Reverse Oppression: A Fad That Needs To End

By Guest Contributors Paul and Renee of Fangs for the Fantasy; originally published at Feministe

It’s not a new idea–we’ve certainly seen it raising its ugly head in media repeatedly, but it’s become popular again–the “flipped prejudice” fiction. Victoria Foyt’s racist Save The Pearls did it for race and we now have the homophobic versions: a Kickstarter for the book Out by Laura Preble and the film Love Is All You Need. I hate linking to them but they need to be seen. They both have the same premise: an all gay world that persecutes the straight minority.

So that’s more appropriating the issues we live with: our history, our suffering, and then shitting on it all by making us the perpetrators of the violations committed against us. How can they not see how offensive this is? How can they not see how offensive taking the severe bigotry thrown at us every day and throughout history–bigotry that has cost us so much and then making our oppressors the victims and us the attackers–is? This is appropriative. This is offensive. It’s disrespectful–and it’s outright bigoted.

Y’know, if you actually want to talk about prejudice and persecution and how they can affect people’s lives, why not use actual marginalised people? You want to show how a person navigates a society that has extreme prejudice against their skin colour? Why not make your protagonist a POC? You want to show a society that persecutes people based on who they’re attracted to and who they love? Why not make your protagonist gay?

Oh, but then that becomes a specialist subject, right? A “niche,” dealing with marginalised issues. A POC book. A gay/lesbian book. Totally inappropriate for mainstream audience–when we can take the same story and flip it to bizarre bigot world and make the poor straight, white person the persecuted victim and we’re back in mainstream land. Funny, that.

Is that what this is? This whole offensive, bullshit trend (I mean, apart from prejudiced arsehattery, which kind of goes without saying)? A desire to use prejudice as a plot point but not sully your main character by making them an actual minority?

And don’t tell me it will help straight/white people understand oppression. Because if a privileged person will only hear about prejudiced issues when it comes from a privileged mouth, then what is the point? I’ve said this before when we’ve had similar bullshit, how are you going to encourage people to address prejudice and marginalisation while at the same time training them that it’s only worth listening to privileged people?

Because that’s what I hear when this excuse is trawled out. Straight, white people can’t possibly empathise with a POC or GBLT protagonist so we have to present these prejudiced issues through a privileged lens, from a privileged mouth. Either by making being privileged a marginalisation like in the examples above–or by making up an entirely new, fictional prejudice. As we’ve mentioned before with the appropriation of marginalised groups for “fantastic prejudice” where vampires/fae/witches are persecuted for not being mundane humans. This can even be doubly offensive when we mix both offensive appropriations–such as in Lost Girl–with the white Kenzi being oppressed by the Black fae for being human.

All of this completely puts the lie to the idea that these stories and storylines encourage empathy. If you had empathy, you could empathise with the real marginalised people who are actually suffering. You wouldn’t need a privileged person to make up a ridiculous and offensive marginalisation for you to cry for.

And don’t tell me it’s for marginalised people, so we can see a world where we’re dominant. Would I like to read a book where marginalised people are the majority and in charge? Sure–but not through the eyes of a poor, oppressed straight/white person who is suffering so awfully at the hands of the big, mean, prejudiced gay/black people. Because maginalised people being cast as evil villains? Been done, and it’s not fun.

If you needed any more proof that this is offensive, just take to the ‘net and start googling these storylines. Google “heterophobia” google “straight or white pride.” Google “reverse racism”; google “anti-white racism.” Google “Christian prejudice.” You probably got some truly vile sites and vile people right there. These memes already exist: from the oppressors, from the hate groups. and from the bigots trying to create the idea of these oppressive minorities have to be fought, controlled and kept in their place or you will become the victims. We already have this narrative: it’s in the mouths of the hate groups, the pro-segregationists, the politicians and the religious leaders denying human rights. In the shadow of these organisations, these books and films read more like cautionary tales– warnings for straight and white folks–than a call for empathy.

Just stop. You want to include marginalised people, then do it. But don’t make free with the severe issues that have shaped and attacked us for generations and appropriate them for your own ends. And certainly don’t do it while making our oppressor’s the victims and the persecuted the attackers in these lazy, shallow, ridiculous worlds.

