Hello! I’m a first timer to this site and have found so many helpful articles. I would like to know if I am portraying harmful ideas around disabled people in my story. This might be a bit convoluted but I hope I can explain in a well-enough manner.
I have two races that differ from one another in that one can use magic and the other cannot. To simplify things, this difference is due to the presence of a biological difference in one race and the lack thereof in the other. Both these races consist of humanoid beings and have the ability to reproduce with one another. The coupling of these races lead to a group that can now use magic, albeit in a slightly different way.
A problem, however, comes into play when this group with slightly different magic attempts to reproduce with the race that originally had magic. Mutations occur because the types of magic are different and offspring can be born with various disabilities or physical aspects such as deformed wings or impacted horns. Sometimes disabilities can be severe, leading to offspring dying soon after birth (but this is usually only in extreme cases) or it can be mild (not impacting the individual’s body too heavily).
The coupling between this group and magical race is not encouraged but not explicitly outlawed. Nevertheless, many of these offspring exist in the world and are looked down upon. Most of them are forced to live on the streets because they are seen as undesirable. They are somewhat important to my plot as I have a main character that is the result of this coupling and attempts to make a safe haven for people like him.
After sorting out my plot and some worldbuilding aspects I realized this particular concept of my story could be harmful, even though I did not intend it to be at all, and I would like to know whether my worries are justified or not.
Thank you for your time :)
Thanks for the question. Having houseless disabled characters organizing together to create a safe haven is a great thing to depict, and something that could meaningfully parallel some of the struggles of houseless communities in the real world. However you are right to be concerned about this underlying aspect of the worldbuilding. It contains a premise that has multiple harmful implications. While those implications weren’t intended, they can’t be separated from the premise and the only way to prevent them is to make some changes.
The core premise that is causing so many problems is that mixing between certain groups has negative consequences within this setting. This is significant. In the real world, there are racist ideologies that present “racial purity” as an ideal and racial mixing as a problem. These hateful ideologies include myths that bad things will happen if different groups mix. Having there be concrete consequences for certain racial groups having kids together, no matter how specific the scenario is, makes these racist myths true within the world of the story. This results in an in-world justification for “racial purity” being something beneficial. However unintended this implication is, it is harmful and structural changes are needed to prevent it.
Another aspect of this premise is that, in this setting, disability is the negative consequence that makes certain groups having kids together a social problem. This is stigmatizing. While it is good to have disabled characters organizing and supporting each other, portraying that can’t undo the messages sent by incorporating disability into the setting in this way. Even if opposing this negative idea of disability is a major part of the story, the way this premise is set up undermines those efforts.
Another important aspect of this premise is that it touches on some sensitive topics for the disability community. Neo-eugenics (or new eugenics, newgenics, or liberal eugenics), is currently happening. “Newgenics describes a broad range of medical, political and social practices related to ‘improving’ human kind on the one hand, and erasing disability and difference on the other.” This includes things like testing for and aborting disabled fetuses. It also includes systemic barriers that control the sexuality, reproduction, and child rearing of disabled people. In particular, it seems like social barriers and control over reproduction are issues that are being brought up by this premise.
While it isn’t wrong to bring up these complicated issues, the way they are brought up makes a big difference. To help explain, I’m going to pull out some points that will serve as context and a basis of comparison. The first point is that it is good for pregnant people to limit or avoid drinking alcohol as it can harm fetuses. One of the potential effects of that harm is disability. At the same time, it is completely fine for disabled people to have kids, regardless of whether or not those kids will inherit disabilities. The premise that certain races having kids together causes disability lands in an uncomfortable space between these two things, evoking the behavior-control aspects of neo-eugenics in a way that mixes badly with the harmful racial implications of the premise.
