Thoughtful Thursday: Can speculative fiction help fight racism?

Leave your name in the comments if you’d like a copy of one of these books. We’ll choose at least 30 commenters with US addresses.
Winners will choose one of these:
The New Jim Crow (Kindle, paperback, or Audible)
How to Be an Antiracist (Kindle or Audible)
The Underground Railroad (Kindle, paperback, or Audible).

Recently I’ve been deluged with suggestions for books to read about race and racism. Most are non-fiction works (Stamped from the Beginning, How to Be an Antiracist, The New Jim Crow, White Fragility, Between the World and Me) some are fiction (The Underground Railroad, Invisible Man, The Nickel Boys, Washington Black), and there’s even poetry (Citizen: An American Lyric). I appreciate the lists. We should all be better informed. Of history. Of facts. Of the interior lives of black people.

But what about fantasy and science fiction? Can stories about sentient spaceships, or hobbits, or aliens with no ears bring anything to the table? I’m not talking about books that directly address racism, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred. I ask in a more general sense. What can we say about our genre’s ability to offer something to this conversation?

Perhaps most obviously is speculative fiction’s presentation of the Other. It can be problematic yes, via racialization of traits (e.g., dwarves are greedy, elves are mystical) or pigeonholing as villains (e.g., orcs, barbarians). But can it also be beneficial? Can reading about fictional characters unlike ourselves — whether they be Black or female or trans or aged — make us more aware of their daily lives, their desires, obstacles, fears, anger, etc? Can it open our eyes to the entire panoply of their existence, making it harder for us to racialize or genderize what are profoundly individual behaviors or attitudes?

Does presenting the Other in a society removed from our own by dint of the imaginary process — setting us in a far future, or a world where trees can talk — allow for a cognitive distance that lets us more easily empathize with them? Does the sheer variety and type of Otherness (e.g., aliens beyond count, animals, robots, AIs, plants, even a toothpick), the ways in which we follow (via 3rd person POV) or inhabit the minds (via first-person POV) of different cultures and species and genders ease our own paths toward empathy in our own world? Indeed, some research suggests that reading fiction may make us more empathic.

And if we buy into the idea that reading speculative fiction can affect individual attitudes and prejudices, can we then broaden that to envision an entirely different society, one without racism? That may seem unimaginable in our current situation, but isn’t speculative fiction’s raison d’être to lead us down heretofore unimagined paths to unimagined worlds? Worlds with FTL and dragons. Can reading in a genre that presents societal change as a constant, and continually asks us to rethink entire worlds and societies (e.g., THE HUNGER GAMES), help us reimagine and change our own?

What do you think? Can speculative fiction be a vehicle for greater personal empathy and, even, for societal change? How has your personal reading experience informed your views on these questions? Let us know your thoughts and, if you’re willing, give us some examples.

And as part of our own contribution to this important conversation, we’ve chipped in to give away a book to 30 randomly chosen commentators with US addresses. You don’t have to comment with anything profound; if you prefer, you can just say that you want to read one of these books. Winners will choose one of these: The New Jim Crow (Kindle, paperback, or Audible), How to Be an Antiracist (Kindle or Audible), or The Underground Railroad (Kindle, paperback, or Audible).

(If entering the contest, check the little box so you’ll get the notification about the winners. Winners are announced in the comments. However, you’ll get other people’s replies, too, so if you don’t want that, don’t check the box, but remember to come back in several day to see if you won.)

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. As a reader/writer/reviewer/critic of speculative fiction, it amazes me how many people forget that there are several books in the genre that’s based on themes of racism.

    To make it easier, here some authors whose books we’ve all read and/or have heard of:

    -Octavia Butler
    -Toni Morrison
    -N.K. Jemisin
    -Tochi Onyebuchi
    -Rivers Solomon
    -Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
    -Kai Ashante Wilson
    -Nnedi Okorafor
    -Jesmyn Ward
    -Ta-Nehisi Coates
    **And, several others**

    To answer the question, books and reading can help with understanding and combating racism and other types of prejudice, hate and bias. The issue comes down to whether or not the books are read. People are buying the movies (and the movies/documentaries), which helps support the authors and the publishers. However, it means nothing if those books remain unread.

