from generation to generation.
Once you stop and really look at the elves, then compare their culture to the Nords, it's obvious why the Nords would be at odds with them at every turn. The Nords come from a culture of honor and honesty and bravery (at least, those are the ideals they attempt to live up to), while the elves care only about power, lies, and trickery.
A fine example of this is Saarthal.
The snow elves raided Saarthal and killed the Nords there in an attempt to steal the power that was underneath. Ysgrammor and the Companions retaliated, chasing the snow elves into hiding underground.
There, the dwemer offered to hide the snow elves . . . but only in exchange for their eyesight. How is any of this not remotely evil on the part of the elves?
The elves initiate an unprovoked attack on the Nords and slaughter their people to get their hands on a ball of power that they have no idea how to even use. Then when they turn to other elves for help, those other elves make a shockingly evil demand for their eyesight!
And the snow elves were so f*cking weak that in their last stand against the Nords, their leader "the Snow Prince" was killed by a child!
So elves in this lore are not only evil and selfish and power hungry but also weak as all f*ck. And when the Nords arrive in Skyrim, these people are everywhere, arrogantly playing with dangerous magic, mutilating each other, eating each other, and treating the Nords like utter s*it.
Why wouldn't the Nords develop mistrust and resentment? Racism is not rational, but suspecting and disliking elves in this world is entirely rational and therefore, not racist at all.
The Elves of Windhelm
If you aren't familiar with the lore of Elder Scrolls, then it would be very easy to stroll into Windhelm and think the Nords are racist bullies. In reality . . . and I know many fans are going to hate this but . . . Rolff is right about the dark elves in Windhelm.
I remember getting to Windhelm and thinking it was hilarious that the dark elves were living in slums and being all miserable and whiny. Why? Because they were awful f*cking people. And whenever I played an Argonian, I made damn sure to tell Suvaris that I hated her people.
The dark elves whine and complain about their living situation, as if Ulfric is just supposed to hand them all nice mansions as soon as they turn up, crowding his city. Instead, he gives them an entire f*cking district to live in free of charge and allows them to open stores and sell goods without harassment.
In the real world, minority businesses were hassled, sometimes burned to the ground, (sometimes drowned in dam floods) in order to keep brown people from attaining wealth and status (and, yes, this actually still goes on in the real world), but in Skyrim, the dark elves are completely coddled. They are even given everything free of charge, and all the Nords ask for in return is that they help defend Skyrim, which is now their home too!
When Rolff calls Suvaris out on this, what is her response? "It's not our fight!"
So instead of defending the land that welcomed them and gave them a home, the dark elves are content to leach off the Nords and their economy, while b*tching and complaining and doing nothing!
Some of the dark elves work hard and run their own farms, while others complain about Ulfric while demanding to be pampered. It's really absurd. So many of them were allowed refuge and the Nords asked for nothing except their (rightful) help in the war!
Brunwulf's Dumb Rant
Meanwhile, Nords like Brunwulf Freewinter will brainwash the Dragonborn into thinking Ulfric only cares about Nords. He'll tell you that Ulfric does nothing to protect khajiit caravans and the like . . . But why should Ulfric run around protecting khajiit and Argonians who haven't pledged themselves citizens of Skyrim?
These are foreigners traipsing around in someone else's country. It's their responsibility to protect themselves if they come to someone else's land. Uflric is trying to run a f*cking rebellion. He doesn't have time to stop and save every khajiit who stupidly drives their wagon too close to a giant camp.
Meanwhile, compared to the whiney dark elves, the high elves of Windhelm are thriving.
Niranye continues to make a decent profit unhindered, even if her connections to the Thieves Guild are never restored. Nurelion runs an alchemist shop without hassle, and two high elves also run the stables.
There are also dunmer pirates, farmers, and sailors living in Windhelm, and the bard in the tavern is a dunmer who sings Ulfric's praises.
Windhelm has the largest population of non-human races in the entirety of Skyrim, and yet, Ulfric is somehow a racist xenophobe who hates the other races despite allowing them to live and thrive in his city???
Khajiit are Not Trustworthy
And I say that as someone who loves khajiit and has played a mage khajiit for years.
So what about the khajiit ban from cities, you ask? Well, the khajiit were created to be a race of thieves. That's what they are! They are biologically built for it and take full advantage of it (high sneak, lithe bodies, night vision).
Being suspicious of khajiit and fearing they will steal is perfectly sane and rational given that they are built for it. It's like saying someone is racist against cats because they're afraid the cat will tear up their curtains. Isn't that what cats do?
