Five Common Storytelling Mistakes in the Pursuit of Social Justice

The main characters of Bright.

Social justice is intrinsic to storytelling. Fiction has a long history of championing the oppressed, and spec fic fans are particularly proud of that tradition. We love to pontificate about how Star Trek portrayed a racially diverse bridge crew like it was no big deal or discuss how Octavia Butler pushed us to consider what race and gender even mean.

Given the importance of such stories, it’s no surprise that many storytellers dream of advocating for social justice in their own work.* But while this is an admirable goal, it’s easy to make mistakes, especially for privileged authors. Such mistakes often mean a story does more harm than good, and that’s the last thing we want. There’s no exhaustive list of possible mistakes, but in my role as a content editor, I see some of these pop up over and over again.

1. Both Sides-ism

Avery Brooks and Deborah May in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine The DS9 episode Sanctuary portrays refugees as entitled and ungrateful.

Few social justice causes come without conflict. If they did, we wouldn’t need to advocate for them anymore; they’d just be the default. And if there’s one thing progressive storytellers love, it’s portraying conflicts as complex and multisided. To most of us, this feels natural. We’re rejecting the simplistic good-vs-evil narratives of our youths and seeing the messy world for what it is.

This well-meaning worldview often creates a problem in social justice stories because it turns out that not all conflicts are multisided. Reactionaries may scream that immigrants are dangerous and that they steal jobs, but this simply isn’t true. Plenty of research has shown that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native citizens, and while any large population increase can stress resources in the short term, the long-term benefits of immigration are clear as well.

This dynamic holds true for most social justice conflicts. Plenty of people think that believing victims of sexual assault means abandoning the presumption of innocence, but they’re wrong.* Many others will tell you that poverty relief is difficult because people take advantage of aid programs, which is simply false.

When stories give credit to these false ideas, even through indirect parallels, they reinforce those ideas in real life. Activists have to spend even more time debunking false ideas than they already do. This is true even if a story eventually comes down on the right side of an issue. Simply granting credibility to a factually incorrect argument is enough to do damage.

How to Avoid It

The first step to avoiding both sides-ism is to not give the wrong side credibility out of obligation. If you want a story with more than one valid point of view, then issues like police brutality, marriage equality, and bathroom access probably won’t make for good subject matter.

The tricky part is avoiding both sides-ism on accident. We are not blessed with a complete understanding of every issue out there, and it’s easy to think a conflict is more complex than it actually is through ignorance. The solution, of course, is research, the same way you would research a historical period or theoretical technology. When researching, pay special attention to who has the power and who claims to be harmed. Those with power often harm those without, but the reverse is rarely true.

2. False Empowerment

Cover art from Prudence. In Prudence, women are portrayed as the true leaders because they can manipulate powerful men.

Power structures and hierarchies are a seemingly inescapable facet of human society, and all too often, they disenfranchise people at the lower echelons. We see this all the time in the present, and it tends to get worse the further you go into the past.

These hierarchies are a common target for storytellers, which is great. It’s important to empower the historically downtrodden, and there’s the practical consideration that most protagonists need a degree of power in order to influence the story. Unfortunately, many storytellers seem unwilling to actually challenge the hierarchies in their stories, which is how we end up with false empowerment.

Instead of breaking an oppressive hierarchy or just leaving it out, storytellers craft tales where the hierarchy actually helps the people at the bottom. The most common example of this is the idea that women have the real power in a patriarchy because they control the men through sexy wiles. False empowerment also rears its head in the shape of a poor person abusing financial aid programs or a person of color getting what they want by shaming white characters for being racist.

No matter how it manifests, false empowerment is harmful. It supports the idea that marginalized people don’t actually need equal rights and protection, because they’re already in charge! Sometimes this comes from a genuine desire to show empowered characters making the best of a bad situation; other times, it’s a product of simple ignorance. Either way, false empowerment gives people the wrong idea of how social justice works.

How to Avoid It

If you want to tell a story about someone low in the hierarchy, that’s fine and possibly quite valuable. It’s important for audiences to know that underprivileged people have always fought for and accomplished things. You just have to make sure that the character’s underprivileged status is a hindrance, not an asset. An unassuming grandmother might secretly run a patriarchal family by whispering in her sons’ ears, but it should be clear she could do a better job without all that patriarchy getting in the way.

