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On Allegorical Racism In Speculative Fiction

This article makes some good points about the failures of science fiction in using allegory to address bigotry and oppression*. But I think there's a bigger problem with addressing oppression through allegory: it just doesn't work. However much people buy your message about the wrongness of discriminating against a made-up group, they are unlikely to extend that consideration to actual oppressed groups.

After all, people are very reluctant to take lessons from the real oppression that they actually experience. We have no shortage of sexist black people, racist gays, transphobic disabled people, etc. If allegory between different kinds of oppression worked so well, nobody would need to be reminded to think intersectionally.

Moreover, taking a lesson in non-bigotry from a made-up situation requires you to recognize that you are acting in a bigoted way in real life. We're all very invested in believing that we're not bigots. Someone can be waving a Confederate flag and ranting about how Hitler was misunderstood, and they will tell you with a straight face that they don't have a racist bone in their body**. What people need is not help in recognizing that bigotry is bad, it's help in recognizing that what they're doing is bigotry.

I get the impulse to address oppression allegorically. Talking directly about real oppressed groups is hard, especially if you're not a member of the group in question. The people you're targeting with your message aren't going to be happy if you don't sugar coat things with allegory. And the people you're trying to help may not be happy -- they may find your portrayal of them is inaccurate and trades in stereotypes. It's easier to write about Zygons than Muslims because there are no real Zygons to complain that you're misrepresenting them. But if the allegorical oppression doesn't lead people to see real oppression differently, then your allegory is wasted.

I think Get Out makes a good counterexample here. While the precise mechanism of the oppression (sci-fi brain-swapping technology) was made up, it tied directly into real forms of oppression against the same group. The brain-swapping grew out of, and built directly on, examples of discrimination and racial micro-aggressions that every white person in the audience has done, or at least seen their white friends and family do. (I know I, as a white person, was kind of relieved when the family started just sawing heads open instead of telling Chris how they'd vote for Obama a third time.) The film forces you to empathize with a black person -- a member of a real-life oppressed group -- the entire time. White viewers aren't given an "out" in the form of a white character who ultimately does something good, so that we can think "oh, I would be like that person." It's uncomfortable, but ultimately more successful than a movie about stealing the bodies of aliens or elves would be.

*At least mainstream science fiction, which is largely written by people who have not themselves been victims of the kind of oppression they're allegorizing.

**As Andrew Ti once said, I feel bad for all these non-racist skeletons trapped in racists' bodies.


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