Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Aliens at the Office Christmas Party: How to Write Subtle Discrimination

Aliens at the Office Christmas Party: How to Write Subtle Discrimination
by Romie Stott

Genre fiction’s most common theme is cross-cultural relationships: humans and aliens, vampires and werewolves, dwarves and elves, cowboys and Indians, cyborgs and normals, kings and peasants. It’s easy to write a perfectly symbiotic relationship, or an openly antagonistic one, but most first-world cultural interactions fall somewhere in the middle. For example:

  • Not many people are neo-Nazi skinheads, but few will think to schedule around Rosh Hashanah the way they do around Easter.
  • A Hindu could be considered a valuable member of an American management team, but be left out of informal decisions made during Friday-night trips to the steakhouse.
  • Competent young women are often moved onto slow promotional tracks because it’s assumed they will leave the company to raise children.
  • A white woman might ask her affluent black coworker what life is like in the ghetto.

In other words, a character can be racist without keeping slaves or hunting “lesser beings” for sport. He can be sexist without being a rapist. Discrimination isn’t always the product of blatant racism or restrictive religious dogma; it’s often small and unintentional, viewed as productive or harmless by the people that do it. Nevertheless, it can have pronounced psychological and economic effects on its target.


Most discrimination is invisible—except to the person who is discriminated against. Much of this has to do with cultural expectations that marginalize or trivialize members of a minority population. These expectations are frequently so intrinsic to the lives of the discriminating or majority population that they might have trouble recognizing them even when they are pointed out. Humans alone have vast cultural, religious, and ethnic differences; when it comes to alien or mythic races, physical and even sexual differences can also become very important.

Minority as “Other”

Imagine a company in which all the employees are humans. A new position opens up in marketing, and the best candidate for the job is a Martian. Everyone is very excited to have him on board. However, the company is not equipped with Martian bathroom facilities, and thinks it would be too expensive to build them for just one guy. Instead, they make a deal that he can use the Martian bathroom of the business across the street. In addition, the Martian’s physiology requires him to meditate for an hour in the late afternoon, or his metabolic processes will shut down; however, he can work during the lunch hour, since he doesn’t have to eat.

For the first couple of weeks, the Martian and the company seem to adapt to each other pretty well. There are a few misunderstandings, but they get smoothed out. But after a month, the Martian is pretty tired of walking across the street whenever he needs to use the bathroom—it’s disruptive to his work, the weather is often bad, and the receptionist thinks all Martians look the same and makes him check in with security every time he re-enters the building.

Because the Martian works through lunch, he never develops a strong personal bond with any of his coworkers. They get along all right, but they know nothing about his life outside the context of work. And since he doesn’t celebrate the same holidays or have the same kind of family structure, he has a hard time finding common ground to start a conversation.

After another month, the Martian’s coworkers are tired of scheduling meetings around his meditation time. They don’t feel it’s fair that they always have to rearrange their schedules to suit him, and he won’t meet them halfway. Of course, the Martian seems to be shy in general, so perhaps he won’t mind missing meetings. As a matter of fact, it might be better for him to telecommute anyway—after all, he loses a lot of productivity with those long trips to the bathroom.

The Martian continues to do a good job with the work he’s given, but he is never considered for a promotion—he doesn’t have “people skills,” he’s never really become part of the corporate culture, and it’s easy to forget he’s there. Projects the Martian would excel at are given to junior members of his department because of informal mentoring relationships that develop between the human members of the company. Eventually, the Martian finds he is doing only half the workload he was hired for. When he mentions this to his boss, the corporate higher-ups decide to dissolve his position—it looks like it was never really necessary.

The Token Member

People want to understand each other, but they don’t always know how. When dealing with a member of another culture, it can be hard to remember that the individual and the culture are not the same thing. For instance, just because one vampire likes cold weather, one shouldn’t assume that all vampires want the air conditioner cranked up. Conversely, even though a lot of vampires are good at chess, an individual vampire might not even know how the pieces move. For these reasons, it is wrong to assume that two vampires will get along by virtue of being vampires, even if they have no common interests.