Alternatively, it’s fine not to focus on restrictive hierarchies or to craft worlds where they don’t exist. In most cases, the audience won’t even notice, just like they don’t notice when action heroes travel the globe without any way to pay for things. Your story doesn’t have to focus on how its protagonist is constantly derided for being a black woman in Victorian Britain. You can just focus on her battle against demons.

3. Direct Substitution

Orcs from Bright. In Bright, orcs are supposed to be a parallel for racial prejudice, but everything about them is designed to make them look like black people.

Parallels are a valuable tool in any storyteller’s belt, especially when tackling social justice. A parallel gives you some distance, so you have more room to experiment and your mistakes are insulated from real-life tragedies. Parallels can also be valuable for easing people into a social justice topic they might not otherwise be ready for. Someone who gets indignant over Black Lives Matter might not have the same knee-jerk reaction against green-blooded aliens fighting for civil rights.

At the same time, we want our parallels to feel believable, so we take inspiration from real life. That’s fine, until we take a little too much inspiration, and then everything falls apart. Once it becomes obvious what your story is substituting for, you lose all the benefits of a parallel. People will judge your story as if it were about real life, and any mistakes will be looked at far more harshly. You might have only meant to use the Vietnam War as inspiration, but when one side is a guerrilla force lead by Hu Chee Myn, the story might as well be historical fiction.

Worse than the critical fallout is what direct substitution says to the people being paralleled. In most cases, it is literally dehumanizing, as the most common parallels are for a real group of humans to be played by aliens or a fantasy race. This is particularly bad for marginalized groups, as they are often dehumanized in real life. That dehumanization is then used to justify discrimination against them. You can see this everywhere, from politicians talking about “swarms” of refugees to your reactionary uncle who thinks gay people are weird and dangerous.

Direct substitution stories only get worse with age. As a group’s otherness fades, the support for dehumanizing them fades. There were plenty of people in Tolkien’s day who disapproved of all his dark-skinned humans being evil, but nowadays even the most reactionary audiences would consider it over the top. That makes it even more important to avoid this mistake if you want your story to have a decent shelf life.

How to Avoid It

The primary defense against direct substitution is to simply be more creative in your worldbuilding. You can start with a real group as your inspiration, but then you need to put in some work. Change what the characters look like, what they eat, their names, their celebrations. Change them until they are clearly different. Pay special attention to cultural touchstones. It’s not enough to make your aliens into blue cat people; audiences will still see them as Native Americans if you leave them with beaded hair and feather decorations.

For additional insurance, it’s best to populate your cast with diverse characters. This is easy, and it helps a lot. Audiences are far less likely to see your aliens as a parallel to Cold War China if there are plenty of Chinese characters among the humans.

4. Empowerment by Exception

In Santa Olivia, Loup Garron isn’t the only person with enhanced strength, speed, and stamina. She is, however, the only girl.

Making the protagonist special is an important part of storytelling, and with good reason. Not only is it enjoyable for the audience if the main character is someone out of the ordinary, but also you also need a reason for the main character to solve a problem no one else can solve. It’s even more important to make underprivileged protagonists special, since underprivileged audiences rarely get to see characters they identify with in badass roles.

This sounds straightforward, but when it comes to underprivileged characters, authors keep making a very serious mistake: they make the character special only in relation to people within their underprivileged group. The most blatant examples are the stories in which a female protagonist is the only woman in the story with magic, or the only woman who can survive turning into a werewolf, or the only woman who can lift a sword properly.*

Don’t worry, empowerment by exception isn’t limited to just women. You also see it in the only character of color with an education, or the only gay guy with a solid bench press, or the only slave willing to rebel. This mistake can strike at any underprivileged trait a character might have, possibly more than one!

No matter how the mistake manifests, empowerment by exception is insulting and condescending. It says, “Yes, this character is special, for one of them.” It implies the character has bettered themselves by being less like others in their group, and it puts down the rest of the group by extension.

How to Avoid It

An easy way to avoid this problem is to make the protagonist special in regards to everyone, not just other members of their group. That’ll take care of the issue, and you never have to think about it again. Instead of being the only girl with superpowers, she can be the only person to have two separate powers at the same time.

