How Do I Write Structural Oppression?

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How can I write a story about fighting racism?

I want to write a character who’s faced prejudice and hatred from everyone around them and never found a place to live. How can the character learn to combat racism and bigotry and oppression in a way that makes sense? Like for instance solving a conflict between two nations that hate each other and if the protagonist is a child of those two hated countries, how can they tackle it?

It’s vague, but I want to know how a story between two hated factions can be resolved with a biracial character, for instance, or do I need the character to not be biracial?
—Star of Hope

Hey Star of Hope, great to hear from you again!

There are a lot of things to keep in mind when writing marginalized characters, and the most important one is power dynamics. Namely, who has the power, and what do they use it for? This will inform the kind of conflict you’re writing and how it must be handled.

For example, a story about warring countries is likely to be very different from a story that parallels anti-Black racism in the United States. Even if one country is stronger than the other, that’s still far more power than racial minorities in the modern day United States have.

If your story is paralleling anti-Black racism, then the solution can’t be for the two groups to come together or forget their differences. In that scenario, the privileged group has all the power. Oppression will only end when the oppressors stop doing it. That doesn’t mean the marginalized group is helpless, but the responsibility for ending the conflict isn’t on their shoulders.

Even with two countries fighting, it’s important to keep context in mind. If your conflict modeled the 1940 Soviet invasion of Finland, for example, it would be inappropriate for the message to be that the Russians and Finns just need to get along better. The Finns were the clear victim in that conflict, so your story needs to keep that in mind.

A more even parallel could be something like the Byzantine-Persian wars of the sixth and seventh centuries. Both empires were fighting to expand their territories, and neither is an obvious good guy or bad guy. In that scenario, it makes perfect sense for the conflict to resolve with both sides learning to live in peace.

As to making a biracial character, that’s not something I have a lot of personal experience with. I recommend more research on your own, but there is one factor I advise keeping in mind: when modeling systemic racism, a biracial character is far more likely to be victimized by the privileged group than the marginalized one. It’s important to remember that so you can avoid a narrative that creates a false equivalency between the two groups.

Finally, we have a few posts that might be helpful:

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!

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  1. Star of Hope

    Hello and Thanks Oren for your answer. I never thought my question was so worthwhile to share publically
    If I got that correct, I have to decide what type of dynamic I want, 2 warring countries on equal footing or 2 countries with an obviously evil oppressor. For my story I just pick 2 countries based loosely on the Medieval Islamic Kingdoms and the other being Medieval Europe to make it work, because neither side of the world were monolithic and with an setting based on the Levant or Spain, It would work!

    • Angelo Pardi

      I hope you are up to date on your medieval religion knowledge because other wise this set-up looks like a highway to misrepresentation hell.

      • Star of Hope

        I know how medieval religion works, I am an history buff. If the idea is too dangerous I will scrap that and move on to something else.

    • Cay Reet

      I don’t suggest loosely basing anything on a historical group, no matter which one it is. You will always have more things that are historically wrong than you will have things that are right and it only leads to trouble. Remember that even if those were ‘Medieval’ kingdoms, Europe and the Islam are still around today.

      You can create two ‘equal’ countries by making it clear that none of them is fully good or fully evil and both have about the same amount of power at their disposal. Don’t fall into the trap of making ‘imaginary’ Islam and ‘imaginary’ Christianity – that’s bound to fail.

      • Star of Hope

        I cannot base anything on real history, not even loosely? Avatar and Assassins Creed do that too and no one complained, so how it’s different? I understand that making fictional Islam fight against fictional Christianity is dangerous given that Trump, the EDL and in my homeland the AFD exists.

        • Cay Reet

          Avatar is taking some slight ideas from the Inuit and some Asian countries, but brings them together in a new way. The four different groups there are not based on anything.

          Assassin’s Creed has had its share of critiques over their portrayal of history, but it’s also a game, no story. People make their own story in the games, even if there’s a historical backdrop.

          Instead of using ‘fantasy Islam’ and ‘fantasy Christianity’, why not take a few extra steps? Study the history, look at how and why they clashed, and translate that back into two imaginary groups. You will leave the religions which exist in this world behind and can make something much better and more unique. Besides, you’re running the danger that readers in the west will automatically assume that ‘fantasy Islam’ are the bad guys. That would tip the scales in your story in a direction you don’t want.

          • Star of Hope

            I concede on Avatar, but you can’t deny the connections between Imperial Japan and the Fire Nation.

            Assassin’s Creed was highly praised by people and even it’s first game, which was set in the third Crusade was an success and pretty much, in terms of fairness to both sides comparable to Kingdom of Heaven. Also how do gamers make their own story, game story and story story are almost the same.

            That sounds much better and I have an idea for how I can make it work, I think a non-human setting is in order.

  2. Tony

    “… when modeling systemic racism, a biracial character is far more likely to be victimized by the privileged group than the marginalized one. It’s important to remember that so you can avoid a narrative that creates a false equivalency between the two groups.”

    Yep. “Half-Breed” by Cher is Exhibit A of what not to do.

    On that note, the “tragic half-breed” narrative is something else to avoid, especially if it carries the implication that interracial families are bad because tragedy is inevitable and because Think Of The Children.

    I would like to point out, though, that it’s possible for Country A to marginalise people from Enemy Country B who live within Country A’s borders, even if Countries A and B are on relatively equal military footing. Think of German Americans during WW1, and of Japanese Americans during WW2.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Good point. Goes to show that national conflict can have different layers with different power dynamics.

    • Julia M.

      Or to marginalize people based on different factors. In WW2, German Americans and Italian Americans were treated very differently than Japanese Americans.

      • Tony

        Yeah, the prevalent anti-Asian racism certainly didn’t help. I’ve also heard racism suggested as a reason that Japan got nuked while the other Axis powers didn’t; other potential factors include Japan’s reluctance to accept the American terms of surrender as well as the USA’s desire to flex on the USSR.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          For the record: Germany, the last Axis power in Europe, surrendered on May 8th, 1945. The first atomic detonation, the Trinity Test, wasn’t until July 16th, 1945.

          So the Allies couldn’t have nuked Germany even if they wanted to, the bombs simply weren’t ready.

          It’s certainly possible that racism played a part in the decision to bomb Japan, as well as the choice of targets, but we should also take into account that invading Japan would have bene an order of magnitude more difficult than invading Germany.

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