Now that we have discussed key ways that this premise causes problems, it is time to explore ways to fix the setting. The first step is figuring out what role this premise serves in the story so that we can find other ways of meeting those story needs. What does creating disability in this way do for this story? Why not have disability happen the way it does in the real world? Is it the opportunity to create a large group of houseless disabled people with the same intersecting racial identity? If so, what are other ways of doing that? (I suggest looking into the intersection between race, disability, and houselessness in the real world.) Is there something about magic that you are exploring? If so, what are other ways you can explore those aspects of magic? Is it the opportunity to create a magic-based disability? If so, what are other ways to create disability with magic that don’t involve race?
I suggest taking your answers to these questions and working out some possibilities. You can use the key points from the discussion above to identify possible solutions that create similar problems and ones that don’t.
One thing to keep in mind is that it is usually best to avoid adding a bunch of extra layers and twists onto the way real forms of oppression work. This is because adding extra things makes it harder to accurately represent the complicated dynamics of real oppression. Those times I have seen people add in extra things successfully, it is because the extra twist or layer was intentionally designed to highlight specific dynamics of real-world oppression. Generally speaking, this is something best done by people who have lived experience with those forms of oppression.
A related issue to consider as you think about options for changing this part of the setting, is that racial essentialism is deeply embedded in the way race is usually constructed in speculative fiction, especially in fantasy. While many people of color have been talking about this problem for a while, this conversation has finally gained more attention and momentum over the past year. Currently, the construction of race in Dungeons and Dragons is the focal point of this conversation, but much of it applies broadly. I strongly suggest reading more about this issue. As a place to start, I have a collection of links on this topic in my Decolonizing Games Resource List.
In addition, as you move forward, I suggest thinking about the use of the term “race” for populations that have distinct biological differences. In the real world, race is a social construct. There is a long history of racist arguments about the biology of race, but the truth is that race does not have a biological basis and it is important to represent this fact. From what I’ve seen, people are moving toward using species for situations where there are big biological differences between groups, and using lineages, ancestry, and cultures to represent differences that are smaller or more flexible.
Given how deeply both race and disability are intertwined in this topic, I strongly suggest hiring a disabled multiracial consultant, if at all possible. As a white person, I got a disabled multiracial consult to help me write this response. Based on her feedback, I made significant changes to how I was presenting things. A lot of people feel intimidated by hiring a consultant, but it is actually just getting someone who you can talk to, share your thoughts with, and get feedback from.
I hope that this gives you a good starting point for moving forward.
–Fay Onyx from Writing Alchemy, with consulting by Tobi Hill-Meyer
P.S. A quick note on language for disability: Terms like “deformed” are stigmatizing. “Atypical” is the most common neutral term that I’ve come across. To learn more about respectful language use, I suggest Ableism/Language by Lydia X. Z. Brown.
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Comments on Is It a Problem for Racial Mixing to Cause Disabilities?
Another factor to consider is that, at least within the same species, populations that marry outsiders tend to be HEALTHIER than those that don’t, as genetic isolation makes recessive disorders more likely to be expressed. For example, European royalty and nobility infamously had high rates of certain medical conditions, as do Amish and FLDS communities in the modern US.
Now, some interSPECIES hybrids, such as ligers, are prone to health problems. But I’ve mainly heard about such issues in pantherine hybrids. I know less about the health of, say, mules, and I think canine species tend to hybridize pretty well with each other (as did different species within the genus Homo, like H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis, back in the day).
There’s that, yes.
What is thwarting those race purists all the time is the fact that people who are of mixed ancestry usually are healthier and less often display hereditary diseases, simply because a damaged gene (carrying the disease) is often partnered with a healthy gene – and the healthy one usually wins out.
On the biological level, it works this way except for the rather high-fantasy cases in which deliberate mating and selection programs for people, or more natural inbreeding, are preconditions for the birth of innately special people (the Kwisatz Haderach in Dune is a typical example).
On a social level, on the other hand, the forces for and against intermarriage and endogamy vary, and the chance of hereditary diseases isn’t likely to be an important consideration.