If it’s absolutely required that the protagonist be special in relation to the rest of their group, it should be clear that this isn’t because the group is lacking in some way. If you’re writing a story about the first black person to teach at a prestigious university, there needs to be an acknowledgment that other black people have been qualified in the past but were kept out by racism. Better yet, use a parallel and make it about the first human teaching at an elven academy of sorcery.

5. Trauma Exploitation

Three main characters from Girl. In the movie Girl, a cis filmmaker casts a cis actor in a trans character’s traumatic life.

Storytellers love to make their work real and intense,* and what’s more intense than trauma? Even in stories that aren’t chasing the grimdark trend, it’s often beneficial to inflict hardship on the protagonist, either in the main narrative or as part of a tragic backstory. These hardships give the character something to struggle against, which makes them more sympathetic.

That all sounds great, but it leads many storytellers to make a serious mistake: assuming problems related to a character’s underprivileged status will be even better. The trans character will face conflict over their gender, or the black character will face conflict over their race – sounds great! After all, bigotry is perhaps the greatest evil humanity has ever spawned, so surely bigotry-induced trauma will turbocharge a protagonist, right?

Things don’t quite work that way. Instead, stories that focus on the hardships of a character’s underprivileged status often come off as exploitative, especially when crafted by a privileged storyteller.

The first thing to consider is the audience’s experience. Bigotry-induced trauma is different than any other kind of trauma, and including it in your story can cause real harm. A person who recently lost their parents might be really upset by the death of the protagonist’s parents, but at least there aren’t hate groups telling them they deserved it. Meanwhile, a queer person can be beaten bloody and then be told it was their own fault for not being straight. Including the second type of trauma can be really harmful for people who’ve experienced it in real life.

If you’re going to ask sections of your audience to relive that kind of trauma, you’d better have a really good reason, and most stories don’t. The best most stories can say is that they’re providing representation for underprivileged characters, and there are better ways to do that. These stories come off as exploitative, because it feels like the trauma was added to excite a privileged audience.

Privileged authors are more likely to make mistakes when writing underprivileged characters because they don’t have the relevant experience. If the story is about trauma, those mistakes will be much worse for the audience and destroy any message you meant to impart. On top of that, underprivileged communities have a difficult time getting their voices heard, and they feel that they should be the ones to tell their own stories. A privileged author trying to tell such a story, even with perfect execution, will not be looked on kindly.

How to Avoid It

If you’re just looking to tell a good story without making things difficult for yourself, the best solution is to simply treat underprivileged characters the same way you’d treat privileged characters. Storytellers have been giving compelling hardships to straight white cis-dudes for a long time now, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. If the hardship of losing a best friend works for your privileged protagonist, it’ll work for your underprivileged protagonist too.

If you’re determined to include hardships related to underprivileged traits you don’t have, the best advice I can offer is to bring on people who do have those traits to help you. Sensitivity readers are good, but you’ll also want consultants to assist before the beta-reading phase. Not only will these advisers increase the quality of your work, but they’ll also lessen the impression that you’re appropriating someone else’s story. They’ll expect to be paid, so you’ll have extra costs to consider. This is not the sort of endeavor one embarks on cheaply.

Some people like to portray social justice as an unnecessary complication to storytelling, and it’s true that many authors stumble when trying to make their work more progressive. I’ll tell you a secret though: all of these social justice mistakes are also storytelling mistakes. They will make your story worse the same way a distant POV or boring plot will. That’s why it’s so important to know about them. On the bright side, they all have easy solutions once you know what to look for.

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  1. Skull Bearer

    This last one is something I’m struggling with. If I want to write minority character in the real world, there are going to be times where their minority status is going to have an impact. I’m writing a lovecraftian story with the main character being black.

    The focus is a lot more on the monsters than any real world issues, but there is a point where he is nearly the victim of police violence because of his race. It’s an important point in the story, even though it’s not the main plot, and I’m not sure how to do it justice.

    He is fine and the police meet a nasty end, incidentally.

    • JackbeThimble

      Have you ever read ‘Lovecraft Country’? It’s a series of connected short stories set in the early civil rights era in which a black family finds itself in a life-or-death struggle with their former owners who are also eldritch cultists.

      • JackbeThimble

        Also the black family are all genre-savvy science fiction nerds.