You can't compare this to real life racism, as no one is real life is built to be a thief. Black people don't have super sneak skills or the ability to disappear into the shadows or see in the dark (nor are we super strong, savage, violent, lazy, or stupid, by the way).
This is why the khajiit caravans are part of the Thieves Guild in Skyrim. It's also why the caravans are not allowed to enter the cities, while individual khajiit still are.
Knowing all this, it's hard to take Inigo seriously when he's b*tching about Windhelm.
Sometimes I feel like Smart Blue Cat aka Gary aka the creator of the mod isn't fully aware of the lore surrounding the racial conflicts in Skyrim, and that's why he created a character who is just as oblivious . . . Or maybe he did that on purpose. I don't know.
But I feel like he doesn't see the truth here, and that's why he wrote Inigo to have a past where racism basically destroyed him (spoiler: his brother is killed by a racist mob after an accusation of thievery and the entire mod is based around hating someone because of their color . . . which is why Inigo is blue . . .)
To me, SBC is an example of how fans make the mistake of applying real world racism to the fictional world of Elder Scrolls and then getting it all wrong because of that.
The elves were deliberately created to be evil, which is why most of them are.
The Argonians were created to be good-hearted badasses, which is why most of them are.
The khajiit were created to be sneaky thieves, which is why most of them are.
The Reachmen were created to be murderous crazy savages, which is why most of them are.
Races in fiction are often two-dimensional and poorly done because they're fictional. Mass Effect had this same issue. Apparently, it's extremely difficult to create realistic, three-dimensional races of people in video games, so all of them are cartoony stereotypes.
Doesn't bother me. Just explaining.
Argonians are Badass
Meanwhile, you are probably wondering why Ulfric keeps the Argonians outside of the city if he isn't racist. This is also explained by the lore of the Elder Scrolls. Again, if you don't have this information, it will color your entire gameplay experience. And honestly? I think that's brilliant. Because that's exactly how our perspective works in the real world.
When Argonians were enslaved by the dunmer, they freed themselves with an uprising, slaughtering the dunmer and driving them out of Blackmarsh. The death toll was phenomenal, and the reason why Brand-Shei is in Riften.
Unlike the elves, the Argonians were created to be (historically and culturally) a pretty awesome people. They are also pretty badass. So imagine what would happen if they were living in close quarters with the dark elves inside the city? Some cocky dark elf would make a snotty remark and the Argonians would f*cking slaughter them all.
I mean damn. Argonians are so badass, you have to wonder how they became enslaved in the first place.
So basically, the Argonians are kept outside the city for the protection of the dark elves . . . This was a strategic move by Ulfric to keep the peace in his city. But because the Argonians have a crappy Nord boss who refuses to pay them, they think all the Nords hate them and want to keep them outside. Their perspective is colored by their interactions with the Nord who won't pay them (Shatter-shield) and also Suvaris, the hyprocritcal dark elf you meet at the gate when you first come to Windhelm.
Suvaris whines about the Nords bullying her, and yet if you read some of her journals and logs, she talks pretty viciously about whipping the Argonians because she hates them!
No one is saying the Nords are perfect, but given the way they're treated in their own land, is it any wonder they are xenophobic? They have to constantly deal with necromancers disturbing their tombs, cannibals, power hungry mages, vampires, and now the Empire is taking away their culture.
Elven culture is rife with dark magic and daedra worship, but all the Nords want to do is worship Talos! No blood sacrifices. No daedra. No dark magic! And yet, after all they have had to endure from the other races, the White-Gold Concordant was the last straw.
Elves, power hungry, murderous elves, telling Nords what to do!
Balgruuf isn't Worth Saving
Yes, that is my Nord character in the image above. It links back to my old Deviantart account, where you can read all my old fan fictions, if you like. I'm beyond caring what people think of me anymore. Go ahead. Go there and make fun of me. That account is dead and has been for years, so I won't even notice.
The character's name in the picture was Zlata, and she was one of my favorite Nord characters, a badass barbarian babe. I had a really fun time storming Whiterun with her. She was Harbinger of the Companions, a werewolf, a Stormcloak, a hunter, and married to Aela. This was before I started playing with the Inigo and Vilja mods (which I first used in 2017).
It's so much fun to storm Whiterun and take Dragon's Reach from Balgruuf. I will never, ever understand why so many fans love Balgruuf either. Maybe it's because this entre generation has been groomed to become a bunch of spineless moderates who sit back and smoke we*d and think that both sides are wrong while they chuckle at South Park.