Do the people at the top of the social order embrace strict restrictions of blood purity, or even incest if they are really few, because nobody is good enough for them, or accept to marry below their rank? There is a full spectrum of examples.
Are the people at the bottom of the social order so despised that “normal” citizens don’t want to marry them, causing castes to become races?
Are marriages about uniting and expanding tribes and families, or about high-quality babies? The former seems more likely, until very recent times: an only child is necessarily a once in a lifetime opportunity, one stillbirth out of eight children used to be a good result.
When two populations come into contact, are they interested in mixed marriages, or convinced that their group offers better options? It’s a matter of wealth and importance, not race.
In the OP’s case, lethally deformed hybrids are mildly implausible; for example, crossing creatures with different wing structures (e.g. bird-like and bat-like) should result in nonfunctional wings (e.g. a featherless and short-fingered limb), not something lethal. But even if there were dangerously conflicting magical genes, why should genetically incompatible species attempt to breed without a very good reason? And why would hybrids, presumably born accidentally or because someone really fell in love, be especially discriminated compared to other disabled people? Why shouldn’t a civilization with significantly different intelligent species and hereditary magical aptitude be used to hybrids and weird mutants as an uncommon but normal occurrence, instead of oppressing them?
I suppose the reasoning is that the hybrid main character needs to be rare (so hybrids are unusual and they typically die young) and to have someone to care about (so hybrids are oppressed freaks).
But important elements of the same situation can be set up with abnormal magic only: if someone inherits both type A magic and type B magic (not necessarily from parents of different species) they can usually have one type of magic or none, with the rare people with A+B magic utypically fading into madness or burning out in magical accidents (“Sourcery” by Terry Pratchett offers a good example). Then a novel’s protagonist can manage to use abnormal magic better than anyone else before and do wonderful things with it, without disability, without racism, without unjustified oppression.
I’d be curious to know if there are any successful stories about intelligent inter-species hybrids without the negative connection to racism and eugenics – or is that unavoidable? All I can think of are Star Trek examples, such as Spock, Worf’s upbringing by humans, and his son, Alexander. Are these characters positive or negative representations?
I think Star Trek is good overall in that hybrids are treated as just… normal. People like Spock and B’Lanna Torres can face prejudice or feel caught between two different cultures, but there’s nothing in Star Trek indicating that they are, in THEMSELVES, either superior or inferior to non-mixed people. They’re regular people like everyone else.
I think flipping a problematic trope on its head can often feel problematic too. I remember a weird-ass internet conversation I once had with a guy who insisted, first that mixed breed dogs (because the discussion was initially about dogs) are basically super dogs, superior in all ways to purebred dogs, and I was like woa. Sure, pure-bred dogs who suffer from too little genetic diversity (and how much of a problem this is vary WILDLY, both between different breeds, and between dogs from breeders who consciously in-breed – which I think is still a thing in the US, for instance – and dogs from breeders who consciously avoid this) will give healthier offspring if bred to a different breed. But still, a racing greyhound is faster than a mix between a racing greyhound and something else, a German Shephard dog from policedog lines is likely to be more fearless than the offspring of this dog and some randomly chosen dog, etc.
But this guy was convinced that mixed breed dogs are superior in every way just because they’re mixed, AND then he suddenly moved on to say the same thing about HUMANS. Obama became president, according to this guy, because his mixed ancestry made him some kind of übermench. Actually, all amazing athletes that look black are in reality mixed. And all big CEO’s and tech gurus – they may look white, but if you look into their ancenstry, they’re all mixed.
And this is just… IDK… UNCOMFORTABLE and PROBLEMATIC too, even if what this guy preached was the opposite to standard purity-obsessed racial thought.
