Frankly, this rant was difficult to write. Part of it is simply that I’m afraid I’ll leave something important out. The other part is that I’m white, middle-class, and American, and so I’m approaching a lot of this in theory, not in the experience of living with it. Given the time period I live in, I don’t even have to deal with some things that would have been de rigeur for an American white, middle-class woman a few decades ago. So, if you see something in the rant you think is biased, ill-chosen, wrongly-worded, or offensive, please correct me. The nice thing about using an LJ post as a format for this rant is that I can clearly show the correction of mistakes by strikeouts.
1) Remember that people believe in this. This might seem like a really stupid thing to lead off with, but I’m thinking of the idea that some evil politician characters in fantasy don’t “really” believe the rhetoric they may use to gain power; they’re just using it as a front for their true goals of money, world domination, or revenge. Thus bigotry is sometimes treated as not real at all, because who would believe that shit, right?
Except that cheapens the exploration of oppression in fantasy. Oppressors in our own world have not solely consisted of cynical liars using the tools at hand to get what they want and the gullible fools who believe them. (See points 2 and 3). There have been many quite intelligent people who believed quite sincerely that people of a different class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, language, or sexual orientation were inferior. They may have questioned certain specific beliefs—for example, many British scientists in the nineteenth century sought for a “natural” reason to believe that other races were inferior to whites, rather than relying on Biblical ideas—but that doesn’t make them free from bigotry. And in a fantasy world with a considerably different set of mores and values than our own, especially one based on alternative history, identical attitudes to twenty-first-century Western ones are going to be the exception, not the rule. (At least, I hope they are. I’m a bit sick of reading worlds that are different and people that are not, as if everyone in that fantasyland were adopted).
To write from inside the head of a person who believes like this is often disgusting, frustrating, and exhausting. It can also seem like an endorsement of the attitudes involved, which is a nightmare for many authors. Yet setting up differentials of power in your fantasy world and then insisting that no one really believes in the rhetoric that supports them is a cheat.
And, by the way, lack of true belief in a certain variety of bigotry is really not an excuse. (See points 4 and 5).
2) People in the oppressor class can have positive/”positive” traits existing side-by-side with the negative ones. All right, so there are people in your fantasy world who are sincere racists, or sexists, or whatever. Then the temptation comes along to dismiss them all as the stupid ones, the working-class people (hi, subtle form of classism on the author’s part), or the uneducated.
Which. Uh. Not really. After all, the British Empire, an enormous colonizing power, depended on the soldiers, but it also depended on the functionaries and bureaucrats, who were often middle-class and used to comforts and education. They had the traits that could, apparently, have carried them into egalitarianism. And yet most of them didn’t get there. Why? They tended to grow up in a culture that hardly encouraged it. As they grew more educated, they just invented new reasons to keep believing what they always had—thus the scientists in the first example—elaborated the old ones, or believed that their new technology and knowledge confirmed that, yes, British white males were the absolute center of the universe, because otherwise they wouldn’t deserve the blessings they had. Such closed-loop thinking is one of the reasons that power differentials can persist at all.
As for why people who believed otherwise tolerated it…well, consider people you may have known who believed something that drove you absolutely crazy. My father tends to be highly racist while insisting he’s not, to the point of believing that intelligence differentials exist between African-Americans and Caucasians. My brother is highly homophobic. My sister drove me nuts for a while by believing sincerely in the Rapture. That lessens my respect for them, but, on the other hand, declaring, “Get thee behind me,” is not an option. Characters who do want to change things in a fantasy novel, just like real people, can have ties of affection, blood, and duty to others who have beliefs that drive them crazy. That’s an extra level of verisimilitude there that I think is lacking when, somehow, the revolutionaries have (self)-righteously snapped ties with everyone who disagrees with them. The snapping of ties can also easily lead the revolutionaries towards caricaturing and dehumanizing their opponents, which are not attractive traits in heroes any more than they are in villains.
And it makes the story more difficult and complicated. And, in the case of writing about oppression, I think every level of added complication is probably necessary, to come somewhere close to representing the reality—even the reality in a different world.
