Tolkien's and similar use of 'race of men' vs. 'race of elves' or whatnot, seems to certainly be outweighed by the negative uses of the word's other definitions before and since. I'm tempted to suggest 'peoples' instead of 'races' for the humanoids, but then does that box out the centaurs and treants, for example. Sure, 'species'.Well, lets imagine it as an orc. What would an orc race have to be in order to avoid being deeply problematic? I would say that first we should dump the word 'race', lets call it a 'species', it is not a human, it is another species.
I guess my question about Orcs and Elves and Klingons and Vulcans is, what's their purpose?I would probably totally avoid the whole 'breeding with humans' thing entirely. If the issue ever comes up, then OK, maybe orcs and humans are in the same genus. Maybe they can create sterile offspring, or whatever. But why even go there?
Orcs are not inherently evil. There may well be an orc civilization which has standards and culture which the PCs will not approve of. OK, fine, so do cultures on the real Earth (and yes we label them as inferior to us, our bad). I mean, we have plenty of fictional models already out there, like Klingons, which are certainly not an 'evil race' or particularly 'primitive' etc. In fact, I think Star Trek did a fairly decent job, right? (I'm sure there are points where it might be criticized, I really haven't studied the topic). I mean, there are other non-D&D versions of orcs too, some of which are probably more acceptable.
I don't know if I have words I want to put down for any of them but I think I can see a storytelling purpose for the humanoid animals (some flavors of lizardmen, kenku), the things from Faerie (some flavors of elves, some flavors of goblins), the things from the far realms and abberations (ilithid) and the undead (vampires and zombies), and the outsiders (angels and devils) that don't have to drift into problems.
But is the purpose of dwarves, halflings, and orcs (or Klingons and Vulcans) mostly to allow for a certain type of person to not be a human - often with a solid slop of some extreme stereotype thrown on? That is, to essentially be another race of humans? Does that work if the other race is "better" or doesn't overlap in too many ways at all - but fall flat if they are "lesser" or are portrayed as the other? If they're the same, do they just allow for stories about interactions between human groups, without needing one of them to be human (is that why they're used in Star Trek so much)? How important is that in a fantasy world?
Oh for a time machine and the hope that we would actually be better than our ancestors were in those same situations.Anyway, obviously they can't be INHERENTLY primitive, evil, stupid, aggressive, etc. That's really it. While this might create some problems for existing D&D settings and lore, it doesn't seem all that onerous to me. Now, creatures which are much less obviously humanoid, we can be less worried about. The example of 'parrots' is good, a bird people are much less evocative of humans, and as long as you avoid trying to carbon copy a human culture onto them, I am sure it should be fine. That leaves a LOT of design space open! Cat people, dog people, bird people, lizard people, snake people, insect people, etc. etc. etc. Just don't make the more anthro ones inherently negative AND associated with cultural traits we link to racist ideas.
It is all rather unfortunate. This would be a lot easier, except we're burdened with a nasty history. That's life.