Furthermore, the latest initiative from the Swedish Democrats, a scarily big Swedish political party that were proud and open nazis as late as the nineteen nineties and still hardly hide their nazism, is that we should make it illegal to marry your first cousin (currently, Sweden have very few restrictions on marrying within the family). The explicit reason they give as to why this would be important legislation, is that muslims marry their cousins all the time, and for that reason muslims are all inbred and extra horrible.
So, like… just portray mixed people as normal. Neither better nor worse than people of “pure” ancestry.
Avoiding interbreeding helps with health – with humans as well as with animals (dogs, cats, horses, every other creature humans have ever bred). It doesn’t make the being in question superior in other aspects.
Judical mixing of pure breeds with animals of the same species but a different breed can help keeping a bloodline healthy, although it will cost your bloodline its pure-bred status among breeders. Work dogs who are not meant to be evaluated for their bloodline but for their ability, are sometimes interbred with other breeds to keep them healthy, because that is more important for them than having a ‘pure’ bloodline.
Yes, I know all this. I’ve even published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal arguing for more planned mixing in dog breeding.
I’m just saying that talk of how these people are inbred and terrible but those other people have genetic diversity so they’re STRONGER and SUPERIOR can also go pretty… weird. And be used for problematic arguments (like my example with the Swedish Democrats and their talk of inbred muslims).
Hey, Jeppson! It’s very cool that you’ve published a peer-reviewed article about dog breed mixing. Are you of the Functional Dog Collaborative? It’s a great organization, and I’d recommend it, if not!
I’m not, I might look it up.
The paper I mentioned was published back in 2014, so a while back. I was actually invited to the Swedish Kennel Club’s breeding council to talk about it afterwards, and they were really split fifty-fifty between thinking I was absolutely right and thinking I was a moron who didn’t understand anything. So that was an interesting experience… but now I mostly write about psychiatry issues.
(Clarification: I’m a philosopher, mostly doing ethics. I know quite a lot about dog breeding from knowing a bunch of breeders, and did the above-mentioned work with some collaboration from empirical scientists at the Swedish University of Agriculture. I’m also a madperson with a long experience of psychiatry from the inside, so to speak, and now read up on the research side of things and engage with psychiatrists. Just in case you wondered how the same scholar could go from dog breeding to psychiatry… ;-) )
Real name Sofia Jeppsson, btw, Umeå University. The two “dog papers” I’ve published are “purebred dogs and canine wellbeing” and “flourishing dogs: The case for an individualized conception of welfare and its implication” respectively, both in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. “Purebred dogs…” is the one I referred to above.
Hi Tony, it also may be relevant to note that, in the real world, “species” isn’t a hard-and-fast biological term, either. All of biology seems to be made up of an evolutionary spectrum, with categories applied post-hoc by humans/scientists for convenience.
There are a dozen different definitions of a species, based on morphology, interbreeding success, home range, behavior, etc. Each definition may be useful in certain contexts, are completely violated in others.
I’m no expert, and I defer to your opinion, but I’ve worried that using species as a biological construct to legitimize separation of intelligent groups could also become problematic, since it has some of the same issues as the word “race” but with seemingly more biological weight. I’ve enjoyed descriptions of elves and humans, though, that are so behaviorally different that they would only rarely be interested in interacting. That seems a more legitimate a way to meaningfully group people in a fantasy story than, say, the ability to successfully interbreed.
frankly, the obsession fantasy seems to have with separating intelligent groups strikes me as problematic from the start, regardless of what ‘terminology’ is used.
You can call ‘Elves’ and ‘Humans’ “different kindreds” or ‘peoples’ and if they can’t/won’t interact / can’t understand each other when they do, that’s still basically promoting the idea that ‘different kindreds’/different ‘peoples’ can’t/won’t/shouldn’t mix.
why not have the Elves and Humans figure out how to communicate effectively, and interact despite their differences??
So I’m not an expert on Interspecies breeding, but given the large amount of humans fictionally raised by animals, how would present the social construct with equally conscious friends/partners?