  • Bdgold

    I do not think that was an example of this trope, as it does not “reverse” the discrimination. I think the movie was just calling out racism, and showing how it is (for people of privileged) buried in the systems of everyday life.

  • Anonymous

    Disney’s Pocahontas did a little bit of that role reversal (or rather equating the oppressor with the oppressed) when it had both the white settlers and Native Americans referring to each other as “savages” in a song they both sung. It’s as though Disney didn’t want to acknowledge that the settlers’ treatment of the natives was more “savage” than the natives’ reaction to said treatment, so it decided to turn both groups into culprits.

    • Ashe

      Exactly. It’s silly, but it’s the same reason The Help, although about the plight of black maids, had a white protagonist. We don’t want white audiences feeling TOO uncomfortable about their history, now! Better throw in some positive examples, or, better yet, make the marginalized and oppressed group JUST as bad, so everything is nice and equal.

      Even if it never has been since the country was founded.

      Hence the point of these stories in the first place.

      Whoops.

    • http://www.facebook.com/X23sexy Wong Chia Chi

      even as a kid I hated that movie

  • vergeofnothing

    I actually read Lion’s Blood, although I didn’t read the sequel, and I remember feeling somewhat uncomfortable with it. It was a pretty long time ago, so my memory of the book is very sketchy, but I remembered a black slave owner preying on white slave girls, and language describing his blackness or stereotypically black features that reminded me of the harmful predatory black man stereotypes that are unfortunately still prevalent today. I also remember feeling really shocked, and thinking I must be missing something because I know that Steven Barnes is a well-respected author and an African American man himself. I think that navigating these sorts of alternate histories is a really difficult thing to do, because they can be really fascinating what-ifs (I generally love a good alternate history), but it must be so hard to deal with potentially problematic subject matter. And, to be fair to Lion’s Blood, I think the part I talked about was a small one, it just stood out in my memory because it made me so uncomfortable. Another similarly privilage-flipped alternate history type book is Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo, although I haven’t read it so I can’t say how she navigates these problems (and I believe Evaristo is African-British?). It makes me wonder to what extent the problematic elements can be mitigated when the author is a member of the racial group whose oppressive history is being played with.

  • Mammith

    I can’t speak for the author of this article, but I read Noughts and Crosses as a young teenager and though it’s most certainly flawed, I think it’s a rare case of the reversal being done right. For one thing it shows multiple perspectives within the world, not just focusing on the poor oppressed white person in reverse town narrative.

    It also shows how a lot of oppression is invisible, from the sounds of these other stories they’re running by the logic that oppression is always obvious, whereas noughts and crosses had apartheid-like structural differences as well as instances that exist that mirror invisible examples of Othering in our world; surprise at a white model making the runway, plasters for brown skin only, etc.

    More broadly, I don’t think that this trope is inherently bad, just the examples listed in the article are unfortunately the norm when it comes to this type of story. A good list of the many bad and some good examples can be found here:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PersecutionFlip

  • http://twitter.com/CW2046 Chris

    Bethly – I thought of the Forever War too, though I think there’s a large difference between the two works; that being that Haldeman’s novel (lazily) used homosexuality as a cipher for his own experience of alienation following his return from Vietnam to an America in the grips of the ‘sexual revolution.’ I don’t agree with its deployment, but as you say, Haldeman’s intent seems to have been, at least, ambivalent. It’s only the ending that irritates me, with the possibility of heterosexual conversion offered. It’s an essential read though, even if only as a contrast (or comparison) with Feminist SF in the ’70s. Certainly not hard to imagine elements of it as reactionary to the manuscript for Russ’ the Female Man, which was floating about for a few years as Haldeman wrote.

    The used of the word ‘reverse’ applied to bigotry of any kind is something particularly toxic, essentially normalising and legitimising (traditionalising?) as it does one central, ur- form of racism, sexism, etc. By painting an imagined anti-white racism as ‘reverse racism’ it merely reinforces a white hegemony and suggests that the correct operation for the racist mindset is to hate PoC, regardless of the subject’s own race. In the same way that patriarchy paints women as men-without-penis, and as such abnormally lacking the marker that makes them fully human, the use of the word reverse suggests that all PoC are objects in a constant struggle to be recognised as a functionally ‘white’ subject… (And of course ‘reverse’ functions in this way across a wide range of issues, even to the point where we see ‘reverse rape’ being used as a fetish-marker; a method of legitimising hetero-male domination, bringing with it the implication that this is some topsy-turvy world where men are ‘meant to be the rapists.’)