Stereotypes exist for a reason. The human brain is built to look for patterns, and these patterns are usually helpful. For example, a guy wearing an expensive watch is probably not a manual laborer. A woman who can’t walk in a straight line is probably either drunk or suffering from a head injury, and I shouldn’t ask her to drive me home. Very few teenagers will have upper management experience, and I probably shouldn’t recruit among them for my next C.E.O.

Stereotypes’ usefulness ends when we don’t have enough data to make good predictions—or when the data we have is somehow distorted. If I’d met 30 gremlins, and two of them were lazy, I’d say “hmm. Those two gremlins were unusually lazy.” If, on the other hand, I met only two pookas, and both of them were lazy, I might conclude that all pookas are lazy—and I might hold to this first impression long after I’d met other, non-lazy pookas.

This can put a lot of pressure on token minority members, who are often unintentional ambassadors by virtue of being the only one of their kind. They may have to field well-meaning but inappropriate questions based on misinformation about their culture, and they may feel extremely scrutinized (whether or not they actually are), as though even a small mistake would confirm negative stereotypes about them. They may be patronized, or asked to explain the behaviors of someone they don’t know. They may be restricted by stereotypes like “Asians are quiet and good at math,” even if they were raised in the same culture as the rest of the group, and are indistinguishable in all ways except appearance.

In short, minority members are often depersonalized, even by well-meaning and helpful people. They are held to unusual standards, used as research tools, and treated as the face of their culture—not as individuals.

Cultural Differences

Different cultures have different taboos, different traditions, and different styles of interaction. As a result, what is normal or laudable in one culture can be seen as rude or odd in another. For example:

  • Japanese managers may spend a day a month working a menial job on the shop floor, are unlikely to have reserved parking spaces, and almost never fire or punish employees; they try to build life-long loyalty to the company, and are very careful about who they hire. American managers expect to change companies regularly and assume the same of their subordinates, surround themselves with special perks which emphasize their power and inspire ambitious employees, and try to “work smarter; not harder.”
  • Citizens of many Western European countries expect a short work week, a long lunch or midday break, and a lot of vacation time—and are more willing to take salary cuts than to surrender these benefits; Americans and Japanese may work as much as 90 hours a week, and often feel guilty about taking sick days or vacations.
  • Table manners vary widely, and not just in terms of utensil use. Some cultures expect shared dishes; others, separate plates. In some, it is rude to take a large serving of food; in others, it is a compliment to the chef. A clean plate can indicate hunger, respect, or a criticism of the host.
  • Time is seen as more flexible in some cultures than in others. People who work in theatre reliably arrive 15 minutes after the scheduled meeting time—except on performance nights, when they may be as much as an hour early. Citizens of some African and South American countries often schedule “around” a time—about 8; about 3—so no one need feel rushed; on other continents, this is often viewed as laziness or disrespect.

These misunderstandings do not always equally affect both parties. An elf might feel threatened by the ogre that regularly invades his personal space, while the ogre might be offended by the elf’s aloof standoffishness. Alternately, the elf might feel violated by what he sees as inappropriate touching, and the ogre might never notice—after all, high-fives are a common tool of congratulations and bonding.

Usually, it is the minority member that is most affected by a cultural difference. She may be unwilling to “cause trouble” by pointing out a behavior that makes her uncomfortable, especially if it seems to please everyone else; she may worry that she’ll seem weak, whiny, or insubordinate if she speaks out too often, and may not want to emphasize her differentness. Conversely, her companions might refuse or forget her requests, which may not be practical; they might resent her request to change what “has always worked before,” or criticize her for not having a sense of humor. And they might not tell her when her behaviors are unusual—they might worry they’ll be seen as brutish and inflexible, or they might assume she’s too stupid or brittle to change.

Assumptions of Weakness

A culture normally values what it’s good at, and devalues what it’s bad at. Consequently, different is almost always viewed as weaker. Specifically, if someone can’t do something others see as easy or normal, he will be seen as stupid, crippled, clumsy, or childlike—no matter how superior he is in other areas. Thus minority contributions are often undervalued.

For instance, Gongo the Robot is the smartest member of her space-pirate crew; she has a brilliant grasp of strategy. However, she can’t see very well, so she often misses things other crewmembers notice; she’s a terrible shot, and she sometimes runs into things. Even though she’s the ship’s best tactical mind, she is never promoted – not only does her captain assume her clumsiness is an indication of stupidity, but promotion is tied to kill ratios, and she misses half of what she shoots at.

