Mutants and House Elves: The Problems with Discrimination as a Metaphor by Bob Proehl

In September 1963, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were at the height of their powers: well into their run on the Fantastic Four, they’d also recently launched the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor, among others. Their Marvel Universe portrayed the world outside readers’ windows, unlike its Distinguished Competition, and it would have been disingenuous to show an America in which civil rights was not a central issue. Whether it was out of a desire to engage the issue—as Stan Lee sometimes claimed—or because Stan was tired of coming up with elaborate origin stories, Kirby and Lee created a superhero team as a metaphor for racial. Billed as THE STRANGEST SUPERHEROES OF ALL! Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Iceman, and Beast were mutants, fighting to save a world that feared and hated them.

And all of them were white.

Yes, later a couple of them would turn blue, but it would be seven years before the comic showed a mutant who was a explicitly a person of color,  and twelve before the debut of Storm, the X-Men’s first black team member. Marvel’s metaphor for racial discrimination remained all white for its first decade, a period which bridged the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, as well as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, for whom Professor X and Magneto are often read as analogues.

Metaphorical discrimination is a standard trope in science fiction and fantasy, authors engaging the idea of discrimination based on race or race-analogous qualities while dodging real world implications of the issue. Imagine a fictional world that looks a lot like ours, but with complicated magical systems and nuanced ideas about the hereditary subservient roles of certain types of elves, or Nazi-esque cults devoted to principle of sang real, and virtually no Black characters.

Structural racism is a complex nexus of history, government policy, global economics, class, science, and pseudoscience. What writer has the time to worldbuild something like that when they can tag one group with a visual signifier of otherness and call it a day? Except this kind of imagining is the work of science fiction and fantasy writers. If you can create a dozen ancient houses with entwining politics going back millennia, if you can elucidate the imaginary physics of a faster-than-light drive, or the metaphysical rules of time travel, why is treating race and racism as a material fact rather than a sketched-in metaphor relying solely on a visual signifier as its point of contention too much to ask?

What separates science fiction and fantasy from “realist” fiction is that it doesn’t purport to “re-present” the world as it is. These genres show something new and other, alternative worlds to our own. But engaging racial discrimination as an idea within an otherwise whitewashed text can be harmfully reductive.

The simplest form of sci-fi/fantasy metaphorical racism boils down to “green people hate blue people for being blue,” locating discrimination and difference solely in terms of a visual signifier: skin color. Race in the real world is a social construct within which skin color is only one vector. This reduction is a problem on its own because it reaffirms differences in skin color as binary and essential, but within sci-fi and fantasy’s metaphors for discrimination, bigger problems arise.

Analogues for race in second-world fiction include aliens, mutants, or fantastical creatures fundamentally different from one another. Golden Age Science Fiction Martians are quantifiably, objectively different from human, as are elves and trolls and whatnot, all of which feeds back into an essentialist argument. But Kirby and Lee’s mutants are feared because they can read minds, bend metal, blow people up (yes, the mutant metaphor completely falls apart in a world with other superpowers. No I do not have a no-prize answer for how it actually makes sense). Presenting differences metaphorically reifies the archaic but active tenets of racism. A white cop shoots a young black boy, claiming the boy was monstrous, superpowered, and the cop was justifiably in fear for his life. His testimony creates a difference between himself and the young black boy that draws its power from metaphor, fiction, and myth, but produces a very real dead body.

With The Nobody People, a book which owes an obvious debt to the X-Men, I wanted to explore how “metaphorical racism” overlays and intersects with real world discrimination. What does it mean to be superpowered and black, or queer, or disabled? How would a woman who has extranormal abilities and also grew up a Muslim in America react to a rising tide of discrimination, echoing with previous xenophobia she’s suffered. I was introducing a monolithic “otherness” into my fictional world, but rather than use it as a metaphor for discrimination, it’s an amplifier for existing bigotry, at a moment when bigotry is already being amplified. I wanted to use a fantastical idea the way the best sci-fi and fantasy does: to show the reader the familiar through a warped lens, so that they might re-enter the mundane world thinking about it differently.


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