  • AW

    Here’s what one person wrote about “Noughts and Crosses” (under a review of the book “Save the Pearls” by Victoria Foyst on amazon.com):

    “Many readers have positively compared the book Noughts & Crosses (Royal Shakespeare Company) to this one to show how the same premise CAN be made to work, and is not inherently racist. In Noughts and Crosses I, as a black person, so identified with the role-reversed white main character that I kept forgetting he was actually white — the author does not constantly bring skin-colour to the reader’s attention. It was so realistic that it is easy to forget the actual colour of the characters. For instance, when someone says a plaster on a character’s face is “the wrong colour” — of course, I immediately thought of “pink on black”. However, of course it was “brown on pink”, because the ruling race created brown plasters to match their own skin. THAT is how we get people to reflect on privileged attitudes. Not by hitting them with a hammer over the head.”

    Now I have read neither books, and Noughts and Crosses has had good reviews overall, and perhaps it does tackle the subject in a more realistic manner?

  • Dallas Tejas

    I have to admit, the concepts in these projects have occurred to me in the past. I thought about writing them as a book or a short story. That’s because, as a pregnant heterosexual female of color living in the most famous gay neighborhood in the country, I did not experience a rainbow colored world of diversity and acceptance. I experienced outright racism and, yes, heterophobia. On a daily basis, everywhere from local cafes to just walking down the street, and while the racism was always a problem, the heterophobia got progressively worse the more visibly pregnant I got. Or maybe there’s another word for being called “breeder b@*$#” repeatedly other than heterophobia, I really don’t know. In any case it opened my eyes to the reality that not everyone who is traditionally a persecuted minority is above turning around and persecuting someone else. The idea that I couldn’t fictionalize my experiences to get it out of my system, or that if I did my status as a POC would somehow make it slightly less unacceptable that someone who was white doing it, doesn’t sit well with me. It happened. It happens. Someone is bound to consider the implications of that and write about the possibilities of a world where the gay world persecutes the straight minority.

    • Kat

      Can you give an example of what you mean by ‘heterophobia’? I mean, I’ve made some negative experiences (mostly gays who believe and told me so that women are inferior to men which is why men should be with men, so it was mostly misogynist gay men –> I put these experiences in the mental ‘misogyny drawer’). How was your pregnancy attacked? I’m just curious.

    • http://twitter.com/HelperSea Alec Ferguson

      Those seem more like examples of pure misogyny then something something like the concept of Heterophobia. White Gay Men are still White Men, so issues of misogyny and racism still come up quite often in the community. These aren’t really associated with heterophobia though and to be honest the notion of heterophobia being as problematic and dangerous as homophobia, racism, or misogyny comes across as quite ridiculous.

      There aren’t negative societal problems associated with being Heterosexual in contrast to being Queer, so the idea of a “Flipped World” on the subject where straight people could one day be persecuted by Homesexuals comes across as quite stupid and appropriative. Write about the misogyny in the community, the racism, the transphobia, but don’t write some alarmist story about how one day homosexuals will create a gay world that persecutes a straight minority is just ridiculous. Sure, some of us don’t like dealing with heterosexuals (That is no excuse for misogyny, however), but that doesn’t mean that we will ever have the power, numbers, means, or will to create some world that is out to get heterosexuals.

  • brianch

    I am new to your site, but I could not resist when I saw the headline. As I read it I started to feel defensive and insulted by Paul and Renee. As a gay man, I found it interesting that such a film might exist. By the end of the blog I was in a completely different state of mind. I have never thought about it in this way. Even though the movie changes the oppresor to ehe oppresee, it is still just a movie. There is no real emotionon connection created. I saw X-Men, but I still knew it was just a story, not a logical possibility. There are no mutants, and LGBT and POC do not run the world. We just barely got our foot in the door. Thanks you for opening my mind.