3) Internalization happens, too. Someone who lives day and night with messages telling her that she’s inferior because of her gender can start believing those messages, not because she has some internal weakness, but because they’re so constant, and voices telling her otherwise are muted, not as common, or nonexistent in her personal sphere. To take a limited example, British women who did have an idea that they should be equal to men were often treated as if they were crazy before the nineteenth century, and even during it. The situation was worse if they were writers, because of the belief that writing put a woman out into public view—like a prostitute—and thus imperiled her chastity. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, quotes Dorothy Osborne, herself a letter-writer, on the subject of another woman’s book: “Sure the poore woman is a little distracted, shee could never be soe ridiculous else as to venture at writeing book’s and in verse too, if I should not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that” (62).
Likewise, people of another race living in a society of whites receive constant signals about their own inferiority, and it’s incredibly hard to resist that, to come out of it without self-doubt, or sometimes self-hatred. Else, why the need to begin a “Black is Beautiful” campaign, if dark skin was all along considered just as beautiful as pale skin? It can be worked against, but it’s so subtle and so pervasive that it can be hard to know when one is expressing an attitude of one’s own and when one is expressing something picked up from the dominant culture.
Bilingual American children and adults who receive the label of “dumb” because of an accent in their English may not think themselves dumb, but they will have native English-speakers speaking to them slowly and loudly under the impression that language is somehow linked to intelligence, and that impression persists into writing. (How many times has poor spelling or word use convinced you that the person who wrote what confronted you was not very smart? And yet, there’s no particular reason that intelligence or coherency of ideas should be correlated with written language skills). Such behavior naturally wears, and it’s a constant worry whether strangers will judge them by what comes out of their mouths.
Breakaways take an enormous amount of psychic work precisely because of such influence, everywhere. (See point 6). And in a fantasy society that’s relatively large, as empires will be, the same thing should happen. Characters reared outside the oppressive structure’s influence might be relatively free, but that doesn’t mean they can just march in and change things; there will be internal barriers among the people they want to help, too.
4) Institutionalized power is still power. Perhaps your protagonist in your fantasy novel truly believes all people should be equal. She speaks it, thinks it, writes pamphlets about it, dreams it. She goes into the working-class slums and encourages them to fight for their rights against the aristocratic class she was born into.
And yet, she never undertakes the chore of providing for herself, she’d be lost without the servants who know just how to tie her dress and braid her hair, and somehow her vision of working-class people fighting for their rights has never extended to what will happen if they do and suddenly the aristocrats are reaping what they’ve sown. She’s never had to live any other way. Meanwhile, in daily life, she makes constant small judgments about the intelligence, character, and morality of the people she passes in the street who aren’t as nicely dressed as she is, or who serve the cakes and tea at the dinner parties and charity balls she attends. Somehow they are less “real” to her, less “people,” than the ones she talks to at the meetings.
This character is not consciously being a hypocrite, but she’s still benefiting from the class structure she claims to want to tear down. Thus, she’s still wielding power she would not have if she were as working-class as she likes to think. She’s still classist in a way supported by, and which supports, the institutions of the society she lives in.
This is the same thing I referred to in the rant on gender-equal societies when I talked about noticing the small ways that your characters of different genders may not be equal, like insults and proverbs. The character can say and believe one thing all she likes. Her actions may say something quite different. And since so many of the characters in fantasy are (that world’s equivalent of) aristocrats or at least the upper gentry, this is a contradiction that needs to be taken into account if you’re going to write about oppression.
Does that apply to our own world? Of course—probably moreso, given capitalism and consumerism specifically, and how powerful institutions are in general. Individual members of the white race in the U.S. may have quite crappy lives, but they enjoy advantages, and lacks of disadvantages, that members of minorities do not. (For an example I think is especially important, see point 5). Cries of “reverse racism” tend to be a crock specifically because of this. As a race, American Caucasians do not suffer from oppression the same way. Besides, claims that they do tend to be aimed at rhetoric and actions that make them uncomfortable—like evidence of institutionalized racism. That does not mean those actions and that rhetoric are in and of themselves right; it’s simply stupid to claim that the discomfort of whites in general is equal to the suffering of others in general.
So, if your protagonist or viewpoint character is supposed to be a member of the dominant group but not involved in the oppression in any way, shape, or form, there are some snarls to work out.
5) Members of the oppressor class often have the luxury of being judged as individuals; members of minorities often do not. Thus, someone white called Bernard can be perpetually late to appointments and gain an individual reputation as lazy, but that does not generally lead the person expecting him to think, “All white people are lazy.” Instead, Bernard is the lazy one. Whereas, if someone African-American is late to an appointment, there is a stronger chance that the (white) person expecting him will decide that all African-Americans are lazy.