      • Skull Bearer

        I haven’t, and it’s not quite the direction I’m going in. The story is more along the lines of ‘HP Lovecraft was a massive racist, and if we can’t trust him on his own species, why should we trust him on anyone else’s?’

        Basically a lot more like ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’ or ‘Litany of Earth’, in which the abominations are not necessarily bad. Even Cthulhu, although He’s more in the ‘incomprehensible and dangerous’ box.

        • JackbeThimble

          That’s an interesting take. I would still recommend Lovecraft Country as it’s an excellent read. Can I make a suggestion though, if you’re thinking of depicting police violence and/or malfeasance in your story, consider making the victim white. I feel like the trope of African Americans getting persecuted by police is getting so ubiquitous in american media that it’s giving a large section of white america the sense that police violence is something that happens to other people and therefore that they have no reason to do anything about it and people complaining about police violence are doing it on behalf of the interests of races other than their own. But the reality is that, although black people are over-represented among the victims of police misbehavior in the United States, it isn’t to nearly the degree people think- African-Americans are over-represented among victims of police shootings and other incidents relative to their proportion of the population but the majority of victims are still white in absolute terms- and the reality is that US police abuse, intimidate and shoot Americans of all races at a rate that no other wealthy democracy would consider acceptable. I think a police abuse scene might stand out more if you have a sympathetic white character who assumes that they’re safe because of their race only to get a rude awakening or something similar.

          • Michael Campbell

            Such a scene wouldn’t stand out.
            In many ways, the normalization of violence has anesthetized the US public to the point of being entirely paralyzed.

            The US can fix its unhealthy relationship with violence and deadly force specifically.
            But it can only be fixed, by the US citizens themselves.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      While this kind of side story where a black character is threatened by a racist and that racist gets his just deserts isn’t automatically a bad idea, it’s important to remember that it is not required, nor is it required for a character to experience any other sort of prejudice simply because they live in a historical time period.

      It’s perfectly acceptable for your black investigator to simply experience the horrors of cosmic knowledge the same way a white protagonist would. Contrary to what some people will say, not including historical bigotry is not the same as pretending it did not exist, it is simply another choice authors make about what to focus on.

      On the other hand, such stories can be profoundly powerful, as seen in Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys, an excellent cosmic horror story that deals with bigotry of the time head on. If you wish to tell such a tale, the best option is to consult (and pay) a black sensitivity reader to help you out. Otherwise, just stick to the fundamentals. Make sure to center the oppressed person’s experience, don’t go into trauma that isn’t completely necessary, and don’t try to play both sides. I talk more about that in this post:

      • Skull Bearer

        The point was not to put it in because racism, it was more to highlight why someone might see waking Cthulhu as the only option because the world is so fucked up.

        It’s a very short part of the story, but serves as a shock to the main character who has- on the whole- been having a great time with these eldritch abominations and to highlight that the worst thing about the world might not be the great slumbering Elder God.

        • Debra

          You might this useful: The Ballad of Black Tom is a 2016 fantasy/horror novella by Victor LaValle, revisiting H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook” from the viewpoint of a black man. Wikipedia

  2. JackbeThimble

    What do you call the social justice mistake in which you depict a utopian ‘advanced African’ society but it turns out that even in a technologically advanced utopia the Africans are still ruled by an absolute monarchy in which all political disputes are settled by single combat?
    Or the social justice mistake in which, no matter how advanced their culture is, the African military still fights with spears and… Rhino cavalry even when it’s clearly shown in the following movie that a single well-trained white guy with an M-16 is more effective than several dozen of the african warriors armed with ‘futuristic’ spears?
    Or the social justice mistake in which the utopian Technologically Advanced African society has only survived by being completely xenophobic and isolationist, therefore implying that this is the only way an advanced civilization can survive and implicitly supporting the ideology of modern immigration restrictionists?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I wouldn’t call any of those social justice mistakes in the context of Black Panther, or at least not serious ones. If I it were me in charge I’d have done things differently, but Wakanda having an absolute, combat based monarchy and high tech melee troops is par for the MCU’s course. This is the same world where Tony “I could fix the world’s energy problems in a second but I don’t” Stark is a beloved hero, where Captain America isn’t bullet proof but is somehow never hit by bullets, and where Thanos’ elite shock troops are mindless melee beasts.

