Worldbuilding: race, culture, colonialism, things I'm probably screwing up

Last Friday, I wrote an 800-odd word post about the culture of trolls in the story I'm working on.  In it, I discussed my concerns that I was embedding a colonialist/imperialist/'noble-savage'-kind-of reductionism and racism.  Then, I tried to edit it on my phone and the entire thing turned into an incoherent jumble of nigh-unsalvagable html with slashes in place of all the triangle-bracket-thingies.

Today, for a few hours, I worked on more worldbuilding in that setting, and I'm still not sure I'm even approaching anything not fundamentally screwed up, but I've at least got new material to talk about.

Here's the map of the world I'm populating right now.  This image is specifically the one I made for Friday's absent post, so you may notice some subtle allusions to the nature of that post:

raincastle-setting-mapThere are six major populations on this map.  Four of them, so far, have paired names, two of them don't.  I'll get into that again in a bit.  There are the Crag Trolls, who live in that red circle; the Wood Elves, who live in the forested band shaded in green, mainly towards the middle of the continent; the Mountain Dwarves, who live mainly in the topmost subcontinent, that sort of ball-shaped outcropping; the Ice Giants, who live in the peninsulas on the West side of the top of the map; the spirefolk, who live in the westmost peninsula, mainly on the western side of the mountains; and the islandfolk, who live mainly in between the two smaller continents, and among the islands.

The reason that the last two, the spirefolk and the islandfolk, don't have two-part names yet is because I don't want either of them (or both of them) to be the Humans.  Part of the point of this exercise is that they're all supposed to be human, and the differences between them are cultural, not essential.

For example, trolls are raised genderless, and choose (or decide not to choose) a gender when they turn (fourteen maybe?).  At that time, they go through a transformation ritual where their skin is entirely changed to a color based on their tribal affiliation, they get linear tattoos all over their body describing their identity and role, and often they get small horns or spikes made of iron, because there are a lot of undead in the ocean around the crags, and iron is a good defense.

As a consequence, other races sometimes think of them as monstrous, uncivilized and perverse.

Now, not all the tribes are like that.  The troll tribes each have different names, customs, and history -- at least one even has gendering-from-birth -- because I don't want any of the races to be monolithic, uniform caricatures, nor any individual within a race to lack a sense of self that is apart from their culture.  (Specifically, I'm trying to avoid the problems outlined in the article It is known -- Game of Thrones, the Orient, and Conventional Wisdom.)

The trolls are the most developed groups so far.  But I've got broad strokes for a few points with all the others:

  • Dwarves have underground cities, view magic apart from enchanting tools with suspicion, and part of their diet is a rocklike fungus that grows in veins throughout the north.
  • Giants' magic is shamanistic, and the setting's modern-day potions will stem from the historical ritual substances made by the giants, which create both trances and physical modifications allowing them to perform the tasks of the connected ritual: for example, hunting underwater, by granting them extraordinary breath, swimming strength, and resistance to the icy cold of the northern ocean.
  • Elves' healing magic is the most advanced in the world, and is applied most liberally, leading to the popular assumption that elves are immortal.  Actually, they usually live about 5-7 hundred years, but an elf child that grew up outside elven culture would live only as long as any other human.  They're also nomadic within, and extremely protective of, the forest -- historically, all trade routes that pass through the forest entail giving the goods to a group of elves and assuming everything will work out.
  • Spirefolk live in high towers, and tend towards isolationism.  They are skilled illusionists, and many of them can fly using magic.  (In retrospect, they're a lot like Airbenders from Avatar, but nothing else in this setting is dissimilar to other works, and I promise it won't end up being an item-for-item ripoff.)
  • Islandfolk are traders, and, later in the history, imperialists.  Their magic centers around evocation, and powerful mages in their culture can control the weather.  Their habits of building complex enchantment into the very nature of their architecture was a key to their success in keeping territory after their military expansion.

I want to bounce back and forth between writing stories and worldbuilding in this setting, and I also want to write about it here -- I'd be thrilled to get criticism here or on Tumblr (where my blog automatically cross-posts).  One of my major priorities is not contributing to the destructive normative trends that dominate popular narrative, so if you see anything I'm missing, let me know.  (I have not yet sought to address sexuality or reproductive rights, but I plan to.  I don't imagine slavery being a significant part of this setting's history, because however cheap slave labor is, magic will probably be cheaper -- not that it'll be nonexistent, but never the economic backbone of a civilization.)

[notice]My computer crashed, just as I was finished writing this piece, but before I'd saved it.  Fortunately, Chrome (Thank Google) retained the whole text of the post.  Nonetheless, I believe there are forces in the universe trying to prevent me from talking about this setting.  But no matter!  I will redouble my resolve and resist the censoring influence of coincidence and accident![/notice]