    • If anyone is interested, then you can listen to this podcast episode I was a guest on for “Sisters of Sci-Fi.” It was just released today and I discuss the theme of race and oppression in science fiction and some titles of books to read.

      • Joe Mecua /

        This books are speculative fiction? Educate me. I thought speculative fiction is 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games.

        • Noneofyourbusiness /

          All science fiction and fantasy fall under the umbrella of speculative fiction, not just fiction about possible futures. Every scifi or fantasy book has a “what if the world was like this?” at the heart of it.

        • Carl /

          “Speculative fiction” is often used as a way to get fantasy and science fiction and its hybrids under the rubric “sf”.

  2. Kelly Lasiter /

    I think that a lot of my reading over the years has helped me put myself in other people’s shoes, SFF and other genres, just by putting me in the head of characters who were unlike me on the surface but essentially wanted the same things out of life–while also dealing with obstacles that didn’t come up in my life because of my skin color.

    I know you asked about books that *aren’t* specifically about racism, but when I think about SFF books that were really influential in this regard, one of the first ones that comes to mind is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The first time I read it I was 19 or 20, I think, and it brought to life a lot of things that had been more “textbook knowledge” to me before that. While also being a compelling ghost story. (Or possibly not a ghost story. There’s a theory that the ghost is a flesh-and-blood woman and not a ghost at all, and it’s fascinating. But I digress.)

  3. Zina Vassar /

    Hi, loved the article and the fact that you’re giving away material to help bring greater understanding. I’ll be doing research on the Underground Railroad and would love a printed copy.

    My story will be part two of a story about a mermaid, which is based on an African religion.

    Also, FYI: There’s a group called Harriett’s Apothecary. It was founded by an African woman who was contacted by Harriett Tubman’s ghost. Harriett asked her to start an organization using alternative medicine to help people to heal. In addition, they help other agencies if the agency helps the LGBTQ culture. I find this to be an interesting story. The stuff fantasy is made of, based on fact. =)

  4. SandyG /

    What comes to mind is the Harry Potter books. The “pure blood” wizard familys who hate mud bloods and muggles are racist.

    • E. J. Jones /

      I agree with that statement about the Harry Potter books. It’s a complicated issue though because the older I get, the more difficult it becomes for me to ignore the lack of diversity in the books. There’s a lot you could say about this, and plenty of people have, but examples include the stereotyping of characters such as Cho Chang and Fleur Delacour (as a native English speaker who has lived in a Spanish-speaking country, I am troubled by how many characters ridicule Fleur Delacour for her accent; I don’t see them trying to speak French!). And, of course, Rowling’s been in the news lately due to her less-than-inclusive feelings about the LGBT+ community. It’s a mixed bag, especially since the series’ reputation is partly grounded in its message of the importance of equality for all, regardless of birth.

      I’m sorry this turned out to be a novel, but I think what I believe is this: it’s still okay to love the Harry Potter books, but we should read books written from other perspectives, too. SFF by authors of color, queer authors, authors from other countries. I do think SFF can open minds and expose people to new ideas, but if we only read books written by people similar to us, that won’t happen.

  5. Noneofyourbusiness /

    I think speculative fiction can definitely help shed on a light on real-world social issues. But I think the ‘what if this thing that happens to black people in real life happened to white people instead’ plot is usually something to avoid, because it takes real-life trauma and oppression away from the people it actually affects, and encourages white people to only empathize if white people are involved.

  6. Katherine Sas /

    I’ve been meaning to read The Underground Railroad forever – would love a copy!

  7. wayne /

    I don’t think it’s specific to science fiction necessarily, but reading fiction or even narrative non-fiction in general is a great way to step outside your own perspective and experience, albeit to a limited extent, the inner narrative of another person. This is obviously especially helpful for introducing privileged groups to the experience of unprivileged groups.

    Where I think fiction/fantasy/scifi might have some marginal benefit over non-fiction narrative or fiction set in the real world dealing with real issues of race is that some people with the privilege to do so might be starting from a mindset that is initially closed off to understanding or approaching real world modern and historical systemic oppression/injustice. Fiction based on imagined worlds provides a way to explore these issues and begin to understand how structures of injustice work without simultaneously being confronted by one’s participation in or benefit from those kinds of structures in the real world.