    • SunlessNick

      In order:

      1. That wasn’t a decision made in pursuit of social justice – it was made in pursuit of fidelity to the source material. (While subjective, I also had the impression that challenges were a kind of “technically still the law, but not done” thing – everyone seemed surprised when the Jabari challenged).

      2. They fought with both missile and melee weapons depending on whether they were in ranged or melee combat. They went into melee combat when I think they shouldn’t have, but the same has often been true of the mostly white space gods. Also, whether Bucky was more effective than several dozen of them is another subjective thing – he didn’t look that way to me.

      3. That’s a comprehension error. A central plank of the story was about how that policy was wrong. Nakia, the main character with the most experience of the outside world refutes the party line that Wakanda’s survival depends on its isolation, while Killmonger demonstrates how that isolation could ultimately harm it. As a result, T’Challa changes that policy at the end of the film.

    • Leon

      Another thing you don’t seem to understand is combat. If each footsoldier is protected by an extremely effective field based shield/armour, then range weapons become less useful. To attack you need something with anti-forcefield properties. If this tech is bulky, the soldier must have a melee option. This also makes large war beasts a good idea as they can carry a hugely powerful forcefield and simply throw the defender out of the way, shield and all.
      Also, swords are good for fighting from horseback so they became fassionable with upper classes. The spear is a vastly superior weapon in nearly all circumstances.

      And you completely missed the real reason all of the world should hate Wakanda. They stood by and watched European empires conquer the world and did nothing.

    • Rose Embolism

      Isn’t this also the universe where one of the most advanced races in the universe is ruled by an immortal absolute patriarch? And which depends for a lot of its military supremacy on a single dude with a melee weapon?

      I think this Superman quote might aapply: “These ‘no nonsense’ solutions of yours simply don’t hold water in a complex world of jetpack apes and time travel.”

  3. Fay Onyx

    Another big one is making sure you are actually doing what you are preaching. For example, if you are centering your story around a parallel for a specific marginalized group, be sure you are actually including members of that marginalized group within the human characters of the story. Don’t make the mistake of doing a parallel for homophobia with some alien species, but have an all straight human cast. Or doing a parallel for racism with fantasy races, but having all of the humans be white.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yep that’s a big one! I’d have included it on this list but I already talked about it back in Tips For Telling Stories of Resistance.

    • SunlessNick

      Relatedly, don’t reserve the parallel human demographic for the bigot role. (Hollywood *loves* having black people be the racists against nonhumans).

      • Cay Reet

        Yes, kicking down is not how you should do it or show it.

  4. LiliesAndRoses

    5. I also worry about men’s issues. For example, I saw some works, which featured female-on-male rape or sexual harassment being shown as no big deal, and sometimes character had in-universe justification to do it (like, in one erotic anime, a succubus queen raped a young boy in order to return to her world). Or, I saw an article (not fiction, an article about students’ issues), a (female) author compared life in a campus to a military service by conscription. I think that this comparison can be offensive to conscription victims (I was never conscripted), since students in the campus have personal liberty and can leave campus at free will. Is it really not a best idea for female authors to write about female-on-male rape, military service by conscription, deserter’s life, life with circumcision and other men’s issues?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Sexual violence of any sort requires extreme sensitivity and should never be trivialized or turned into a joke. At the same time, it is important to remember that while men are sometimes victimized by women (and often pressured into staying silent), this does not change the overall dynamics of gender based privilege.

      • Known Foreground

        I’m also interested in depicting matriarchal societies. Is it better for me to write about man’s life or woman’s life in matriarchy, if I’m a man? Which topics I shouldn’t touch? And is it ok for matriarchy to has male-only conscription, or circumcision?

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          All things being equal, there’s no reason you cant write a character of any gender in a matriarchy, so long as you aren’t writing a persecution flip stories. A matriarchy is simply a society where women are generally in charge, it doesn’t have to be one where men are downtrodden every second of the day.

          Fortunately we have articles on both these topics:
          Creating Matriarchies
          Matriarchies, Patriarchies, and Beyond
          Five Reasons Not To Write a Persecution Flip Story

          I’d leave circumcision alone unless you have a specific point to make, since it’s a fairly touchy subject for many reasons. I don’t see much issue with portraying male-only conscription, unless it goes so far as to become a persecution flip story.

