Six Tips for Challenging Bigotry With Your Work

Star Trek was not at all subtle in its condemning of racial hatred.

Storytelling has a long legacy of fighting for justice, and speculative fiction is no exception. Franchises like Star Trek and Discworld have challenged the way people think and demanded that society improve. When it feels like the path to justice has been lost, many storytellers fight back with their pens. If that includes you, arm yourself with these tips.

1. Don’t Forget the Positive

Star Trek made a difference by putting a black woman on the main cast. Star Trek made a difference by putting a black woman on the main cast.

It’s easy to look at the bad things that are happening and focus your energy on demonstrating the harm. But society needs more than cautionary tales; it also needs positive examples. Without them, people have trouble imagining what a better world looks like. If we can’t imagine it, we can’t make it come to life. That’s why in every piece you write, regardless of the focus, you should raise the bar for cultural progress.

Show the justice you want to create by including a diverse group of characters and breaking the stereotypes they’re burdened with. Illustrate a world where addiction is treated like any other disease and where choosing your gender identity is routine and respected. Don’t make a big deal of these improvements. If you treat them like they’re so normal they aren’t worth remarking on, your audience will start to see them as normal.

Only add injustice to your world if you have time to focus on it. For instance, if you include a caste system in your world, your story should tackle the issue of caste systems and include viewpoint characters from lower castes. You don’t need injustice and bigotry to make your world feel realistic. Your audience accepts dragons; they’ll accept equality too.

2. Clean Up Your Romances

"Never without my permission." - Fifth Element Like so many other protagonists, the hero of the Fifth Element violates consent.

I’m sorry to break this to you, but unless you’ve studied up on gender issues, your romances are probably gross. Society is so full of baggage relating to gender and sex that the average romance reinforces sexism, heteronormativity, and rape culture. If you want your work to have a positive impact, don’t undermine it by contributing to these problems.

We’ve written about issues with romance, so you can start your research there. Then you can do some mental exercises to better judge what’s appropriate. Many of the problematic elements in romances slip by because the writer knows the characters are meant for each other and everything will turn out well. But the characters don’t know that, and neither do people in real life. Change your mindset by imagining each character in turn as a hideous asshole the other person fears. Now when that character leaps on another for a sudden kiss, it won’t feel romantic anymore. You’ll discover that your characters need the chance to say “no,” and when they do say “no,” their love interest should take it at face value.

Pay attention to the power dynamic between your love birds. Is one of them using their greater power to control the other person? It doesn’t matter if it’s “for their own good,” that’s not for anyone to decide for another person.

3. Avoid Villianous Caricatures

Voldemort attacks with wand. Rowling does a great job showing how fascists come to power, but Voldemort is an obvious villain, not a charismatic leader like his real-world counterparts.

Bigotry lives in all of us. If you simplify it into the actions of a few Nazis, you’re contributing to the mass denial of the problem. Too many people won’t acknowledge they’re racist because they think that means using the “n” word. Others won’t believe someone was raped because they think rapists are all strangers that brutalize women in back alleys, not everyday people who take advantage of their dates. Villainous exaggerations convince people that these problems are obvious, and if they’re not obvious, they don’t exist.

Of course, white nationalists and other overt bigots or fascists exist in real life. With realistic and thoughtful context, they can be a productive part of stories. But anyone who doesn’t already despise these groups is beyond your help. If you want to challenge bigotry in these contexts, your focus should be on the people standing on the sidelines. It’s a good time to look at how bystanders are contributing to the problem with their silence. Send a message to those who inadvertently endorse evil, not to those who embrace it.

4. Choose a Single Lesson

In monstrous regiment, Terry Pratchett takes on sexism. In monstrous regiment, Terry Pratchett takes on sexism.

Social justice is a huge and diverse subject. It includes a large set of specialized terminology that represent new and complex concepts. The same concept may apply to one oppressed group but not another, and advocates frequently disagree on some topics. That’s why you can’t use a single story to teach all of social justice. You have to choose a smaller, more specific lesson. If you focus on that, you have a chance of getting your message across.

Specific lessons could be

  • What it feels like to have your culture appropriated.
  • That staying silent always supports the oppressor, never the oppressed.
  • The importance of stepping back and listening to people less privileged than you are.

Think about your lesson early, and create a plot for your story that focuses on it. Don’t try to stuff an important lesson into a story you’ve already planned out.

5. Parallel Real Problems With Analogies

Zootopia uses an analogy to discuss social justice. Zootopia uses an analogy to discuss social justice.

Social justice is personal for many people, and talking about its implications in the real world will hit people’s buttons. Once you rattle all the baggage your audience carries with them, it’ll be harder to get them to listen.

That’s where analogies can come in handy, and as a speculative fiction storyteller, the opportunities are endless. By using fantasy races instead of real-world groups, you can communicate what you need to while side-stepping the personal bias of your audience.

If it suits your work, you can still bring your analogy back home. You can make the parallel obvious like in Disney’s Zootopia, which uses species of mammals as stand-ins for races or other groups, or reveal it at the end like the classic comic Judgement Day, which shows the senselessness of racism as a struggle between blue and orange robots, before deliberating reminding readers of race at the end.

Analogies aren’t a match for every story, but they’re an incredibly useful tool.

6. Know Which Stories Aren’t Yours to Tell

The main character of Netflix's Daredevil is a blind man, but the portrayal is so off the mark that it does more harm than good. The main character of Netflix’s Daredevil is a blind man, but the portrayal is so off the mark that it does more harm than good.

Throughout history, the voices of many groups have been silenced. For privileged writers, it can be tempting to try to tell their unheard stories. But all too often, these stories are transformed to fit the desires of privileged people instead of benefiting the people they belong to. So before you tell a story that is unique to a group of underprivileged people, consider these questions.