This leads to a very specific problem in fantasy novels: tokenism. Thus the writer includes a character of a different race, ethnicity, species, religion, sexual orientation, or what-have-you, but instead of being portrayed as an individual, that character gets heaped on them all the responsibility of standing in for their group. The single character of the outsider religion becomes All Members of That Outsider Religion, not herself. The single elf becomes Typical Elf. The bisexual character becomes The Author’s Views on Bisexuality, Right Here. This is especially bad in terms of race; since fantasy tends to be, still, a genre with both a lot of white authors and a lot of white characters, the number of non-white characters remains small, and when one does appear, they carry a freight that they would not if there were more of them. To a certain extent, the same thing happens with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered characters re: heteronormativity.
What can be done? Well, for one thing, increase the number. That helps lessen the freight. There’s no reason, in a fantasy world where there are large nations of dark-skinned people, that the reader should only ever see one person with dark skin.
For another, have that “difference” be an element of a character, not the whole thing. Are white characters defined by their whiteness, or heterosexual characters by the fact that they have heterosexual sex, or men by their penises? Not most of the time. (They have the luxury of conforming to the “normal” type). Yet for some reason, it’s often A Law that a gay character must be a ball of angst that goes directly back to the fact that he sleeps with other men. He can angst about other things. Really. Even more, he can be frequently bored, charming to random people he meets at dinner parties, have a love of betting on racehorses, be distinctly unenthusiastic about taking over his father’s business, and have a male lover. You know. Ordinary things. (This is another place where the common tendency to exaggerate a character’s emotions and personality traits in fantasy is fatal to nuanced characterization. People who do not go through only cataclysms and intense victories are better-suited to avoid tokenism. *waves ordinary characters banner*).
For a third, question the automatic tendency to set the story among those “normal” characters. Does it have to be true that your female protagonist sleeps with men only instead of both men and women, or women only? (There’s a distinct lack of lesbians in fantasy, still, even as gay male characters become more popular). In a world that does not share Earth’s history, must all the dominant nations be white? Or human, for that matter? Or practice a suspiciously Christian religion? Are the only interesting stories to be found among people who never have to work? (Hint: no). Does your protagonist only have to speak one language, or might she “code-switch” between one language at home and another outside it because her parents are immigrants? Changing the assumptions will, it is true, create new problems for you, especially because then the temptation to tokenize is there where it might not have been before, and maybe some stories have to be written with the “normal” characteristics intact, but I think it much better to ask the questions than never ask them.
For the fourth and fifth things that can be done, see points 9 and 10.
6) The influence of oppression is not confined to one corner of the culture. This is especially true if you have a society with advanced technology and communication systems. Unless the people spouting such beliefs are truly a fringe group—in which case, they’re not the majority and are unlikely to have much power, though they could take it—then the consequences, messages, and themes that support the power structures will be constant and easily available. They’ll be in literature, gossip, mass communication if it exists, nonfiction like conduct books and letters, behavior, gestures, proverbs, snap judgments, the arrangement of cities, transmitted history, music, art, and so on.
It’s not a conspiracy theory (and I think it loses something when it’s portrayed that way, as if one could solve every problem just by eliminating a small group of people). Oppression and its means of support evolved over time—which is why point 8 is so important—and they grew in mind after mind, the same way that religion grows. Some people will be more conscious of them than others. Some people will fight them more than others. Some people will reject certain parts of the belief structure utterly; others will accept them. But there should be no way to escape by just not reading certain books or talking to certain people, because, again, that cheapens the idea of oppression.
Writing characters who figure out the falsity of their own received beliefs, are appalled, and start struggling against them is fun! Because it’s complicated. Certainly more complicated than writing plaster saints who never let such an idea enter their heads.
7) Oppressions can be multiple. Thus the concept of “double jeopardy,” where, say, an Asian-American woman is oppressed by not just racism or sexism, but both. If she is a lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered as well, she may go through “triple jeopardy,” because heterosexism than joins the other two.
In a society that acknowledges concepts such as religion, race, ethnicity, linguistic difference, sex, sexual orientation, and so on, having just one system existing to oppress certain people while everything else is equal is silly. Why wouldn’t someone who is both a member of a despised race and a member of a despised religion have problems from both, instead of just one? She might feel one more than the other, say if she identified herself more with her religion than her race, but she wouldn’t cease to suffer the effects of racism because of that.
Now you put all these multiple oppressions into play at once in a created world.