This can lead to a pattern of learned helplessness, wherein the minority member internalizes the incorrect judgments of the larger community and develops a distorted self image. For example, the dwarf who must constantly ask for help reaching things on high shelves might begin to think of himself as puny, and may begin to ask for help with all heavy objects—even though it was only his height, not his strength, that was inadequate.

A presumption of incompetence can create unreasonably high standards, as the minority member must work doubly hard to overcome negative assumptions and expectations of failure. People might assume a nymph is insolent even though she is always incredibly polite; she may be seen as inadequate when she is average, and face a higher degree of scrutiny than her companions. Because she is expected to fail, she may be all the more highly regarded if she wins—or she might become an object of extreme resentment. She may even experience double bias, wherein she is expected not only to excel at the skills of the larger culture, but at her minority’s—to be an aggressive fighter, but also a good cook, a snazzy dresser, and a consummate housekeeper.

In extreme circumstances, a minority member may be seen as not only physically or intellectually stunted, but morally weak; members of the larger culture may take it upon themselves to reform his “misguided” beliefs about anything from religion to sex. Especially if the minority member comes from a limited economic background, he may be suspected of lying, stealing, or cheating, even if he has no past history of unethical behavior.

Signs of condescension can be extremely subtle, almost indistinguishable from simple friendship: excessive praise when a task is correctly completed, helpful offers to pay for small things and carry bulky packages, and overly familiar forms of address. These actions go beyond friendship and become discrimination when they are differentially applied—when the “helpful friend” will not allow reciprocal favors, and his “assistance” interferes with respect and professionalism.

Discrimination Within

Different people react to discrimination differently. They may get angry with others or with themselves; they may not work as hard because “it doesn’t matter anyway;” they may work doubly hard to “prove those jerks wrong.” A particularly common coping mechanism is venting to peers; people often find relief in talking to others about shared problems, and are comforted by knowing their experiences are not imaginary or exclusive.

That said, many victims of discrimination “toughen up,” with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, mental toughness is all someone needs to succeed in the face of discrimination, but as an unintended consequence, that person may become overly critical of other minority members who do not do the same. They may also side against other “weak” oppressed people in order to enhance their standing in the eyes of the powerful. As a result, minority members who succeed are not always willing to help their struggling brothers and sisters—they may not have the energy left, they may not be sympathetic, or they may want to distance themselves to protect their own successes.

On a final note, discrimination is harder on those who perceive themselves as belonging to the same culture as the oppressor; people who view themselves as different and are proud of those differences are unlikely to be troubled by differential treatment, which they may view as valid, or which they may have prepared for in advance. In other words, a boy raised by fairies will be rightly frustrated when the fairies don’t invite him to their balls; the same boy, raised by human parents, wouldn’t expect an invitation to begin with, and would rather not worry about the possibility of stepping on the fairies accidentally.


Economic discrimination tends to be systemic instead of individually targeted, and its problems can persist for several centuries, even when people in power are actively working to fix them. Economic discrimination is not simply a question of social discrimination’s “glass ceiling,” or lack of equal pay for equal work—it can exist for the population as a whole even when individuals are fairly treated.

Even if a person is completely free to make her own decisions, those decisions will be influenced by the world around her. If she does not have role models in difficult and high-paying careers, she is unlikely to consider those careers when looking for work. Instead, she will contemplate “traditional” careers in which she knows it is possible for someone like her to succeed (which may be why we see so many elf archers).

Furthermore, economic hardships can carry over from parent to child; a parent who could not afford schooling or advanced training will find it hard to make enough money to educate a child, and probably won’t have the time or knowledge to teach the child at home—especially since the child might also have to work to help support the family. Even if an exceptional parent finds a way to send a child to school, that child may drop out or fail in her studies because she wants to be “normal” like her unschooled peers. If she graduates, she will still have to make her own way in the world; she won’t have a family business to walk into.

Discrimination is built into many common hiring practices, including unintentionally biased standardized tests and unwritten rules that are regarded as common practice, and assumed to be passed on from parent to child. Only low-paying workplaces with high turnover rates are likely to post “help wanted” signs; mid-range companies expect potential employees to contact and persuade them with a flawless resume and a series of follow-up calls.