The book Superior by Angela Saini is a great resource on what eugenic beliefs actually were and how they continue to negatively impact the lives of racialized and disabled people today. Its an accessible and easy read and I’d really recommend checking it out if you want a more of an indepth look at the ways in which the trope of ‘inter-group breeding leading to degeneration’ (its not a real thing biologically when it comes to breeding two varieties of a species) was created and how it persists in modern society and continues to cause tanglible harm.
In terms of the concept, it seems like having people whose magic works in a slightly different way from the norm would be realistic without having to include the racial mixing thing. You’d want to consider the disability elements of the concept regardless, but bringing in this race mixing comes with more real world baggage than a writer might be comfortable with grappling with.
A tangent, Fay, but what’s your take on #5 from here?: https://mythcreants.com/blog/five-good-ideas-science-fiction-teaches-us-to-fear/
That article was written by Oren five years ago. I’m guessing his opinions are more nuanced now.
I think that issues around genetic modification of humans should be separated out as a specific topic that needs more nuance in their discussion and should include a discussion of eugenics.
It’s a bit off topic, but I’m grateful for the discussion of alternatives to “race”, because I think this time it finally gave me inspiration on how to deal with this. :)
Plus, the links were to some interesting works.
So glad it helped and inspired you!
I think I know an example of this, gravely unfortunate in implications.
Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre; a light skin woman of Jamaican Creole descent, and three generations of mental instability. Yikes.
That character sounds like she might have some problematic implications, but does the book make it seem like her mental health issues are the result of her mixed race status?
There’s definitely problematic implications here, but from what I’ve read, “creole” didn’t mean mixed race back when the book was written. (Also, Bertha’s family are rich plantation owners in Jamaica, and if I remember correctly her brother – full brother, not a half sibling – is even described as blond. The fact that Bertha is such a rich heiress is the reason Mr Rochester’s father pushes for a marriage between the two.)
People back in the day did find it important to distinguish people of European descent who had lived in the colonies for generations from those who were more recent arrivals, thus the word “creole” for the former. I think this had to do with ideas of how the climate in itself could have a bad effect on you… and that IN TURN ties on to racist ideas… Also, the fact that alcoholism and mental illness is so explicitly something you inherit from your parents in the novel is, I think, really problematic itself (even though modern people make the same mistake, and often grossly misrepresent how much mental illnesses depend on genetics.)
But don’t think Charlotte Brontë intended for this wealthy plantation-owning family to be a mixed race one.
I think a big issue with this premise is that in addition to its problematic implications about race and disability, and I don’t mean this as an insult, it doesn’t really make sense, which makes it harder to justify. It sounds like the negative effects of hybridisation are pretty random – I can’t imagine why that would be from a biological perspective. It would be more logical if the resulting abnormalities followed a predictable pattern, making clear that they are not the result of an inherent arbitrary incompatibility, but rather the obvious result of conflicting adaptations being combined. As an example, if I had two related species, one of which had adapted to fly and the other to dwell on land protected by thick armoured hide, it can be guessed that their offspring would be maladapted, both too heavy to fly and with bones too fragile for their armour to be effective. In such an instance, it’s clear that the resulting issues are the natural result of conflicting physical traits, rather than feeling like they’re a punishment for the act of interbreeding. I don’t insist that all speculative fiction be scientifically accurate of course, and some of the best ideas come from the introduction of made-up physical and natural laws, but I think any work benefits from having a consistent internal logic.
Additionally, I would wonder why a large number of these hybrids exists. If it is well-known that they are prone to severe, disabling, even fatal mutations, that there is no chance of them being altogether un-mutated, and that they will be shunned and ostracised by society as a whole, why do the two groups continue to reproduce frequently enough for this to be a widespread issue? Is there an absence of effective birth control? A lack of education about reproductive and genetic health? What has prevented these individuals from building a sense of community and distinct identity? If they have magical ability, albeit of a different kind, why would they not at least occupy a higher social standing than the non-magical group?
