I recently broke down and paid for Hulu as part of the Disney Plus package that the BBC sellout to The Mouse necessitated if I was going to see David Tenant and Ncuti Gatwa as Doctors Who. One of the first things I jumped on was their five (of a planned total of six) seasons adapting Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I'd read the book soon after it came out and also devoured the sequel upon its debut. As the TV show has become a cultural touchstone, I figured I should watch it, and, yes, showing other points of view has opened vistas on the work I hadn’t previously considered. I’m only into Season 2, so please don’t spoil it for me when you comment on this blog post.
This far into a show, I tend to start looking at reviews. The ones I saw raised an issue I hadn’t considered with the book but probably would have, had I read it today rather than as a twentysomething: racism. The problem isn’t racism per se; it’s the lack of racism.
Those are words I’ve never written before, so they require an explanation. In the book, those who aren’t the right kind of heterosexual white Protestant are expelled from Gilead, the future fascist, patriarchal (okay, more patriarchal) theocracy the US has become. Black people, called the children of Ham (one of the many Biblical references that underlie the theocracy), are expelled. This development is plausible, and it allowed Atwood to write a story without Black people in it, which in and of itself would not be racist or a problem. However, she has admitted that she drew a lot of the horrible things faced by women from the experience of enslaved Black people in the US. Taking the unique historical experience of Black people away and applying it to another group after you’ve already gotten rid of the Black people is problematic, especially for a white writer. And no, this isn’t a modern reinterpretation—not every Black person sang along with John Lennon’s “Woman is the N***ger of the World” either, and that was a decade earlier than this book.
So far, I buy the authors’ logic: your dystopic future US can be racist and expel Black people, or it can ramp up the racism against Black people, perhaps even to the point of reintroducing slavery, but you can’t take Black people’s unique experience away from them and assign it to another group that doesn’t include them.
Could the oppression have been universalized? Keep the Black women in Gilead, expel the Black men, and treat Black women identically to white women—awfully, that is? Maybe. I don’t think I’ve ever heard protest of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. In this seminal work of Western culture, Kafka borrowed the theme and plot from a Yiddish theater play about the Spanish Inquisition. He generalized the persecution to apply to all people, rather than just Jews, and used it as a comment on how arbitrariness in a legal system serves an autocracy and induces terror. Okay, this was a Jew choosing to generalize a very particular Jewish experience. Still, I would not have a problem with a non-Jew having written The Trial, although I know my opinion is not universal among Jews. I have discussed this issue over a “safe space” on a forum and found a couple (more prominent than me) of Jewish writers who don’t want Jews writing about core Jewish topics. Nonetheless, I’d venture that I’m in the majority, and they are in the minority.
And it’s not just Jews: when I told a Native American writer (again, way more prominent than me) that I was writing a story with all Native American characters, he was thrilled. His attitude was that he wanted as many stories published that explore Native traditions as possible, and there just weren’t enough (in his opinion) Native American writers to produce as many stories as he’d like to see. I sold that story to a pro-rate venue, and three years later, not a single person of any ethnicity has complained about it (at least in a way that reached me).
I suspect that universalizing the African-American experience would be noncontroversial from a Black writer and in some cases accepted from other writers. Appropriating the experience and excluding Black people from it—that wouldn’t pass muster today. What Atwood could get away with in 1985 doesn’t necessarily apply; things have changed. My suspicion is that Black writers were in a similar position to what my friend said of Native Americans today—so few speculative fiction stories that any representation of Black people, Black themes, or even Black-adjacent themes with surrogate Blacks was welcome.
Okay, it's 2017, and the TV adaptation comes out. Hollywood now frowns on stories with only white people in them, so yes, the series employs lots of Black actors, and the acting is outstanding. However, according to those writing the critiques, this series has a much bigger problem than the book did. Black people are present in all levels of Gilead. So are Hispanic people—that wasn’t as much of an issue for Atwood, as the series was set primarily in Boston, and there weren’t a lot of Hispanic people in Boston back then. (36,000 in the 1980 census when Atwood was writing the book, compared with 128,000 today out of a total population of 650,000.)