    I know some people will probably object to this with an nice catchphrase like “white fragility!” and point out that it’s better to understand real systems of injustice than imagined and better yet to confront one’s own participation/benefits, and I agree. I’m just saying, some people aren’t psychologically prepared by their upbringing for taking all of that on at once, especially people who grow up in extremely white, conservative, and often explicitly racist regions. (I say this as someone who grew up exposed to the nastiest usages of racial epithets you can imagine and whose parent explicitly told me at a young age that white people should make babies with other races because of some kind of preference she had for an absurd racial purity that basically boils down to eugenics).

    Anyway, if I happen to be chosen to receive a book I’d like How To Be Antiracist, which is on my reading list anyway.

  8. Lady Morar /

    The “Animorphs” series of books by K.A. Applegate are very good for encouraging empathy in young readers, because they not only feature a rotating first-person POV cast of diverse teenage characters who constantly face ethical dilemmas, but also the protagonists take on various animal forms and have to adapt to the perspectives, senses and instincts of those creatures, and there are several different alien species in the series, who are all truly realistically alien physiologically as well as psychologically. Can’t recommend the series enough.

    • Kelly Lasiter /

      I’ve heard such good things about those books! They landed *right* during my I’m Too Cool/Old for YA phase, so I missed them when they were new–now that I’m much older chronologically (but never too old for YA) I should go back and give them a read.

      • Lady Morar /

        You really should!

        None of the alien species look anything remotely like human beings. I haven’t found that consistent a degree of realism in too many other places.

  9. Carl /

    As a basically-lifelong Star Trek fan [was watching it regularly in elementary school], I think IDIC and Trek’s example of different races and species working together–and being assumed to be able to work together in a civilized fashion–was a key factor in my moral development. I grew up assuming that sensible people liked diversity and found its advantages obvious. As an historian now I wish that was so obvious to all, but the values are still central for me.
    And I’m proud there are 2 former Underground Railroad houses on my street. :)

  10. The Distinguished Professor /

    Nora (N.K.) Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” trilogy does an incomparable job of presenting a horrifyingly real-feeling system of prejudice and oppression that’s both chilling and angering. Both brilliant and painful to read. And although the main conflict (systemic hatred and exploitation of people with earthquake-related powers, called orogenes) isn’t strictly ethnic, ethnicity is touched on, too, as there are several ethnic groups and combinations thereof on the continent (ironically named “the Stillness”) and the current empire is/was dominated by one of them. Also, in this survival-oriented setting that experiences frequent earthquakes, selective breeding is normalized to varying degrees by different settlements (“comms”).

  11. John Smith /

    I don’t know if reading can make people more understanding of racial issues, although I did think that “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin was very interesting when I read it in seventh grade years ago.

    I suspect that the best thing for racial tolerance and understanding (besides not being, a-hem, an absolutely bigoted monster like some well-known United States figures in positions of power) is to have mixed families and mixed schools and not to talk about race like it’s “a thing.” Skin color and ethnic differences would just be part of a huge continuum of different, individual differences in each person.

    A lot of us who grew up years ago, even if we are very liberal and progressive today and even if we and our families were very liberal and progressive back then, grew up in a world where “miscegenation” (just the word sounds bigoted or is bigoted) was something odd and unusual and that you took note of, and maybe made a joke about, or thought, “Hm, that’s different.”

    And ridiculous, offensive stereotypes were part of “cultural lore.” Even if your parents were very liberal and progressive, one of them or both of them might teach you about them, as part of the knowledge one needed in life, and they might say, “Well, this is ridiculous and stupid, but it is kind of funny….”

    Any education about race that paints groups or individuals in those groups as part of something different, plants an absolutely poisonous kernel in the human mind that I suspect is pretty much impossible to get rid of.

    So, while I strongly believe in the 1st Amendment, I suspect that German anti-Nazi laws are a good thing, and probably should be strengthened, and we need something similar in the United States to fight bigotry, because of Web sites and publications and Twitter accounts and Facebook groups that exist just to spread hatred, lies, and division. That should be criminalized, with fines and, in some cases, jail time.