          • LiliesAndRoses

            I also think that if a story depicts matriarchy, it becomes very important to pay more attention to women. I’ve seen stories about matriarchy, which were written with men in mind, for example:
            – “matriarchy in name only”, society is ruled by women, but either there are men who are powerful enough to cancel decisions of female leaders, or men are more privileged than women, or men benefit from matriarchal society more than women (while society that are “de-jure matriarchy but de-facto anarchy/democracy/egalitarian” technically fall under this category, it’s not the same as “de-jure matriarchy, de-facto patriarchy”).
            – “sexy matriarchy”, women are shown as constantly sexily-dressed, as if to impress men, without any reason.
            – “persecution flip”, the whole story focuses on how bad men are treated in society (it’s even worse if in-universe misandry is significantly worse than real-life misogyny, or all female characters are shown supporting sexism).

  5. PASchaefer

    What’s the growing evidence that audiences want light stuff right now?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s all anecdotal, but there have been a slew of wildly successful light TV shows recently, even shows that are otherwise of subpar quality like The Orville.

  6. Kenneth Mackay

    There has also been a historically-observed correlation between troubled times and the desire for light escapist entertainment to take the audience’s mind off their troubles – for example, during the Depression in America, the most popular type of movies were romantic musicals, in which the lead characters were members of ‘high society’ and usually well-off.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s only logical, when you think about it. If times are hard, why should people want to see characters struggling on-screen? That’s more something you watch when you’re living a comfortable life yourself.

      Yes, during troubled and hard times, people enjoy light entertainment.

  7. Carrim

    A very good article.

    I’m a starting writer and recently tried to built characters from different minorities… but then I started being afraid of failing at something and… basically make some of the errors depicted in this article (and now some I discovered thanks to you).
    So I tried to do research on homophobia, transphobia, racism… except I have a hard time finding actual testimony of people directly concerned by those problems, or even the direct effects on individuals and society (on the “practical” level). It’s always some unpersonal wide view or about the origin of the hatred…

    Does anyone has a clue how to “search efficiently”? How to find direct experience?… (My circle of acquaintances is not that big…)

    • Chris Winkle

      I think would be a good resource for you. I might have more suggestions, but can’t tell from your comment exactly what you’re trying to find. Stuff written by underpriviledged people specifically? Stuff specifically about their lifestyles?

      • Carrim

        Yes, the lifestyle. How being part of an unprivileged group changes things in your everyday life, and if possible, testimonies directly for the concerned people.

        Also thanks for the link, I’ll explore that in details.

  8. Sam Beringer

    The way I consider adding trauma to a story is this; is it something that will be addressed with all the respect it deserves? Does the story have enough time to go into the history of violence against transfolk or the dehumanization of POC? If not, then it shouldn’t be in the story.

    I also think a problem is that priveleged writers can only comprehend bigotry at its ugliest and don’t even recognize the numerous little cuts someone may face on a daily basis. Most white folks know better than to use the Nword or to suggest hanging a black person, with a very vocal minority either not knowing or caring, but don’t think about how harmful it can be to, say, tell a black girl with natural hair that she’d be prettier if she straightened it or to go out of their way to avoid a black man on the street. Hell, the phrase “I’m not racist, but…” is often the prelude to some racist shit they don’t even realize is problematic.

    • Michael Campbell

      To a degree the old newspaper adage; “If it bleeds; it leads!” has followed into story telling in general.
      Watch the TV for a night. You’ll see five murders but only one act of shoplifting if you’re lucky.
      It’s not how reality works but it is how the entertainment industry works.

      Some people will say that a politician who takes money from a gun manufacturer and does nothing to strengthen gun control laws is aiding & abetting murders and can & should be tried for conspiracy to murder.
      Others will say the politician is standing up for a fundamental civil right.
      But everybody agrees that guy who pulls the trigger during the convenience store robbery is a murderer.
      So the storytellers tell that story instead.
      It’s not always a problem of unchecked privilege. Sometimes it’s just pitching to the lowest common denominator.

  9. Leon

    About Bright.
    Why is it racist when orcs are styled like “black people”, but not when they are styled like europan barbarians or lower class english people, as they are in almost every other work?

    • Cay Reet

      Because neither European Barbarians nor lower class English people were ever oppressed to the same degree as PoC.