The problem is that no person of color in this TV series ever seems to experience racism. There’s religious discrimination—already by Season 2, we see a rabbi sent to die in “The Colonies”—the Midwestern states where reclaiming toxic soil will kill them rapidly; a nun escaping to Canada; and a Muslim couple forced to hide their religion rather than be killed for it (and the man is killed anyway). It is unrealistic to the point of ridiculous that a society based on current-day (or 1985) evangelical Protestants who hate women, LGBT folk, and anyone not of their religion wouldn’t also be racist.
By the magical disappearance of racism in a land run by violent, intolerant fascists, the showrunners deny the importance of people of color even while employing actors of color. Yes, paradoxically, not showing racism is argued as being racist by the authors of these critiques. And I see their points.
So, what could be done in a dystopic setting where the society grows from the worst trends in today’s US that wouldn’t be racist? I’ll throw out the following ideas:
1) Have the racist theocracy expel Black people (as Atwood did), but don’t appropriate core Black history in describing your persecution of non-Black people. And likely do the same with all persons of color as well as all non-evangelical-Protestant white people. And all non-heterosexuals. In the novel I have written (for which I’ve paused my agent query to try to make a splash in other ways first—I see ripples, but I’m still working toward the tsunami), I do this but go one step further: the country splits. The theocratic society is merely the bogeyman—it’s never visited. The action takes place elsewhere. And there is indeed diversity that is valued in the area north of the Delaware River and Pennsylvania Turnpike. It’s dystopic in other ways—the powers that be utilize excoriation of Southern bigotry to excuse other types of oppression. And characters of color are prominent in the book and exercise agency in the plot.
2) Justify how our society went from the present to the dystopia under discussion with people of color well represented among the future ruling class. And do that without racism—Lucifer’s Hammer comes to mind as an example of a well-discussed transition that portrays Black people in such vile terms that this novel would be considered racist even by standards prevailing in the mid-‘70s when it was published.
Recent years have seen a rise to prominence of people of color who would thrive in this role. Kanye West (Ye). Candace Owens. Enrique Tarrio. In the 2020 Presidential elections in Florida, 55% of Cuban-Americans, 30% of Puerto Ricans, and 48% of “other Latino voters” cast their ballot for Donald Trump despite his characterization of immigrants as rapists and murderers. And 13% of Black men voted for Trump. This demographic would be down with oppression as long as they don’t perceive themselves as victims.
There is a wrong way to do this in fiction, too. Portraying these folks as one-dimensional idiots, blinded by greed, who get what they deserve in the end, would be a racist portrayal of people of color. But what would turn the historically oppressed into eager participants in oppression?
The Roman Empire popularized the answer (although older examples abound): find someone else for them to hate. Immigrants from a different part of Latin America or the Caribbean. Jews. Arabs. Muslims. Women who demand body autonomy. Queer people.
Or focus on rich people of color. There are wealthy people of all ethnicities who will tell you negative things about the working class. Clarence Thomas would happily vote to put more people of color in prison as long as they were poor.
I’d believe a non-racial oppressor class if you showed me a political movement led by the likes of West, Owens, or Tarrio gradually increasing in popularity over several decades. Even then, tensions would likely persist, but mostly of the type that make cocktail parties at the country club momentarily uncomfortable rather than those that lead to bloodshed.
And yet, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t even show these slights and microaggressions. Their savage, misogynist, religiously intolerant, homophobic society doesn’t even seem to notice skin color. Your Herman Cains and Joseph Ladapos might enjoy an evening of single-malt scotch with your Richard Spencers and Elon Musks and have a grand old time administering genocide or neo-slavery, but they don’t represent the majority of people of color. They will never represent all people of color, even among aristocrats. And methinks, if sufficiently drunk, future Richard and Elon would still default to racial slurs when left alone together. (Hell, Elon does it while not drunk over Twitter all the time.)
Non-racial oppression would be a drastic change from today. To believe it, I’d need to see the breadcrumbs: trace the path very carefully for me (as a reader). Religion could be helpful—the prosperity-gospel stress on living within God’s grace rather than attacking the problems of the less fortunate, the rise of the trad-wife phenomenon, the coopting of religiosity by right-wing media, in collaboration with the general dumbing down of America, could plausibly invade non-white churches.
Is there any other way to envision a dystopic future America (or part of America) where racism is not part of the dystopia? Or at least not prominent? If you have ideas, I’d like to hear them. Please comment on my social media posts where I link to this blog post.