The overarching dynamic is also a bit odd – it doesn’t sound like either the magical or non-magical group is oppressed, even though the latter would be objectively inferior in ability, so it seems strange that the offspring of the two would be oppressed for a difference in ability level and for the simple fact of being mixed-race.
I don’t know your concept like you do, you probably have answers to many of these questions, but the point is that there are a lot of things to consider and many complicated issues at play. Without careful consideration, it’s easy to send the wrong message or to make things confusing and illogical. I definitely think the spirit of the idea is salvageable, but it needs retooling and further thought.
I used to work on human genetics and the diagnosis of rare inherited diseases. Finally the ball’s in my court for writing :).
It feels like a lot of the problem here is the fact that race is a social construct, whereas in the fantasy genre, “race” actually means “species”.
For example, humans and elves are not usually two groups of humans that someone said were different because “Pointy ears are a very important trait”. I would really recommend you read Adam Rutherford’s great popular-science book How To Argue With a Racist. It’s a great read, and is basically “an intro to human genetic diversity for people who don’t have a biology degree”. It would help you in your aim of “not attracting bad ideas”.
If you want this idea in your world, I’d say the big tip is don’t use the word “race”. Make it clear that these two humanoids are as different as chimps and orangutangs are. It sounds to me like that’s your idea anyway.
If you’re talking about different species, say that, and say it clearly. Maybe talk about how they have characteristics that just don’t exist within the human range. Maybe one species has four toes, and one has vertical pupils. Don’t let one look like “baseline human” or “normal”.
Interbreeding two related species is usually a bad idea. For example, you can cross a horse and a donkey, and you get a mule or hinnie. But the offspring can’t breed. This is because they have an odd number of chromosomes. Chromosomes are the structures in your cells that wrap up and store your DNA. You need to have them in pairs in order to pass half of them on to your offspring.
Mules are unusual, because very often, the fact that the offspring has extra chromosomes causes harm, as the extra chromosomes are not supposed to be there. For example, in humans, Down’s Syndrome is caused by an extra chromosome.
In a fantasy world without access to microscopes, nobody’s going to know all this. But they would rapidly come to realise if people who had one parent of each species commonly suffered from sterility and inherited disorders. You might even end up with a world where genetic counselling developed far ahead of its time compared to our own.
Genetic counselling is a health service that’s kind of a counter-argument to eugenics, Rather than paternalistically telling people what they should do with their reproductive choices, it gives them the information on risk, and helps them interpret it. So, should you have kids if they have a 50% chance of a heart disorder, or should you adopt, for example? You might end up with a society where cross species pairings are romantically popular, but if they want children they seek out a donor (or a second relationship with a surrogate mother/”sperm donor”, depending on tech level). Because they want kids, but they know doing so with their partner would be a bad risk, and they typically avoid it.
Link to some public articles by Wellcome, a UK medical charity that was a major part of the Human Genome Project.
Great article, Fay and Tobi!
Thanks so much!
The problem here is the very concept of ‘race’. In real life, mixing species can actually bring problems. Like the offspring of a horse and a donkey will be sterile. But the mix of human races is not a problem because ‘races’ don’t exist. They are the imaginary product of 19th century pseudo science. This person should first of all decide, first of all, if these characters belong to the same species or not.
I’m currently writing a novel where, to subvert the cliche of “MC is half elf/Ancient/vampire/Mary Sue species and gains magic,” my protagonist is terminally ill because of his heritage. Humans (with blood) and Aurians (with gold instead of blood) can intermarry, but the child is a Pyrite. Pyrites almost never live beyond the age of 25 because the different blood types within fight themselves. It might be a problem like Saf’s story, but to sort of counteract it there are many non-Aurian species that humans can intermarry with, with no issues, and one major sympathetic character is an Aurian who is married to a human (she uses contraception and adopts a human baby).