      • Leon

        How is that relevant?
        My ancestors were slaves too, but they weren’t assets, they were expendables.

        • Cay Reet

          Racism would be the quick answer. Treating people bad because of their ethnicity is racism. Just as treating people bad because of their biological sex and/or gender is sexism.

          Your European barbarians or lower class people were never oppressed for their skin colour or ethnicity. They might have been oppressed for being poor (in the serf system of European middle ages) or because they were prisoners-turned-slaves. It never was as large-scale a thing as to say ‘everyone with black skin is a better animal and can be bought, owned, used, and abused at will.’ As to say ‘we ship them from Africa, even if half of them die on the trip, then we rip families apart and treat them like better livestock.’ That is the difference between using European barbarians/lower class people and using ‘black people’ as base for your Orcs. In the second case you have to be very, very careful about the portrayal.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            Regarding barbarians… Sure, the ancient Greeks didn’t have slave trade on a massive scale like the US had much later on. But if you look at what Aristotle writes about barbarians, it’s definitely racism, even though it’s not based on skin colour. He thought barbarians were different from Greeks by nature, less intelligent although physically stronger, and therefore they’re naturally suited for slavery.

            I think the important difference between portraying orcs as barbarians and portraying them as blacks is that there’s NO barbarian oppression NOWADAYS, whereas there’s definitely still oppression of black people.

          • Leon

            Ok. I was actually talking about my Jewish ancestors, but you make a good point. Slavery was just the norm back in the day. But, although European people are all bundled together as white, there are dozens of ethnic groups who were enslaved by the guys with copper, or iron, or bronze, or steel, or horses, or armour, etc, because they were Other.

            But lets forget about racism and slavery for a second.

            From what I gather the modern orc is a natural species just like humans (they evolved, they have a soul), their average strength and height is somewhere around the 68th percentile for humans (human+1) and they are intellectually equal to humans (though their technology lags because they have less of a need, being physically stronger(remember, ancient Greeks knew about steam power)), and they are single minded, NOT simple minded, but focused, as in they are really good at getting things done, fewer of those annoying little neuroses that plague humans.
            They are objectively superior to humans.

            Even if you want to disregard any of this: it doesn’t matter what colour the chocolate is, it’s going to take the shape of the mould – compere European and American kids who dream of being athletes, you’ll see the trends.

            So, what are the aspects of an orc that are offensive when the orc is styled as an American.

            And don’t say the way they look. Do you think Africans look like orcs. I have never seen an African who looks like an orc, and I know half a dozen white guys who look exactly like orcs – except for the skin, which is green not black.

            Do any African Americans have an opinion on this?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            “In most cases, it is literally dehumanizing, as the most common parallels are for a real group of humans to be played by aliens or a fantasy race. This is particularly bad for marginalized groups, as they are often dehumanized in real life. That dehumanization is then used to justify discrimination against them. You can see this everywhere, from politicians talking about “swarms” of refugees to your reactionary uncle who thinks gay people are weird and dangerous.”

          • Leon

            So, if Bright had been set in England and the orcs were styled as lads from the estate (projects), would that be classist?
            Would it be racist if they owned a curry shop?
            Are orcs allowed to be anything other then loutish limey hooligans?

            In all seriousness. Do Americans actually see orcs as scary threatening “black people”?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            If you think a hypothetical movie would be problematic in some way you should write something to explore that. We’re discussing the movie that was actually made.

          • Leon

            This has gotton so far from what i was wanting to know.
            Of course nobody deserves to be portrayed as a mindless animal or a faceless swarm. Nobody who is reading this blog needs to be told that.

            You say that it is dehumanising that the orcs are styled like people. (Did anybody even think about that Chocolate Mould quote?)
            But when you want to call an auther racist you insist that orcs ARE people.

            How are these two ideas compatable?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            It’s impossible to answer a question that starts from the false premise that we want to call authors racist.

          • Leon

            Fair, call;

            You say that it is dehumanising that the orcs are styled like people. (Did anybody even think about that Chocolate Mould quote?)
            But in other posts you insist that orcs ARE people.

          • Leon

            This just struck me as really bizarre because it seems to be based on the idea that some (albeit fictional) races/species/people are inferior or worthy of contempt, despite assertions otherwise.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            It’s quite simple: orcs can be people within the context of a fictional story, but making them obvious stand-ins for marginalized groups can still be dehumanizing because “people” and “human” are not always the same thing.