  • Do you have the ability to hire people from the group to consult with you?
  • Can you commit to doing extensive research using quality source material?
  • Are you willing to sacrifice some of the popularity of your work to keep it authentic?
  • Would your story be competing against works that are written by members of the group themselves?

It takes a lot of investment to represent someone else’s experience accurately and respectfully. That’s why in most cases, it’s best to let people from silenced groups tell their own stories. That means leaving stories about transitioning to trans people and letting a person with a disability tell stories about the struggle for public accommodations. It’s great to make your main character a member of a Native American tribe, but unless you’re Native American yourself, I don’t recommend making your story about life on a reservation or about rediscovering tribal spirituality. Instead, consider creating a fictional world with a race that is distinctly different from real native groups but is in a similar situation.

The basis for any story promoting social justice is being informed yourself. Follow some blogs focused on social justice. Read the voices of other groups. It takes time, but all of your stories will be better for it.

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  1. Andrea

    Thanks for the article, all good reminders. I read a fair amount of YA fantasy (not a teenager myself though) and it’s worrying how many relationships I come across that border on the abusive, or are outright abusive, even by writers who consider themselves feminist. It’s not romantic for a female protagonist to have a relationship with someone who’s tried to kill her, or who’s tortured her, or put her in chains because she annoyed him, or stalked her, or tries to control her life. It’s worrying that these stories are read and loved by teenage girls. It’s also worrying that so many female authors think abusive behaviour is romantic.

    • Cay Reet

      That’s true … I can’t imagine why a female author should think that kind of thing is romantic. It’s certainly not someone you’d normally dream of.

      • Sam Beringer

        I think it’s a mixture of internalized misogyny and rape culture normalizing abusive behaviors (“boys will be boys,” “no means yes”). Remember that being a woman doesn’t automatically make it possible for someone to recognize sexism in all forms. And if something keeps getting repeated, people will start to believe it.

        • Cay Reet

          Well, there is a certain spice in kinky sex, but that usually happens between consenting partners and, honestly, is not exactly something for a YA novel.

          And you’ve put your finger exactly on the point. Because it’s used so often in those novels, people think it’s a normal or even romantic behaviour.

          • OMK

            this conversation is riddled with assumptions and generalized views.
            Why would it matter whether or not the author was female? I’m male and I don’t think rape is romantic nor do I know of anyone who thinks it IS. Except for one person who used to think it was excitingly kinky (not romantic) who even is female at that.
            I doubt very much any NOVEL will attribute much to any general idea. Other media are far too domineering in that way.
            As for teenagers, I feel it’s pretty normal for them to fantasize about such topics, if only to get a feel for where do stand on them.
            There’s also such things as Stockholm syndrome and a whole host of psychological effects that lead people to believe certain behaviour is appealing to them, without being thaught this in mass media.
            Your basic family structure can do this well enough.

    • Space Queen cherry puff

      You literally just described twilight ???

  2. Sam Beringer

    More writers need to read the last part. After reading the controversy behind Veronica Roth’s latest book, all I could think was “how can someone write this and not realize the implications?”

    On the bright side, it led me to learn more about scarification practices and to have a discussion about them in a book I want to write.

  3. Quinte

    This ties in with point 3 a little but I think its important to make you don’t break your force the story to achieve the message.
    From reading a lot of fantasy I’ve read several books that make events happen in unnatural ways to prove a point. In these it fails to challenge anything and can lead people with inverted impressions.

  4. Tyson Adams

    Definitely this one: Know Which Stories Aren’t Yours to Tell.

    At a writers’ festival here in Australia in 2016 the deliberately controversial Lionel Shriver advocated that cultural appropriation was cool and people were being too PC. Because it was all about her writing stories about whatever the hell she felt like writing. Quite a few authors agreed with her, but many walked out and wrote pieces contesting her views.

    There are plenty of authors who can’t check their egos and recognise that they might not be the person to write about something.

  5. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    Awesome and well placed insights, thanks for a great read!

  6. Fruit Flower

    6. Do “stories of real oppression” (for example, real racism) mean stories about oppressed people that are oppressed in real life, about that real oppression? If so:

    1. Is it good for privileged writer to write an oppressed fantasy race, which experience oppression similar to those experienced by real marginalized people?
    2. Is it good for privileged writer to write an oppressed fantasy race, whose oppressors are real-life oppressors (say, elves being oppressed by white people)?
    3. What do you think of, for example, a fictional society, in which there are shown some bigots (white/male supremacist, for example), but they have no power and they are ridiculed for their views (for example, a man in a matriarchal society who thinks that women shouldn’t be in positions of power and doesn’t like that they are, but he’s not taken seriously and his views are mocked), assuming the setting is not “persecution flip”, those who are not in power are treated fairly and the setting is more close to egalitarian?

  7. Geovonnie Welch

    Using Zootopia as a example is not a good idea for number 5 because the theme of racism is broken because predator and prey can’t be used as a allegory for racism its very logical for a herbivore to fear a carnivore

  8. August Sage

    It really shocks me when people are resistant to acknowledge their privilege. I ultimately believe that every writer needs to come from a place of humility when creating a story. It’s very easy for folks to ignore the things that hurt other people and just say “Hey it’s fantasy.” instead of digging deep within themselves to find the most healthy and engaging story. I just always tell myself to thing about future generations that could read my work. What kind of legacy do I wanna leave behind? That I was misogynistic or racist or telling a story that might harm another group entirely…

    Or do I want to leave behind a legacy as an author who helped people to see worlds beyond? Help them find some small shred of hope… That’s who I want to be. It means that I will have to do even more work to get things accurate, but I won’t settle until my work is the best it can be. Novels that make people question, and novels that bring people hope.

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