In my previous post, I discussed the fact that society-wide inequality and oppression are the result of systems, not just the efforts of a few ‘bad apples’. After all, the full saying is that ‘a few bad apples spoil the barrel’– that is, for every person actively terrorizing a marginalized group, there must be many more who are to some degree complicit. This can range from people who don’t know the problem exists to those who completely believe propaganda about the problem to those who were ‘just doing their job’.
The upshot is that while your marginalized characters will likely encounter a few shouting, cartoonist bigots, they will mostly be fighting an overall system and society that sees them as less than human. Many people who oppress them will not see themselves as oppressors– some, in fact, may see themselves as actively helping marginalized people.
So what does this system of oppression actually look like? Here are some real-life ways power imbalances are maintained, none of them mutually exclusive:
- Unequal legal system
- Double standards and biased criteria for education, jobs, etc.
- Lack of access to public spaces and services
- Forced removals/relocation
- Physical assault
- Martial law
- ‘Reeducation’ or other forced assimilation programs.
Think about which of these are in play in your setting, and how they manifest. As unpleasant as this is to research or create (depending on whether your setting is real-life history or a constructed world), you need to think about details and the internal logic of the oppression. Is the dominant class trying to wring an indefinite supply of free labor out of people? Or drive them to extinction and take their stuff? Or push the ‘competition’ out of their way? Exploring those questions in depth will give you a more realistic and meaningful portrayal of an unequal and oppressive society than simply adding some mustache-twirling bigots.
It’s also worth fleshing out how these systems manifest not just in dramatic ways, but as part of the characters’ ‘daily grind’– the endless parade of low-grade discrimination, scorn, erasure, and aggression, coupled with the endless emotional labor of finding the response to such behavior that will allow them to survive another day. Defiance is not always a viable option, but sacrificing one’s autonomy, and dignity and ‘sucking it up’ also comes at a high price. If this is not something you experience, I’d recommend checking out some examples of the type of microaggressions experienced by marginalized folks all around you.
Of course, the details will be specific to your setting, plot, and characters. But understanding how and why these unequal power dynamics exist in the real world will give your setting the realism it needs to resonate as a depiction of systemic injustice.