            This is especially true with orcs, which are often portrayed as unintelligent and violent in fantasy fiction, two stereotypes that are used against black people all the time. This legacy is still an issue even if those portrayals are not explicitly present in an individual story.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just for the record, Leon, Cay and Dvärghundspossen had added a lot of useful info, but the simple answer to your question is that English people do not suffer racial oppression for being English, while black people do suffer racial oppression for being black.

  10. Axis Flux

    5. I have thought, whether there some similar situation of trauma exploitation, like woman being fired and replaced by another person, but in one story it’s because that person is better suited for that job, and in another it’s because they’re a man.
    Also wonder, is nepotism a form of bigotry?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m not sure if you were looking for a response in the first part of your comment, but as to nepotism: I’d say it’s not inherently a form of bigotry, though it can certainly intersect with bigotry.

      For example, in a society where nepotism is common, people are more likely to hire applicants they personally know and are related to, rather than those who are best qualified. If white people already hold most of the wealth and influence, nepotism means they’re likely to keep hiring other white people, since those are most likely to be their friends and family, even if they have the option of more qualified applicants of color.

  11. Annalena

    Okay sorry, but both-sides-ism is just complete bullshit. Saying “this group is being mean to this other group because they’re EVIL” is just lazy writing. That’s just not how it works.

    And on your argument on immigration – look up Germany’s refugee crisis.

    • Cay Reet

      Both-side-ism happens when you show two groups and one of them is definitely wrong (which doesn’t immediately mean ‘evil’) and then try to show that both groups have their good sides.

      It’s pretty much Trumps ‘there’s good people on both sides’ after deeds by American Neo-Nazis (because that’s what the ‘far right’ is). They did atrocious things for horrible reasons, which is why they don’t get the ‘there’s good people’ bonus. Yes, nobody is deeply and absolutely evil, everyone has good sides. Hitler was a vegetarian and he was good to his dog, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do horrible things. Even the most vicious and brutal slave owners were probably nice to their family and might have donated heavily to church, but that doesn’t excuse their behaviour towards the slaves.

      Excusing severely bad behaviour with ‘they also have good sides and the suffering group also has bad sides’ is both-side-ism and wrong.

      • GeniusLemur

        Uh, Hitler was NOT a vegetarian. He had a severely restricted diet due to health issues. He wanted to eat meat, missed eating meat, and ate meat on those occasions he felt his stomach was up to it.

  12. David MacDowell Blue

    I really like this article and think it makes excellent points!
    I will note my very different reaction to DS9’s episode “Sanctuary” in which the refugees are clearly the victims of deeply unfair prejudice. They did not seem privileged or ungrateful, but rather as sincere. They could have helped Bajor! Yeah, they were in no danger of becoming permanently homeless or of starving, which pulled the dramatic punch. But it felt like the Bajoran government failed when it came to moral courage.

  13. Skyblue

    5. Does that apply also to disaster-induced trauma and war-induced trauma? Personally I think that writers should be very careful while depicting a war and never trivialize it. Also I find it a bit problematic to exploit real-life disasters (for example, in the “Облако в штанах” (A Cloud in Trousers), narrator compares his suffering of woman breaking up with him to sinking of RMS Lusitania, let alone that the poem itself is extremely problematic — with blasphemy, misogynistic metaphors, endorsing of violence, hate speech etc — and clearly reads as incel outcry, despite the fact that incel movement didn’t exist in XX century).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      In a vacuum, while invoking war or disaster trauma can be in poor taste or just melodramatic, I wouldn’t consider it a social justice issue since our society doesn’t have a big problem of discrimination against people who are caught in wars or natural disaster.

      Of course, specifics can change that equation. A lot of takes on the 2010 Haitian earthquake were really racist for instance, but that’s something you need to evaluate on a case by case basis.

  14. Amaryllis

    #2. Does this apply to “Matriarchies In Name Only”, when the society is supposed to be matriarchal, but men are more privileged than women? (I know that “Matriarchy In Name Only” applies also to other situations, such as “it’s called matriarchy, but really is an egalitarian society”, but I’m asking about the specific situation of men having the real power of supposedly matriarchal society)

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