So since last week’s debacle, a lot of people have asked me whether it’s even possible to write a discrimination reversal that isn’t chock full o’ bigotry. Not really sure why they’re asking me; it’s not like I’m some kind of expert on the matter. But they are, so what the hell, I’ll share what I think.
I think a workable discrimiflip is possible. Hell, I may have done one, depending on how you look at it — in the Dreamblood books, Gujaareh and Kisua are societies whose darkest-skinned denizens hold the greatest power and prestige, while people who are more visibly multiracial or white are viewed with varying degrees of tolerance (which is not the same thing as acceptance, note). But while that’s a flip from the society in which I was raised, and certainly a flip on what’s usually seen in English-language epic fantasy, it probably doesn’t count as a true flip since the book’s societies were modeled on places in our world where, probably, that’s how it really is/was. I’ll leave that for the reviewers to decide.
Among other writers’ work, I’ve read and heard of a few discrimination reversals that succeeded. Many people have recommended to me Steven Barnes’ Lions’ Blood and Zulu Heart, as well as Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses… but I haven’t read these books yet, so I can’t assess for myself how well they work. I’ve read a number of feminist reversals, including Sherri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country and more recently Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula-winning novellette “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window”; the former is another problematic example that worked in one way (gender) and failed mightily in others (eugenics, race, homophobia), while the latter was probably the most successful reversal I’ve so far read. But I’ve read other discrimination reversals that were not just unsuccessful, but whopping insults to vast swaths of humanity — to the degree that I kind of have to agree with this slush reader: discrimiflips are a dime a dozen, but rare is the one that actually succeeds. In fact, the flips that get held up as examples for the rest of us to follow are the most colossal failures I’ve seen — Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold, for example. I can’t tell you how pissed I was when several people recommended that one to me as an example of SFF that successfully tackles the issue of racism. (Here’s a clue, if you haven’t read it: it’s not.)*
Which brings up a question people haven’t asked me: should discrimination reversals be written? The easy answer is yes, because I believe nothing can be off-limits if art is to serve its purpose. Art can be a way to say things that society won’t hear in any other context; a way to shift the status quo, fight the power, etc. But here’s the thing: discrimination reversals are nothing new. This is an election year in the US; I’ve heard lots of discrimiflip language and ideas being tossed around lately, some of it in “dogwhistle” code and some of it dangerously overt. Historically, we see these kinds of narratives appear wherever a dominant group starts to fear the loss of its dominance, especially if the perceived threat comes from whichever group(s) they’ve been treating most like crap. In this context, reversals usually stand as none-too-subtle messages of warning from dominant-group members to other members of their own group: do everything you can to keep oppressing these people, or we’ll be the ones getting screwed next.
So here’s the hard answer to the question of whether discrimiflips should ever be written: when a discrimination reversal serves to reinforce rather than fight oppression, it shouldn’t be done. That’s when the reversal isn’t daring or challenging or unique; that’s when it becomes just another tool of white supremacy (or homophobia, or Christian dominionism, or whatever), harming real people in the real world. I’ve had to struggle for acceptance as an SFF writer for my entire professional life, as have most other writers of color within this genre — and one reason for that struggle is that narratives in which people like me are depicted as drugged-out rapist cannibals are a much-lauded part of SFF’s literary canon. But I’ve gotten off easy; fear of a brown planet has been used to justify campaigns of terror and murder all over the world. Given all this it’s hard for me to see that kind of discrimination reversal as merely artistic expression. It’s propaganda. It’s a weapon. It kills.
So. Let’s go back to how it can be done, assuming the goal is to not cause harm in the real world. I tried to think about the flips I’ve read that have worked, or the workable parts of problematic flips, and I came up with a few suggestions for a hypothetical how-to guide:
- First check your own privilege. If you’re a member of a privileged group, and you’re writing a fictional reversal in which your group ends up oppressed by people who are marginalized in real life, ask yourself some serious questions. Like: Am I really doing anything different from what the worst fearmongers in my own group usually do? Why does this possible world seem so frightening to me? and Am I depicting all the people in this society in a realistic way? Or are any of them stereotypes — even “good” ones? And, of course, Should I write this?
- Decide who your real villain is. Here’s the biggest problem with Victoria Foyt’s “Save the Pearls” mess: it purports to be anti-racist, but in the actual book it’s pretty clear the enemy is not racism, but people of color. That’s the dys in her topia: black people in charge. None of the characters in this story are presented in a well-rounded or nuanced fashion, but Foyt fleshes them out with a textbook’s worth of racial stereotypes: Fragile Flower of White Womanhood, Mandingo, Jezebel, Kung Fu Master, Noble Savage, White People Are Smart/Brown People Are Stupid, you name it, Foyt’s got it. But what if Foyt had made all of her characters complex? People, instead of caricatures. Say she’d written them all as good people in some ways, ignoble in others, all with goals that might be in conflict, all just trying to get by in a system that depends upon the exploitation of some for the comfort of others. Then it might have been clear that the racist system — not any particular race — was the dystopian element of the story.
- Decenter it. So you want to write a world that’s all about (say) the gay, with straight people struggling on the margins. But consider one of the most insidious, yet powerful, ways in which our society centers the experiences of one group and marginalizes others: most stories are told from the PoV of the powerful. So! Increase your readers’ sense of disjunct! Center your narrative on a lesbian — since in our world, lesbians rarely get to stand in the spotlight. And since she’s one of the people in power, be sure to have her display all the little privileges that (say) straight men show, in our world. Because if you flip your worldbuilding but then just center your narrative on yet another straight person, you haven’t really done anything different from what your readers see every day.
- Decenter the flip itself. Think about our society. What’s the driving impetus for our way of life? Is everything we do intended solely to oppress people of color, marginalize the disabled, villify the poor, etc.? All those things are an effect of the way we live — and possibly an unavoidable effect, as long as our society remains constructed the way it is — but even on my most cynical days I don’t think the Founding Fathers built the US for the sole purpose of keeping the queer disabled black woman down. Likewise, no fictional society should exist for the sole purpose of tormenting and enslaving its most downtrodden. Most real-world societies are fixated on trying to one-up their neighbors, make the majority of their people happy, etc. Your society should be too.
- Use subtlety. Everyone recognizes oppression in forms as blatant as slavery, or a caste system a la Jim Crow or apartheid. But blatant stuff is only a small part of how oppression really works — and writing a flip in which oppression takes only overt forms will automatically peg you as somebody who doesn’t understand the complexities of discrimination and privilege. If you don’t get this, you shouldn’t be writing a discrimination reversal.
OK, that’s all I can come up with. What other suggestions would you have for someone who wants to write a discrimination reversal that doesn’t fail? What are your thoughts on whether it can be, or should be, done?
* And I don’t recommend reading it. If you do attempt it, trigger warning for some of the most nausea- and rage-inducing racism I’ve seen in this whole genre. It so offended me that I will never touch Heinlein again even if my life depends on it, and I now give the big hairy side-eye to anyone who tries to hold up Heinlein as proof of SFF’s progressivism. (The salient bit starts on p. 55 and rambles on for quite awhile.) And if anyone in the comments suggests that I read Heinlein’s Sixth Column, I will banhammer you into another dimension where people with good sense and literary taste RULE THE WORLD.