Some months ago, NPR ran a poll, which found that 55% of white Americans believe their demographic, as a whole, suffers from discrimination. These beliefs likely stem from fear of change, or discomfort with moving from a heavily rigged system to a (very slightly) fairer version. But my personal observations would indicate that part of the problem is how we talk about bigotry and oppressive societies.
In some cases, it’s a perspective problem, wherein people producing fiction and nonfiction media have not experienced the discrimination about which they are telling a narrative, and leverage tropes and imagination instead of lived experience or research. Those particular tropes are then self-feeding, and contribute to an environment where narratives that present a different perspective are dismissed as ‘inauthentic’.
In my observation, there are two key problems with how media– particularly mainstream fictional media– portrays oppressive societies. First, the bigotry in the setting appears without explanation. People just hate and discriminate the targeted group with no context or motivation. Second, oppression is framed as the actions of a few ‘bad apples’ rather than being part of a larger system. The villains are not shown to be products of their environment, or having tied their fortunes to their participation in an awful system; instead, they are just evil for sheer enjoyment. (Extra self-awareness failure points for narratives that flag the ‘bad apples’ as being bad apples due to their membership in a marginalized group).
On a very surface level, its just not realistic. This is because real-world systems of oppression are, well, systems. For example, the British and Spanish empires could never had kidnapped and enslaved 10 million West Africans without the active cooperation of thousands of sailors, sugar merchants, weapons manufactures, and a whole bunch of people who either wanted to buy human beings or were sanguine enough about their neighbors doing so not to make a fuss. Although individuals who commit atrocities seemingly for laughs have existed throughout history, most people who prop up unjust and abusive systems do so because they have been misinformed or not informed at all about the harm they are doing, or are complicit out of fear for their own safety or material comfort.
The first question you have to address is why the power imbalance exists. Was there a war? Settler colonialism? Mass immigration? Mass enslavement? Something else? If you’re going to write about systemic inequality and discrimination– whether a real-life example or a fantasy counterpart– you need to understand how this system came to be. People do arbitrarily pick on difference, but petty personal malice will not built the machinery of mass oppression, which requires mass cooperation in maintaining inequality.
Second, you need to explore why the inequality persists. Usually, it’s about resource hoarding– those in power do not want to give up access to free/cheap labor, or return stolen lands or goods, or stop sitting on golden toilets, or the like– but there are conceivably other issues at play, especially in a speculative fiction setting. Whatever it is, the motivation has to be strong enough to uphold both society-wide oppression and personal bigotry. Often these systems become self-perpetrating, with propaganda feeding prejudice, and the prejudice being used to justify the system itself. People who participate in this injustice don’t necessarily see themselves as bigoted, but rather rational, based on the self-serving stereotypes and social norms they have observed.
Next time, we’ll talk about how to swap out your mustache-twirling ‘bad apple’ for realistic depictions of systemic oppression.