Balgruuf is a coward who sits on the fence, happily takes bribes from the Empire he loathes, and yet doesn't have the spine to come out and admit that he supports them. In fact, he doesn't support the Empire at all and utterly despises them! But he won't join the fight against them because he hates Ulfric more than the Empire.
Balgruuf claims to be on the side of Whiterun, but it's because of him that the civil war drags out. His hold in smack in the middle of Skyrim, and because he refuses to pick a side, both sides of the civil war are helpless to act, as it would require moving through his hold.
He basically drags the war out and puts his entire city through hell because of his childish rivalry with Ulfric Stormcloack. He is unable to swallow his pride and admit Uflric is right for the good of Skyrim. In thinking only of himself, he screws over everyone else.
People probably also see Balgruuf as some kind of "progressive" guy just because he has a dark elf for a bodyguard and allows a lot of elves to live in his city. There's Athis in the Companions, Jenassa, and the wood elf brothers.
I don't see Balgruuf as "progressive," though. I see him as a traitor. He doesn't seem to care about Nord tradition or honor at all, which is why he finds it so easy to have elves be close to him. Irileth is practically his wife in all but name.
And like the typical dunmer, she threatens you the second you come in the keep! Most bodyguards don't try to kill you on sight. They don't draw their weapon and slowly approach when you approach the jarl. They just ask you to maintain a respectful distance. That's it. But Irileth takes out her weapon and walks up like she's going to cut off your head if you get near her precious jarl.
I think Irileth hangs around Balgruuf because he gives her a sense of purpose. She can't return to her homeland and makes a reference to having wandered all over Tamriel aimlessly. Balgruuf is just a reason for her to live. Without him, she's nothing. I doubt she actually cares about him as a person.
Meanwhile, Balgruuf is probably just banging her behind the scenes and doesn't care about her either. He berates her and his steward both, treats his staff like crap, ignores his kids and the fact that they are pretty much becoming evil.
Originally, there was a quest where Balgruuf's kids would kill him. I wish they had left that in, because then maybe delusional fans would see the truth about him, instead of thinking he was this cool guy just because he gave them a free axe.
Balgruuf showers you with free gifts because you have proven useful and could be useful in the future. Why wouldn't he want someone powerful like you at his beck and call? Before you even discover you're Dragonborn, you have already survived Helgen, an ancient ruin to bring him a tablet, and have shown a willingness to run around doing errands. You have officially become another tool in his toolbox, another lapdog like Irileth. Hell, one of his kids spells it out for you,
"Another wanderer here to lick my father's boots. Good job."
Balgruuf's son says this because it's true. A lot of wanders come to his father seeking his favor, free axes, and citizenship. The Dragonborn isn't special. They're just the newest toy.
How and why do people like this idiot so much? Nothing gives me more pleasure than removing him from his throne and putting Vignar there, who I actually like a great deal.
Nord Tradition Demands It
All that being said, if you take a look at Nord tradition and history, it actually makes more sense to side with Ulfric.
Nords believe in physical strength, warrior prowess, and bravery. King Torygg was the exact opposite of this. He was physically and mentally weak. A real Nord king would have had the power of the Thu'um, but Torygg could barely lift a blade. He was a boy and little more than an Imperial puppet married to another Imperial puppet. He was basically everything a Nord should not be, to the point that the Nords weren't running Skyrim . . . the Empire was! The point of Ulfric killing Torygg was to make this obvious, to wake the country up and make the Nords fight back!
Now, I'm not saying I don't feel badly for Torygg and Elisif, but they needed to be removed for the good of Skyrim. They were weak. Skyrim needs a king and queen who will fight for them, stand up to the Empire and not allow the elves to manipulate them.
As I demonstrated above, Nords of old always stood up to the evil magic of the elves. Why should that suddenly change now? Why should they lie down and take orders from the same elves that have terrorized them and abused magic against them since they first set foot in Skyrim?
This is a fictional world where the elves are written to be evil and the Nords are written to be heroes who stand up to them. The writing in Skryim makes it easy to see the Nords as the villains and the elves as "poor and oppressed." It deliberately challenges you to read up on the lore and apply your own critical thinking skills, rather than spoon feeding you everything about the world.
I like that it was done this way. And I like playing a Dragonborn who is aware, rather than allowing herself to be swayed by the rants of random NPCs who live in the world and have as little initial knowledge as she does.
All that being said, even if the Stormcloaks were actually racists, nothing is so emotionally satisfying as kicking the Thalmor out of Skyrim. The Imperial side of the civil war just doesn't compare.