Now it is a whole lot more complicated, and you’ve got a whole lot of balls to keep in the air.
But having multiple structures of oppression and exploring the effects of all of them is much more complex than just one. Just one can make a point, but it will not be as complex as two fully elaborated structures. Of course, maybe you’ve decided to banish a certain set of power differentials from your world altogether (in the world I’m writing right now, no one cares what gender you sleep with, but humans sleeping with members of other species nauseates two of my human viewpoint characters and a good number of other humans), but if they’re there, deal with them.
8) Know the history of ideas, institutions, and groups in your world, so you can decide what the oppression is like and how it arose. Say you have a racial minority in a country far from their point of origin. Did the minority arrive in that country as part of a wave of religious refugees? Were they forcibly brought there as slaves? Were they voluntary immigrants? What was their reputation as a racial group before they arrived? How long have they been there? How many are they? Do they/did they have a different language? What are the majority and minority’s attitudes towards interracial marriage, children, contact, schooling, church attendance, meetings on the road? How different is their culture, and what ideas have they retained in the new country, and what did they not? How strident is the fulmination against them in the minds of the majority? What was the most recent violent contact? Are there intelligent enemy minds peering at the country, and deciding to use the split in races as a neat little point of “divide and conquer”?
Alternate history may give you a baseline idea for this, if you’re following a particular country’s history, or dealing with a situation that closely parallels an Earth-specific one. That doesn’t mean you can get away with not thinking about it, and deciding how the differences in your timeline/otherworld affect events like this.
Building a fantasy society from the ground up and including ideas and history like this is an even bigger challenge. That’s because it deals with how people think, and I firmly believe that portraying how people in another world think is the greatest challenge that fantasy worldbuilding has to confront. Perhaps it will wind up paralleling an Earth-specific situation, too, but it has no particular reason to do so.
So. Get to thinking.
9) Be prepared to question yourself. Writing about a subject like this is fraught with tension. (Gee, you think?) You can do research; that’s always something to be encouraged, I think, if only for the stray fact that may become a key detail of a created world or character. But for a white First World author, or even someone who has lived through oppression and is facing it head-on now in a fictional context, writing fantasy with this kind of theme brings him or her face to face with his or her own thoughts on race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, and on and on.
Does it have to be done? Yes. Otherwise I think a fantasy author can replicate stereotypes with the best intentions in the world.
Is it easy or comfortable? Not on your life.
Does it always work? No. I know I’m still excavating my own attitudes, trying to figure out whether particular thoughts I have are racist or sexist. (Some I know are). I’m fairly certain I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.
Should it be done anyway?
Of course. If nothing else, it offers two inestimable advantages: greater self-knowledge and more notice when you’re twisting the conventions of a narrative to pander to “normality” and stereotypes. My default when I first imagine characters is to imagine them white, even when I know better, or when I’m creating a character I want to have a different skin color. Likewise, many conversations about race twist away from race as soon as they can to focus on white people. (Yes, this includes conversations about oppressed white minorities such as the Irish; the people in the conversation may still be discussing oppression, but they are no longer discussing people who are not white). It is damnably hard.
But that is no reason not to do it.
10) There are some tests through which only your own courage can carry you. Participating in a conversation this complicated does run the risk of offending people. And not always people who are oversensitive. Even the writer who questions her intentions, looks as hard as she can at ideas and stereotypes, and tries to write honestly and imaginatively can commit cultural appropriation, stumble and fall, recycle stereotypes, and extend the conversation in non-productive ways as well as productive ways.
What’s to be done?
Get up, talk to people about what went wrong, sift the criticisms, absorb the useful ideas, and try it again.
Avoiding the conversation, perhaps by avoiding the portrayal of, say, non-white characters altogether, may be a tactic some authors need or want to practice, but it does not solve the problem of the representation of non-white characters. Nor does demanding a way that certainly works before you try to write about oppression, because there is no way that certainly works. There’s only working as hard as you can to build your wings and then trying to fly, then getting up when they’re wrecked, as they certainly will be, and building a better pair.
There is no immunity from criticism. Really, a writer ought to know that, given what critiques books already get subjected to. Yes, you can be blamed if you never write about themes of oppression and you can be blamed if you do. This is not a Catch-22; it is an opportunity to keep trying, and keep trying, and keep trying, and maybe get better.
All right. After all, I am hardly immune from criticism, either.
Tell me what you think.