The Existential Paradox of Race

Race is imagined. Race is real. These two statements are not, as many believe, contradictory. In fact, they are both true and inextricably causally linked. This is an ostensible paradox that Jemisin seeks to unravel in the world and narrative of The Fifth Season. To understand the basis of this stance, one must first understand the social construction of race and its systemic salience in the world of The Fifth Season. In brief, the inhabitants of the text live on a single, tectonically hyperactive continent wherein there lies a single primary political power concentrated at the very center. The peoples of this land deemed “The Stillness” are analogous to humans in all but one sense – their sensitivity to seismic activity. Few of these peoples are born with the ability to manipulate this seismic activity, and are deemed “orogenes” politely and “roggas” crudely but generally. These orogenes are feared due to their powers, which can be unwieldy and dangerous in the wrong or untrained hands. Orogenes are the central racial focus of the book, as their race is the root of the narrative in this story. Historically, orogenes have been subjugated, robbed of autonomy, lynched, and the lucky ones shunted off to be raised and trained to be a profitable tool for the powers that be. Understanding these key elements to the narrative is essential to follow Jemisin’s creative address of the aforementioned existential paradox of race. For the purposes of this analysis, I will be delving into the unreality and artificial creation of race within The Fifth Season, the ways in which race is salient, systemic, and real to the inhabitants of the world, and the effects of these points within the text as well as its implications for our world. I will also draw on real-world examples and analogues to highlight certain points of the text in order to demonstrate and corroborate these points when necessary.  

Orogeneity is seemingly quite different from race in our world. For one, there is only a loose genetic correlation to orogeny. Two orogenic parents can sire offspring without any orogenic qualities while two stills – a term for non-orogenic people – can have orogenic children. These occurrences are rare, and orogeny is inherited more often than not, but this nonetheless acts as a very different form of race classification than is traditionally considered in reality, as the orogenic race is not reducible to any one nation, culture, or phenotype. This, however, is not actually a departure from reality, but a reflection of it. Consider the ways in which our world has classified and determined race, and how these definitions have evolved over time due to shifting values and opinions. Take the hypodescent framework of racial classification adopted by the Jim Crow-era U.S. where one’s race was simply and elegantly defined as Black if any modicum of Black ancestry was present. This, of course, was a flawed plan, as stories of white-skinned people who had gone their whole lives believing themselves white suddenly were forced to use colored facilities and identify as such due to an estranged Black great-great-great-great-grandparent (Ray, p. 13). The “one drop rule” fell apart quite quickly and revealed that race was about more than just genetics. So much more, in fact, that it revealed a fundamental lack of reasoning for any meaningful form of classification. In Jemisin’s world, this could be seen as distinct from the orogenes, as classification is as simple as the presence of orogeny. This stance is a result of conflation of classification with racialization. Classification of orogenes is easy and natural, much like blonds or blue-eyed people. A race, however, requires a shared culture, nationality, or lineage – none of which orogenes have. Orogeny is a quality imparted to a person, but it does not denote a people. 

Once the unreality of race is confronted, one must contend with the reality of its presence. Orogenes are persecuted, subjugated, and othered by virtue of their orogeny. These systemic injustices are real and have meaningful effects on orogenes. Orogenes must live in a world that has racialized them and oppressed them as a group without discretion. This is the only culture all orogenes have in common. In this sense, race is very real and salient to the characters within The Fifth Season. An example of this reality being acknowledged by orogenes themselves takes the form of the orogene community, Castrima, led in part by Ykka Rogga Castrima. Ykka’s community contains a great many orogenes from all over the continent, in which “all the buildings are in wildly varied styles… Uniformity sends a message… This [community’s] visual message is… confused.” (Jemisin, p. 265). This conflict of culture in a community that largely harbors outcasted orogenes is a great example of both the lack of a true unified race of orogenes and that the racialization of orogenic people is an ever-present reality for all orogenes. In our world, this has, perhaps most vividly, manifested in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Black people across Africa, a gargantuan continent with incredibly diverse communities, cultures, and peoples, were bought and sold like cattle in huge quantities. Slave traders and buyers paid no mind to the culture and origin of these people, as they were now no longer a member of a tribe or community or a people but were now just Black. People born across the Sahara from an enslaved peer were now seen as one and the same, forced into unity and a shared community as a result of their racialization by a foreign power that deemed it so. 

The effects of this absurd state of simultaneous race reality and unreality have a profound effect on the characters within the text. Some are more aware of the dichotomy while others possess a lingering sense of confusion surrounding racial affairs within the world. Essun, an older orogenic woman and a main character of the text, falls under the latter category. She is the one who ventured into Castrima and expressed a confusion as to the state of unity present, not realizing it is a product of the inherent nonexistence of cultural unity among orogenes. Throughout her story, she is shown to be grappling with the idea of orogenes as a race, not a classification. Once claiming orogenes “aren’t human” then internally acknowledging this as a falsehood “all roggas know” (Jemisin, p. 354). This confusion is related to her turbulent history with her own identity, being able to identify as an orogene as dictated by larger society, identifying with her orogeny independently from this society, and being forced to hide her orogeny to avoid being racialized. A character more confident in their outlook on race in the world is Alabaster, an exceedingly powerful orogene trained and owned by the central governance of Yumenes. His actions in the book come from an understanding of the paradoxical nature of orogene racialization, most clearly is his destruction of the continent that threatens the lives of all the world’s inhabitants. The justification for this action comes from a belief that the racialization of orogenes has crossed a Rubicon, and that to dismantle the oppression and racialization orogenes face in this world, the world must be dismantled (Jemisin, p. 6-7).  

The existential paradox of race is a conflict between the fundamental nonexistence of race in form but the salient effects of race in function. Jemisin encourages readers to think about racialization in novel ways by detaching the orogenes from any genetic or physical characteristics that are traditionally used to classify race. This is a powerful method of subverting the traditional definition of race for a group that is very clearly suffering from systemic racism in her works, and show the reader that race is an artifice of society, made real only by the consequences it has for those deemed to be members of that race. The unifying struggle of oppression all orogenes must face in their cultural, genetic, and physical dissonance is a reminder of how the manufacturing of a Black race has had lasting consequences for black-skinned people in society centuries after its conception. Many people believe race has been an issue all throughout human history, but Jemisin takes us very close to the beginning of the creation of a race to show that this is not the case. Race can mean whatever we choose for it to mean, as long as it is enforced and believed by larger society. Race is only as real as we allow it to be.  


Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015. 

Ray, Victor. On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters & Why You Should Care. Random House, 2018 

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