The most prestigious employers recruit on an individual basis—they only consider people they already know (or know of) through clubs, fraternities, social circles, or professional associations. Even if these clubs have open memberships, it is unlikely that a member of a traditionally impoverished population would think to join; he may not be able to pay the membership fees, and probably has no interest in hobnobbing in an environment where he feels out of place. Uthor the Barbarian doesn’t want to spend his free time learning origami—and so the origami club’s bodyguard contracts go to Pellinora, who attends every class.

Finally, advancement within an organization is often tied to informal mentoring relationships that develop between people of similar interests and temperaments in different levels of the company. A new hire who befriends her boss on the laser-pistol range is more likely to be allowed to sit in on important meetings; will hear company news faster; will get more glowing recommendations when discussed with the higher-ups; and will have someone to ask for help when she’s overwhelmed.

Thus, people are promoted faster when they are similar to the people already in power—and not through any deliberate ill will toward the people who aren’t. But lack of ill will doesn’t make class systems any less entrenched—even when they don’t officially exist.


Especially in fantasy, we often see oppressed populations with no access to government; either they are serfs of another race which rules hereditarily, or there is a caste system which does not allow them to vote in free elections or serve in positions of power. However, science fiction is usually set in a democratic future with literally universal sufferage. (It’s practically unheard of for a culture to develop an advanced economy without abolishing all forms of slavery; the need for educated workers becomes too high, and those workers don’t want to compete with free labor.) Nevertheless, systemic discrimination can exist in politics even when a minority population has full legal rights.

There are any number of reasons a minority member might choose not to vote. Polling stations may be in neighborhoods where she feels uncomfortable, or she might not have transportation to one. She might not know when votes are held, or how voting works; she might not speak the language of the poll workers or be able to read the ballot. She could feel physically threatened by protesters, or she might be so busy with work, family, or illness that she doesn’t have time to vote.

These small reasons add up, especially if the voter in question doesn’t feel her vote counts. If her minority is a small enough percentage of the overall voters in a district, she is likely to feel voting a waste of her time. For instance, why would the only human member of a mostly Betelgeusian colony bother to vote when he knows he’ll be outvoted anyway, or when none of the candidates has taken a stance on water rationing, the only issue that concerns him (and concerns only him)?

Even if a traditionally oppressed population is a majority, and is completely educated about the voting process, it will often fail to achieve representative parity. In other words, in a world of vampire majority and werewolf minority, werewolf candidates may consistently lose, even in a werewolf-dominated district. Due to economic forces, werewolf candidates may have trouble raising campaign funds, and may find it hard to get the backing of any major political organization. They may not know how to get on the ballot; they may have trouble getting their message heard without connections at the vampire-owned speaking assemblies. They are unlikely to have major political experience.

Even if a werewolf candidate gets on the ballot, is covered by the press, and has a great political platform, he is still likely to lose. Most people don’t actually vote for the candidate they most agree with—they vote for a candidate they can live with who they think can win. The larger werewolf community may have trouble believing one of its members could actually wield power; the group may internalize the vampire attitudes and look down upon its own members. Alternately, they might fear that their concerns will be ignored by vampire politicians—that a werewolf will not be respected, and will not be able to make important alliances that will further the group’s political agendas.

This assumes a werewolf candidate even decides to run—if the werewolf population is predominantly subsistence-level working class, few werewolves will have the time to get politically involved. And if there are no role models—if werewolves have never seen a politician who looks like them—they are unlikely to consider politics as a valid career choice.


In essence, to write discrimination in fiction, one must understand the discrimination that exists in our own world. Although genre fiction is explicitly fictional, it is read by real people who will be affected by the parallels you draw. Whether your goal is to change the world, or simply to entertain, you will find that realistic representations of subtle discrimination translate into complex genre character relations.

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Romie Stott is an editor of the slipstream magazine Reflection's Edge. Her work has been published by Strange Horizons, Jerseyworks, and The Huffington Post, among others. As a filmmaker (working as Romie Faienza), she has exhibited at the National Gallery in London and the Dallas Museum of Art. This article was influenced by the work of DiversityWealth and Tasnim Benhalim.

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