    So–no more FoxNews saying that Santa has to be white.

  12. Aletheia Knights /

    I think all genres of fiction can help fight racism. The glory of fiction is that it enables us to get into the heads of people we might struggle to understand otherwise, to see them from the inside and invest our time and emotions in their stories, on the safety of the printed page. Speculative fiction has a special power because one of its strengths is to make us look at superficially familiar things in a new way. Instead of tired old facts that have lost the power to move us, or ruts we’re comfortable falling into, speculative fiction invites us to consider the possible – and the impossible. There’s nothing like unfamiliar terrain to shake us out of our comfort zones, and we need to step out of our comfort zones to grow in empathy and open ourselves to alternative ways of thinking. Speculative fiction takes us into unfamiliar terrain and makes us like it!

    I don’t think fiction can do it alone – we need to read widely, fiction and nonfiction, in many different genres, seeking out many different backgrounds and viewpoints. There’s work we have to do, and it won’t always be easy or pleasant to turn an honest eye upon our inglorious inner selves. But ultimately it’s stories that make us, and stories that change us.

    I’ve been wanting to read “The Underground Railroad” since it came out, and I would be delighted to win a copy. Thanks for the chance!

  13. Erica Chernick /

    Thank you for the chance to win one of these books! I really appreciate it and hope to win one of these timely titles.

    -Erica C.

  14. Teresa Plunkett /

    Love the giveaway.

  15. Tracy Wirick /

    Would love to read any of these books! Tysm 😀

  16. Provin Martin /

    I would love to read these books to help me learn more about History. So much of what is taught in schools is whitewashed and having a more accurate idea of what has happened in our country’s past can help people understand why we need to change our present to create a better future ❣️

  17. I have wanted to read “The Underground Railroad” for awhile now, and I would love to win a copy.

  18. Josiah Mannion /

    Spec fic is and always has been specifically about opening spaces to explore political and inner realities and possibilities. To me, it is relevant to opening and creating (political, personal) space where there is none in precisely the same way that hip hop has always been about creating the cipher for the break down, making space where there is none.

  19. Tonya Monroe-Leach /

    I already read Stamped! and would love to read How to be an Antiracist.

    • Noneofyourbusiness /

      My family and I have a copy of “The Underground Railroad” (bought in anticipation of Coulson Whitehead’s BABEL lecture, which has been postponed due to the quarantine), but we don’t have “How to Be an Anti-Racist” and “The New Jim Crow” yet.

  20. Jill /

    These have definitely been on my TBR.

  21. Teresa Plunkett /

    Would love to read The Underground Railroad and The New Jim Crow. Thank you.

  22. Penny Olson /

    Thank you! I would love to read The Underground Railroad.

  23. Jo-Ann Cook /

    I read The Underground Railroad a whole ago, it was excellent. After reading I set it out in my Little Free Library for others to read. I’d love to read both of the other two titles.

  24. J.N. Kingma-Postma /

    I would love to win a copy of this book.

  25. Elizabeth Bowcutt /

    Would love to read any of these books.
    -Elizabeth Bowcutt

  26. Sethia /

    I think it amazing the influences books can provide!

  27. Jessica /

    These are all on my list of books to read!

  28. Except for our reviewers, of course, every commenter above gets a book. Please contact admin [at] fantasyliterature [dot]com for the book of your choice and your preferred format. We can only mail hardcopies within the USA. Thoughtful reading, everyone!

    • John Smith /

      I have sent an email with my pick and information. Thank you!

  29. Marina Alves /

    Marina Alves

    Thank you for this awesome opportunity!!!

  30. Lydia Landrum /

    Lydia Landrum! Would love to be able to give one of these a read! Thank you for the chance!

  31. Erinn Mullins /

    I want to read one of these books!

  32. Would love to read The Underground Railroad and The New Jim Crow. Thank you For the chance:) y’all rock

  33. Kinley Cook /

    I would love one of these books! Kinley Cook, Greenville, NC

  34. Diana Leanne Roberts /

    Please enter me in contest, thanks.


  1. The Underground Railroad: Book Review – Veronica Leigh - […] Whitehead since its publication in 2016. I finally got my chance after winning a copy of it from a…

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